The first time James Irvin ever saw the ocean was because of the band. First time he ever flew on an airplane? That was from the band too.
Irvin was 22 years-old when he got the gig playing drums for Huntsville group Microwave Dave & The Nukes, in September 2004.
"I grew up in the middle of nowhere," Irvin says now. "Went to a tiny school. So to go from that to getting to go all over the place it was really, really exciting. Everywhere I've been, everybody I've ever met has been because of the band. I know a ton of great people in every class there is, in every field you can imagine and it's all been because of that."
Irvin was fortunate to get The Nukes gig. Since being founded in 1989 by ace guitarist and bandleader “Microwave” Dave Gallaher, the band shined in Alabama’s vibrant ’90 blues scene, toured the world and released critically lauded albums. Once they even opened for heavy-metal legends Iron Maiden. The Nukes are the most iconic local Huntsville band ever, hands down. But The Nukes were just as fortunate to land Irvin. Nukes bassist Rick Godfrey says, “He’s really talented and there’s a lot of big-time bands that would love to have him.”
Irvin’s drumming style is multi-faceted. He’s technical, tasty, disciplined, flashy, youthful, classic. The first time Southern rock legend Johnny Sandlin, who recorded and produced the Allman Brothers and produced The Nukes, heard Irvin drum with The Nukes, Sandlin told Gallaher, " Well, you finally found someone who will keep up with you.” Gallaher says, “James brought punk energy, speed and endurance. James could go right with me when I took off. Now I have to work to keep up with him.”
In their early years, The Nukes were a straight up blues band. After Irvin joined, Gallaher expanded the group's sonic canvas considerably. In addition to tough, soulful blues originals and covers, The Nukes repertoire now also zooms into rock, instrumentals and beyond. Cream. Joe Jackson. The Police.
“It’s definitely expanded,” Irvin says. “Dave always say we play blues and blues byproducts, because we don’t really know what the hell to call ourselves anymore and haven’t for a long time. You’ve just kind of got to see it.” Before joining The Nukes, although Irvin was a fan of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, he “used to think of blues as Stevie Ray Vaughan and 16-year-olds trying to be Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I got in the band I was like, ‘Wow this is blues?' Because there was a big variety of stuff. You look at Dave and no matter how good he is or how much he’s performed, every day he practices and he still tries to get better. And he’s still inspired by music and always looking for new music and always learning new music. Man, that’s the way it’s done.”
Irvin was born into music. Growing up in southeastern Morgan County in a small community called Center Grove located near Brewer High School, Irvin's dad and mom both played music. His parents were into bluegrass. And lots of '60s music like Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Doors. Irvin's dad also was a fan of the British band Dire Straits, who later became one of Irvin's biggest musical influences.
When he was 3-years-old or so, Irvin heard “Up Around The Bend” by swamp rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, on the radio. “I then became obsessed with CCR,” Irvin recalls. Within a year or so, he had CCR’s entire discography. Yep, at age 4. Irvin idolized Creedence frontman John Fogerty and would build a mic stand out of kids’ blocks and pretend his dad’s mandolin was Fogerty’s Rickenbacker guitar.
At a young age, he also had a snare drum to play. The first time Irvin ever played music in public was accompany his parents on snare, when they sang at the church the family went to. For years, Irvin wanted a full drumkit. He and his dad would frequently visit pawn shops looking for the right deal. Finally, for his eighth birthday, Irvin's dad showed up with a small kit, a brand called Adam. His son was beyond thrilled. "We set it up in my bedroom," Irvin says. "We lived in a very small trailer so it was very cool of him to let me have a drum set. He would jam with me. It was really cool."
Irvin's early performances included performing Nirvana and Sid Vicious tunes at his school's fifth and sixth grade talent shows. "After that, I think I was about 14, my dad would get calls to play guitar in country bands at some of the dry dances and stuff like that in the area," Irvin says. "They'd have him bring me too because they needed a drummer. I started playing out regularly, like that."
Irvin’s drumming can be heard on Microwave Dave & The Nukes albums like “Down South Nukin'” and essential Huntsville disc “Last Time I Saw You.” At live gigs he stands out on songs like the ZZ Top ish raver “All Nite Boogie.”
