Whether slinging the guitar in KMFDM, creating experimental genre-bending anthems with Black Sugar Transmission, or flying off-the-cuff to his heart’s content with Sheer Velocity, Andee Blacksugar is one of his generation’s most versatile talents, speaking with ReGen about life and music in 2020.
An InterView with Andee Blacksugar of Black Sugar Transmission
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Andee Blacksugar first came to this writer’s attention in 2017 when he was announced as the new guitarist for Ultra Heavy Beat sensation KMFDM on the band’s Hell Yeah Tour that year. Upon seeing his skill onstage, one could hardly be anything but awestruck by the precision with which he executed those signature technical riffs, having had to learn them in a short time and likely with such limited preparation, but this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the man’s talents. He’s shared the stage with Peter Murphy, has collaborated with the likes of Jerry Gaskill, Jason Bieler, Pepperment, and Body Stuff to name a few, and has been praised by celebrated guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour as “a genius.” For more than a decade, he has released numerous albums under the moniker of Black Sugar Transmission, blending virtually every musical style under the sun into an energetic and eclectic brew that highlights every aspect of his musicianship – his angular and experimental guitar playing, his complex arrangements, and most especially his dynamic and nuanced songwriting. In 2019, he made his recording debut with KMFDM on the acclaimed PARADISE album, and in 2020 on the band’s IN DUB record. Besides that, he released this year a trilogy of albums – Wandering into the Bullseye, The Flowering, and Dream Finisher – showcasing songs he’d written over the course of the previous year, along with his third cover album putting his own stamp on the 1995 debut from Garbage; oh yeah, and he also released four records under his Sheer Velocity project – Lockdown Lullabies, in which he crowdsourced ideas to create one song per day over two weeks, and three volumes of These Are Not Our Beautiful Songs, showcasing numerous cover tracks. With such a prodigious and productive pace, ReGen Magazine can only be grateful to Blacksugar for having taken the time to speak with us about his music.
From what I understand, these three albums are pulled from over 170 ideas you demoed from summer ’18-summer ’19. From so many ideas, how did it come to mind to create a trilogy around them? What was that process like of going through those songs and deciding which ones worked for which topics or lyrical themes you wanted to address?
You also recently released an album under your Sheer Velocity moniker on which you wrote and recorded a track-a-day, essentially crowdsourcing ideas from social media. Tell us more about this process and how the idea for it came about? How pleased were you with the results?
Under what circumstances do you feel it’s something you would pursue again?
Because of the internet and social media, it does seem like the audience has greater access to artists, and you had said that Wandering into the Bullseye focused thematically on living life through the lens of social media – what have you found to be the major drawbacks to this?
And in contrast, have you found there to be any major benefits?
One of the most notable aspects of your playing style is that it seems to be very technical (not just in terms of the use of effects and equipment, but also in having a command of theory), yet also very fluid and even a bit off-the-cuff.
Would you tell us about your education with the guitar and music in general? Or at the very least, to what extent theory and technique play into your songwriting? Is it something you’re conscious of – either before, during, or after the writing/recording?
Blacksugar: Thank you! I am self-taught, with the exception of six-to-nine months of very early guitar lessons. I learned everything by ear; listening and copying. Later on, I started warming up to music theory in the same way a person who already knows how to talk might become interested in the mechanics of grammar. It’s just the language that describes what we do.
That said, I don’t allow music theory to be the whip that drives my creative horse. It’s sort of going on in the background, like a computer’s CPU. It allows me to make more educated choices and eliminates a certain amount of trial-and-error that can slow down the writing process. But theory is not the primary motivator – what makes me want to write songs is a really fundamental primal thrill that comes from making stuff.
Talking about the technical side of things, your production feels very slick and meticulous in its blending of rock & roll abandon and controlled electronic precision, and while very decidedly non-mainstream, there is a pop sensibility to much of your songs – I would liken it to what Mutt Lange brought to Def Leppard with his production style on Pyromania or Hysteria (not that you sound like those albums, per se). Do you ever find it difficult to keep from ‘overproducing?’ Or to put it another way (and perhaps this is similar to the previous question), has there ever been a concern that the songwriting gets diluted in the mire of so much technicality?
