In the business of the arts, there is a commodity that can’t be bought or sold. My grandfather, the cubist-impressionist painter and Armenian Genocide survivor, Simon Samsonian, used to call this “vision.” He said the greats had it (Picasso, Braque, Gorky, etc.), but lesser-known purveyors (certain street artists, recluses and persons whose works were never anthologized) also had it too; we just weren’t aware of their greatness.
I like to think of it as ethic. There is a set of principles behind the fierce and unrelenting desire to make something unique. There is an uncompromising tenacity that lurks in the murky shadows of creation. The Big Bang. The original artistic response to a blank canvas. The impulse is not unlike that of a bomb. It wants to combust in order to make new.
Steve Messina, the captain of the Blow Up Hollywood ship and co-founder (with producer Nik Chinboukas) says the idea for the band was born in a chat room for fans of the progressive/psychedelic band Porcupine Tree around March of 2001. But it seems to me that the concept has been around since the dawn of time.
“It’s a collective,” says Steve, adjusting/playing off of my first initial shot: collaborative. “We’ve had 12-15 members over the past few years.”
We’re at Socrates Sculpture Garden in Long Island City. The sun is setting over the city and the various nonfigurative and geometrical shapes that adorn the park. A helicopter (operated by an ambitious hare) has, apparently, crash-landed near us. The space is a playground for the imagination.
I’ve known Steve since my days playing the club and coffeehouse circuits of Long Island and New York City in the 90s. We were peripheral friends. He wrote good songs and surrounded himself with incredible musicians. He was a troubadour with great instincts and pop sensibility. In 1999, Steve decided he was “checkin’ out” and went the DIY way, which ultimately led to Blow Up Hollywood.
“I hate that music now is all singles. I got no singles.”
We’re talking about the current state of music and the idea of the concept album, how things are shifting and have shifted. The band has made five albums so far and plans to release a sixth in 2012. They are all, in their own peculiar and brilliant way, various kinds of concept albums. Two are completely instrumental ambient and deeply cinematic excursions. The other four offer some more traditional song structures that feature Steve’s syrupy baritone and tasteful playing. Members of the collective include Dave Diamond on drums, Thad DeBrock on guitars and processors, Dave Eggar on cello, and a host of other inventive and artful players who share the Blow Up vision—that is, to make work that moves people and functions as an antithesis to the processed machine that is the mainstream.
When I think of Blow Up Hollywood, I think about long drives home from the city at 3am listening to whatever was lurking about on the left side of the FM dial. For me, it was John Diliberto’s Echoes (ambient music program on public radio). And from what I’m gathering, it’s what Steve was listening to too on those infinite rides to and from nowhere/everywhere. “I was star struck,” he says, and perhaps blown away when John invited them to perform live in Philadelphia radio station WXPN’s studio. The session became the Stars End album, their first all-instrumental release and their official entrance into the avant-garde family.
I also think about their epic concept album The Diaries of Private Henry Hill. How it took on the Iraq war (and the idea of war itself) in such a brave and compassionate manner. When I think about some of the memorable songs on there, I become a bit skeptical about the idea of “no singles.” Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder asked for a song off the album, “WMD,” to appear in the film and soundtrack for the 2007’s Body of War, a documentary on Iraq war veteran Tomas Young, his life-altering injury, and the journey and questions that followed it. It’s the kind of brilliantly-perfect single that handles the often-used trick of irony with poignant and urgent humanity. If you don’t believe me, you should ask Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.
Steve smiles when I say the phrase “an American Pink Floyd” to describe Blow Up Hollywood. He recounts the first time he heard The Dark Side of the Moon and how his 5th grade babysitter “scared the f” out of him.” It was a formative experience. Other influences include Walt Whitman and Henry Miller (“I love writers and writing”), Acadia National Park (“wide open America, man, that’s what it’s all about”), and working with Andres Serrano (photographer/artist of “Piss Christ”). Blow Up Hollywood is the latter’s backing band for his alter ego, Brutus Faust.
While it sounds like Blow Up Hollywood is borrowing from the past (it is), what’s great about it is its awareness and engagement with modernity. We’re living in an age of “having it all,” and Blow Up has a little something for everybody. It is the ultimate egalitarian. It combines the electronic and the organic, the instrumental and the songwriter, the trippy and the sobering. It’s both sincere activist and delusional hedonist. What was it Whitman said? “If I contradict myself, then let me contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.” I might be paraphrasing.
“I like that it’s a free for all,” Steve says. At this point, we’re heavy in the metaphysical and taking a shot at the future. “But I do wish there was some kind of audition or screen test…I mean, everybody and their grandmother are making music.” It’s a good point. In bedrooms and basements. In cabins in Montana. In a car. Wherever. The super private is becoming public. The individual is a rocket spiraling out of control. It’s exciting for sure. But then again, what about the collective? What about a group of people with a vision, a concept, ambition? While I’m thinking about this, he adds, “I got one for you. Will musicians be able to make a living in 25 years?”
Once upon a time, there was the band. There was a leader, sure, but there were people on a stage or on the radio who were making something magical. They waved their wands and swooned in spells and made us dream…of better tomorrows and critical todays. The band blows up. The band transforms.
Blow Up Hollywood fuels our interstellar voyages, our desires to go rogue, pack our bags and split the metaphoric country that got lost along the way, slip into a space in between the cold swells of an indifferent ocean and the swelter of a domesticity confused with agenda’s restless and blazing tentacles. There is uncertainty in this space, yes, but it feels like home for the traveler because it is true. It carries no guises and seeks only to be—moment to moment, without pretense—alive, curious, and in love with sound.
Once upon a time. Then and now.
Blow Up Hollywood will perform at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC on September 7. For more info, visit blowuphollywood.com.