"Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait" -Longfellow

Monday, January 7, 2013

Life is Awkward: 10 Questions with Blake Cormier

There's something stuck in my "I". Blake Cormier.

To implicate someone as making 'outsider' music is to create a set of expectations for them... some fair and some rather rude. When I say that Blake Cormier, the San Francisco via San Antonio singer-songwriter (of pretty fuckin' badass Druggist fame), makes 'outsider' alt-rock songs with intelligent lyrics and a heartfelt pop wink... I'm trying to pay him a compliment. Perhaps Cormier's music feels like it's from the 'outside' paradoxically due to an insular and inward shine that even his most universal statements and musical choices seem to glow with- he's not one to chase fads or bullshit you, even when he's laughing at himself. Recording all his life; creating, in particular three excellent albums with Druggist, and moving out west to San Francisco a few years ago, has led Cormier to the release of his first solo album Blake Cormier and the Awkward Situation (released December 25, 2013). He'll be touring around Cali soon with a band under that same name and his material is tighter, wiser, more raw and loud of spirit than ever. Fans of his last album with Druggist, The Pile On, might miss some of the extra musical adornment and experimentation... but all you loose in artifice you gain in sincerity and a newly clear sense of musical and lyrical purpose. Blake Cormier and the Awkward Situation is an album of painful and awkward meditations, delivered with the type of precision that comes with knowing exactly what you want to say and how you want to sound. Cormier sounds truly at home on these songs - making music at his own pace and chasing the sound in his own head alone - and the listening experience is vastly enriched by this sense of self-reliance and focus. Blake was recently was kind enough to oblige the 10 Questions dance with me and his responses are as clear and refreshing as his songs on this new album. Dig that interview, stream/download the album and look for his coordinates on the internets below.

1. I know you are a diehard Spurs fan and that your band Druggist had gained quite a following here... So what were, if you don’t mind, your motivations for packing up and heading west these several years ago? In your response, please give some background on your work for readers who may be new to you.
Yeah, here’s the annoyingly long answer: we (Druggist) were doing our best to keep creating new music and make every show we did something worth seeing.We got together in 2005 and did three albums from 2006-2009. We started touring and just going wherever we could get shows and ended up travelling the Midwest a few times, the east coast a little, the south and Southwest and eventually the west coast. By the time we went out west we were pretty deep into writing The Pile On and came back and decided to just work our asses off in the studio for a couple months. We eventually built up a band of five to seven dudes to flesh out some of the songs and once the recordings were finished and we got the discs back it just felt like it was time to move on. We’d been all over and had particularly gone to San Francisco and watched a bunch of people who had never heard of us pay ten bucks and climb two flights of stairs to cram into a tiny room and rock out to our songs and since that felt pretty awesomely foreign to us we decided to relocate to SF. There were obviously lots of other reasons, but the bottom line was we felt like we had to leave and find new challenges and stop trying so hard to not play the same shows over and over in the same places.

Go Spurs.

2. Your new album, and first solo jaunt, is (from what I can tell) about a complicated break-up (or break ups). Can we assume this is autobiographical? What do you see as the importance (from a standpoint of audience) of creating and performing music so drenched in emotion/conflict?
I haven’t ever written any serious music that isn't autobiographical. That being said, one would be hard-pressed to pick out a song of mine that is blatantly about one single thing or person or moment or situation. I go a lot of places in one song, pretty much wherever the melody or words I've already sung take me. I wouldn't say this is a breakup album, but rather more of an album about how someone reacts to having a steady stream of awkwardness confront them on a daily basis. Being a human can be really weird, especially when you have to interact with all these other humans. Not just “relationship” awkwardness, but even the awkwardness of just being alive and aware and attempting to soak-up just how insignificant everything can be in the light of getting older and stuff. I don’t connect with bands that just rely on energy or technical skill alone. It can’t all be sweat and jumping around screaming and finger tapping if you want me to give a fuck about what you’re doing. I realize that isn't the same for everyone, but if I am gonna go watch someone play or listen to their record it has to resonate deeper than that with me. I think that probably leads to me being that type of songwriter.

3. As a follow up to the previous question, what role does music play in your psychological well-being? Discuss the concept of art as therapy as it relates to your work.
I honestly don’t function well when music isn't a large part of my life. Right now, and since I moved to San Francisco almost three and a half years ago, I work professionally as a line cook and that sort of helps.  Being a line cook can, for some people, be a similar form of marrying creativity and structure, process, linear thinking, etc. I can put similar energies into it and get back awesome, smile-inducing rewards, but at the end of the day it still doesn't do what music does for me. There isn't any person or thing that can give me the same feeling I get when I play music and to speak specifically to my songs from Druggist onward I have made special efforts to never limit what I’m open to talk about or how I talk about it, which gives me a way of processing things and airing them out that some other people I know don’t have in their life.

