ReDiScover: The Blood Brothers
“I wanna tell you about the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse…”
Johnny Whitney could be talking about himself. Upfront each night, microphone held loose, body spasmodically twitching and convulsing in time with his bandmates’ contorted post-punk polyrhythms, The Blood Brothers’ own devilish mini-me rarely arrives riding a horse of darkest black. But there’s still something not quite right about the man; something almost supernatural, and superbly unsettling when experienced face to face. One time we meet he’s spent the morning apart from his colleagues, wandering the back streets around King’s Cross station with only oversized headphones and an iPod for company. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, he looks like a little boy lost in a world of men both pushing and pulling him, this way and that, angels and devils on each and every shoulder. The problem is, he has enough voices of persuasion rocking either side of his head as it is; this much is evident after a single scan of the lyrics to any of his band’s four albums to date.
It’s late 2004, and this isn’t the first time my path’s crossed that of the Seattle-based hyper-punks plying a fine line in bipolar disorder rock and roll. We’ve already met, twice at The Garage in Highbury (well, one time was in a Chinese restaurant, actually) and once at central London’s Mean Fiddler. Prior to this King’s Cross rendezvous, though, all conversation was of the splendid splattercore of the band’s third album, 2003’s Burn, Piano Island, Burn. Now, there’s a fourth, and a strange, mutant fourth at that: Crimes’ initial critical appraisal falls well wide of the eventual mark reached through repeated plays (such is the manner of tight deadlines). I award it only a seven out of ten in rock sound magazine (issue 67, December 2004): “Rather too much of Crimes gives itself over to unsettlingly melodic keys and vocals that reach new heights of campness.”
I’m a fucking idiot sometimes.
Rewind some years: The Blood Brothers formed in 1997, although their debut, This Adultery Is Ripe, only emerged in 2000. Four albums in four years (a fifth has been delayed, no doubt by members’ side projects – more later) is some standard of productivity, and the quality’s only increased from record to record. Their aforementioned long-play birth, the tip of a toe in punk-rock waters turned stagnant by a stifling of free-flowing experimentation and exuberant and energetic expressions of creativity, is of little relevance considering what followed. But, should any newcomers to The Blood Brothers wish to work their way through their output chronologically, let me simply say the shock to the system will still be sizeable. If you’ve not heard The Blood Brothers, then chances are you’ve never heard anything like The Blood Brothers.
Touchstones exist, obviously – there’s no way they can’t in contemporary rock and roll – but the bands The Blood Brothers called upon for inspiration on their debut aren’t exactly big-hitting, chart-bothering types. Certainly, Botch, Swing Kids, Antioch Arrow and The Locust have fallen short of the Seattle quintet’s current level of success. Botch were rather openly acknowledged as a major influence in the booklet that accompanied The Blood Brothers’ This Adultery Is Ripe; without the former act’s fondness for eschewing the punk-rock rule book – they chewed it up and spat it out, blood, guts ‘n’ all – the latter might not be the beast it’s become today, carefree in its committing of independently sourced chaos. Of course, not everyone sees The Blood Brothers as part of an innovative, forward-thinking punk/hardcore scene. I once told the Icarus Line’s Joe Cardemone that one British monthly was referring to The Locust, The Blood Brothers and his own band as ‘extremo’: “I think The Locust would count, but The Blood Brothers? No, because they suck!”
The band – Whitney, who’d previously sung in the band Soiled Doves, and co-vocalist Jordan Blilie (that’s two squealing vocalists), Mark Gajadhar on drums, Morgan Henderson on bass/synthesizer and Cody Votolato, formerly of Waxwing, on guitar – really hit their stride with 2002’s hand grenade nine-tracker, March On Electric Children. Whitney’s lyrics by now had developed considerably, with thematically specific threads running from song to song, imagery was never less than violently vivid. This rich seam of creativity would become even more apparent on the following year’s Burn, Piano Island, Burn. I spoke to Whitney during a tour for their third album for the now defunct LOGO magazine (published in issue 18, February 2004; this link should still work, though).
