Karl Blau

Karl Blau
Despite a rapidly expanding catalogue, Karl Blau has yet to deliver that big career-defining album. Each time out, the tape hiss-loving Pacific North westerner dishes out a handful of gems, a few stinkers and several tracks in between, always hinting at greatness yet never quite getting there. But as the new Nature’s Got Away proves, he’s getting closer. On Blau’s second K effort, he embraces his more freewheeling’ side, taking on ultra-laidback jams that reveal an increasingly tender, more soulful Blau. In fact, he often comes off as a bit of folk-loving soul man, dropping heartfelt pieces of eccentricity that hint as much at peers Phil Elverum and Little Wings as Marvin Gaye and Sade.

Exclaim! got Karl on the phone to discuss recording "proper” albums, going to Japan, the influence of Africa, and copying the music he loves.

So what’s been going on with you the last little while?
Well, I’m forever working on my Kelp Lunacy label, and I want to do some proper albums of mine on my own label just so it feels more balanced. I feel like Kelp is a super fanzine, like people who are only super excited about what I am doing subscribe to it. I feel like it’s been a while since I just put out an album of my songs on it. I’ve been just releasing a lot of weird stuff on that label — which is good, that’s what it’s for — but I also want to keep everyone happy.

So how do you feel about your new "proper” album Nature’s Got Away coming out?
I’m super excited about it. It’s coming out on the same day as my wife’s birthday [September 23] and my dad’s, which is pretty cool. I don’t know what it even means for it to "come out” anymore, though, because everyone who really wants it has probably already found it online anyway.

Did you approach this album a lot differently than your past ones?
Yeah, this record was about getting into the group spirit, where everyone was doing everything at the spur of the moment and learning the songs as we went. I just wanted that feeling where it’s really alive and lucid and not tied down. I got into this phase where I was really excited to play music with other people. Doing my own thing by myself — I’ve done that so much. It’s just not as exciting and I feel I don’t grow as much as a musician playing alone.

So did you start recording this record with a certain type in mind, or did you just wing it?
Honestly, I was just winging it, not to cheapen that at all. It was super spur of the moment. I made a book of lyrics for everyone that I passed out before we started playing and they all were just learning super simple parts in order to be able to play the songs quickly. And there were a lot of people involved. Sometimes there were eight to ten people on a track and most of it was all live, no overdubs at all.

That’s funny because it sounds almost tighter and more adult-like than much of your previous work.
Well, I’ve considered myself a bit of a late bloomer. I recently went to Japan, and I felt I really matured as a person over there and gained a lot of self-confidence. Maybe I’ve been a little bit in the shadow of people I’ve been playing with, not necessarily intimidated, but just comfortable there. But I’m realizing I have something to put out there so I have to grow up a little bit, I guess.

So what was it that happened in Japan that had an impact on you?
Well, we were touring with Tori Kudo’s Maher Shalal Hash Baz and that just blew my mind. He makes some of my favourite music ever. He literally writes out the music and scores it and gives it to the players in his band. But every night we played with them, it would be completely different people in his band. It was almost like the Grateful Dead, but with the people playing with Tori following him and joining him. It was very different than anything I had ever heard before, and it just blew my mind to see into that world a little bit. Tori Kudo is kind of legendary over there — actually he’s totally legendary. And I just see things through this veil of Tori Kudo now.

Did Tori Kudo then have an impact on Nature Got Away?
Literally how he translates to my record is that now I’m just completely okay with tape hiss. I read reviews of my stuff where it’s like, "He’s so lo-fi. There’s this ever-present tape-hiss thing.” But now I just really adore that feeling of listening to an album with tape hiss, whereas before I don’t know if it bugged me that people said that stuff, but now I don’t even care at all. But I’m just going to hold that front.

There’s this lingering soul presence in the new record, especially with the vocals. Is that something you hear in it and was that intentional?
It wasn’t really intentional, but I have been listening to a lot of African music, in its relative place of now, in how it’s spread around the world and bounced back as reflections of Africa. I mean, what I listen to is mostly hip-hop and African music in its various incarnations. I’ve definitely gone back to feeling the Sade/Marvin Gaye thing, with these simple repeating bass lines and kind of message rock. Not necessarily that I have a message, though.

You’ve previously said that you try to replicate the music that you listen to. Does that still hold true? Yeah, it does. It’s not something I am super conscious of, but I’m not afraid of doing that. I hope the art in my life is a work in progress. I’m not going for any final product. I’m just testing out different waters and hoping to eventually create something new. I haven’t really found what that is yet, but it has been feeling more and more possible these days.

What makes you decide to sit down and make one of your more proper records like Beneath Waves or Nature’s Got Away, rather than your more experimental, more weirdo kind of ones?
Well, it’s just kind of how the ball rolls. I don’t really have a plan. I’ve decided to cap off my Kelp Lunacy series at 40 and it’s at 28 now, so there are 12 issues left. But I don’t know. I have a lot of designs on how that might play out. I want a lot of them to just be solo records for the fun of it. I’m really having a lot of fun in my little home studio. In the winter I usually do an instrumental album. It’s a good way to internalize the feelings I’ve been having. But I don’t have a real formula for all this.

Do you consider yourself a producer as much as you do a songwriter?
That’s a really interesting question for me. I like to get a really good sound but I don’t like to get in the way of what’s happening. I just want to just kind of document it and record something as it sounds naturally. I guess that I’m a producer in that way that I make my own records and other people’s, but I’m not so controlling about it.

Sorry for the cliché question, but the title Nature’s Got Away has this kind of double meaning to it and it’s easy to read it two very different ways. Do you want to shed any light on this choice of title?
No, that’s to each his own. That’s the way I roll. I like to leave it open-ended and I like for people to draw their own conclusions. I take that from my good friend Bret Lunsford [of Beat Happening/D+]. I’ve been a pupil of his for years now and he does that to an extreme, where every line has many meanings and at the end of the song you have a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And I really like that and I wind up with really great meanings to his songs. I love that.

With this record you talked about taking a "hands free” approach and "getting out of the way of a ‘happening.’” Could you elaborate on this?
It’s about getting more and more aware of the flow of music, about not going against the grain. It’s about finding which ways are really easy to make music and which ways are not, and taking the easy path that really just wants to happen.