Wayne Byrne explores Hurt Me Tender, the debut album from the American filmmaker Tom DiCillo’s band, The Black and Blue Orkestre.
“Music and film are like incestuous cousins”, says Tom DiCillo (above), lead vocalist of The Black and Blue Orkestre, “They share so many deeply rooted elements that something intense happens when they get together. Both are completely dependent on time, flow and rhythm. I love the way a certain note or chord can evoke a whole world of images and feelings.”
The band’s newly released debut album, Hurt Me Tender, is not a soundtrack to a movie, but this opening statement from DiCillo has particular resonance because of the singer-songwriter’s parallel career as a maverick auteur filmmaker whose work has helped define the aesthetic of an entire movement of American cinema. DiCillo’s 1991 directorial debut Johnny Suede introduced the world to Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener, the former starring in the title role as the eponymous bequiffed teen-idol wannabe, while over the ensuing three decades the filmmaker has crafted an authoritative career directing stylishly inventive dramatic comedies shot through with a stinging satirical edge and a caustic social commentary, with several of those among the highlights of the American independent boom of the early-mid nineties and beyond. Notable among his catalogue of work is the iconic and definitive film-about-filmmaking, 1995’s Living in Oblivion; the critically lauded and award-winning 2006 film Delirious starring Steve Buscemi; and most recently, 2010’s When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, a documentary narrated by Johnny Depp charting the rise and fall of the influential 1960s rock group.
The Black and Blue Orkestre is a three-piece band that has just released their twelve-track debut album Hurt Me Tender. The record is infused with a cinematic soundscape drenched in a sweltering South-Western grit, an often darkly humorous gothic tour de force informed with the great many textures of the musical heritage of American rock n’ roll. Taking in everything from surf, rockabilly, glam, garage and country, lathered with occasional electronic flourishes and contemporary beats that give the production a modern veneer on top of the retro styling, Hurt Me Tender is a most assured debut.
It’s perhaps no accident that the album is such a confidently performed and engineered piece, aiding DiCillo is a duo of outstanding musicians with an eclectic array of experience to their names: Will Crewdson on guitar and Grog Rox on bass. Crewdson was part of the acclaimed ’90s London rock outfit Rachel Stamp before carving a career as a consummate sideman to the likes of Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, Adam Ant, and Bow Wow Wow, while serving session work for artists as diverse as Celine Dion, Bryan Ferry, Tom Jones, and Billy Bragg. Providing backing vocals as well as the rumbling, melodic low-end foundation, Rox too brings a history of touring in the trenches of the alternative music scene with her bands Flinch, Feline, and currently, Die So Fluid. On occasion, her skills as a bassist have led to session work for the likes of Mel C and Kelly Osbourne. As a collective, DiCillo, Crewdson, and Rox have delivered a soulful, sonically textured statement of intent with their thrillingly eclectic debut.
“Every person I play or collaborate with brings new learning curves and experiences,” Crewdson says. “Some artists give freer rein than others and most of the time it’s all about adapting to their needs. I feel, with Tom’s direction I’ve pushed my guitar playing forward a great deal and hopefully that comes across when you listen to the album.”
For Rox, the experience was an artistically nourishing one, having DiCillo spearheading the project meant the opportunity to work in benefit of his characteristic visionary drive and initiative,“Tom put a great deal of time and passion into writing these songs” the bassist recalls, “and I’m honoured to have been a part of it. He pretty much started with no previous experience and that made it interesting and exciting. Tom is very gracious in his approach to the way we work and communicate; he brings a strong element of his experience in filmmaking to the band. He’s certainly a perfectionist and I realised early on that he usually has a vision even when he doesn’t pin point or verbalise it at the start. The thing is, he’s a great director and artist. His passion and intensity makes you want to rise to the occasion every time he presents you with an idea.”
The genesis and development of The Black and Blue Orkestre hasn’t played out in the traditional narrative trajectory of most band back-stories. A cross-continental outfit, DiCillo is based in New York City, while Crewdson lives in London, and Rox is an English expat currently residing in Los Angeles. It was a chance communiqué between DiCillo and Crewdson eight years ago that has now resulted in the release of Hurt Me Tender, an album brimming with passion, pathos, and DiCillo’s distinct and darkly humorous take on life. I spoke to all three musicians on the eve of the release of their first single and video, ‘Ball & Chain’, and got an insight into what brought such a diverse collection of musicians together, as well as to discuss the making of their astounding debut album.
