February 24, 2017 | By Justin Joffe
Guy Blakeslee walks through Bushwick, Brooklyn to meet just as a huge blizzard begins to slow. Shades of this California resident’s past lives—growing up in Baltimore before moving to Chicago to pursue his music career—explain his skill at navigating the snow, but the calm that he exudes while traversing a wind tunnel to our meeting point seems to come from somewhere else.
“There’s so many different types of changes—seasonal changes and things that we don’t control,” he tells me later as we grapple with the fact that the day before was 50 degrees and sunny while sitting in my living room. “Then there are a million little things we do control. Getting a distance from your own story, to make decisions about what you want to do from a different perspective, is crucial.”
Blakeslee’s describing looking at his life from “across the street”, putting into practice the idea that removing ourselves from the most immediate, knee-jerk reaction to change yields a response that’s thoughtful, measured, and mindful. And on his arrestingly gorgeous new album as ENTRANCE, Book of Changes, Blakeslee explores this idea by presenting the concept a “song cycle” almost literally—characters turn with the seasons, coming and going all while the smell of perfume still lingers on his bed.
A love letter to transition and flux, Book of Changes also fuses the themes it explores into the canon of classic American music. The outlaw, desperado dirge of “Molly” conjures shades of Desire-era Dylan as Blakeslee sardonically croons “You know what’s right for me…champagne and ecstasy”, while “I’d be A Fool” takes the rider through red states where “Strange fruit is rusting on the vine/America’s running out of time/The streets are on fire with selfish desire/And the blind leading the blind.”
There's this eye that both your memories and is also here now. It's the same reciever doing all that stuff." - Guy Blakeslee
In the unordained elegance of these enunciations, echoes of other great singer-songwriters like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt emerge, too. Blakeslee’s always been a great lyricist, but over the years he’s grown adept at saying a lot with a little, a skill more akin to Young or Robert Hunter than the verbose Dylan. “Hey, Winter Lady, the avalanche is at your heel,” he sings at the close of the album’s second act. “So take some advice from melting ice, change is all that’s really real.”
Blakeslee didn’t always sound this transparent, though. The six full-lengths he’s released over the last 14 years document a trajectory of self-imposed headiness, moving away from recording as ENTRANCE to start The Entrance Band and bring heavy riffs of stoner psych into the fold. And after a solo record under his own name, Book of Changes finds Blakeslee back to releasing music as ENTRANCE again, returning to fuse his countless gifts as a singer/songwriter with wise perspective gleamed from madness and time.
Blakeslee and I talked about the copy of the Tao Te Ching he’s had since middle school, and what it taught him about maintaining yourself through flux. We also talked about how the work he’s done on himself has fortified him the resolve to remain levelheaded no matter what high treason or human rights violations comes from Washington. Just as the drone in an Indian raga provides stability for other changes in the music to play off of, Blakeslee’s newfound mindfulness comes to him in an age when having a consistent perspective over your own story is tantamount to enlightenment. “There’s this eye that both sees your memories and is also here now,” he says. “It’s the same receiver doing all that stuff.”
I used to rock [The Entrance Band’s] Prayer of Death in college, but knowing that you released an electro-pop leaning album under your own name since then, can you just walk me through the stylistic transition from then till now, how you got from A to B to C with your sounds?
Yeah, what would be “A”?
“A” would be stone town, stoney baloney [Entrance Band] music.
[laughs] Yeah, I feel it’s a very common thing for artists and musicians of all genres and styles, the way that my relationship using substances has transformed over the years. It’s a big part of my journey. So in the beginning of being ENTRANCE it was that I smoke weed or if I take acid, I get all these new ideas. It was working for me, in a way. And then it stopped working and I had to stop that entirely. I had to relearn a new way of being creative. So eventually that one solo record you mentioned was part of the process of trying to figure out who I was and what I sounded like.
I didn’t arrive at my destination there, but shortly after that I abandoned that and started over again. In my career as a musician, there’s been a lot of trying certain things out, abandoning them and starting over again, over and over again. [laughs]
“I realized that music was something that could be your vehicle for an irregular life pattern of moving around and having everything seem new all the time.”
