Hidden by a cloak around the mother ship, FiXT artist Blue Stahli gives National Rock Review a few moments before getting back to work.
NRR: Who do I have in front of me right now?
Bret Autrey: This is Bret, who is Blue Stahli. Blue Stahli is a one-man project. Everything you hear on my records is me, which means it takes me a lot longer to do everything, but it also means that I donâ€™t have anyone to blame for when things go horribly, horribly awry, which they typically do. Iâ€™m the sole member of Blue Stahli.
NRR: The rumors are that sometime later this year you have a new album coming out. Can you tell me about the album? Whatâ€™s the name of the it? Is it a concept or is it just a bunch of good songs thrown together for the consumption of all the fans out there?
Bret Autrey: I wish that I had the attention span necessary to put together a full concept album with a big spanning storyline and everything. Thatâ€™s more Klayton of Celldweller â€“ thatâ€™s his thing, building an entire universe and everything. Mine is more like short controlled bursts of things. Thatâ€™s like also the differences between our projects. He does like the big epic, spiraling songs and mine are more like pop arrangement. His are eight minutes long, mine are more like three and a half minutes long. I like the short controlled bursts of rapid fire. Thatâ€™s the stuff that I really like. Thatâ€™s what I go for.
The musical concept for this thing has changed over the course of doing this. At first it was just going to be just low-fi, raw, just big guitar stuff and as it went on I got really just into mixing so many different styles of production, thinking, “Well, what if I pull back on the screaming a little bit but make the guitars louder and darker progressions,” but then completely throw it for a curve ball and throw in like really catchy pop harmonies and pop production, and then throw it for another curve again and mix in like glitchy, French electro-style production. The album is called “The Devil” and that concept came about from I was looking through a family photo album â€“ it was after my grandfather passed away â€“ looking through this family photo album and I see this picture of me as a kid, Iâ€™m like two or two and a half years old and Iâ€™m in this devil outfit that my mom made for Halloween and thatâ€™s whatâ€™s been used for the cover of “The Devil, Chapter 1″ and The Devil, Chapter 2,” you can see this exact thing and itâ€™s even a T-shirt on the labelâ€™s store – you can get a Bret as a devil baby T-shirt â€“ and as soon as I saw that picture, I wasnâ€™t even thinking about the new album.
I just had a collection of songs and demos I was working on. I didnâ€™t have any sort of concept or anything to unify them together. But seeing that picture, I started laughing immediately and thought, “This is ridiculous. This is an album cover.” What else can you call it than just “The Devil.” How hilarious to me, (â€˜cause I just like entertaining myself) how entertaining it was to me that I canâ€™t believe that I have the sort of family where “Yeah! Letâ€™s dress him up like Satan. Thatâ€™s hilarious!” So we even wound up taking this artist, Virocity, who has been doing a lot of the graphics for it, he took the little pitch fork that was sewn onto that outfit, traced it out, and now thatâ€™s been the branding for that album as well.
NRR: Is it an EP? Will it be an LP? How many songs can your fans expect to hear when the album actually does come out?
Bret Autrey: I wish that I had kept count. I think itâ€™s more than ten. It may be eleven or twelve, but I also could be opening my mouth just to change feet and maybe it is ten. I always try to shoot for at least ten â€“ for me thatâ€™s an album. I think thatâ€™s what I did for the debut as well for the self-titled. So itâ€™s at least ten but probably twelve. It will be a full-length LP, but the way that I release stuff and the way that we do things through FiXT is instead of the old model of like, “Ok. Youâ€™re not going to hear from me for a year while Iâ€™m working on this album, or two years or however long it takes me to do this damn thing. Youâ€™re not going to hear any of that.” Iâ€™ll just tell people Iâ€™m working on stuff and then all of a sudden here comes this giant work. Instead of doing that, since we are now in the digital age and the age of social media, what is more interesting to me (and I would like this if other bands did this as well to give me something to follow along with), I release two songs at a time in the form of chapters â€“ and a chapter is just a fancy way of saying EP, thatâ€™s like the FiXT way of saying EP â€“ so I release these chapters, these EPs, that have two songs as well as sometimes remixers.
