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Catching Up With Blake Sennett

June 16, 2011  |  12:10pm
Catching Up With Blake Sennett

Blake Sennett was sick and tired of The Recording Artist Grind. After recording and touring for over a decade as a singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter for indie-rock titans Rilo Kiley and his acclaimed side-project The Elected, Sennett realized that, well…he simply wasn’t a normal human being anymore. Fed up with life on the road, petty band politics, ruined relationships and the endless coddling that comes with being a modern rock star, Sennett decided to take some time off to figure out what the hell it means to be a grown man. In addition to exploring other artistic projects like writing and directing a short film, he reveled in the tasks of the Everyman—adopting a rescue dog, paying the bills, and even figuring out how to do household chores.

Of course, he’s a musician, and it’s not so easy to turn off that switch. After being persuaded by a friend to kick around some musical ideas, he eventually found himself refreshed and inspired enough to work on some new songs. The result is Bury Me in My Rings, his third full-length album under the Elected moniker—and it’s a manicured, layered collection of well-crafted pop gems that radiate the exact opposite of stress and artistic anxiety. Paste recently had the chance to catch up with Sennett in-between prepping for a new tour and taking care of housework. Along the way, we discussed the songwriting process behind Bury Me in My Rings, the untouched brilliance of Peter Gabriel, and the death (and possible resurrection) of Rilo Kiley.

Paste: Hey Blake! Ryan Reed here from Paste! What’s going on?
Blake Sennett: Not much, man, just fuckin’ partying, cleaning my bathhouse and just kinda killing it in that way, I guess.

Paste: So your new album is out, and the reaction’s been pretty strong. Are you still happy with the songs? How do you feel about the material now that it’s been out there for a little bit?
Sennett: I feel good about it! Not too many reservations—yeah, I feel pretty good about it!

Paste: Are you one of those guys who, after finishing an album, kind of dreads going out there and playing the songs? Do you get sick of the songs after you’ve recorded them, or do you feel more confident about the material after it’s been out there for awhile?
Sennett: I think I tend to—”dread wouldn’t be the right word—but feel some reluctance to go play the record. I think historically, I’ve felt this expectation, albeit internal, to go recreate the record, and that’s something I’m definitely trying to buck this time around. I think, as an artist, I’ve tried to reflect on what it is to be an artist in making this record in particular, and I’ve realized—or I suspect—that you have to keep it exciting for yourself. So I’m trying this time around to keep it a little more exciting and recreate the record in a different way, reinterpret those songs as though they aren’t my songs but like I’m covering someone else’s songs.

Paste: I think that makes sense, especially considering how dense the album is, with string parts and all kinds of layers. I suspect you’re not going out on the road with a string quartet, right?
Sennett: I am bringing a violin player but not a quartet.

Paste: So you’re just going to approach the songs from a simpler perspective?
Sennett: To be honest, man, I’m really not aware yet, but one thing I want to try to eliminate is the traditional trap set—drum kit, like traditional kick-snare-toms. I’m kind of tired of that sound, in general. I want to work without that. I want to work with percussive instruments that don’t have to do that same fucking sound over and over again, you know? It’s a rock ‘n’ roll sound that started with big band and jazz and then into rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s a great sound, but I’m sick of hearing it behind me, so I’m going to try something else, man—some djembes, some talking drums. Maybe I’ll have a kick and snare in there, but I want it to be more exciting, man! That’s what I want to do.

Paste: You’re gonna have some Peter Gabriel-type action happening…
Sennett: Yeah, man! Peter Gabriel, totally! I mean, the older I get, the more I realize how badass some of these guys are who did things like that. Like I watched the “Sledgehammer” video recently—have you watched that video?

Paste: Yeah, that’s my favorite music video of all-time!
Sennett: Right, dude, and it’s so fucking good! And it probably took weeks to make, slowly and painstakingly—frame by frame by frame, mouthing each sentence! Looking at that, I’m just in awe—it’s very humbling watching the “Sledgehammer” video! And I think people perceive that video as “bubblegum,” but it’s so much more, right? Just watching that video makes me feel like a pussy. If you could just have one success in your life as big as the “Sledgehammer” video—and by the way, that’s just his appetizer; he’s just getting started!

