Dec 2020 09

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?

Blacksugar: It was a drawn-out process with no pressure or deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), so I just let the initial writing process go on and on. I also allowed myself the liberty of letting the ideas sit and marinate for a good long while before revisiting them so that I could listen with fresh ears and decide which ones were worth pursuing. I ended liking way too many of the songs to squeeze into a normal album’s running time, so I got this idea of putting out seasonal installments of three standalone albums that would also have an overall arch if one were to play them back-to-back.
I created three folders titled Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, and filed the songs accordingly. In other words, the first ‘act’ is sort of a breathless introduction, the second is all darkness and conflict, and the third is resolution, hope, and light. This was a very loose conceit, mind you, and it shouldn’t be analyzed too closely. It just helped me sort the songs into three manageable sets.

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?

Blacksugar: I had a blast with Lockdown Lullabies. The writing process for Sheer Velocity is completely stream-of-consciousness, very spontaneous, completely self-indulgent. Bringing the crowdsourcing into it just made it more fun and sometimes more challenging. Also, because I promised a song a day and an album after 13 days, there was a certain exhilarating momentum to it. Deadlines are great!
A big part of the fun was bringing other musicians into it – again, there are 13 or them, not counting bassist Adam James, who played on the whole album, bless his heart. The first one to offer his services was the great Alex Skolnick, which really surprised me as he and I still haven’t formally met. On the strength of that particular coup, I asked a bunch of other great players and friends to join in the fun – Vernon Reid, Jason Bieler, etc. Everyone got into the spirit of the whole thing. Of course, they were all stuck at home, so why not?
It’s hard to say whether I’d do this type of project again – the idea came to me spontaneously and I ran with it, which is how these things tend to go. As far as living life through the lens of social media, it’s something I’m generally really queasy about for many reasons. But we’re all relying on it now more than ever, as real-life engagement is strictly discouraged in light of COVID-19. All in all, I’d say that Lockdown Lullabies was an exercise in generally positive, lighthearted, and diverting social media engagement.

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?

Blacksugar: I’m as much a fan of machine music – drum machines, sequencers, sampling – as I am of ‘organic’ musicmaking. For me, there needs to be a balance. The rhythms can be unerringly perfect, for instance, but then if the guitar is all quantized and the vocal is auto-tuned, then the overall effect is just absolutely bland and predictable. There’s got to be an element of gamble in it, for me – like ‘is she going to hit that note?!’ and then when she does, it’s really exciting, like ‘YESSS!’ With the relentless overcorrection of human performance that has become the industry standard these days, there’s absolutely none of that excitement or risk. You know she’s going to ‘hit’ the note, because the engineer just typed it in. Yawn.
I don’t mind your allusion to Def Leppard! I consider myself a pop songwriter at heart. I love hooks, immediacy, earworms, amusing sounds. But I also have a contrarian side that needs to balance sweetness with discord and noise. I do think songs can get diluted in the production process – I definitely am a maximalist and could probably do well to pare down some of my arrangements, but I also look at recording as an opportunity to make magic. I’m definitely not of the ‘documentary’ style of production that Steve Albini champions (just record the band playing live). I want to make The Wizard of Oz. So, I allow myself whatever tricks, layers, and sonic indulgences I can.

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?

Blacksugar: I got a call from Doug Wimbish about nine days before KMFDM’s tour was set to kick off. He’d been put on alert by Sascha, who needed an American guitarist on very short notice, as you say. My first thought was, ‘how the hell do Doug Wimbish and Sascha K. know each other!?’ But their spheres overlapped via Tackhead (Wimbish’s long-ago project with Adrian Sherwood), so it eventually made sense. Doug had gotten my number from his Living Colour bandmate Vernon Reid, who is a good friend of mine.
Once I was absolutely confirmed to do the tour, I had seven days to learn the 90 minute set and I learned it as best as I could. During that week, Sascha called regularly to check in and I got the impression he really wanted to get to know me, and I found that refreshing. When we all met in person on the tour bus in Chicago, I think there was a good mutual vibe between the band, crew, and me – just a relaxed energy, lots of laughs. For various unfortunate technical reasons, our rehearsal day was scuppered, meaning we just had to jump into the first show (headlining the ColdWaves festival) with all eight feet. And that was the first time we all played together. It was very stressful, but I was impressed with how gracefully everyone handled the situation.
Once the tour was underway, it just went smoothly. I think Sascha broached the subject of recording together only a few days into it, and we started bandying about ideas for what would become the PARADISE album almost immediately after we got off the road. The whole thing has been a pleasure really, as I’m a longtime fan, and their prolific rate of productivity is (as you might guess) totally my speed. I’ve not been in the band three years and already I’ve appeared on three KMFDM albums.