Other times Iâ€™ll do something that is not really a remix but an entirely other idea of these things called premonitions, where I take an element of the song, say a riff that was in the verse, so like the song “Enemy” that is on “The Devil, Chapter 2,” there is a riff that goes in the verse that because my dumb mouth is making all sorts of noise and Iâ€™m singing and mucking up the whole thing over the verses you never really hear this riff in full and as I was listening back to the instrumental I kept thinking, “Man, if that riff was played louder that would be just as cool as like a payoff or like a chorus riff. Oh, Iâ€™ll just do another version where it is that.” So the premonitions are kind of like youâ€™re getting this vision of the song from beyond sort of thing, a little Lovecraft there. So the premonition of “Enemy” is only that riff in all these different mutated forms and takes on a different life of its own, but you can tell how it still connects in with the original song. So the EPs that come out that have that, itâ€™s all about just providing a constant stream of content all the way up until the release of the album. Sometimes itâ€™s not even the chapters.
Blue Stahli – Not Over Til We Say So (feat. Emma Anzai of Sick Puppies)
I just released a single called “Not Over Til We Say So” that features Emma Anzai, the bassist from Sick Puppies. She did some bass and she did some backing vocals for me and the song turned out awesome. Itâ€™s my favorite song on the record so far. Thatâ€™s one where even though FiXT made the rules of like doing things in this chapter format and then release a full album, that was one where even though we made the rules we eschewed it for that and just said, “Weâ€™ll do what we want, so weâ€™re going to release just a single and put it out there.” I like the fact that people following on Spotify or people following on Twitter or Facebook always get a constant stream of, “Oh hey, thereâ€™s a new song! Oh hey, thereâ€™s a new song here!” and itâ€™s the best of both worlds because there are those people who are like, “Thatâ€™s not for me. I like the old-school way. I like waiting for an album and digesting it as an album.” Well, cool! You donâ€™t have to listen to any of this. Donâ€™t click the button that says play. Itâ€™s a really easy fix. But the people that do want to hear stuff as soon as itâ€™s done get to do so, but the people who want to save the experience can also do so.
NRR: For the people that might not have heard any of your music up to this point, say they get interested with the interview and they go looking for that song with the Sick Puppies bassist, describe how you see your own sound.
Bret Autrey: Well, if they did want to get an idea for the way the rest of this record is going to come about, that song (Not Over Til We Say So) is probably the best representation of Blue Stahli right now because that particular song goes from thrash metal to glitch hop, all with funky live bass stuff, to straight up pop in the chorus with M-80 freestyle chords and stuff like that. All of these disparate genres coming together in a blender and somehow being cohesive and making sense. Blue Stahli is a multi-genre project. There are some things where they are straight up heavy rock stuff, there are some things where it is straight up electronic, and there are some things where all that commingles together. Thatâ€™s my favorite thing, making an album or even a song itself sound like youâ€™re spinning the dial of a radio.
Probably the best thing, and one of the big inspirations for it, was I always loved when youâ€™d get an event soundtrack for a movie â€“ like when youâ€™d get a soundtrack to The Crow or Virtuosity or Hackers or something like that â€“ and on one album youâ€™d have hip-hop and techno and metal and rock and pop and all this stuff, and I would listen to it and I think why does this have to be a soundtrack with like twelve different artists? Why canâ€™t this be one band who does all this different stuff? Thatâ€™s what I want to hear. I want to hear one band that sounds like the Matrix soundtrack as a whole, so thatâ€™s really what I set out to do with Blue Stahli. So if you like that stuff and you like that sort of variety, then I am your mo-fo.
NRR: To ask a question that I try to ask all the people I talk to, youâ€™ve been around the music scene for quite a while one way or the other, either with the recording, the live playing, the writing the songs and whatnot. Every artist so far, for the most part, has had that one moment that when it gets brought up that when youâ€™re sitting around after a show or youâ€™re just talking about all the weird things that youâ€™ve seen, there is one moment that could be brought up and you still laugh, even if it was twenty years ago. What is that one Spinal Tap-esk moment that â€“ I can already see the smile on your lips, youâ€™re already reliving it in your head â€“ what is that one moment?
