The Gay Blades have built an international following over the past three years because they have developed an ear-catching blend of “trash pop” (their words, not mine!) which manages to blend the energy and depth of David Bowie with the rock edge of everything from the White Stripes to Bruce Springsteen, Wilco to Weezer, all without actually having to wear their influences on their sleeves. Add to that the raw energy which frontman James Dean Wells (a.k.a. Clark Westfield) and his partner in crime Quinn English (a.k.a. Puppy Mills) bring to their raw live performances, and you’ve got a recipe for kick-ass rock music that has enough pop in it to keep you coming back for more at audio-gunpoint.
The band’s sophomore album, Savages, drops on October 5th. I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to James Wells about the band’s evolution as they worked on the second album, the pressure of added expectations, and where the Gay Blades fit into today’s fractured musical landscape.
Legal Download: The Gay Blades – “Try To Understand (MP3)
First off, what makes music meaningful to you?
I find myself listening to music that puts things in perspective and says the things the musician really feels, yet it comes out sounding inherently so simple. When you listen to music you love – and music strikes on so many different levels – you can say “I’ve felt that! I’ve felt those exact emotions!” But you’ve never thought to say it out loud. It’s a pretty amazing thing. A good lyricist can wrap up the human experience very efficiently, and if they do it poorly it’s a recipe for disaster.
You’ve said before that you don’t think the live experience should duplicate what we can already hear on the album itself. Do you feel your fans are receptive to that idea? Do you still have people get pissed off at you that you don’t recreate your singles note for note?
To be honest, there were people who would come to one of our live shows and then they’d hear our record and say that it seemed to be missing something. That record in particular came from a different place and a different process. This new record has a sense of the same thing, but we produced this record with a lot of energy and a lot more oomph, or chutzpah if you will. So I think with the new record Savages kids will see the live show, feel the energy of the rock and roll coming off the stage, and then when they go home and listen to the record it’ll still have that energy but it’ll be a different listening experience. It would be boring for me as a musician to play it exactly the same way every night, with the same tempos and phrasings. Every night is different because every night feels different. But then when they go home and listen to the record, the record still sounds fucking amazing. It’s a different listening experience, but hopefully it will recall that live energy and sentiment. Of all my achievements it is my proudest. I’m really excited about the new record.
With influences as varied as Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Pavement, no one’s ever going to run out of descriptors for your music. How do you go about crafting songs that fit those influences together and still maintain your distinct sound?
Well, ultimately I don’t ever try to reconstruct what they have constructed It’s the way those guys go about doing it, making music, that inspires me. And those artists are in one place for me, the individualists, more about the moment and the emotion. There are other guys, like David Bowie and Paul McCartney, who inspire me for the process they used to craft the music. What stands out about all those artists is that they’re honest. David Bowie’s a great chameleon, but he believes in what he’s doing no matter what he chooses to record. I try to emulate that, in that I’m writing tunes that express what’s going on in my brain. It’s a very intuitive process; it’s not about us trying to reconstruct our influences.
Certainly we don’t wear our influences on our sleeve. That may be why we don’t fit into many “scenes,” since some of our music sounds like punk-rock, while some is quirky indie-rock, maybe even some more mainstream stuff.
It kind of reminds me of what Ween tries to do, where it seems every album is a different experiment. You can listen to their whole catalog and you won’t hear the same thing twice.
I think with Ween what they do is say “this is going to be this kind of record.” For me it’s more that “this is the song I’m writing.” I don’t know what the next song is I’m going to write, I never sit down and say I’m going to write a rock song. But I love Ween because they’re able to do that, they can say “we’re going to make a record that sounds like The White Album,” and then they do it. Or “we’re going to make a Spanish rock and roll record.” For me it’s not a really heady process. It’s “this is what I made. Oops! I don’t know how it happened, but it did, so let’s figure it out.” So that’s why I think a lot of the songs are very different from one track to the next, as opposed to Ween, who make such highly focused records. I lack focus, that’s what I’m trying to say.
I can understand that. As a listener I lack focus too. I listen to a little bit of everything and people think I’m nuts.
That’s what I’m saying! I don’t love just one kind of music, so why should I create only one kind of music? It’s the extension that comes from being a music fan, I think.
You once said “O Shot” wasn’t really a complete song, but that you’re glad people like it. But on Savages you wanted to write a bunch of good songs you really care about. Do you feel the finished album lived up to that expectation?
It actually far surpassed it. I was nervous going in, because that last record, Ghosts, was made without any real thought. I had gotten a job working at a major label and Puppy Mills and I were playing around and we said “hey, let’s go make a record!” And there was no attention paid to what would happen. We had no pressure, we spent the money we would have spent at bars on making a record, no big deal.