4. "And now I'm sick of looking inside myself just to find that kid I don't wanna kill." This line from "That Kid" blew me away and expresses, to my mind, both a relationship struggle and a struggle with coming to terms with society's demands. Through that latter lens, and in the interest of discussing something I see as a bit of an epidemic among our generation, how does that struggle look to you? How's that kid ever gonna make it?
I really like that line and I’m proud of it in particular because it expresses a really potent feeling in what could be a sort of super impactful but simultaneously confusing way.  It has some imagery that might sound angry, I mean.  When it came out of my mouth when I was writing that last verse I was just talking about being the person in the situation who is actually trying to look inward and figure out what their side of the problem is.  When you keep looking at yourself over and over and you look at what is driving you and whether you’re being responsible and forthcoming and stuff, you have to stop and realize that sometimes someone just has a problem with you because of their shit and it has nothing to do with you.  At that point, what more can you do? When I look at myself in particular I see that I have a very serious side and a very silly side. I think getting rid of that silly, care-free side of me just to placate someone would be a bullshit move on my part and wouldn't do anything to fix a situation anyhow.  I didn't read all those books and listen to guys like George Carlin and Bill Hicks and all those musicians who made up their own rules just to turn around and let somebody tell me who to be. We’re adults. We get to do what we want.

I mean, you might be talking more about the idea of this being a generation of child-men, and I could clearly ramble about that for a good while, but in that song I was sort of just saying “I’m not at fault and I don’t want to get rid of this part of me and if you can’t let it go I will just walk away.”

5. One more question in regards to lyrical content. What is your lyric writing process like? Do lyrics come before or after music, generally speaking? Do you labor after the disarming deep simplicity that your lyrics often achieve or is it a fairly effortless thing for you to express these giant thematic concerns with in the pop idiom?
I really appreciate your assessment of my lyrics, that’s very nice of you. I definitely don’t labor, mainly for lack of patience. There will be other songs, I’ll write something again soon enough.  I just wanna get it out and move along. The closing song on this album took me the longest to finish lyrically and that was only like a day and a half. I am mainly just concerned with being honest and not sounding like an idiot while I’m singing.
Probably four of these songs were written solely because I cut my left middle finger very badly in a kitchen accident, which left me unable to play certain chords and stuff. I would pick up the guitar and make whatever shape my finger could handle and then a melody would come and then lyrics. This all usually happens in the course of an hour or so.  The finger injury is why a few of the songs have weird ass open chords.
Throughout the day when ideas pop up I write them down… a thought, a word, a phrase, a whole song idea. Some of the lyrics and ideas for these songs popped back up after having been written down for a year and suddenly a song happened.

6. Tell us about the album Blake Cormier and the Awkward Situation. How did the recording process go from fertilization to birth? I know that you worked largely on your own on this one, but tell us about the assistance you did enlist (Carly Garza, Mason Macias, etc). In your mind, what are the key distinguishing characteristics between this record and the last Druggist record The Pile On?
I started going to this studio in Polk Gulch in August to track drums by myself and eventually came to think it would be cool to do a record that was only me.  I've done a lot of stuff that was only me before but never an entire album, so I was sort of feeling like it would be awesome to be able to step back and look at it and see what that feels like.  I was trying to force myself to move on from the band I’d been in and trying to press forward and I feel like a lot of the lyrics reflect that.  The songs are pretty straight forward pop tunes.  There were a couple that felt like they needed female backing vocals and one called “Getting Weird” that I had written specifically to be sung in a sort of call-and-response between a man and a woman.  I guess Carly just came to mind off the bat.  We’d hung out the last time I was in Texas and I remembered her having a pretty cool sound to her voice.  She can have a really classic sound at times and her voice is really beautiful so I felt like we’d sound good together.  She didn't end up getting to do the show with us in San Antonio, but a girl named Libby Mattingsley joined us and it was a great time.  I would have loved to hear Carly sing these songs live with us, maybe it’ll happen someday.

