Interview: Blacklist's Josh Strawn on Heavy Metal, Victor Serge and Irony
In 2009, there have been few albums that have grabbed this writer like Blacklist's debut full-length, Midnight of the Century. The Brooklyn-based band seems to be completely at odds with the this decade's dominant rock sounds. Where so many other have embraced minimalism, Blacklist creates a dense, dramatic sound, like The Cult before the band sounded like it cut its teeth on the Sunset Strip, with a pulsating rhythm section that hints at '70s hard rock. Where irony and pop culture references have permeated turn-of-the-century music, Blacklist are dead serious, unafraid to reference literature and philosophical schools in their lyrics. Lest you write off the music as pretentious, we will argue that it isn't, Blacklist is simply smart, well-read and ready to challenge its audience.
Saturday night, Blacklist headlines Wierd Fest, a two-day event at downtown venue Nomad bringing together New York City's Wierd Records family with local musicians like Frank Alpine and Nite Jewel. We caught up with the band's vocalist/guitarist Josh Strawn by phone.
How did you become involved with Wierd?
Glenn [Maryansky], the drummer in the band, had a major hand in starting the party.
Johnn Novello, Tom Scott, Chris Standring
TicketsTue., Sep. 19, 8:30pm
Chin Up Kid, Morning in May
TicketsWed., Sep. 20, 7:00pm
Orphaned Land, Pain, Voodoo Kung Fu
TicketsThu., Sep. 21, 7:00pm
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
TicketsThu., Sep. 21, 7:30pm
Salute to John Coltrane
TicketsThu., Sep. 21, 8:30pm
When Glenn started playing drums for us, he introduced us to Pieter and we started going over to the club when it was still at Southside Lounge. I was taken by the music. Blacklist at the time, when it was just me and Ryan, was very heavy, a lot of Sabbath and Motorhead influences. We became involved through Glenn.
How big of an impact did heavy metal have on you?
I think we all grew up with Ozzy and stuff like that. Glenn's background was hardcore. He's a hardcore drummer. I was in metal bands as a kid. I think part of it was a sonic thing. Part of it was feeling that what signified indie rock and contemporary music was almost a false sense of reservedness. I think we embraced, especially at that point in time, the bombast and pretense of everything from Ratt to Motorhead. There was always a sort of conscious effort to combine this romantic cold wave thing with a more dense low end, with heavy drums.
Was it intentionally an antithesis to what was going on around you musically?
Yeah, I think so.
For us, it was a collection of responses, but it's not purely reactionary. Part of it is, but it's also that this was the kind of music that we wanted to hear and it didn't exist. It is hard not to be in the scene here and not have a sense of what the hip thing is and it certainly is the antithesis of what we thought was cool.
Blacklist "Flight of the Demoiselles"
I imagine that in New York, like LA, you're constantly bombarded with the newest, hippest, latest thing. Does that make it difficult at all to be a working musician?
I think that the industry itself has made it inherently difficult. There is so much turnover and blog hype. It's over quickly. I think kind of the effect that it has had on us is going in the opposite direction, sort of not paying attention. It's probably a vice and a virtue. I find myself completely detached sometimes. I have no idea what the hippest, latest thing is these days. I think it helps us stay focused on what we do.
What do you think about the impact of irony in music and pop culture?
I said recently in another interview when people were asking me about Europe, these things do seem to be culturally ingrained. I think one of the reason that our reception in Europe was very warm was that, say in Germany, there's not this demand like there is in the United States and England to temper or mitigate seriousness or darkness or drama with irony and humor and stuff like that. All that stuff is well and good and some people do it brilliantly, but I definitely think that irony is a huge problem in all art right now, but particularly affects us in a way where it gets very complicated to understand what authenticity could possibly mean. On the other side, you have this sort of juvenile sincerity in the form of emo and stuff like that, "We really feel, we really care." That too doesn't really register. I think we all definitely feel that and are trying to do something to create music and put it out there that has a sense of sincerity and authenticity that's not ironic, that people can relate to and feel is genuine.
Is that a product of the times in a political sense?
Yeah. I chose the title of the album after the Victor Serge novel, which was about the Hitler-Stalin Pact, alliance of hard right and hard left. Every movement and idea that you thought was the new big thing, whether it was revolutionary socialism or fascism was a complete nightmare. I definitely like to address some of the things that we were and still are going through. I thought that the music should be as appropriately large and dark.
Did Pieter Schoolwerth [Wierd Records head] handle the album art?
Did you give him free reign over it or was it a collaborative process?
Pieter and I, I guess he was involved in the band on a personal level. We got to be really good friends. It turned out that we had a lot of similar interests in philosophy and stuff that we liked to talk about. This has been an ongoing conversation between me and Pieter for five years.
There was already a wealth spring of things that he knew about me and I knew about him and he knew about our band and our music. I gave him a few album covers that I thought were cool. Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest, Rush 2112. He introduced me to symbolist painting. He showed me Casper David Friedrich and William Blake. I love that stuff. So we got all of our ideas together and he went and did his thing.
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