It can be argued (and this is especially true, if I’m the person arguing) that the allure of the ideal indie rock song lies in the ability to dip into the waters of pop while staying afloat with lyrical and melodic buoyancy. That’s the beauty of true-to-form indie rock songs, sprinkled with synths, spellbinding guitar riffs, and catchy hooks that occupy your mind, with no sign of letting go. That’s also the beauty of Blackout Balter’s EP, Twist and Bend.
The Middle English term ‘balter’ means 'to dance without care,' which coincidentally also describes my immediate reaction to the Boston based quartet’s first single, "Heavy Hand" that Paste Magazine accurately described as “one of the catchiest début singles from this year.”
Instantly appealing, thoroughly captivating, with lyrics that are urgent, and guitar riffs that are even more demanding; the song is a stand-out; but the best part is that the single was a preview of things to come. The entire EP feels this way, authentic yet approachable to anyone who, like me, spent the early 2000’s with their favorite indie bands blaring through their Discman, MP3 player, and eventually, iPod.
"Everything Becomes Mechanical" (that I just so happen to be ‘dance-typing’ to at this very moment) is electric and exuberant, reflecting the band’s successful attempt to keep the verses mechanical while willing the chorus to sound human. Two great songs out of six wouldn’t be bad right? But it doesn’t stop there.
The second release from the EP, "Goodbye Cambridge" is my favorite breed of song, a perfect mixture of upbeat light melody with weighty lyrics. Not to mention, Dave Keuning of The Killers features on the track, playing an ‘Old German Cello', but more on that later.
The hits keep coming in the form of "Hello Operator" which feels like a punk song, almost, but with far more truth than trepidation. There’s also "Marionette" that at first listen sounds a lot like a White Stripes song, until it falls pleasantly back into lucid lyrics and flowing melody, a trademark of the entire EP.
The last track, "Edison" leaves nothing to be desired in terms of what a rock song should sound like. In related news, I’ve started plans to move to, and live in the part of "Edison" where the music stops and the lyrics stand bare against the silence. I’d like to inhabit that space, that’s how strongly I feel about that song.
When Blackout Balter recorded their EP, their intention was to share their experiences with the world in the form of song, an earnest endeavor to push themselves and their art. Did they intend to restore indie music to the days where revelation inducing parables and dance worthy rhythms coexisted amicably in the same song? No. But they might.
I caught up with Phil Cohen, frontman of Blackout Balter to discuss the release of the EP, what it was like to record with Dave Keuning of The Killers at Battle Born studios, and how Twist and Bend came to fruition.
I caught you in the middle of a very exciting time, How does it feel to receive the initial feedback from the singles and the EP?
It feels amazing, and I’m just so appreciative of all the very nice words that we’ve received about the initial singles and now the EP, and I’m excited to get the EP out into the public to get more feedback. We’ve lived with these songs for quite some time. From the time I originally wrote the majority of the material, it has been at least a year so it’s really exciting to throw all of this out into the world and hear what people think.
I have to ask, what was it like it to work with Dave Keuning and Robert Root at Battle Born Studios?
It was like a dream and it still feels like a dream. It was so surreal. One of the cool things that many people probably don’t know is that we actually travelled very light out to Vegas-, we essentially didn’t bring many instruments of our own because The Killers let us use their instruments. I thought that was so cool. When you're living an experience like this, on one hand you're kind of playing it cool, but on the other hand you're like a giddy kid.
And then of course working with [producer] Robert Root, who has worked with The Killers for quite some time was amazing.. He was just such a great guy and we got along with him very well. Creatively speaking, he essentially stepped back and let us do our own thing and as we moved forward into the production process he had a lot of great feedback. He really took our music to the next level.
And then of course working with Dave was unbelievable. Dave’s just such a down to earth great guy. And I was absolutely amazed with the speed at which he worked. He came barreling into the studio with this huge cello case, that said ‘Old German Cello’ on it. And I remember thinking, wow- Dave’s really going to be playing cello on the album.
