The Blood Brothers Swimming in Uncharted Waters

The Blood Brothers Swimming in Uncharted Waters
Photo: Robin Laananen
"It’s our music, so we’ll do whatever we want,” says Jordan Blilie, one of two vocalists for the Blood Brothers. "I don’t feel any responsibility to follow up something that people connected to with something they’ll connect to in a similar way.”

These Seattle, Washington purveyors of abrasive, chaotic punk and hardcore have followed an unconventional path since their earliest days as an screamo outfit that had to get rides to gigs from mom. They’ve got five full-length albums under their belt now; as they get more popular, they’ve become more stubborn, eschewing well-travelled roads to forge their own path. Their sound is getting more poppy just as the hardcore and punk scene embraces more aggressive sounds. They made a major-label affiliated album with star-making nu-metal producer Ross Robinson that was even more abrasive than their earlier work; when it was completed, they couldn’t even physically perform it on stage. They’ve become accustomed to getting booed and heckled at many of their shows anyway. Just part of life for the Blood Brothers, who’ve taken it all in stride since they abandoned their very first game plan, which was to break up right after their first tour, while the were all still in high school.

Imagine the stuck-in-your-head-for-days hooks of ‘60s pop being jammed into a blender with a go-kart engine, puréed, and used to douse an out-of-control brush fire. This is the sonic world of the Blood Brothers. "I think where the pop sensibility comes in is mainly in the vocals,” explains bassist and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson. "There aren’t a lot of repetitive rhythms instrumentally, in terms of a rock-type pop songs, so it’s the vocals that make sense of it all.” The mêlée of rhythms and pummelling soundscapes that populate the Blood Brothers’ new album, Young Machetes, are anything but typical of a "rock-type pop song.”

Two distinct vocalists provide the "pop” to the Blood Brothers scraping instrumental noise: Jordan Blilie, whose mid-range drawl offers a distinct delivery and cathartic scream, and Johnny Whitney, whose own high-pitched bark continues to develop in seemingly inhuman ways from album to album. This aggressive dual vocal attack has long been a defining element of the band’s sound, one that has drawn some to them while repelling others.

"I think we’ve always been forward-thinking in our approach,” Blilie says. That’s been true from their earliest days playing unmelodic screamo around Seattle, releasing a handful of seven-inches and building a reputation in underground punk and hardcore circles. All five members had been in other bands, and assumed the lifespan of the Blood Brothers would be similar. "We were going to break up after our first tour,” explains Henderson. "It wasn’t for any reason other than we felt we had been a band for too long.”

Having made the decision even before they embarked upon that first foray beyond the Seattle city limits, wiser heads prevailed after the intervention of a scene veteran. "I was with [guitarist] Cody [Votolato] at our friend Dave Larson’s house — he’s this big punk guy in Seattle. We told him about how we were going to break up after the tour, and he flipped out!” Henderson laughs. The encouragement helped, but the tour itself sealed the deal. "We had so much fun and we really enjoyed what we were doing. At the end of it, we were like ‘You guys don’t really want to break up, do you?’ And we just kept going.”

"That first tour was the first time the majority of us had ever toured,” Blilie adds. "We were just excited to be playing shows in different cities. It was a point of affirmation for us. It made us want to continue.”

The Blood Brothers recorded their first full-length album, The Adultery is Ripe, and released it in 2000. It received some attention, including some enthusiastic endorsements that the band was literally reinventing the hardcore genre. A more roughly hewn version of the Blood Brothers that exist today, Adultery succeeded in mashing together screaming guitars and a manic rhythm section with Blilie and Whitney’s unique howls.

They further developed their sonic style with 2002’s March On Electric Children, this time adding a lyric-driven thematic concept, conceived by Blilie and Whitney. That theme — the exploitation of sex in the media — played out through characters like Mr. Electric Ocean and Scissor Lips over 25 minutes of musically mind-blowing creativity. Experimenting with a greater variety of styles and sounds, March On was even more spastic than its predecessor, and garnered an even more positive reception in underground circles.

