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FIRST THINGS FIRST: J. CHARLES

J Charles and the Trainrobbers_By_Nick Prendergast.jpg

In a simple world, there would only be two kinds of music: good and bad. But over-hyphenation and subgenre classification often get in the way these days, so categorizing a band’s sound poses more challenges than ever before.

Typically, it’s music fans and the various branches of the industry who indulge in such descriptive minutia. The people who actually make the music, on the other hand, tend to be at a loss for words — or at the very least, slightly uncomfortable — slapping a label on what they do.
That certainly applies to Jeffrey Charles Saenz, better known as J. Charles. The Texas singer/guitarist and his five-piece band, The Trainrobbers, were among the Best Americana/Roots Act nominees in the 2012 Dallas Observer Music Awards. He’s OK with the Americana tag, but he also throws in other terms to cover the sounds featured throughout Upon Leaving, his first full-length effort with the Trainrobbers.

J. Charles recently checked in to talk about other significant firsts in his life and music career.

His favorite first album: “Man, that’s a tough one. I am a firm believer in the first album. That’s when things are still pure and unrefined. Danzig is the first one that comes to mind, but Wilco’s A.M., Social Distortion’s Mommy’s Little Monster and Ryan AdamsHeartbreaker are all way up there for me.”

His first concert: “Technically, my first concert was the Jacksons‘ Victory Tour in 1984, but the first one I ever woke up at 4 a.m. to wait in front of Tower Records to buy tickets for was Guns N’ Roses/Metallica at the Rose Bowl in 1992. Faith No More was supposed to open but had to cancel last minute, so Motorhead opened instead. I was always a little bummed that Faith No More canceled, but it’s not like Motorhead is a poor replacement. I also sold weed in the parking lot in order to scrape up enough money for a relatively lewd GNR T-shirt that my mom would never let me wear and got kicked out during GNR’s encore for lighting a fire made of beer cups in the stands. I wasn’t nearly as feisty at the Jacksons show.”

His first guitar: “My first guitar was a wine-red American Standard Fender Strat. I worked at a little privately owned music shop by the house where I grew up and coveted this guitar every day I would show up to work. I saved up enough money to put a down payment on it and put it on layaway, but my parents — despite being low on funds at the time — surprised me and paid it off for me for Christmas. I’ll never forget the feeling I got that day, knowing the sacrifice my parents made to give me something so awesome. I still have that guitar and will never part with it. It may not be the ‘best’ guitar I own, but it’s certainly the most valuable one to me.”

First time he billed himself as J. Charles (and why): “No offense to my parents, but I never really cared too much for the name Jeff — or Jeffrey. It never meant anything to me. I always wished I was named after my dad, or one of my grandpas. Charles was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side’s name. He was a good man. Seeing as my middle name is Charles, I felt I would much rather represent that name rather than one that has relatively zero personal significance. I guess I started with that about five or six years ago. Most of my friends still call me Jeff, and you will rarely catch me introducing myself as J. Charles, so it can get a bit confusing from time to time.”

His first impression of Dallas: “I have loved Dallas ever since I first set foot here on the last day of the first U.S. tour I ever did, which was opening for the Reverend Horton Heat in the summer of 2001. I met one of my best friends, Oliver Peck, the week before I left for the tour through a mutual friend and made plans to meet up with him to get tattooed when we got to Dallas. He and I made fast friends, and before I knew it, either he was driving out to California to tattoo my friends in my parents’ kitchen or I was flying out to Dallas for the state fair or his infamous Christmas parties. Eventually I felt so connected with Dallas that I decided to make the jump and leave Los Angeles behind. I can’t say it was an easy move — which is pretty apparent on our album — but I don’t regret it one bit. I have been here nearly three years now, and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, if ever.”

First song written for Upon Leaving: “I guess the first song I wrote for the album was ‘My Year.’ That song was a long time in the making, a series of events that transpired over the course of an entire year of my life starting with the suicide of a close friend. Not much unlike the rest of the tunes, it seems like the first verse and chorus basically wrote themselves in a matter of minutes, but the rest of the tune needed an entire mess of a story to unravel before it could let itself be finished.”

First words that come to his mind when describing the sound of the Trainrobbers: “[Laughs] Your guess is as good as mine. Whenever it comes up and anyone asks what we sound like, I always find myself sticking my foot in my mouth: ‘Well, we’re country — I guess? But not the kind of country your thinking of. I guess we’re more of a rock band with pedal steel guitar — but not the kind of rock your thinking of …’ I start confusing myself sometimes! Thank god for the amazingly ambiguous genre of ‘Americana’!”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Photo by Nick Prendergast