Access Interview – James Cassar

14

April, 2019

AUTHOR: Half Access Board of Directors
Category: Interviews

James Cassar currently manages three bands (Barely Civil, bristletongue, and If Only, If Only) with his childhood friend Rachel Malvich as rumblepak. He is also helping Take This to Heart Records with label management/A&R and will be launching another venture later this year. You can hear him on the podcast Stereo Confidential, which is the rebranded new home for the award-winning Modern Vinyl Podcast. He co-owns and formerly co-operated the record label Near Mint and has written for Alternative Press, MTV, and more. He once bought business cards that called him “The Reigning King of DIY” but, truly, you can find him playing Yoshi’s Crafted World after he gets home to Philly from his job in Jersey, if he’s not answering emails.

Pictured: James Cassar

Photograph by James Cassar

When did you start going to shows and getting more connected to the music scene?

My first show was in 2010, when I was fifteen. I saw Muse and the Silversun Pickups at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which is where the Detroit Pistons used to play basketball and its parking lot was where Warped Tour used to be.

The Palace is also infamous for “the Malice at the Palace,” where a brawl broke out during a Pistons game in 2004 between that team, the visiting Indiana Pacers, and also some spectators. I’m revisiting that event because this is what I thought the music scene was like in the five or so years between that Muse gig and my first (and last) Warped Tour in 2012. After Warped—where a crowdsurfer knocked me down during Yellowcard’s “Five Become Four”—I waited a few months to see shows. I spent my summers interning at Warner Music Group and attempting a back-office entryway into music because I felt jostled at the front.

After this break, I saw The Story So Far and Such Gold at Kingdom, a now-closed venue in Richmond, Virginia. I was also knocked down when this dude grabbed me when “680 South” started. My glasses flew away, and they landed on the other side of the action. In those three minutes being sightless and dumbfounded, I felt like a Pacer being outpaced by a Piston.

I spent most of 2013 and 2014 continuing observing, and not participating, in the music scene. The easiest way for me to get involved without getting injured, I thought, was in music journalism. I started writing for Modern Vinyl, which has been my home for the better half of six years. I edited countless arts and entertainment pieces at my college newspaper in Charlottesville, VA.

In late 2014, PropertyofZack published a personal essay I wrote about cerebral palsy in the music scene, which was something I hadn’t heard or seen anyone speak about before. The response was very positive and kind, and it encouraged me to branch out from beyond the shadows and start … getting to the gig.

Talk a bit about your disability and how it affects your experience attending shows.

Cerebral palsy, like most disabilities, takes many forms. My specific form is called spastic hemiplegia, which has resulted in the right side of my body being weaker, tighter, and the cause of some long-standing back pain, growth issues, and a substantial limp. My left side is still affected—the brain hemorrhage that occurred days after I was born covered both sides of my brain, after all—but it’s definitely picking up most of the slack.

I’ve gotten smarter as I’ve gotten older (depending on who you ask). I don’t really need to be in the front anymore—when I started gigging in earnest, my desire to be up close came at the cost of getting knocked down. But, even though I cling to the edge of a pit or generally stay where seats are available, standing-room shows are definitely not easy to enjoy as they’re hard on my feet and back. If I can’t find a chair, I am always trying to lean on something sturdy.

What have your experiences with accessibility been like at house shows and DIY spaces compared to bigger venues?

When I was Greyhounding up to Philly during weekends in college, I was always at house shows. The bands I was working with were just playing with their friends in basements, so I was the one barely loading in to justify heading in early but also compensating for my weak arms. Charlottesville also had a burgeoning house show network by the time I graduated from UVA. No matter what space held noise, it always meant a flight or two of stairs, many without railings or any support at all.

I tend to avoid house shows nowadays, but DIY and even mid-size spaces in Philly normally vary in their accessibility—even for a person like me with relative mobility. There’s a warehouse in West Philly that has stairs with ample railings, and a spot like Everybody Hits has one stair to enter the space but a pretty challenging staircase up to the bathrooms. Even “less DIY” spots like the Trocadero Balcony (rest in peace?) or the Church have their fair share of punishing staircases, but because they’re historic buildings, it’s sometimes hard to work around structural issues.

Were there any particular instances that inspired you to write about disability/accessibility in music?

After POZ tapped me for that piece, Alternative Press asked me to expand on the accessibility angle, which I took into issues that run perpendicular to it to work on a more “inclusive” scene: mental health, looking out for others at shows, the idea of a “safe space.” It felt disingenuous for me, a straight-passing white guy, to lead this charge when so many non-men were doing this without a byline. It became clear to me that the only truth I could tell in regards to accessibility/disability was my own, and I poured more energy into a column I was writing for POZ, Re-done, which presented those wider topics in a more personal way.

I started writing about my disability because there weren’t any stories like mine in the world I was writing in. I went to college at UVA, which was voted the #1 party school by Playboy the semester I started. Every dude seemed to look exactly the same, wearing seersucker and Vineyard Vines and Sperrys and I’d show up to lectures sweating in band tees, reaching for a seat at the front because I couldn’t see. (Another fun fact about my case of CP: the hemorrhage burned through half of my optic nerve, so I don’t have great depth perception and trip up curbs in Philly all the time.) I had friends and everything—writing wasn’t an escape from college—but I always clung to music when nothing else seemed to click, and so I tried to connect the two. I’m honestly still grateful people read my stories when they did, even though I’ve all but retired from being in the hot seat.

