Somewhere in the heart of Houston, just north of the Museum District to be precise, sits a peculiar old house. Inside that house you’ll find a noticeable lack of furniture, but also a noticeable presence. Just beneath the house’s distinctly red façade there is an assortment of things tucked in every conceivable nook: books, half-finished paintings, roadie cases for instruments, pelican cases for camera gear, cardboard cases for beer, two very affectionate cats, a video and animation studio called Dinolion, a 4 year old little girl named Margot, whose toys filled the nooks within those nooks, and her father, multimedia artist and occasional ‘noise’/dance musician James Templeton, also known as LIMB.
Long before he took that moniker, Templeton was a high school kid 30 miles south of here in a little town called Alvin, where he grew up, playing in a garage band that at the time was named Sheol. They would eventually change that name to By the End of Tonight (BTEOT), make a couple of progressive/math rock records, sign a deal with industry legends Temporary Residence Limited (the home of fellow Texas post-rock giants Explosions in the Sky), and tour the country.
It was during this time that Templeton fell in love with the spirit of the band and the spirit of performance.
“I had always done the normal stuff as a kid, like sports,” he remarks while sipping a Lonestar in a faded-green armchair in his creative paradise of a home. “I love sports, but that sort of competition always put me off.”
“Music was a healthier form of competition,” he continues. “It allowed us to challenge each other, grow together, but also took us around the country making music effortlessly with the people we loved.”
It pushed him to the point of foregoing his degree in studio art, having previously wanted to be a painter (apparent considering he designed all of the artwork for BTEOT — with Josh Smith — and LIMB projects), a decision he recalls as “foolish given the music we were making, but worthwhile.”
He would prove somewhat correct, as the band didn’t last all that much longer after high school. Like many of his band mates, this provoked James to give school another try, returning to study sound engineering, music theory, and even computer science, but without finishing any in particular.
That manic nature is perhaps what makes his work as LIMB so difficult to describe. Equal parts hip-hop, punk, electronica, glitch, experimental, pure noise, and just about whatever else it needs to be in a pinch, Templeton didn’t miss a beat when elucidating to me how he would categorize his sound: “Fuck genres.”
“Take the track ‘Daphne,’ for example,” he says. “It’s got sort of a house vibe, but it never has a kick or a hat, yet it feels distinctly rhythmic, just because of the sample. Then when the drums finally do come in they are so heavy they’re almost metal. That’s what it’s all about for me, marrying those ideas and finding the worlds between them. Fuck traditional music-making, man, this shit can be whatever.”
While his music may not unite behind genre, it certainly often does so in tone.
“Even back in BTEOT, there was always this almost bratty desire to be the fastest, the loudest, the most aggressive,” he says, poking fun at the boyish tendencies of his come-up. “That stuck with me, with my music today. It might not be the loudest or the fastest, but it’s still the –est of something; maybe the hardest version of something. I just have to feel it.”
In his mind, the cathartic potential of music as an experience is profoundly influenced by pain and vulnerability. It’s this very notion that vastly informs his philosophy as a live performer.
“I love performing, but I’m terrified by it, so I also hate it,” he admits shyly. “I hate being on stage 10 feet from a group of people standing and watching me. I need a more intimate connection, like, ‘I need this more than you do, but maybe we both need this, come here.’ I know you’re gonna need an excuse to stay in this room with me and sometimes you need a good one.”
“Was that where Octa came from?,” I pondered to him regarding his now infamous Day for Night performances last winter within the visual art installation he co-created for the festival, with Eric Todd and Daniel Schaefer, in which he played on an octophonic stereo system, one which he was fortunate enough to procure on the cheap from an old employer, underneath an array of continually color-shifting light panels he controlled while performing and while the audience stood surrounding him in the center of the room.
“We wanted to be something different and not be just a noisy hallway,” he explains. “So much media is just giving you the emotions you expect, and for most people that format works. We like ‘familiarity’ and ‘brand loyalty,’ but I couldn’t give that. [With Octa] I wanted you to step into a space and not know where you were gonna be taken. There has to be that level of un-comfort, there has to be that challenge. You want a show? I don’t know how to give you a show, but I know how to spill my guts.”
“We wanted to get loud and rowdy and dancy, too,” he reflects. “And it was exciting because I got to dance, too, and be in that moment, and that willingness to feel a lot with somebody was what I wanted to tap into, and I think that Kaufman speech said it better than anyone,” he says, referring to an excerpt from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s emotional 2011 speech for BAFTA’s Screenwriters Lecture series used at the close of his Octa performance.
“Even if it’s youthful and playful, there’s still an underpinning of the heavy stuff,” he continues. “I don’t think dance comes from joy, I think dance comes from pain.”
Since Octa, Templeton’s experimental approach to performance art and his art in general has continued to blossom. Most recently, he helped orchestrate the wildly successful immersive theater project Red House over the summer with a litany of other Houston-based performance artists, including his fellow Dinolion co-founder and director of Red House Jeremy Barber, fellow musician Black Kite (Vicki Tippit), poet Traci Lavois Thiebaud, and dancers from the Houston Ballet.
He’s also got two new records on the horizon, the first of which is being released as a short film called Re, a dance film with Connor and Melody Walsh of the Houston Ballet and produced by Dinolion, featuring some poetry written by his daughter’s mother, Maryoceane Guy. The second is a collaborative project still being mixed by co-conspirator Ed Gardiner (aka birdmagic), both due to be released soon.
With a smorgasbord of other ‘one-off’ projects in the works, including music with Austin Smith of JERK, Matt Fries, and even a remix for fellow Houston genre destroyers Merel & Tony, it’s no surprise that Templeton has had to reign in the controlled chaos that is his craft.
“I need to slow down,” he concedes. “When a friend comes to me wanting to book a show, it’s hard for me to say no, but I can’t fight my body. And as hard of a thing as it is for me, money is an important consideration now. I want to play your show, but I just don’t know if I can afford it. More and more, I really just want to choose my kid.”
Ultimately, in spite of the rapid, unceasing commercialization of his industry and the urging of some of his friends and peers to focus on things like ‘branding’, with one notable fellow Houston musician even suggesting he try out a twitter bot to boost his exposure, James only seeks to maintain the feeling of authenticity that propelled him into this life in the first place.
“The more popular my work becomes and the more power I have — whatever that means — when I step into a public arena, the more I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to do something worthwhile,” he concludes. “I can step on the backs of my 200K Twitter bot followers and become complicit in facilitating a culture built on lies that forces ideas to last a century by virtue of technology, or I can stand up there alone and talk about vulnerability, or about caring, or about being kind, and maybe that can last a century.”
“I dunno, I guess that’s what sounds cool to me.”
Catch LIMB when he opens for the legendary Actress with Telefon Tel Aviv and Dr Calero on Saturday, December 2 at Walters Downtown, for which tickets are still on sale. Doors are at 8 pm.