CULTURE:A Conversation with Guy Blakeslee
Self-taught guitarists always seem to have a certain special quality to their playing, something that is driven more by feeling than an understanding of music theory. Guy Blakeslee of The Entrance Band picked up the guitar around the age of 10, never took a lesson, and cannot read or a write a sheet of music. But that hasn’t stopped Blakeslee from becoming one of the most talented guitar players around today.
It also hasn’t stopped Blakeslee from being self-employed as a musician and artist for the majority of his adult life. After more than twenty years of playing music, Blakeslee is finally releasing an album under his own name on Everloving Records. The album was produced by Chris Coady of Beach House and YeahYeah Yeahs and is slated for a June release. With the 2013 release of The Entrance Band’s, Face the Sun, and Blakeslee’s reworked version of Skip James’, “I’m So Glad,” appearing in the Oscar-nominated, Her, it’s clear Blakeslee has hit a nicely productive stride.
Blakeslee answered some questions about his solo album and music in general for our Grain Audio readers in the Q&A below. Enjoy.
The first thing that jumped out for me with Ophelia Slowly is this sense that while this is your first solo album in 10 years, it feels as though the album was a means of getting something off your chest. When you were writing these songs and putting the album together what was going on in your life that may have led to that cathartic element in the music?
In a way, this new solo album of mine, Ophelia Slowly, is a purging of sorts—a way of processing and releasing a lot of emotions and memories and experiences going back into my life for many years. Some of the songs have been in the works for quite some time, some are new to me, but they were all finished and recorded in this new phase of my life that I am in now—that is, on a spiritual path and a path of recovery from addiction and trauma. A lot of the painful and difficult emotions that come through in the music are no longer a part of my daily life, and writing and singing about them has been a large part of my transformation into a better state of being.
Even though a lot of my personal experience of transformation has to do with the depths of addiction and the ascent out of that dark place into a new way of life, I think in a more universal sense that the album is dealing with spiritual transformation in general—in my mind it's related to the Fool's Journey as represented in the Tarot. The Fool sets out on his journey with nothing and as he travels the path he develops spiritual awareness through trials and tribulations.
Many of us end up coming to spirituality through some kind of tragedy or calamity, or from a place of loss which leads to surrender. So this album is exploring the memories and emotions of a past life, and also clearing a new path where the demons and nightmares of the past life have been confronted and expelled. It's a sort of musical exorcism for me to sing these songs. It's very personal, and I can only hope that people who listen to the album find a connecting point to their own emotion and experience because I didn't set out to create something self-involved. I really aspire to provide a service to the listener, aiding in a form of emotional release and catharsis, a transformation of energy.
What I found most interesting about this album, stylistically, is how it sort of merges what you’ve been doing lately with The Entrance Band and that ghostly blues you were playing when Entrance was merely a moniker for you as a solo artist. Is there any difference in approach when it comes to your songwriting for the band or for you as a solo artist? And why do you think Ophelia Slowly has overlap between what you’ve been doing recently and what you’ve done a decade ago?
I've been making music for 20+ years, and making records for more than half of my life, so at this point each record is a part of a longer piece, an evolutionary journey. It's important to me to always be growing, and also to stay true to myself at the same time. So everything I create is an attempt to re-connect to the source that has allowed me to make music all along, and to try something new and seek out different parts of my voice. I think now I am more awake and aware of this process than I ever was in the past. I have been blessed with amazing collaborators in The Entrance Band, and their influence and the challenge of keeping up with them has pushed me forward and also kept me in touch with my roots.
One thing that differentiates Ophelia Slowly from Wandering Stranger is the use of drum loops and synth for backing tracks. It gives the album more of a modern feel to it whereas Wandering Stranger was a bit of a musical throwback as it was pretty straight forward, just you and your guitar playing Delta-inspired blues and folk. What led you to take the drum loop/synth approach on this album?
I have always listened to many different types of music and long before I started making Blues and Folk inspired music I had been experimenting with synths and drum machines, so this approach came naturally to me, though it will sound new to anyone familiar with my music already. I like the drum machine because it allows me to hypnotize myself through repetition, to get into a trance-like state where the stories I am looking to express fall into a rhythm and flow out.
A lot of the songs on this new record were written based on the drum loop and organ patterns, just listening to them over and over and typing on a typewriter. Another thing about the arrangements on the record was that I wanted to do something sparse to allow my voice and the words to be in the spotlight, and I wanted to make something that I can perform all by myself with the aid of minimal technology. I had long resisted the idea of using computers and samplers to perform, but at this point, some of my favorite contemporary musicians are merging all kinds of technology together and still bringing elements of live performance to the stage and it's more accepted and unlimited, which is great.
