Interview with Blake Sennett of The Elected
With Rilo Kiley, Blake Sennett wrote the soundtrack to the lives of most indie rock fans at the dawn of the new millennium. With the Elected, the group he started as a side-project in 2004, his trademark guitar style and hushed, impassioned vocals were highlighted for listeners in a way they hadn’t been before, not to mention his big-as-life guitar solos. We sat down with Blake before a show in support of his new album with The Elected,Bury Me in My Rings to discuss life in the wake of Rilo Kiley’s indefinite hiatus, the new record, his goals for the future, and, of course, guitars! And be sure to check out photos from the show, and backstage on our Facebook page – here!
Did you feel pressure to release this record, or did you do it just because you were ready?
I had a friend who called me up, he’s a producer/engineer/mixer fellow who I’d worked with before, and he kind of – I don’t know how to put it – he sort of tricked me. He said, “Let’s go into the studio and just record, we’re not going to do it for any purpose.” And I said I didn’t have songs, nor did I really have an interest in them. We sort of went in and started just recording: drums, the sounds of things, the sound of a guitar, chords, an A chord. I was playing a beat, a super simple beat, on the drums and he recorded it and played it back, and he was kind of tweaking that and doing his thing – and it sounded really good! He’s kind of an inspiring engineer, he records things in a way that’s really exciting to me. I’ve been lucky to work with my friend Mike Bloom and my friend Mike Mogus (who mixed the first record and the new record, which I think are mixed the best, or in the most interesting way). He sort of tricked me into doing it, but I loved it.
Why did you need to be tricked into making music?
I had sort of sworn off music, or sort of just gotten, I shouldn’t say sworn off because that’s really a way too severe way to put it; I had just, I think, become fatigued, and saddened at the thought of music, and angry at music. I think it was the relationships that had soured. I was like, “fuck that, I want to get along with people.” You kind of start a band with people you really love, and if you end up really disliking those people, and they end up really disliking you, it’s like kind of a bummer. I was like, “well that doesn’t sound like something I want to do again,” you know? And also I felt like I wanted to do something that someone couldn’t just take away from me. So I guess that was part of it, but in doing this I had a tremendous change of heart, and I realized, maybe, that Dumbo doesn’t need a magic feather to fly.
How does it feel having this band step out, in a way, from the shadow of your earlier projects?
There’s something powerful about the Elected being a side project of Rilo Kiley, and having it be the sole project was somehow psychologically terrifying. But it was great, it was a real freeing experience, recording the record, and really fun and exciting and fresh, and we did things in a new way: we sort of just recorded the inception of everything.
Were these recordings of just demos, or did any of them make their way onto the record?
Yeah, totally. It’s mostly like that. The beat I referenced earlier ended up being the beat for Born to Love You.
That’s you on drums?
On a lot of them, yes, and bass; drums were my first instrument before guitar. I’m not very good, but I’m serviceable. So, yes, Born to Love you was that, and pretty much just saying, “oh what about this chord change” – it was fun. And there were some that were songs that had been around for a while, and not everything was like that, but the bulk of it was.
You’ve been called a perfectionist in the past – are you?
I’m trying to work on my perfectionism. I think perfectionism is actually more like a character defect more than it is to be something to be proud of. I think it can limit you; it can keep you from showing things to people when they’re half-cooked. And it’s ultimately an ego-based emotion.
But on the other hand it also results in you not being content with things that imperfect.
I think there’s two ways to think about it though. Because either there is no “perfect,” or everything is “perfect,” as in, “it is what it is, so it is perfect.” I’m getting a little existentialist though. So I’m trying to let go of that stuff that, I think, limits us. I don’t like the idea that someone is a bricklayer, and someone else is a journalist, and someone else is a musician; I think all that’s limiting. My father was a carpenter, but that’s not all he was (he’s retired). I can do some carpentry, but that doesn’t make me a carpenter, nor am I not a carpenter. (Speaking of carpenters who wanted to become more than carpenters…) I don’t know, maybe I’m getting a little too fruity here. I guess it was part of learning that and going, you know, “am I a musician or am I a scuba master?” And so I started learning scuba. And really I’m probably neither, you know? I guess prowess is what defines it. Though, I have a friend who’s a great songwriter but she’s probably not the best “musician” in the world, but I still think of her as a musician. But for me, I wanted to stop defining myself in those terms, regardless of what everyone else does. That’s what I wanted to do, so I think a lot of the last two years was a practice in that and trying to let go, and trying to let go of things. I was lucky enough to make enough money in Rilo Kiley to not have to go get a day job and stuff, so I wanted to use these last two years to undefine myself.
