For myself, I am ashamed to say, before reviewing your latest single, haunting 'Kodiak Bear', for Mudkiss this February, (“...Cross pollinating American folk roots , classic melodies with tortured touches of Nirvana, cinematic coloration and almost classical musicality, bantering in the round, Blind Atlas has bloomed an exotic new flower of extraordinary, glowing beauty...” www.mudkiss.com/chumkifebsingles2012.htm) I had never heard of Blind Atlas so, prior to listening did some research and life, as is its wont, threw up coincidences which predisposed me in your favour, such as:
Though four boxes already ticked, such blind faith stoked by mystical connections could not predict marvellous musical meld of Blind Atlas, which captured my imagination, captivated on first hearing, ‘Kodiak Bear’ tempting me to treat with earlier releases, ‘Iron Wall’, E.P. and double A-side single ‘4th Street’/’For Carol’, conjuring more magic. As often the way with Bowie mosaic lyrics, unanticipated wisdom emerges from ether of chaos and, as a moniker, Blind Atlas actually perfectly describes your unprejudiced attitude to mixing musical styles into new, beautifully colourful, cosmopolitan, multi tonal fabric which wraps me and I am sure, your audiences, in aural excitation and pleasure.
So, please forgive prolonged preamble and do me honour of satisfying curiosity, by answering a few questions:
CHUMKI: Many musical styles and instrumental techniques flavour your music; who are current members of the band, what do you each play and what are your musical backgrounds?
ROSS: Current members are me, Ross Thompson (guitar, vocals, harmonica), Adam Jones (guitar, lap steel, keys and backing vocals), Cameron Baxter (bass, keys and backing vocals), Pete Garner (guitar, keys), Christian Jacobs (percussion, backing vocals, accordion) and last but not least is Bels (viola, violin, keys and backing vocals).
We all come from different backgrounds and that includes musical backgrounds. We all meet somewhere in our individual tastes and that is essentially where we get our sound from. So in the 6 of us you get blues, rock, country, classical, avant-garde, prog, electronica, just about anything really. But where we all meet is where we get our sound.
CHUMKI: How did each of you come to the realisation that music is your passion, raison d’être and what musical influences did each of you grow up with? Were you formally trained or self taught and in what tradition?
ROSS: Well personally I grew up in a house with music being bombarded at me from every direction. My dad has always been in a band as long as I've been alive so I kind of grew up in that environment. I guess he always wanted one of his kids to be a musician but as a young kid all I wanted to do was go outside and play. It wasn't till I was about 15 I heard my dad playing this Irish folk song called "Ride On" that I wanted to pick up the guitar. And once he showed me the three chords in that song I couldn't put it down. I taught myself some scales, discovered Led Zeppelin, and my mind was blown! After that I just couldn't get enough of playing and discovering bands I'd heard my dad talk about or that I would hear in the house. That was the tipping point I think.
CHUMKI: Before you came together as a band what sort of careers, musical or otherwise, did each of you have?
ROSS: Well unfortunately we all still have daytime jobs, which sucks ‘cause we could really use that time for better, more creative things, but it is what it is. Our day jobs range from educator, working in a lab, retail, information management and care worker, all quite varied.
CHUMKI: Were you all based in Manchester when you met or did some of you move specifically for full immersion in the band? What attracted you to Manchester?
ROSS: We were all here when we meet. I came over after I graduated university, I had been floating around in New York and Boston with no real plan and was kinda needing an adventure so I moved to Manchester because I had a friend living here. That was back in 2005 and it wasn't meant to be for this long.
CHUMKI: Though in more recent times, umbrella of Oasis has blotted out its tempestuous skies, Manchester and its environs has a wider reputation for musical creativity of all sorts, bands such as Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, a plethora of venues and clubs, the Halle, educational establishments such as the Royal Northern College of Music and so on, a city bathed in music of every hue. Has that helped give you a certain musical freedom or do you find the shadow of Oasis style rock still looms large?
ROSS: Well in a way it does and in a way it doesn't. When I first got here the only music I could find was that kind of "fuck you, we're awesome" attitude indie that oasis kinda took and made a Manchester thing. That's cool and all, but not really my kind of thing. But it didn't take long till I found people who were of the same mind as me and wanted more and this whole other Manchester opened up for me. I think there is opportunity to be as creative as you can be, but the mass audience may not want to know, as can be the case in most places, right? We have played shows where people have shouted "Play some Oasis!", and that's never cool.
CHUMKI: How did you gather, coalesce into the band you are now? I presume you heard each other play, where, who set the ball rolling and was there an initial specific sound in mind, which drove selection of band members?