March On, and indeed the band’s sound as a whole, owes much to the unique guitar style of Cody Votolato, part of the prolific Votolato clan that includes brothers Rocky and Sonny. Rocky fronted influential post-punks Waxwing and currently has a successful solo career, while Sonny performs with Slender Means and releases solo material under the name Blue Checkered Record Player. Cody Votolato has developed his own unique guitar sound that, while appropriately thick-sounding on record, holds up in a single-guitar live situation. Moving from riff to riff with little in the way of repetition, his work builds on the equally spastic framework of Henderson’s bass and the manic drums of Mark Gajadhar, whose syncopated rhythms are equally vital in producing the Blood Brothers’ signature sound.

The band’s burgeoning popularity and solid reputation brought bigger players to the band’s inner circle, and for their third full-length album, the Blood Brothers signed on to Ross Robinson’s major-label affiliated ARTISTdirect imprint. Robinson made his reputation on million-selling nu-metal acts like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot; inevitably, there were fears amongst their core audience that he would attempt to do the same with their beloved Blood Brothers. Curiously, instead of making the band more accessible, he helped take them in even noisier directions for 2003’s ...Burn, Piano Island, Burn.

"Ross did an excellent job of tapping into a certain aspect of our band,” Blilie recalls. "That being the crazy, abrasive, chaotic side.” This time, the band wrote and crafted the bulk of the album in the studio with Robinson. When they emerged with the remarkable, critically acclaimed album and headed out on tour to support it, they faced a new challenge: much of what they had created for ...Burn, Piano Island, Burn couldn’t be played live — not just that it was alienating or challenging, but physically impossible to pull off.

In some ways, it was a turning point for the band, opening up a world of possibilities that they’d continue to explore. "After we did that record, we realised we were interested in getting much more out of being in a band together and making music,” Blilie says. "I think the next two records we did reflect that growth on our part.”

"The last time I got called ‘fag’ was pretty much the entirety of our Coheed and Cambria tour,” says Morgan Henderson. With the backing — and financial expectations — of bigger labels behind them, the Blood Brothers embarked upon a series of tours with high-profile acts in the punk and hardcore community, such as the Used and Glassjaw. What is for most an opportunity to expose their music to a broad potential audience quickly turned into a nightly challenge for Blood Brothers.

"The adverse reactions are immediate,” Blilie says. "You can see it in front of your face. You can hear the crowd booing, and you can see a kid giving you the finger.”

"I find it really interesting to be the cause of such an intense reaction,” Henderson says. "It is really a compliment. The most intense example was when we played a few shows with AFI. It was the first and second biggest shows they had ever played — there were so many people there it was just mind-blowing. I realised that we weren’t playing for the underground AFI minions — we were playing for this cross-section of America. Half the crowd wanted to come on stage and kill us, and the other half loved us and couldn’t believe how the crowd was treating us. We got tons of emails that were like ‘I fucking hate you!’ and tons that were like ‘Oh my god, I love you and I fucking hate those people that were yelling at you!’”

For his part, Blilie takes it all in stride. "Someone in a white hat that says ‘Gamecocks’ on it giving me the middle finger is not going to in any way affect the way I feel about what we’re doing or affect how I approach playing a show. It just makes me smile.”

If ...Burn, Piano Island, Burn challenged the worldview of some sheltered Midwestern MTV viewers, their follow-up, Crimes, actually put some doubt in the minds of real Blood Brothers fans. "There were a fair number of people that really didn’t like what we had done with Crimes,” Blilie says. Released in 2004, their fourth album represented a significant departure for the band. "I think a lot of the vocal lines, and what you might consider a chorus, are very hooky,” Blilie explains. "It’s just put in a framework of very abrasive sounds.” Some listeners are put-off by the slower pace of the record; others don’t know what to make of Whitney’s newfound melodic range.

For the band, it was just another evolutionary step, in process as well as in sound. "We took considerably less time recording Crimes than Burn, and that was our intent,” explains Henderson. "We wanted it to be fun and we wanted to just go.” Crimes was produced by John Goodmanson, who’s worked with a diverse range of artists from Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney to Blonde Redhead and Low; the end result proved to be an impressive creative achievement, and was ultimately embraced by the growing legions of Blood Brothers fans.

