Beginning in its infancy around 1994, Squanky Kong is the musical vision of American composer-artist
and producer James Michael House.
A twisted path of Hybrid Rock, the music blends various Rock and Metal genres with elements of Funk, Blues, Jazz, Classical, and others. An adventurous range of material from simple hard hitting rock riffs to complex orchestrations and improvisation alike.
Squanky Kong is not the usual rock band. House is the only constant member. The music being highlighted by his aggressive electric guitar and six-string bass playing, as he switches between them live, and plays both in the studio. Various musicians are brought in to complete the line-up, usually consisting live of 5-6 members. The band is based out of Los Angeles, California while House and his label Squank Entertainment have roots in Eugene, Oregon.
Since 2005 Squanky Kong has independently released three studio albums and one EP. The latest studio album Dawn of the Cataclysm (2021) takes Squanky Kong to the next level as House continues on his quest to explore the frontiers of music.
The Whole Story
It all started in late 1992 when composer-artist James Michael House began to learn electric guitar (age 13) while living in eastern Pennsylvania. Having grown up around music with his family, it was no strange territory. House's mother played piano at home; his grandfather, Ray Butts, was a recording engineer, musician, and inventor; and even as a child House played trombone for a few years in the school band. However, it was the endeavors with rock and metal guitar that led deeper into blues, jazz, and overall musical exploration.
House's notable guitar influences would grow to include Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt, Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Dave Mustaine, David Gilmour, and Eric Clapton. Shortly after starting guitar, House started to learn 5-string bass, citing Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers) as the bassist that first caught his attention, and following the need of a garage band he played in at the time, which was struggling to find a bass player in the area. Within a couple years, a move to 6-string bass came with ease following his growing influence from Les Claypool and Primus. House's bass playing began to grow fast incorporating slap-and-pop, two-handing tapping, and other techniques learned from listening to musicians like Victor Wooten, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke, and Larry Grahm. Other instruments were pursued out of personal interest as well, including drums/ percussion and piano/ keyboards.
Recording came along almost immediately starting with a 4-track cassette recorder in the corner of House's teenage bedroom. That turned into a basic 8-track (DTRS) digital studio constructed in the basement of his home by his mid-teens. Studio work seemed to come very natural for him. Drawing deeper into the subject, he began to study sound engineering. It would only be a matter of time before House would start his own studio on a larger scale, Squank Studio (established 2000.) Then his own record label under the company Squank Entertainment LLC (established 2001.)
The concept of Squanky Kong came early with an initial appearance of the name in early 1994. It spawned from House's adolescent nickname Squankidonk (skwan'ke'dongk), or Squanky/ Squank for short. Being aware there was already a professional recording-artist named "James House" (i.e. The James House Band), he decided to use his nickname for music. He settled with "Squanky Kong", first suggested by a friend. Coming from the early video game generation, it reminded of his childhood favorites Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.
The idea behind a band that explored a range of styles while staying grounded around progressive/ modern rock was thought about all through the 1990's. It was quickly becoming the norm for House to record all the guitar and bass in the studio, with desires to only bring in other players to add different styles and perspective as needed to complete the creative vision.
Meanwhile, regarding live performance, House also envisioned early on a multi-faced band concept, where he would play guitar on some songs, bass on others, while ideally having other multi-instrumentalist also switching between songs. This concept would not only allow for him to explore both sides of his playing live, but for different musician's approaches to different instruments to be heard, adding to the diversity. House long felt the idea of creating a copy of the studio music, live, was boring, and his live music should be more a unique interpretation. Squanky Kong would stay bound to the studio for some time, however.
A self-produced demo tape appeared in 1997 called "Within the Boundaries". It was the first recordings to officially use the name "Squanky Kong". This rough demo tape featured House playing all the instruments, including acoustic drums. Only a small number of these tapes were ever made.
After relocating to western Oregon in 1998, House continued to explore studio work while attempting to put together a live band. Forming a band would turn out to be much harder than he ever expected though. House had influences that led to some pretty complex musical demands. He was finding it impossible to find a complete line-up of musicians that both had the skills required and the desire to dedicate a lot of their time (for free at the time) to what was just House's music. The process did lead to recruiting drummer Dwayne Taylor to work with in the studio (1999).