Is this album maybe the first time you’re looking back at your own cycles? It sounds like a love letter to transition, or to flux.
Yeah, part of that is, and within that, I feel younger. I’ve had more experiences lived through these years that I didn’t have before, but through starting over again all the time I feel younger, even though I’m older. For instance, using hard drugs will make you older than you really are, and send you to an early grave. [laughs] Learning how to live without all of that stuff is almost like being reborn. So there’s the wisdom of aging, and also the innocence and naïveté of rebirth, playing off of each other. That’s happening on the record for sure, and that’s kind of what I’ve been going through over the years.
My other solo record where I use drum machines, synthesizers and electric guitars was kind of hard for me. I did a lot of touring for that record too, opening for friends’ bands like Warpaint and Interpol in kind of big venues. So I would be on a big stage by myself with a sampler, and on some of the songs I would even hit play on the sampler and just run around with the mic. It was almost karaoke, but I made all the music. That’s almost this new form that exists, in a sense. In hip-hop I would never question that. As a singer-songwriter not really in the hip-hop field, I would always kind of feel like, on one hand, it’s cool that I can make this music, press play and sing over it as it came out of this really big sound system. But on the other hand, is this legit? [laughs]
Putting yourself in that situation is where genre falls off the bone, and you’re left with something more elemental that turns into a discussion what you were thinking when you made it. I’m thinking about cyclicality when I listen to Book of Changes, because a song cycle that even dares to tie people’s states of being to the changing of the seasons feels almost romantic now. Earlier we were talking about how yesterday was just about 50 degrees here, but a blizzard just ended. Now the sun is coming out just before dusk. And I’m wondering if there’s something wistful to you about the ideas of seasons right now, in general.
You mean because of the condition of the Earth?
Well yeah, I’m from the East Coast and lived on the West Coast for a long time. I wrote this record in London while I was kind of getting some seasons that I’d been missing out on in L.A. So there’s that geographical dislocation in my life, causing me to think about that a lot. Living in L.A., it just rained a lot recently but for the past few years it hasn’t rained enough to come out of a draught. Then I was in London, and it rained every day. Everyone that lived there said, “Fuck this! Why are you here? Why don’t you go back to California?” But I was feeling inspired by it, soothed by it. Contrast is a big part of it.
Is touring a mask for that, too? Does the musician lifestyle provide an escape or a rabbit hole into that madness?
Yeah, in a way that’s what drew me into that lifestyle as a young person. When I realized that music was something that could be your vehicle for an irregular life pattern of moving around and having everything seem new all the time.
You ran with it.
It’s still romantic to me, even though I’ve been doing this long enough that I see the many downsides of it. I still see a romantic aspect of it, because all music and art is coming from your state of mind and your consciousness.
And collective consciousness too, social milieus, the people who frequent the bar you like to hang out at. You just released this very powerful protest song “Not Gonna Say Your Name”, which I took as a conscious refusal to invoke. I’m not gonna put this word into the air. I’m not going to manifest or legitimize this person’s identity. Do you believe in that power on a spiritual level, like through mantra or something?
Making a poem about that and putting it out in the world is the other side of the coin to the fact that if you say something out loud enough, you’re willing it into being. Although this is kinda cheesy, I do think there’s a scientific basis for affirmations. The scientist that shows images of water molecules [after] you say “I hate you, I hate you!” to them shows that they fragment and disjointed looking when you use a negative voice. But if you use a soothing tone of voice and say, “I love you, water, thank you for existing,” they’ll actually get more beautiful and fractal.
Nimai from Prince Rama actually cited that same study to me, I shit you not.
I bet she did! [laughs] With the fact that human beings are made out of so much water, it makes sense. When you’re a child and your parent says, “I’m proud of you, I love you, you’re gonna do great!” that has a positive effect of the water structure of your body. If someone’s like “you’re never gonna make it, you’re a failure!” that will have an effect on it as well. And then the way you talk to yourself ultimately is the most powerful, I would say. Saying it out loud makes it moreso. If you’re having trouble with an issue and saying “I’m gonna be nice to myself today”, actually vocalizing it has more of an effect than just thinking. It helps the action to follow.