Between large scale and small tours, the band members, now free from the rigor and pressures of day jobs, branched out with a variety of other projects. Whitney and Gajadhar went to work on Neon Blonde, their manic, electronic-tinged hardcore side project. Blilie and Votolato formed the super-thrashy Head Wound City with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Justin Pearson and Gabe Serbian from the Locust.

"That stuff is a way of reminding everyone that they are musicians and that they like playing music,” Henderson says, who spent some downtime writing music for a friend’s dance company. "This thing that has become a concentrated part of our lives doesn’t have to be so restrictive.”

An opportunity to take time off and focus on other music proved particularly useful to the Blood Brothers’ two vocalists. "I think both of us would say we were pleased to do something where we were the sole vocalist,” Blilie says. "We love working with each other, but it was nice to do something where we each had complete control over the songs from start to finish, in terms of vocals. Head Wound City was just a fun vacation. It was nice to do something completely from scratch again, to feel the difference between the dynamic of people that have been playing together for nine or ten years, versus people who are just getting together and playing for the first time. I was excited to have that experience again.”

"I think Johnny [Whitney] had a lot of ideas that he needed to express and flesh out that he felt probably wouldn’t work in the context of the Blood Brothers,” Blilie continues. "In that respect, it was very helpful for him and it helped him to focus in very hard on writing the next Blood Brothers record with everyone.”

If the Blood Brothers played only to supportive audiences, their new album Young Machetes could have turned out very differently — challenging circumstances are what brought them to the attention of Fugazi singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto, who co-produced their new effort. "I saw them play a really confrontational show where they were opening for a band whose fans really didn’t understand them,” Picciotto recalls. "I appreciated it because with Fugazi, we played a lot of shows that were kind of confrontational in a way. And I appreciate a band that doesn’t wither under that kind of thing, that delivers their material fearlessly. I was really impressed by their confidence, the fact that they were committed to their music and they weren’t shrinking violets. They’re like a multi-headed hydra. They remind me of what Fugazi had.”

"Everybody was in the control room,” is how Morgan Henderson remembers the recording process, which included Goodmanson again as well as Picciotto. "We were seven people huddled into this room. That wasn’t a conscious effort — that’s just what happened.”

"We just laughed all day and hung out,” Blilie recalls. "The overall sense in the studio was always very positive, energetic and excited — and other great adjectives that you’d like to use to describe your recording experience.”

They joke now, but Picciotto for one recognised the atmosphere as crucial to the creative process of the Blood Brothers. "A lot of bands, one or two guys are calling the shots and the other ones are just along for the ride,” he says. "They’re a band where everyone is really, really involved and everyone has a large say in what happens in the music — that’s what makes great bands great. It’s a bunch of elements that bounce off each other and it creates something much better than if one person were doing it. That’s why I think they’re a true band. Everyone is throwing in so much and it’s like a chemical reaction that creates something much bigger than if it were just five different solo albums.”

For Morgan Henderson, Young Machetes meant taking a different approach personally to benefit the greater good. "I think everyone wanted it to be as open as we could make it, and to say ‘yes’ to whatever the idea was,” he explains. "That’s harder than it sounds, especially for me. My natural inclination is to say ‘no’ right off the bat.”

"I hate throwing out terms like ‘fully realised’ and shit like that, but I think it’s kind of true,” Blilie offers. "I think that this record is the culmination. I feel like this is our most solid record from start to finish and I think the songs feel like the most effective songs that we’ve written. It’s definitely the record that I’m most proud of so far.”

"My aspiration with the band is to create stuff that has longevity,” Henderson offers. "And during the process of that there are lots of happy faces on us and those that are listening to us. People hear the Blood Brothers and think that it’s all about anger and aggression. But it’s not at all. It’s a different energy than that.”

With Young Machetes, the band have captured that energy better than ever before, striking a perfect balance between deafening sonics and left-field pop awareness. In doing so, they seem destined to continually revolt some listeners who simply don’t see the appeal of staccato rhythms and high-pitched screams, while drawing in those who marvel at their entirely unique take on traditional punk, hardcore, and pop music. "I think that’s what continues to hold us together — our openness to change, and our openness to try new ideas,” Blilie says. "It always makes for an exciting writing process, because we know we’ll try just about anything."