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 http://blacksugartransmission.bandcamp.com/
Also, check out the video for it's first single - the slinky and delightful, "Taboo":