Karl Blau: Interview
“I really feel strongly about this whole Northwest thing, making this my world and developing it, and letting that resonate out into the world.”
Quietly prolific, consistent in quality, endearingly positive, Karl Blau has been an integral member of the Knw-Yr-Own Records and K Records communities for over a decade. Between his studio albums and Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society -- his monthly (sometimes) music service -- Anacortes, WA-based Blau has produced a staggeringly large and eclectic body of work.
Blau invited me to stop by his home on a hot (for us Pacific Northwesterners) July day. He immediately thrust the newest installment of Kelp into my hand -- a slim dark green CD with shiny gold thread lovingly stitched around the edges -- and insisted that we go for a swim at nearby Heart Lake. With the lake's serene beauty and the imposing forested slope of Mount Erie rising to the south of us, the area struck me as a pretty alright place to spend your days and make art.
As we spoke about life in Anacortes, community, and the process of music-making, it quickly became apparent that the gentle and upbeat vibes of Karl Blau the musician were matched by Karl Blau the person.
Did you grow up in Anacortes?
My wife grew up two blocks from here. I grew up on Samish island which is not an island either, a peninsula of diked off farmland across the bay. My grandparents and great-grandparents started an oyster business there in the 1930s.
Sounds like your family has been here quite a while. Are you bored of it?
I don't know. I did it a lot of traveling. When I'm not touring, I want to be in a quiet place. That's one thing that's cool about touring -- I can live anywhere. But it's beautiful here. Plus, I live in town, so I don't even have to look at my car if I don't want to after a tour. I feel like I have a good balance here. But I'm trying to redefine touring, how can I not do this? I don't mind driving, except that it's terrible! It's expensive... it's bad for everything.
Like I say, I like cutting off the world at Portland to Vancouver and creating this -- this is my world. Rehearsing with a band and getting some awesome players together having some fun, making good music, and playing all these small places that are thirsty. I played in White Rock B.C. which is just across the border. It was one of the funnest shows; people were so excited that someone came to White Rock. A person can keep driving around trying to make everyone happy, but at some point you need to say, what is really fulfilling? You can't just keep dishing it out to people; it's a system that totally needs help. If everyone had their awesome bands that were local, it would be great! Then you'd go travel and check out some other places and what they do over there and treat it like an island.
We recently had an interview with Geneviève Castrée of Woelv here on TMT, where she claimed that Anacortes is a lot like the town in Twin Peaks. Can you defend Anacortes against her accusation of creepy Twin Peaks-ness?
Well, it has that creepiness, all the salty dogs stumbling around after the bars close -- it's got all that stuff. Although I haven't found any really good cherry pie in this town. I think that's accurate; it's a pretty haunting town. There's some lore, like if you sleep on Fidalgo island, you'll always be back. Supposedly it's a native myth. It's phenomenal to me how small Anacortes is and how it's talked about. Just some mysterious happenings.
You record primarily on analogue. What are your thoughts on analogue vs. digital?
With analogue, there's ease in having to make decisions and move on quickly and live with your decisions rather than always being able to access how to undo that. Maybe you make mistakes, but there are rhizomes for something to come off of that. If the beat gets off in one section, you could accent that rather than try to make it disappear. People that I know who record digitally... I think, whether or not it works has to do with your personality type. But if you have a hard time making decisions, you're going to spend way too long on your album, and it's going to drive you crazy, and you're going to hate music, and next thing you know you're studying law.
"Then it is what it is, and works when it does work, and it doesn't have to continually be this thing."
So the songs just kind of work out one way, and however that works out you go with?
Yeah, exactly. In fact, I used to start with drums, get a good drum sound, see how that happened, then put bass on it and then completely make a song out of nothing. You know how when you try to draw a dragon, there's no wrong way? It's got a tail, maybe it's got wings, teeth, big horns, you can add anything. It's kind of like that -- you can't go wrong. So I was doing a lot of that, faith leap recording. Which is really fun. There's no pressure on it. The only thing is that, when I was done with this collection of songs, they were very different from each other... that's just a problem of mine in general.
