11 Questions: Karl Blau
by Brent Cole
Anyone familiar with What’s Up! knows I love the fight for small town music scenes – it’s been my focus in Bellingham for over two decades and I love it when others feel that kind of loyalty with their own towns. This makes Karl Blau one of my heroes. Since the mid 90s, Karl has played with such bands as D+, Earth, The Microphones, Laura Veirs, Your Heart Breaks, and Lake (just to name a few) as well as working with the great label Knw-Yr-Own. Over the majority of the last 20 years, Karl has played with these great bands while championing his beautiful hometown, Anacortes. After a brief escape to Los Angeles, Karl is back, making more great music and now operating a venue call The Anacortes Music Channel. He works hard to make Anacortes’s music scene better, which makes me respect him more than he’ll probably ever realize.
And with that, Karl Blau is this month’s 11 questions.
Who are you and where did you come from? Tell us about yourself.
I’m a father, songwriter, producer, custodian, and as of late a facilitator of Anacortes Music Channel at 216 Commercial Ave. downtown Anacortes. I grew up half way between Anacortes and Bellingham on Samish Island in a very musical environment – forced piano lessons and tons of encouragement to pursue music from my folks who met in high school band. I had a lot of exposure to classical music and jazz from them, they played in orchestras and bands around the Skagit Valley.
I’ve long had a recording/songwriting addiction for over 20 years now with 40-plus solo albums to my credit. Analog recording has been my preference, but I’m getting more into digital through teaching recording and recording bands on a budget. I actually learned recording at Fairhaven Studio going to school at WWU in 1993-94. In fact, I dropped out of school because I wasn’t sleeping at night since no one used the studio from 10 pm to 2 pm, so that’s when I would haunt the place. As soon as I discovered recording, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for possibly the rest of my life.
I’ve also toured solo a lot and have appeared in different bands and on various others’ albums: EARTH, Laura Veirs, Your Heart Breaks, Lovers Without Borders, D+, Lori Goldston, Bright Black Morning Light, The Microphones and more.
Another important aspect of music that has shaped my individuality is that music has taken me all around the world. That’s something I never would have guessed as a youth, coming from a small place. But it’s a powerful thing and people need it everywhere – music.
You lived in Los Angeles for a little while – what brought you down there and what brought you back to Anacortes?
I have some connections down there , I did think for a time that it would be great to have a career in music. And I thought I should give going to L.A. a shot since there’s a lot of coin floating around that area and a lot of need for musicians/songcraft to lay behind all of this television content being processed. I ended up working for a video effects company and for a commercial music firm, but basically struggled to get above water.
I couldn’t just move my family down there, gave myself 6 months to figure it out. I’m definitely a fish out of water there, but it was a great experience. And I learned some great video editing skills (check out “Totally Free” video).
Please describe your ideal Anacortes Sunday.
An ideal Anacortes Sunday: sweet as a sundae! Sundays I spend with my family. The IDEAL Anacortes Sunday happens in the Summer. Definitely includes a walk through Beaver Pond to Little Cranberry Lake for a dip. Forest berries along the way, a little sting on the tongue from a nettle seeds, and a picnic of bread, cheese, and fruit on the lake beach. This Summer I’m going to add coming back to Anacortes Music Channel for the FREE CHOIR at 7 p.m. which we will, of course, have to have outside in the back yard.
You’ve long championed the music scene in Anacortes, what is it about the town and its musicians that has kept you inspired throughout the years?
I do feel like the music that has been made here is very unique, I guess it’s because we’re off the beaten path a bit. The legacy of music made here especially since the 80s continually fills my cup – The Few, Pounding Serfs, Gravel, and really anything Bryan Elliott and the great compilations made by Bret Lunsford from his awareness that something was happening that needed to be honored in the 80s. I think a bit of luck has been involved – that whole Department of Safety era was sort of a fluke, but because of the groundwork Lunsford made in the 90s it was made possible.
I find endless inspiration in the NW landscape, Anacortes has all of those quintessential qualities of mountains coming out of the water, lakes, mild climate. But also it has the jets flying over and the March’s Point refineries to keep us in touch with reality.
If you didn’t live in Anacortes, where would you live and why?
I want to live in a lot of places – I’d love to go back and live in Queens, NY, Charleston, SC, and San Diego, CA which are all places I’ve lived before. I’d like to do a stint in Austin, TX, Norman, OK, St. Augustine, FL, Athens, GA, Arcata, CA, to name a few towns that I like for musical reasons. Those are all places I’ve toured through and really enjoyed. Also Raleigh, NC, just because it sounds great reading about it. Chambery, France is calling, as is Brussels, Belgium, and some day I’d like to live in northern Scotland for a spell.
If you could have dinner with any living musician, who would it be and why?
