I met up with Jake Stratton, the lead singer and songwriter from the band Blöödhag, to discuss the band, the state of music in general, and of course, singing “Rhinestone Cowboy”.
Kids Today Don’t Know What A 7″ Is
Gordon Davidescu: So, how are you doing?
Jake Stratton: I’m doing alright. I don’t often come out to West Seattle… so yeah, I missed the bus. I ended up taking a cab out here. Blöödhag’s in a weird spot right now because Jeff (the guitar player) is having surgery coming up so we’re having to rig our schedule around him and fortunately, he’s actually a little more mobile than we thought but that’s only because he’s doped up and shot up on Cortizone. It’s going to be a serious deal and I think once he has the back surgery, I don’t know if he’s going to be – I’m worried that the recovery is going to be worse than he thinks it’s going to be.
GD: Well, you know, if Jerry Garcia can endure – what was it, a heart attack? Diabetes, and all that? He played right up until he died, didn’t he?
JS: Well, Jeff’s the driver of the band – rather, he likes to drive… I don’t know if he can switch to passenger that well. We’ll see.
GD: I can just imagine him as a back seat driver. “Come on! Move over!”
JS: I don’t have to imagine it.
GD: So other than this back thing, what have you guys been up to?
JS: Well, we’ve just been writing. Our plans to tour after our last album fizzled out because of car problems and other various scheduling craziness and so we put that off and decided that instead of mounting another tour that we’d write more music and so we’re working on a couple of different things that might be two EPs or one whole album.
GD: It’s so funny, you mention EPs. I saw this article about the generation of the millenials. The kids that grew up not knowing that there was such a thing as ‘no Internet’ : what’s an EP? It’s like oh, here’s an EP : it has three mp3s on it.
JS: Yeah, they’re used to buying one song at a time anyhow… or not buying them at all.
GD: Six inch? Seven inch? What’s that?
JS: Well, I don’t produce stuff for a particular generation or people. I produce stuff for myself, so I use the formats that I use. Not mp3s.
GD: Well appreciated by the fan base?
JS: We’re not like analog loyalists, or anything.
GD: You’re not Sebadoh.
JS: No, we’re not Sebadoh. We’re not Big Black, although we would like to be both of those bands. We do themey music, and we’ve done that from the beginning. We group together authors that are similar in one way or another and use that as an overriding theme, which usually works. An EP for us is about seven to nine songs, it’s not just a couple of songs because the songs are so short in the first place. Beyond that, the theme doesn’t support more than a couple of handfuls of authors in the first place.
GD: Which brings us to the next question. I’ve been Googling your lyrics. For whatever reason I couldn’t find the lyrics to “Douglas Adams” and I put “Douglas Adams lyrics Blöödhag” and got everything but the actual lyrics. Come on, Internet! Stop failing me.
JS: Let’s see, the lyrics.
GD: I’m sure the number forty-two is in there somewhere.
JS: Yeah, well… no, actually, I don’t know if it is or not. There’s “Don’t Panic”, “Always know where your towel is”, references to “Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency”. We talk about his work with the “Monty Python” guys early on.
GD: Doctor Who?
JS: Some of his radio work… yeah, we did mention that a little bit. The limiting thing being, not only writing songs about Science Fiction and Fantasy authors but then we also have a time limit. We don’t write songs that are over two minutes. As a result we get a little pressed. I have to abridge people’s lives.
GD: Where did the two minute thing come from?
JS: We didn’t want to put a guitar solo in any of our songs so if you take the guitar solo out of a song, it’s two minutes long. Try it if you can.
GD: Pink Floyd minus the guitar solos.
JS: Only two minutes long. I dare you to prove me wrong.
What are You Saying?
GD: I noticed two things that I saw some fans saying. I don’t know who responded but someone asked where your lyrics come from and I think it was one of you that said they all come straight from Shakespeare.
JS: Sounds like something that was part of one of those e-mail interviews.
GD: I think I saw it on MySpace?