I am heavily biased against the saxophone, but it totally works on your records. Do you have any words of wisdom to avert disaster in other people's use of the saxophone?
The hard thing about saxophone is that it bends the notes really easily. You can use that as an effect, but it gets really old. If the sax isn't... I don't really play that in tune, but... I don't know. Just clear, concise lines can be good on any instrument. For saxophone, if you play it really well, there's a real danger in that. If you're trying to be sexy, it's bad. David Bowie's saxophone is awful, but I like it about that.
Do you think community in a physical area is important for the creation of music?
Very much so, very important.
You collaborate quite a lot.
Yeah, that's what keeps music so exciting for me, hearing what other people do and then getting really pumped to try something out. And having an established group of people like here in Anacortes. We need to keep people in this town excited about the touring acts, and one way we can do that is to be a good act ourselves that people would want to go out and see. It's kind of a duty to fulfill to host these bands coming through and put on a good show, so the people in the town will know to see you and trust you.
It's hard to get people excited about acts coming through; it's a tiny town. But we're figuring it out. We're figuring out how to access the high school crowd and the politics of getting older people to come to the shows, maybe pushing the events a little earlier so people want to come out. It's an experimental town. The DOS [Department of Safety, a venue and recording studio in Anacortes] is an experiment of getting a town that wouldn't otherwise have a clue about independent underground music excited about it.
Community is integral, although I have yet to see... I'm excited about 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road, what's going to happen happen if we keep nurturing this community? It's already really exciting to me, but it's still at the beginning of the experiment, so to speak.
How did the Anacortes scene begin?
I came in the middle of it. Brett Lunsford owned the Business downtown -- everyone's heard this story -- he had been putting on all-ages shows and been involved in those since high school, and then the valley out of Anacortes has traditionally had a lot of all-ages shows, just out of necessity. Like, we need to make really loud punk music and every place keeps telling us to go someplace else and play it.
When was this happening?
Late-'80s, early-'90s. It's been going on here for a long time. There was an incident at the depot downtown that was a really nice venue for awhile that Brett was booking shows at. They were raising money for Ethiopia, and someone threw a brick through one of the stained glass windows so all the money they raised went to fixing the window. So, they did the responsible thing and fixed the window, but then somehow it was a pivotal show where the town elders were like, “We must condemn this, you're never going to play here again.” But we live here! What are we supposed to do? And they're still kind of bitter about that. They've been holding out the Port Warehouse as a venue for Heckfest, which is a really cool venue, big space. Great alternative to the city hall, which is like an echo-y basketball court. They've been holding it out like a carrot, like, remember that time you broke the window back in the early-'90s? It's so weird. And meanwhile, year after year, Heckfest has gotten all this attention for Anacortes, internationally even. There's a little disconnect there. But I think we're moving into a better era for all-ages music. Where everyone's seen punk music, there isn't anything to it but expression. It doesn't have to have harmful feelings.
You started off as a member of D+, but since then, you've been mostly recording solo but also frequently collaborating with people. How do you feel about being a solo artist verses being in a band?
To clarify, I never spent much time in D+. It's traditionally one of the laziest bands in existence. We get together and try to spend as little time as possible recording, and we play two shows a year. And I've played with Laura Veirs in her band quite a lot. I love playing in a band as far as communicating musically with people. That's where it's at for me. Spiritually, that's what I want to do with music... communicate with people and grow musically with a group. I've got this group for Heckfest; we've only met a handful of times, but it's already been a dynamic change. It's so exciting to me to work out music in a group, a large group even. It doesn't seem like the focus is anywhere -- I really like the role of directing a song, helping it come to life.
"Spiritually, that's what I want to do with music... communicate with people and grow musically with a group."
So your prefer being a rogue member of a collective rather than this is my band this is what we do. These are the members...