You’ve made it a point to state on the album liner notes that you don’t use auto-tune, which only emphasizes the extent of your abilities as a singer (your harmonization on the opening ‘Like Glass’ is proof enough). The voice is probably the most organic sound amid electronically processed and filtered sounds, and yet loses none of the precision or ambience – what do you find to be the greatest challenges in achieving that, both from a production and a performance standpoint?
What sort of methods or exercises do you employ to keep your voice so strong?
Blacksugar: Thank you again – I have to say, I’m not really a great singer and I don’t practice at all. The only time I open up my mouth to sing is when there’s a song to be recorded. That said, there’s plenty of imperfect pitch to go around and I’m fine with that. Across-the-board perfection, as I said before, is utterly banal to me. So as a singer, the greatest challenge for me is to deliver a vocal that is relatively in tune, with some spirit and attitude that gets the lyric across effectively.
In 2012, you released your rendition of Madonna’s first album, and the in 2018, did the same for Motörhead’s Overkill. In your performances of these two classic albums, what would you say you gleaned from them that perhaps gave you a greater appreciation for the originals? Were there aspects to the songwriting or the production of the originals that you feel you’ve applied in your own music (not just in your renditions of those albums)?
Blacksugar: I was a huge fan of both those artists before embarking on those cover albums, so I already had loads of respect – although my interpretations were weirdly more self-centered. Like, ‘how can I put my stamp on this material?’ Madonna and Overkill were both extremely self-indulgent projects.
Pop and metal are often seen as two different styles, but it’s fair to say that there has been much crossover (certainly in your music, and in modern music as a whole). What validity do you think genres or categories will have on people’s tastes and perception of music, either now or in the future?
Blacksugar: That’s interesting. I started out as a fundamentalist, card-carrying metal-head who categorically disavowed any kind of mainstream pop (or any non-metal music for that matter). But as I opened my ears to other things and became a fan of more and more non-metal music, I realized that there was no reason to deny myself anything that sounds good. It’s all cumulative for me and I love being able to mix seemingly disparate musical ingredients into my own songs. I think the internet has really broken down a lot of those genre-based rivalries that used to exist and nowadays, there’s little judgement – if you happen to like Billie Eilish and Slayer at the same time, nobody would bat an eyelash, and that’s a good thing!
You first joined KMFDM on the Hell Yeah Tour in 2017, and you were something of a last minute replacement for the guitarists in Lord of the Lost when they were unable to do the tour. Would you tell us about how you came to the Käpt’n’s attention and came to be now such an integral part of the band?
With over three decades worth of material, even though they’ve had different guitarists in that time, what did you find to be the major challenges in adapting your style to that of KMFDM’s – especially where Hell Yeah was concerned?
In what ways do you feel you brought that into your approach to co-writing and playing on PARADISE?
Tell us about working with Sascha on the PARADISE album? What similarities and differences did you find in your respective songwriting styles?
Knowing that Sascha’s based in Hamburg and you in the States, how much of the album was created together in the same room, and how much was done remotely?
Blacksugar: It was a smooth process once we got a system worked out. I think Sascha has a clear vision of what he wants, but also loves integrating cool ideas from his collaborators. Generally, the song idea would start with Sascha and, as I said earlier, I’d ‘scribble’ on it. If he wanted me to replicate one of his riffs note-for-note, he’d let me know. And at other times, he’d ask me for riffs. All the other bits I added (sound effects, ambiance, fills) were just window dressing. And to Sascha’s credit, he kept most of that stuff in!
And all of the album was made remotely. At no point did we sit in the same room to write. A very 21st century collab for sure.
I was unaware that you’d performed with Peter Murphy during his tour for LION (not seeing the tour, I assumed that it was Mark Gemini Thwaite). Would you tell us about that experience, how you came to be part of that tour, and if there are any particular memories or events that you’d like to share?
Not to analyze too closely as per your suggestion, but if the second – The Flowering – is all darkness and conflict, how much of that would you say was simply the flow of a story (conflict and resolution), and how much do you feel it is reflective of your worldview?
Although your own music is not as politically charged or in-your-face as KMFDM is, is it ever a concern for you if audiences do not seem to hear what you’re trying to convey?
