Isolation Drills: St. James & The Apostles

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

St. James & The Apostles: Well, we certainly felt like we were starting this year off with a bang. We were voted “Best Band Of 2019” by Philadelphia magazine and, last November, released our fourth album, Black Psalms. It’s a record that really speaks to what the world is going through right now. Although we did write the songs a long time before there was any mention of a pandemic, the music certainly struck more of a nerve with listeners after the fact.

We did manage to promote the album with around two-dozen shows throughout last fall and winter. Black Psalms turned out to be our most sonically dense record yet, and at certain shows, we finally indulged an idea we’d had for years to augment the original trio—Jamie Mahon (guitar), Mike Kiker (keyboards) and Jeff Castner (drums)—with guest musicians.

All of that culminated with our record release show at RUBA Club on January 4, where we performed the album in its entirety with a continuously expanding lineup, finishing off the show as a 12-piece ensemble. From those shows, the most important additions to the band came in the form of Jill Snarberg (vocals, percussion) and Mark Candidi (bass guitar).

The band has always been centered around family (Jamie, Mike and Jeff are all cousins), and with Mark and Jill both being lifelong friends, it took nothing away from the spirit of the band and reinforced our familial vibe with a new energy.

We’d all felt that with 2020 marking our 10-year anniversary as a group, the new album and lineup were going to represent a major step forward for us. So after months of booking and preparation, we were all set for another 40 shows or more between March and July.

And then the lockdown hit. Within a matter of days, like every other band, that number of gigs dwindled down to zero. Needless to say, we were all heartbroken, but then we got right to work doubling our efforts in our recording studio.

First thing to do was to announce a series of livestream shows, again taking a very unpredictable approach to how we could perform for a virtual audience. Probably the most fun was revisiting our entire back catalog, one album per show, over the course of a month. And on the strength of those livestreams, we’d managed to squeeze onto the Love From Philly virtual festival in May, attracting a lot of good attention and positive feedback from that performance.

That in turn got us some invitations to play a few socially distant outdoor shows throughout the summer. The most recent was headlining the Shady Grove stage at the Arden Gild Hall in Delaware in late October, which may go down as one of the best shows we’ve ever played.

Besides that, we also managed to record and/or produce for a few other artists: Johnny Casino, Mark Lanky and Slomo Sapiens, among others. We pride ourselves on having a unique collection of vintage and oddball gear in our studio and a back-to-basic aesthetic, which always makes for fun and memorable recording experiences. With the winter months setting in, we plan on continuing to move forward by writing and demoing out next album.

Since Black Psalms is an overall dark and melancholy record, our next outing, tentatively titled Danse Psalms, will be the exact opposite. The way we’ve been approaching and writing new music this year is with the intention to be positive and uplifting, representative of the emotional catharsis and great celebration awaiting us at the end of this pandemic. All the while, we’re continuing to escape forward by exploring new ideas and new sounds that we want to be radically different from our previous four albums.

Yet, no matter what new colors we add to the palette, we never get bored playing music together, and we still manage to sound uniquely like ourselves. And with a studio space all our own, we certainly feel like anything is possible.