Monday, February 23, 2015

INTERVIEW: Andee Blacksugar (Black Sugar Transmission, Peter Murphy)

Photo by Scott Irvine

A musical polymath, singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Andee Blacksugar seems to be able to do it all!  Fresh off a stint playing lead guitar in Peter Murphy's touring band, Blacksugar's back with music of his own - the thrilling and passionate "Violent Muses" from his long-running Black Sugar Transmission project.  Andee was good enough to email from his home base in Brooklyn to discuss the new album, his time on the road with Murphy and the understated inspiration of Robert Smith...

“Violent Muses” is tremendous, and really a step forward for you as an artist. You seem to have collaborated much more heavily on the recording side of things than in the past – was that an intentional choice?  What impact did it have on the way the songs developed?

Thanks! Actually, The Glamour Pantomime had just about as many outside musicians, some of whom returned on Violent Muses (Timo Ellis, Jimmy Lopez, Leon Gruenbaum) and the USE IT ep is chock full of guests (Vernon Reid, dUg Pinnick, etc). But overall, musicians' contributions add a more varied texture, which seems important considering so much of the music is made in the computer. It's nice to get some sweat and oxygen into the mix so it all doesn't sound too insular.

It's really fun to hear other peoples' ideas blended into the songs, too - makes it way more interesting for me. Plus I get a kick out of saying, "these are the cats I run around with, musically." It tells a more interesting story than "I made this all by myself".

It’s such a cliché to say that “NYC is a character” in your work, but “Violent Muses” really has a “downtown” vibe to it. You’ve been living in NY for the better part of your life…how does it influence your writing?

It's funny you used the term "downtown" - I know what you mean by that, but the actual geographical place that "downtown" refers to (lower Manhattan) has long been vanquished by hyper-gentrification. The artists who used to give that place its character, its "downtown-ness", are in the outer boroughs now or have left NYC altogether. New York is a constantly morphing organism, for better and worse, and there's plenty of fodder here for lyrical material.

Nowhere is gentrification more rampant than in my particular neighborhood (Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and I've watched the landscape around me turn into a glass-and-concrete theme park for the wealthy, who have brought a bland, artless suburbanization to the place.  "The World Is Yr Ashtray" pretty specifically describes that process.

On more of a positive note, NYC is a dense place chock full of people, energy and experiences, so there's always plenty of inspiration here.

Yeah, I certainly didn’t mean it as a pejorative…but there is a certain slinky, other-worldliness that is quintessentially “NYC”.  Even if it may be dancing with ghosts at this point.

You came to a bit of prominence stepping in as guitarist for Peter Murphy during the “Bauhaus 35” gigs and got to tour the “Lion” album (which was Murphy’s strongest in almost 2 decades). I have to imagine that that was quite an experience!  Can you tell me a bit about how that came to be and what you took away from it?

A good friend of mine had heard that the guitar player slot in the band had opened up and also told Murphy's people about me. Peter himself did a little YouTube vetting and offered me the gig with no audition. I had just a few days to learn 30 Bauhaus tunes and fly to LA to jump on the tour.

We went to some markets where neither Peter nor Bauhaus had ever previously performed (China, Russia, Australia, NZ) and the fans there had clearly been waiting their whole lives for this! It was intense to see the devotion and it was really very important for me to replicate the Daniel Ash vibe on that material (it was an all-Bauhaus set), which is so stylized and iconic.

On the Lion tour, the set was more of an overview of Peter's deep solo catalog, which, guitar-wise, is really diverse and varied, so the challenge there was to interpret many different guitarists rather than drilling down into the style of one guy. All the same, Peter encourages his musicians to bring their own character and style to the band, and I certainly injected a bit of my own vibe into things.

I saw Peter on the Bauhaus tour with Gemini (Mark Thwaite) on guitar, and I have to say that your playing reminded me more of Daniel Ash…no disrespect meant to the guy! (Ash always had more glam than goth in his playing)

Speaking of which, your guitar playing is virtuosic in the best sense of the word…extraordinarily technical, but imbued with such passion and character.  I hear shades of everyone from Vernon Reid and Reeves Gabrels to Mick Ronson and Trey Spruance in there…who inspired you to pick up the guitar and how did you develop into such a unique player?

