Interview: A Q&A with Jim and Mike Blaha of The Blind Shake

Fronted by brothers Jim Blaha (baritone guitar and vocals) and Mike Blaha (guitar and vocals) with their buddy Dave Roper (drums), the Minneapolis, MN-based trio The Blind Shake have been vital part of the Midwest’s underground punk scene for some time, as they’ve released seven full-length albums, including Breakfast of Failures, released last year and Fly Right which was released last month. They’ve also released a number of singles, three collaborations with fellow Twin Cities musician Michael Yonkers and another with John Reis. Throughout the past decade or so, the trio have developed a reputation for a sound that the San Francisco Chronicle once described as “at one spacey, primitive futuristic, and brutal: a kind of backyard extraterrestrial minimal surf-rock party. One guitar, one baritone guitar, a fuckload of reverb and a drummer who deserves an Olympic medal.” 

And although the San Francisco Chronicle’s description of The Blind Shake’s sound is apt, what it does seem to forget is the fact that the Twin Cities trio’s sound is based around a primal, brutish, laser-focused minimalism that channels the raw, furious energy of The Stooges and the deceptive simplicity of the blues. But don’t forget, the simplicity in their aesthetic is deceptive as each of their albums have revealed subtle nuances in their sound. Whereas Breakfast of Failures’ sound is furious, towering thrash punk reminiscent of Motorhead, their latest effort Fly Right is decidedly different as the album possesses a psych rock/surfer rock feel – while possessing familiar elements of the sound that has won The Blind Shake attention across the country. Opening song “Tar Paper” is lo-fi garage rock song consisting of layers of buzzing guitars, shouted lyrics and propulsive drums and in some ways if it wasn’t for its decided lo-fi sound, it could be a B-side to Failures.  The album’s second song “A Clock, A Window” is a psych rock song that sounds as though it were inspired by 60s garage rock and noise rock simultaneously. “Holy Road” “Apes Live a Life” and other tracks continue the album’s primal yet psychedelic tone. Regardless, their sound is the sort of sound I’d fully expect to hear while drinking beers at Clem’s, The Library Bar, and the old Lower East Side.  

I recently caught up with The Blind Shake’s Jim Blaha and Mike Blaha during a rather extensive tour, which as of this writing has the trio on a lengthy tour of the UK and spoke their birthplace of Lake City, MN; Minneapolis and its art scene; who they think is one of the best under-appreciated local artists that we all should pay attention to; what it’s like to write and tour with your sibling; the recording process with Fly Right; and they give the most practical and honest advice for musicians everywhere that I’ve yet to hear.

Check it out below. 

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WRH: I’ve lately started a number of interviews
off with this: So tell us something cool about you that readers wouldn’t have
normally known or should know? 

Jim Blaha: We all grew up together in Lake
City, MN. A town of 4000…birthplace of water skiing!

WRH: You guys are from Minneapolis, MN the home
of The Replacements, Prince, Kirby Puckett, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and
others. What’s the music scene like? Also, are there any local bands that
should be receiving attention from the blogosphere that aren’t? 

JB: Minneapolis is
the ugly sister of St. Paul. Lots of game changer artists and musicians come
from the twin cities. The combo of cosmopolitan arty-ness and guilt seems to
work.

Michael Yonkers is the best twin cities
musician.

WRH: How did you get into music? And when you
did you know that it was your calling? How did you come up with the band
name? 

JB: I got into music primarily through
skateboarding and a really sweet guitar teacher who introduced Mike and I to
Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Minor Threat when we were still in elementary
school. Mike and I both were super into the blues as well…it fired us up as
much as punk rock. 

I quit the guitar at age 12 because it got too
competitive between Mike and I and I didn’t pick it up again until I was 23. By
that time we had become allies and we started writing songs together. We never
thought we would actually play live and be a “band”.  When a
friend of a friend invited us to play a show at a club she was booking I remember
having a long discussion with Mike and Dave about whether it was something we
wanted to actually do. I am really glad we said yes. I was hooked as soon as we
started to play live.

WRH: The band is comprised of siblings, Jim and
Mike Blaha and your buddy Dave Roper. How is it like to write, record and
perform with your brother? How did you meet Dave — and how did he wind up
being part of the band? 

JB: Writing songs with Mike (my brother) has
always been fun. When we first started writing together it was a way to connect
during breaks from college (we went to separate schools)…we started to learn
each others styles and tastes. We have always been able to be brutally honest
with each other. We know where the other is trying to go with a piece of music
before it can be put into words. 

We met Dave when he moved to Lake City when he
was 14. Mike and Dave jammed together a little bit in high school. Dave went to
college closer to where Mike was, and they kept that musical connection. When I
started playing with Mike, it made sense that we all play together. It has
always felt like a family with deep roots rather than a band.

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

Mike Blaha: A deer pulling off his own antlers.

WRH: Who are your influences? 

JB: Our influences are always changing but I
think the main ones are the ones we actually got to see perform live a bunch in
Minneapolis when we were developing. The main two culprits being Michael
Yonkers and VAZ.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

MB: An Ethiopian jazz
compilation.