Paste: You mention wanting to change things up musically. Is that in any way connected to you taking the time off from music prior to this album? Were you just bored with things?
Sennett: I don’t think so, but maybe to some extent that was in there. I don’t know—I think there are people who make music, and they are aware of their audience, and then there are the super naive people who are like, “It’s just music, man!” And I’m lame enough to be in the second category. I’m not thinking about Pitchfork—I’m not trying to think about anybody when I’m making records, and I felt like at the end of Rilo Kiley, we really started to think about that too much—or it was mentioned too much, and that bothered me. There were a lot of things about the experience that really bothered me, and I just started to feel like things were so lame—discussing how to talk to interviews and just things that have nothing to do with anything! So I think I just had a distaste in my mouth about the experience, and I wanted a fresh perspective. And I also didn’t want to limit myself as an artist and limit myself as a musician. I don’t believe that any of us should be limited to a title like that. I don’t think you are a “journalist,” and I don’t think I am a “musician.” I think that you can write and choose to write, but I wouldn’t limit you to that. I don’t know you, but I’m positive you’re more than that.

And I started to feel like I was only a musician. I stepped out of the tour bus after three straight years of touring and was like, “What the hell can I do?” “I can’t make a bench! I can’t do dry-wall! I can’t ride a motorcycle! I can’t do a karate kick! I don’t know how to do anything but be a musician!” That’s lame. That is not what I want to give my children. I want to be somebody who knows how to be a grown-up, so I guess I wanted to step away from music and try to round out the rest of my life—to “become a man,” so to speak. And the more successful you get, the more hand-holding you get. You get a business manager because you don’t have time to pay your bills and do your taxes. You get a tour manager because you don’t have time to advance the shows. You just keep getting more and more separated from any kind of real life and responsibility, and you sort of don’t grow up—you grow down! You turn into a man-child! I wasn’t happy with that. And emotionally, you’re stuck in these dysfunctional relationships, and you have to just kind of tough it out, and no one wants to get better. It’s like, “Fine, let’s suck. Let’s not try to heal.” And I just felt crazy at the end; I felt sad and insane, like I had lost the plot. Everybody has a different plot they want to find, but I didn’t like that one, so I decided, “I’m going to step away and do what feels right—go spelunking if I have to, but I’m going to walk away for a sec.” You know what I mean?

Paste: I’m guessing that it really helped taking that time off, judging by the new album. I really like the album, and while I do think it sounds very labored-over and well-recorded, it doesn’t feel like an album that was stressful to make. Is that true?
Sennett: Well, I do think that is true, relative to my prior experiences in making records. I’m an idiot and find a way of always making myself stressed-out, but it was relatively stress-free. I tried not to second-guess myself or think about anything except, “Is this song working as per my understanding of the word ‘working’” Not anybody else’s understanding of that word. There was a lot of weight lifted because there wasn’t much pressure, and I wasn’t competing with Rilo Kiley or Jenny’s solo record or anything but myself. So there was a lot of weight lifted for me. And this was the first time I’d made a record for me since maybe Me First.

Paste: In terms of the actual musical content on the new album, a lot of critics are throwing around labels like ”’70s California pop.” For me personally, I see what that’s all about, but your music really just reminds me of a more simpler time—before I was around—based more on classic pop songwriting than on whatever the new indie rock trend may be—in terms of production, instrumentation, and everything else. Do you think of yourself as an “old-fashioned” songwriter?
Sennett: Gosh, I hope so. I mean, I prefer that stuff. That’s what I grew up on. But it’s hard to say because with this new record, part of the process for me was trying not to be self-conscious, so I can’t really say what this record is or what I am. And I truly say this with respect, but I leave that up to the experts. I really don’t know! I certainly didn’t set out to make a ‘70s-style record. You spend your days or much of your days thinking about music and writing about it and ruminating on it, and I respect that and think that’s great, but I don’t! [laughs] You could probably make me a really kick-ass mix-tape! But I probably couldn’t make you nearly as good of a mix-tape. So you actually probably know more about music than me—I make it, but you study it, and that’s the difference. So yeah, I don’t know if I’m an old-fashioned songwriter, but I’d like to be! That’s what I grew up on, you know? My parents didn’t listen to super weird stuff—they listened to soft-rock and pop and stuff. I guess maybe that’s in there somewhere.