ROSS: Adam and Cam were in a band together that had just imploded when I met them, which was in a bar randomly. We just started talking about music and bands and just hit it off. Cam nabbed Chris at their work, we needed a drummer and he was looking at drummer wanted Ads. We stole Bels from a band we played with ‘cause we really wanted some strings and Pete, who again we kinda stole, from another great band in Manchester Walton Hesse. There was no real sound in mind, we just wanted to sound as good as we probably could and together I think we get a really interesting blend of tones and emotions.
CHUMKI: Though there is a strong American country accent to your music, which I guess springs from Ross's Colorado upbringing, to my poor ear, there seems to be several musical drivers, influences which inform the band's sound, both between and within songs, melodic constructs and playing techniques which are not traditionally heard together or side by side; Traditional American country, folk from both sides of the pond and sea, rock in all forms including progressive, psychedelic and alternative, classical music, cinematic soundscapes, raag like repetition, trance like chants and dirges, smog of battlefield percussion, Nirvana grunge and indefinable Radiohead beautiful/ugly.
How do you compose and develop songs both musically and lyrically? Is there one band member who takes the lead in instigating ideas? Once the germ of a composition has sprouted does each band member have autonomy in adding to the mix or do you plan what is required for each piece? How much is experimental and how much preordained in the mind? Did you all have a love for American Country music or has that come with the band?
ROSS: Generally I'll bring in an idea to the guys, play it in its rough, basic form and if everyone digs it, we’ll just jam on it. Usually those jams will last forever but it helps everyone learn the song and find where we all fit into it. Sometimes it just fits perfectly first time, other times it takes a while and we do many versions until we get something that we all think is cool. So I guess the whole process is experimental, we never really know how to write, it just kinda happens.
I don't think we have a particular love for country music, it's more a love of good, emotive music, thought provoking music. For me I've been exposed to country more than the rest of the guys but straight off Adam and Cam and I were talking Flying Burrito Brothers, so I think the country vibe was there from the start; saying that, we also were talking about Led Zeppelin and The Stones, so there is the blues vibe there too. Country is only a part of who we are as a band and I think with the first record you can hear that, and even more with what we have so far for the second.
CHUMKI: With so many musical expertises and backgrounds evident, you must all be very open to a wide range of influences. Since being together, have you been inspired by each other to explore and discover new musical horizons? In particular, any unexpected passions aroused?
ROSS: When I meet the guys, Adam wasn't really into Neil Young, I kept saying how amazing he was and finally the ball dropped for him. ‘Down By the River’ is now one of his favoured songs. I'm still working on all the guys to convince them that Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen is great. I can be very persuasive so I'm sure I'll succeed. But yeah I think it's important to be open-minded to music of all styles. Sure maybe 99% of the time I personally can't stand reggae, but that's not to say it’s ALL bad. I haven't heard every reggae song so how could I claim that?
CHUMKI: Building on the observation above, there is quite a stylistic leap between some of your songs, for example; Simple poetic beauty of stripped back 'Pouring Rain' which languishes luxuriously in reflective, poignant folk melodic structure and harmonies; 'Mary Anne', sweetly tender American country love song, its musical construction and nuances so eternally characteristic they practically tell the tale without need for words; Touchingly atmospheric, cinematic heartbreak of 'Kodiak Bear' and; Musically inventive, darkly dramatic, despondent dirge of 'Iron Wall' , its unrelenting chant, sledgehammer to brain.
Though held together by thread of angst, distinctive, disconsolate, distressed, drenched in emotion vocal and extreme musicality, how do you reconcile such comparatively distinct pieces, such strong characters, into coherent set?
ROSS: There is nothing worse than going to see a band and all their songs sound the same. I hate that, I get bored, stop paying attention and usually end up drinking too much and make an ass of myself. I think all of us in the band are the same in that respect, our attention span isn’t great so we need, for ourselves, to mix things up. We try to make each set a kind of journey if that makes sense. Instead of just rattling through the songs we try to arrange them so that we keep people's gaze throughout the set by raising the intensity, or lowering it as the case may be. Each set is different as are moods, but somehow they all (99% of the time anyway) work.
CHUMKI: Like your song structures, your instrumentation speaks in tongues, sprinkled with references to many genres. Being a band of many, particularly guitar and Hammond it seems, how do you meld your musical styles without stepping on each other's toes, or getting tangled up in chaotic miasma, yet allow individual 'voices' to speak free and be heard?