JS: Could be. Well, where do lyrics come from? The lyrics’ mother and father. I do a hell of a lot of research for each author. The other guys in the band write the music, and they write pretty fast. As I said, the song’s only two minutes long and we try to make them as interesting as possible, but the guys are a lot faster at writing the songs than I am at writing the lyrics. I try to make sure it’s someone I’ve read, and if it’s not someone I’ve read then I try to read a key work.
Mostly then I look on the internet and I have a couple of different reference books. If the author isn’t significantly represented in either of the reference books then I do a lot of online research and try to whittle it down, make a bunch of notes on the various factoids of the people’s life, make a bunch of notes on recurring themes within the books, book titles, book titles that rhyme with each other… cause all our lyrics rhyme. Or near rhyme, but near rhymes count, as far as I’m concerned.
GD: Right. The pauvre rhyme, as the French would say.
JS: Yeah, okay. I’ll believe that.
GD: On the director commentary… I’m embarassed that I’m even mentioning this… on the director commentary to R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” he says, you may not realize this because you’re so engrossed with the story, and it’s such a complex plot (these aren’t his exact words) that you don’t even realize that it all rhymes.
JS: (laughs) Oh, uhm, I didn’t realize that. Yeah, I’ve only been able to subject myself to the first half of that. Some people tell me that I’m missing out.
GD: Yes. I think that you are in terms of something that’s so bad that it’s good and it goes back to being bad again… that’s just how bad it is.
JS: What I’ve often found is that stuff that looks really good on paper is awful in execution but if it looks stupid on paper, it usually works great. I don’t know which one of those worked for R. Kelly, or not.
The Isaac Sideburns
GD: Quick stupid question. Your sideburns : Isaac Asimov?
JS: Yeah. They’re to emulate Asimov and I started wearing a bolo tie on stage that has a picture of Isaac Asimov wearing a bolo tie. Unfortunately, nobody ever that I deal with in general, not even sci-fi fans, put the Asimov thing on me. They want to call me Elvis or Danzig.
GD: I immediately thought Asimov.
JS: Well, good. That’s what I was shooting for. I’ve also tried to be a lech and full of myself and I tell other people what’s wrong with their stuff. That’s also to be like Asimov.
GD: Excellent. So what are the long term goals of Blöödhag?
JS: We’ve met a lot of our long term goals. Blöödhag is kind of like the band that shouldn’t have happened. As I was saying earlier, sometimes stuff that looks really bad on paper works out really well. I think that if we would have spent a lot of time ahead of time talking about the band, we would have talked ourselves out of it, but we didn’t – we just did it. As a result, we had no goal for it and we just kept adding goals as we met them. There’s one goal we haven’t met
yet and that’s to open for Gwar. We want to open for Gwar because Gwar is a big inspiration for the band. We don’t see ourselves trying to do the set things that they do and we don’t want to just dress up in costumes for the sake of dressing up in costumes. Gwar was the inspiration in that a band could exist on its own terms in a theme that it created entirely, in its own universe, and that fans would adhere to it and play by that bands rules rather than project what they want onto the band. That’s what most bands do – most bands are deliberately vague because the more vague you are in music, the more of an audience you can appeal to.
(At this point, interview assistant Elizabeth Huck has found a few songs that Jake might sing for Karaoke. I wisely selected “Rhinestone Cowboy.”)
GD: So what, to you, has to happen for a show that at the end of the night you say, “Well guys, we done well” or what would have to fail for you to say, “We messed up” ?
JS: I don’t know, I mean, I’d like to think we gage the audience pretty well. If a crowd is unreceptive or hostile to us, we’ll be hostile and unreceptive right back. As a result, the show will be as good or bad as the audience wants it to be. Instead of doing a half-assed show when the audience reacts poorly, we’ll pick a fight with them.
