Latest release: Holy Moly! (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.bluespills.com
Some very soulful, heavy, funky and psychedelic sounds would have been emanating from Närke, Sweden. It was there that Swedish rock quartet Blues Pills set up their own studio, Lindbacka Sounds and delved into a world of analogue sounds to create their latest album, Holy Moly! It was clearly worth the wait. Front woman and co-songwriter, Elin Larsson, is in simply sensational vocal form on this album whilst the guitar riffs have a noticeable sense of groove and feel.
Taking an extensive break before writing and recording new material, and setting up Lindbacka Sounds during that time has proven to be a good decision. Blues Pills were risking burnout from touring extensively, so they took stock of their situation and then, after an amicable line-up change whereby guitarist Dorian Sorriaux departed the band, bassist and co-songwriter Zack Anderson moved into the guitar role with new bassist Kristoffer Schander taking up the vacant bass slot, joining drummer André Kvarnström in the rhythm section.
Holy Moly! has a sonic quality that shimmers. There are no super tight, gated and quantised aspects to this release. It has a live, breathing feel to it with an authenticity that only helps to make the songs connect with the listener. It’s a welcome change and put simply, Holy Moly! might end up being one of the coolest albums this year through sheer charm and musical warmth. It is also self-produced but mixed by Grammy Award winning engineer Andrew Scheps [Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Sabbath, Adele, Iggy Pop and Metallica]. Loud Online spoke to the affable and vinyl format obsessed guitarist, Zack Anderson, about Blues Pills’ new found impetus and their superb new album.
You’ve got yourself a great new album. How much of the song writing involved improvisation for inspiration?
Thanks, there was quite a lot of time spent on the song writing and the arrangements. It took some time because before we started working on the album we had this long break of almost a few years. We decided to take a break because we had pretty much toured for five years non-stop with the first two albums. There really was no break in between or anything, and then we just felt like we needed to settle down for a little bit. Also, during that time, we had this line-up change where I was switching to the guitar and so that also took a little bit of time to regroup ourselves. Then when we came in to write the new album we were basically coming in fresh after two years with nothing so it sort of took a little while to get the momentum rolling again. So yeah, we spent maybe half a year just sort of meeting up to jam, write songs and make demos and stuff. For the song writing process itself, I would say that it took some time but the actual recordings that are on the album didn’t necessarily take very long. I think when we do the recording process, we try to record quite fast but we still maybe take some time to make sure that we get the arrangements right and everything.
Arrangements and instrumentation aspects are indeed evident but your band has that jamming feel to the material. Is that how you come up with ideas for your songs?
I think, to be honest, not really. I think that things are lot more planned out than what it seems like but at the same time, it is like we are definitely sort of aiming to have this sort of live energy in the music. That is also another part, why when we record, we try to do it fast and not be doing constant takes so it gets more of a live, fresh feeling to it. But, at the same time, there is usually quite a lot of thought put into the melodies and even for the guitar solos, I prefer to plan out what I am going to play so that every melody has a perfect fit, it isn’t just totally random. I guess that is just how I tend to write songs.
You went from bass guitar to playing guitar. Is there a lot of variance in your attack because you’ve gone from fingerstyle bass on a Rickenbacker to playing with a plectrum on a Stratocaster?
Yeah, I mean, there was definitely a transition period because I went from being a bass player for more than say ten years. But I already wrote songs on the guitar, even when I played bass in the band because it has always been that Elin and I are the songwriters in the band. So, I wrote songs on guitar from the beginning. Of course, that wasn’t so much lead guitar; it was more arrangements, chords, riffs and stuff. The main thing was that I really needed to focus and build up my soloing skills.
There are some decent solos on the album such as on Rhythm in the Blood, Dust and there is a nice bit of wah pedal used in Low Road. You’ve said you’ve planned most of that out. So, I gather some of it is spur of the moment?
Yeah, it is a bit of a mixture. Usually I will have a bit of a plan of what I want to do because I like find melodies that are sort of complementing the song. But then when I actually do a take, I try to have some sort of plan, but then when I do the take, I can of course just try to not think too much and just sort of let it happen. That is when, often times, you get the sorts of happy accidents, I guess.
You’ve got a quick vibrato on guitar. Bass players don’t generally have a super-fast vibrato for various reasons. Did your vibrato come from using fuzz pedals and developing your guitar playing style, having been a bass player?
I don’t really know, I think that when I started to practise guitar a lot, I think that you just naturally kind of try to emulate the guitar players that you are listening to because that is what sounds right to your ears because you’re used to hearing that. For me, my biggest influence for learning the guitar was Peter Green [Fleetwood Mac], plus Paul Kossoff [Free] and Duane Allman [Allman Brothers Band]. Especially though I would say with Peter Green’s vibrato I was actually consciously practising to all of those Peter Green songs and learning the guitar parts. So, that is probably, or would be, where it comes from, I would say.
That makes sense. Obviously he is no longer with us and it was such a long time ago when he was really in the public eye, outside of music circles. How did a young band get into much older music?
When I go back to as far I can remember, my Dad first introduced me to that music. My parents, in general and that generation did so too so that the earliest memories of music that I have are like The Doors, Pink Floyd and The Beatles. So it was already implanted from the very beginning. Then, as I grew up, of course growing up in the nineties, I started to like or discover newer music as well and have some different phases in discovering more modern music. But then I think, around when I was 14 or 15 years old, was when I really starting getting back into music again and sort of, for some reason, got back into this older style of music. I think I started listening to these revival bands like The White Stripes, The Hives and so that also led back to older music. Then I got into collecting vinyl and that sort of became an obsession for me. Collecting records have let me discover say more obscure folk music and it sort of has continued from there.
