San Francisco’s Blind Willies is the kind of band whose music sharply divides listeners’ opinions almost instantly. While some might take that as a knock, I consider it a testament to the intensity and tenacity with which they explore their own boundaries. A heady mix of americana, blues, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll, their latest album Needle, Feather, and a Rope showcases frontman Alexei Wajchman’s (pictured above far right) incredible range of emotional nuance. I spoke with him on the phone yesterday afternoon, covering everything from analog recording to influences to his single biggest fear. Be sure to sample their track “Lord Thought He’d Make a Man” below!
Alexei Wajchman: The previous two albums I’d recorded at a small studio called Crib Nebula in San Francisco with Lemon DeGeorge. It was a small space, but that was when we were just a duo. When we became a larger band, I wanted to go to an actual studio that was much larger and could accomodate us; not just the space, but to offer a lot of different instruments and amps. They had a Hammond B3 and a real grand piano. I even met the owner John Vanderslice, and he was very friendly and helpful.
LK: Did you and do you always intend to record in analog?
AW: Um (laughs). I can’t say for sure, though I did really enjoy the recording process in analog versus digitial. It can definitely be more expensive, but I do love the sound. It’s possible we’ll record in analog again, but I wouldn’t say no to digital.
LK: If you could describe the album in a word, what would it be?
AW: Ahh in a word…. I would describe it as fiery, I suppose.
LK: In what ways is this album musically progressive or conservative? Or is it a little bit of both?
AW: I think it’s definitely a little bt of both. It’s influenced by a variety of American genres: folk, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz. That all comes together to create something that I feel is new, but rooted in tradition. All of the members come from very different backgrounds. Misha, the cello player, came from classical. Max, Daniel, and Adam all came from jazz and hip hop.
LK: Right before you’re about to record in the studio, do you or any of your bandmates go through any specific rituals?
AW: Not really. Before we went into the recording studio for these sessions we spent weeks and weeks practicing the songs every day in various garages. When it came time to record, we just went in there and knocked them out as quickly as we could. It sort of just comes naturally: the second I put on a guitar and start to sing. It’s not something I have to prepare for mentally. It’s enjoyable, so I just jump in.
LK: Have you found that your individual or collective musical interests have changed since you’ve been playing together as a band?
AW: I’ve definitely started listening to a lot more hip hop and jazz than I normally would, and that’s from the band mates and what they listen to. I’m also incorporating all of that into my songwriting. Listening to the different chord changes they’re using, picking up on what they’re influenced by and subtly putting that into my own songs. I don’t think any of them listened to much folk or rock before they started playing in Blind Willies…definitely not folk, which is where I came from and where I learned to sing. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon. So many blind musicians from the 20′s and 30′s. They had no other opportunities open to them, except to learn guitar and busk. They just wandered and played on street corners, and that’s definitely where the band name came from.
LK: Do you busk?
AW: Oh yeah, we try and busk before every show to let peole know when and where we’re playing. We play flute and our drummer just takes a snare and a cymbal, so we have a pretty easy set up. It’s a lot of fun. You don’t always make a lot of money, but people usually stop and listen and you can hand out fliers.
LK: Have you ever made more money busking pre-gig than on the actual gig?
AW: Technically, no (laughs).
LK: What’s your biggest fear, musical or otherwise?
AW: Not getting to gigs on time! That’s a common fear of the musician. Yeah, that’s pretty much it for me.
LK: So do you have stress dreams about it?
AW: Definitely. For years I had dreams of being late to various math classes, and now they’re turning into nightmares about being late for gigs. Usually it’s part of some big adventure, like I’ll have to find a key that leads to a note that tells me where exactly I have to be. Or I have to sky dive to get to the gig. Or my math class, I’ve had that one about math class too. It never goes away… I’m sure I’ll have those dreams for the rest of my life.
Blind Willies‘ latest album Needle, Feather, and a Rope is now available for preview and purchase at their Bandcamp page. If you’re in the Mendocino area of California on June 9th, be sure to check out their set at Caspar Inn. After that, they’ll stop at Miner’s Foundry in Nevada City before heading back to their hometown San Francisco for several dates. For more information on ticket prices and upcoming tour dates, please visit their website or follow them on Facebook.