JS: If it has to get physical, it gets physical but usually we’ll berate the audience and insult them. Usually if it’s a bad show, it’s because they’re sitting there going, “Shut up and rock!” or doing their thing the whole time. If everyone gets my jokes – I try to look at the audience’s faces. When I make jokes that are specific to the authors or when I make references that are specific to the authors, I try to look at the audience and see which ones of them are going, “Yes! I totally knew that factoid about Philip Jose Farber!” Then there are ones who are just thinking, “Yeah… that’s cool.” I’m totally satisfied. I try not to think too much about it. We try to be an intellectual band and when it comes to an actual performance the visceral takes over and so the actual performance is fun enough that I don’t care if anybody had a good time or if we succeeded or not.
GD: That being said, I couldn’t help but notice a discrepancy between the lyrics themselves and the way you sing those lyrics.
JS: It’s all designed so the more unintelligible I am, the more people will read the lyrics and so therefore, forcing them to read.
GD: That all makes sense.
JS: There you go.
GD: That all makes sense.
JS: And also, as you’ll find out when I try to sing Glen Cambell here in a minute, that I’m not a classically trained singer. I’m singing loudly and unintelligably to mask the fact that I can’t sing.
GD: If you want to do Rhinestone Cowboy in your own way…
JS: No, I stopped doing that because I think karaoke is fun and I don’t want to step on their toes. The last time I did that I had a girl hanging onto me begging me to stop butchering “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and I don’t want anyone touching me.
GD: What would you describe your genre as?
JS: It’s Cookie Monster. Grind Vocals but not necessarily Grind music. I’d like to say that I have two settings for my voice. One is Tiamat and one is Balrog.
GD: I can appreciate that. I did notice ‘Cookie Monster’ thrown around a lot on web sites talking about you.
JS: It’s become the term for people who sing in that type of voice and I don’t have any problem with that at all because that’s yet another reference to reading. Sesame Street. Alphabet – we need the alphabet. I saw today that somebody had a sign up for a garage sale, but it didn’t say garage sale – it said “G” sale. I was like, oh, that must be Sesame Street.
GD: Must be a “G” thang.
Ten Artists : Ten Reactions
GD: I’m going to run by you a list of bands / artists and I want the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of them. Okay. First thing that comes to your mind. Beth Ditto.
JS: Is that the girl from The Gossip?
JS: Oh – she’s great. The kind of girl I’d like to sleep with, but she’s a lesbian.
GD: Avril Lavigne
JS: She’s Canadian. Why would anybody like that?
GD: Pearl Jam.
JS: I’ve met Eddie Vedder and he was super nice and shorter than me so automatically, he’s the cool guy. Pearl Jam rules.
GD: Britney Spears.
JS: Britney Spears. I’m just shocked that it took so long for her to have a breakdown.
GD: Pink Floyd.
JS: I like Pink Floyd’s early stuff – Piper at the Gates of Heaven? Dawn?
GD: Yeah, Dawn.
JS: Ummagumma? I used to listen to that, and I had that Relics album on vinyl when I was a kid, I used to listen to it all the time.
GD: Roger Waters.
JS: I like theme stuff in general, I’m a sucker for concept albums, rock operas, musicals. I like Roger Waters, I like The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, I had Radio Kaos on cassette when I was fourteen and I used to listen to that pretty regularly but as I got older I got worn out on it but if I got The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking on cd I would listen to it.
JS: I never liked Korn. I don’t like the whole going from screaming to attempting to sing unless you are really singing. I like the guy from System of a Down because he can actually sing. Korn, when he switches to singing it’s more like whining. It goes from aggressive to annoying.
GD: (whiny like singing) This is our sooong
GD: Please sing aloooong.
JS: I also don’t like sweatsuits. I don’t think people should wear sweatsuits outside.
GD: Sweatsuits are for the gym. Sweatsuits? Gym.
JS: If you’re working out, then you wear a sweatsuit.
GD: I think on Seinfeld once he said that it was the lowest form of dressing up. It screams, “Something’s wrong! Please help!”
GD: That being said… Linkin Park.
JS: I think if you listen to two of their albums back to back you’ll see that they’re bandwagon jumpers. Whatever they think is going to sell at that particular moment. They went from being aggressive hip-hop metal to being shoegazer quasi-crap. I don’t understand it and obviously I don’t know a lot of musical genres to be saying shoe-gazer – totally inappropriate. I don’t know what they are now.