Why thank you! The players who made me wanna pick it up in the first place were all the Mt Rushmore hard rock/heavy metal players. I wanted to be able to play the monolithic riffs like "Smoke On The Water", "Highway To Hell", "Iron Man", etc. I learned most of the technical stuff and how music works overall by studying the virtuosos in that world: Brian May, Tony Iommi, Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Yngwie, etc.

Then I discovered the (for lack of better term) postpunk guitarists - people like John McGeogh, Robert Smith, Daniel Ash, straight though to so-called shoegaze, from Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins to MBV, Swervedriver, etc. These players taught me invaluable lessons about creating heaviness without necessarily using aggression, distortion or even much inflection in the notes at all. Robert Smiths' watery 6-string-bass parts, for instance, are extremely simple and played completely flat: no bends, slurs, vibrato, hammer-ons, or anything like that. Just absolutely dead-sounding in a way - yet it somehow comes across very powerful and stately. These were the guitarists that got me into using a lot of effects, too, which have become a big part of my style.

And finally, electronic music has been my main inspiration for years, as it's the only music that's aiming for the future instead of trying to repeat the past. I'm referring to anyone from Richard X and Basement Jaxx, who are virtuoso dance/pop music producers, to artists like Autechre and Actress, who make these really abstract soundscapes that border on being nonmusical. All this really drives my production style, but also my guitar-playing style. In BST, I try to use the guitar like a synth in some ways, and I do a fair amount of cutting and editing to some of the parts to make them seem less human at times. I have no desire to make "earthy", "organic" "rock" records.

Your music with Black Sugar Transmission is very danceable, almost consciously so. The dichotomy between the thrust of the music and the weight of your lyrics is impressive and something of a rarity in the dance world.  I’m curious…why do you think it’s so difficult for dance music to be euphoric AND introspective?

Probably the first hardcore dance music I listened to was New Order's Substance, which was often dance-y AND introspective. There were these relentless beats but overlaid with incredibly melancholy vocals and sheets of often tragic-sounding synths. I get a lot of pathos from that music. A lot of dance music is just party fodder, of course, but there are some artists out there who expertly combine intelligent lyrics with first-rate beats, like Roisin Murphy and Little Boots. And a track like Chemical Brothers' "Sunshine Underground", which has no lyrics, sounds incredibly emotionally powerful to me in a way that goes far beyond "dance all night". It sounds celestial and otherworldly.

I know what you mean…a track like Orbital’s “Halcyon” or Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” does the same for me. We all have influences or things that hit us in the right spot at the right time…what are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  What influences your writing? 

For me, The Cure are an evergreen source of inspiration. Hearing the Disintegration album for the first time was unforgettable. Robert Smith has really created a vast musical universe you can get inside of, with so many degrees of emotion and color in there. Prince has done the same thing. I remember hearing "Take Me With U" on the radio one day and suddenly its genius hit me: it's an utterly unique slice of music, like a tiny snow-globe village. Not like anyone else's song and not like any other Prince song.
That's what I aspire to. Not to sound like those artists but to create a body of work that you can absorb yourself in, with each song being its own little 3-minute snow-globe village. Most of my favorite bands - Led Zeppelin are another example - simply can't be summed up in a single song, or even an album. You really have to follow their whole story to get a sense of their full range.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particularly proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

Probably "Nine Butterflies" from the first BST album. That was a breakthrough.

Is there any plan to tour the new album or is BST simply a studio project for now?

BST is a live band too, but there probably won't be any onstage activity for us until the spring.

What’s on tap for you next?

To go out and play in the snow!

“Violent Muses” can be purchased directly at

Also, check out the video for it's first single - the slinky and delightful, "Taboo":

Monday, February 16, 2015

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Nick Oliveri

“Leave Me Alone” (Oliveri’s new solo album) is amazing…it’s so personal - dealing with the car crash and your SWAT incident - but at the same time it’s REALLY fucking loud!  It’s a cool dichotomy and different than the past couple of things that you put out.  Was that intentional?

