by Blake Edward Conley
Who are you?
Your album, 40 Hours, is intended as a tribute/soundtrack to the office drone work week. What spurred you to want to do this? And how did this concept not just send you into a fit of anxiety? Having said that, I’ve discovered that dronescapes often make the easiest things to get work done too. Often if there are too many words or musical hooks going on, I find myself focusing too much on that and not enough on the task at hand. Do you find this to be true as well and does that dovetail into the concept?
The truth is I love concepts and I think the album is a bigger piece of art than a collection of songs. I feel a need to turn an album into a statement or a story. I decided to go with a standard work week (M-F) because I thought it would be the easiest thing for people to understand. A lot of jobs – including my own – work weekends and other odd hours but yet if you are “full time” you work 40 hours. We are required to give ourselves to somebody else or something else for a total of 40 hours. It does throw me into a fit of anxiety and depression – but alas this is how I deal with it.
I actually didn’t consider this record being a background to working – but it totally can be – I listen to a lot of this kind of music when I work. It makes the perfect soundtrack for a dull drone: I just need something to break up the task but not enough to take me away from it. When I’m at work I actually listen to a lot of hip hop and instrumental hip hop or trip hop. I like the sounds that just fill space. The beats will hold it together and I notice it and then they fade out. I’m sure that rubbed off on my record. I always thought it was funny that I’m doing an ambient guitar record but my most streamed music is probably Pete Rock and J Dilla etc…
Given your invention of Office drone, does this explain your business attire onstage? As one clothes horse to another, I find your outfits the height of spiffy.
I have a few answers to this (depending on my mood).
Office drone – I drive around the DMV area (DC, Maryland and Virginia) a lot. I see the office workers dressed to impress their bosses and I guess I get inspired by it in a weird way. I work in the funeral business. So through my career funeral homes have bought us suits for funerals and I have a little collection. I wear scrubs daily now… so I have to use all these dress shirts for something. Every now and again when people ask about the suit – I steal Johnny Cash’s answer and say every day is a funeral.
When wearing these suits sometimes I feel it can alienate those who don’t have to wear them to work – and it may represent a boss… so that is why I try to incorporate my images that will state things like “Fire Your Boss” and “Abolish Work” during performances.
I always thought it was funny in a way how people got into seeing bands “look like them” but over the years I thought… I don’t like having a beard – I like keeping my hair short and whatever; so I thought fuck it – I’m going to ignore whatever is considered cool and be fucking clean cut and wear a suit and tie with an IWW lapel pin – I’m going to look sharp and truly represent what I believe and that is abolishing the wage system and our self worth being decided by how much wealth we create for somebody else.
Sometimes I view the suit and tie as giving respect to the art itself and the audience. It’s like you can show people how you view your work simply by how you dress when doing it. My friend Ron who I play with frequently taught me early that people are paying to watch you perform the least you can do is dress up for them when you do it. Show some damn respect.
You have shirts that say ‘Abolish Work’. Is this the Tristan Welch manifesto? If yes, how do you plan to go about this? Or what is it about work that makes you feel this way (I agree with you, I’m just curious your thoughts on the concept)?
I’m really into graffiti, stencils and wheat paste posters. So the Abolish Work stencil is just me doing that. The idea behind it is that I feel work – and the concept of “full time” work is nothing but a form of control. I have not had one job that requires a consistent 40 hours a week for it to be done correctly. But this concept is created to keep the masses occupied and enslaved to capitalism – our health insurance is tied to it, our retirement is tied to it – our entire fucking life is tied to it. For absolutely no reason other than to make the employing class more money.
I used to do things like not use self checkout at stores because I felt like it was taking someone’s job (which is true). But then I thought about it after a while… I thought why is anyone doing this job in the first place? Why aren’t they on vacation and raising their kids with these fucking machines? I think society and technology has advanced enough or absolutely should be that A LOT of jobs can be eliminated – and that all of us can reap the rewards of this possibly through a universal basic income. Machines, Artificial Intelligence etc… should be creating wealth to the masses and ultimate freedom from slavery – not creating an environment where people are scared they won’t eat. So yes, ABOLISH WORK! We will always be doing something but we can do it for ourselves and our communities. We can work on our own terms. We can do things because they need to be done – not because I’m worried I’ll lose my Blue Cross card to take care of my back when I hurt it at work.
You come from DC, how does your city and what goes on there reflect in your music?