Bret Autrey: As much as I would like to try and scramble for another one that Klay has to have already told you. When I was the other member of the two-man Celldweller live show, we had the best Spinal Tap â€“ we knew like instantly after it happened, we both cataloged it as “this is our Spinal Tap moment,” and there were many, but this was the Spinal Tap moment, and the fact that since this was an electronic rock show and we were presenting this more as a performance and electronic-based thing, so it was just the two of us, not a live band with like “Oh yeah. We got a bassist and a drummer and like six other guys standing around.” No, it was just the two of us jumping around between a bunch of stuff and a lot of electronic backing stuff, so like mixing DJ culture with rock â€˜n roll culture (you know, us jumping around with guitars), and because we are control freaks, we had everything submixed on stage for us to control, so all the house had to worry about was they miked up the drums and they had just the left and right of absolutely everything of us â€“ so they had our keyboards, they had the sound effects, they had the vocals, they had the guitars. They had everything and the drums, those were the only things they could control, so if something messed up with one of those it would be very, very obvious. So we begin the show and, of course, there are a bunch of video screens and unique timed video content to the actual music. Everything purely for dramatic effect and to be this great multi-media experienceâ€¦ when everything works, which it did not. The volume was down on our main mixer, so the house was getting zero signal whatsoever, but we didnâ€™t know that because we play with in-ears so we hear the mix perfectly. We never have to worry about feedback.
We hear everything exactly as it should be so we would never know if there is a problem in the house, and oh my! Yes there was, there was a problem in the house, but we didnâ€™t know. So the way the show begins is that I walk out on stage first and people start to clapping and they go “Oh Holy crap! Itâ€™s that weird guy that looks like Molly Ringwald. I like that guy!” So I wave and they start clapping and I hit the button thatâ€™s been mapped to my keyboard to trigger both the video and audio for the show, which if they were to have heard the audio, which they could not because our volume was completely down, they would have heard this very dramatic film score-esk introduction and choirs, like the opening of a Marvel movie sort of thing, and then Klay walks out and then they clap as well. Itâ€™s still completely dead silent in there.
Weâ€™re hearing it perfectly in our in-ears and weâ€™re like, “This showâ€™s going to go so good! You guys have no idea whatâ€™s about to hit you.” Klay comes and gets behind the drum kit and to us the track kicks in, so he starts doing this tribal drum thing and a couple of fills and looks out over the crowd, does this thing with the sticks, and it transitions to a new part where itâ€™s both of us on keyboards just jamming out and rocking out this full-on really energetic electronic thing and there are those shows where you can fell the energy right there and you can tell, “Oh yeah. The energy is here tonight and itâ€™s a good crowd. This is going to be awesome!” Well, we felt that, so weâ€™re both, “YOU ROCK!” yelling stuff back and forth and the audience canâ€™t even hear us, our mikes arenâ€™t on right now because we hadnâ€™t triggered that part of the show and there was no sound. So what the audience actually saw was dead silence and me walking out, pushing a button, standing there, and Klay walking out, coming behind the drum set and going, “Do do do do DO. Do do do. DO do Do DO.” (imitates drum sound) And then both of us silently walk up to the keyboards and start hitting keyboards with no sound coming out, no sound anywhere, and the crowd probably just going, “What is going on right now?”