“I’d met Will online during the UK release of my film Delirious, which was released in 2006”, DiCillo informs me. “He first wrote to me telling me how much he liked the film. He also happened to mention that he liked surf music, Ennio Morricone and guitarists like Link Wray, whose music I used in Johnny Suede. Well, that got me immediately. I’ve always felt something deep about surf music; not the corny shit that gets played all the time but guys like Dick Dale, The Trashmen or The Fireballs. I think that the surf sound was a distinctly American discovery. I felt that it would be cool to kind of modernise it, to bring that spooky, reverb twang into a contemporary musical blend. And Will felt the same way. Not only that, he could really play it. He’s got a great ability to write guitar parts that carry power, beauty and a tense emotional edge. And so I sent him a song I was working on, a cover of the folk classic, ’16 Tons’. Will ended up providing me with some indispensable production input on that track which would come to define the sound of the final version.”
“I had been a long-time admirer of Tom’s films right from his first feature, Johnny Suede,” Crewdson admits, “About eight years ago when he started a blog on his site I followed him with great interest because before the net there was very little information around about the guy behind all these amazing films. I started a conversation with him on one of his blog threads and he seemed interested in the fact that I was a working musician of sorts. We carried on like this for a bit and then started emailing. He was interested in getting my opinion on a recording he had done of the old ’16 Tons’ standard so I happily agreed to give it a listen. I was blown away by his voice and what it brought to the song. There was definitely something special about the way he carried it off and I set about adding some guitars and extra keyboards and production ideas. We were both really pleased with the end result and carried on from there.”
DiCillo continues, “Two things happened on ’16 Tons’ that amazed me. One, he did not laugh at my singing. Two, he sent back an amazing guitar track that added a whole new dimension to the song. And so, not long after that, I sent him an initial piece that I wrote on acoustic guitar called ‘Whiskey Promise’, on which we again collaborated, and with that we had our first original composition.” ‘Whiskey Promise’ now appears as one of the highlights on the album, an intensely epic ballad in which DiCillo’s voice exercises its full potential, a soaring metamorphosis from the engaging intimacy of the conversational verses to the mighty declaration of change in the euphoric choruses.
Crewdson and Rox had been engaged in some live session work together in New York City when DiCillo caught their act, the performance of which left a lasting impression, and upon the recommendation of Crewdson, Rox was asked to join the band. Aside from bringing her accomplished and distinctively melodic basslines, Rox also informs many of the songs with a crucial vocal byplay to counter DiCillo’s dark, deep croon, the combination of which gives songs such as ‘Nervous Laughter’, ‘Frozen Heartache’ and ‘Fade to Black’ their intriguing dynamic that is one crucial element of the band’s signature sound, her ethereal and delicate vocals a riposte to DiCillo’s soaring, passionate baritone; a relationship of light and dark.
“The dual vocals weren’t something we hinged an aesthetic upon from the beginning but once we discovered it we recognised it as a strength,” Rox admits. “We did experiment with different approaches and the contrast seemed more pleasing when it was exaggerated. I like the play between the female and male voices as if they’re characters in a story. The female part in ‘Nervous Laughter’ sounds like a surreal angel that makes the male voice seem all the more dark and world-weary.”
DiCillo concurs, “Grog is an amazing singer. All you have to do is listen to one track from Die So Fluid and you can hear a vocalist that has tremendous power and precision. It always bothered me to have someone with such potential restricted to just playing bass. I also felt that a whole album of just me singing would leave me solely responsible for the blame. Grog first came up with the idea of her singing the ghostly echo “everybody knows” on ‘Frozen Heartache’. I loved the way her voice interacted with mine. I think both our voices have a little grit and eloquence to them and melding the masculine and feminine versions added that strange hint of the rock ballad – sort of David Lynchian. She really cuts loose on ‘Fade to Black’ and I’m in awe of the way her voice just takes off like a guitar solo. On ‘Nervous Laughter’ I asked her to kind of whisper-sing and what she came up with for those solo choruses adds this odd dark angel quality to the track. So, really it was a happy accident waiting to happen.”
