Guy Blakeslee is one of the greatest songwriters of our time. I don’t use those words often—but, carefully. I asked Guy quite some time ago to participate in the series and I’m so grateful this interview has finally culminated. I interview Guy about his latest solo release—Postcards from the Edge. We talk about his process, his recording set up, his inspiration and the long, sometimes difficult and beautiful road he took to get this release into the world.
You may know Guy’s work with Entrance Band. Entrance Band (if you haven’t had the pleasure) is a super group with Guy Blakeslee, Paz Lenchantin (who now plays bass with the Pixies and is also an accomplished violinist and perhaps one of the most mesmerizing artists to watch perform) and Derek James (a masterful drummer who hypnotizes audiences himself). Entrance Band has been around since 2005 and has toured with all of your favorite artists—Sonic Youth, Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, Stephen Malkmus, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dungen, Cat Power, Animal Collective, and so many more. Entrance Band is one of the most adept bands to have emerged in the early 00s—with a hypnotizing live show to boot—enough to get noticed by some of the most accomplished bands of our time.
Wow this new record is beautiful. It almost sounds like a gospel of some sort. Where or how did the inspiration come to write some of these songs?
Thanks Stephanie! I wrote these seven songs over a number of years. It all started as I was traveling, touring and experimenting with leaving the USA, seeing if I could settle in London, then Paris, and then Brussels. In between these trips I would land in LA again, working multiple jobs and trying to record everything myself on a cassette four track. Eventually I stayed in LA, lived in a trailer in my friends’ backyard, and settled into trying to make a record out of it all. When I reached a point of frustration with my primitive recording skills I enlisted my friend Enrique Tena Padilla to help me. As soon as I asked him for help he suggested we go to New Orleans, and that’s the adventure that is portrayed on the finished record. The origin of the songs came from a more personal adventure—a psychological one. On the exterior plane I was restless and unsettled because on the interior plane I was looking for something and trying to go deeper with songwriting and recording than I ever had before. If it’s the gospel of something, I’d say it’s the gospel of the kind of discovery that can only happen through a faithful surrender to the great unknown.
It’s very vivid lyrically. Do you begin a song with lyrics or poetry, or do you create the music first?
Every song is different but usually the first flash of inspiration is a melody or a chord progression and some intuitive phrase that suggests what the song might have to say. With some of these songs I worked obsessively on the lyrics, but some of them were written in a matter of hours. I think of songs as seeds. Sometimes an idea germinates for years before it takes the form it’s meant to have, other times it’s realized in an instant.
Do you feel like it’s a far departure from your other project, The Entrance Band? How do you approach your solo project? Is it different than how you write or create for the band?
It’s definitely a totally different adventure. With the Entrance Band everything was written as a group, while this record is a portrait of me as an individual. In addition to writing it all myself I financed the whole project myself and am releasing it myself! So, it’s a very personal and hands on project, the most involved and committed I’ve ever gotten to be in all my years of making records.
What would you say this album as a whole means to you? Is it a documentation of part of your life currently or is it a culmination of experiences throughout your life?
As I’ve been preparing to release the record I’ve been going through this question a lot in my head, because I finished it a year and a half ago and since then my life has changed immensely. It’s a time capsule, a portrait of the years in which I was working on it, and in some ways those times are like a whole different lifetime and I’m a different person now living a new life. The songs are infused with all of that and as they’re reaching people’s ears outside of me, that’s when their true life begins. I’ve had moments of doubt along the way but, ultimately, the record means the world to me and it’s such a triumph for me to be alive to release it. It’s a part of my destiny. We all have our own unique purpose in this world and this is a significant portion of mine. In reflecting upon what I was reaching for with the songs, a lot of the lyrics are about missing the person you long to become—longing for someone you haven't met yet, and it's actually yourself.
Your previous solo record was instrumental—much more experimental in composition. Do you feel like you will release more music like this current release (Postcards From The Edge), or do you find yourself not planning in advance and sort of do what comes naturally? How do you come about deciding what to write?
All along I’ve just been following the path life places in front of me. Over the summer I made another record that will come out in early March and it’s an instrumental experiment recorded on a four track here on Lael’s (Lael Neale - Subpop) family farm in Virginia where we’ve been living since April. It’s called “Double Vision” because I made it while recovering from an accident that left me with a ruptured cranial nerve and I was seeing double and wearing an eyepatch for many months. But that’s been the direction I’ve been going with music since before I was hit by a car and left Los Angeles suddenly—giving my mind a break and just playing the piano, letting the music speak and creating a more calming space without struggling to express in words what can’t actually be put into words, because that gets exhausting after awhile.
Where did you spend your "coming of age years" and how do you think that influenced you as an artist?
