Interview: Samuel James, Part I [Videoport and Portland]

Samuel James is a well-respected, world-traveled, Portland-based Bluesman who was nominated for a Blues Music Award in 2010. I recently talked with James, who I have known since we were both scrappy mall rats, about the release of And for the Dark Road Ahead, his upcoming album. We ended up talking at great length about Portland, touring, the blues, his favorite musicians, his job at Videoport, existentialism, drinking, not drinking, and at least a dozen other topics.

Due to its sprawling nature, the interview will be released in digestible chunks over the next handful of weeks. You can read about what James said of his music and related career in future pieces, but here we start with Videoport and his life in Portland.

And for the Dark Road Ahead comes out on October 20th. A release party featuring almost every great musician from the state of Maine will be held at SPACE Gallery.

You work at Videoport. A number of folks in their 30s, some in their 40s maybe, have worked there for nearly a decade if not for more time than that. In nearly any other instance, this might be sort of sad, like Clerks 2

Dante’s beard has died and you can see the silver poking through.

… Right! But at Videoport, it is triumphant. People walk away from that place better for having stepped in. It is beloved. How does it manage this?

Number one, all of us are there. It’s not just one sad guy, it’s all of us. Strength in numbers.

So it’s not Season 8 of The Office.

Right? How many kids is Pam going to have?

We’re all happy. You’re not going to come in and get the feeling that we are all thinking we should have done something more and I think it is because our nerd knowledge is rewarded there. We excessively nerd out about movies. I know I irritate [James’ girlfriend] Rosa because we will be watching a movie and I will recognize every actor from at least ten different movies and I will cite all of them. I can do this with most movies, but especially, oddly, action movies. I can go on and on and on and on and on about that and everybody there can do that about different kinds of movies and usually more than one genre.

I went to get Moonstruck the other day and [Videoport employee] Regan did a dead on impression from the film, not of Cher or of Nicholas Cage, but of Olympia Dukakis. Olympia Dukakis. And it was dead on.

Right. Exactly. That’s exactly perfect. She has an Olympia Dukakis impression. She is the one person in the world who has it, she kills it, and it could only happen there.

It is also because the guy who owns Videoport, Bill [Duggan], is generous. I think he understands the very basic premise that if you keep your employees happy, they will do good work for you. So you’re talking video store employees who get vacations and also health insurance. When was the last time you heard of a video store that give its employees health insurance? Never. So I think that’s how. You treat employees incredibly well and they will be loyal and we are incredibly loyal to the point of near patriotism.

Beyond everything you detailed about how well you are treated there, what are some of your favorite things about working there?

It is more difficult for me to answer this because I am no longer there full time, but just speaking from a retail perspective, when some crazy shit happens, it is the craziest shit that you have ever seen. That is what is really great because you can go to the mall and see some crazy shit, or you can go to some store and see some crazy shit, but you ain’t seen crazy shit until you have worked at the hipster mall at [the complex where Videoport is located] 151 Middle St. There was a guy who used to come in all the time and he would wear a half beard. One side, no beard, the other side, full beard from his neck right up to under his eye. He once returned a movie not to the video store, but through the gate of a daycare because he thought that the movie would be safe there. That’s some crazy shit, and it’s not dangerous. It could be, I guess, but luckily he had just taken a detour from his meds for a little while and he is fine now, but that’s a great story because—I can’t even explain why.

You ask a lot of people about where their favorite place in Portland is, and they will invariably mention Videoport. Actress Anna Kendrick even alluded to it when asked about her Portland upbringing. Where are some of your favorite places to go?

SPACE Gallery is one of them. I stay in a lot and I play my guitar all day. I don’t drink, so it’s hard. I have never had alcohol because since the age of five, I have watched it systematically kill everybody in my family. I believe people have the ability to learn from other people’s mistakes. Some people go out to have a beer for fun, but I don’t have that strength. I am obsessive compulsive and I can’t do anything a little bit. I quit smoking a year and a half ago, but I have been smoking an electric cigarette ever since.

Well, at least you are blessed with strategic addiction.

[Laughs] Very much. Very much. Back to your original question. I feel very comfortable where everyone else feels comfortable in Portland, and that irritates me. Like Flatbread. I love Flatbread. SPACE Gallery.

But that seems silly to me, because you are already Samuel James, right? You’re not just Sam James, you’re Samuel James. It’s not like you have to try to present yourself as more of an individual than anyone else by having obscure tastes, because you are already this known anomaly, you are already this character, so even if you loved going to Wal-Mart, I find it hard it would negate what you have created by way of hard work and talent.

Thank you. It is not that, though, it’s just that I feel like the question begs for a more interesting answer. Videoport is my number one, and SPACE Gallery. That place has managed to maintain this integrity in the art, music and films they present. The high level of quality is always the same. I feel like any night you walk by it and the doors are open, you will come out a better person for going in and checking out what is going on. If not, you will have a Hell of a conversation to have after. They do good things there.

PHOTO CREDIT: Samuel James’ website

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.