At the beginning of 2000, House completed the first Squanky Kong CD called "Just a Glimpse". This short EP was also for demo purposes only, featuring songs such as "A Cool Evening Breeze" and "The Personal Polluter". There was only a small number of home made discs made. It featured three songs with Dwayne Taylor on drums, the others being solo instrument, or with electronic drums and keyboards.
Between 2000-2002, House began using the newly founded "Squank Studio" to produce a few groups of songs on the side of other business and music projects. These were to be more extreme in the experimental range, House wanting to save his best ideas till there were more resources, and hopefully a band. One group of songs featured Dwayne Taylor again on drums including: "Mirror Image", "Predator to Prey", and "I Want More". The another group of songs was filled with electronic experimentation and sequencing, which are techniques that rarely appear in modern SK material.
House would not work on any new Squanky Kong material in the studio again till 2004, when recording a song called "Two-Faced Twilight". This rock song was never intended for an official release, and featured House playing all the instruments himself, including acoustic drums, like he had done as a teenager. The main purpose of this single production was experimenting with recording techniques. In particular, to work more with different approaches to layering instruments separately during recording (called overdubbing). The processes developed making this song would change the way a lot of future SK music would be made without a band.
A compilation CD called "A Brief Trip to Reality" was released in 2005 featuring a collection of materials recorded between 1999-2004. With 15 songs the CD included: "Mirror Image", "A Cool Evening Breeze", "Too Busy to Live", "I Want More", "The Personal Polluter", "Primordial Ooze", and the newly finished "Two-faced Twilight", among others.
In 2005, the greatest attempt yet was to be made seeking talent in nearby Eugene, Oregon area to form a live band. House placed ads in local publications, put signs up around town, and got the word out. Once again, there would be no prevail to find a complete band line-up. Since the overall talent needed was not found nearby, the live project was canceled, yet again. Not all was lost though, It would result in House connecting with a new drummer, Paul Smith.
At the end of 2006 , on the tail end of co-producing the album "Full Circle" with artist Halie Loren, production would officially begin for a full-length debut album. Still having no band, House would produce the album by overdubbing instruments separately in the studio as developed in the years prior. He would bring in studio musicians as needed, including recently met Paul Smith and friend Erik Avery to perform drums, and Halie Loren guesting on a few songs with vocals.
House decided to make an album featuring a more diverse range of styles. It would start out with what was becoming his unique blend of Hybrid Rock or Alternative Art Rock, then move on to other genres such as Jazz and Latin influenced music for a few songs toward the end. The concept was to show fans existing interests to explore and experiment with music right away with the debut, avoiding being pigeon-holed. Then he would focus more on the Hybrid Rock in follow-up albums.
The official Squanky Kong debut album "Under a Raven's Review" was released in 2008. Unfortunately, the release would not go smoothly. With the collapsing banking industry in late 2007, and the "Great Recession" to follow, a financial plan being pursued evaporated almost overnight. The plan was intended to help mix, market, and provide additional backing of the album release. Without it, the release was much more low-key than intended. It was also never completed to the extent planned from the onset.
In mid-2008, House began spending extended time in Los Angeles in attempts to network and find outside capital while pursuing other business. Further personal financial hardship experienced by House throughout the recession, combined with no other backing being secured elsewhere, would stifle the growth of Squanky Kong for years to come.
In 2010, House decided to revisit the first five songs from the debut album, including tracks like "Water Torture", " Sun Shall Shine", and "A Mooncalf's Merrymaking". They were the main Hybrid Rock songs of the release. Never really satisfied with the mix, he wanted to remix the songs now that he had acquired a new workstation to use, and having advanced in mix engineering himself over the few years. These remixes would initially be released separately, until later becoming apart of a digital re-release of the album, which would be the only one available through streaming and download from 2015 on.
It was also in 2010 that House decided to begin using some newly acquired knowledge in online marketing to try promoting Squanky Kong on the Internet using the music and artwork from the debut album. In particular, he focused on driving traffic to the relatively new Facebook profile setup the year before. Putting a modest $1 per day toward internet ads, it would begin to fan the flames once again.