I don’t really consider my situation unique or special—I’m glad Netflix is bringing Special to viewers, and Speechless is a great CP narrative on ABC—but I think I started being open when the scene attempted to be kinder and gentler and not just go nuts at shows. I like that I was able to have some part of the conversation for a bit.

Have your experiences with venues improved over time when it comes to ableism/inaccessibility or have things mostly stayed the same?

I’m pretty bad at asking for help, so I rarely asked for accommodations at shows from venue staff or anyone who could do anything about it. My stubbornness probably was the reason I got hurt, but I was also first attending shows in the era of weird, all-dude, mixed bills, where a pop-punk headliner would be preceded by hardcore bands. That’s a lot of energy that’s sometimes misdirected towards people like me, who weren’t expecting it.  

I remember when Joyce Manor put an end to stage dives at their shows to the internet’s dismay. I remember this kid I used to follow posted a picture of all his Joyce Manor records in the trash because of that decision. That guy embodied that meathead attitude that kept me away from enjoying hardcore and more aggro stuff anywhere but my earbuds, and so I hoped that mindset was on its way out. I wrote a piece for AP, which argued that people should be mindful of the space they take up at shows, and the comments were like “oh, fuck off, you’re trying to outlaw MOSHING?” First of all: no. Warped was already trying to warn against lawsuits for walls of death like a year before I appeared.

Since those times, I’ve seen local promoters (shout out to dear friend and person-who-knows-how-to-ask-for-help Mel Grinberg) add accessibility info to their Facebook events, have people on deck to assist people with mobility issues, and have extra chairs (!) to create seating in places that may not have them. I don’t think we’re completely out of the woods in regards to creating a one-size-fits-all solution for making sure disabled folks can feel secure and welcome at shows, but any movement starts small. The fact that the major changes I’ve seen are at the DIY level excites me.

Do you have any advice for folks who are disabled and interested in working in music?

One of the bands I manage, Barely Civil, is a band I manage because of an email their drummer Isaac sent me when he was sixteen. Isaac also has CP and also obviously likes music, so it was cool for him to read a thing like Re-done and find others like him. Another friend of mine, Bri (whom you’ve tapped for this interview series!) hit me up via Instagram DM about a piece I wrote about Warped Tour’s accessibility initiatives, and now she makes music as saltlick and is killing it with her own label, Blue Salt Records. Needless to say, the two people to reach out to me are kicking ass in their own way just because they wanted to carve their own path in this confusing, sometimes utterly demoralizing music scene. That rules. We also have bands like Culture Abuse leading the way by being punk as fuck and being unafraid to talk about stuff like this, which is the punkest thing of all.

My advice is what I used to tell everyone who would ask me how to get started in music: just find a hole in your community and fill it however you can. I started getting misty-eyed for this scene before I became a part of it by figuring out where I could fit. Sure, I’ve tried my hand at most everything and failed, but I still got here somehow. The only way I justified it was by telling myself I deserved to be here. You do, too.

What’s been your best experience with accessibility?

Gotta shout out Mel again. I was at a Cavetown show in Austin, and she happened to be working merch, but that show was the matinee for the Lucy Dacus show I was there to see with a college friend. That show was outside, and it was raining really hard, and my legs were tired from the Cavetown gig, so Mel was kind enough to fetch a seat for me. Sure, people kept pushing me off it to huddle under the awning and hear “Night Shift,” but that’s kind of the care I wish for across all venue staff, not just close friends: an attention to filling a dire need.

What’s been your worst experience with accessibility?

I went to Richmond to see You Blew It! open for Citizen in 2014. Near Mint had just started, and I felt invincible. Hostage Calm also opened for Citizen that night and allegedly broke up in the parking lot. (Reasons for this have varied in the echo chamber, from arguing about YBI!’s decision to kick out a crowd surfer who jostled the light fixtures in the club to breaking up because James Cassar asked the drummer if he was remaining calm while in the bathroom stall. That last one might just be my echo chamber.)

Anyway, as this was the year of the mixed bill, a hardcore band called True Love—who is sick—also opened the night. What wasn’t sick was the two dudes who, while aiming for the same spot of the Broadberry stage, pushed me into one of the PA speakers. I lost my balance and a little blood.

It wasn’t the worst thing in the world—being asked in an ambulance if my disability “was like that before” I got struck by a taxi the next summer would take that cake—but it’s one of those things that I’ll remember forever.

Is there anything else disability/accessibility related that you’d like to talk about?

I know this seems like a stupid thing to hear from a white guy, but consider looking out for bands with disabled members when you consider what constitutes a “diverse lineup.” It’ll mean the world to someone on the internet or in the audience. If I saw that as a teen, I wouldn’t have waited until college to be around any scene.

Also, in my experience, my energy levels sharply decrease after 5 p.m. after working a full day and juggling two or three jobs in addition to my full-time gig. If I leave a gig early, it’s not because I don’t care about the rest, it’s because I don’t have the energy to continue rocking out. Don’t make me feel bad for this; I already feel bad enough leaving my house!

Who are three artists you think everyone should go listen to right now?

Nudie Mag’s demo is three slices of perfect, fuzzed-out power pop. If you like the new Angel Du$t, you’ll like what’s there. Lilith is a band from Boston-area that is right at home between Charly Bliss and Future Teens.

But, because this is an interview about disability, please consider listening to Thelma and her wonderful sophomore LP, The Only Thing, which discusses disability and chronic illness as this very haunting, intangible agent of change. Natasha lost her ability to play guitar before this album was written and pivoted to creating these crystalline, warbly synth tunes. I’m glad she kept creating, because this album celebrates her new life without bitterness, and I think that’s an important message to send.

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