I’m born and raised here – I’ve left a few times but always find myself here again. So this area is very much ingrained in me. I hope to leave out the bad. But things like including social / political issues in my art I’m sure comes from my surroundings. A lot of people I know work for the government, a non profit or are just very involved in activism. My dad was a government employee and my mother worked for a non profit in her early years. I’m the weirdo who started playing music and embalming dead people. This area is a good place to kind of be an introvert – there are so many kinds of working people just doing their thing… you hardly have to say hello to anybody if you don’t want too. This area is extremely expensive – to live here you need to make a good living – or literally work yourself to death. I’ve watched so many people die – young and old – worried about their pay check and it is just so sad. On the flip side… we have nice shit here and I have grown accustomed to a lot of that.
Solo guitar is often a kind of lonesome endeavor, why do you choose to perform solo? Are there other acts you perform in as well? Having said that, for this record you have Ron Oshima guesting on saxophone. What prompted this collaboration and what do you feel it brings to the record and song(s) he appears on?
I used to always create “band” or “project” names for things I did. Then I would always have this revolving door of people and I don’t know shit would get fucked up. Work, relationships, drugs… it just never worked out. After studying works from Glenn Branca and Rhys Catham I ended up trying to do what they did… but alone. I also got really into Robert Fripp and his solo works. So through various experiments I’ve ended up with what I do now. I feel a sense of freedom just playing under my own name. I can still play with other people but ultimately I can book my own shows, put out my own records and just be done with it.
I have another project that has played out a few times but we took a break to record, write and work out a few things and we are almost back at it. It is called Free Soil and it is an anti-fascist audio / visual experience. I’ve also been trying to get something going with Hannah from Coven Tree called Fair Trade… guitar / viola drone.
Ron and I have known each other for years. Our relationship was just that we got along with each other – we both knew we played music and we would talk about it… but that was about it. One day I was playing a show at a record store in our part of town and he came out just to be a good friend. I didn’t think he would dig it really… just cause I never expect anybody will. Then after I played he kept telling me that we need to play together – so one day I showed up to his house with a few pieces I was sorta holding onto and played them for him… and he just totally got it. So that was the birth of our CD ‘God Bless America’. After we did that our work schedules got all messed up – so we tabled our next record and I did 40 Hours but I had to ask him to do a few songs. I think it adds to the songs and is a fresh vibe especially to the ambient guitar kinda genre. I think it makes some of the ambience more cinematic. Plus it is fun to perform – people see me… this younger clean cut guy with this older Asian guy and they always seem kind of confused… then we start up with this left field ambient jazz that is difficult but kind of pleasant – and it is something fun to leave on the table.
What is your composition process for writing pieces like this? And into that, tell us about your recording engineer. What do they bring to the table, if anything, regarding how sounds and concepts are recorded/processed? Any happy accidents or stories from the recording session? Tell us all your secrets so we may use them to improve ourselves!
It’s terrible. I’m pretty slow. It depends on the project and the theme – on my Washington D.C. tape and God Bless America… everything was focused on certain notes and keys – minimalism was in order so that was my basis. All compositions were focused only on the texture of the sound I was creating and how it was layered to create movements. 40 Hours was actually dare I say… song based. I would create a riff or at least a collection of notes and loop them… then continue the looping process. The process was still very minimal though… majority of the songs grow from the same riff – I just will play it differently or time it differently and changed effects to create new textures and create vibes.
Doug Kallmeyer (Verses) pretty much engineered and produced 40 Hours. He is also a very accomplished musician. He helped me a lot. He wouldn’t really say anything about the pieces themselves but would say things like… lets record that 5 times… layer it all then take them away one by one and keep what we like. There was a bunch of shit he wanted to do but when I recorded the record I was working 60 hour weeks and just couldn’t do it – so much of that record is live. You can hear some of the pedal clicks… he hated that. But I was like… I can’t record each loop!! That’s why I have the looper! We gotta roll with it! He really helped me get my pedal board together – I showed up and that shit was a mess. Bad cables and power supplies flying everywhere. He told me it’s going to sound as bad as it looks… he was right. I think I showed up expecting to get a few songs done and we just tore the shit apart patched it back together! Recording it was a big learning experience… I think the errors… that you can hear – give it a raw charm than reflects the concept of the record and my situation at the time. I hope for the next one I’m not working so much overtime and that maybe I can do a few takes and get a little more studio magic in the mix. Thank goodness for Doug though – his understanding of mixing / mastering especially for the vinyl format helped a lot.
Alright, the fun question- what’s yr current rig, both live and in the studio? I’m talking amps, pedals, etc. All the stuff that’s fun just to people like you and me (anyone who doesn’t care about guitar pedal wankery, please move onto the next question. Thank you).
