“Heavy beats, deep bass, wild guitar, moody vocals–some might call it Sturm und Twang. The Black & Blue Orkestre’s vocals and instrumental music sips from the sticky cups of Spaghetti Western Surf and Cinematic Gothic Rockabilly Groove on acid. Their sound was once described by someone as “sweaty vampire Elvis”, which resulted in a punch in the face and the instantaneous collapse of a multi-million dollar recording contract.”
The Black & Blue Orkestre (B&BO) is a transatlantic collaboration between three musicians who at first don’t seem like probable band mates. Lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Tom DiCillo (NYC) is also an award-winning independent filmmaker (Living In Oblivion, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors) while lead guitarist Will Crewdson (London) has a busy career playing not only for his own project, Scant Regard, but also for the likes of Rachel Stamp, Johnette Napolitano, Adam Ant, Bryan Ferry, Bow Wow Wow and even Celine Dion and Tom Jones. Backup vocalist and bassist Grog is the lead singer of her own successful London/LA based neogoth/hard rock band Die So Fluid, and has been known to delve into the session world with the likes of Melanie C from the Spice Girls, Kelly and Ozzy Osbourne, Mike Smith (Gorillaz) and Dave Rowntree (Blur).
Mike Scott of The Waterboys once tweeted about The Black & Blue Orkestre’s music, calling it “Fab Morricone influenced music”. Lyrically, their music possesses just the right combination of irreverence and irony, not to mention a seriously cool sound. So what else makes this trio so special? Come join me for my recent conversation with Tom, Will & Grog to find out.
CB: Tom, how did you, Will and Grog connect and decide to form this transatlantic triumvirate?
Tom: We all met in a strip club. Will was on stage. Grog was the bouncer. Actually, it goes back a few years. I’d started a website chronicling all the sordid details of the release of my film, Delirious. Well, Will wrote in with a very cool comment about how he liked my films and offered his help with the British release. He mentioned he was a musician and we started exchanging emails about the kinds of music and films we liked.
I’d been knocking together some songs for a while; very simple stuff. I’d gotten my home recording system to the point where I could lay down a few tracks and I experimented with some singing. I started with 16 Tons because it seemed like it was easy enough for me to handle it vocally. I also liked the dark undercurrent of the lyrics. Something prompted me to send it to Will.
I’d never played music with anyone, nor had anyone listen to my music other than my wife, Jane. I think I just sensed a real compatibility with Will and I really hoped he didn’t laugh at me. Will, I’m curious what you thought when I sent you that first mix of 16 Tons?
Will: Initially I was very impressed with the vocals. I couldn’t compare them to anything and I found it hard to believe that they had only been heard by one other person. I knew they had to be heard by more. I always liked that song anyway so to have a crack at arranging a new version with a fresh take on it was really cool.
Tom: I was blown away by Will’s musicality. Suddenly, the song had a whole new dimension. Will’s guitars were very rich and atmospheric. They helped me clarify this vague idea I had about creating a sound that was very modern but that drew from the coolest parts of some older music; like the surreal twang of the surf guitar or some of the chunky, stomping beats and rhythms of Bo Diddley.
So, I emailed Will another song; the 2nd song I’d learned how to play on the guitar–St. James Infirmary. And then I sent Whiskey Promise, the first song I’d completely written. And in each case our shared sensibilities resulted in better songs.
Now, all this time one of the most crucial parts musically, the bass, was being poked at with one finger by me on my synth. Will played a series of gigs with Grog and after a while he suggested we see if she’d be interested in adding her skill to the mix. I was kind of dumbfounded when she said yes. But, from the first track we sent her everything and it just clicked. There is nothing comparable to real musicians playing and what she does with the bass really brings the song into a kind of trio feel; voice, guitar and bass all working off each other.
CB: Where did the name of the band come from?
Tom: It just hit me one day. It implies something bruised, something that has felt the impact of something and is showing signs of the encounter. It’s not homogenized or smoothed over–the bruises show. I realized it touched the tone and theme of some of our music. The songs are about people who’ve been knocked down or who are really struggling with something. I happened to see the word ‘orkestre’ spelled that way and I really liked the way it looked. And, I like that implication too; that there’s something a little formal about us–but just skewed.
CB: What does each of you bring to the B&BO? How do you technically manage to put all the pieces together to record a song?
Will: Well all the original ideas stem from Tom’s incredible imagination. He is definitely the driving force. I try and embellish what he has come up with, with guitar lines and production/mixing ideas. It’s definitely unlike any other collaboration or band I’ve been involved with. The bare bones of the song – lyrics, melody and chords are normally sent to myself and Grog with some expert direction from Tom and we do what we can to make it sound like we’re all in the same room.
