Some People Say I’m Pop: An Interview with Art Block

London-based singer-songwriter Art Block has, in the space of a few years, released an impressive trove of tunes that run the gamut from bare and minimal to lush and cinematic. Marked by a hypnotic blend of acoustic guitars and electronic instruments, his 2020 EP, The Basement was curated by the sound archives of the British Library and featured on Amazing Radio, international podcasts and music blogs. More recently, Block’s White Horses EP appeared in two editions – one with vocals and one as a purely instrumental that highlights his intricate and moving orchestrations. Curious to learn more about the artist, I reached out with a few questions…

You have an excellent voice! How did you learn to sing?

Thank you! That’s very kind. It was a rather long process, starting from not having a clue how to record my voice properly to having lessons with a French singer, Eve, based in London but now in LA. I just let it all out, errors and all. Gradually I improved although I believe that it’s more interesting to be technically imperfect.

Along similar lines, who are some of your influences in terms of your vocal style?

Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley have been long term inspirations. But maybe there’s a bit of Tom Petty in there somewhere too. I quite like female singers like Sharon van Etten and PJ Harvey too. I guess I should mention Richard Ashcroft too.

I’m also curious about your name. “Art Block” is the perfect name for anyone engaged in creative pursuits. Is it your given name, or is it a stage name? Or is that something you’d rather leave up to your listeners’ imagination?

It’s a stage name which is pretty convenient as people like to call me Art!

You’ve recorded – and released – a lot of music over the past few years. Am I correct that your first offering appeared in 2015? And how many songs have you released since then?

Gosh, I’ve lost count but I think I had over 50 songs released! I’m planning to compile some of them in my debut album in 2023.

Do you see your music evolving over time? If so, how?

Yes, I’ve been lucky to have worked with some amazing musicians and producers. Ian Barter, Amy Winehouse’s former guitarist, really helped with developing my sound adding some retro electronic elements. Another producer, Jay Chakravorty, also incorporated some interesting cinematic type arrangements and I worked with Shuta Shinoda a top rate mixing engineer, originally from Tokyo, who has had Mercury Prize winners. Recently I’ve been co-producing stuff myself with a lot of help from William Robertson who I recorded my acoustic sessions album with in one day at Hackney Road studios! Using synths and mixing with more organic sounds has been quite cool. I had the opportunity on my latest EP to use a Moog One synth which is a very powerful and inspiring instrument.

You cover a lot of territory in your music. As I mentioned in my intro above, there’s some spare acoustic music, but there’s also the lush feel of White Horses. Somewhere in between, I suppose, you manage to sprinkle in some electronic and rock elements as well. What accounts for this variety?

I’ve sort of covered this in my answer above. I enjoy intermingling electronic and more organic elements. My aim is to create music I would like to listen to and rock is very much an influence. But I also have diverse music tastes, so Wu-Tang Clan, Kraftwerk, Sharon Van Etten, Beethoven, Depeche Mode are all in there!

Does the degree of stylistic variety in your music make it difficult to market? I’m thinking about those annoying little boxes artists need to check when they submit their songs to streaming services and music review sites. How do you describe your music, and do you ever think about genre?

That’s a great question. With “The Basement” I wanted to experiment with a more electronic sound and then interspersed it with folkier elements. I definitely found there was a wider audience once you enter the electronic music sphere. Alt-folk is a very narrow and specific genre and definitely harder to market. Then again, some people say I’m “pop” so I never know quite where I stand! I’d like to think of my stuff as in the classic indie alt-rock acoustic tradition ultimately. I think that’s how a promoter once described my live music!

You’ve worked with a wide range of musicians, producers, and engineers. What is your musical network like? How do you meet the kinds of people you work with?

Another brilliant question! I often research the producers who have worked on songs I really like. When I first contacted Ian Barter, it took a year until I had written the songs to work with him and then we did two Eps in a row! I literally just emailed him and then we chatted for a long time about music and it seemed we were on the same page. It’s important to work with producers who are encouraging and allow artists to breathe – Ian has worked with some very big names in music but he is an absolute joy to work with and treats unsigned artists in the same way as those who are signed to major labels. With Jay, again I admired his own music so I just contacted him and he was interested in working with me.

Specifically, folk guitarist Ben Walker produced your EP Borderline. What did he bring to the process?

Ben is an amazing musician to work with. I literally just recorded the acoustic guitar parts and vocals in his house in North London and he did all the rest! I was thinking about reconnecting with him at some stage. In fact, he did some guitar work on Seagulls – we didn’t use it all but there are some subtle segue elements we incorporated.

More recently, you released two version of your White Horses EP. What was behind that decision?

