BLAKE SANDBERG INTERVIEWED BY JOHN MICHAEL CASSETTA:
It’s ironic that, even though I’m interviewing the mastermind of what is perhaps
the most unique band in Austin, at least in terms of not quite fitting in with the
“scene,” I’m in the interview capital of the city – Spider House. Blake, of Aliens,
has agreed to join me for the evening, and we’re now crammed into a secluded
booth, sharing ideas on the nature of “genre labels,” the exclusivity of “the Austin
sound,” radio commercials and, most importantly, Aliens.
Big Diction: People have a hard time classifying the aliens, I’ve heard “Punk,” I’ve
heard “Rock,” I’ve heard just “Noise Rock.” Where do you put the band and does
that matter to you?
Blake: Yeah, it doesn’t really matter, I mean it’s music. To me it’s music that I think
about and it just comes out that way. But it is intentional too, it’s something very
specific that I’m trying to do. So I kind of shy away from labels, but only because
people use them as a way to forget you. They use them as a way to negate any
power you might have. They stick you in this little box and say, “This is all you are.”
It seems like a way to pigeon hole people and forget them, “Oh they’re that – they
sound like this band.”
But I do use the punk thing – some people have said, “just get rid of that and you’ll
be fine.” Punk rock, while I wasn’t paying attention changed into this classifying
thing. When I think of punk rock, I think of Sex Pistols and Ramones and all the
early stuff, and if The Clash is punk then that’s a different area of punk. So punk to
me is really not a label specific thing that people use it for, it’s more of an idea
system of being able to let your self not be held by that stuff. So it’s ironic that it’s
become a thing where you have to wear black and you have to wear a leather
jacket, and and you have to have gel in your hair, and an arm bracelet. I can’t do
that stuff, I just won’t. I don’t care… I don’t have a leather jacket!
Big Diction: The album has a diverse sound to it; songs like “Stow Away” sound
like a hard version of some kind of demented R.E.M., whereas “Guinea Pig” has
punk elements to it. Is that something you’ve done intentionally?
Blake: I did want to make it diverse because I didn’t want all the songs to sound
the same. It seems like there are a lot of bands right now who do the same thing
over and over again, and it was never something I could do. Even playing a song
straight through with 3 or 4 chords can be taxing. I come from this background of
noise-jazz-improv-music, but using a guitar and distortion pedals.
It gets tricky with the monikers, but I wanted to put together an album that showed
a broad range. I could’ve put it together where the songs were close to the same,
with the differences being more minute, but it didn’t really show everything. I have
two different modes that I tend to go to a lot. One is a really lo-fi kind of songwriter
thing, which is probably highly influenced by Daniel Johnson, Jad Fair, and other
people – like blues stuff, but it comes out differently. And then there’s futuristic
punk-rock n’ roll that just happens. It works with the lyrics.
If you’re writing a lyric-based song it becomes a whole different thing, which is why
when you make instrumental music you can kind of do anything you want. When
you start to have to focus on “I’m gonna have to sing this song” (and I write catchy
repetitive songs, that’s what I seem to just do almost by accident), then you have
to put some sort of structure on it. So if I’m going to put some sort of structure, I
guess I fall back on the punk rock stuff. It’s very successfully catchy, and driving.
Big Diction: What is the song writing process for you, because you said it’s like
jazz, or free-jazz with distortion pedals, and I can hear that – I like that. But how do
you put lyrics to it? Which comes first?
Blake: Well I play guitar all the time. I play a lot. Often a song is just a jam, or
something I’m fooling around with on my own – I’ll start playing something new, put
it on tape for a minute and come back later.
I’m just compelled to write, it helps me sort out thoughts. But I do consciously try
to write songs. Usually I’ll just come up with some phrases or something will just
hit me. A lot of it’s life experiences – you see something and jot it down. Later I’ll
start to organize it, I’ll go through a notebook and discover there are some themes
and I’ll edit them together or something will come together automatically and I’ll
say, “That will be a chorus.” Sometimes the songs come automatically which is an
Big Diction: What about some of the individual songs?
Blake: “Committed to Wind” I wrote while driving, which is probably dangerous,
and I had the radio on (I didn’t have a CD with me, which was a rarity). I listen to
KVRX but I get pissed off at a lot of radio, especially because they put commercials
on them, and I can’t listen to them. And they’re really loud! But then my music is
loud, so they’re even louder [laughs]. But I can’t deal with all this commercial
imagery. So I was hearing something on the radio and it was talking about fast
food, and I was driving, and there it was! For a second I realized how well it works:
they tell you about something on the radio, and then they offer it to you right there,
the next exit. Just pull over and you get it all, right there.