CB: Although Tom writes the lyrics for the B&BO’s original songs, Grog, what themes would you like to explore if you were to write material for the group?
Grog: Well, I do nearly all the lyric writing in my own band, so I guess I’d want to write about things that don’t necessarily fit with Die So Fluid’s vibe. It’s pretty hard to put my finger on what that would entail but I might indulge in some ‘my man done me wrong’ stylings, more raw emotional improvisational stuff, which might piss off some of the post neo punk DSF fans but be most therapeutic for me. That’s all hearsay anyway because this is Tom’s baby. It’s refreshing being in a band where that’s not my role and I can really focus on the bass and embellishing the feel of the songs Tom comes up with.
CB: Tom, were you simply a shower singer before you sang for Will or have you had a secret desire to perform as a singer for a long time?
Tom: I’m not really a “shower person.” I don’t like getting my hair wet. No, I sing more when I’m walking down the street which might explain why all the songs are in a kind of straight, walking 4/4 time.
I’ve acted in front of people in plays and on film. I’ve given speeches in front of thousands of people at film festivals. But, I have never, ever sung live. I’ve come to trust my voice more but at the beginning it was really hard having people listen to me. I like singing a lot but I’ve never fantasized about making a career out of it. I’ve had an interest in music for quite a while though. I’m very involved in the music for my films and have written songs and music that appeared in them as early as Johnny Suede in 1990. This more serious interest just kind of happened because of some long periods of waiting between films and I decided I should try singing instead of going insane.
CB: Will, you wear many hats: musician, producer, programmer…what is it about the entire process that you enjoy the most?
Will: First and foremost I prefer being a musician. All the other stuff for me is only a means to get across the original song or idea. I still prefer playing live to wearing any of those hats. That’s the real test.
CB: You have a stunning voice, Grog. Forgive me for making a comparison but your voice immediately reminded me of Exene Cervenka (formerly of X), not to mention you’re incredibly photogenic with a real flair for dramatic video performance. Who are some of your musical and non-musical influences?
Grog: Thank you kindly, that comparison is a first, but a good one to add to the collection! I enjoy all the aspects that go into presenting that magical ‘other’ world created by music. I’m inspired by many diverse artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Iggy Pop, with Debussy, Tim Buckley, Soundgarden, Deftones and Shirley Bassey in between! They just need to excite me, if not with their technique, with their spirit, vision and energy. Non musically speaking, I’m attracted to strong, don’t give a damn, larger than life iconic female figures such as Bettie Page, Vivienne Westwood and Wonder Woman, creative and spiritual forces like Paulo Coelho and Alan Moore for example, and I’m a horror fan; film and books. Rob Zombie is great. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate plenty of other styles. I enjoy Tim Burton films and also love the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, the weird world of Guy Maddin and, oh yeah, that guy Tom DiCillo…
CB: It’s obvious that Will’s Ennio Morricone-style guitar-scapes stand out in the B&BO’s music, but whose style would you say that you most borrow from as a musician?
Tom: I’m not sure I would say “whose” style but more “what” style. Obviously, something about the surf sound imprinted on my brain at a very early age because I could listen to an Am chord with the whammy bar for days. There’s something very evocative about the sound. It is strange and beautiful but it also carries the potential of emotion and drama.
I’m not into nostalgia in any way. I just like interesting musical sounds; I don’t care where they come from. You look at Morricone’s work on his Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns in the 60’s and the musical ideas he incorporates into those scores are more original and modern than anything I’ve heard today.
I like singers, both men and women who have an organic, original sound–where you feel something truthful when they sing–whether it’s early Elvis or even Eminem. There is great energy today in the way rhythm and beat are recorded and mixed that was more subdued in the early days of rock music. I like combining the punch and grit of modern sensibilities with some of the cool ideas that came before.
CB: Will, how much has film influenced your music and if you could score a major motion picture production, what would the genre and plot be?
Will: A hell of a lot. Because I’m really into instrumental music the visual side is very important even if it’s only in your mind’s eye while you listen to it. When you write words and use them in a song there are, of course infinite possibilities for interpretation by the listener. Those possibilities are always multiplied infinite times when you leave them out.
I would like to score an improvised Zombie/Sci-fi/Noir/Comedy/Thriller please. The plot, like the music, could take you anywhere at any given point in the film.
Tom: I would very much like to see that film and to listen to that score. Most film music today sounds like it was all written by the same person.
Will: It probably was!
CB: Grog, if you were to conceive and direct a music video for the B&BO, which song would you choose and how would you tell its story with images?