WRH: You’ve collaborated with the likes of
Michael Yonkers and John Reis. How did those collaborations come about? Is
there anyone, who would be on your dream list of folks you’d want to
collaborate with or tour with?

JB: The Michael Yonkers collaboration came
about when the booker at our favorite venue asked Michael if he and our band
could do a jam together as a favor for his annual birthday show. We couldn’t
believe it when Michael said yes. We got together before the show and worked out
a jam that became the first song on our first record together (“Carbohydrates
Hydrocarbons”). The musical connection was so natural that it seemed right to
turn it into an actual band. The collaboration with John Reis came about from
him seeing us play live with Yonkers and then hearing certain elements in our
sound that could make an interesting surf record. He asked us to collaborate
out of the blue. Of course the answer was yes!

As far as any other collaborations go it would
be tough to beat Michael Yonkers and John Reis!

WRH: The Blind Shake have been around for some
time, developing a reputation for a sound that the San Francisco
Chronicle 
once described as “at one
spacey, primitive futuristic, and brutal: a kind of
backyard extraterrestrial minimal surf-rock party. One guitar, one
baritone guitar, a fuckload of reverb and a drummer who deserves an
Olympic medal,” and after catching you guys live a few months back at Baby’s
All Right
, an incredibly intense live show that also manages to stay pretty faithful
to the actual recordings. What would you ascribe to your longevity? And what
advice would you give to musicians, who are trying to make a career
out of music? 

MB: I think if you look at music as art or
self-expression it’ll be more fun and fulfilling than looking at it as a
career. But if you want to call it a career, you’ll have to stick it out during
the low points, just as anyone else does starting a business.

WRH: Live, the three of you dress up
in “uniform” and each uniform has a slightly different symbol on the
front. If I remember it correctly, Jim usually has the one with the pound sign
right over his heart, Mike has this symbol that I can best describe as two
intertwined chevrons with a dot in the middle. And I think Dave usually doesn’t
wear anything. Do the symbols actually mean anything? And how much do old B
movies with aliens crash landing on Earth influence that look? 

MB: Our black coats are our real clothes. It’s
the day-to-day clothes that are the uniform. My logo is a Masonic logo. It
actually just appeared on my plain black coat one day. I can’t get rid of it.

WRH: During an interview with the folks at
BreakThruRadio TV, you had all joked with a dry tongue-in-cheek manner, that
the title of your previous album, Breakfast of Failures came
from the fact that the type of music you’ve been playing for a while, just
won’t ever be commercially successful. What inspired the title for your latest
album, Fly Right?

MB: When we’d screw up as kids our Dad would
tell us to “fly right”

WRH: Fly
Right 
strikes me as having much more of a surf-rock
and psychedelic feel and in turn, it would seem like a change in sonic
direction for anyone who just discovered you through Breakfast of
Failures, 
as that album struck me as being much more of a thrash punk
sound. Granted, one thing is constant — the three of you can create quite
a bit of noise. What inspired the return to a much more obvious surf-rock
sound? And was this an intentional change of direction? How else does the new
album differ from any of your previous efforts? 

MB: We don’t like to get complacent with a
particular sound, but there is always a musical structure that seems
“Blind Shake” no matter what we do. I recorded the songs on Fly Right on my 8-track reel-to-reel.
Oddball type songs with melodies seem to sound best on that machine. Many of
the songs were written with this format in mind. We recorded Breakfast of Failures in a studio with
Chris Woodhouse, a tone genius! So we brought our heaviest stuff to him so he
could help make it sound as close to our live show as possible.

WRH: While listening to both Breakfast
of Failures 
and Fly Right, I was struck by how much
the material seemed inspired by The Stooges, in particular their legendary
self-titled debut, as both Failures and Fly both possesses a
primal and minimalist urgency — furious guitar playing, and a simple
lyrical structure that seems to owe a debt to the blues and photo punk.
How much of those elements have influenced your work and sound? 

JB: I think doing less in music is the best
option. The first Stooges record and the blues have
that minimalist and repetitiousness way about them that I absolutely
love. 

WRH: With such a primal urgency, it would seem
as though you guys would go into the studio with first thought, best thought,
fuck it let’s move on. So I wondered this: how does your songwriting process
work? Do you have fully fleshed out ideas and songs by the time you’re hitting
the studio? How do you know when you have a finished song? How do you
manage to capture the sound and energy of your live shows on an album?

MB: When paying for studio time, we have all
our ideas fleshed out ahead of time. We are quick to cut and idea that isn’t
working. When home recording, we can sculpt the sounds over more time if we
need to. However, it’s actually much faster when home recording. Jim or I will
get hot for an idea and then just record it. If it makes an album we will
figure out how to play it as a full band later.

WRH: You’ve been on a rather extensive European
tour — in fact, as I was writing interview questions you were in touring
across the UK. How has the response to you and your sound been on the
tour? 

MB: The response had been great. Buzz, from
Uturn Touring and Wouter, our tour manager in Europe, lined up everything
perfectly so we could have great shows in great clubs with great bands with
outstanding meals and places to stay. We really couldn’t ask for more unless we
had a gun and a megaphone.

WRH: What’s next for the band? 

MB: We already have plans to return to Europe
next year in the winter. We are also thinking about getting things in motion to
tour Japan and South America!

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