Double-headed livestock, ancient tomes, instruments for contacting the dead, serial killer hair… James Freeman has had quite the career as a procurer and purveyor of oddities and antiques. Of course, I didn’t know about his “day” job when I scheduled this interview. No! I was keen to talk about his surf band, El Capitan & the Reluctant Sadists, who will be a part of Creeki Tiki Too on Saturday, October 26th– but once I learned of his rather unusual occupation… Well, I haven’t had as much fun with a conversation since Marty Stuart and John Dillinger’s toe tag!
AI- I want to talk about El Capitan and surf music in general– but first I want to talk about your honest to goodness occupation. I didn’t realize that this is what you do for a living and I’m kinda fascinated… You’re a purveyor of antiquities and oddities. I’ve spent the last couple of days checking out your social media and everything that you’ve got going on with Freeman and Fugate Oddities Co. What is considered an oddity, exactly? And how did you get into that line of work?
JF- Everybody’s definition is a bit different. I mean, a lot of people’s definition of an oddity is just something that’s dead. There’s a big thing with vulture culture where people go and pick up roadkill, clean animals themselves, and sell the skulls… As sort of like a morbid decor or whatever. For me, it’s more items that have a historical bent and antiques that have to do with… Generally from the 19th Century, sometimes earlier, but medical antiques, medical specimens, the occult, things like that. That’s more what I consider an oddity, but everybody’s definition is a little different. To me, a raccoon skull or something like that, or a bat, a freeze-dried bat in a dome isn’t really that odd– it’s just a dead animal. To me, something that’s more an oddity is something like an automatic writing planchette from the 1860s that was used to contact ghosts at a seance or something along those lines. Or an original Robert Ripley drawing who created Ripley’s Believe It or Not!– so it’s a different definition for everybody.
What got you started down that line?
I’ve always been a collector. I started out collecting when I was a kid, collecting comic books. Some of my favorite comics were Tales from the Crypt— the EC reprints of all those Tales from the Crypt comics. I just loved the gory creatures coming from back from the grave to avenge their death. That was a big part for me and then also as a kid, Harry Houdini was my hero– and still is. That’s what got me into learning more about magicians and the beautiful lithographs. As far as just being interested in it, as I got older in the ’90s, the first time I saw the Nine Inch Nails “Closer” video– all the archaic medical specimens and human skeletons and skulls that are in the video– I was like, “Man, I want to live in this video!” A lot of people will find it disturbing, and I just didn’t. I thought it was really beautiful in a really morbid way. ‘Cause, I mean, what do we all have in common? We all die. It’s an easy thing to relate to somebody on!
But as far as doing it for a living, it happened unexpectedly about four years ago. I did not have full custody of my daughter and ended up getting full custody of her after fighting for it for years. I had a corporate job and realized, “Well, I can’t really be the kind of dad I want to be and have a corporate job.” So I decided I’d start selling these things I’d been collecting over the years. Here we are four or five years later, whatever it’s been, and it’s a full-time profession. We’ve been approached by several TV shows and reality shows. I actually throw oddities markets across the country with Mike Zohn who’s the star of the Science Channel’s TV show Oddities. Yeah, it’s blown up! But it was all started because of my daughter– so I could spend more time with her. ‘Cause I generally work from home. A lot of these things at this point… I used to travel a lot on the road to find them and now they find me! ‘Cause I’ve gotten to be known for it, and some people will message me whenever they need some cash. Or they come across something they think I would like. So a lot of my work at this point is done from my couch– which is nice! It’s a lot better than traveling all over the country like I was doing before to find this crap! (Laughs)
You must have seen all kinds of just strange, unusual, wonderful things. For you personally, what’s been the strangest item that you’ve run across?
The strangest item? That’s a hard one. It depends on what you would say… ‘Cause a lot of people’s definition of strange is a little different than mine. I’m looking at a two-headed cow on my wall right now. I mean, our house is a museum, so it’s not really like… I’m looking at a pig right now that has two bodies, but it’s a Cyclops! The head’s a Cyclops that has two bodies, but that’s one of our personal collection items. There’ve been very few things that have made me stop and go, “Wow! That’s disturbing!”
I guess one of them was… At one point I just stopped because I did not like being in [that] world after a while, but I used to sell a lot of letters and art from serial killers. And to see serial killers plus living serial killers… That was a big part of our product line for a little while. And then I had some issues with finding out that a few people I bought from had gone to prison for murder or crimes! Because, honestly, not many stable people write these guys that are in prison– you know? With that, I got offered all kinds of stuff ’cause basically anything these scumbags touch is worth money! I got offered hair and pubic hair from Charles Manson.
I got offered fingernail clippings and things like that. That stuff really grossed me out, and I found [it] pretty weird. As far as like high-end stuff, I’ve been offered so many bizarre sideshow attractions and two-headed things… That doesn’t really affect me that much. But the serial killer stuff, I dropped from our line a little while back ’cause I had gotten threatened by someone, who… Turns out that he was actually on Dr. Phil for possibly being a serial killer, and I was like, “You know what? I have a family. I’m not really trying to deal with these people.” I’ve been much happier since I dropped that part of my line. I guess everything I get is weird, but as far as anything that’s made me like cringe or anything like that? There’s not much.