GD: I was trying to imagine Linkin Park shoe-gazing.
JS: I watched Linkin Park on Saturday Night Live the other day and it was awful. Even the best bands on Saturday Night Live usually do a bad job.
GD: (To assistant) Does someone object?
JS: THe sound is usually bad, it’s what the problem is.
GD: It’s a small stage.
JS: The worst I’ve ever heard was Kelis – the Milkshake girl – on Saturday Night Live – ugh. That was awful. That was my guilty pleasure song of that year… well, that summer. I couldn’t get that song out of my head. Oh, uhm, Linkin Park? They rule!
GD: Shania Twain.
JS: I don’t like young country. They’re just pop with a fiddle solo. I like country. The older it gets, the more I like it.
GD: Reba McEntire?
JS: No, older like 40’s, 50’s, 60’s. Bluegrass…
GD: Hank Williams
JS: Bill Monroe
GD: Bill is excellent.
JS: Stuff like Shania Twain is like, she saw a vacancy in the country market and filled it.
GD: I hear you. Last but not least in this list of artists… or artistes… Marilyn Manson. I’m not sure if he’s either. (laughs)
JS: I’d always written off Maril
yn Manson as Alice Cooper watered down stuff. He wasn’t doing anything that Alice Cooper didn’t do before. His songs are so funny because he would do little jazz shuffles. The Beautiful People, if you stripped away all the distortion and played it on the piano (imitates what song would sound like on piano) it’s really simple and stupid. Then I started thinking, this guy is a genius to get away with that. The longer he exists doing his own thing, the more respect I have for him. He hasn’t changed what he’s been trying to do. I think that’s the biggest problem I have with pop artists that get famous. As soon as they see their fortunes beginning to fade, they change their tune – literally. They start playing music that is different than what brought them to the table. I think an artist – I don’t know if they owe something to their original fanbase, but I don’t think you should stray dramatically from where you were originally and if you feel like doing that then you should break that band up and start another one, do a side project or whatever you want to do to express that. I think the fans who have paid a lot of money and made a band wealthy have a say in what that band does. They shouldn’t crap out and go soft – or, conversely, go hard.
GD: That being said, we’re never going to see ballads by Blöödhag?
JS: We have a couple parts of our songs that don’t have effects on them, like a little guitar plinking here and there. No, we’re not going to do a ballad, we’re not going to change the format. We’ll just bust it up. Everyone in the band has a side project except for me. I do a bunch of other stuff that is not music related. We don’t have any reason to change Blöödhag’s formula. The only thing we do slightly differently is that occasionally we’ll get an itch to do a cover song and so we’ll learn a cover and play it at a party or something like that… just for friends.
GD: So as far as authors… it’s pretty much Sci-Fi / Fantasy?
JS: Yeah, well, in terms of what I personally read, or the band?
GD: The band.
JS: The band only does songs about Sci-Fi / Fantasy and Seminal Horror authors. We’re getting to the point where we’ve covered a lot of the big players and we’re getting to a lot of either new people or people that a lot of people would argue with us endlessly whether they would be considered Sci-Fi / Fantasy or Seminal Horror. We’ve got people like Franz Kafka that we put in there and we do Kurt Vonnegut and a lot of people, Kurt Vonnegut included, would argue with us and not only that but Kurt Vonnegut would probably argue with us and not want to be included in Sci-Fi. Screw it, we like the authors and think there’s enough of a tenuous connection.
GD: I think that Kurt Vonnegut has Sci-Fi to him.
JS: Well that’s how he started, and I think he wanted to get out of it.
GD: I mean, Ice Nine.
JS: Sci-Fi is like a ghetto of fiction. Everyone wants to write the great American novel but not everyone wants to write the great American genre novel. Those things are considered – sci-fi, western, horror, mystery, suspense – they’re the money-making genres of fiction so as a result, you’re in it for the money and you’re not a real novelist. I think that’s what a lot of people think and it could also be attatched to music, too. Pop music for mass consumption – you’re considered less of an artist than if you’re making obscure music for nobody.
