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at the spine
“I was walking around telling myself ‘I’m fucking done with this shit, I don’t want to do it anymore and was ready to stop music entirely,’” explains Chrisopher Blue.
And then there was one fateful day. Mark Lanegan doesn’t seem like a likely guardian angel. But perhaps he is. There he was, the former Screaming Trees frontman, dressed in black, sitting in a car in a 7-Eleven parking lot and waiting for a beautiful woman to buy his cigarettes. “He saw me and said ‘Chrisopher, keeping singing, man, keep doing what you’re doing.”
A fellow Pacific Northwestern musician, Lanegan and Blue had met years prior through mutual friends but whether Lanegan could read Blue’s obviously distressed face that day or not remains unknown. However, it was those words of encouragement that kept him going.
“It’s happened a few other times as well,” Blue says. “He’ll just randomly pop up in my life.”
It’s strange to think that if it wasn’t for that chance encounter, Blue may have never created his evocative new album, room tones, years later.
The story of room tones couldn't be more incongruent: A man spends his days and nights in a shoe on wheels otherwise known as a Dodge Neon, homeless and utterly alone, writing songs as the waves crash and the miles crunch by. Yet somehow, the voice arising out of those songs is not that of a man who is lost and adrift, but one who has finally found home.
“It's almost as if these songs were written for where I am now,” says Blue of the rooted sound. “Psychologically I was in a different place than I was physically. I'm home today in my heart and my head, and the songs reflect that process. They're the stories of how I got home.”
Now based in Mendocino, California, after spending several less than successful years in Seattle, Blue's home, and for that matter, lifestyle, is the very definition of rustic. No mod cons, no cell phone reception for miles... the man lives in a geodesic dome made of trees felled from the spot, for crying out loud. (Actually, it's a historic dwelling, built in the '60 by the grandson of Hiram Bingham IV, a diplomat who performed heroic acts during WWII and the brother of the discoverer of Machu Picchu.)
The mental image is a head-shaker, to say the least. Here's a guy who worked with John Cale and once fronted 10 Minute Warning, a raging band that among its members included Duff McKagan — fresh off the ultimate in balls-out rock and roll trips, Guns N' Roses. McKagan eventually bailed when Geffen started waving wads of cash and a solo career in his face, and Blue did what most guys in his position would have done: he got wasted and tried to put the pieces back together.
What he did put together was Sensation Junkies, which Blue ruefully describes as “a band that didn't exist.” The recordings were well received, but the label sent him on the road as a solo act. “I toured alone, playing first on bills,” says Blue laughingly, “and it was like Willie Nelson showing up to support Radiohead. I'd walk on stage, and people who came to see Sensation Junkies looked at me like 'who the hell are you?'...Well, I'm that guy! It's was a cringeworthy experience the labels like to call 'Profile Building,' he chuckles.
Then there was that little incident in Kansas, where Blue landed himself in the clink. “It was just like in the movies,” he says. “The patrolman walked up to the van and called me 'son,' and a few minutes later I was in handcuffs. They don't like you diving around with a bunch of green stuff in the car. It seemed like a good time to move to Mendocino,” Blue recalls. “I became a vegan, and decided to take responsibility for myself and my health. No one else was going to take care of me.
Statements like that are what inform room tones with its poetic sense of painful lessons finally learned. Track after track play out like a journey, and each is a story rich with cinematic imagery. Whether Blue is walking down railroad tracks thinking about what was and what could be (“Such Love”), looking for simplicity by “Turning out the lights and letting the wheels spin,” (“Equanimity”), or seeing things in front of his face for the first time (“Alone”), everything he's saying can be seen as well as heard. Lyrics play out against spare piano, drums, and guitar effects that unfurl gloriously despite their resigned melancholy.
Although Blue may be happier now than in the past, room tones is far from a joyful sounding record. It is filled with paranoia, narcissism, remorse and ruminations on the human condition and man’s place in the world. “It’s mellow but agitated,” Blue asserts. “It’s still an unsettled record.”
For instance, although love is a common thread on the album, he focuses on the regrets. “A lot of the lyrics are about squandering relationships with beautiful women,” Blue reveals. “It’s about my inability to love without the fucking ugliness attached to it.”
Rich with musical clarity and a new-found emotional language, Blue's new work calls to mind artists as diverse as Nick Drake and Joseph Arthur. Spareness provides a subtle backdrop for the thoughts of a man who has finally figured out what he wants, and realizes he has only himself to rely upon to get it. room tones is warm and simple in tone, but entirely complicated in thought and sentiment.
The cinematic quality of room tones is something Blue credits to producer DC Cooper, a lifelong friend with experience in the film industry. “DC heard what I had and asked if I could put it in his hands, because he had a vision of what I needed to become. I said 'hell yes!'” “I was excited to be taken in a new direction, we worked on making the songs sound sexier, which is something I didn't know how to do with lyrics that were so personal. His idea was to simplify rather than complicate. It was recorded in three days, after I'd labored over the course of years.
“I’m really trying to redevelop my vocabulary,” Blue offers, “I want to steer away from the 20th century self loathing poetic irony. I feel like I’ve mastered the art of being down. I’m just trying to grow past all that and do something honest and pure and unpretentious.”
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