On making music in Montreal lofts and on how influential hip-hop has become to a musician's life.
Kieran Blake is a Montreal songwriter and guitarist who inhabits the weird, dark corners of his city. Whether he's recording an album in a tunnel, performing a late night show in an artist loft, or working his day job as a janitor at the 90-year-old Art-Deco Rialto Theatre, he lives is life surrounded by Montreal's dilapidated beauty.
This comes through on some of his more recent output, like Dusty Crutches, Vol. II, a collection of songs recorded in one of the city's now defunct artist lofts; or in the music video for "Think About a Love," where he explores the gutted apartment above his with a VHS recorder. Other albums, like What Vicious Glow and the Rose EP, explore themes of lost love and longing through the dark haze of cigarette smoke.
Starting out as a student of Elliot Smith, he has since incorporated textures of rock, jazz, and, through his band, Hiroshima Shadows, Pixies-like sludge punk into his music. Blake's falsetto croon evokes artists like Wayne Coyne and Daniel Johnston - singers whose quirky, wavering tone renders them all the more interesting and expressive. We spoke with him recently about his music, his life in Montreal, and the inspiration he draws from things as diverse as failed relationships and hip-hop.
Noisey: Many of your album titles references the places where they were recorded - there's Songs From a Tunnel, and the two Dusty Crutches albums from different Montreal lofts. Does environment have a major impact on you?
Kieran Blake: Environment has an impact, but it's got a lot more to do with where I'm at emotionally. The tunnel album is a different story because I literally recorded the whole album inside a tunnel, so the environment was incorporated into the execution of the album sonically and metaphorically. The echoes and drips and sounds of the tunnel's environment became kind of like an instrument being played throughout, and the songs all being sung from inside of a cold, dank tunnel created a theme for the album.
The Dusty Crutches stuff is more just a delivery method for songs that don't have a home, so I guess it's inevitable that they are defined by the environment they were recorded because there isn't really anything else to thread them together; no theme or concept, but they inevitably end up having a mood because they were recorded at a specific time of my life.
Your most recent release was Dusty Crutches Vol. II - Friendship Cove Recordings. How did you pull together that material?
Those recordings were from when I was essentially living in a jam space, so I had access to drums, keyboards, amps, whatever - and I could play them whenever and as loud as I wanted. I ended up writing a lot of songs where drums were an important part of the songwriting process, and that's not usually the case for me. It was a big soundproof room with one window in the roof, so I could go a bit crazy and howl at the moon. It was a weird time of my life, so a lot of the songs are kinda weird. I remember a particularly productive night of recording where I was drinking directly from of a big 4 litre bag of stolen wine, alone, lifting it up to the moonlight to squeeze out the last drops into my mouth. I didn't steal the wine though, it was a gift.
That's a loft with a long history. When did you start hanging out there? Any favourite moments?
I had seen a few shows at Friendship Cove before, but at the time that I moved in I was sort of homeless and sleeping on my friend's couch in Griffentown, so when I heard the guys at Friendship Cove needed a roommate I jumped on it and moved in. All those guys were really cool and they were all in bands and everyone was able to practice and throw shows in the place where they lived, so obviously it was conducive to creativity for me to be around all that. But surprisingly my favourite moments weren't musical; like when we would go out and find wood for the furnace and watch Intervention and Hoarders together - we did that every week. Or when I was so hungry but had no food, so I ate one of my roommates huge pot brownies - I don't really smoke pot so I was pretty fucked up, laying in my bed staring at the moon. Or making my way through a punk show that was going on to get to my room, holding a bowl of Kraft Dinner, barefoot.
The first part of that series was entitled the Griffentown Tapes. Where did you record those?
Those were recorded by Roy from Red Mass in his apartment in Griffentown. I was pretty young and had moved to Montreal not to long before that; he was nice enough to set up his 4-track recorder and let me lay down some of my songs. They are the first 'official' recordings of my songs in my mind, so I decided to include them in the series because even though most of them went on to become songs from my first album they still felt special to me and deserved a home.