Blacksugar: Oh, there definitely isn’t a story in these albums and the lyrical themes are pretty uniformly dark across all of them, honestly. I think The Flowering just has the darkest overall musical mood. But I definitely tried to make each album a balanced listen in its own right, with its own natural ebb and flow. And no, I’m not concerned with whether or not the audience gets my lyrical intentions; in fact, sometimes I prefer it, because many of my lyrics probably shouldn’t be analyzed too closely anyway! I always responded to the overall sonic and emotional thrust of music and the lyrics were an aspect I could explore as an additional bonus, should I feel so inclined. I’d hope folks approach my music in the same way – fall in love with the sound and the attitude first, then dig deeper for lyrical content.
You mentioned the positive and light-hearted nature of Lockdown Lullabies, as well as how we are reliant on social media for real-life engagement, so despite the dire circumstances, it does seem that a great many people – yourself and many other musicians included – are making some sort of good come out of it. Not to ask you for a prediction, but rather what are your hopes moving forward as the crisis finally reaches an end? Do you think people will continue to focus on positive action and attitudes, or is it only a matter of time before we revert or regress?
Saying you don’t mind the Def Leppard allusion and that you don’t champion Steve Albini’s style… so, who would you say are most exemplary of the style of production that you enjoy – the blend of machines with the maximum of human performance?
Blacksugar: Just a few off the top of my head… Basement Jaxx, New Order, Madonna’s first 10 or so albums, Moloko/Roisin Murphy, Depeche Mode, Niki & The Dove, Chk Chk Chk. And by the way, I love Albini’s style, just not for my own music.
You mentioned that the Madonna and Motörhead cover albums were self-indulgent projects; in July, you did the same with the Garbage debut. Indulgent though they may be, do you find that performing and creating them in your own style for fun has benefitted your own songwriting – perhaps by focusing on albums/songs you already know and enjoy, does it in any way affect how you approach your own songwriting?
Has it ever been a consideration to take an album or artist’s music that you perhaps might not have been as big a fan of and put your own stamp on it?
Blacksugar: I’m sure these projects have influenced my writing in some way. Just being busy making music, even if it’s cover tunes, keeps the muse close by. I might be open to covering an album I’m not necessarily a big fan of if I can see a tempting creative opportunity in the endeavor.
A livestream obviously doesn’t hold the same power as a live show, but it’s become part of the status quo, and you are fairly active with sharing videos on Instagram. What sort of possibilities do you see for bands to use new and online technologies to keep music alive and maintain the excitement of audiences?
What possibilities do you foresee for live music to survive or evolve in the wake of the current situation?
Blacksugar: Jeez, I don’t know. At the beginning of COVID, I was doing weekly live performances on F***book, but connectivity issues screwed up the stream too often, so I stopped doing that. I’m aware the technology is improving to the point where musicians will be able to perform together virtually with very little latency, but the experience from an audience perspective still feels flat to me. It’s a subject that’s hard for me to get enthusiastic about, to be honest.
Prior to the release of IN DUB, you released a remix of the PARADISE track ‘Oh My Goth.’ Having recorded new parts for the dub renditions on IN DUB and doing your own remix apart from that, is it a possibility that we might hear more remixes or alternate versions of KMFDM from you?
Blacksugar: Probably not. I think one was enough! I generally prefer remixing tunes by artists I’m not already familiar with, although I’m really happy with ‘Oh My Goth.’ A few years ago. I was doing this a lot via Indaba.com – downloading stems for tunes I’d never heard before, deleting everything but the vocal, and writing a new track around that. Most of my remixes can be heard here on SoundCloud.
As we near the end of 2020 and the trilogy is released in its complete form, how pleased are you with the results? In what ways, if at all, did the songs change form as you recorded each of the albums?
Now that it’s done, is there anything you’d do differently?
What’s next for you and Black Sugar Transmission? Or perhaps, anything coming up with KMFDM that you’re able to tell us about?
Blacksugar: Nothing for BST for a while, except for on my Patreon, where I release an exclusive new tune each month to folks in the top tier. In KMFDM world, I know Lucia’s been working on a solo album and I played on a couple of the tunes. Beyond that, nothing is on the calendar. I’ve had an extremely busy creative year, releasing something like 11 or 12 albums, plus guesting on other people’s stuff – do check out Jason Bieler’s new single ‘Apology,’ I did all the lead guitars. So, I think I’m going to go easy on y’all and not put anything out for a bit!
Photography by Nikki Alcazar – provided courtesy of Black Sugar Transmission
Live Photography by Tabetha Patton (MizTabby)