So in the case of the now president and some of these other people like Milo, the President is basically a figurehead of Internet trolls on the political spectrum. The way that energy works is not that they’re saying, “This is what I believe, let’s discuss it, I hope you agree, I’ll to convince you.” That’s a free-speech, democratic approach to whatever issue you wanna talk about. They’re much more about, “Whether you love me or hate me, it doesn’t matter—if you’re saying my name, I win.” Whether you hate or love that person, you’re still giving him power.
Maybe this speaks to the distrust in agreed upon narratives right now, too. If collective consciousness is about a group of people uniting under a shared vision or a shared intention, then a narrative that’s clearly false only serves to fracture that solidarity, to destroy any opportunity for shared vision. How do we get that back? How do we get control over our own narrative again? You and I were talking about my work’s relationship to Observer, which is a dialogue I’ve been trying to have with more people so that they understand how independent we are in the Arts section an unbeholden to anyone else’s narrative. But most publications have a vested interest in their own accumulating narrative, be it ideologically based or politically based or whatever.
Or a corporate interest that owns and supports it.
"I went on tour in August, across the entire middle of the country, and it was all the red states. Some of those lyrics, like 'America's running out of time', were prophecy."
How do we pull back from this narrative distortion as people? How do we understand it from one degree removed?
Well this friend of mine from high school is a life coach, and she did this online seminar about how to reprogram your own brain in order to not be made miserable by the President everyday. I signed up for it but missed the live webinar, I have a link to the recording of it. What you’re thinking about is what you’re gonna experience. So if you’re focusing on someone that you’re against, you’re embodying that thing.
The instigation becomes part of the message delivery system.
Yeah. On the one hand, open-mindedness and being able to look at things from different perspectives is super important—that’s basically starting to disappear. People are in a reality tunnel, and things that don’t compute just get blocked out, whether they are for or against the president. So looking at things multiple different ways is important. There can be multiple truths, but when it comes to somebody advocating what’s essentially Nazism it’s like, what did they do to stop that before? Oh, they had a huge war. The difference between saying and doing something is kind of blurry.
[Changes] was conceived of and recorded all before the election cycle began and during the election cycle, then finished just before it really kicked in. Then I went on tour in August, across the entire middle of the country, and it was all the red states. Some of those lyrics, like “America’s running out of time”, were prophecy. With some of the writing I don’t know what I what thinking about, I just write it and it comes true. Plenty of the things that I say in these songs happened later, and I’d think, “That’s what I was talking about!”
Fifty years ago it was 1967, and so many good fucking psych records have their anniversary. The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe, The Dead… and I’m thinking about all the social changes informing that work, the need for people to go inward and internalize their madness, to explore themselves in order to better comment on the chaos around them. So it seems like the social consciousness in music has looped full circle now. Psych is super popular again now. People go to shows to trip out and lose their minds on the regular. I hear those stylistic nods in the raga, circus tune romance of that guitar lead on “I’d Be A Fool” and wonder if you’re tapping into that same process of discovery.
A lot of the record is about thinking that you know, then discovering you don’t. That’s one of the changes. That could apply to any personal thing, spiritual belief or political idea, too. Sometimes the liberation comes from letting go of what you think you know. Or when you’re holding on super tight to something that you think you know before you let go of it, you think that thing that you know is the thing holding it all together, but in reality its the thing blocking you from something else.
Do you identify people with the seasons? The “Winter Lady” chooses her path, but she used to be “Summer’s Child.”
“Winter Lady” came first, and “Summer’s Child” was a conscious response. The same girl, Lael Neale, sang on both with and plays the role of both characters. Because it took such a long time to make this record, “Summer’s Child” was one of the last songs I did and “Winter’s Lady” was one of the first. One informed the other. They’re chapters related to each other as part of the same story.
Can you unpack the idea of paradox being reconciled by the equinox?
I guess in that song, you would think that the equinox, being a turning point, would mean things were in balance. But even though it’s the equinox, things are still out of wack. It’s about realizing that something is out of balance because it should be in balance.
“Use the drone like a continuous note to sing against or play against, so there’s the juxtaposition of the eternal, unchanging thing and then all the different, ever-changing things get their meaning from the thing that doesn’t change.”
