If you spend any meaningful amount of time looking into indie music from the Pacific Northwest, one name that will pop out at you over and over is Karl Blau. He’s performed with and produced records by LAKE, Earth, D+, The Curious Mystery, Laura Veirs, Angelo Spencer et les Haut Sommets, The Microphones, Chain and the Gang, Arrington de Dionyso…how much time do you have? My point is that Karl has been involved with much of the great Northwest Indie music of the late ’90’s and 2000’s. He’s probably best known as Karl Blau, the solo artist and founder of KLAPS (Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society) a periodic “fanatic” album club.
Northwest music is and always has been a tight knit community of artists. I equate them with my years in college; you are able to experiment and take risks all with the deep love and respect of your community. When you fail they’re there to catch you, when you succeed they raise you up on their shoulders. In college the experience was free from industry pressures, here it’s all done while working with or often pushing against the industry. This is a community of artists who love and respect each other, as well as the physical community around them, and Karl Blau is certainly one of its leaders.
When I first began listening to Karl’s music I could tell that he was working within and without genre. From classic grunge, to Bossa Nova, reggae, folk, and hip-hop. He manages to find what’s unique about a genre and throws it against the wall like a fist full of wet noodles; he does this over and over, until what’s stuck on that wall is a unique genre amalgam, that gets recorded onto tape.
Casual listeners might find his music frustrating at first. It seems that he is purposely resisting traditional pop beats, when what he’s really doing is challenging your notion of what pop music is. And he pulls it off with expert precision. It made absolute sense to me when he explained that he wanted to create an original musical style.
There is no single Karl Blau listening experience. To nail him down as simply one thing is to severely underserve his talent and beauty. Not only from album to album, but from song to song, the emotional core and sonic feelings are different. It all makes for a very full and complete catalog.
In preparing to meet with Karl I had the idea that I wanted to conduct the interview at his home in Anacortes, a sleepy little industrial village at the northern tip of Fidalgo Island. The island reaches out like a child’s curious hand into the middle of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound. In many respects it’s your typical small American town with old residential neighborhoods and a historic downtown. On the opposite side of Fidalgo Bay is a large oil refinery, the islands largest industry, which billows smoke from a network of towering spires. Along the north shore you’ll find the second largest industry in a series of ship yards, where they manufacture Ferry’s and pleasure craft. Yet growing all around this industry is genuine beauty and some of the most inspiring views in all Puget Sound.
Fidalgo Island is a mystical kind of place. On the surface it doesn’t seem all that special, after spending just a short time there you begin to sense that something is different. It might be it’s off beat culture, the people, the beauty, or that fact that a small city with a population of 16,000, produced musical products like Karl Blau, KLAPS, Phil Elverum, knw-yr-own records, and What the Heck Fest.
Arriving at Karl’s house I got out of my car, and was immediately greeted by some serious heavy fuzzed guitar licks, spilling from his recording studio. A few minutes later he met me at the gate to his house and led me inside the shack in his back yard, that served as his studio. For me this was like walking into Jackson Pollock’s studio. The old wood walls were vibrating and humming to me of Karl’s endless musical experiments. He played back the song we was recording as I pulled up, “Sleep Walker” a song poem sent to him by a contributor to his recent Kickstarter campaign.
As the song played I could see the reel to reel spinning in Karl’s brain as he literally built the song before my very eyes.
I had expected that the interview might be conducted in his studio. Karl wanted to take advantage of the day. It was one of those perfect Fall days in the Northwest that sneaks up on you with a pristine sapphire sky and the sun hanging heavy, burning just bight enough to keep you from freezing. The trees were exploding in vermillion, gold, and orange. Karl, his two week old daughter Poppy, and I took a walk though his neighborhood, down to main street in town (Commercial Avenue), around to the marina, and up into Cap Sante Park. A good portion of our interview took place on the bluffs seen in the picture with Karl.
It could not have been a more perfect day or a more perfect way, to talk to an artist like Karl Blau.
Has parenthood changed your work at all?
Yeah, when Ciel was born I just wasn’t really taking my role as a musician seriously, to make it something I could sustain my family with. I was really ambiguous with what I was doing with music. I was just making albums fecklessly which I still do, but after Ciel was born I was like, “alright I’ve got to get a job now, and that means I’m not going to have very much time for music, so what I do with my spare time has to be really focused.
