The Philosophy of "Jim's Big Ego"
Songwriter and novelist Jim Infantino '87 applies lyrical depth and a philosophical approach to making music.
The way Jim Infantino ’87 approaches songwriting for his band Jim’s Big Ego has its roots in the "Philosophy 101" class he took during his first year at Haverford.
"When I write my songs, I inhabit the philosophy of a person and write from that point of view,” he says, and describes the way Ashok Gangadean taught the basics of philosophical inquiry. “He had a way of getting you to contemplate what you were reading, to the point where you really went inside the world created by, say, Plato. And when we moved from philosophy to philosophy, it was training to put myself in other people’s narratives.”
Inhabiting someone’s way of looking at themselves makes the narrator of Infantino’s song “Math Prof Rock Star” come across not as a deluded nerd, but as a bona fide object of intellectual desire: “And after hours outside of his office there’s a line waiting/Full of girls lining up to ask about their quadratic equations.”
Infantino, who is 53 and lives in Boston with his wife, Catherine, and their two daughters, wrote and played music as a solo singer-songwriter during his time at Haverford. After graduating, he wanted to find a way to make music his livelihood. “I wasn’t getting any traction in Philly,” he says, but things changed during a train ride to New York. “I sat next to a woman who wrote music for the TV show Zoom. She told me, ‘There’s this whole thing going on in Boston.’ ”
A visit to Beantown confirmed what his seatmate said—in the late 1980s there was a vibrant singer-songwriter scene, with artists performing at open mics and busking on the sidewalks. Alongside musicians such as Jonatha Brooke, Ellis Paul, and Dar Williams, Infantino got to play, tour, and hone his songwriting.
At the end of a long tour with Williams, he put together the first version of Jim’s Big Ego. That name came with a healthy helping of irony: His intention in collaborating with other musicians was to move away from being Jim and only Jim. “When it’s just you and a guitar, the focus is on you and your personality,” he says. So, he formed a band to allow other people to expand the sound of his songs. An early version of JBE featured Jon Kiehne on Chapman Stick, an electric instrument that’s more sophisticated (and harder to play) than a bass. Kiehne helped create intricate frameworks for Infantino’s songs.
"We started playing in lots of different time signatures, like King Crimson—5/4, 7/8, switching back and forth—and that really broadened my sense of music,” Infantino says. “It’s the kind of thing you don’t tend to do when you’re a solo singer-songwriter.”
The band got tighter, and the music got funkier and more complex. Though JBE’s lineup has changed often, its sound consistently helps tell the stories of the characters Infantino puts himself inside. In the song “Stress,” the over-caffeinated narrator says, “I’m addicted to stress/That’s the way that I get things done,” while the music pushes the words along at a jittery, accelerating pace. On “15 Seconds of Fame,” a smoky funk groove backs up eccentric observations like, “When I’m angry/I explode like the Death Star.”
It’s all good fun, including the band’s tagline: “The Greatest Band in the History of Recorded Music.”
That descriptor got attached to the band when Infantino launched JBE’s website, and his manager suggested finding a phrase that could make the band the top result on Google. “I programmed it into our web pages, and it’s been there so long it’s still the first result in a Google search,” he says. “Though sometimes the Beatles pop up ahead of us.”
Infantino took this talent for online promotion into Slabmedia, the web design company he launched in 2002 and runs with his wife. Slabmedia, whose name was inspired by a passage from the notebooks of Ludwig Wittgenstein (there’s that philosophy degree again), specializes in musicians and other clients who need to promote themselves while traveling. The sites are built on Infantino’s proprietary content-management system, which allows easy updates without needing to know much about websites.
After releasing five EPs and seven albums (including They’re Everywhere!, which features cover artwork by legendary DC comic book artist Carmine Infantino—his uncle), Jim’s Big Ego is currently a side concern for Infantino. “My kids arrived, and my creative process changed,” he says. “I haven’t been writing narratives as songs—instead I wrote a novel.”
The as-yet-unpublished book, The Wakeful Wanderer’s Guide to New New England, is speculative fiction he dreamed up as he watched people texting while crossing the street or driving. “People are so fulfilled by a little bit of info exchanged via text, they’re willing to risk their lives to get it,” he said. He started imagining the extremes of total phone immersion. “Then this entire world downloaded into my head. It was too big to be a song, it had to be a book.”
He sees the book as part of what he’s always done with JBE: “My songs aren’t personal confessionals, they’re narratives from a point of view. The novel is narratives and points of view, and builds a world around those points of view.”
As he shops the book around, Infantino gets the band together occasionally for gigs in the Boston area, like a recent two-night run in early May at Club Passim in Cambridge. He’s never sure if the next idea will be a song or a book or something else, but he keeps his mind open to where those ideas will lead him.