A couple years into playing with The Nukes, Irvin evolved into more of a visual performer, Gallaher says: “He began to project his personality out from behind the kit, mixing stick-stunts and gestures in with his playing. I told him that as long as I can’t hear those things - extra space left in a beat to allow a movement, rushing or dragging, or playing that’s fun to watch but flat to listen to - it was okay with me.”
Even before the flash, Irvin was a very watchable drummer. Gallaher recalls the first time Irvin played with The Nukes at their regular gig at La Fonda Mexicana in Florence, where Jason Isbell performed weekly before Isbell blossomed into a Grammy winning Americana star. “People grabbed me on the first break, saying ‘He’s a star,’” Gallaher recalls. "In the second set during his feature solo, I sat at the front table and the people were saying ‘James needs to be on ‘American Idol’!’”
Tall and lean with hair so spectacular it could make John Stamos jealous, Irvin looks the part. Particularly when Irvin’s doing mid-song drumstick twirls, a la Tommy Lee. But there’s soul behind the showmanship. Gallaher and Godfrey are each about twice Irvin’s age. Yet not only have they been an excellent fit on the bandstand, they’re personally compatible enough to pleasantly share nightlong van rides to the next gig.
Godfrey says, "I thought James was really mature for his age. And he's an intelligent, open minded and engaging person. Dave never tried to mold him into being a certain type of drummer or playing any style or anything, he just let him be creative and find his own way. And he's a great drummer. It's really made my job so much easier. You can just relax and play. You don't have to worry about the tempo or anything like that."
After Irvin joined the band, Gallaher and Godfrey hipped him to obscure Ry Cooder and Little Feat recordings. And Irvin heightened their interest in groups like The Police. Personally, Irvin learned a lot by from his elder bandmates.
"I think the majority of my growing up has been in the band," Irvin says. "Dave and Rick are both just really good dudes. You can always count on them and just completely honest, completely cool. There's never been an argument in the band. If there's something that needs to be discussed it gets discussed and we move on. There's no egos there. I think I learned that more than anything. Because they're both such total badasses and they treat everybody no matter who it is really kind. No matter what the circumstances are like."
Before Irvin joined The Nukes, Gallaher heard him before he saw him, at a Sunday blues jam at now-shuttered Kaffeeklatsch Bar. “Besides excellent timing and really good grooves,” Gallaher says, “he accompanied each player and singer differently, creating frames for their music and putting in decorations that added without distracting. When I looked up, I was amazed that someone of his youth was playing with that much empathy.”
Soon after that, at another local open mic, at the old Crossroads on the Parkway, Gallaher approached Irvin about joining The Nukes. Irvin immediately said yes. Gallaher wanted to make sure he wasn't poaching him. Although Irvin had been playing music with different people here and there, he wasn't attached. In fact, he'd been looking for a steady band. Gallaher told him to think the offer over and call him the next day. A rehearsal was arranged at Gallaher's Meridianville home. Irvin was in. It was the only rehearsal before their first gig together, at a biker event in Madison. To help Irvin get familiar with grooves The Nukes played, Godfrey dropped off burned CDs containing tracks by blues musicians like Slim Harpo and Magic Sam, for Irvin at Irvin's restaurant day-job.
Irvin recalls his first show with The Nukes being really intimidating. "We did the load in," Irvin says, "and I was like, 'Wow these guys have a bunch gear.' Then all the motorcycles showed up and we had a really big crowd and I was still trying to remember all the songs. I was so nervous about screwing up."
In the days following his Nukes debut, Irvin experienced the notoriety playing in a top local band brings. While taking his two young children to a Dairy Queen to eat, he went inside the restaurant to order. The manager recognized him and said the meal was on the house. “I remember coming out to the car,” Irvin says with a laugh, “and I said, ‘Well, our dinner’s free because I’m in The Nukes.” Irvin is The Nukes’ fifth drummer, and will almost certainly be the band’s last.
As a drummer, Irvin draws inspiration from the likes of Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, The Police’s Stewart Copeland and 311′s Chad Sexton. His music goes way beyond rhythm. Irvin is also a talented singer, guitarist and songwriter, influenced by the likes of Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, Mark Knoplfer and Kurt Cobain. He played all the instruments on his 2008 self-titled solo debut album, which mixes alternative-rock edge with arena-rock hooks. Eight years later, he released sophomore album “Not Safe From Anything,” which tapped power-pop and new wave. Trading in his Tama drumkit for a Stratocaster, Irvin’s performed solo and with his James Irvin Trio for years. Recently, the trio expanded ranks from Irvin, bassist Matt Ross and drummer Chase Armstrong to include singer/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Wilson. The group’s name changed too. They’re now known as The Nerve. Ross tells me, “It’s the rock band I’ve always wanted to be a part of. The songs are so damn cool.”
