I recently had the pleasure of grabbing my first Cafe Kubal coffee with Bandier student and local musician James Gardner Jr. The music artist, represented by Marshall Street Records, walks in wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins hat and quickly introduces himself to me, eager to discuss what’s on his mind. He orders a chai latte, which has been his drink of choice for a year now.

            James’ home in Buffalo, N.Y. was always filled with music, and he picked up on his parents’ tastes long before forming his own. His father preferred rock music, while his mother mainly enjoyed the R&B stars of the 90’s, particularly Missy Elliott, Tupac, and Ja Rule. James would got into alternative music, and credits Blink-182 as his biggest musical influence. He’s become known around campus as “the Blink-182 guy”, though he also listens to Bleachers, Bad Suns, Night Riots, and other modern-alt groups. His first concert was a Weezer show he went to when he was 18. They opened up with “My Name Is Jonas”, and he describes hearing the opening guitar riff as “magical and climatic,” and felt it was surreal to finally see his heroes on stage.

Gardner’s latest EP, published under his stage name Special McKinley, is very 80’s inspired. He’s been listening to a lot of George Michael, Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure, U2, and Prince. The name Special McKinley actually derives from McKinley Mall in Buffalo, N.Y. He’s been complimented on the originality and admits he likes the ring it has.

            However, there’s more to this guy than the three albums he’s published on Spotify with Marshall Street Records. James came into our interview with a few heavy hitting topics he wanted to discuss. As a Native American, he has a lot to say in terms of his identity. James is 100% Seneca Native American, born to a wolf clan father and a turtle clan mother. James is of the turtle clan, following Native American tradition inheriting it from his mother.

Photo: Rachel Kline

James feels that there’s a serious lack of representation of Native Americans in the entertainment industry, and that they’re often portrayed in movies only as traditional 1600’s tribesmen or as token characters. He cites The Revenant as an example of only using primitive indigenous peoples in films, and DC’s Suicide Squad as a film that reduced an indigenous actor to a token character. “When the Native American community found out Adam Beach was going to be playing Slipknot, we were very excited to see a talented indigenous actor in a mainstream role, but it was very disappointing when they… threw away his role.” He left the theater feeling “confused and frustrated.”

When it comes to the music scene, James feels that Native American artists hold a very “amazing reputation, but on a quiet level.” He mentions the electronic music group A Tribe Called Red, who are known for their unique ability to blend hip-hop, reggae, and EDM with traditional First Nations music, chanting and drumming along with the more modern genres. “They do a really fantastic job with it and have garnered so much support in North America.” He gives a shout out to Sekawnee Baker, a prominent Native American producer. James has great admiration for these artists, but feels there’s a long way to go for indigenous people in the music world. Special McKinley has yet to incorporate Native American themes into his music, but would love to in the future, preferably in a collaborative environment. Outside of the entertainment industry, Gardner feels that many indigenous people are unfortunately losing touch with their heritage, and would like to develop an app that could teach a Native American individual their ancestor’s language, languages that are rapidly dying on reservations. His heritage is something James Gardner Jr. wishes he could discuss with his mother.

When James was 11 years old, his mother died suddenly in a car accident. “The first week of sixth grade was fine but then suddenly… it was just saying goodbye to someone I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to my mother,” Gardner says, “and I’ve always regretted that.” Shortly before she passed, James and his mom had started discussing him pursuing his passion for music, so he knows that she’s supportive of his decision. He says that the most difficult times were the first holiday season and his first birthday without his mom. The months following his mom’s passing were the most chaotic period of his life. However, he is thankful that the experience brought him and his father a lot closer together.

Throughout their grieving process, Jimmy’s dad, who works as a DJ, really “stepped up and was there for [him],” and they bonded and coped through music. James credits music with helping him get through this difficult stretch of his life. “It left me feeling empty. It really left me feeling like my heart was ripped out of my chest for a while… That was the first time I ever experienced depression… and when I was twelve years old I was suicidal,” he confides. James didn’t receive any sort of counseling until attending Syracuse, but knows in retrospect that he should’ve seeked help, as opposed to holding it all in like he did. “When my mom passed away everything collapsed, but with that being over ten years ago… I’ve learned to grow and strive… for me personally it was just falling in a pit and clawing my way back out… and music really saved my life.” Listening to music and knowing that he could make music got him through this tough time.

James hopes that anyone struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts would seek help, and offers this message: “It gets better. I know it’s hard to believe that and that’s such a simple thing to say, but it does get better. You just have to find a way for yourself to really move on every day. Live for something. For me it was music, for another person it could be painting, for another person it could be sports, for another person it could be education, but… ya know, life is too short to think about how it could end. Just think about how it could keep going.” While James still struggles with depression, he also knows that if he were to give up, he’d never know what good would happen. “So never give up.”

James credits his mother for teaching him how to be brave and courageous, and to believe in himself. He tries to honor her memory by being passionate, loving, and forgiving. He has yet to write a song about his mother, as he hasn’t felt ready, but believes he will be soon, perhaps after graduating. He would also like to write a thank you song to his father, thanking him for being there for him after his mother’s death.