Following successful online marketing results, and encouraged by the market potential for what he was doing musically, in 2011 House returned full time to his Oregon studio to begin work on four new songs. He was determined to not cut short the production due to lacking capital, as had happened with the debut. So House planned to only demo the songs, which would not require as much time or money. He played guitar and bass as usual, while calling on Erik Avery to handle drums. All that was missing was a vocalist.
In 2012, House auditioned vocalists remotely in LA, eventually recruiting Joseph Michael to be featured with the new music. In 2013, these songs would be completed on a demo EP called Demo 13, which was never officially released.
Initially, House planned on using Demo 13 to pursue private investment to engage the growing online fanbase; to allow him to properly produce a full album; hire a band of skilled musicians; to have capital for getting the band on the road; and to market everything as needed. However, after some initial consulting and market considerations he realized more would be needed to entice investors before such a campaign would make sense. So he held off on further pursuit to avoid wasting time. One key element was still missing in particular. An element that had long been elusive. House needed a band to perform the music live.
By the end of 2013, House was again spending extended time in LA for business. He setup a lock-out rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, California. The main purposes of the rehearsal studio would be to form a band, and re-record the four songs from Demo 13 for an official release.
House entered 2014 once again trying to find musicians to form a steady band line-up, only this time searching the much more lucrative talent pool in Los Angeles. One of the first recruits would be a new drummer, Lamar Little. There were mounting problems with any hopes of a steady band, however.
In the summer of 2015, House decided to discontinue attempts to form a steady band line-up. It was becoming obvious that most talented LA musicians were attached to multiple projects, and with no guaranteed salary to get real commitment and prioritization, scheduling was a nightmare. It was too problematic to continue. So House decided to change the live band format.
Instead of a steady line-up common to Rock bands, House decided to change direct and promote Squanky Kong as the work of a solo composer-artist. A throw back to jazz and classical orchestras, or the way some solo artists often recruit session players for tours, he began putting together a roster of musicians. The idea was for everyone to be hired-guns, to be paid for their time, and to have alternates for every position, including lead vocals.
This fluctuating band arrangement would be a strong deviation to what many expect with Rock music. However, creatively and pragmatically, House liked the idea much better. It would allow him to have flexibility with scheduling, and to be able to change the line-up for creative purposes, adding to the diverse and unique interpretation of the live music he always desired. Rather than have fans expecting a certain lead vocalist or band line-up, or a performance that sounded like that studio recording, he hoped they would trust a great band of musicians and a unique musical experience would accompany Squanky Kong Live.
In October 2015, the EP "Imminent Insurrection" was released. It would be a raw production reworking the four Demo 13 songs, done in the rehearsal studio only because House could not afford to take the LA musicians up to his more capable Oregon-based Squank Studio. It was still not the level of production he had hoped for, lacking the funding to do any more at the time, but it was some new music to get out to the world, which was better than nothing.
With Squanky Kong now officially a unique solo project, and having a roster of musicians to work with, House would set out to get the live band performing (2016-2017). However, it would become clear there would be one obstacle remaining, capital to mobilize the band now that everyone was to be paid. Most gigs didn't pay new bands around LA. House could just barely finance a few shows himself, but it was not enough to get any momentum, and though he could maybe scrounge up capital for more, the opportunities available to a relatively unknown band in LA were not worth it to him. Meanwhile, the four songs from the EP were already getting dated (having been written some 7 years earlier). House began to realize he needed fresh material to bring together with the roster-based band he now had.
In 2018, House decided to pause the live music pursuits in order to head back to his Oregon studio full-time, while keeping the band based in Los Angeles. His new goal was to record a full-length album of new songs. However, this time he was determined, no matter what, to produce a higher-end production that was long envisioned. House headed forward with hopes that with an epic new collection of songs, produced as best possible, to accompany the finally realized band to perform live, he would at last find a path to bring the music to the world. A culmination of years of work, both in the studio and live, to bring it all together for the first time in SK history.