My equipment for the studio and live is basically the same – though in studio I’ll plug directly into the computer (from my pedal board) a lot because it will just be cleaner that way.
My current guitar that I’m playing is a Reverend (Jetstream I believe) – One day I went to Atomic Music in Maryland (where every musician in our area buys, sells and trades all sorts of stuff) with Doug who was looking for a new cab. I was just looking at guitars and picked up this Reverend and it felt amazing. I didn’t know it at the time but it was also hot rodded already with new pickups and some phase switches etc… the deal was too good to pass it up so I bought it. I didn’t really have the money but I’m glad I did. My Fender, my Gibson and other guitars stay on that rack currently.
Here’s the pedal board (subject to change)
Dunlop Volume DV94 – Polytune 2 – Ohmless Yara 2 Compressor – Saturn Works Signal Splitter (Clean goes through straight to delays distortion signal continues through some of the chain till they both combine again) – Deadbeat Audio Thank You Distortion / Fuzz – Avalanche Run (which I mainly use for reverse) – Tensor – Mr. Black Eterna – Mr. Black Shepherds End Flanger – Radial Mix Blender (Signals combine here) – Source Audio Nemesis Delay – Boss DD7 – Boomerang Phrase Sampler – Wet Mono Reverb – Mr. Black Supermoon Reverb – Old Blood Noise A/B splitter
I have a small board I just put together with some other pieces but that is just more for screwing around when have this big one packed up. I have various footswitch controllers that I’m not using for some pedals on my main board that I’m trying to work my way in… but it is hard to find the time when I’m playing so many shows and trying to write new material at the same time.
My amplifier is a Quilter Pro Block 201. I have 2 of them. Sometimes if I’m playing a smaller room I just use one but if it is a bigger room I use both. They sound good, they are clean and they are light. I gave up tubes awhile ago. It is just not worth it to me… those amps are heavy and require too much maintenance.
I have 1×12 cabinet made by a company called Panama. It sounds perfect. I don’t know why but it does. So it has become my main speaker because it is small, light and sounds good. It has their version if v30’s in it and a closed back. I also use my Mojotone 2×12 which is like a Fender Blackface copy with their v30’s as well. When I’m in a bigger venue and playing 40 Hours material I will use both of these. If I’m in a bigger venue and kinda just doing something else I may bring along my 2×15 ported Seismic cabinet. Something about loud distortion through a 15 inch speaker is nice.
What sounds brought you to this point in your journey of making music that you do? Names some Artists, albums, books, film, life events, random appliances maybe, etc that have played a part in where you are now as an artist?
Musical: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Crass – Public Enemy – Those three introduced and inspired me to create music that was artistic and socially / politically aware or motivated. I’m a big music nerd so there are tons of artists that inspire me – my record collection is big – but off the top of my head they helped me figure out the approach I wanted to take. I will also add that in the early 00’s I was introduced to a lot of more avant–garde noise music like Wolf Eyes, Clang Quartet, Merzbow, Masonnna etc… and that helped me to understand sound as an art form. Also around that time I grew interested in minimalist composers such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young – which helped inspire me to create the way I do now. Those interests lead me into Glenn Branca and Rhys Catham. From playing the music I make, performing frequently and the internet I have been introduced to similar artists that I’m a fan of such as Noveller, Droneroom, 1970’s Filmstock, Nonconnah and my peers are often my biggest inspiration.
Art: Graffiti – as a kid I’ve always thought vandalism was a good thing. Bathroom stalls are the best art galleries. My favorite part of visiting any city is seeing any illegal artwork done the right way… for the public to consume. When I first got to visit Greece and saw how Europe views graffitti – as a form of protest I really fell in love with it. Of course I had seen pictures but being able to walk right by it is a different experience. At the risk of sounding cliche I will say Banksy is a huge inspiration for me. I love the simple designs – I think they are perfect and done on such a large scale. Simple and large is a way to my heart.
IWW: Industrial Workers of the World – the one big union. I read their literature and I carry a red card. The employing class and the working class have nothing in common. Eugene Debbs and Mother Jones are big influences for me. Although not an IWW member but a labor fighter… Martin Luther King is a big inspiration.
Sport: I’m a baseball fanatic. To me watching baseball is just audio / visual ambience with bursts of things that hold your attention.
Life: I’m a recovering addict. So there are aspects from that in my art whether I like it or not. I spend a lot of time in homeless shelters and jails. I work in a funeral home. I experience the human condition in a way that of course is reflected in my art… which probably leads to my gigantic belief that there is more to this life than money and capital.