Wednesday, August 15th 2012
Interviews: Black Light Burns, Wes Borland
Wes Borland on Absinthe Creativity, Digital Darwinism and ‘The Moment You Realize You’re Going To Fall’
The last time we spoke with Wes Borland, guitarist for Limp Bizkit and frontman/nucleus of Black Light Burns, a fantastically spicy little debate took place about the merits of Bizkit’s existence in 2012. This time around, with the arrival of BLB’s new album The Moment You Realize You’re Going To Fall, our return conversation skewed far from the contentiousness of the first – due in part to the fact that this album is, to put it plainly, fucking fantastic. Listen for yourself right here.
Borland has pulled double duty since 2007 as frontman and chief sound architect for Black Light Burns, a more industrially-driven sound in a Ministry-meets-NIN sonic pathway that scratches the itch felt by those enchanted by the man’s artistry but not necessarily driven to join the “Nookie” legions.
With the arrival of their new album The Moment You Realize You’re Going To Fall, BLB delivers a 15 track assault of artistic excellence in a darker and more abrasive vein than their first album, 2007′s Cruel Melody. We caught up with Borland just before the release of The Moment You Realize You’re Going To Fall to discuss the album and much more, including the difficulties of an artist actually making a living in the digital age, and the creative boost a good bottle of absinthe can provide.
Congrats on making a great record. There’s a sense of danger or recklessness at certain points on The Moment You Realize You’re Going To Fall, where it feels like the suspension’s ready to go out. You hear it a good deal in the vocals.
I thought it was interesting to have a word sometimes clipped off because I’m taking a breath, so it sounds more anxious, or urgent. And also to not fix mistakes sometimes. To leave things a little fucked up here and there.
How comfortable are you as a vocalist, compared to guitar? You can definitely hear the progression in approach and style between records.
I’m very, very comfortable with the tools that I’ve been given. I’m not that great of a singer, so I’ve moved more into being expressive with my voice. Just bringing more character to it, or just acting things out in the vocals more instead of going ‘I’m going to sing this part like this.’ I think it’s crazier to make it sound more like I’m actually having a conversation or giving a speech in some way that puts more emotion into the song than ‘I’m singing the parts, and this is happening right now.’
It sounds conversational at points, for sure. So you’re saying several of the songs we hear are actually first-takes on the vocals?
None of it was recorded as a band in a room live, but vocally… it’s probably not the first take. Some of the songs it’s probably the second or third take. But a lot of the time I’m writing as I’m doing vocals, and the last push to finish vocals on the record… my wife was out of town, I had the whole house and studio to myself, and I spent the whole day with a bottle of absinthe..
The real shit?
Yeah, the real shit. And so I sort of just nursed this… I don’t know, I went through about a third of the bottle, just sort of nursed it all day and stayed in this state of severe buzzedness, and was like ‘Okay, I’m gonna get a little bit drunk, and a little bit crazy, and I’ve got twelve to eighteen hours to finish all the vocals on the record. So I’m just gonna spend it in the studio, let my brain go nuts… I felt really inspired when I woke up that morning, and just said I’m gonna knock it out today. So I finished all the vocals. There were songs that didn’t have verses, a couple songs that didn’t have a chorus, and I just burned through it. And I finished everything. So see kids? Alcohol is a good thing. I write a lot as I go. Some of the vocals probably were first take, actually, where I just went ‘Oh! That’s it!’
It might not be at all how the song came to be, but the instrumentation in the verses of Because of You sound like they could’ve been a much bigger sound to begin with, one that was pulled back like a tide for the dynamic shift before the chorus. Is there anything to that?
At the end of Torch From The Sky it goes into a jam thing that’s sort of a musical interlude that goes on for a few minutes. When I was in there doing the drums with our old drummer, I said ‘Okay, let’s just do this thing where you pretend you’re playing with me and Nick – our guitar player – and just pretend I’m playing bass, Nick’s on guitar, and we’re jamming for a while. So just imagine that. And then I want you to build it up to some kind of crescendo, and then go into a beat you haven’t made up yet. Just off the top of your head, come up with it.’ So he played the whole jam thing imagining that none of the music had been written. We did it drums first, and we did the whole thing and went right into Because of You. And that’s it, it was just like ‘Whoa!’ So all of that is one take. There’s no cuts, and there are also no cuts in Because of You. That was all done in one take. It was just one of those ‘Holy shit!’ moments. I think after we got the first verse and chorus down for it, we moved a couple things around. But it was all very live, and I just played all the bass and started layering guitars on it.
There’s a couple songs on the record that stand out as stronger links in the chain.
I’ll tell you if they’re singles or not.
Your Head Will Be Rotting On a Spike – there’s a swirling groove of eroticism, and the end is fantastic, how it kicks you in the head and drops off.
Yeah, that’s not a single, but maybe it’ll be… We’re doing two singles. We’re doing How To Look Naked, and we’re doing The Color Escapes. We’ve already got the teaser for the record out, and we’re doing three videos… but I don’t know, after talking to you maybe we’ll do four.