That’s how records used to be made, but it seems now a lot of bands think you have to spend six months in a studio with a big name producer to make a record.
Well, I don’t necessarily one hundred percent agree with that, since a lot of great records right now are coming out of people’s bedrooms, especially thanks to this brave new world of digital recording. We chose to do it that way because we’re idiots and just don’t know how to record ourselves. My tastes aren’t the kind that would allow me to make a bedroom pop album. Maybe one day I’ll have that kind of security. But when we made that record it was “hey, we’re making a record for fun! Let’s just do it!” And all the songs came out the way they came out, and it took a long time and was expensive. Then we got picked up and were signed, and we toured the world, and suddenly we’re having to “build our career.” It was kind of unexpected.
Because of that added pressure, I was really nervous that the songs on Savages weren’t going to translate or they’d sound forced. But ultimately I had a lot of experiences from the last year I could draw on lyrically, and we worked with Dean Baltulonis, who’d just wrapped the new Hold Steady record, and it was an amazing experience. The record is way beyond my expectations. It was pretty great.
I’ve been thinking about how “confined” the idea of pop music has become, when really there’s so much more music out there that “could be” pop if radio would play it. Then there are bands like yours out there trying a little bit of everything and making it work in your own distinct way. Are you confident fans will still find the music?
I’m confident “Gay Blades” fans will find it, but you never know what people are going to find on an organic level. We’re on a small label, so we work hard and tour nearly incessantly. At least we did on the last record. We’re just now starting to get geared up into “touring season” for the new record, we’re rehearsing for the first time in two years. But really it’s one of those crapshoots, and since we don’t fit into any particular scene, there’s no big spotlight highlighting trashy pop records like ours. So to me, you put your fucking head down and you work hard, you care about what you’re doing, and you care about the people who care about what you’re doing. Beyond that you cross your fingers. You try and make a little money here and there and hope everything works out. You go down swinging if you go down.
Do you ever feel like you’d have to dumb musical tastes down to have a “hit”?
Yeah, but to be honest, is middle-America ever going to love the Gay Blades? Probably not. Ultimately I’m 28 years old, I’ve been in bands since I was 17 years old, and I don’t need to dumb my music down. I write it how I write it, I try to make it the best I can and then I move on.
What inspires you to continue writing music? Do you write songs while you’re touring? Do you say “now I’ve got to sit down and write new songs?”
Well luckily for the Gay Blades, we spend so much time on the road and our whole life has been music, so when I sit down on the couch with my guitar it’s a very natural thing. Writers write, bloggers blog, it is what it is. You are what you do and you do what you are. It’s a very instinctive process.
I have to ask . . . is it still fun fucking around with people who don’t bother to listen to the music or ask relevant questions?
Well, every interview’s the same. You could ask every artist the same set of questions for the most part. So we do try and have a little fun with the process. We have pretty elaborate stories about how our band started, and whatever! It’s fun! The bottom line is we lack focus, so anything that can potentially spice up a monotonous experience is a good thing. I mean, how many times have you heard: “Oh man! We grew up together, my little brother was on drums, and . . .” As an interviewer, how many times do you want to hear that same story?
What’s your favorite “dumb question” you get all the time?
Well, nothing ever really drives me nuts, because I’m always psyched that anyone wants to take time out of their day to hang out and talk to me about my stupid band. But I will say “where does our band name come from?” has to be up there. Let’s just get it out there. Truth be told, we stole the band name from another band because they weren’t using it anymore. We were friends with them, and we were like: “Hey, you’ve got this band name and you’ve never really used it or done anything. Do you mind if we have the band name?” And they said yeah, of course, whatever. But it’s a pretty good band name, I think.
I think so. It gets people pissed off if they want to be pissed off, and it’s memorable if they want to remember the name.
Right, ultimately they’ll always remember the band name. And I don’t think a natural indie-rock audience is going to be homophobic in any way, shape or form, or so close-minded they can’t handle hearing the name Gay Blades. You’ve got bands like the Queers, the Pissed Jeans, it’s just a fucking name. Indie-rock fans get the irony that’s involved in choosing a band name.
Well, punk rock already had G.G. Allin, so if they can handle him I think they can handle the Gay Blades.
Exactly! I’m not shitting on anybody anymore! It’s been a while.
As a musician, do you think you developed more of your sound from hearing music you liked or music you hated?