In November The Entrance Band released Face the Sun, which differs greatly in sound and tone from Prayer of Death. Both are still within the realm of psychedelic music, but Prayer of Death is, for a lack of better words, more aggressive and dark whereas Face the Sun seems to fall on the lighter and playful side of psychedelia. The album titles seem to be fitting, but why do you think the sound and tone of the albums are so different even though they are still very much The Entrance Band? Did the 7 year gap/hiatus in recording play a factor in that change?
Well, the Entrance Band also released our Self-Titled album in 2009, on Ecstatic Peace/Universal. It's slightly comical to me that our 'major label' record is our least known! But anyways, like I described in relation to my own personal journey, the Band has been evolving and growing for close to a decade now, always changing but always remaining true to our voice as a group. We also released 3 EPs since our last full-length, and each record has its own unique sonic atmosphere.
Prayer of Death was the beginning of our collaboration so a lot of what you hear on our newest record is the culmination of years of writing and performing together. The tones have become more refined, and the telepathic aspect of our playing together has come into a fuller fruition. When we first started being a band, we went on tour with hardly any rehearsal, and each night we worked out the songs in front of a live audience. Now we have gotten back to a place where we rarely rehearse, but at every show we are exploring and developing the songs from a place of deep familiarity. On the album Face the Sun we spent a lot of time writing and we played the songs on tour in the USA and in Europe, and we put a lot of care into the sculpting of the tones and the mixing and production. On Prayer of Death a lot of what you hear is a first take done live to tape and a raw rough mix that was never re-visited. So our band has evolved to be a fuller expression of all of the members’ strengths and sensibilities.
In regards to sound and tone, what have been your struggles and victories with finding a formula that works for you? Feel free to be specific. And why is sound and tone important as both a musician and a listener?
Sound and tone are crucial elements of all music, and are especially poignant with electric music, because as a guitarist I have so many options for how to shape my sound, whether it’s with effects pedals or different amplifiers or different guitars or whatever. I have found two guitars that really work for me and I stick with them—one is my American Stratocaster from 1988 and one is Paz's brother Luciano's Jaguar from the late 60's , which I have been playing for a number of years now but which belongs to Paz's family since her brother passed away in 2003.
Over the years I have learned to rely less on pedals for my sound and more on what I'm actually playing on the guitar, but of course I still love to explore the spectrum of reverb, delay & echo, wah-wah, flanger and tremolo! I think of effects as a color pallet like a painter would use. In the heat of performance, I might decide to change colors or throw a splash of a different color on the canvas for a moment, and all of the sounds at my disposal are like different colors or different types of brush strokes, to use painting as an analogy. I like the way that electric guitar has a painterly quality, like you're making a painting with sound across time and space.
Recently I've been playing acoustic guitar every day, to get in touch with the core of what the guitar is about—the notes and the strings and the rhythms, stripped of all the electric enhancement. With my voice as well, I've been moving toward less and less effects and relying more on the purity of my signal as a singer, articulating the words and feeling the harmonic resonance on a physical level without hiding so much behind the cloudy veil of too much reverb.
As a sound artist, I aspire to reach a place where all of these effects and tonal variations are at my disposal to enhance and alter the vibration, but at the core of the music is the pure content—the strings, the frets, the vocal chords, and these vibratory elements are realized without total reliance on gizmos and gadgets and sonic gimmicks. There's definitely a balancing act that goes on here, and no matter what, it's exciting and fun to work with electricity and sound!
When I saw The Entrance Band in L.A. last summer I remember my friend exclaiming, “I feel like I’m in a spaceship,” only a few songs into your set. And what I think he was getting at was that your live show was enchanting in a way that pulled the audience out of reality momentarily, creating this surreal sense akin to floating through space. There was this energy to what you were playing, but more importantly how, that managed to bring about a trance-like state for myself, my friends, and the rest of the audience. Why do you think live music can have that effect on an audience and do you do anything differently live to help bring the audience to that point?
I'm glad your friend was able to realize we were all on a spaceship together! That is the most important thing about the experience of live electric music and transmitting vibrations to and through an audience—we enter into a shared space, an energetic conversation together, and time and space are transformed and consciousness is expanded. When I first started going to shows as a young kid, I had some life-changing experiences where I became immersed in the music and lost my sense of self, through volume and movement and a release facilitated by the release of the people performing.
If I can be a part of helping others have a similar experience, there's nothing better than that. At different times in my life I have had different levels of understanding of this and how to achieve it. Whereas at one point I relied upon Psychedelic chemicals to help me conduct that kind of energy, more recently I have found a pure and direct line to that kind of energy and consciousness through the music itself. I have been reading books by an amazing philosopher named Hazrat Inayat Khan, whose basic message is that all of existence is music, since everything that exists is a form of vibration. So by tuning our hearts and minds to the pitch or frequency of resonance and harmony, we become a part of something vast and infinite.