Well a lot of us surely feel that way about the current political cycle, too. Things that are clearly and obviously untrue as presented before us are clouded for others.
Stepping back and looking at things from a larger, wider viewpoint, whether you’re talking about politics or not, is really important.
How do we come out of the other side of flux with wisdom?
Sometimes the less you know, the more you know. Whenever there’s a lot of change occurring, there’s also something at the center that doesn’t change. In Indian raga there’s a drone and a solo or scale going over the drone—a continuous note that’s always there and all the interplay of all the things that keep changing all the time. And those are both going on, it’s not one or the other. Everything that’s not staying the same is doing so in relation to some undefinable thing that is always there.
I teach some really tripped out music lessons. Having taught myself and having no real technical knowledge whatsoever, it’s more conceptual. That’s something I teach—use the drone like a continuous note to sing against or play against, so there’s the juxtaposition of the eternal, unchanging thing and then all the different, ever-changing things get their meaning from the thing that doesn’t change. You can’t really perceive one of them fully without the other.
That’s kind of how I feel about the I Ching.
Yeah, that’s one of the translations of [Book of Changes].
It’s not even an 8-ball maybe, so much as about reading the fingerprints of the readers. What does that book mean to you?
I have a little experience trying to use it, but I have some friends that are really into it.
Wasn’t it the go-to hippie mystic text in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test?
Yeah, Bob Dylan mentions it in a non-official version of “Idiot Wind” off Blood on the Tracks. But I have more familiarity since I was really young with the Tao Te Ching, which is totally related. I was assigned to read it in middle school and still have the copy I had back then. Even then I was circling stuff, trying to go through the changes and actions of life with some perspective on what’s consistent throughout.
So if you look back on your own life, “at this time I was into this music and lived in this place with this person and I used to think that but now I think this,” the eyeball looking back allows you to see that is this perspective that will never change, a continuous awareness from birth to death. I don’t know if it lasts after you die, but being able to contrast the constantly changing with this ephemeral thing that you can’t define that’s always there…there’s this inner stillness that you can maintain even in chaotic external situations. There’s this eye that both sees your memories and is also here now. It’s the same receiver doing all that stuff.
Maybe that’s “the dreamer and the dreamed” that Carlos Castaneda wrote about. Being able to stay present with your subconscious self, and also to live in the now. That’s sorcery, or enlightened personhood at the least.
Yeah, mindfulness really helps me a lot. You find that by just observing your thoughts, you’re seeing them taking place. Let’s say you’re observing—you’re not trying to block out all thought or stop thinking, but you’re just stepping back and watching those thoughts pass by without attaching yourself to them. If I’m not my thoughts because they’re changing and I’m still watching them, who’s the observer? The one seeing that stuff changing has this deeper perspective not actually defined by those things.
“If you’re able to get to a still place where you can see the thoughts without attaching yourself to them, you have a weird distance between your true self and your surface self.”
That’s greater than the sum.
Yeah, it’s behind all that stuff. We identify with our thoughts most of the time. If you’re able to get to a still place where you can see the thoughts without attaching yourself to them, you have a weird distance between your true self and your surface self.
And you can control time because you can choose when to react.
Yeah, you get a choice. That’s a big part that relates to what I’m talking about, and the songs too. There’s so many different types of changes—seasonal changes and things that we don’t control. Then there are a million little things we do control. Getting a distance from your own story, to make decisions about what you want to do from a different perspective, is crucial. You can watch the year change, there’s nothing you can do to stop the weather or time. But by slowing down you can see it from a different perspective and get more control over what you wanna do. Everything that happens is a combination of the things that we can’t control and the things that we can.
It’s almost like we all have to lose our minds to gain that perspective though—drugs, Jesus or video games.
Yeah! I feel very fortunate, and it’s a luxury for me to even be able to entertain these ideas. And to tie it all together, getting that distance from your own reactions can give you a lot of freedom, learning how to respond instead of just react. Through meditating, I see my reaction coming over something that would normally cause me to freak out. Then it passes my by and I realize I had the freedom to choose how I reacted. That ability to respond rather than react would do all of us some good.