My singing in these songs is way less dramatic than the stuff Druggist was doing. I’m not really pouring out every ounce of emotion into giant, dramatic vocals on these songs but that’s just because they don’t call for it.  They’re just pop tunes.  The songs on The Pile On were all sorts of different ventures. We spent a year and a half touring and writing and stuff and by the time the album was done it was a nineteen song diary of what had been happening with us I guess.  In that sense it is the same, though that’s possibly where the similarities end.  We had Mason Macias play drums on five songs on that album and Marcus Rubio did a bunch of stuff on five or six songs and Stephen Oakes played bass on four or five.  The whole idea was to pile on as many layers as possible in writing, recording, performing, etc. We were doing huge six person performances with fat beam lasers and strobe lights and projection screen and bubble machines and stuff, but we were also doing house shows as a three piece that made people ears bleed.  The Awkward Situation shows will be more of the latter category. I just want this to be where I take my pop tunes and rock them super hard. I am working with some dudes in San Francisco who have done as much, actually much more, touring as me and have been in dozens of bands and are way stoked on my songs and I think those shows are going to kick major ass.

7. What are your plans around this album? Any tours or other excitement we should be aware of? Are you gigging out in the golden state? Plans to come back to SA, or is that just a holiday thing?
As soon as I get back to SF we’re rehearsing two days in a row. My old band did a few shows in the city and a little trip up to Washington and Oregon where we played some awesome sets. We’ll probably be doing that. The guys are all stoked to get out and rock the songs pretty much anywhere. 

The only thing I dislike about where I live now is that I can’t see my family or Stephen and a couple other friends whenever I feel like it. It’s hard to be away from those people all the time and I feel it often. I just enjoy the lifestyle and the work I’m doing and the weather too much to leave any time soon. 

8. In terms of music, art, literature, philosophy etcetera- who influences you? What ideas most drive your tireless creation? What are your favorite albums of the past year (or past few)?
I fucking love what Dave Longstreth has been doing for the past few years. Watching the Dirty Projectors live is the closest I've ever gotten to wanting to be like those creepy assholes who used to follow the Grateful Dead around from town to town. In terms of music I listen to all kinds of stuff from classical to metal but some constants are stuff like the Breeders and the Ramones and Morrissey and the Smiths and stuff. I was really looking forward to that new Beach House album and I like maybe two or three of the songs on it a lot but that’s about it. After the Ween breakup I didn't even listen to the Aaron Freeman album, who knows if that’s any good. I like stuff with big dance beats like mid-era New Order and I like quiet folksy stuff like the Innocence Mission. Most of the stuff I listen to comes back to hearing someone sing about something they love or hate or are passionate about for whatever reason. Although, admittedly, I will shake my ass to Katy Perry and Ga Ga and shit like that. 

Passion attracts me. I totally adore Christopher Hitchens and felt a big loss when he died recently.  It was akin to when Hunter Thompson and George Carlin died. Thankfully I had parents who turned me onto people like that who thought for themselves and never tied themselves to one political or philosophical school of thought. In terms of “influences” I think these people influence my songwriting more than any music I listen to because without those ideas and concepts I wouldn't have the guts to talk about my life honestly. Since songwriting does help me process ideas and function more comfortably in the world, it has become something I don’t even think about. I just write songs and I don’t even think about it being super personal anymore. I only think about it when someone brings it up. To me there is no choice. At this point it’s like asking me why I have Type A blood. It isn't anything I’m trying at or anything I’m manufacturing. I've just been influenced by open minded free thinkers to believe I can freely express myself whenever I feel like it I guess.

9. Do you have any collaborative efforts in your immediate musical future or do you find it better to go at it alone at this point? Any more work with longtime Druggist partner Zach Dunlap?
I’m looking forward to having the last word in what I’m doing musically. I haven’t ever been in a band where it was all filtered through solely myself and I think that’s gonna be key in keeping the shows as focused as the album came out sounding. I like that the songs have their own feel but the record as a whole has a sound that comes together nicely as well.

Zach and I have recorded some drums and stuff for what will be the next Druggist album. I have no way of knowing when the album will be done as I am really busy doing this group now and Zach is up in Portland rocking with his band Butt 2 Butt. They came down to SF a couple months back and I tracked like sixteen songs for them, which I have been very, very slowly mixing one or two at a time when I can fit it in. I really like their songs and I am stoked to be working with Zach again in any capacity. It will be really awesome when we can give people a new Druggist album.

10. **Create your own question and answer it... How's that for awkward.**
Hmmmm…

Q:How do you think you will come across in this interview?
A: Long-winded and depressed. Despite only being one of those things.


BLAKE CORMIER: website, twitter, facebook, Druggist (info), Druggist (free music)

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