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?

Blacksugar: If you’re referring to adapting my playing for the Hell Yeah tour, the challenge for me was sharpening up my thrash metal rhythm chops, which is not a style I’ve pursued much since my teenage years. There is some ferocious guitar playing in the band’s catalog. The first song I worked on was the one I judged to be the hardest and fastest – ‘A Drug Against War.’ I figured if I could get through that, I could get through the rest. The Hell Yeah material didn’t present any unique challenges, really, as the guitar style is pretty simpatico with KMFDM’s earlier stuff. My main objective was to get a monstrous guitar sound and try to keep up.
When it came time to write for PARADISE, I leaned toward that type of riffing, but also offered lots of other textures and details, which I would send to Sascha labeled as ‘Andee scribbles.’ These bits are where my stylistic fingerprints can be heard on the album – the noises, swoops, ambient bits, wild lead breaks, etc. – whereas the rhythm riffs are meant to stay true to the more ‘trad’ KMFDM style of aggressive, militant, crunching precision.

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?

Blacksugar: Yes, and I also did the last legs of his Mr. Moonlight (all-Bauhaus set list) tour in 2013, which included the West Coast of the U.S., China, Russia, Australia, and NZ, and a handful of European dates with him in May 2016 in Germany, Spain, and Portugal. As to how I got involved, it was similar to the KMFDM story – in September of 2013, my friend Acey Slade alerted me to the fact that Peter needed a guitarist on very, very short notice. I guess Peter had vetted me on YouTube and decided I was suitable.
This time, I had a whopping three days to learn 30 Bauhaus songs before flying to Los Angeles to rehearse for two days with the band and hit the road the day after that. So naturally, it was nerve-wracking, not only because of the time restraints, but because I was well aware how sacred Bauhaus’ music is to so many people (including me) and I really wanted to get the Daniel Ash parts right. In the end, I think the shows went extremely well, and those first 15-or-so shows on the Mr. Moonlight tour were the most exciting for me. Bauhaus’ music has a primal dark energy, which definitely brought an extra intensity out of Peter’s performances that I didn’t notice when we did his solo material a few months later on the LION tour. It was a real kick to play those iconic tunes with Peter and the band, and the audiences were rabid for it.

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?

Blacksugar: I think musicians are wired to thrive in isolation, to be honest. I joked to a friend that I’d been practicing for COVID-19 for my whole life. I know that many people are learning how to diversify their skill sets during this downtime, which is a good thing that will bear fruit after the quarantine lifts. But I also realize that this shelter-in-place mode is toxic for certain people who aren’t natural born loners, or who are stuck with abusive partners or family members. I’d like to think that some positive byproducts will emerge from all of this… most hopefully, a better defense against inevitable future pandemic threats. But I also have a sinking feeling, being a realist, that the ‘revert/regress’ option you mention is all too plausible.

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?

Blacksugar: I’m honestly just relieved I managed to finish the project and have it out before Election Day. It’s insane to think that my initial goal was to make and release these three albums around a touring schedule! A huge part of the trilogy’s success for me is Hypnodoll’s design contributions, which give the set a beautiful and cohesive look. It’s a souvenir of this weird year. The songs did change as I recorded each album, because I left lyric writing, vocal tracking, guitar solos/overdubs’ and guest musician tracking until late in each album’s production schedule. This allowed me to be affected (lyrically, mostly) by what was happening in the world in the weeks leading up to the album’s release. Lyrics are always hardest for me, but I’m very proud of these.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Black Sugar Transmission
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, YouTube
Sheer Velocity
SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube
KMFDM
Website, Webstore, Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube

 

Photography by Nikki Alcazar – provided courtesy of Black Sugar Transmission
Live Photography by Tabetha Patton (MizTabby)

 

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