That’s the song I keep coming back to. There’s something about it that stands out and fucks you up. Speaking of that teaser video, at the very end of that clip there’s something that splashes into the water in the distance as you’re coming up the beach…
That’s a bird that happened to dive into the water.
Wait so that wasn’t planned?
No. It was just luck.
Oh shit that’s awesome. It makes you wonder what it means, if there’s some kind of monster or symbolism or something. But in the end it’s just a fucking bird with good timing.
Yeah, just dumb luck. (laughs)
The piano part in The Girl In Black outro, over the swarm of bees and drums gives the song an entirely different energy, grabs you by the throat in a way as some kind of consequence.
Well that’s cool. All the piano on the record… I have an 1860 George Steck piano from New York that’s a square grand – from a romantic era square grand, and those pianos are so old that I bought it for almost nothing. They’re very unpopular pianos. They’re hard to tune, only a few people can tune them, maybe two guys in L.A. and a couple guys in New York. They were a big failure, and the Steinway company actually took all their square grands at the end of the 1800s, because they were selling so poorly, and put them on a barge and put ‘em out in New York harbor and set them on fire. They burned them.
Yeah, cause they were just pieces of junk to a lot of people. But I’m really into ‘em because they have a unique sound, and they get out of tune in this way… my strings are almost 150 years old, and they just have this certain sound to them. It’s interesting that you mention those two songs, because on Head Will Be Rotting On a Spike I’m playing the piano with a guitar pick, inside of it. That’s where that sound comes from. And the piano part at the end of The Girl In Black is the same piano.
So you’re actually plucking the strings with a pick?
Yeah, that’s that ‘Jingjingjingjingjingjing‘ sound. I’m playing the piano with a guitar pick. So yeah, it’s an eerie piano for sure. I don’t know what it’s been through, but it’s very old. And very cool sounding to me. I like it because it’s such a failure. I like the history behind those.
Fantastic. I think the Instagram generation will have a field day with that. I’m curious to hear your perspective in the clusterfuck of changing mediums and royalties models and so forth. There’s a lot of conversations being had about Spotify, and the idea that a user on that platform would have to listen to an album up to 75 times in order for an artist to earn royalties equivalent to selling one CD.
That’s ridiculous. I think it was good for a little while, as far as the idea of people being able to get themselves out there with no record label. It’s freedom, we can just put records out! And now suddenly with everybody doing that, the internet has oversaturated music so much that it’s a needle in a haystack as far as trying to find new bands that are amazing. It’s insanity now. And I think that it’s hurting bands.. a lot of bands had their first record and had the opportunity to move on from that and do their second and third record and become who they really are as a group. It takes a couple, sometimes.
It takes some support, too.
Right, and you have people who are making records who are worried about day jobs and trying to stay afloat. It’s killing future great bands… I don’t know if we’re going to have any more Led Zeppelins or Radioheads or things like that, because it’s so hard for bands to get support now. Everything on the radio is so polished and Lady Gaga-esque. And that’s no insult to Lady Gaga at all, or anybody that’s doing music like that, because I think in part, artists like that are being forced into this position where they have to fit this mold. This safe, ‘this is going to work for sure’ mold. And I think that major labels… it’s fucking insanity. I don’t know where it’s headed, but it’s interesting to have people who are alive who have never thought about music as something they would pay for. And that’s where we are now, and that’s really discouraging… because what the fuck are we supposed to do? (laughs) It’s just insanity.
The flipside is also an equally nightmarish epidemic, in the sense that everybody and their mother has a Kickstarter campaign going. So there’s an endless line of bands shaking digital cups, saying help me pay for my record, help fund my new video or tour. I think Kickstarter can be great, there’s some really great ideas and amazing projects that have taken flight as a result of this crowd-sourced financing, but the saturation of it just becomes this grand scheme where you feel like you’re walking down the street in San Francisco. There’s beggars constantly in your face asking you not for change, but for all the money you can spare. As a music fan, someone who consumes music constantly, it’s tiresome and a real turn-off to be constantly hit up by bands – even ones I respect – for cash. But how do you make money? How do you progress in a way that doesn’t compromise you?
I’m lucky enough to be in one of the last bands to actually make money off of records. To be in that late 90s, 2000 era where we could actually do it, make money from album sales and get support from a label. And for people coming up now, I don’t even know what they’re going through. I know just from my experience with Black Light Burns that we have very little interest from labels. People are like ‘This is not going to sell.’ And that’s fine. Our record is coming out in a joint venture deal with a distributor. It’s not a label. And we’re going to do a tour with no crew, in a van and a trailer, that’s going to pretty much barely pay for itself. And I don’t know how I’d be able to do this if I didn’t have a band that actually went on tour and made money that I was also in.
I also hustle remix and film work too. So I have income from all these places that aren’t Black Light Burns, which allows me to do that. But if I were to replace all that with a 9-5 job and trying to do Black Light Burns, I don’t think I’d ever get anything done. I think that’s what people are going through in these bands. Fuckin’ bless ‘em, cause it’s hard.