That’s when I started the KELP series, with my daughter Ciel I was just thinking I’ve got to channel my energy somehow, be home with the family but making music as much as I can too. Music for me is very therapeutic, if I’m not making music for too long I just start to go insane, I’m fidgety, I need to do something with myself all the time.
Do you like to have something that’s constantly ongoing?
Not necessarily, I’m not as into that. I like to make shorter goals for myself, like albums that I can see the end of and then can move on. That’s where KELP sort of began.
Can you describe what KELP was and then became KLAPS?
KELP, when it started was just KELP Monthly and people would subscribe to this record label of mine and I’d put an album out each month to subscribers. It became all these different fanatic albums, tour diaries etc. Then a few years passed and it became clear that it wasn’t gong to be monthly and I decided to expand the name to KELP LUNACY because it just seemed like a crazy concept, but I wanted to keep the moon/monthly symbol in the title. Then I added the Advanced Plagiarism Society just because KELP Lunacy just seemed weird. I could tell people my record label is KLAPS and that could be the end of the conversation.
The Advanced Plagiarism part is a really deep concept for me that I’ve been ruminating on for years. I think everything is plagiarized, I don’t think people really have any original ideas. They borrow ideas from other people, from nature, and nature borrows ideas from people. It just goes around and around and that’s important. Eventually I want to come to some original music like Jamaica did in the 60’s and 70’s [with] Regge. I feel like Fidalgo Island’s the perfect place to start a new culture like that.
It’s just exciting to struggle against and figure out, well, what do we want as a culture? What do we want as people? What do we want to hold onto? What do we want to let go? This is just the perfect place to do that. The Plagiarism just points a finger on the fact that we’re not original and then freeing up, giving ourselves some room to be original.
Bands from the Anacortes or North Puget Sound area really seem to be getting some recognition. Could you talk about that progression a little.
There’s definitely some mentoring in this town where some experienced adults like Bret Lunsford (Beat Happening, D+) have taken people under their wing. I think mentoring had a huge inspiration and effect on me, studying his lyrics and play in his [Bret Lunsford] band D+.
The scene that I was fostered into as a high schooler was the Mt. Vernon punk scene. The valley [Skagit Valley] has had a long tradition of punk music and metal. I think that’s true everywhere: metal and punk permeated every small town more or less and shook the foundations. Why is it different up here? I don’t know exactly. I think it’s a really special place to grow up, and people want to come back. That’s a little different then a lot of small towns. Northwest music feels like it’s cultivating it’s own culture- is that too many cults?
I’ve read that you turned down the opportunity to become a fourth generation oyster farmer was that a hard decision?
It was not a hard choice. It’s good hard work, I did it for a few years. It was good for my soul and I could see myself doing it later again, just retiring from music and getting back into oyster farming. But it’s a family business so it’s got it’s ins and outs… dealing with family. In a way it’s such an amazing opportunity that doesn’t really exist anymore, that families are passing down jobs, that’s a thing of the past.
You’ve compared the process of building a song to the process of drawing a dragon. Can you talk a little about that?
That’s interesting, I was just thinking of that yesterday. It’s at the top of my mind that concept. I was just thinking about doing these song poems, where I’m taking people’s lyrics, [people] send me these random lyrics that they wrote or chose from someone and i’m turning them into songs. The dragon metaphor really works for me, with a song you’ve got your head and your tail (your staring and ending). Anything that goes into the insides… there’s rhythm, maybe not, maybe you draw certain size scales. There’s just no one way to draw a dragon, there’s millions of ways, and everyone’s got their own way. Anyone can do it, you can put wings on it or not, there’s just certain elements that you can use or not and that’s the cool thing. It’s special to you and your life experiences that go into your picture or song.
Can you describe your song writing process from an idea into a recording?
That’s an interesting question, there are so many ways. I like to exercise every single method of writing and recording a song. I like to go to the recording deck with a song finished, because it’s so easy, and that’s really fun because if I have the whole song on the guitar, as i’m laying it down there are so many calculations per second that you’re doing when your recording on the fly, which is just how I roll. It’s all pretty much off the cuff when I record or write songs, it’s just making up stuff, then I like to go into a recording, put a drum track down not even knowing what’s going to happen next. Maybe put bass guitar next, or maybe vocals, and just sing out in any key that I feel compelled to. That often leads to problems with tuning later, if you listen to my recordings you’ll hear a lot of mistuning. I find the emotional content often more compelling. Let it be okay that it’s not perfect and in tune. A real clear aspect of my recording is that if I feel strongly about something I try to just run with that. Like when I can feel myself getting pulled in a certain direction I try to just let go, stick my chest out and head in that direction.