Would you say that you’ve been successful?
Yeah – I think it’s a work in progress is what you realize, and that it’s never finished. Improving yourself and trying to be nicer to people, and forgive yourself and let go, which is all fruity stuff, but it’s stuff that interests me. And at least being aware of it was what the last couple of years were about. And so, in making this record, it was a practice in that. Like, “let’s enjoy our lives while we make this record.” Cause there was no label to give it to, so I was like “let’s just have fun.” Because the one thing you’re guaranteed in art, I’ve come to realize, is the process. All the rest you’re not guaranteed. You’re really not guaranteed the results, you’re not guaranteed how people feel about it, you’re not guaranteed success, you’re not guaranteed money, you’re not guaranteed anything but the process. It’s really true, it’s really something I came to and said, “Okay, the process has got to be sweet.”
Everything is like that, hopefully, right? At least art. I don’t do other things besides art, so I can’t tell you if it’s really awesome to lay brick or what have you, but in art I think you have to make sure that the process is enjoyable as a meditation. I mean, artists are people that have chosen to do this, we’re obviously a little flawed if we want to do that, like our brains work differently.
Could you elaborate on that?
We’ve got some kind of dysfunction if we think that playing chords and writing stories is more important than heart surgery or building shelter, you know? I think some of us can’t really help it. I was reading in Time magazine that creativity comes out of a dysfunction in the brain, like when your brain misfires. The article was about a computer programmer and he was saying that computers never make an error – I mean if they do it’s broken, but they’re programmed not to make an error – and human beings make errors all the time. And I may be misquoting here, but he was saying that creativity stems out of your brain having a dysfunction to it, and he was trying to make a computer chip that works in the same way. So sometimes I look at crazy people differently and I think, “well maybe I’m halfway there.”
Do you think the recording process is an effort to become less flawed, to exorcize those demons, or rather making use of them?
I think it’s accepting who you are. That’s what it was. I tried to push it away and it came back to me. So it’s all acceptance, is what this recording was. Saying, “okay, fine, who do I think I am saying ‘I’m not a musician anymore.’” It’s fucking lame, and it’s egotistical. It’s like, who do I think I am to be like “oh, I’m not doing this anymore.” For me it felt false, and once I started making music again, I was like “oh right, I totally love this!” And maybe I was punishing myself, and maybe I was scared, I don’t know. It just felt false, and once I started doing it I was like, “well of course I’m doing this.”
Why do you use a Martin 000-28?
It’s a small body and it’s, as I recall, a rosewood back and sides, whereas the000-18 is mahogany back and sides. So the 000-28 has more of a sort of pointed sound, it’s more articulate, versus mahogany which is a little more absorbent of those higher frequencies so they tend to be a little more muddy and cool, but in a band context it’s harder to make out what a 000-28 is doing. And the 000 is my favorite body shape. I have a Harmony guitar that is basically the same shape that I had taken apart and braced like a Martin; he took it apart and tried to rebuild it into a Martin. It had been working fine, but I just loved that it looked a lot like a Martin so I was like, let’s make it sound more like one. I don’t know, to be honest for me the000-28 not only my favorite rosewood back and sides guitar, but it’s my favorite acoustic guitar. I’ve borrowed my brother’s for recordings, he has one, the Eric Clapton model, which is the 000-28EC.
Is there anybody that you can point to as a major influence on your guitar playing?
I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon solo, and Peter Paul & Mary – there was a lot of folk in my parents’ vinyl collection. I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff, and you know obviously Dylan, and Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie, but I think the first time I ever heard someone do like that folk, alternating thumb bass note thing, the “bum-bum, bum-bum,” the first time I heard it and I was like, “oh wow, that’s how I can use that,” was Elliot Smith’s ‘The Biggest Lie.’ And I think it was maybe the merging of that stuff from my childhood mixed with this awesome dude from Portland who was playing the saddest music I had ever heard when I was like, “oh wow, that’s pretty awesome.” I think there’s some Rilo Kiley stuff that’s real strummy, you know, and that probably calls for that folk early stuff, and then there’s stuff like ‘Go Ahead,’ for instance, which is using that same style. So I would say it’s sort of a mix, but that Elliot was sort the Rubicon for me. He was a sick fingerstyle guitar player, but he had no fingernails! He had them but he chewed them off, he was a chronic fingernail biter; a lot of these fingerpickers have long fingernails, I mean I have fingernails, but he didn’t. When I saw him play I asked him about it and I was like “wow.” And that’s kind of his sound too, isn’t it? If you listen, it’s real soft you know? Precise but soft. And I think it’s something that differentiates him from other folk pickers, is that he didn’t have the nails man!