GD: Which brings us back to Sebadoh.
JS: I love Sebadoh. I’m a freaking big fan
Writers To Be Avoided
GD: As I am as well. So are there any artists that you would never touch?
JS: Yeah, we’ll probably never do L. Ron Hubbard and we’ll probably never do Steven King or Dean R. Koontz. We’re never going to do RA Salvatore… we stay away from stuff that’s based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Forgotten Realms, anything that’s based on a television show, role playing game or anything that is based on a pre-existing media that was turned into a series of books.
GD: There are rules, you see.
JS: Yeah, we don’t cover any of that.
GD: Why not L. Ron Hubbard?
JS: At first when we started this, we were writing about authors we were familiar with, so there was a lot more critical material in my lyrics than there is now. Now we really want to talk about authors that we like, we want to share and that I think everybody should support. I think that A)they have enough fans already and they don’t need our help and B)I don’t like them enough that I want to spend my time talking about them, and I don’t want to say, “Hey, our next author is L. Ron Hubbard and have the whole crowd go “Booo!”
GD: It’s not like you’re worried that Scientologists are going to come and beat you down if you don’t sing praises.
JS: I will have any sort of fight with a Scientologist. Words, knives, kung fu. I don’t even know kung fu.
GD: A friend of mine – someone she knew posted something on like a bulletin board back when there were bulletin boards saying something along the lines of “come and get me” and then the next night, he got run over and then they backed the car over him.
JS: Well, I’m not going to do that. We did go to the L. Ron Hubbard life exhibit in LA the last time we were down there which is basically the L. Ron Hubbard museum / hype thing – I’m sure they get a couple of converts over the course of it. Man, it was the biggest bunch of crap you ever saw. L. Ron Hubbard apparently did everything first and set the world record at it. Breathing oxygen – whatever it was, he did it first and best. At the end of tour, there’s a big wall that has a big red curtain on it. All the lights snap up behind you and the lights shine on the curtain. Music plays. The curtain slides back and it’s a bunch of plaques, framed documents from different countries and organizations that are like, “Thank you, L. Ron Hubbard for doing this for us! L. Ron Hubbard, you are honorary this and have achieved this. Then that wall slides back and there’s another wall behind it. Then that wall slides back. Seven walls of plaques and awards – things like that, all the while trumpet music (makes trumpet music sound) – I’m not kidding, man. I was just digging my fingernails into my hands, I didn’t know what to do. Prior to this we used one of those stupid meters that’s supposed to
JS: yeah, tell you about your zappons, or whatever. It seriously does nothing because I was thinking about nothing and the meter wasn’t doing anything. I felt bad for the girl because it wasn’t doing anything so I squeezed them and it went *Wiirrr* and she was like, oh, see? It worked!
GD: Is tonight bad karaoke night, or something? (Just about everyone that has been singing in the background has been some level of tone deaf. I’m not kidding.)
JS: No, this is great. It makes me more likely to sing. If people were slaying up there, I would feel bad but if people are being terrible then I don’t feel so bad. Does this place normally have some killers, like most karaoke places have.
GD: It does, actually. Some people do come in here that are not rubbish.
EH: Yeah, but the people singing tonight are the regulars.
JS: Are they going to come in here and call me in there?
EH: They’ll just call.
GD: Could you go and see where he is in the line, please?
JS: So what movie is it that you guys are going to go and see at midnight?
GD: (Dark voice) Midnight! It’s Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.
GD: The harrowing story of two young men out to get burgers.
JS: After they get stoned. I like that movie a lot because it was the first stoner movie I ever saw where the stoners were competent smart
people with jobs and futures and they weren’t just burn-outs. It was like hey, stoners are normal people and anyone can smoke pot – I thought that was the cool part about it. The part I didn’t like was the Cheetah. The rest of it was believable. It was ridiculous but you could still go “Okay.” Then they rode a Cheetah.
GD: I don’t know, the part where the black guy gets arrested again while he’s in jail…
JS: Right. That was awesome. That was better comedy than just, you know, a cheetah. I thought Kumar’s dope fantasy was excellent.