Yeah, I suppose so. I don't like to draw too stark of lines anywhere. Then it is what it is, and works when it does work, and it doesn't have to continually be this thing. I've played so many shows by myself and I have control over what happens, although I try to mess things up as much as I can to have something happen. Some real thing that I didn't just contrive. But that gets old after a few years of doing that. I want these songs to come to life like on the recordings, have more parts represented. It's tough touring though; how do you tour with a big band? How did The Polyphonic Spree ever tour?
What draws you to Kelp?
Well, I'm recording all the time, and what do I do with all these recordings? It would be exciting to release them to the world regularly, and I think my wife Callie had this idea of doing this album-of-the-month thing. I changed the name to the Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society, because I thought I can't possibly do it every month right now, so I should just stop calling it Kelp! Monthly because it was ridiculous.
I like the images of hip-hop back in the early days, or maybe it wasn't the early days -- I don't even know what era. I just picture this lineup of people down the street with this guy just like “fresh off the press!” he's got a tape and he's selling it people coming up to his door. I don't even know who I'm talking about, so vague. [Laughs]
It's a cool idea, I think the practice of it can be really good. I'm excited about it again. I'm intimidated with how much work I have to do with it, but at the same time it's really exciting and fun. I get crazy with the covers and stuff and do a little too much, even the packaging. This last month, I sowed up the cover I sent in the mail, and the post office charged me 20Â¢ more each because they couldn't send it through the machine. I'm constantly trapping myself with little things like that, but then eventually I'm working those bugs out and getting more streamlined. So yeah, it's still going out. This is going to be a good year for it.
Do you feel very possessive over the music you release?
We talked about that a little bit earlier [before the mic was on].
Yeah, you said you didn't have one thing that you felt like was your definitive work.
Yeah, no, I think that would be a mistake to think like that. Although that said, every album I do I'm so into. I'm like, this is the best thing I've done!! It's something I've been chipping at, and it makes so much sense at the time. But then looking back at albums, I think "what was I thinking?" Generally speaking, I try to do something with recording that I've never heard before; that's what I'm striving for. But it doesn't happen every time. I'm definitely of the catch-and-release variety. I'm not going to point anyone to any one work of mine and say that's the thing you should listen to.
You changed Kelp! Monthly to the Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society. You re-recorded a Microphones album. Dance Positive was all songs written by Brett Lunsford. AM borrowed from A.A. Milne. How does the idea of appropriating other artists' work and incorporating it with your own work for you?
I get really excited about what other people do with music and art, but I don't want to just do the same thing as them. Also, the idea of ripping something off seems like a natural thing in this world. We're always going to be ripping things off. So, that plagiarism is in reference to the fact that I can't ever do anything truly original.
Everything is pushed in a certain direction; there's nothing original -- it's such a pompous idea. So getting really comfortable with that notion of... it's something I've struggled with. This sounds too much like this... I would feel like I couldn't let someone hear this because my vocals sounded too much like Smog; I didn't want anyone to hear that. But who cares? Catch and release, put it behind you, move on, and eventually I want to come to a place that is very original through studying what other people did. Also ripping off nature. I want to do a lot of that. I want to take a birdcall and make it the chorus of one of my songs and feel strong about ripping things off all the time.
What have you been listening to lately?
Lots of Earth. Lots of Michael Jackson.
My daughter is obsessed with Thriller right now. Everyday at some point, there's a Thriller dance party. I'm sure it's coming any minute now. I'm still listening to Brazilian music. I've had the longest obsessions with that. Early psychedelic stuff.
It seems like you're a bit more under the radar than some other K Records artists. Are you trying to put yourself out to a larger audience?
I'm not really trying to do that at all. I'm putting out releases and playing shows, which is an old-fashioned way of doing it. I guess I'm just hoping that doing more, getting reviewed more... I suppose there is a danger in sinking back into anonymity. I feel like if I keep making music and keep pushing the envelope of what I'm capable of doing, I'm hoping that I wont fall of the edge of the world by drawing a line of where I want the world to be. I really feel strongly about this whole Northwest thing, making this my world and developing it, and letting that resonate out into the world.
[Photo: Tobias Kahn]