Being Celestial: Blown Out Interviewed
, March 15th, 2016 08:25
The power trio with a particularly fine pedigree are about to take their saturating sonics to Europe. Their guitarist Mike Vest tells Matt Ridout about vintage Japanese noise influences and the benefits of a short attention span
All photographs courtesy of Jose Ramon Caamaño
The name Blown Out is very evocative, and were the Newcastle trio not total sonic destruction incarnate, it would be pertinent to report them to Trading Standards for misrepresentation based on that name alone. Fortunately Blown Out embody all that you would want from a musical group carrying the moniker and have, over the course of three years, unleashed five pretty spectacular recordings of mind-altering heavy psychedelia.
At times it is easy to point to the references the group build upon – elements of Japan's Psychedelic Speed Freaks here, a touch of early Skullflower there – but the end product of their efforts is peculiarly unique. Born of the frustration felt from the inactivity of some of his other ventures (of which there's no shortage, being a member of Bong, 11PARANOIAS and HaiKai No Ku among others), guitarist Mike Vest recruited Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs members Johnny Hedley and Matt Baty to help construct a group that is constantly evolving and producing new and engaging material.
And, admirable as they are, it's not often easy being so steadfast in one's endeavours. Especially when you want to reach a wider audience with your music. It costs a lot of money to record, arrange travel and basically deal with the administration of being in a band. With a European tour in the offing Blown Out found themselves with the predicament of needing to raise funds to book their passage to and from the continent. The solution: release an amazing recording for download on their Bandcamp page. Hardly a throwaway collection of offcuts or outtakes, the resulting album, Celestial Sphere, sits among Blown Out's finest work to date.
Could you tell me about how Blown Out came to be?
Mike Vest: I was so tired of the same old thing. Some of the bands I was playing in at the time were just a bit unreliable. There was an unwillingness to create and play more than a couple of shows a month. The drive had gone really. I had grown tired of that, you need to be inspired by your bandmates; if you aren't any more then there is a real problem. I knew Johnny as he ran Leave Me Here Presents and books bands in Newcastle. He's a great promoter and always seemed very keen about what he was involved with. He plays in Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs and Khünnt to name a few and he is a really great bass player. I spoke to him about wanting to form a power trio, heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Okhami No Jikan and Skullflower. He was into the idea immediately and, after we talked about drummers, Matt came on board.
Were Matt and Johnny people that you thought you would like to work with beforehand? Or was it just chance timing that they became involved?
MV: I saw Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs one night at a gig in Newcastle. I was totally destroyed and in a bit of bad place, it was right at the time when I was sick of all the baggage that I was dealing with and just needed something to balance it all out. At the time I hated everything to do with music as I was so bogged down in band bullshit. It just wasn't fun anymore. I never really plan anything, I just decide within that moment. After that gig I woke the next day and started talking to Johnny and Matt about it. The following week, we were playing together. For years I've always wanted to start a band like this, but never had the opportunity. In my eyes, this is how a band should operate; everyone helps out, gets their hands dirty and hits the road, then you collectively move forward. It's a great feeling.
The band is incredibly prolific – I know from talking to you in the past that you are always keen to record and produce material as it's fresh and then continue pressing forward with new things, and it seems like Blown Out is the perfect embodiment of that.
MV: For me, I don't feel that this band is that prolific, due to the style of the music. Every time we practice or jam, new tracks emerge. When we get asked to put out an LP or tape or CD we do it. I like to keep writing and my style of playing is very much improvised, so it's constantly changing, it's a very luxurious way of capturing that moment in time. Also, my attention span is minimal, so if things aren't moving along, I lose interest.
With so many releases arriving in a short period of time, do you take specific steps to make sure that each one is as unique an experience as possible?
MV: Each one of our current albums have all been recorded and mixed in various different places and environments, using different engineers, different guitars, pedals and amps. Some in studios, some live, some using hi-fi digital tech and some recorded direct to four-eight-track tape TASCAMs. I always think that the production of an album, whether it be lo-fi, hi-fi or whatever is part of the music. That's the sound for that time and that album. Perfect productions on albums can kill the vibe. If the engineer thinks 'noise' needs to removed, then it's game over. Noise, unrelenting saturation and feedback are a beautiful thing.
I guess the artwork and presentation of each release is something I find so unique with the group – what is your process for selecting the art that you've used for your previous releases? I often find myself staring at the covers while listening to the records, which is something I always used to enjoy doing as a kid, and is in a lot of ways the litmus test I use for whether or not I think a particular cover is really good or not.