Vinyl collecting never ends once you get into various pressings, print runs, which country of manufacture, cover art and so on. You can then end up with many copies of the same album, as is the case with collecting early Black Sabbath releases on vinyl.
Yeah, I think that at the time it became a thing that you wanted to find the most obscure record so you could find one that no one knew about. That was how I started finding out about old bands from that time that are not very famous and I think that is where the sound of Blues Pills comes from as there is a lot of, well from the beginning at least, a lot of psychedelic rock and stuff that was not necessarily the most well-known ones but a lot of the more obscure stuff is in there.
Does that flow into some of the ballads on the album too? Wish I’d Known might sound like there is a bit of Hendrix’ Little Wing in there for the average listener, possibly some SRV or perhaps something a tad more obscure?
I mean, the one influence that was present on that song was George Harrison. Actually, at that time I was listening to a lot of the George Harrison solo albums. So that is why there is more of that clean guitar with some harmonies and stuff. It is not direct and it doesn’t sound exactly like George Harrison songs but I know that was one of the influences of what I was listening to at the time.
Similarly with the song California using the piano against fuzz guitar. How did that happen?
Both that song and Wish I’d Known are the first songs, I think almost in the whole history of Blues Pills that have been in a major key. Almost all of the Blues Pills songs before have been in a minor key. I don’t know why, it is probably because we like to write sadder sounding songs. But, I think that it also came because I started to discover some more country music and in country they use a lot of major pentatonic scales. Those were the first songs that I had learned to play in a major key and so they have a bit of a different sound to them.
Your average country guitar player standard is pretty high. Some of the technique from the real country guitar players in the seventies and onwards is astounding. It is just incredible guitar.
Yeah, it is amazing.
Elin’s vocal range is substantial. I gather that makes writing melodies easier and helps to decide where her voice fits into parts.
Yeah, it is not something that is a problem, I can send her anything but it just sort of happens sometimes without thinking too much about it. Once in a while, maybe we’re working on a song and it just feels better if we drop it down one step or something. As part of the writing process, sometimes you end up adjusting the key if it feels like maybe it is too high or too low. I guess that is a pretty common thing if you just want to find the right key that is the most comfortable for her to sing.
The complexity in the mixing is subtle but includes a judicious use of reverb, panning, and also different tone controls with certain moments where the overall sound becomes quite bright. Is that the sort thing that you suggest to Andrew [Scheps – mixing engineer] or was it in the studio, in the moment?
No, we didn’t suggest that much to him because for us, he is a like a dream come true that he was even mixing the album. We kind of just gave it to him and we were almost kind of star struck. We just sort of gave it him and said, ‘just do whatever you want.’ The only adjustments that were made were only very minor things. Of course, some of that sound is just maybe what was there from the way that the amplifiers sounds and all that. You can only change so much so some of it is just what is there but I definitely think that he took the sounds to a whole new level. It was really cool.
What sort of amplifiers are you using? Given you’ve played heaps of festivals, you’d see everything from profiling gear to rows of Marshalls and Mesa Boogies. I’d guess you’d be more into the Vox AC30 and the Fender Twin.
Lately I mostly use a Fender Deluxe Reverb but I have just bought that recently so I didn’t actually have that when we recorded the album. On the album it is mainly a vintage Gibson amplifier from the 60’s called a Gibson Ranger and it is like a 4 x 10 combo amp. I also used a vintage Silvertone 1482 which is just like a 12 inch combo amp as well, it is a pretty small, low wattage one. When I record I mostly use smaller amps.
They are still really loud. The funny thing would be being on a large stage at say Wacken, and seeing huge arrays of speaker cabinets, some of which are props whilst you’ve got a small speaker.
Yeah, nowadays, it feels like nobody actually uses a wall of amps.
What studio gear were you using in Lindbacka Sounds because it sounds like you had a heap of dream analogue gear?
I think this album was recorded mostly with the main mixer that I use, an old Studer mixer from the 70’s, a Studer 089 [12 channel mixing console], one of the earliest ones that they made. Then I just have a lot of vintage microphones like old ribbon microphones and old Sennheisers and stuff, and I also have a Telefunken tape machine from the 60’s – it is an eight track, one inch tape and then also at the same time we put stuff into the computer because for this album, since Andrew was mixing, he mixes totally in the box. Basically I am using vintage gear on the way in and for recording but we needed to have all of the tracks on the computer in the end so that we could send it to Andrew for mixing. I definitely like a lot of vintage equipment but I am not against the digital age at all. I like to use both technologies.
Certainly, I think that people would draw the line at splicing tape with a razor blade these days.
Yeah, I mean, I have done totally analogue recordings before. I used to be like, a die-hard analogue guy but nowadays, the digital technology has improved so much that I think if you are combining the best of both worlds. That is the way to go because there is just so much to benefit from using digital as well. But at the same time I think that there are some vintage pieces that you cannot really recreate that sound without having those as well. So, that is why it is nice that we are living in a time where you can combine the best of both worlds.
You have a new bass player [Kristoffer Schander]. Did you have to school him as a result of taking the guitar spot?
I mean, of course I worked with him and taught him things to learn the songs and everything but he is such a good bass player so that he learned the songs easily. It didn’t take much effort; he could pretty much learn a song in one practice. So, it was a pretty easy transition.
What is the one track on Holy Moly! that you are most proud of at this point?
It is a bit hard to say because there a so many different styles on certain songs. I think that maybe Song From a Mourning Dove is one of the highlights for me just because it is a bit longer, more complex arrangement than everything.
There are some nice harmony guitar lines within that track.
Yeah, the song is always the one track that I come back to and is one of the favourites even though your favourite songs can change over time. For a while, you’ll like one song and then for a while it will be another but I think that I would still come back to this song.