Are your lyrics the product of a particularly creative childhood?
“Nah. When I was a kid I basically sat and played computer games. Oh, and I read comic books, too.”
Such modesty, or rather a preference to talk-down talents, is a consistent feature of the in-the-flesh Blood Brothers experience, at least when they’re not on stage; when they’re under the flashing lights – envious greens, sapphire blues, blood reds – and in the full flow of a sweat-saturated live show, you’d best stand back. I recall one gig, at The Garage, where Votolato leapt from the stage and crashed his studded belt into my cheekbone. It hurt like a bastard, but I hugged him tight all the same before releasing and resuming my own wholly conscious-detached dance moves. Thinking back, those unsettlingly melodic keys were already being employed to good effect; heck, ‘American Vultures’ from March On Electric Children features nothing but keys. With a little further thought, they were on This Adultery Is Ripe, too...
I’m a fucking idiot sometimes.
Sometime in 2004 – I forget exact dates – The Blood Brothers rolled into town alongside Liars. At the Mean Fiddler, Blilie found five minutes to talk to me. He revealed then that the band’s forthcoming fourth record would have a title of but one word in length, and that word would be a brilliant one. By this point pressure was on from those clutching the purse strings, as Burn, Piano Island, Burn had opened up avenues to entirely new audiences: shows became more densely populated, and small, fashion-conscious girls and boys began appearing in tightly packed front rows, screaming in a manner as deranged as the twin banshees before them. That show saw them play ‘Peacock Skeleton With Crooked Feathers’, the first time I’d heard anything from what proved to be Crimes (hardly that amazing a title, really), and it was a real standout of their support set purely because of Whitney’s prolonged period behind the keyboard. No longer were sets a simple three at the back, two at the front affair; now, the band was maturing into a unit of interchangeable components, a Rubix Cube that never worked its way to even one single-coloured side. Compositions became more complex, although melodies, in contrast, seemed more obvious. First time around, they seemed forced and contrived, an all-too-obvious attempt to expand their audience anew, this time into more mainstream circles. Of course, this wasn’t the case.
“I think there are songs on Crimes that are way more immediate,” Whitney told me that day in King’s Cross, responding to my suggestion that the new songs may alienate those fans preferring the band’s harder, more vitriolic and acerbic facets. “I think the more ‘punky’ songs on there are immediately gratifying, and they’re not five minutes long with several different parts, like a lot of the songs on the last record.”
The singer had a point: although ‘Peacock…’ and a couple of other numbers on Crimes really brought his keyboard work to the fore, elsewhere the album was a riot, and a comparatively straightforward one at that. ‘Teen Heat’, ‘Trash Flavored Trash’ and, particularly, ‘Beautiful Horses’ – “You’re so fucked up, you’re a fucking mess” – carbon-copied the frenzied punk template of Burn, Piano Island, Burn but dumbed the distractingly complex compositional aspect of the third record’s most head-scratching moments down into a more potent fury, into something violent but beautiful in its execution. Lyrically, the record was more openly political than previous releases, with the parting pair of ‘Celebrator’ and ‘Devastator’ in particular raising interviewer eyebrows. Votolato told me, “I’ve talked to people who have said they’ve had to sit with Crimes for a while. They liked it, but it took a few listens…”
I am a fucking idiot sometimes, but perhaps in retrospect my initial analysis of Crimes wasn’t so bad after all; I even added that it was “guaranteed to divide recently acquired fans”, which seemed to be the case.