You're really into hip-hop, which is interesting because your own music is very different. How does hip-hop influence you anyway?
If there's any rap influence that has creeped into the actual sound of my music it would be mostly production, I guess, because a lot of the drums on my last album were drum machines. But I do take influence from the mindset of rap. It's such a relatively young genre of music that it's still pushing the edge of what is possible. Rappers and hip-hop producers basically do whatever they want to do because it's an art form that is very early in it's evolution when compared to more traditional genres. So it's less tied down by convention - I like that. It's also almost always about self-empowerment and independence, which is an attitude we should all have more of, I think.
What hip-hop artist are you into?
I really love A$AP Rocky. Odd Future are great too, Earl Sweatshirt is crazy talented. And Kendrick Lamar. I think it's crazy that Kendrick didn't win a Grammy this year for best rap album; that album is the best album I've heard in a long time, let alone rap album. Oh well, I guess it's just further proof that the Grammy's are a joke.
The music videos for "Yer Not A Sunrise" and "Think About a Love" have a very haunting quality to them. What's their story?
The video for "Yer Not A Sunrise" was entirely my friend Andy deFreitas' idea. He runs this production company Newfoundland Tack that put out my tunnel album on their tape label Port Vanderlay. I think it's beautiful. The video for "Think About A Love" I filmed myself with a shitty VHS camera that was glitching out, so it caused some cool fucked up effects to the footage. It was shot in my apartment and also in the gutted apartment above mine that has the same lay-out, so it was kinda like time travel to jump between the two, like before and after a devastating event. I also filmed 3 different female friends' faces and overlapped them to create a vague foggy impression of a woman, because the song is about thinking back on an old love.
You live something of a dual life, performing solo and with Hiroshima Shadows. What makes you keep the two separate?
As a solo songwriter, I focus on being melodic, and the songs all have themes of love, loss, hope, pain; it's generally pretty emotional. Whether it's sad or happy, it's always personal, and often after a solo show I feel bummed out because I've essentially just combed through my tattered romantic history for the umpteenth time. I do love it, and I need it - I feel it's a necessary outlet for me to express myself, but there are certain things that I feel the need to express that I don't want to express through "Kieran Blake"; like, I don't want to be the guy with an acoustic guitar yelling about religion or politics or whatever, I hate that shit, it feels so preachy and contrived.
So I started Hiroshima Shadows as a sort of second prong for my aggressive musical energy to be let out, it let's me touch on different topics, stuff that pisses me off or social things that concern me, but it also allows me to just write songs for the hell of it too without feeling like I'm being disingenuous. It creates a distance between me and my songwriting. Plus it's just fun as hell to play a loud guitar and yell - people thrashing around at my shows is a nice change too.
What's next? Any recording plans? New projects or collaborations?
I've been working on a Kieran Blake album for quite a long time now, doing a lot of pre-production stuff like figuring out arrangements of all the instruments and drum parts using a keyboard. It's going to be quite lush; a lot of piano and strings, very little guitar. It's kind of the final chapter in a story that's been threaded throughout my last two albums What Vicious Glow and Songs From A Tunnel - a final farewell. It deals a lot with the concept of loving someone from so long ago that you're not actually in love with that person anymore, you're in love the memory of that person in a weird way, and with time you've made that memory into something that doesn't even resemble them anymore. You've added hope and promise to that memory in an unhealthy way and you need to say goodbye. That's why it's really the end of the line for the theme because after a certain point you have to let go for real - because it's just you and your muse, and she's a ghost. I don't even know if people will like the album or not, but it really doesn't matter because in my heart I know it's necessary for me to finish this story.
Hiroshima Shadows just finished an album that we're gonna get out on vinyl soon, and I've also started a project with Ohara Hale called SHIM SHAM. It's lighthearted and old-fashioned with modern production - we recorded a 3 song EP of call-and-answer Nancy & Lee type songs, I'm really excited about it.
Greg Bouchard is a writer living in Toronto. He's on Twitter.