Grog: I would choose our most recent track Ball and Chain because it’s my favourite so far and it has a ‘f*ck you’ thing about it I can relate to. It would probably be each of us escaping three individually harrowing scenarios trying to reach a destination where we finally meet and rock out. I’ll let you know when I’ve written the treatment.
Tom: That’s a pretty cool idea, Grog. I can see it! Also, I’d like to say that though I write the vocals and sketch out the body of the songs I don’t feel this is my gig. I depend very heavily on both you and Will for your musical and thematic ideas. I see the songs as really coming from all three of us. I know this way of making music, you know–none of us in the same room–could seem a little strange but I like the way it allows us all the freedom to do what we want.
I hate it when somebody tells me what to do; especially if it is even remotely creative. Grog writes all the bass parts. The same with Will. All his guitars come from what he feels like playing.
CB: How did you create your first music video for the instrumental track Frozen Sunset?
Tom: I was excited when we finished that track. I think we stumbled into some very rich territory in terms of sharpening and defining our sound. I was also beginning to think about ways to get the music out there more. And suddenly it struck me this would be a perfect track to do a music video for. There is no singing so that complicated (and expensive) element of syncing to the words wasn’t even an issue. Of course, we didn’t have any money to spend and that was an issue. So, the first thing I thought was, “Well, since we’re all in different parts of the world, maybe we could just film ourselves alone, as if we each were just sitting in our homes privately playing the music. Will and Grog liked the idea so I suggested we each shoot ourselves with our iPhones. They sent me the footage and I started trying to cut something together with other stuff that was free–which was some footage I’d shot over the years in NYC.
The little drop of glue that pulled it all together for me was dribbling some food coloring into a glass on my windowsill. It cost $1.39 for the food coloring. But, it added something–it was almost like a visual version of the Am chord on the whammy bar.
CB: Will, what is Scant Regard Radio?
Will: It’s an online show I do once a month where I subject…er, enlighten my listeners with my own personal choices. I mix up a lot of different styles and sometimes it even works! You can tune in the first Wednesday of every month at www.wickedspinsradio.org from 8-11pm GMT.
CB: Although you’re from the UK, Grog, you’re based in LA and tour extensively throughout Europe with Die So Fluid. How does the music scene in LA differ from London’s and why did you decide to move there when it appears (from your website – http://www.diesofluid.net) that Germany & Finland love your band so much?
Grog: I moved here about three years ago from London mainly to be with my now husband in LA. We met on the road in the UK and started to visit each other until we reached the point when we needed to be in the same city! Die So Fluid has done one extensive and very successful US tour with Mindless Self Indulgence and we have been discussing more work here, but of course Mr. Drew and Al can’t just jump on a bus for a couple of shows six thousand miles away. It has to be financially sound and a well planned tour route; bands are fighting tooth and nail for those opportunities right now. We love touring and I travel to Europe to play a lot. We’ve always said we’ll play where ever we find our audience around the world and that’s what we’ve embarked upon doing. If you plan on being an international outfit then you just have to get used to the travel. The internet definitely enables you to achieve a lot more as a band without being ‘together’, as The Black and Blue Orkestre proves!
CB: When can we expect a CD from the B&BO?
Tom: Well, soon I hope. We’d like to get at least 8 tracks. Originally, I thought we’d use one or two of the covers we’ve done but since we’ve altered them slightly from the originals it makes getting licenses for them very difficult. I still think our version of Ring Of Fire takes the song to a whole new level but we can’t use it. So, I decided to come up with some more of our own songs. That push resulted in Fade To Black, Frozen Sunset and Frozen Heartache. And Ball & Chain which is still in progress. That might be enough.
CB: Do you have a title for the CD?
Will: Not yet, no.
CB: Do you see yourselves performing live and/or touring with the B&BO in the foreseeable future?
Grog: I think it would be really fun; I’d be up for it. I think Will would too. But then we’ve been travelling minstrel poseurs for some years now, haha. Tom goes pale and shudders at the mention of it.
Tom: I shudder but I don’t go pale.
Grog: Well that’s how I imagine it to look because I never see you! Maybe some stiff whiskeys would be involved in making it actually happen. If he received enough red roses and fan mail begging him to perform I can kind of visualize him adopting a rock n roll swagger and rising to the challenge.
Thank you for the pleasure of this interview Tom DiCillo, Will Crewdson and Grog Rox and for talking to Press +1 magazine.
Currently, you can listen to The Black & Blue Orkestre’s tracks exclusively on their BandPage on Facebook at www.facebook.com/theblackandblueorkestre.