With the triumvirate complete, writing and production on the album took place over a five-year period. DiCillo offers me an insight into the discipline and progress of the band, “The way it works is I write all the lyrics and the musical structure of the songs. I record them at home with my electric guitar and a drum track I put together with loops. Then I send the track to Grog. She writes and lays down a bass track. I may make a suggestion or two but essentially she puts down what she feels. Then I mix this in and send the track to Will in London who starts layering in the guitars. Will usually sends me 4 or 5 different takes of his leads, rhythms and solos and then I cut them in, trying alternate versions and sending the temp mix out to Grog and Will for feedback. Once we all agree on a mix the track is done. So a lot of work went into the mixes throughout the five years it took to create the album, we worked on unifying the sound, giving it a coherence as if it all came out of the same musical impulse. Sometimes a chord riff would come to me, like ‘Frozen Heartache’ or ‘Shoeshine Shuffle’, and the lyrics evolved afterwards. On the other hand, I remember getting a big laugh out of Grog when I told her that part of the lyrics for ‘Ball & Chain’ came to me 15 years ago as I was walking down the street and suddenly I was singing in time to my walking, “Mama said yeah, Papa said no, I said kiss my ass yeah the bof of yo.” But, I soon realized that just because something rhymed didn’t make it good. So, I began to put as much work into the choice of words and the arc of the story as I would do in a film script. It makes you look at some of those great songs out there and just shake your head in astonishment.”
I suggest to DiCillo and Crewdson that the overall production and engineering of the album is sonically kaleidoscopic, as it serves a multitude of genres, from gritty, down n’ dirty rockers like ‘Ball & Chain’, the disco stomp of ‘Hurt Me Tender’, to the sweltering country heat of ‘Slide On’ and ethereal dream-pop of ‘Nervous Laughter’. I wonder if the production served each song at it came or if there was an overall tone or sonic consistency the band were trying to achieve for the album.
“I would say textured versus kaleidoscopic,” DiCillo says, “We spent considerable time on the mastering to give the songs connection and coherence. As these twelve songs were written and recorded over a period of five years there were one or two cases where I rerecorded my vocal and Will redid a few guitar parts to keep the developing sound with consistency. We also had some great help from drummer Alan Van Kleef who laid down a live groove under the loops I’d constructed. But, just on a sound level, all the songs were carved out of the same three tools; my vocal, Will’s guitar and Grog’s bass. In that sense they all sound like they originated from the same primordial ooze to me.
Crewdson affirms that the album was born with a distinct sonic character in mind, “It’s interesting that it comes across like that because for me the album has a very definite blueprint which threads right through it from start to finish. Tom seems as meticulous about the planning of his musical work as he obviously is about making films. I normally create the wild card and jam all over things with few restrictions but it’s Tom who reigns it in and makes it coherent and relevant to the song. This could be either by editing or just describing what it is he wants from the guitar parts and encouraging me to have another go. But, I’m very glad what seems to be quite natural and within our style comes across as being so eclectic.”
DiCillo continues, “I agree that sometimes the surface tone seems like it touches on other genres, like dance or gypsy pop, but the underneath layer is all the same bedrock. That bedrock I would think is what characterises The Black and Blue Orkestre sound; a kind of deep groove, strong beat, cinematic guitar and moody vocals. Amaury Perez mastered the album. I think he also contributed greatly to unifying the sound. The goal with the guitar, which Will and I discussed, was to always maintain a certain feel or mood. Within that mood, the guitar touches on other genres but not overtly and never straight out. If the guitar goes a little country it does so in the realm of the Black and Blue tone. This applies to the surf or rockabilly stuff. The goal was never to simply work with that particular genre. The goal was to take the genre and apply our particular sensibility to it, which meant at times over-saturating or bending it a bit.”
The sonic landscape provided by the trio results in an extremely visual experience for the listener, thanks in no small part to DiCillo’s skill as a lyricist and storyteller, complimented by a production which envelopes with its epic, widescreen vista of a sweeping American landscape; a gritty, torrid south-western atmosphere that provides the backdrop for DiCillo’s tales of despair, regret, forgiveness, passion, and rebellion. The mythical American landscape and the idiosyncratic characters it can breed is something that has intrigued DiCillo as a filmmaker and which can be seen examined in his excellent 1996 surreal fable Box of Moonlight, starring John Turturro and Sam Rockwell.
“I think you’re right,” DiCillo enthuses, “there is a specific kind of gothic American dreamscape to this album that has a lot of connection to the imagery of film, especially from directors like David Lynch and even John Ford or Billy Wilder. Because my father was in the military I moved around a lot all over the country. I’ve spent a lot of time down south, out west and here in NYC. And though I guess I feel like I’m American I never felt like I belonged anywhere. So, it felt natural to me to have the songs feel they came from all over America. I like to think of the world of the album as Johnny Cash on acid.”