Luckily, they figured it out just as the second song was playing, which, thank God, because that is a very guitar-heavy song, so as Iâ€™m putting on my guitar, and I didnâ€™t know â€“ I had no idea any of this happened because I was hearing the mix perfectly in the in-ears â€“ they figured it out, brought the sound up as I start playing the guitar part for the second song. After the show we so completely mortified realizing, “Oh my God! Now we have to go out and face all these people and shake hands and say â€˜Yep. We are giant idiots. Sorry about thatâ€™” and luckily every single person that we talked to said, “Oh my God! That was hilarious how you guys came out and did that little comedy thing before you kicked in the actual show.” Iâ€™m thinking there are some bands where theyâ€™ve carefully cultivated this image of like, “Iâ€™m this dark and mysterious artist and UHHâ€¦” and if something like that happened to an artist like that it would destroy everything immediately â€“ like if that artist walked up on stage and fell on their ass it would be like the mystic is kind of ruined â€“ but if I walked on stage and fell on my ass it would be like, “Aww, come on! This guyâ€¦ heâ€™s great!” so thank God Iâ€™m just my dorky self before all of this.
NRR: Give me some of your influences. Who helped you make the sound that when they think of Blue Stahli that they can say, “Ok, yeah. I hear that. I can see him listening to whoever.”
Bret Autrey: Well, definitely I was a huge fan of all of Klayâ€™s old projects. Thatâ€™s one of those things where you find a musician or band that you really like and you follow them around through all of their different iterations, so that is certainly what I had done with Klayâ€™s stuff. Everything heâ€™s ever recorded I pretty much have. I was that fan. I collected stuffâ€¦ so that was an absolute huge thing. I was and still am hugely, hugely into The Prodigy. I love the Hell out of Liam Howlett.
I like a lot of electronic music and thatâ€™s something where itâ€™s electronic music but itâ€™s done in the style of a punk band. Youâ€™re hearing a punk band theyâ€™re just using keyboards. Itâ€™s that sort of mentality. Itâ€™s sort of like DIY sort of thing. A lot of this has filmic ties as well, which works out because a lot of my songs show up in movies, so I can pinpoint the exact moment when I heard Crystal Method and that changed my world at the time. I was at a dollar theater because I (in singsong voice) grew up poor and was seeing the moving Replacement Killers, starring Mr. Chow Yun Fat, and the opening scene of that movie is this whole dance club assassination thing and badass hitman Chow Yun Fat walks through while Crystal Methodâ€™s “Keep Hope Alive” plays, and before that I had only really listened to breakbeat stuff in the context of like really sped-up jungle drum and bass and stuff like that. I had never really paid attention to breakbeats in a more mid tempo style where thatâ€™s the forefront of it, and they just had such a different sound than anything I was listening because a lot of the more electronic stuff I was listening to was more like four-on-the-floor dancy stuff or trance, you know Juno Reactor, stuff like that â€“ another band that shows up in a lot of soundtracks.
So that absolutely blew my mind and immediately ran home and started running keyboards through distortion pedals and stuff like that. So Crystal Method was definitely a big influence, just as big as The Prodigy. Juno Reactor for the way that they would make a song feel as exiting as you were watching a movie, and that was primarily the album “Beyond the Infinite” was one that I would listen to over and over and over. I did not care that the songs were seven minutes long. There was so much going on in there that just locked me in and kept me riveted. Itâ€™s funny, for as much guitar stuff as I have in my songs, I donâ€™t listen to a ton of rock stuff. A lot of the stuff that I listen to will be soundtracks or itâ€™ll be more electronic things.
I listen to a lot of pop, weirdly. There are people who are like, “We want you to do another heavy song,” and Iâ€™m like hereâ€™s a thing that has thrash metal parts and stuff like that or like Slayer riffs but it also has some Katy Perry influence, you know? So itâ€™s a weird combination of stuff. My personal Spotify stuff pretty much looks like you let a monkey loose in a CD shop to just grab stacks of a bunch of different stuff. I guess you could also throw both Depeche Mode for their songwriting â€“ that was a huge songwriting influence on me â€“ and what spiraled out from that, when Alan Wilder left the band in 1993 after they did Songs of Faith and Devotion, which is my favorite album because to me that album is like the perfect combination of electronic and organic.