As you say, I like to show off the work that goes behind creating the instrumentation for the songs which I really enjoy. Raphael Bouchara’s drum work for example is superb as is Sandra Brus’s violin parts and some of William Robertson’s intricate acoustic guitar parts. I’d also love to have my music synch licensed one day – although all musicians dream of that!

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a couple of more songs to complete my first album in 2023! I’m hoping it will be a fair reflection of my efforts over the years where people can chill over a longer piece of work.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Thank you for the interview!

Delays and Reverbs Stacked Up on Everything: An Interview with Jackson Vincent

I had the good fortune of seeing Jackson Vincent perform when we were both on the bill with our good friend Scoopski at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a few weeks back. Haunting and moody, his EPs Foxtrot and Normal Tension have a dreamy, cinematic quality in terms of both sonic atmosphere and lyrical arc that he adapts to the stage with a single electric guitar and a handful of effects. Both live and on the record, as it were, listening to Jackson Vincent is like keeping an ear open for ghosts in the early, misty predawn hours of a long night in a long-abandoned ancestral home.

First, great show at the Nail! I know you also had a show the next night at City Winery in Philadelphia. How did that show go?

Thank you! You did great too! City Winery was a great time. It’s always fun playing here in Philly. It was a much different show from the Nail. Two hours of acoustic jams, so I covered the majority of my discography and threw in some fun covers. Lots of people came up to meet me after the set, which is always a nice time!

Your live set is pretty spare, at least in terms of instrumentation—just you and a guitar and a couple of effects. What gear are you using? What led you to those particular effects, and how do they contribute to the sound you’re going for?

My main guitar is a 1966 Epiphone Century. I love that thing so much. It’s such a unique sounding guitar and it feels just as special. It really tells you how to play it, like that specific guitar demands that you hold and strum it a certain way. It’s become my best friend over the years. I’m playing through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp now which is a classic. I was using a Vox AC15 for the past few years but it was just so heavy and the tubes got really hot sounding really fast during a set so I traded it for the Deluxe Reverb. You just can’t go wrong with a Fender amp. At the moment I’m just using three guitar effects on my live board; a Deadbeat Sound Reverberation Station, a TC Electronic Nether Octaver, and an EHX Crayon. That’s really all I need at the moment. At the time I got them, at least, they were all super accessible and cheap enough that I didn’t mind throwing them around on stage. They’ve really taken a beating lately! Most of my reverb comes from the amp, so the Reverberation Station is usually kept pretty low just to add a little extra layering in the mix. I usually only have it on for my old stuff, like Foxtrot. The Crayon just adds a little dirt here and there, this one is also kept pretty minimal. I use the Nether to add a lower octave under my regular guitar tone. I pretty much only use that for Happiest right now.

My vocal effects are the real thing that people go crazy for at my shows. All those harmonies, vocoders, autotune, and formant shifting are happening in real time through a Roland VT-4. I usually keep the unit on a stand to my right on stage and control it throughout the set. That thing gets a ton of usage. It’s super versatile and once I got around the learning curve for it it became really fun to play with live.

Listening to your two EPs, I’m struck by the evocative soundscapes you create. Often, your voice takes on a ghostly quality. It’s a little like being in a dream—walking through an old, empty house and disembodied voice from the next room over. Incredibly haunting! How did you achieve that sound—not just on your voice, but on the recordings as a whole? What’s your recording setup like?

For starters, there’s lots of delays and reverbs stacked up on everything. If it’s not drowning in a pool of reverb, I don’t want it. I try to keep my recording setup as simple as possible. I typically record using the exact setup I bring out on stage so that my records and performances sound similar. For both of my EPs I mostly bypassed a traditional recording studio; Foxtrot was recorded alone in the living room of my parents’ house and the final recordings that made it onto Normal Tension were all made in my producer’s home studio. It gave both recording experiences a more comfortable and cozy feeling that I think definitely transferred into the masters.

You mentioned during your set at the Nail that the first EP came together much more quickly than the second. Can you talk more about that?

Absolutely! Foxtrot was written in the span of just a few days, really. Recording it took a few weeks on and off but it was all written pretty quickly. That record was made in the middle of a really tough time in my life. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I was losing passion for almost everything I once loved, the relationship that I had worked tirelessly for years to maintain was falling apart in front of me. It was a steady flow of getting kicked while I was down and I had a lot to say about that. Normal Tension is more like the aftermath of how my life was for Foxtrot. It’s a lot like me looking back at that period after living through it. At the time I was writing this new record I wasn’t entirely sure just how I felt about things still. Normal Tension was a therapeutic experience for me. I was finding myself more as I was writing these tracks, so naturally it was a lot harder to get those thoughts out. From start to finish it took me just under a year to make, which is a big switch from the few weeks the first record took.

Each EP also has a narrative arc, with Normal Tension building on the story you started telling in Foxtrot. How does storytelling fit into your songwriting? Or, to put it another way, what do you see as the relationship between story and song?