Votolato continued: “Hopefully it means that there’s something substantial there, and that we’re not making something that’s part of a trend.” Being part of a trend is something that The Blood Brothers have had no say in. But the midgets-in-Hot-Topic hordes that populate their shows are drawn not because of the band’s easily accessible sounds, but by the fact that they are so different; they rub against the grain with glee, and every time another act apes them, they evolve again. They’re a magnet that the impressionable, those wanting the unconventional around them to justify their self-positioning as ‘alternative’, can’t help but be attracted to; a forbidden fruit that the beautiful street corner outcasts can’t fail to see the appeal of. The Blood Brothers, too, are beautiful outsiders at heart: they’ve only been publicly welcomed by the indie-rock big-hitters fairly recently; a support show with Yeah Yeah Yeahs at London’s Kentish Town Forum in late 2004 ample proof of ever-spreading musician-to-musician respect. Almost ten years since their formation, the band’s spurs are now well earned.
Record labels, though, have come and gone. On V2 for Crimes, each album has emerged with a different branding on the sleeve. “We were getting our heads filled by so many people talking up our bright prospects,” Whitney told Stevie Chick for issue five of Loose Lips Sink Ships, referring to the time the band were part of the Artist Direct stable. The album in question, Burn, Piano Island, Burn, was subsequently dealt a bad hand by the label, which rather disappeared into the ether. That said, The Blood Brothers aren’t made for consistency; they’re not a band any label should have too much riding on financially. Their juices flow too richly for higher-power restrictions to be completely tolerated, and their unpredictability from record to record will surely continue to confuse those that think they’ve got a marketable product on their books. “Usually by the time we’re ready to write another record, we’ve played the songs from the previous one so many times that they’re the last thing we want to duplicate,” Blilie once told me. V2, be warned; likewise, those that have only now discovered Crimes’ charms to their taste. Chances are the next is gonna leave a taste superbly sweet or spectacularly sour in your mouth.
“Do you want to live forever, baby?”
‘Kiss Of The Octopus’
Where The Blood Brothers go now is uncertain: they’ve exceeded their own expectations and some. Blilie told me back in 2004: “We really never thought we’d get this far”. Today sees members lending their skills to different projects: Whitney and Gajadhar are the core of Neon Blonde, a band using synths in a more conventional fashion than The Blood Brothers. That said, its Eighties-meets-now mix of keys and jagged guitars have produced a delectably subversive album, Chandeliers In The Savannah, released through Dim Mak in 2005. “I just really wanted to make a dance record,” Whitney told Shane Miller for Skyscraper’s Winter 2006 issue. “I was listening to Purple Rain and Thriller a lot.” Although Gajadhar is on board, Neon Blonde is Whitney’s baby: “I write everything except the drums,” he told Loose Lips’ Stevie Chick (who, if you’ve not guessed, is something of a super fan) for their most recent issue (six). “Obviously I have much more creative control. Anything I write for the Blood Brothers will be filtered through four other members’ opinions (and) ends up very different from its original impetus.”
Votolato and Blilie, meanwhile, have produced a seven-track, self-titled EP through label Three One G under the name Head Wound City, with members of The Locust and Yeah Yeah Yeahs on board for credibility measure. Whereas you’d happily take Neon Blonde inside to meet your mother, Head Wound City require strapping down some blocks from home, with a bone to chew on dangled a few feet from their drooling chops. It’s a hard listen, to say the least; “You need telling that your mother’s going to hate this and kick you out of the house?” might have been something I penned when reviewing it. Summary: a fifth Blood Brothers album will be something, that’s for sure, and something neither you nor I were expecting. One fact is known: they’re recording with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto.
But live forever, baby? Nah, that’d be too predictable. Newcomers dive in: right now there’s a Blood Brothers record for everyone, and they’re all essentially manic and contagiously addictive. You can’t really go wrong with these five horsemen, period.
Quotes (from interviews/reviews by Mike Diver, unless indicated above) from:
LOGO magazine, issues 18 (February 2004) and 22 (June 2004)
rock sound magazine, issues 67 (December 2004), 71 (April 2005) and 82 (March 2006)
Loose Lips Sink Ships, issues 5 (Early 2005) and 6 (Early 2006)
Skyscraper, issue 20 (Winter 2006)
Live photo of Jordan Blilie at The Mean Fiddler, London by Stephanie Min