Past Lives' Jordan Blilie

Past Lives' Jordan Blilie
Past Lives’ Jordan Blilie doesn’t feel like screaming anymore, and who can blame him? After ten years of wreaking havoc on his larynx with Seattle’s late, great theatrical hardcore kids the Blood Brothers, the vocalist just didn’t have it in him anymore to scream bloody gore. While Past Lives reunites Blilie with fellow ex-members Morgan Henderson (bass) and Mark Gajadhar (drums), the act is hardly a rehash. Coming full circle, the outfit is rounded out by Devin Welch, the Blood Brothers’ original guitarist who exited the group at the beginning of the decade before hooking up with cult acts Soiled Doves, Chromatics and Shoplifting, among others. Strange Symmetry, the band’s debut EP, still finds the musicians toying with the skittish strains of post-punk, but the five-song set reveals that the act is more interested in riding a chilled-out marimba groove (see gorgeous disc-opener "Beyond Gone”) than busting out the skull-crushing axe work. Speaking from his Seattle home with his cat in his lap, Blilie talked to Exclaim! about starting over and reconnecting with his old friends.

Past Lives seemed to pop up just after The Blood Brothers broke up. When did you guys actually get together? We started bouncing around the idea during the last Blood Brothers tour of Europe. Johnny [Whitney] and Cody [Votolato] had told the rest of us their intent to go forward with the band they were working on [Jaguar Love]. The three of us thought that we could still have a really fun time playing music together. We talked about doing it as just the three of us but I was thinking it might be fun to see if Devin wanted to play with us. We were talking about having another guitar player; he was the only one that came to mind. Fortunately for us when I approached him he was free and excited to play. I want to say that was August of 2007.

How did it feel to get back with Devin after all these years? Was it awkward bringing someone into the mix since the other three of you were so in tune with each other, despite having a musical relationship with Devin in the past?
I had stayed in contact with Devin, all of us had, over the past eight to nine years between the time he left the Blood Brothers and when we started playing together again. Shoplifting had played shows with the Blood Brothers; I always loved his guitar playing in whatever project he was involved in. We had a lot of conversations about what we wanted to do, what kind of band we thought we’d like to become, what we wanted to try out, what we didn’t want to do. Our first practice was positive, but guarded. When a group of people first start playing together no one wants to take on that leader role and put themselves out there as the dictator. There was this vacuum where everyone was so open to trying everything, no one wanted to say "no” to anything. Our first few practices were aimless. Since then our roles have become more defined.

What kinds of things were you trying to avoid with Past Lives?
I didn’t want to scream. I had done that for ten years. It would be silly to scream in another band. We didn’t want our music to reach the same level of abrasiveness or aggression as rhe Blood Brothers. We still wanted to write spirited music and songs that had a certain amount of propulsion but we didn’t want it to get to the same aggressive apex that the Blood Brothers got to. For me, personally, I didn’t want the vocal presence to be as overwhelming. I wanted a lot more space for the music to breathe. I feel lucky to be playing with these three people. I’m happy to take a backseat to what they do. I love what they put together.

At the same time, you are the lead singer of the group. And unlike the Blood Brothers, the role of "front-man” rests solely on your shoulders.
I want to serve the songs as best I can. I’m quite aware of the limitations of my voice. What I try to do instead is set a tone that is fitting to the music. As far as being the sole singer in a band, to me it’s been a fun challenge. With the Blood Brothers, I was working with a limited amount of space. There’s only so much space you can occupy when you have two singers, or when your songs are overwhelmingly frantic. It’s been fun to occupy four minutes of music that’s more textural and laid back. It’s a continual learning process.

What have been the big challenges for you?
The main thing is filling up space. That’s it. I tend to put quite a lot of pressure on myself. I tend to edit before I begin. I over-think things, but the times where I stop thinking and dive into ideas, those have been the greatest moments of spontaneous inspiration.

What is it like writing lyrics for Past Lives, knowing that you don’t have to collaborate with another singer?
The main difference is that the Blood Brothers had an outward focus; there was a certain amount of commentary. With this band I feel like it’s a perfect opportunity to think inward for a change. These lyrics feel more personal to me. They’re not a shared vision. I’m not contributing to someone else’s overall vision. By definition they’re going to be more personal since I’m the only one working on them. It’s the first time I’ve written about my own life.

"Beyond Gone” starts off the EP and it’s probably the biggest departure from your old work. How long did it take for you guys to write something off the beaten path?
"Strange Symmetry” was the first song we wrote together. Devin brought that to practice. "Beyond Gone” came a bit later, it was all based on those sampled marimba sounds that Morgan brought to practice. It came together quickly. It was one of those instances where everyone immediately connected to it. I think you’re right; it’s probably the most different from what we’ve done in the past. What I like about it is that it feels like there’s a certain amount of tension in it. It also exercises a great amount of restraint.

Other songs like "Skull Lender” are still quite aggressive, though. It seems like you’re fighting back the temptation to scream your head off. Yeah, you’re trying out new things, but can you really fight who you are? The Blood Brothers were a huge part of your life.
With "Skull Lender,” for example, I would say the main difference is that there would be twice as many vocals [on a Blood Brothers song] and they would all be screamed in unison and the loud parts would get denser. There would be more guitar parts. It would be much more punishing and bludgeoning. I have a skewed perception of what is heavy and what is not. When I hear "Skull Lender” I consider it to be spirited. It is frantic and it feels like it’s about to fall part, but I don’t consider it to be an aggressive song. I don’t consider it to come out of a sense of aggression. I didn’t hear any anger in it.

Is all of your anger gone?
No [laughs]. A lot of the topics the Blood Brothers were talking about were political in nature. They were a way to vent frustration. With "Skull Lender,” it’s more desperate. It’s a plea more than anything else. I tried really hard not to scream. There are those swells where things get heavy and chaotic… I decided to just leave those alone. If anyone is conscious about that, it’s Morgan. Any time something feels too aggressive or jarring, his desire is to pull back. I know he doesn’t want to insert the insane, crazy parts that we always reverted to in the Blood Brothers.

After playing chaotic music for so long, is the switch to mellower music due to boredom with the genre or is it a symptom of age?
When I think back to when I was a teen, the music that moved me the most was probably the most aggressive music that I could find. All the behavior you’d expect at hardcore or punk shows, that’s what I really loved about music then: The energy, the release, the volume, the screaming that goes along with punk rock. Where I’m at right now, I don’t listen to stuff like that. I don’t listen to music where the singer is screaming at me. If I do I listen to it with a nostalgic ear more than anything else. I’ll still take out a Born Against record every so often, but as far as seeking something new that is punishing or brutal, I just don’t do it. That kind of desire for the aspects I used to look for…it’s no longer what I look for in music. When I listen to music at home I listen to something that’ll relax me.

Past Lives has a relaxed attitude towards playing shows. So far you’ve only played a handful of shows and done one small tour. Do you think you could ever go back to being a full-time musician?
I don’t think any of us are looking tour eight months of the year ever again. One of the things I’ve loved about life after the Blood Brothers is being able to reconnect with all my friends and family at home; having a life outside of playing Salt Lake City for the fifth time in a year… or going on an airplane. I hate flying, it’s annoying! What we’re all trying to figure out is what that balance will be, especially after we make a full-length. Obviously a label would want us to do some touring if they’re putting out our records. It’s yet to be determined what that balance will be.