Both EPs were always concept records to me. I wrote them with the intention of forming this story through sound. There’s a single narrator that is sharing their world in these songs and crosses over from Foxtrot to Normal Tension. There’s that ambiguity though, too. There’s rarely a time where I’ll provide a name or any other type of conforming detail. These songs are part of a whole, but each their own mysterious little story that the listeners have the ability to find themselves in. There’s a theme and a storyline in my mind while I write, but I’m not necessarily going to say what that is. That’s for the listener to decide. There’s really no wrong answer, just different connections to be made.

Is there a confessional aspect to your storytelling?

For sure. I always used the narrator of the songs as a loose reflection of myself. These songs say the things that I can’t say in person. Hidden in the lyrics are truths I’ve denied, apologies I could never give, and certainly some confessions. Songwriting is a real outlet for me. If there’s something on my mind that I need to let out, it’ll find its way into lyrics.

You produced Foxtrot on your own and worked with a producer, Mekhi Jackson, for Normal Tension. What was the difference between the two experiences? What did working with a producer bring to the process?

The processes behind the two records were wildly different in the most beautiful way. Foxtrot, both in themes and sound, is very dark and almost miserable. The recording process was very representative of the record as a whole. I made Foxtrot alone in a dark room in the middle of the night with nobody listening or watching me. Normal Tension, still not the happiest of records, certainly shows a vague sense of optimism hidden underneath its misery. There’s a little bit of positivity to be found there. It was wonderful to not be alone while making it. Mekhi is a master at his craft and brought a lot to the record that I may have never even thought of. I arrived at his studio with six skeletons of songs and he helped mold them into the best work of my career so far. We almost always were thinking on the same wavelength so the sessions really just felt like two guys hanging out and having fun doing what they do best. I’d record a guitar track and all of a sudden he’s adding the most beautiful orchestral arrangements I’ve ever heard.

How do you see your music evolving from one project to the next?

I don’t really think about it until it happens. Like from Foxtrot to Normal Tension I didn’t really think about changing the sound until I looked back at the demos for NT and realized how different it had become. That’s good though. It’s nice to switch things up but I feel like if I sat down and told myself to find a new sound I would just fall flat or hate the result. I’m sure my sound will continue to evolve with each new project I create. I’m just having fun doing what I do and playing with new sounds as much as I can.

I know that you’ve studied photography. Is there any overlap? Does photography inform your approach to music? Or, from the other side of the equation, does music inform your approach to photography? Do you ever carry concepts, ideas, or techniques from one medium to the other?

My professors often point out the similarities in my approaches to the two art forms. My music has become known for being dark and almost depressing at times. My photographs, like my music, are purposely dark and underexposed. Professors tend to show a distaste for it, but there’s certainly an audience for it. I know the rules for photography and making “correct” exposures, I just choose not to follow them. If I followed the rules that everyone else follows then my photos would look just like everyone else’s. I suppose the same can be said about my music.

What’s next?

Something big! I can’t be sure what that is yet, but I can feel it coming. I’ve had a constant thought of Foxtrot and Normal Tension being the first two installments in a trilogy of EPs telling this story, so it’s pretty safe to say a third EP will be in the works in the near future. And as many gigs as I can possibly get!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Thanks for having me!

Accidental Harmony: An Interview with Greg Gallagher

I had the privilege of sharing a stage with Greg Gallagher a few weeks back when we played at the Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, in support of Scoopski. As soon as he stepped onto the stage, I was pretty sure I’d met a kindred spirit, particular given Greg’s apparent fondness for offset electric guitars and big glasses. Goth and moody, his set consisted of original tunes and covers that he brought to life with self-deprecating wit, plaintive vocals, and a mint-green Jazzmaster guitar—the perfect opening to a great night of music.

You did a haunting cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” when you played at the Nail, and I was definitely impressed when you hit all the high notes. What drew you to that song, and do you have any plans to release a recording of your version?

Thanks so much for the kind words first of all. Singing is one of the last things I learned how to do so getting any kind of praise for it is always a nice surprise.

I always liked the brooding nature of the song.  As a teen, I became drawn to more dark, gothic sounds and discovered a band from Finland called “HIM” They do a wonderfully faithful, yet musically much heavier cover and that drew me to the song. My wife also happens to love the original so I like to play songs she enjoys.

Your Bandcamp bio mentions that you played in a number of bands before taking a break from music. What are some highlights from that period of your life, and what led to the break?

I would say one of my fondest memories from playing in a number of local bands was getting to record a full-length album at the Creep House studio with Arik Victor, and that album’s record release show on my 20th birthday in a parking lot behind the Exton mall. I was in called “Drop Out Academy.” Cringeworthy name? Yes, but we had so much fun in that band. We ended up splitting up by the end of that year, but we reformed three years later under moniker of “Atom Outcome,” not that much better of a name but it was another band that wrote material that I look back fondly on.

