Blaze McKenzie is the wayward frontman of the Can’t Tells, a Brooklyn-based three piece who released their debut LP No Television in 2014. Although his band has enjoyed a healthy schedule over the years, McKenzie has recently found himself sitting upon a collection of songs that were far more personal.
It was a library of ideas which coalesced into his solo debut Born A Shadow. After wrapping our ears around it, we reached out to McKenzie for the latest.
How did Blaze McKenzie fall into recording his solo debut? We catch up with the Brooklyn-based songwriter to chat Born A Shadow, and bunnies.
HAPPY: Hey Blaze, how’s it going? What are you up to at the moment?
BLAZE: Hey there, I’m doing alright I suppose. Currently, I’m sitting on my couch next to my snoring English bulldog Ramona. This is usually the time of night (after my girlfriend goes to bed) where I sit down with a guitar and just improvise into the voice memos on my phone. I have hundreds of memos each labeled according to the mood/vibe of what I played, which I often cull for song ideas or melodic ideas. Shit, I already started rambling.
HAPPY: Last month you released Born A Shadow, your solo debut. What made you want to record outside out of the Can’t Tells?
BLAZE: I met the other members of the Can’t Tells, Michael DiSanto and Jonathan Smith in college. We were all in the production and engineering program, which was pretty close knit and somewhat competitive. They are both tremendous engineers and musicians and I pretty much immediately knew I wanted to start a band with them. Mike’s songs were unlike anything I’d heard, really, and just bouncing ideas off of him has been a priceless asset.
After we graduated we all moved to New York City in 2007. I wrote our first record in our first apartment in Bushwick, and I think those were the first songs I ever finished aside from a handful I’d written while in school (lots of firsts in that sentence). Over the ten years we have been playing together, we have attempted to meld two songwriters’ and two singers’ voices/songs into a cohesive sound, but sometimes in order to make this happen songs need to be modified in this way or that.
Inevitably some songs either don’t make the cut for the band, or just need another more appropriate outlet. I guess at a certain point it felt like I should see if I could make a record without the support of the other guys. I had written a bunch of songs, sort of suddenly and I didn’t want to sacrifice my original intent for them, so that they would make sense as the Can’t Tells. In the end, I can’t say they’re that far off from most of the songs I’ve written in the Can’t Tells.
HAPPY: I’ve given it a spin, and it’s moody. Were you going through some shit, when writing it?
BLAZE: Yeah, it feels like I’m always going through some shit or another. I’m a cancer. I’m moody, I guess. People have said that before. This album was born out of my first attempt at sobriety, and then relapse. I stopped drinking for the first time in late November 2013, and all of the songs on this record were written within a few months of that date, save for some lyrics here and there.
I wasn’t yet familiar with the idea of the Pink Cloud of early sobriety, when everything seems great because you’ve averted disaster by cleaning up, but the first few months were intensely productive. I think I demoed about 30 songs, of which I recorded 13, then 10 made it to the album. Recurring themes of existential dread, mortality, low self esteem, narcissism, depression, anxiety I suppose are all over the record, because those are all pretty regular passengers for me.
I would like to think there’s some redemptive quality in there as well. I know I sure felt better after writing them. Hopefully someone will feel better after listening. I swear I’m gonna write a happy song one of these days.
HAPPY: It has a DIY aesthetic I really dig. Did you record it yourself? If so, what was the setup like?
BLAZE: The recording process looked something like this; I demoed a bunch of songs in my bedroom, then sent them to a friend Mike Law, who ended up co-producing and mixing the album. Mike helped me narrow down the demos to a shortlist of songs that we both thought would listen well as an album. Since my demos were pretty fleshed out, we worked off of those sessions for some, then started fresh for others.
In the demos I had programmed all the drums in Reason, and in the end I blended them in here and there with the live drums. Mike owns a studio in Greenpoint Brooklyn called the Civil Defense, which is primarily a mix room, but we tracked drums and guitars at another now defunct studio in DUMBO. I recorded most of the guitars, bass, keys, vocals, and really everything else either at my apartment or my practice space. It was mixed at the Civil Defense.
One of my main influences is Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, and his records were a constant reference for us. I like fidelity, but I definitely wasn’t setting out to make a top 40 record.
HAPPY: Can you talk me through who played on the record?
BLAZE: Jonathan Smith, the drummer from the Can’t Tells plays drums on all of the songs except Down, which was my drum debut. Jon’s partner Jeni Magana played the bowed bass on Down, and clarinet on Never Faking. Michael Disanto, other singer from the Can’t Tells played a little bit of tremolo cymbal and some drum fills on Reason.
I played all the guitars, electric bass, keys, vocals, and drum programming. Mike Law, who mixed it deserves a player credit as well, because he’s a fastidious motherfucker, and I’m a pain in the ass to make happy.
HAPPY: Your site is adorned with a single quote, “He liked himself least of all”. Can you explain the significance?
BLAZE: How embarrassing. My self loathing got the best of me while I was trying to figure out that damn Squarespace. I think I needed a placeholder so that I would know some sort of text could go there eventually, and that was the first thing I thought. It sounds like Bukowski, kind of. I should take that down. Please don’t take me seriously.
HAPPY: Tell me about the Bunny.
BLAZE: Bunny is a nickname my girlfriend La’al gave me. One day she showed me a little doodle of a rabbit she did, and was like “look, it’s you. you’re a fucking bunny”. I have a little tattoo of that doodle on my arm, so it’s official.
The bunny mask I picked up in the bargain bin at CVS the week after halloween. It’s like 75% off all the fake blood and makeup, a real no brainer. My dogs don’t know what to make of the bunny, and I guess neither do I.
HAPPY: What will a Blaze Mckenzie live show look like? Any on the cards?
BLAZE: I’ve finally got a band assembled and rehearsing. Looking to do a very late record release show sometime in July.
HAPPY: And can you tell us what’s on the cards going forward?
BLAZE: I’ve got another album’s worth of solo material recorded, a bunch of mostly instrumental music that I’m planning on releasing under another name, and I’m about to start releasing some unreleased Can’t Tells tracks into the world.
HAPPY: Well, looking forward to it. Thanks for the chat!