Not many (if any) other Kiwi rock acts of recent decades have swept all before them in the way that Blindspott did with their self-titled debut album released by EMI NZ back in November 2002. That album plus its 2006 follow up, ‘End The Silence’, sold squillions (well at least 60,000 copies) locally and propelled the five-member alternative/nu-metal act offshore for some truly massive and memorable performances across Asia.
Eventually finding future commitment to be their own blind spot, the band packed it in 2007, drummer Shelton Woolright moving off to form I Am Giant (coincidentally along with Paul Matthews, who produced their first album). Unwavering fans and a heady comeback performance at Wellington’s Homegrown festival in 2011 convinced the remaining four that a Blindspott resurrection was overdue, but Woolright’s refusal to allow them to use the Blindspott name led to public acrimony and legal action. For the remaining bandmates it was all too hard, and inevitably too expensive, to bother fighting in court. Instead Blacklistt was cleverly born. Westley Holdsworth talked with three of the Blacklistt four ahead of the release of their born-again self-titled ‘debut’ album.
It’s on a lazy Sunday Auckland morning that I meet with three members of Blacklistt. Original Blindspott members Damian Alexander (vocals), Karl Vilisini (keyboards/DJ), and Marcus Powell (guitar) join me to discuss their new album, which was written and recorded along with Gareth Fleming (bass and also a former Blindspott-er) and Tristan Reilly (drums). Reilly joined Blindspott for their now triumphant Homegrown festival show in 2011, which brought the naming rights feud with former drummer Shelton Woolright to the fore.
Blindspott originally formed, as schoolboys, out west of Auckland in the Waitakeres. Nowadays Blacklistt are split between Titirangi, Te Atatu, the city, and “out east”, although this hasn’t hindered productivity during the long process that finally led to the recording of a new (debut) album. This isn’t just a new album for the band; it’s been a new writing process, new practice methods, a new release structure and a new beginning, whilst reverting back to what got them into music in the first place.
“It’s probably about three years,” Damian says, regarding the long process since they decided it was time to start writing and recording again. Writing has shifted from the traditional get together and jam to computers and internet file exchanges.
“We just cruise over to Karl’s place, set up and plug everything into the computer and just jam like that.”
“It was a good two years at my place just brainstorming, not really knowing where it’s going to go, but just enjoying making music again,” explains Karl. “When stuff starts working we then take it into the practice room and room test it. Because that’s when you know if it’s gonna work or not, it can sound good on a computer but you won’t know if it works until you actually get into a room and start vibing on it and hearing it with space.”
This methodology has allowed the band to amass a large body of work, far more than one album’s worth. They’ve since trimmed the fat to produce what they hope to be a timeless record. It has high standards to live up to – both Blindspott albums shot into the NZ charts at #1, their debut lingering in the Top 40 almost a year on the way to triple platinum sales.
‘End The Silence’, Blindspott’s 2006 second album, was produced by Swedish production duo Pelle Henrickson and Eskil Lovestrom, who have worked with iconic alternative bands such as Refused, Cult of Luna and Poison The Well. The simple truth is that it fared only a third-as well (NZ sales-wise) as the locally produced debut, and this time round Blacklistt took the job on themselves, with the help of Hayden Taylor, York Street studios’ head engineer. Taylor has been involved with the band’s well-received latest singles, From The Blind Spot, Worth Fighting For and Burn.
“I think we’ve got the skills now, we’ve worked with so many producers and we trust each others ears,” Marcus explains.
“At the beginning you don’t know anything then after 10 years you pick up so much,” picks up Karl. “You know how to arrange songs and how they should sound and how big they should be or how wide, you just pick it all up yourself. Even with effects you pick that stuff up yourself, listening to other music. We did work with a producer who kind of didn’t get the sound that we wanted and Hayden, being our age and being a fan of Blindspott from the beginning, he knows our sound and what we want. It’s easy to work with him – it’s easier to bully him around too!”
“He understands us and he’s in the same position as us, he just wants to make a great record,” adds Damian. “It’s like a team effort and we’re all going for the same thing. He wants a great record for his reel and we want a great record for our fans, because they deserve it.”
‘End The Silence’ received a $50,000 NZ On Air grant which, matched by the record company, equates to a hundred grand album budget. This time it’s all coming out of the band’s pockets, another change.
“We’ve borrowed bits of money from here and there, made money on the tours and royalties have come in and so we’ve built it up from there. It’s cost us probably a quarter of what it would have cost us if we had to deal with producers and getting mastered overseas and mixed overseas and all that shit. It will be mastered here at York Street probably,” says Damian.
One thing agreed early on in the writing process was that they didn’t want to make a dated record, Karl even saying he wanted a record that sounded like nothing else. The thinking was possibly spurred on by the continuous attachment of the ‘nu-metal’ badge they long ago came to loathe.
“We never started because nu metal was big, we were just kids from West Auckland into Dr Dre and Snoop and listening to Deftones and Metallica and it’s not because we tried to combine them – it’s just because we made the music like that. That’s what we liked,” says Karl.
While they have started afresh, the new record has more in common with Blindspott’s self-titled debut album than it does with their subsequent release. For a start the scratching is back. But it’s the honesty of the record that shines through. Boiling over with conviction it leans back towards that nu-metal (sorry, alternative metal) beginning without a shred of try hard, sounding like they are making music for themselves, exactly how they want. No record execs putting in their two cents, no rush and no pandering to current trends. Damian talks of approaching the record without these external factors.