ROSS: We all are of the mind that we play for the song, not to be heard. Meaning that if we think a part needs a guitar solo we'll put it in, if all it needs is one quick note, we'll put it in. If it needs nothing but space, we'll take everything out and give it that space. It's not really something we think about in all honesty, you know when to pull back and when to let rip I guess. It's all about balance and we play together so much it's just kinda intuitive now.
CHUMKI: How easy is it to reproduce your more theatrical, atmospheric or experimental/orchestrated songs live? Even recorded, 'Iron Wall' sounds complex and improvisational in parts, how do you capture that live?
ROSS: Our biggest worry with ‘Ironwall’ was how do we capture what we do live on record! We thought it would take an age to do it, but in reality it took about an hour. Everything we write is done live, so playing those songs live is where they really become something else. I personally think that ‘Ironwall’ is better live, it hits more with the tribal drums and the crazy drone of a bowed bass. Same with ‘Kodiak Bear’, they were written by playing so live you see, hear them as intended.
CHUMKI: What inspired you to cover the Van Zandt song ‘My Proud Mountains’? Though you take essential essence of the song, it is not a straight cover, touches, such as bell like lap steel peal, picking out, tolling, root note of original reflective, interspersed guitar motif, adds your own illumination, without losing its soul. How did you approach this reinterpretation?
ROSS: A couple of us did a few acoustic shows and I really wanted to do it for those and people liked it. I was getting kinda home sick so it seemed a good idea to do a song about home, and what better song then one that kinda describes my life up to this point? So we thought, let's try it as a full band. And it just kinda happened and we recorded it the next week. Like I said before, it's all intuitive now we just know how to play together.
CHUMKI: I hear you have an album for potential release in June, which I am impatiently and indubitably intrigued to hear. Is that still on track, so to speak, and if so, what is its musical thrust? Are all the songs written and selected yet and have you got a title or track list, any hints? Where is it being recorded and is it an 'in band' affair or will you be using an external producer?
ROSS: The record is all recorded and ready to go. In fact it's been ready for some time but there are always issues with this kinda thing. We recorded most of it at a studio called Modern English in Colne, just north of Manchester, with Christian and Nicky Madden from ‘The Earlies’, they also produced it. They were great to work with because they made the whole process really easy and relaxed.
CHUMKI: The animated videos for 'My Proud Mountains' and 'Kodiak Bear' are stunning and irresistibly engaging. How did they come about and how much influence did you have over the animated characters and sequences? Any more such collaborations planned?
ROSS: Cam and Adam knew Richard (Volkervirma) and we liked the stuff he had done in the past so we asked him if he would have time to do the proud mountains video. We gave him a concept but left it open for him to change it and expand as he saw fit. And that's what he did, took our idea and made it into a narrative. With ‘Kodiak Bear’ it was pretty much the same process, we sent Richard a brief and he took that and turned it into the video we got. We have another animation on the way, we're hoping to have it out in June and who knows after that.
CHUMKI: What have you got planned over the next few months and into summer, gig wise?
ROSS: We have some shows in Manchester and the North West, London and the south west of England which are coming up in the run up to the release of the album. We're hoping to secure a few more festivals so probably the best way to see what we're doing is either check our web site or our Facebook page. Everything will be up on those pages as soon as we can announce it. Also we have another video to come out which we shot recently. Looking forward to seeing that! And of course we are having an album launch on the 20th June at the Kings Arms in Salford, which also happens to be my birthday. Should be a fun night!
CHUMKI: What/ whose music is inspiring each of you at the moment?
ROSS: I've just been listening to old favourites of late, like Springsteen and George Harrison. I go through phases of finding new bands, and then returning to old favourites. Although when I say new bands, I mean new to me.
CHUMKI: What would you select as your desert island disc?
ROSS: At this moment it would have to be Nebraska, by the Boss.
CHUMKI: Your luxury?
ROSS: Probably my guitar with plenty of spare strings in case I broke one.
CHUMKI: Your last meal?
ROSS: Last meal?! Shit. I have no idea. Maybe a barbequed T-bone steak marinated in a sticky BBQ honey sauce. That would be pretty nice I think.
Maybe with some Boston beans to remind you of home, sounds delicious, just like your music! Thank you Ross for you fascinating and enlightening responses. Listening to a lot of new music, for review purposes, Blind Atlas stand out as being exceptionally endearing and intriguing. It really is heart lifting to hear such inspiring musicality, so good luck in all you do. I certainly will be listening out for the band and look forward to your album launch.
Interview by Miss Chumki Banerjee 25/04/12
Photo supplied by the band