Later in an email, Blake expanded on more of the individual songs on the album:
Blake (via email): “Stow Away” originally was called “Surprise for Crippen.” I wrote
it after seeing a PBS-type documentary on TV about this person “Crippen” from
England. He was the first criminal apprehended via the use of modern technology,
in some ways. He killed his wife and “stowed away” with his mistress on an
American bound ship. The couple hid out and cut their hair - he shaved his beard
and they would have been free. Except tests of the trans-Atlantic telegraph were
just starting and the English sent a message ahead to NY harbor. The cops were
waiting and they were arrested! I changed the original song using the story
crossed with today’s omnipresent cell phone take over (or simply technological).
Big Diction: Yeah, the lyrics in most of the songs feel like they have that kind of
directness, direct to the point that it’s almost persuasively direct. What are you
Blake: The directness is definitely intentional, it was something that, when I was
working with my engineer, that was one of the things – I wanted to make the lyrics
unquestionable. I didn’t put a lyrics sheet in there. Hopefully you can hear it and
after a few tries understand what the hell I was saying.
The directness is key for me right now because I feel like there really isn’t anyone
saying much with their songs, or at least outrightly so. Actually the new R.E.M.
album, I bought, and I was surprised by some of it, some of it sounds like stitched
together old R.E.M., which…you know, whatever, they can do whatever they want
obviously, and they have. But I have a lot of respect for them, I’m obviously
influenced by them.
So I wanted to be very direct about what I was saying, I didn’t want to back down. I
wanted to put out what I wanted to hear, which I can’t hear anywhere. You know
Fugazi’s not touring anymore. They had so many things to say about everything,
and that was something that was just around when I was growing up. That and the
REM’s and the Nirvana’s and the Husker Du’s. I feel like there’s sort of this thing
where after the 90’s, or whatever, there’s been a period where thought and ideas
and creativity like that have gone to the underground. I wanted to say, “This is how
I feel, this is exactly how I feel, and I shouldn’t be a shamed of it.” And, “Why aren’t
I hearing this from other people?” It just became a mission.
The conversation turned to the term “Alien,” and just what it means in culture
today. Blake offered this explanation of what the term means to him.
Blake: For me, Aliens is about being alienated. One of my best friends, he was so
alienated by the culture that he moved to Vietnam. Before that he was living in
Portland, and we’d email each other. The “Aliens” thing came from us talking about
how alienated we both felt – he’d started saying “Hey Alien” and I’d say “Hey, what’
s up Alien?” and that’s really generic and kind of simple, but whatever. I was like,
“Hey, ‘Aliens’ is a cool name. It has great imagery. And no one’s seemed to use it.”
In addition to running the creative side of Aliens, Blake owns the business side of
things, operating his own local label, Misc. Music, which houses, among others,
Jad Fair (of Half Japanese).
Big Diction: What about Misc. Music?
Blake: Basically I started Misc. Music because I wanted to be in control of what I
was putting out. And I do have a lot of experimental music that I recorded with
various different people that I want to release.
It just seemed like Austin didn’t really have a label that was more inclusive than
exclusive, and to me that’s the way to do it because I’d rather hear a band doing
there own thing that I can get behind, like: that’s different. Instead of “we only do
this, and you’re going to have to change your sound.” I couldn’t imagine doing
that, what right do I have?
Big Diction: What releases have you got coming up?
Blake: Well the next release is supposed to be this band called Illinois Payson.
They’re a two-piece that also has a backing band live most of the time. They live in
Brooklyn and they’re a bizarre site. One guy wears a black undertaker suit and a
black cowboy hat, and he writes songs that are like Bob Dylan meets Krazy Cat. I
call him the, well… they’re just crazy. The other guy plays blues guitar, and he’s
Jewish, so he wears a yarmulke on stage. Its very odd but they just became friends
of mine in New York and they’d book Aliens. We have an 8 track album coming out
as soon as possible. Hopefully it will be before Aliens make their way to Brooklyn
in July, so we can play a show together.
But also, I found a really great band on Myspace. They mailed me some things.
They’re called Nipplepotamus, which is one of the most retarded memorable
names ever. They have a great logo, and they make all their own artwork too. I
really like it when people have that much of a vision, and I encourage it. They’re
young and they live in a smaller city in California. They sound like Meat Puppets
and Sonic Youth blended with equal proportion, but with total brand new ideas in
the songs. And they did everything themselves, they recorded it themselves, and
wrote all the songs. And I think it’s ready to go, we just have to master it and put it
out. We’ll be doing shows with them on the west coast.
Also we’ve got a release from Danny and the Nightmares, and some Jad Fair
For as much as Aliens deals with communication, especially technologically
advance communication, it seems only appropriate that my closing thoughts
should be pulled from one of Blake’s emails to me. Buried in the contemplation of
what it means to communicate, either by lyrics or by guitar, Blake offers this
simple, but poignant, explanation of what he feels Aliens represents:
Blake (via email): I wanted Aliens to be like a knife - cutting through all this bullshit!
TEXT FROM BIG DICTION "INTERVIEW: ALIENS" BY JOHN MICHAEL CASSETTA
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