Blaak Heat Shujaa: Desert Rockers
Paris is considered one of the most romantic cities in the world. But guitarist/vocalist Thomas Bellier and bassist Antoine Morel-Vulliez -- co-founders of psych-rock outfit Blaak Heat Shujaa -- had no problems high-tailing it out of there for Los Angeles in 2010.
"Paris is the most fucking boring town for music in Europe!" Bellier exclaims, in the midst of consuming cheap whiskey and cheaper beer at HMS Bounty. "France is very conservative in terms of how people see artists."
"The way people consider musicians here is definitely with a better attitude," Morel-Vulliez adds. "In France, the attitude is 'Oh, you're a musician? What's your real job?'"
The duo initially bonded at university over a mutual love of California desert-rock, a genre birthed in the early '90s by pioneering acts such as Kyuss and Yawning Man. Both men had been pursuing master's degrees in public administration at Sciences Po in Paris.
"The first day we met, we were wearing band t-shirts instead of suits like the other students," Bellier explains. "We started talking about Queens of the Stone Age, since they were mainstream and were a safe jumping point. But then one of us said, 'Have you heard of Kyuss?' The rest is history."
The music on Blaak Heat Shujaa's new album The Edge Of An Era is not merely regurgitated Kyuss riffs, however. The effort is a 41-minute journey down a road littered with influences from '60s psychedelic prog-rock, '70s Krautrock, and chord structures influenced by Middle Eastern and world music. The international flavor is heavily inspired by study abroad sessions Morel-Vulliez undertook before the band's move to Los Angeles. The bassist spent two years studying African politics in Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa.
"I fell in love with Africa," Morel-Vulliez proclaims. "It's a very musical culture. It's where the word 'Shujaa' comes from. It's a Swahili word. A 'Shujaa' is a Shamanic hero who uses his mystical powers to kill elephants and lions to protect his village. For us, we looked at the word as a metaphor for exploring different universes with our music."
Despite being Frenchmen in their '20s, both men bonded very quickly with the elders of the California desert-rock scene, most specifically Kyuss bassist Scott Reeder, who has produced all three of Blaak Heat Shujaa's releases so far.
"We were a little intimidated at first," Bellier admits. "I had it in my head that these were going to be weird Shamanic figures that lived in desert caves. But no, they're just awesome regular dudes. We've gone from being so scared to hit that first note with [Scott] to us sending each other texts that jokingly say, 'Ah, fuck you, bro!' and other dumb shit."
The band also credits the relaxing surroundings around Reeder's home studio in the desert city of Banning as contributing to the easing of any tensions from being new to California.
"When you record music, it's nice to be in a chilled-out setting. Scott has this private valley where you can only see one neighbor. You nail your guitar part; you walk out to take five minutes, and it's like, 'Aaaahhhh!' It's awesome!"
Three years later, Blaak Heat Shujaa is now firmly settled in the Los Angeles rock scene, currently residing in Silver Lake. The band's new drummer Mike Amster is a Los Angeles native, and Bellier has begun curating monthly psychedelic rock nights at The Satellite, featuring California artists signed to New York-based label Tee Pee Records.
In the end though, it's not just a love of music that caused Bellier to support a move to Los Angeles. During a stint in 2005-2007 as a student at UC-Berkeley, Bellier found romance 5,500 miles away from Paris. He started dating a fellow student -- a California native that he would end up marrying.
"I came to California then to go to school," Bellier says. "I fell in love with both the state, and the woman that became my wife."
Blaak Heat Shujaa performs at The Satellite on Sunday night, April 21st.
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