Thanks, man. I wanted to really try to do it all myself – I play the drums on it as well as the bass and guitar – and so I try to accent a lot of different things. Everything musically is exactly how I hear it in my head.  When you jam with other people, sometimes things can be better than what’s in your head, but it’s then someone else’s interpretation of what you want it to sound like.  This is exactly the way I wanted it to sound and I was able to say what I wanted to say and get out what I wanted to get out in a way that I may not have been normally.  Everything is very intentional and deliberate.  It’s different than how I’ve done any other record.  It was a lot of fun, and then at times it wasn’t very much fun (laughs), trying to find exactly how to say what I wanted to get out.  The lyrics were written and vocals recorded after all of the music was done. To sing and play these songs at the same time has been such a learning experience and has made me a better player for sure.

You have to use different and multiple parts of your brain to do that, I’m sure.

Absolutely!  Parts I never use, man (laughs).

You were originally a guitarist before you picked up the bass with Kyuss.  How did playing the drums come into the equation?

When we used to practice in Kyuss, I had a house with my mother and I had a second bedroom that we turned into a band room.  The band gear would all be set up after we jammed, and I would just look at the drums and be like, “I’ve gotta try to play those things”.  Brant (Bjork, Kyuss’s drummer) would leave and he would be cool with me trying them out, so I would sit and bang on the drums.  I’ve also had the pleasure of playing with great drummers, and playing bass along with them and stay on top of the rhythm section thing so when I went to play drums I really had a foot in the door, so to speak.  I kind of just watched and learned.  I also got some d-drums (electronic drum kit) a couple of years back…I live in an apartment now, so I had to use d-drums (laughs).  I practice at home with them before going into the studio and tracking actual drums, and they really helped me get better and work on my stamina.  I did the drums first, then tracked the bass, then the guitar, and finally the vocals.  I would just hum it in my head while I played, because I had practiced it so much before hitting the studio.  I kind of went backwards, because you usually record the guitar first to the click track, but I had a hard time playing to the click track.  Some of the songs will fluctuate, but I kind of like that.  There’s a charm to it, like there’s a real band playing. But there’s not! (laughs)  The hard part was making it sound like a jam part when there’s no real band playing together.

I was actually going to compliment you on that, because it doesn’t sound like a solo album with someone playing all the parts alone…it sounds like a band.  It has a real groove to it. 

Thanks.  That was the hope.  I could have done it Pro-Tools style, where everything was on the grid and I just pieced it all together to make it work, but that wasn’t what I was after.   It’s gotta sound like the band’s jamming!  When I have people like Dean Ween come and solo on it, it’s gotta sound like a band’s jamming and Dean Ween is ripping over them, you know?  It really comes to life that way.   I love that about the record.  A lot of great friends of mine and great players, people I really look up to, were willing to come in and do the guitar solos and lend their helping hands to bring some color and light to this crazy, one-sided musical vision I had. They’re playing really opened it up and it takes you to different places when their solos come in.   I have to really thank them for their help.  They really helped to take it above and beyond just being these grinding and crazy tunes, you know. 

You’ve recently been playing with Mickey (Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween) in Moistboyz and you did the BL’AST reunion.

Dude, it’s just been amazing to play with these bands!

Black Flag is the band that gets all of the ink spilled about them regarding the Southern California hardcore scene, but BL’AST were really in some ways leagues even beyond them!

BL’AST live is crazy…it’s almost too intense and unless you are really into that music and understand where they’re coming from I can see how they would be tough to get into for a regular rock and roll listener.   When I first listened to them, I liked some punk but I was also a hard rock kid and I was like, “What the hell are they playing?”  But live, it’s just such an experience.  To play one of those shows and know you KILLED IT, it’s just such a rewarding thing.  They have these multiple-part songs, and one part will go into another and that part doesn’t happen again, so it’s a real reward to know you really fucking nailed it, man.  It’s a real good thing. I don’t think they know how good they are, you know, it’s like “hey let’s just go surfing!” (laughs)

Mickey and Guy with the Moistboyz, that’s just like the heaviest stuff from the East Coast that I’ve heard in I don’t know how long. For Mickey to be able to do what he did in Ween, and then to shift gears in the Moistboyz and let that part of his personality out, it’s just insane.  I’m hoping that Mickey and Aaron are able to bury the hatchet because musically Ween can just do it all.