There are live drums but then they chopped them up and treated them like loops, even though it was Alan Wilder playing the drums, and all the bass was synth and then they had live weird slide blues guitar going on. He left and then made a project called Recoil that was like an experimental trip-hop thing, so there are two albums that are my favorite from that, “Unsound Methods” and “Liquid,” like I can listen to those over and over again. Some of it is spoken word and a lot of it is just weird interesting trip-hop beats and a lot of cool musicians like Dean Garcia and Diamanda Galas and coming in and just improvising and doing weird stuff that he then chops up and samples, and I love that approach and the way that doing things in an electronic manner rather than just, “Oh yeah, weâ€™re a rock band. We have guitar, bass and drums.” Wow! I wonder what every song sounds like. Thatâ€™s so boring to me. I like the freedom of, “Oh yeah. Thereâ€™s guitar, bass and drums but thereâ€™s also any sound you could possibly think of plus things that no one has ever heard before. I can have an entire string section. I can make crazy horror movie sound design that then drops into Scifi stuff that then goes into straight up punk rock. I love what that brings and I listen to so many different styles of music that Blue Stahli allows me to go. Everything can live together.
NRR: With that being said, do you have more fun sometimes creating truly original songs, or do you get the itch to take somebody elseâ€™s song and go, “This is what is I would do if this song was mine.” What gives you more impish fun? To make that song strictly brand new, right off everything and work its way up, or take a Katy Perry dark horse and make a remix?
Bret Autrey: I do really like doing remixes and there was a time a couple years ago that I would have probably would have answered that the remixes would be the most fun, but now I kind of approach all of my stuff as if Iâ€™m remixing me anyway, so I kind of get to mix the best of both worlds with that as well. So itâ€™s probably transitioned over to doing something original, but the way that Iâ€™m doing something original to me is just remixing all of the stuff that I like into one weird unified thing.
I love that the technology has advanced and luckily weâ€™re in a time now where the 15-year-old girl next door listens to death metal, like the skater kid also likes Taylor Swift, you know? Itâ€™s like people arenâ€™t restricting themselves, like a 65-year-old dude could be super into Jay-Z. Thereâ€™s no more like, “Oh yeah. You got to like pick a genre and stick with it.” You donâ€™t have to do anything, man. You can do what you want.
NRR: Is it more satisfying for you to know that youâ€™ve made a difference in one of your fanâ€™s lives or hear a story that the person was a Blue Stahli and that kind of inspired you because you can tell that you are making an impact with the people that count most to you?
Bret Autrey: Itâ€™s absolutely all of it. Any expression that someone makes with that is hugely appreciated by me. There are some bands that say, “Oh, I donâ€™t even care if anybody listens to it. I just do this for me.” Hey, great man. Sit in your garage and do nothing but that and donâ€™t ever release it if itâ€™s just for you. But for me I can point to albums and artists and even films and books that got me through the hardest times in my life, and I can remember like, “If I can only get through this situation or this thing,” then thatâ€™s all that I want to do is do the same thing for other people, do for other people what this album did for me â€“ made me feel this way, made me feel like I could continue onward, or made me feel like, “Oh! Maybe I shouldnâ€™t just drive the car off a cliffâ€¦ I should keep going.” I want to do that for other people. I think thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m even still around is to do that. So, yeahâ€¦ when I do my songs Iâ€™m certainly evoking a certain mood in my head or Iâ€™m writing lyrics to a specific thought or abstract expression, but for me whatâ€™s most important is that people take those songs and apply it to their own lives.
There are people who ask like, “What is this song about?” or “What did you mean when you said this?” Doesnâ€™t matter. What matters is what it means to you and how it applies to your life, because your unique experiences are going to make that song feel entirely different than it will to me. Iâ€™ve had people write in and everything from doing fan art to saying,” I just got your face tattooed on me” or “I got Blue Stahli lyrics tattooed on me.” That blows my mind. From that all the way down to someone just writing in and saying, “Hey. I really liked this. This picked me up when I was down.” There have even been people who have said that some of these songs have kept them from committing suicide or at least made them start thinking, “Oh. I should go talk to somebody.” That absolutely means the world.
NRR: If you werenâ€™t doing music, what would be your “day job” do you think?
Bret Autrey: Still music. Iâ€™d fight my way back in.