Paste: My favorite track on Bury Me in My Rings is “Born to Love You.” I feel like it sets the tone for the album straight out of the gate. Is it true that this was one of the first things you wrote in the initial sessions for the album?
Sennett: Yeah, that’s true. That was one of the first things—when my buddy took me down to my space and was like “Let’s do this,” the first thing we did was get drum sounds set up, like kick, snare, tom, and I just played that beat. He was tinkering with the sounds, and I just started playing those chords and humming that melody. I went home that night and worked out the verses and then came back. But yeah, that was one of the first—if we’re treating this record like stream-of-consciousness, that was the first trickle of water.

Paste: The thing I like so much about the song is the chord progression. It’s really dreamy, and it reminds me of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” You mention that the song came to together pretty quickly, but was there anything you had in mind, either musically or lyrically, while you were writing it?
Sennett: That song has the one (chord), walks down to the six, and anyway, when it gets to the 4 chord—the D—it goes to a minor instead of a major, which I think is a little unusual. And I think that was, for me, when I thought, “Oh, I like this!” This is something interesting to me; it doesn’t sound like something I’ve done before—I’m sure many have done before, but I haven’t. So I think that song became interesting there. And then there’s a chord where I play an F bass over an F# minor—kind of sad-sounding, and I think that’s maybe where the Roy Orbison moment comes in. Anyway, those changes felt exciting to me and felt worth pursuing.

Paste: We talked earlier about breaking away from the grind of recording and touring. Now that you’re back with new music, do you think you’ll be more selective about when you decide to release new material? And are you afraid of getting back into the album-tour-album-tour grind?
Sennett: I think this process probably helped me feel less afraid. I can just do what I feel and hope for the best. The worst that could happen is…well, everyone hates it, but that’s not that bad! As long as I like it, then at least something happens. This was actually pretty freeing to me—it was kind of exciting. I think I learned a lot about myself while making this record, and that’s really exciting for me.

Paste: In prepping for this interview, I ran across your talk with Consequence of Sound, where you talk about Rilo Kiley being dead—like a “corpse.” Since doing that interview, have you heard from Jenny or anybody else in or related to the band? Also, do you still feel that way—that “waking up the corpse” would be a bad idea?
Sennett: I never say never. I loved Rilo Kiley—I loved writing with Jenny. I think she’s a great artist and great to write with. I think we’re not there yet. Maybe one day we’ll dust it off and give it a go; I’d be open to it. I think it was fun—for all of the pitfalls, it was great. I had a great time in Rilo Kiley. I always did. We’re going to put out this unreleased tracks CD eventually, and I was kind of poking through some of them last night. I was with this music video director-guy who’s helping me make a video, and he wanted to hear some. So I played some for him, and I felt nostalgic. It was nice to hear them—the ones which have yet to be released. And some of them are great! Some of them are better than a lot of the stuff that actually got released, so in listening to them, I was…touched, and my heart was softened in some way. I never say never. Jenny and I specifically talked about that “corpse” comment, and we both thought it was funny and made jokes about brains getting eaten. It was just a sweet moment of laughing about it.

Paste: The unreleased stuff—is that coming from the entire history of the band?
Sennett: I think it’s about eight to ten tracks from each record that didn’t make it but got fully recorded. And it’s all throughout, and it’s even stuff that was done even before the first record came out. I don’t know if we’ll be courageous enough to put those out, but…

Paste: Well, do you have any kind of time-table for that?
Sennett: Not really, no.

Paste: Well, you have the Elected tour coming up. After that, what’s next? Just taking it one day at a time?
Sennett: Yeah, pretty much just taking it a day at a time and vibing out! Doing some recording right now on a project with this friend of mine, doing some writing, doing…just life stuff! [laughs] Nothin’ worth writing about.

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