It doesn’t look promising for a kid looking to start a band right now, if he’s looking for longevity.
The chances are even smaller now than they’ve been before. Whenever anyone asks me for advice as far as getting into music and starting a band, I always go ‘Well, number one, don’t. Number two, if you disregard my advice on number one, you better really really really be ready for a lot of hurt. You’re going to be disappointed all the time. But there’s a slight chance that somebody will break through and do really well.
You’ve dealt with the criticism of defending Limp Bizkit, and defending Fred, and going through all that it seems like you’ve come to a much better place. As you get older, do you reflect any differently on where you’ve been with Bizkit and how things have come along?
Sure. I think the main thing for me has been learning to deal with the criticism and realizing ‘Oh, everyone just has opinions. Fuck ‘em.’ Everyone has their own biases. But I think the turning point dealing with criticism… I used to get so bent out of shape about it, even a couple years ago. Then it’s like ‘Let me go look up bad reviews for all my favorite bands.’
Rolling Stone won’t ever live down the shit they talked on Led Zeppelin’s records when they first hit.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like ‘Wow, they really think this album’s… bad? Alright’ You know, or Radiohead’s Kid A an Amnesiac are two of my favorites. Or I read a really bad review of the fourth Strokes record, and thought that’s insane. They’re saying ‘Oh, Julian Casablancas is doing his own solo thing more and he doesn’t care about The Strokes, and they’ve gotten worse with every record…’ Meanwhile, I think they’ve gotten better with every record. So it’s made me go ‘Oh, people are just full of shit and trying to get as much attention for themselves as they can.’ And negativity sells, so let’s give all these bands a walloping whether it’s justified or not. I think that people I don’t even really care for musically, they’re putting themselves out there. Let ‘em make it.
With the music having been completed for a long while now and all these creative outlets at your fingertips, I imagine the writing has kept on going.
So are you moving forward in thinking about another record? Or is it getting ahead of yourself right now?
I just started the other day. Because this record I was still sort of tacking songs onto here and there. But the other day I started thinking about the next record and how it’s going to connect to this one, because this one and the last one have a very small connection. The first lyrics that are on the record, for How To Look Naked, is the first half of the first verse. It’s ‘I’ve seen people bleed and I’ve thought I’d seen it all but my own two eyes had proved me wrong that day. There are things that I’ve done only seen by the sun and those things will be buried in my grave.’ And at the very end of Cruel Melody, those words are whispered in a tiny little voice, and it’s the last thing on the record. There’s a silence at the very end of that song, and it fades out, and then that’s just barely audible at the end.
As far as the mystique and fun artistic aspect of doing what you do with Bizkit, I know that goes all the way back to your early days. But in a world where there are no secrets and everyone’s sort of pulled the veil on the mystique of what used to be with rock stars…
Isn’t that a bummer? (laughs)
Yeah, definitely. I remember being a kid in the 90s before the internet really took off, you still didn’t know what was going on with your favorite bands. When news of a new album came, it was the greatest thing ever and usually came through this really eccentric type of cat who worked at the record store and felt a clear sense of gatekeeper authority. But now you’ve got the teaser and the promo and the press release and fifty things coming up before anything substantial makes its way to your ears.
Videos in the studio of the band eating pizza. Okay, you’re human.
Right, seeing the dog running around, that whole thing. Hanging on to that idea, is that mystique concept at all in your head when you’re putting on the body paint?
I think I had a couple missteps where I wore the makeup or the contacts to an interview back when I was younger, and was like ‘You know what? I’m gonna keep it completely separate so that the costume stuff only happens onstage.’ Offstage I’m completely normal. I just didn’t want to do the Marilyn Manson thing where I’m always made up, or whatever. I wanted it to be a different person, and it is to a certain extent. When I put all the stuff on it is a different person of sorts, because I have sort of a head flip during the process. And when I go up onstage, I’ve got myself in character, and I’ve got my adrenaline going. It’s very pavlovian. I just start to salivate before we go on. I think in that way, that kind of freaked my wife out. She’s like ‘I don’t know who you are when you get into character.’ I feel very aggressive and mischievous, and I start popping people with towels offstage and knocking things off tables and grabbing things out of people’s pockets. I run into people ‘by accident’ to get makeup on them… I just get very aggressive. And then when we go on, I’m like on fire to be onstage. So I think no matter what mystery is taken away from who I am offstage, I have this other presence onstage that’s only seen in that environment.
I think it’s interesting to fuck with people, give people mixed impressions of what you’re actually doing. You can use social media to make people go ‘Huh? You guys are really doing that?’
What’s behind you at the end of the day, when you feel like you’ve really accomplished something?
Usually I’ve painted something… usually I schedule myself with whatever I have coming up, whether it be paintings that are commissioned, or paintings that are album covers or album artwork or something. I’m usually doing that, and working on whatever I have coming up. It’s usually a varied day, so it’s all art based, and it’s ideal. But yeah, sometimes I’ve gotta work on Miley Cyrus movies. (laughs)
Keep up with Black Light Burns on their Facebook, where you can find tour dates and more.