“I think that is the one thing that will fuck you, because if you start writing a song thinking this is what’s popular right now, that’s a fatal mistake. We were guilty of doing it a little on the second Blindspott album. We were thinking, ‘What sort of songs should we write?’ You’ve got time limits, record label expectations all this sort of stuff. So you do start going, ‘Oh shit, what shall we write? Who’s cool at the moment? What shall we sound like?’ With this record we’ve just written songs that have made us say, ‘Shit this is an awesome song.’”
“There’s shit on there that people won’t expect,” says Karl. “The reason it’s on there is because it moves us emotionally, gives us goose bumps, and when you get that feeling you’re like, ‘I don’t care what that sounds like, it sounds mean.’”
“There’s an honesty there, and I take a certain amount of pride that we do that,” adds Damian. “It’s sort of that thing where it takes a lot of strength emotionally to put yourself out there, so that for us is what we’re gonna do. And if we’re honest and true to ourselves we put out a record that we believe in, a record that we can look back on and always say, ‘That was a good record.’ Hopefully our fans can hear and appreciate the honesty that’s on the record.”
Being a prominent NZ band and facing the idea that you may have to change your name is no doubt a daunting one – nobody wants to be the next Pacifier. Blacklistt seem to not only have come out of their change unscathed, but almost re-energised.
“It only mattered to us because we had such an emotional attachment to the name. We just felt like that was our name because it is, we wrote that first record and the second record under that name,” says Damian.
“And we built up what Blindspott meant,” adds Karl.
“It’s hard to walk away from it, but when you go and do a sold out Homegrown and you’ve got the same amount of fans as last time, you realise that it doesn’t matter. Even if we could we wouldn’t go back, it’s done,” says Damian.
“It was weighing heavy, that whole chapter of trying to get the name back, it sucked,” admits Marcus. “But once we shut the door on that and just said, ‘Right let’s move on as Blacklistt’, other doors opened and the momentum picked up. For me, I much prefer going ahead as Blacklistt.”
“It’s almost like we didn’t even miss a beat, and we didn’t have to spend $50,000 to get the name back,” smiles Karl.
‘Blacklistt’ is being billed as a debut, though Damian jokes that it’s more of a “rebut”. Getting past the name change and the troubles they’ve had trying to hold on to their old name, it’s quite a statement to continue on the path that Blindspott laid out under a new name with a ‘first’ album. The tracks are unmistakably Blindspott, though evolution is clearly evident. More melodic passages, some acoustic guitars and laid-back tempos define the new album, which has an almost majestic, uplifting undertone.
“I think Blindspott is part of our heritage. It’s who we are and where we’ve come from – it will always be what binds us really. It is a rebirth and a bit of a cleansing for us. We love Blindspott and the fans still chant ‘Blindspott’ before we go on stage, and that’s never going to change, but for us it’s like a mark in the sand,” explains Damian.
It seems this letting go of the past and moving forward has breathed new life into the band and their strained relationship with Woolright isn’t even an issue anymore.
“It’s all good. I’ve emailed him, there’s no hard feelings. We’re all men, and we’re all grown ups and for us you just gotta put it out there and leave it behind you really,” says Damian.
“We wish him the best,” adds Karl with no sign of resentment in his voice.
Mention of their enduring fanbase is frequent and clearly a key reason why they are back, about to release and promote a new album.
“We’re extremely lucky and I’m grateful everyday with the amount of time and effort that our fans have given us,” says Marcus.
“Just their Facebook messages and stuff. They really give a shit, they care about the band as much as we do. So that’s all we need,” Damian adds.
Of course social media and its importance for any act’s success has grown dramatically over the last few years. Blacklistt have long embraced it. The band previously invited fans over for intimate performances out west, along with barbecues and beer. They talk about a street team that was started up voluntarily by fans and is run by girl named Suzy, who (they joke) has become Blacklistt’s marketing department. They openly give out their phone number online and speak to fans regularly, even asking fans to submit voice messages.
It was Damian who had the idea that for this record they would invite fans to submit vocal takes to be included in a chorus, through Facebook and a Soundcloud file link.
“There’s not a lot of ego in metal. From the beginning we’ve always had a strong and open communication with our fans. And it’s kind of naturally what we do as people anyway. I’ve had this idea in the back of my head for ages and I’ve always been like, ‘When am I gonna be able to use this idea?’ And in the studio I was just like, ‘We should get the fans to sing this’. You know, if I was a fan and I got to sing on my favourite band’s record I’d be stoked. Imagine if we could’ve been on a Pantera record, it would have been awesome, would’ve changed my life.”
“The song Home is about family and people you give a shit about and we give a massive shit about our fans, so why not get them involved?” says Damian.
“We had quite a few entries and I was really surprised at the quality of them. These guys don’t sing and they’ve gone out of their way to set themselves up and sing a piece of music which is not easy to do, especially a cappella. You’d feel very vulnerable sending that out into the world with your name on it. But they’ve done it and all their names will be on the record sleeve.”
It’s this kind of fan interaction that got the multi-platinum selling Blindspott recognised as the country’s favourite band in an Air NZ-run competition in 2003, and it could possibly see Blacklistt reach similar heights following the mid-September release of their new ‘rebut’ album.