Mostly the way we developed our music was to just play and keep playing. It’s a matter of finding what feels comfortable, what’s ingrained in your DNA. That’s why with the greats, some of which we’ve touched on in this interview, it’s hard to tell exactly where they came from.
I’ve just been thinking about it, because some bloggers only write about what they like, while other sites like Pitchfork seem to love to find the coolest way to hate on a band. Is it possible to be influenced by music you actually wound up not liking?
It’s hard for me, because I think for most people it’s cyclical. You grow up listening to one kind of music and then five months later you’re like “I can’t believe I liked that!” And then five years later you’re like “I was actually right about it the first time.” So I always tell my friends who get a lot of tattoos: “Imagine your tastes, what they were like five years ago. Don’t get a tattoo until you’re sure that taste is cemented in your person.”
Luckily, with music, you don’t have to literally tattoo it to your body. So sometimes when I play records from bands I’ve been in, I couldn’t be more embarrassed. But I can guarantee you when I’m forty years old and my kids are running around and I’m hanging around drinking beers on the lawn with my friends and we’re playing that old music, we’re going to be stoked! So it is what it is. Enjoying music is a growing experience.
You’ve been both a musician and a record-industry insider, and the popular opinion today seems to be that indie’s the way to go, that there’s nothing a record label can really offer a serious musician. What’s your perspective on that?
Putting out music, releasing a product that is so closely tied with art and taste is a magical crapshoot. There are very few safe bets in the world. Even a major label, you can say “we are going to break this artist,” and fucking nine times out of ten it just does not happen. At an indie level you are like “we’re going to just put this record out, let them tour, and then we have to move on to different bands.” Then all of a sudden the band fucking blows up because of one little thing. There’s no real formula to create something genuine.
So yeah, the label system can be helpful if you lack guidance as an artist, if you lack the experience. There are people at those major labels who have dedicated their lives to marketing and developing artists. We can hate on major labels as much as we like, but I’ve known some really amazing people who work at major labels and they’re not all scumbags.
So going into the new decade, do you see the music industry being as dead as people have been saying it is?
Yeah, absolutely! It is a harrowing place to find yourself professionally.
How would you adapt to that?
That’s the idea. We have to adapt or we die, right? I think all businesses that base their business model on marketing and recording music will fail unless they find new revenue streams. And it’s not just about nickel-and-diming Google and YouTube. There has to be something else to come down the pike. And it’s going to take someone far more innovative and inventive than I am to come up with that answer.
You’ve got to work on the music and let somebody else figure that out.
Well, I would be remiss to say I don’t worry about it or think about it, because I certainly do. The last thing I want to go back to doing is working on shitty bands who I don’t give a fuck about, because that’s what I used to do. That’s what kept me from being self-actualized as a songwriter. And I hate to jump around the question, but there is no single answer. Is the record industry in a state? Yes. That’s easy, everyone knows that. What do we have to do? I don’t know . . . sell our souls? There’s no selling out for indie-rock anymore, which is good. No one talks about that when Animal Collective’s in a Volvo commercial. It is what it is.
I heard the new Weepies song recently at the end of a credit card commercial for Chase.
And you know what? I’m glad! I’m so damned glad that that’s the case, because we need to eat. If there’s some 55 year old man sitting in a one room studio who’s cranking out all the credit card commercials, what about us? We need to be in credit card commercials too! I don’t care, use the music! It’s a medium to listeners, and if you get to go on stage and hit up Columbus, Ohio or Salt Lake City or these great places all around the country, if you can get there and you had to sell some of your tunes to Chase Bank, its okay! Who cares? Do your thing.
What do you wish someone would ask you, but they never do?
Ultimately I just want to have a decent conversation with someone who gives a crap about music. However that ends up coming across is great. Maybe ask me how I’m doing today. No one really asks that, they usually just say “alright, let’s get started!”
I was talking to this kid recently and was doing an interview, and he’s like “it’s so great you take time to talk to your fans and stuff, do you feel obligated to do it?” and I’m kind of a nerd because I just really like talking to people. I work from home so it’s kind of quiet all day when I’m not on the road. And even when you’re on the road, you’re just running around hyperactive, waiting for something to happen. And I’m extroverted to a potentially psychopathic level, so for me it’s great just to talk to people about music. And if once in a while we get to focus on the old Gay Blades, it’s a good day.
Like I said, I used to work for a major label and I’d have to talk about bands that I felt were definitely evil, or stupid, or ill-conceived, and that was how my entire day was spent. So I moved to an indie label and got to work with smaller bands and I got a little time to work on my band, and my life has been pretty amazing. It’s all good.