I started touring as “Entrance” when I was 20—and I spent much of that “coming of age” time on the road. I lived in Chicago, New York City, and London in between tours as well as staying in my hometown of Baltimore here and there, but touring was my university. I did a lot of tours opening for Cat Power, in the US and Europe, which were really significant in shaping me. I ended up in Los Angeles to start the Entrance Band in my mid-20’s and then we toured extensively as well. The idea behind playing guitar for me was that it could be a vehicle through which to travel—and I was really fortunate to see that dream realized so early in my life and get to go so many places and see so much of the world. So, these days I’m surprisingly content staying in one place for a while as we’re all being told to do.
What instrument did you first pick up? Did you take any formal lessons?
I’ve never had a music lesson in my life. I picked up the guitar when I was 10 years old and devoted myself fully to figuring it out without any help. But, before that, my first musical instrument was the piano, which I would play at my grandmother’s house. She’d lay on the couch and take a nap while I would play—which influenced me to play certain things. She also told me that if I were to only play the black keys it would be best for her nap. I must have played for hours at a time and if I stopped I remember her playfully saying, “Who said you could stop?” Now that I spend a lot of time playing piano again I can see how formative those times were because I think what I play now probably isn’t that much different from what I played then, when I must have been five or 6 years old.
Which artists were your main early influences? Do you think they have informed your sound? How do you believe your sound has evolved?
Growing up in Baltimore I had a babysitter, my mom’s friend’s son, named Alex. He turned me and my brother on to a lot of music when we were quite young, like Black Sabbath, Dinosaur Jr., Galaxie 500, Pavement, Sonic Youth and also Minor Threat and Fugazi—who were from DC. We got to see them perform a lot. Somewhere in there, as I was getting into playing the guitar, Nirvana happened and that was for sure the biggest influence on me. Some of the shows I saw in my early teens had a huge influence, like seeing the Dirty Three opening for Sonic Youth, and seeing the Jesus and Mary Chain at Lollapalooza. I was so enamored with the loud guitars and the wall of sound they made. As a high school kid starting to play in bands my biggest inspiration was a three piece group from Olympia, WA called Unwound. I also saw Richie Havens play acoustic guitar without any microphones in a bookstore and that was life changing. Later I got into 20s and 30s blues, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and music from all over the world - Africa and India especially. And, there has always been the Beatles and the Beach Boys. My sound keeps evolving but I wouldn’t know how to describe it besides saying that making music has always been about the journey for me, more than any particular destination.
On Postcards From The Edge what was your recording setup like?
For some time I was trying to record everything single-handedly and I was using a Tascam 4track cassette machine and a few SM57 microphones. When that wasn’t cutting it I got a Yamaha 8track cassette machine and started obsessively layering vocals, guitars, bass, organ, xylophone, drum machines, etc. Ultimately, I had to ask for help and Enrique led me to New Orleans where we recorded in a home studio owned and operated by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The record was made in Protools and a lot of the sounds I had been using on my own were abandoned. Instead we used a lot of keyboards, especially the Mellotron, and a really unique chain of effects Enrique designed and which I don’t even understand. His visionary approach to sound really opened up the recordings and brought a depth of texture and contrast that I could visualize but had no idea how to manifest. I would play a lot of the ideas on the keyboard and he would destroy the signal, like he was splatter painting with sound. It took me out of my comfort zone for sure and that makes the record much more exciting. The vocal mic we were lucky to have access to was a Neumann U47.
Do you have an opinion regarding analog vs. digital recording?
Everything I record on my own is on cassette, and I was trying to finish the album that way. But with that particular musical vision it was too limiting and the music really ended up benefitting from a higher fidelity sound and lots of layers. But the next record I’m releasing was done on the 4 track, and the Lael Neale album I produced which comes out this month on Sub Pop was also made on the same 4track! I like to use tapes because that’s what I understand and I think limitations can force you to be creative, and I love minimalism. But there’s no way I could have realized the expansive maximalist vision of my new record with a cassette 4track, as hard as I tried.
Do you have a favorite place to record in Los Angeles?
We did the final mix of the record at Ultrasound Studios in downtown Los Angeles—that's where I’ve been working on things for years. It’s like a playground of sound, a totally timeless space.
Are there any musicians you’d dream of touring with - either supporting or headlining?
I’ve gotten to tour with so many of my favorite musicians—Cat Power, Sonic Youth, Steven Malkmus from Pavement, Spiritualized, Mazzy Star. Of my peers, I’d say my dream would be to tour with Lael Neale—which is why I’m excited that as soon as the world is allowed to tour again. I’ll be her accompanist, playing keys and guitar for her.
What is on your record player today?
I’ve been listening mostly to the same two records for quite some time—"Ethiopiques 21: Piano Solo" by Emahoy Tsegue Maryam Guebrou and "Hearing Music" by Joanna Brouk. Check them out!!
Follow Guy here:
"Faces" video: https://youtu.be/pEqVGBBiPGg
"Sometimes" video: https://youtu.be/C5BmefQMVx8
"Postcards From The Edge" video: https://youtu.be/oZmfQz_AP5E
Photos by Lael Neale