Ween is one of my favorite bands…you just can’t touch what they were doing.

Oh, for sure, man, for sure.  Josh (Homme), my old bandmate in Queens (of the Stone Age) says that Mickey is one of the top five guitar players in history.  He can play every style with conviction and just rip it.

When you are touring with bands like Moistboyz or BL’AST, does it scratch a particular creative itch or is it more a matter of just helping out some friends who need a bass player?

Well, with BL’AST it’s a matter of just getting to be myself and play in a band that informed my style in so many ways and I get to play with Joey Castillo, who played drums in Queens, and he is just a RIPPING drummer.  Bill, the original drummer, had his own thing going on and Joey knew the band from way back when so he is able to keep it weird.  The last guy tried to even out the drum beats and bring it more in time, but you can’t do that with BL’AST music! 

With Moistboyz, Mickey wants me to play on his side of the stage…usually I play on the other side, but wants the bass player right by him.  And he will go out and stand right in front of me!  He gives a quick look over his shoulder to see where I am and he will go and stand right in front of me, like a show of dominance…”this is MY band, motherfucker!” (laughs)  And I love that about him.  He does it as a joke, but it’s also happening for real! “It’s funny, but you really are standing out at the front of the stage” (laughs)  He’s classic.  It’s all about the music and not the people…the Moistboyz are him and Guy Heller, and everyone else is just servicing the songs.  We’re just the best Moistboyz for the songs right now.  And to be able to back up a player like Mickey and a singer like Guy is something I could never complain about…I will just sit back here and play the bass, man!

You seem to be in a good place in your life…do you ever worry that being happy is going to affect your creativity or that it doesn’t play into the storyline that others have created for you?

Well, you know, it’s been tough because I have a real problem writing music about things going great (laughs).  I’m not a fan of things where the singer is singing about “happy shiny people holds hands”, it’s not my thing. So, I have found myself in the past in trouble with relationships and things, and I would break up with a girl or something just so I had stuff enough stuff for a new record. That’s happened my whole life.  I find myself making stupid choices and I need to be alone to write and get inside my own head, so it’s been a hard life in that respect.   I mean, I wouldn’t like crappy stuff to happen just to be able to write, but I do find myself thinking, “wow, there is a circle of behavior I keep doing to be able to write about something that I’ve lost”.  Now I’ve gotten to a place where I can write riffs that are dark and good and there are always good and bad things that are happening to you, and I just try to tap into that bad stuff without living there all the time, you know. I’ll sit down and write what I call poems, and then I will turn them into lyrics later, like “this would make a good chorus”.  And sometimes the whole thing will just pour out of me, you never know.  The good stuff usually comes from a pretty dark place, and I don’t know how to get there sometimes unless my life gets a little dark (laughs).  And I think that is why I will play in a lot of other bands, to keep the ball roiling and get away from some of the darker things and connect with more of the party, rock n’ roll side of things.  Because rock should have a lighter side as well…it should be a dangerous place but also a happy place.  Something can be funny and not necessarily happy.  I have a hard time delivering “happy” with conviction.

So we’re not in any danger of having a “happy” Nick Oliveri album in the near future.

(Laughs)  Not a chance.

So what’s next for you?  Is this album something you want to take on the road?

I do want to tour it, and I have a new drummer who’s a guy from the desert near Palm Springs where I grew up.  He had a band called Unsound, so he’s super-fast and super-punk rock.  And I also got Stephen Haas, who’s the second guitar player in Moistboyz, he’s playing guitar.  I’m playing and singing.  I am trying to get a lead guitar player now.  The guy I had quit to play bass in John Garcia’s band, so that’s a bummer.  It kind of broke my heart, but life goes on.  When I get the lead guitar player in place, we’ll hit the road. I was hoping to do a John Garcia tour in March, but that’s a little up in the air at the minute.  It’s tough to get things rolling in the U.S., with the way the industry is here…I read that no one went platinum in the States last year…that’s crazy!  Either way, we’ll be on the road in 2015.  This band and this music is important for me.