Gallaher himself is a fan of Irvin’s songwriting and fretwork. He even says, “James can play stuff on guitar that I can’t,” quite a statement when you consider Gallaher is an Allmans-esque conjurer. With new tracks on the way cut with Clearwave Studios recordist Jeremy Stephens, including radio-ready cut “Why Waste My Time,” Irvin hopes to grow his career. “I’m not realistically looking at being at the top of the food chain,” he says. “But I’d love to have my band go around the country and have fans in different places and make records.”
Over the years, Irvin's been a member of additional local groups, like sideburns-sharp rockabilly group The Crackerjacks. When Dave Anderson, the Atlanta Rhythm Section/Brother Cane guitarist who's one of the most talented rock musician Huntsville ever produced, needed a drummer for his highly anticipated debut solo album, he called on Irvin.
"First and foremost," Anderson says, "James is an incredible musician, and further than that, anything he does he not only has charisma but it's very contagious energy. It's contagious for the people around him, whether if we're just hanging out before a gig or rehearsing or during the gig. It's just contagious positive energy."
Irvin's second ever gig with The Nukes was a road trip to Myrle Beach, S.C. for another biker event. Motorcycles had been very good to The Nukes. The band's epic, multiple-shows-a-day treks to Daytona, Fla.'s Bike Week have cornerstone gigs for the band for years. Irvin recalls the group's old Thanksgiving Throwdown shows at the 'Klatsch as another fave Nukes gig.
The Nukes’ performances in schools for kids are also special to Irvin. Five years ago, the Microwave Dave Music Education Foundation was launched to help bring more musical performances to area schools. But the band’s brought music to youths long before that. Performing specials sets for elementary school students at Huntsville’s Panoply Festival of the Arts, and at in-school assemblies.
"My favorite thing about it is," Irvin says," I think how cynical I was in sixth grade and I see kids now I can relate to at the age who are like, 'Who the hell are these guys?' And then you get to watch their mind changes and they're bouncing and smiling and stuff. It's awesome."
In 2015, the Microwave Dave Foundation began holding Microwave Dave Day. The all day festival immediately became a highlight of Huntsville's musical year. The lineups are stocked with an array of all-local acts. Microwave Dave Days build up to an all-star jam, putting some of Huntsville's most talented and beloved musicians together to perform - a rare treat since most of those musos are usually scattered around town playing separate gigs.
Microwave Dave Day began as a well deserved celebration of Gallaher, his music, his life and the positivity he brings to the community. But it’s turned into a celebration of Huntsville music and musicians who make it. The event attracts out fans who regularly attend local, shows but since MDD is held on a Sunday afternoon, also folks who wouldn’t be able to make it to a bar gig. It’s a special day here.
This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Microwave Dave Day is being held virtually via YouTube. Set for 3 p.m. June 28, the livestream will feature sets by: R&B singer Victoria Jones; Mike Roberts and Chad Reeves from classic rockers 5ive O’Clock Charlie; roots combo Cletus Puckett Experience; funk-pop talent Lamont Landers and keyboardist Kevin Canada; bluesy duo Chris Simmons and Jesse Suttle; and a headline set by Microwave Dave & The Nukes.
The performances are being taped at Tangled String Studios. An all-star jam will once again close the show. The Nukes set will run 45 minutes, and support sets about 20 minutes each. Microwave Dave Day is a fundraiser for Microwave Dave Music Education Foundation. Normally a $10 donation gets you in the door to show, which the past few years was held downtown on Washington Street. This year, fans can donate online as they tune in.
“There will definitely be something missed from seeing everyone there, but the show must go on,” Irvin says. “And I’m glad we’re doing something.” After the pandemic shut down months of gigs beginning mid-March, a Nukes livestream from local guitar store the Fret Shop drew around 7,000 viewers. “It felt weird but it felt good,” Irvin says of keeping local music going via livestreaming. “And it’s like Dave said, you can feel people watching.” More info at facebook.com/microwavedaveday.
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