(We are informed that Jake was called but ‘did not come’ so he is next.)
GD: Okay, last question. JK Rowling.
JS: She’s great. People want to trash her, release her books early as though she doesn’t deserve money but honestly, she’s gotten a lot of kids to read. There’s nothing wrong with her books, there’s nothing wrong with the way they are written.
(Jake gets up to the Karaoke stage and rocks Rhinestone Cowboy)
JK Rowling’s “Crimes”
GD: Finishing your thoughts on JK Rowling.
JS: The crimes she can be accused of are ripping off Roald Dahl’s style and instead of creating her own creatures – everything she uses, wizards, dragons, phoenixes – everything comes from other sources. Some people say that’s a good thing. She’s taking these things and bringing them to one place and using them. Some people say that’s just lazy.
GD: To me, it seems the concept of elves that are slaves until they are given clothing – that seems pretty new.
JS: I guess so, though you could say that the elves that work for Santa Claus are slaves. Santa Claus, of course, is in Narnia, not Hogwarts. I don’t have a problem with JK Rowling. She made her bazillions. She’s going to have a problem now, though, where she’s not going to be able to write about any other character. She’s either done writing or she needs to write another Harry Potter book. Anything else is not going to be
GD: The next Harry Potter book
JS: Yeah, it’s going to be held up to such scrutiny that it’s going to fail before it even starts. That’s how it works. The only way she’s going to be able to follow it up is to wait. If she puts out the last Harry Potter book and then waits like ten years for everyone to grow up that was a Harry Potter fan and then she starts a new series, then she can do it. If she folds Harry Potter and starts a new series next year, it’s going to fail.
GD: Speaking of Narnia – I read a lot of the books when I was a kid. Somehow it totally escaped me – when I was older, I read these things that said, “Oh, by the way, they are heavily steeped in religion.”
JS: I didn’t notice it either. Actually, we’re writing the CS Lewis song right now, and the lyrics in that are basically saying the same thing. When I was a kid I read that and missed the Christian allegory all together and then when I got older, it didn’t dawn on me – somebody else had to bring it up. I still don’t think it makes it bad because he buries it enough in there that it doesn’t really matter. If kids aren’t noticing that…
GD: I was on the web site of Davey and Goliath – you know, kids, yeah, awesome. I was showing a friend of mine – he’s Japanese, he doesn’t know Davey and Goliath. Suddenly I noticed in the corner of the page it said “Davey and Goliath are registered trademarks of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
JS: Well Art Clokey, who did Gumby and Davey and Goliath – he was a Christian dude. Evangelical, I guess. He didn’t let any of that into Gumby – Gumby was just psycho. Then Davey and Goliath was pretty straight – the funny thing is there, Davey and Goliath, I watched it when I was a kid and I didn’t think about the Christian aspect of it but it’s pretty obvious. It has a moral and they say G-d this and G-d. I grew up in Indiana and Channel 46 was run by the local evangelist, Lester Summerall – but it was the only channel that showed cartoons in the morning before school and immediately afterwards. They didn’t show just Christian cartoons – you watched Davey and Goliath and some other cartoons in the morning and then after school you had Inspector Gadget, Thundercats, GI Joe, Transformers – all in a row. I’m sure he was trying to sucker in some of us secular kids to watch the rest of Lester Summerall’s freakouts but I didn’t fall for it. I had my days planned around the blocks of cartoons but I didn’t absorb the rest of it. The channel was the PTL local affiliate – Jim Baker and all that.
GD: It’s funny because I could see religion and even a little Christian but not Lutheran. Lutheran seems to be a well-defined set of theological beliefs. They didn’t brand it like, “Look up to Martin Luther” or something.
GD: Okay, Jake. Thank you so much.
JS: You’re welcome, man.
It was a pleasure to speak with Jake – I certainly learned a lot about the way Blöödhag goes about doing their thing. More importantly, I think I learned just a bit about the importance of doing your own thing as a musician. Certainly something from which some of the more tabloid-covered musicians of our day could learn.