So in the case of The Entrance Band, when we are in the zone on stage, and everything is going as it should, all 3 of us are tapped into a mind that is bigger than our individual minds, and we are able to seamlessly channel the energy of that infinite mind through the vibrations, and the vibrations reach people in the audience on a mental level, a physical level, and their attention and absorption bounces back to us, creating an energy loop—and then we're really on the spaceship together!
What made you choose the name Entrance as the name for your solo work? Why the name Ophelia Slowly for the new solo album? And why did you choose to put out Ophelia Slowly as Guy Blakeslee rather than Entrance?
Entrance has a double meaning, which explains the idea behind the music—of going through a doorway, and entering into an altered state of trance. I originally chose the name Entrance so I could hide my identity and it could be a project that could come to include other people. I had my best friend Tommy playing drums with me for a long time and when Paz and Derek joined it evolved into The Entrance Band.
Now I think people associate the name Entrance with all three of us and I don't use that as my personal name anymore because it's bigger than me. So on this new solo record, I wanted to start a new chapter and keep it clear that it's just me, and I've always been nervous about my name, so I figured why not overcome that fear and come out with my full name and be brave about it. Ophelia Slowly is taken from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, which is about Shakespeare's Ophelia, from Hamlet. The character of Ophelia in my record is an imaginary lady who is trapped between the worlds, a tragic and beautiful figure who haunts the water looking for release, who is metaphorically drowning in very shallow water.
What brought you from Baltimore to Chicago and then eventually LA? And how did you meet Paz and Derek to form The Entrance Band?
In the early days of Entrance, I moved a lot, from Baltimore to Chicago, to NYC, to London and Brighton in the UK, back to Baltimore, back to NYC, eventually ending up in L.A. I was following different relationships and energies and not really sure where I belonged in the world, and when I reached L.A. I have stayed for 9 years, so I guess this is home for me. I still love to travel but I also like knowing where home is and having a place I know I can return to. L.A. has been good to me and I'm happy to live here.
The ThirdEye Memories collections are something entirely different than what you’ve put out as a solo artist and with The Entrance Band. They also come with artwork you created. Could you explain what they are and what led you to produce both the music and artwork, and why the name ThirdEye Memories?
The ThirdEye Memories series is something I started doing last year, editing and compiling old tapes of ambient music I had made on my home 4 track, most of which I had recorded in a kind of trance-like state without much effort or thought, just as a form of relaxation for myself. When I revisited it and started mixing it onto my computer, I got the idea to start a series of handmade releases that I could stream for free and sell as well—so I also include an original piece of art with each order, collages that I make at home in a similar of state of mind to the music. It's very meditative and done in solitude, art for art's sake.
I was inspired to release this work partially because I was experimenting with different ways to support myself without having to get a minimum wage job. I have been blessed to be a full-time musician pretty much my whole adult life, and am working on different ways to make a living doing what I am really gifted at, which is all creative, and to a degree, spiritual work.
I am working on Volume Three right now. ThirdEye Memories is just a name I came up with somehow, it evokes the atmosphere of this work I think, a kind of casual meditative creativity that comes from a place of relaxation and self-hypnosis, where the creation of sound and images is a form of therapy, and that healing energy is transmitted to the listener/observer hopefully. And I like to keep alive the tradition of D.I.Y. creations that I grew up on, self-made, self-released, self-supporting art that doesn't have to fit in with any aspect of the marketplace and is made for its own sake to be shared with like-minded people, more or less outside of the system.
I noticed you’ve been giving guitar lessons in person or via Skype? When did you start doing that, how much do you charge, and what made you want to teach guitar?
Along with the ThirdEye Memories series mentioned above, giving guitar and singing lessons has been another way for me to take what I am good at and turn it into something that supports me. Since I taught myself, I am really teaching others some of the things I have figured out to help them teach themselves. The singing lessons turn out to be a form of counseling in a way, of helping singers connect to their own voices and unblock emotionally and creatively. The guitar lessons are less heavy and more varied. Each student is coming from a different place and I enjoy transmitting some of the things I've decoded and uncovered in my 20+ years of guitar study. Rates are dependent upon each student but I can answer questions about lessons if anyone wants to email me at : email@example.com
This is a question I ask every musician--consider it a sociological study--but what do you think the cultural significance of music is?
Music in our day and age is everything from a fabricated product to the purest and truest kind of spiritual medicine. It's the universal language. It brings people together across boundaries and it exposes people to new ways of thinking and feeling. I can't think of anything more important than music, for it contains all of the things that make us human beings. The human voice has the potential to transform the world when combined with the intention to heal. I think that just as pop-culture is turning music into advertising, there are also people all over the world getting further and further into the true value of music and sound as a tool for healing, unification and liberation.
Words/Interview by Joe Dimeck