Probably Vangelis at this time because he’s getting older, and I’ve been obsessed with his music for a few years now. I’d love to pick his brain and ask him about his process. He’s greek, played in Aphrodite’s Child in the 60s which was an incredible band. And of course he’s had a lot of success with his ambient, electronic, New Age music. And I love greek food.
You’ve started the Anacortes Music Channel – can you go into what the venue is about and who else is involved?
Anacortes Music Channel is a community space to host shows, potlucks, music lessons, workshops, lectures, it’s a recording studio, and it’s a beautiful room to show art that otherwise wouldn’t have a place in this town.
Five nights a week we’ve held what I have been calling “active music sessions” that allow musicians and people who would like to pursue their musical birth rite (right?) come together with a bit of structure. Sunday nights the Free Choir meets, Monday (definitely the favorite) is the Moon Raw session which is a long improvisation, Tuesdays is live piano music by Ben Starner, Thursdays (not the most popular, but I think the coolest!) is Immature Orchestra – where whoever shows up is a part of writing one to three 30-second songs together, then Friday has been the Drum Octogon (spelled with three drumheads) which features loosely choreographed percussion jams.
I have to give Jean Behnke the credit for acquiring the space, she had the Anchor Art Space gallery here for six years before us; and she was determined to get the place used for a creative purpose. She planted the seed in my brain during the last art opening in December. Then, when I showed interest, we met and discussed in person and through emails how it could possibly come into fruition.
In steps Michael Vitale and Chris Terrell (How It Works) to give me all the moral support and some financial help that I needed to take the plunge. Those guys have been with me all along, and then Thaddeus Hink (you will see Thad around B’ham taking photos with his huge camera and amazing goatee), John Delourme, Luuk Honey, and CalliAnne Blau, my wife, has helped out enormously. There’s not enough space here to write everyone who is involved, it’s a huge community project.
For those not familiar with the Anacortes music scene, who are some of the bands you are into?
SiLM, Ever Ending Kicks, Well Water, Hungry Cloud Darkening, Enduro, Mount Eerie, O Paon, D+ (yes, this is another band I’m in, and I’m really into it!), Crazy Like A Fox, Slashed Tires, Pearl Tottenham, A Couple of Kids, The Hoe and the Harrow, The Drink Up, Honey, Stephen Roxborough (awesome performance poet).
Can you tell us about Maherican Dream? What went into the process of recording it and how do you feel about the end result?
Thanks for asking, Maherican Dream’s story is all about process. I recorded a bunch of improvised stasis music, like ambient but with a little more purpose, with members of LAKE as the backbone and some other folks from Anacortes and Olympia who joined for parts. It’s actually the cousin to LAKE’s Circular Doorway in that we did a recording trade where I helped them record that record in exchange for help on mine.
Then I took those recordings and sang gibberish on them for about 3 months, just version after version of speaking in tongues over them until I found the correct feeling of vocal melody. Then I spent another three months writing lyrics and another six months recording those lyrics and adding some minimal instrumental accoutrements.
Strangely, I feel like this album is one of the more accessible that I’ve ever made, though it’s tough to compare with anything else. That’s pretty much what I try to do with my records. I’m very pleased with what happened. It was so light to record the initial feelings and it was a great challenge to sculpt lyrics into those loose forms. Plus, I feel like, lyrically, I got in touch with some things inside my noggin that I’ve been trying to say for years.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Still in Anacortes?
I don’t know if I’ll be here in Anacortes. But I hope that something of Anacortes Music Channel is kept because we’re really figuring some stuff out here.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you are working on?
Oh yeah. I’ve got three vinyls coming out in the next year on two different labels. One with esteemed producer Tucker Martine that is basically a country/soul album – talk about accessible. It’s pretty far along, I have to redo a couple vocal takes, but other than that, it’s good to go, though my producer may have different thoughts… What is fun about this album is that it’s really highlighting my voice and that’s pretty much all I’m doing on the album – singing.
The local record label Untide is putting out a new one of mine entitled “Out Her Space” which is stuff I recorded in Richmond, VA alongside Matthew E. White’s album Big Inner which we did in trade, similarly to the LAKE trade I mentioned. Amazing band on that recording, and I’m mostly just doing the singing and producing. Untide is set to rerelease my album Shell Collection from the 90s, that’s gonna be fun.
Then, yes, more and more – a jazz meets nature recording, a compilation of gibberish phone melody ideas that I’m releasing in the public domain, a Joe Higgs cover album that I’m turning from reggae to country blues, a few live albums, and the list keeps going for my label KLAPS.
Any last thoughts?
I hope there are some curious folks who want to look up my bandcamp page and check out my tunes. And I’m hoping that this article will reach the ears of bands/artists in the area. That they will become inspired to contact me about playing or recording at Anacortes Music Channel.
Published in the May 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine