Thursday, 21 December 2017
Interview with Karl Blau
(This feature first appeared in issue #73 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished interview click over the jump at the bottom of the post.)
Karl Blau has been the go-to producer for successive waves of American musicians. His latest solo LP defies genre, speaks to both head and heart, and calls for a little tenderness. Duncan Fletcher sees him step out of the shadows.
In Skagit County, Washington, USA is the town of Anacortes. It's home to Karl Blau, a fourth generation oyster farmer, prolific musician and de-facto in-house producer for K Records. He's helped this independently-minded corner of the country forge a strong musical identity, one that's proudly DIY and musically self-educated. He's released many records via his own KLAPS mail-order subscription service but a deal with Bella Union resulted in 2016's Introducing Karl Blau, a sublime LP of country-soul covers, which brought him to a wider audience. Anyone expecting more of the same is in for a surprise. His latest album Out Her Space draws on Afro-pop, mariachi, dub, funk, non-rock rhythms, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics.
“I think people are more open-minded than ever now,” says Karl, “being able to hear any kind of music anytime as we have it now, kind of like gender, music genre seems to be less and less important. What's more important perhaps is the story. If an artist can interact with the cultural story that is unfolding right now, it may be advantageous. And yeah, making different styles is inevitable for me because my interests in music are so varied.” It's a dazzling record with over-arching themes centred on human values, decency and tenderness. “Tenderness, yes!” agrees Karl, “I'm inspired over and over to explore with writing about compassion and curiosity. Understanding is a key to great things, and that often may only happen with tenderness and patience.”
Blau is backed on the record by the Spacebomb house band - “I got to know them through recording with them over the years starting in 2007 with The Great White Jenkins - guitarist Matthew E. White and drummer Pinson Chanselle. The Spacebomb rhythm section is these guys plus bassist Cameron Ralston. There's something so low to the ground about their approach, they take nothing for granted in the moment. This quality for me is one of the main branches on the tree of great music. They really listen and lean into each other. We tracked all the basics live together, that helps a vibe a lot.” It was this association that helped birth Matthew E. White's breakthrough LP Big Inner, which Blau engineered. He describes Out Her Space as “a cousin to Big Inner”, hence the playful titling.
I asked Karl what initially sparked his interest in recording. “It's always felt magic to me to bottle time by recording sound vibrations. In grade school ping-ponging multiple tape decks, swapping the tapes, each new track dramatically degrading the tracks before them... in the mid '90s a group of us would record every waking hour and compare notes almost daily. That helped a lot to be in a gang inspiring one another - Dave Matthies (The Gift Machine) and a bunch of others. Nothing to do for twenty-somethings in Anacortes, especially in the '90s besides art or hanging on the beaches or forest trails.”
Small-town life is a gift to exploratory music and Karl Blau is a rewarding discovery. Check out either Bella Union record and work backwards. It's a rich seam.
Out Her Space is out now on Bella Union.
(Click over the jump for the full interview)
It seems to me there's an over-arching theme to Out Her Space, one rooted in values, decency and tenderness. What inspired this?
Tenderness, yes! I'm inspired over and over to explore with writing about compassion and curiosity. Understanding is a key to great things, and that often may only happen with tenderness and patience.
These tunes fit together in my mind as a portrait of me/compartments in my mind almost like chakras: 'Slow Children' aims at neighborhood activism - alerting folks to drive slower, please; 'Poor The War Away' pulls out over the nation, it's a call to all citizens of our USA and beyond; 'Beckon' is an inner voice putting up a natural barrier for the devoted; 'Valley of Sadness' talks about history and culture; 'Blue As My Name' speaks to familial/digestive issues; 'I've Got The Sounds' is like a pep talk to myself as well as mystic chant; and finally 'Where Ya Goin Papa?' is about doing what you do.
You have the Spacebomb house band on the new LP - what is it about this group that gives it such great chemistry?
Spacebomb - a label and a community of musicians in and from Richmond, Virginia - is a group of guys that I got to know through their invitations to record with them over several years starting with a recording from 2007 with the band known as The Great White Jenkins consisting of core Spacebomb members guitarist Matthew E. White and drummer Pinson Chanselle. The Spacebomb rhythm section is these guys plus bassists Cameron Ralston. There's something so low to the ground about their approach, they take nothing for granted in the moment. This quality for me is one of the main branches on the tree of great music. They really listen and lean into each other. We tracked all the basics live together, that helps a vibe a lot.
The new record is a real departure from Introducing. Is it important for you to defy expectations?
I know what you mean, it appears that Out Her Space is out of the blue;) However, my previous country/soul album Introducing was very unlike anything I've done, perhaps mostly via the pristine production of Tucker Martine and of course the genre. His technique of not being afraid to raise the bar on yourself did inspire a new direction, however, to craft more and spend more time on takes, mixes.
I think people are more open-minded than ever now, Being able to hear any kind of music anytime as we have it now, kind of like gender, music genre seems to be less and less important. What's more important perhaps is the story. If an artist can interact with the cultural story that is unfolding right now, it may be advantageous. And yeah, making different styles is inevitable for me because my interests in music are so varied.
Do you think being on the edge of the country, away from the established music-industry cities has helped shape the way you make music?
Definitely in that I landed in Anacortes, a city that has its own cultural identity just as strong for me as any nearby big city influences. I've fallen in love with a lot of music from this little town. Songwriters Bryan Elliott, Bret Lunsford, Phil Elverum, Paul Benson are among my favorites. And all of these guys are self-taught musicians. Because they don't know what they're doing, they put chords together that shouldn't technically work together and thread them beautifully and convincingly with melody lines.
Also, being in my own mind a lot with the sounds there as I'm thinking and dreaming, and listening to old music and ethnic music and singing from other than English languages has informed my musical decisions. My daughters listen to a lot of pop music, so I get my doses daily of that.
As someone from the north-west, how come you've managed to have such an authentic love and affinity for music from the southern states?
I just stepped up to the part as my producer friend Tucker Martine invited me to tell his story with selections he envisioned my voice on. The songs from Introducing really did take hold of me and a story line began revealing itself as I sang the songs. When a man opens his heart and reveals his vulnerability, it can be stunning and that's what a lot of these songs - which are essentially the blues - are. Man showing his vulnerability. Men need to be in touch with their vulnerabilities and emotions to tune into where they need to change. The whole world needs to see men getting in touch here
You've been making records for 20 years now but what initially sparked your interest in recording?
It's always felt magic to me to bottle time by recording sound vibrations. In grade school ping-ponging multiple tape decks, swapping the tapes, each new track dramatically degrading the tracks before them. Probably what sealed the deal for me was In Anacortes in the mid 90s a group of us would record every waking hour and compare notes almost daily. That helped a lot to be in a gang that was inspiring one another - Dave Matthies (Gift Machine) and a bunch of others. Nothing to do for 20 somethings in Anacortes, especially in the 90s besides art or hanging on the beaches, or on the forest trails.
What qualities does it take to be a good record producer?
You've got to be in tune with the mood of the group. You've gotta have some kind of intuition about when to hit record. And you have to be able to move the project along. Know what time worm holes to try and which to avoid. Take risks, and yet be fussy at times and hang in there with your vision.
You've talked previously about most music having little claim to originality. Do you think originality in music is an overrated concept?
To be truly original the way I've been thinking of it, it's not borrowing things from other places.
For me originality is the only thing I want to hear. It appears the masses can only take a step at a time and recognize one thing changed as 'original.' To the majority of people if the whole song were "original", how would we recognize it as music? Original music is happening out there, but it's been labeled "noise" or something.
I really like the track 'Slow Children'. Is this an anti-car song?
Well, an anti-driving crazy song at least. It's hard to remember all the time, so I'm hoping this song comes on and reminds someone "oh yeah, this is a giant, extremely heavy, metal object that I'm driving here."
What made you want to cover Aphrodite's Child's 'Valley of Sadness'?
A friend of mine recommended that I cover this song, it was sort of a dare. The sentiment really grew on me, it's the story of where I'm from and so many of us from small villages. Really beautiful melodies. And it's fun to rock!
As a father, what concerns do you have about the kind of world we're in right now?
I mean, where do I start? But I'm equipping my girls with confidence and a deep rooted, curious nature. They're gonna be a big help out there.
Introducing received a great critical reaction, do you have plans for another country soul album?
I have been loosely planning another record in this vein, however not with the esteemed Tucker Martine, but a self-produced country/soul thing just to begin to take advantage of all the singing I've done taking Introducing on tour for so long. I feel like my country voice has notched up a few levels. It would be fun to cover women's songs in this country vein.