Skagit County’s own indie rock star gives a final fun, stirring, heart felt performance, and then sits down for a talk with the SAM Project.
Many wonderful things spring up out of the fertile soil of Skagit County. Truck loads of vegetables, fruit, grains, and livestock grow and flourish here. Other wonderful things such as visual art and music also spring up. Like the produce, one of our prime sources of music, art, and community soul is getting shipped down the highway. Samish Island native Karl Blau and his family have decided to try their luck on the East Coast. On Nov. 12, Karl gave a farewell, at least for now, performance at Pelican Bay Books in Anacortes. I was able to meet up with him later that week to sit down for a chat about the evolution of his music, and get some insight into the songs he played to the appreciative throng of fans that night.
The Evolution of the Blau Sound
When did you first start playing in bands?
I was taking guitar lessons in Mount Vernon with the same teacher as Brian Tottenham in 1992. Brian was playing in a band called Captain Fathom with Jake Navarro and Nick Myer. Out of the blue, they called me up and asked me if I wanted to be the bass player. At the time, I was playing in the band at Burlington High. I played sax, guitar, and drums. I also played drums in a metal band called Yellow Number 5. I played in Captain Fathom for ten years. One of the places we played a lot was the Rexville Grange.
I remember going to the grange and hearing a lot of great reggae and world beat music.
Yeah, we opened for Joe Higgs and the Mighty Diamonds. Someone there must have had a Kingston connection.
It was always certainly a great venue for local bands.
For sure. Rivertalk, Jambalassy, Swamp Mama Johnson all played there.
Captain Fathom was like a jam band, right?
Totally! We did have songs, but some shows were total jam. We might start a song, and then head off on a tangent. People danced though.
So what came after Captain Fathom
In 1998, I formed D+ with Bret Lundsford and Phil Elverum. We toured quite a bit at that time. Our first tour was of the East Coast with Dub Narcotic Sound System. Bret was running The Business at the 1717 Commercial building where Alley Cat Antiques is.
That was such a cool spot with the courtyard out back
Brent had a small recording studio there that he let me use. That’s where I met Laura Veirs from Lopez. They had great shows there Sandman, Gift Machine.
So what were the first recordings you made like?
(Karl laughs) They were kind of all over the place. I guess you could call it freak folk. Kind of like the Beach Boys “Smile” album. I put together all kinds of sounds, voices. My goal was to combine a bunch of stuff that you would have never heard before. That was around 2002. I had a four track recorder, and by taking the individual tracks and combining them into one, I was able to actually lay ten tracks down.
So that was the beginning of the distinctive Karl Blau sound. It seems like for five years or so, you’ve branched off into a country mode.
Hmmm, yeah, around 2015 was when Tucker and I produced “Introducing Karl Blau.” Wait, back in 2007 was when we recorded That’s How I got to Memphis.
That is such a great song. Who wrote it?
Tom T. Hall. After we recorded it, we sent him a copy. He loved it. He sent us back a letter, hand written on his own letter head paper. He said if he was younger (Karl adopts an old geezer accent) I’d take you boys on the road.
Where does your country soul come from?
(Karl leans back to take a moment to ponder.) When I was 18 or 19, you used to hear that kind of music coming out of big jacked up trucks. I tried to avoid them cause I was kind of a skater punk, although I didn’t skate. But I had the long hair. I started getting into artists like Lefty Frizzel, Carl Perkins. What really appealed to me was the singing. It was this effortless kind of soul singing.
I wanted to ask you about the songs you played the other night. It was such a great intimate evening
Yeah, it was pretty emotional. Sitting up there in front of a room full of people I knew. There was so much going through my head. I was trying really hard to be present.
The first song that night was Crashing Waves. Karl let his playful side go, recording some tape loops of his unique, melodious voice.
That song is from “Beneath the Waves” from 2006. Its about going back to the beach or just coming back to things. Performing again, the tidal aspect of life.
His second song was Slow Children, a classic Blau song with quirky, catchy lyrics.
It’s about a cat that my cousin ran over when he was drunk on Christmas eve. It happened right in front of our house. (Karl mimics a distracted drunk) Hey, I think I just ran over your cat. It’s kind of a plea for people to just slow down.
Number three on his set was Jump Into the Thorns. It had a driving rhythm with some complex, existential ideas running through it.
Its about faith leaps, you know, taking the harder path, just jumping into things. Its from the album,” Clothes Your I’s“
The next song was Tumblebee. It had a folkier feel with a rocking verse.
That one is from “Shell Collection“. It’s a can’t keep this love song. You bring a bumblebee home, but you realize you can’t keep it.
Next up was as tune titled Dragon Song.
This is a post apocalyptic tune about people watching a nuclear holocaust, and what would happen after. Tv’s turning off, all that kind of stuff.
Karl brought local harmonica god John Seibolt up at this point in the show. They had just completed a tour that spanned several states. While John got set up, Karl waxed on philosophically.
Being up here is kind of like being on the beach. You are all like rocks, pebbles on the beach. The music is like waves washing over the pebbles. (Motioning to the open space on the floor in front of him) And this is like the liminal zone.
A beautiful Townes VanZandt tune, If You Needed Me was first up. John added some sweet harp accents while Karl sang, and strummed his guitar softly.
Ever a fan of local music, Karl played a couple songs by Bret Lundsford and Bryan Elliot next. He followed them with his rendition of Don Gibson’s Sensuous Woman which got the whole audience crooning along on the chorus.
Karl returned to his own work with another song from “Clothes Your I’s”. Computer deals with our relationship with electronics, as Karl put it, life imitates life. Like many of his creations, there was a touch of loneliness and melancholy to this song.
Next up was another somewhat somber offering. I Can’t Get Your Lovin is about being on the road, and missing your loved ones. I asked Karl about a particular phrase that mentions the kitchen
Yeah, the kitchen is the only place I can get your lovin. That means finding comfort in food.
One of my favorite tunes from” Maherican Dream” was up next. Seaweed Tea to me is a consummate Blau song, weird existential lyrics, matched with an off kilter beat and vocals. Karl described this as a song about:
Being at the beach surrounded by nature, image dropping a piece of seaweed into a cup of boiling water.
While on tour, he and John performed a number of classic Waylon Jennings tunes. They tore through a couple of them including another audience sing along to Luckenbach Texas.
Blue Street, another Blau original was up next. It deals with leaving depression behind.
Much to the delight of the crowd, Karl led the group through an impromptu song creation. Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear included beats and yelled out lyrics from the crowd. After offering up his very poignant rendition of the Link Wray song Falling Rain, Karl closed out the night with another song about rising up from difficult times, When It Rains it Pours. He pointed out that the lyric, When I catch the Reins, was another of his characteristic play on words.
After the show, Karl and his family hung out by the merch table and received a stream of hugs and well wishes from the crowd. Best of luck and safe travel for the Blau’s as they advance into a new chapter in their lives.
Entertainment Writer Mark Perschbacher…A man who will cross great barriers to find exceptional music, art, food, and beer. Mark is a long time Skagit County resident, contributor to, and supporter of local arts.