Soul for soul

Topher James and Biscuit Brigade at Trolley Stop

By Miranda Brooks

Photo: Chris Topher Shaw bears his soul tunes Aug. 26; photo: TJ Hansen

Columbus-based musician Chris “Topher” Shaw organizes himself amongst a few concurrent projects—playing multi-instrumentally as one-half of The Shaw Brothers on violin and drumming for Andy Shaw Band, both ventures with his brother. But it’s his main enterprise, Topher James and Biscuit Brigade, that allows Shaw to reinvent his own persona through what is effectively a solo effort as much as it is a collaborative undertaking.

The solo aspect comes from the material that Shaw generates individually—writing every song and arranging nearly all the music exactly as he sees and feels fit. The raw stuff is then sent to the band in parts to be learned for recording and then for the occasional live show. The pieces are rehearsed with three-part harmonies and backed by a rhythm section. Shaw draws on a rotating cast of musician friends to add guitar, keys, and even a portion of horns. And after playing in and around the Columbus area for nearly 12 years, Shaw benefits from the solid connections he’s made. “It’s great, I get to play with all my good friends in Columbus,” Shaw says. And those friends just happen to be some of the best players around. This community approach allows Shaw to be musically fluid, whilst gleaning the most skillful sounds to accompany his vision.

Shaw’s music with Biscuit Brigade stems from a rooted influence of soul—namely that of James Brown. He likens himself to more modern acts such as Robin Thicke and Alicia Keys. “It’s an exploration of soul music, a little bit of gospel, blues, and R&B.” With the variance of genre and opportunity to widen the musical sound using select players, the live show offers a slight sense of improvisation, based on loosened lines of a well-rehearsed presentation. “In that regard, we do try to keep it as tight as possible,” Shaw says. “I try to incorporate soul music into the breaking down of the songs and with the vocal improv… all in order to get the crowd involved. I try to make this an entertaining band.”

Shaw’s art school background comes across well in his represented style. Shaw’s signature, tailored suit is custom-made, and his artistic direction incorporates a certain visual aesthetic, which outlines his overall image. Additionally, Shaw is working with a designer friend to release a conceptual video game product that is based on the band. The music for the game as well as the graphics tie in to create an interlaced enterprise. “It’s very fun, and retro!” Shaw says of the game. “It’s 8-bit, like Nintendo’s pixelated style. This thing [music] is just an excuse for me to make a bunch of cool stuff,” Shaw laughs. “I’m an art guy, it’s creative, it’s my outlet.”

Shaw has new material being mixed as we speak. The forthcoming album will be released under the Topher James moniker. And though the stock is still yet untitled, Shaw discussed some underlying themes woven throughout. He brought to attention a few songs in particular that rest heavily in humanity. The song titles alone imply a resonance of collective aspiration: “Money Makes The World Go ‘Round,” “Be The Proof,” and “Life You Want To Live.”

“It’s really about living out your dreams, and not worrying about anything else,” Shaw explains. “Even with music, it’s one of those things that people tend to have such grand ideas about. But I just try to keep myself grounded by staying focused on the present.” In the moment is just about the only place to be, it would seem. “In music it is very important to understand that, too, because you have to enjoy this kind of ride, otherwise you’re chasing something that may just never be there.” The questions posed by Shaw’s songs stand to define what is and is not a chief concern in life—happiness might be the most seemingly unattainable goal, but it’s the apparent goal, nonetheless.

As Shaw manages his musical affairs with flair and a touch of sensitivity, he concedes that he does, in fact, “have a lot going on.” And like most artists these days, his efforts are primarily the DIY kind. The physical distribution of his music is handled by none other, and the business of music is not overlooked. “Hard Love” is a song that takes a look at the interesting play of being in love with music—a perception of the music industry and the art form itself. “I try to build the framework for the business side of my music first, and then I can work within the creativity,” Shaw describes.

The work he’s put in allows him to continue on a path of a professional musician. And though Shaw admittedly favors the recording process as a means to concretely express his true colors as an artist/musician, he confessed that he’d be remiss to negate the undeniable connectivity a live show offers.

Topher James and Biscuit Brigade perform Friday, Aug. 26 at the Trolley Stop at 530 East Fifth St. in Dayton. Show starts at 9:30 p.m. Admission is free. The event is for patrons 21 and up. For more information, please visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Miranda Brooks at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Miranda Brooks at

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