Do you have something particular that you’ve been hunting for? Something that has eluded you in your travels and in your searching? Like a Holy Grail for you personally?
It’s funny because everybody has Grail pieces… And I actually just got mine, truthfully. Like I said, Harry Houdini was a hero of mine, and a Houdini was a poor immigrant, a Jewish man that came from Hungary. A lot of people think he was American, he claimed to be an American, but he was an immigrant. He grew up destitute and even the beginning of his magic career was quite destitute. I’m actually about to be doing a lecture on his life coming up at the Alpharetta Public Library in January. But for me, I also grew up very poor and Houdini’s story was just really inspiring to me. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Houdini died on Halloween. It was Halloween of 1926, and I just recently purchased a poster from his final tour and the special thing about this poster… First of all, the fact that I was able to get it because the last poster like this one that sold at auction sold for about $16,000. I got it for substantially cheaper than that… But it’s a poster that was owned by Houdini himself. It’s the printer’s proof. So it has the pricing of everything up top.
Yeah. Where it’s like a thousand posters for $67, and it’s all written out. But the great thing about the poster is not only is it his final tour when he was doing his escapes but also debunking spiritualists and fraudulent mediums… The fact that he died on Halloween and this poster’s Halloween themed. It has bats on it and an owl and a witch on a broomstick– and it’s just very unusual for Houdini. And being that it belonged and it’s from the year that he died and it’s Halloween theme? It’s pretty crazy stuff! As far as the Grail pieces? I’ll know it when I see it is kind of the thing at this point.
I’ve been really lucky to amass an impressive collection of spiritualist items and spirit communication tools, ouija boards, and things like that. So I’ll know it when I see it. But that one was a really big one for me. The first Houdini item I got was a huge one for me too. It’s a book that he signed from 1908. To hold it and know that my hero held it… He’s bigger than life. He’s the world’s first Superman, you know? And in addition to that, he’s a descriptive term. He’s an adjective! Houdini is a term that’s in Webster’s Dictionary. It’s really, truly touching history. Another piece that I got that was really a Grail piece was an original drawing from Robert Ripley who was the founder of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. That’s a rare thing to find in a private collection. I could go on and on about all the stuff that we have! You would go, “Oh, wow, that’s kind of crazy!” But that would be a three-hour interview! (Laughs).
Let’s jump into the surf music because we got El Capitan & The Reluctant Sadists coming to Macon for Creeki Tiki Too this Saturday. There’s a pretty happening and respected surf scene in Atlanta. I’ve been aware of it at least peripherally through our mutual friend Richard Hawes, who will be with you this Saturday. When did you start playing surf music?
I’ve been playing it since I saw my first show back in 1994– which is kind of really depressing to think about that now (laughs)! How long I’ve actually been playing surf music, I should be a lot better at it (laughs)! But in 1994, I saw Dick Dale, and it was the first concert I ever went to. I was 14-years-old, and I was a little punk rock kid– and seeing him play, I was like, “Wow, this is really heavy and really intense!” I’d been playing in a punk band and I was like, “I want to learn how to do this!” So I taught myself how to play surf music– and I had the vaguest conception of what it was besides Dick Dale. It’s one of those things that I just kinda stuck with. Also, garage rock was fairly big in Atlanta a number of years ago. It was big all over the country. I’d been playing ’60s-style music forever, so I started playing in a bunch of garage rock bands– which all did pretty well and tour around. [Surf’s] been a passion of mine for a long time. 1994… That’s a really long time (laughs)!
I love the Death of a Tiki album . To me, it hits all the high spots that I think about when I think of surf music. It’s got a sci-fi flavor, a horror edge, Spaghetti Western twang… That was El Capitan & The Band With No Name. Have you got anything new coming out of El Capitan & The Reluctant Sadists?
That’s our plan! We want to record, it’s just a matter of getting… With me running a business and these oddities markets that I’m doing all over the country… We just did one in Nashville and had thousands of people there. I spend a lot of my day talking to people all over the world about these different things– so it’s more just being busy and getting five guys in the same room at the same time to record. But yeah, we have every intention to record, without a doubt, to record all of our newer stuff. ‘Cause we have a full album’s worth of stuff at this point that we can do. And then also, Richard [Hawes] and Jamie [Galatas] are in The Mystery Men? who are a really, really fantastic surf band…
Oh, yeah! We had a ball with them last year when they came and did this.
Oh, yeah! They’re great! I’m really lucky that they play with me. And then Dwayne [Jones], our drummer, he’s in a band called Order of the Owl. He’s been in a bunch of metal bands, toured Europe with a bunch of metal bands, ’cause he’s the one who’s guys been playing heavy drums and rock n’ roll metal and garage for years. And metal is now the real popular thing. So it’s been great to see his bands be able to tour more and do more stuff like that. And our organ player, Matt [Kiesner], he’s a tutor and a teacher and writes textbooks. So we’re all pretty busy people. It’s just a matter of figuring out when more than anything else.