The lyrics on the album feel powerfully subjective, perhaps deceptively so, as DiCillo utilises his dexterity as a storyteller to craft a narrative for each song, respectively taking the listener on a journey of anger, regret, rebellion and self-doubt, while conversely positive, his tales can be immensely romantic, hopeful and wistful. There is an inherent intensity to the album that makes it feel so personal. Both ‘Fade to Black’ and ‘Whiskey Promise’ alternately reveal a tender, almost insecure side of the narrator, DiCillo makes references to days going by, with the sun rising and falling as a reminder of the ticking clock, both appealing to another person who is something of an emotional rock in times of need. It’s an endearing and sensitive juxtaposition to the dark humour and volatility of songs like ‘Ball & Chain’, ‘Hurt Me Tender’, and ‘Nervous Laughter’.
“That’s interesting you say that because all the songs are completely fictitious. Now, there are certainly strong elements in them that touch something personal but to be honest it was thrilling to become all those different characters in the songs. It is very different trying to put emotional meaning into a very public song and crafting a film that though personal has many different characters and contributors. Singing is like an illegal drug to me. I almost feel like I have to enjoy it in private. But, you touch on two key discoveries for me. The very first thing I learned was how hard it is to write a song. In fact, I think as the songs progressed over the 5 years the lyrics and structures became better. As I listened to other songs I realized that the message or intent was always accompanied by something larger that went beyond the merely personal. Some of my favourite songs are ones that seem intensely personal and completely universal at the same time. I will say that my experience with actors and acting has shown me that emotional truth is crucial in any performance. So, I tried to dig deep with each song and find things that really touched or moved me, from angst to longing to anger and acceptance. And I just said, hell, I’ll put it out there.”
DiCillo’s films are well-known for their trenchant satire, whether it’s aimed at the approbation of independent film (Living in Oblivion), the redundancy of the fashion industry (The Real Blonde), or the blitzkrieg barrage and saturation of media and reality television in today’s entertainment culture (Delirious), but underneath the mordant and absurdist assaults lay elements of deep pathos and drama as well as a gallows humour. This juxtaposition of light and dark is something that now bleeds over into the filmmaker’s musical endeavours; it lends the album a mercurial tone that compliments the multitude of genres that the album entertains.
“I find that anything can be made more dimensional with a little of the opposite emotion. Pathos and humour have always been linked for me. If something is only horrific the only choice is to slit your wrists. But, if you add a strange blast of humour it not only becomes more realistic it becomes more interesting. So, yeah, I think ‘Ball & Chain’ is a very funny song. It’s got a punchy kind of rage to it but the narrator is also a goofball who finally confesses he’s got no idea what he’s doing. There’s a whacky honesty and reality to the songs even when they’re satiric like ‘Nervous Laughter’ or love-struck like ‘Frozen Heartache’. But, the idea with the album was to try and present a cycle of songs that went together but that also explored different ideas so people could find interest and surprise as they listened.”
So after five years of developing their sound and crafting an album of resolute charm, attitude, melody and groove, and a new music video just released for their single ‘Ball & Chain’, where to next for The Black and Blue Orkestre?
“That’s a good question, Wayne.” DiCillo acknowledges, “Writing the songs and putting the album together took a tremendous amount of time and concentration. I had to carve that time out of my efforts to make another film. And like film, making music takes as much energy as you can put into it. In fact it requires it. So, there is a little bit of a struggle with priorities for me. I feel like I’ve got another four or five films in me. But, making this album with Will and Grog has been an incredible creative experience. There was so much freedom and spontaneity and pure immediate joy that I will have a hard time not trying to make another one. Mainly, I’d love for people to get a chance to listen to the music. As far as a music career, who knows? Both Will and Grog have equally serious commitments to their own projects. Plus, you have to remember the three of us have never performed live. Now, that would be an experience.”
Wayne Byrne is a film lecturer and writer from Co. Kildare. He was resident film critic and film columnist for the Leinster Leader newspaper for a number of years, as well as contributing reviews, interviews and articles to the likes of Click magazine and other media outlets. Wayne teaches Film Studies in various secondary schools throughout Ireland as well as facilitating Film workshops in many libraries across Leinster. He is currently writing his first book of film criticism.
Hurt Me Tender is available now on iTunes.
The music video for ‘Ball & Chain’, directed by Tom DiCillo, is available on YouTube at this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9i0E491c1I
For further news and info on the band and to follow Tom DiCillo’s blog, see http://www.tomdicillo.com/