MV: All our artwork, cover layouts have been designed by Anthony Downie. We just send him a few parameters and the music and then see what develops. He has a really relaxed approach, sending us drafts at various stages, so everyone is happy with the result. We wanted to move away from the more played-out psychedelic collage designs and stick with bold presentations. Each album has a different design, obviously, yet they are strangely linked together.
I guess it destroys the mystique of the rock lifestyle a bit, but many readers may not realise the financial burden of being on the road when you're on a DIY basis, and you've chosen to try and obviate some of the impact of the costs by releasing Celestial Sphere, a download-only recording to raise funds. Could you tell us about that record and why you chose to follow that path?
MV: We recorded one of our practice sessions and I mixed and mastered it, using an old TASCAM eight-track. We needed to get some money together to get us to Europe, basically. We play for peanuts in the UK. Matt and I both live on the northeast coast, which has a direct ferry to Amsterdam. We didn't want to have to travel all the way to Dover to get to the continent, but needed to find a way to raise money for the expenses. So I mixed and mastered the album, and we self-released it on our Bandcamp. The fees we are getting in Europe are small, and no money was fronted to get us there, which is fine, but the fact remains we needed cash to raise a bit of money, so offering a download-only album seemed like a good idea.
Thanks to everyone who bought a download and everyone who reviewed it – we reached our goal and our ship is booked. Fuck Kickstarter, art grants or any shit like that, you should work for it, with your craft, not just expect handouts.
Box Records announced at the end of last year that you would be doing a collaboration with Gnod during 2016. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
MV: Yeah, Matt came to us with the idea and we both said yes. I have been mates with the Gnod guys and gals for years, since the early days of Bong… Also, Matt played in Gnod many years ago. So it all seemed like a good idea. We are just about to go into the studio to lay down tracks for both the Gnod split and our next LP on Riot Season. I don't want say too much about it now, but all will be revealed soon.
We talk an awful lot whenever we meet up about Japanese bands, the likes of Ohkami No Jikan or Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine. Certainly to me it seems that a lot of that stuff has had a great influence on the way your records sound, in terms of the mixing and whatnot, rather than in the music that you play. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
MV: Basically, I can't write like they do, I wish I could. But it's not just the guitarists' or the bassists' playing, it's a collective sound that they have. It's so infectious and sinister. But yeah, the production is unbelievable. I have never found any engineers that are familiar with this art form, so sadly, my quest continues. If I record it myself, then I try to aim for that feel. But it's all still a mystery of how they manage to get that great balance. I love that raw feel, it just sounds so wildly free yet incredibly focused. So, so good.
What would you say would be some of the music that gets you going the most these days?
MV: Just off the top of my head, as it's hard to pinpoint what has remained a constant throughout the years: Sweet & Honey, Okhami No Jikan, Ten No Okami, Up-Tight, High Rise, Musica Transonic, Red Alert… I'm still trying to find more stuff by Conformist, with no luck. But yeah, basically anything that involves Asahito Nanjo, and I also listen a lot to the La Musica back catalogue – some real gems in there, not just rock music, but lots of weird electronic, dark folk and world music as well. Also Zeni Geva, Skullflower, Brainbombs, Total, Jimi Hendrix, Live In Copenhagen… stuff I have listened to for years really. I listen to loads of stuff – it's hard to list as it would go on forever. I used to listen to lots of Astro, C.C.C.C. and that one album that South Saturn Delta did. Great stuff. I also like the new stuff Zone Six stuff, their live stuff is great. Plus Anthroprophh, really like them as well, they're a great live band.
What's next for Blown Out? I know that in the summer you have Yellowstock on the continent – any other plans for further releases or collaborations?
MV: Yeah, we play Yellowstock in August with Terminal Cheesecake and Sounds From The Other City in Manchester on May 1, and hopefully some other places on the way. Two new studio albums: a collaboration with Gnod on Box Records and a new full length for Riot Season, called New Cruiser. And our live LP that was recorded at Supernormal festival in 2015 [listen above] is coming out on Evil Hoodoo.
Celestial Sphere is out now. Blown Out play La Malterie, Lille on April 21; Hall Of Fame, Tilburg, 22; In De Ruimte, Gent, 23; OCCII, Amsterdam, 24; dB's, Utrecht, 26, with Gnod and Bong-Ra; Magasin 4, Brussels, 27, with Gnod and Appaloosa and cinéPalace, Kortrijk, 28, with UMUNGUS