The break from music happened in December 2013 when I found out that I was going to be a father—to twins! So, I had to put music on the back burner for a while.

Then you returned to music as a solo artist. What brought you back?

Well, once my kids started creeping up on five years old, they were no longer consuming ALL of my time outside of work, hahaha.

In the five years off, I still wrote songs. No one besides me would hear them. I also had a handful of songs I had written for my last band and I really liked them. I thought it was a shame that some of the tunes I was most proud of would seemingly never see the light of day. So I decided to say “fuck it” and just do it myself. I’m really glad I did too!

Your latest album, 667, includes a track called “Cynically Derivative.” Is it a comment on the music industry?

That’s interesting, because you could definitely interpret it that way and I guess it partially is that. It’s also a bit of a jab at myself, the song is very similar musically to a Bad Religion song “True North,” so it’s kind of poking fun at myself as well as commenting on the pronounced lack of originality in popular music.

It’s a great album, by the way. I know you played pretty much all of the instruments on that one. What’s your approach to recording?

Thanks so much! My usual approach is to start with the drums. I know if I have a good, solid drum track then I have a strong foundation for the song. Even if I just record the drums with 1-2 room mics (like I did on Burst) getting a good drum track for a rock song is crucial. Burst was done entirely in a basement and and upstairs rehearsal space and I did everything by myself. Which, in retrospect, may not have been the best idea. Hence why I decided to hire my friend Ian Shiela to do 667 since he very much knows what he’s doing, hahaha.

How do you translate that to your live set? I’m thinking in particular of the challenge of taking songs that you’ve arranged and recorded with multiple instruments and adapting them to just an electric guitar and vocal.

Even with the faster or more punk-inspired songs, I always start writing stuff on acoustic guitar. I do that because I kind of always have and also, to make sure that I can pull these songs off live when it’s just me and a guitar.

That’s a good strategy–very smart! Speaking of writing, you recorded Burst in 2020, but it consisted of songs you had written in 2010. What was it like to revisit those songs—and, I imagine, the headspace of who you were ten years earlier?

It was really fun and something I needed to do because I often find myself doubting my abilities, going back, revisiting those songs and not only seeing the growth as a person and musician was helpful and inspiring. I also was surprised that not all of the songs were terrible! Some of it was painful as I remember certain songs that were written during tumultuous times, but overall it was a really good and fun experience. I recommend it if you’ve been making music for ten or more years.

I might try that! You mention in the notes for that EP that you hadn’t yet learned all the techniques for proper recording. What are some things you’ve learned about recording since then? Would you change anything?

I’ve learned that levels are very important, haha. The biggest thing is that guitars, especially these days, are so easy to record and get a decent sound. Drums are so different, and much more challenging to record and get a good sound. Especially since drum sounds change from room to room. I’ve also learned that lead vocal tracks always sound better when doubled. Lennon used to do it, that’s how Butch Vig convinced Kurt Cobain to do it on Nevermind. It’s a basic technique I use on basically all my recordings.

Also, working with my good friend Ian who co-produced and did all the mixing and mastering on my last two releases taught me so much about capturing the best performance. Another partner in crime, Andres Natalino, does all the mixing for my covers on YouTube. He’s taught me a lot of cool tricks for at-home recording on a budget.

Alternately, is there anything you’re glad you technically did “wrong” because it turned out sounding interesting in some way?

Oh god, I’ve done so many things that are technically wrong—haha! There’s a song on Burst that was recorded terribly, it’s the first real song after the intro track. However, the way the guitars are layered at the end. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time and the timing is all over the place (and I played one track on the wrong string!) but it created a really cool sound and even an accidental harmony, so I’m glad I had no goddamn clue what I was doing!

What’s next?

Oh boy. Quite a bit actually! I have a covers EP coming out next month. It will be on Spotify, Bandcamp, etc. It’ll consist of what I believe to be my strongest covers to date. Thanks to you, I think I may record and include “Wicked Game” on it! I’m also writing songs for a follow up to 667 I hope to start demoing those soon and get back in with Ian sometime next year.

 I’m trying to be more active on my YouTube Channel, where I post my covers and originals. I also do interviews. Late last year I had the privilege of interviewing one of my all-time favorite singers and songwriters, Joe Wood formerly of T.S.O.L. I got to perform with him this summer with his new band Change Today. That was amazing. My next guest is a goth rock/horror punk icon, Myke Hideous. He’s the mastermind behind the criminally underrated band “the Empire Hideous” but he’s perhaps best known for briefly fronting the Misfits in the late 1990s. So there’s a ton of cool shit happening very soon!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Thanks so much for talking to me!

It’s been a pleasure.

For me as well!