When we got down to work, and we were focusing on Heavy Hand, I think it was the first time I really saw some of his creative magic take place. Just watching how quickly he worked, how quickly he put together the initial draft guitar part, how he worked with Root, how he worked with us, it was phenomenal. You could really see his creative genius.
I read that some of your early influences include 70s underground rock, Violent Femmes, and early Weezer. Are there any artist and bands out right now that you think are getting it right in terms of indie music?
More on the popular front and less on the indie front, a band that we really respect is Twenty One Pilots. And the reason I respect them so much is that they’re totally doing their own thing. Often times it’s hard to find current artists who are very unique, and, I think now is one of those times. It’s hard to find people that are, as I like to say, “pushing art.” I’m big into trying to find people who are pushing art in a new direction, and who are pushing art in a new direction on a big scale, and Twenty One Pilots are definitely doing that. Some of my other current favorites, are Delta Spirit and David Bazan fan, formerly of Pedro The Lion, he’s amazing I’m going to be seeing him in Boston two days from now. These artist have been around a while, but they're a couple of the more modern day influences of mine.
I’m a big fan of words, which is what attracted to me to Heavy Hand at first, it was not only catchy but also really well written. If you had to pick one song off the EP that lyrically you’re the most proud of, which would it be?
I would say “Hello Operator." I’m really proud of all the songs, as I think the EP is a great indication of who we are as a band, and who we are as artists and songwriters. “Hello Operator” means a lot to me personally, and I think it’s lyrically and melodically well-written.
Which song are you most excited to play live?
We really like playing "Edison" live because we get a little crazy- we usually save that for the end of the set. It’s probably our most rocking song. By the end of that song, I’m usually not wearing a shirt, or something crazy happens.
It’s like you wake up at the end of the song?
[Laughs] I wake up, I don’t have a shirt, I’m wondering what’s happening. There are instruments all over the stage, so yeah, that’s a fun song to play live, I’m always excited to play that.
In a recent interview, when asked about the creation process of the EP you mentioned that creations starts with experience. What experiences led to Twist and Bend?
One of the primary experiences that led to Twist and Bend was my time in the military and specifically my time on deployments. When I think of some of the more transformational experiences that I’ve lived, my deployment to Afghanistan is at the top of the list. It was an amazing experience where I got to work directly with the local population of Afghanistan, and forge some of the deepest relationships that I’ve ever forged in my entire life. I still keep in touch with many of my Afghan friend. That experience shaped me in a number of different ways, and I think a lot of that shows through on Twist and Bend.
When fans hear the full EP what’s the overarching message you want them to leave with?
The way I write songs is a very personal, often times a quiet, and lonely process. I usually start off with some sort of chord progression then I look for an interesting top-line vocal melody and often times these components inform the direction that I’ll take the lyrics. My song-writing process is a struggle, and it takes a long time. I don’t write songs in a day. I don’t go into the studio and bang out a few songs or something like that. I actually, in a way, write these songs for myself, to overcome significant life events, to help me emotionally. And so, you never really know how people are going to like your music. And I almost feel like, as an artist, you really shouldn’t care that much about how people will care about your art. You should do what you feel is right as an artist. Through your art you should show the world who you really are. As a band we've put these songs together as a way to deal with some of our own problems, and as we release everything to the world, I hope that people will see us as serious artist and musicians, and I also hope that these songs will be as important to others as they've been for us.
Once the EP is released on Friday, what’s next for Blackout Balter?
We’re always writing music, and we already have a bunch of new music in the works. I hope to be back in the studio again before 2016 is out, and I think there’s a good chance of that happening. I’m also looking forward to getting on the road and doing some formal touring. We’ve done a bunch of shows, but I look forward to doing a US tour and an international tour. A lot of that stuff is in the works behind the scenes. And, overall, with regards to the songs we’re currently writing I couldn’t be happier with the direction we’re heading.