Pleasure is a really big part of recording, if I can see the next step and find pleasure in it then I’ll go that way. Then inspiration, those are the two main things I like to go with. I record on analog/tape and I record standing up mostly. I have a tall chair that I have sometimes, just to sit and play guitar, but I like to be moving the whole time. I feel like drinking a lot of water getting my blood flowing. That will keep me in the groove and I can trust myself.
I’ve always felt that Northwest music wasn’t about precision or perfection, but rather about the little mistakes and being real and honest. Do you feel that’s true?
I see that a lot in Northwest music and art… being off the beaten path and just, “well no one’s going to listen to this anyway” or, “who cares, I’m doing this for different reasons, I’m not making this perfect song so the world can adore me.” You’re making art because it’s raining and you’re depressed and you feel strongly, so you make art. It’s more about the process. That said, when you polish that stuff up it can be really unique feeling. You’ve seen all these Northwest bands get cleaned up and they sure look pretty when they’re clean. I don’t recommend that.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Western, Bellingham, but really shortly, I discovered the recording studio up there. Death Cab for Cutie, I was going to school at the same time as those guys, we were playing shows together, Nick [Harmer] and Ben [Gibbard] and Jason McGerr. That was cool to see those guys take off. That’s still an inspiration, I realized I wasn’t lucky as those guys on every little corner but it’s cool. Just another affirmation, you stick with it and it’ll work out. And working out to me is just, paying bills, keeping my family fed. Even from this tiny Northwest town you can make some waves for sure.
At what point did you become acquainted with the people at k-records?
The band D+ that Bret Lunsford started, I was in that band from almost the get go. We did two albums there with Calvin [Johnson] for K[records] and that’s how I got introduced. And of course Phil [Elverum] was embraced by the k world. That was also really amazing to watch. I was blown away by the k-records scene, the house show scene in particular. The first time I rolled into Olympia, at the ABC House there was a four course meal, Arrington’s [De Dionyso] Old Time Relijun was playing, Mirah was playing, this was ’97. I was just, “Oh my god, this is utopia.” I’d never dreamed of this, I had no idea people organized in this was. I it was so harmonious, people were there to have a good time, partying wasn’t the main thing. They were there to have a good time and break bread together.
I was the in-house producer for almost two years. When I recorded Zebra I got really familiar with the studio and then I was spending a lot of time there rubbing elbows with all these olympia K artists. I got to do a fair amount of records.
You’ve played and toured with many different bands, what do you get out of working with others as opposed to doing your own work?
I love playing with groups, especially music that I find really challenging, like Earth. That band is very challenging to play with. It’s tricky because having a family and having a day job as I do right now, I don’t have much time extra for anything. It’s hard to dedicate so much time to other peoples projects when I know my own work is suffering because of it. Musically I think it’s really healthy for me to play with all these different kinds of people.
You recently met your goal on kick starter.
I’m so excited about this year. I can’t think about the whole year, my mind just shuts down, but I can think about the project I’m woking on now and maybe a couple others at various times. I’m trying to shoot a movie in there too. I want to do a full length movie which I have no experience doing, except short music videos, but I just like to try stuff, so I’m going to try shooting a movie. Super ambitious this year, but it’s just a year. I can go crazy for a year, and then probably go crazy again next year.*
If there is something I admire most about Karl Blau, it is his absolute unfettered ambition. He seemingly has little fear of failure, and because so, he’s willing to try anything. Karl’s set some pretty lofty goals for himself in the coming year. But if there’s anything I learned from him it’s to just go for it. As long as you put your self into it, you’ll come away with some great art.
A month after our conversation I continued to think about his desire to create an original style of music. The more I thought about it the more I realized that he’s closer then he believes. There is an honest and original sound emanating from that wood shack in his back yard, and I can’t wait to hear what it produces next.
Stay tuned next week for the full interview podcasts with Karl Blau, including a live performance of a new song Sleep Walker.
You can find just about everything you need to know about Karl at: Kelp Lunacy, where you can subscribe to KLAPS, buy his albums, find out about up coming shows, and whatever else is going on in his world. If you would like to buy albums from many of the artists listed in the article, many are available on itunes or at krecs.com.