DANNY LEE BLACKWELL ABOUT HIS BRAINCHILD
It’s been a while since we’ve seen (and drank some whiskey with) frontman Danny Lee Blackwell from Night Beats. Last time we saw him in the smoky hole that is the last official punk café of Amsterdam, Café the Minds, where we played some pool. Now it’s the 1970s wallpapered upstairs greenroom of Rotown where we meet up for a chat. But it doesn’t matter where he is, with his black rimmed hat, classic blazer, low voice and sharp eyes, Danny sets his own mood. And this time, with the new album, he’s set it a bit darker – maybe even more vulnerable than before. By listening to ‘Myth Of a Man’, and also by speaking to him, we could tell that he’s been searching for some truths and has found some wisdom.
When we walk into the room before the show, it’s clear that it’s winding down time for the band. They’ve just driven in from Amsterdam and one of them is playing a video game on his Nintendo Switch, while the rest is gearing up their outfits and instruments or having a conversation with some guests present. The gamer is fully taken in by his screen, so we wonder out loud what he is playing there. ”It is an another world kinda game, the one where you build stuff, create, kinda like Minecraft. Do you remember that?” – Danny saves him from answering, not to disturb him. ”It’s like Minecraft but then better. I can’t really explain it well but I can show you, I have it as well. I haven’t played it that much recently, but I play it with my niece. My niece and I are really tight, she’s awesome,” Danny says with a big smile. ”She’s 15, turning 16 in June. She’s into music as well. I bought her a guitar for her birthday once, and a piano too, I found it on Craigslist for 200 dollars. She’s gravitating towards the guitar though. She’s also hilarious, really multitalented. I have a recording of her from when she was just 4 years old and trying out drums for the first time, and she immediately got it. We recorded some simple singing on top of that because I wanted to show her just how simple and fun it is to make music. She’s very cool, it gives me so much positive energy hanging out with her. But I’ll stop bragging about my niece now.” He has a big, warm smile on his face, as you can tell he gives himself a second to regather his thoughts about a different topic.
To the question if his whole family is as musical as him and his niece he says; ”Not really actually. I’m kind of the black sheep. My mother’s side of the family is from India and she used to dance the Bharatnatyam, a classical Indian solo dance. But that’s about it. I’m pretty much the only musician in the family. My father, who is from Texas, USA, is not musical at all. We wouldn’t really listen to music at home with them either. But I was mainly raised by my brother who is practically a music encyclopedia now. I can ask any musician of any band and he’ll know what album they did or did not. Luckily it doesn’t really matter how much music you hear at home in the end. If you have a yearning for it, a drive, it will never be distinguished. It’s just what you want to do. If you really want to learn how to play the drums, you can do that. Practice it on pillows, it’s what I did, I played the drums before I played guitar.”
”My band’s name is after a Sam Cook record called Night Beat, because my work actually has a very soul and R&B background, even though you can’t hear it sometimes. It’s what I listened to when I grew up and when I started playing.”
Do you need to be in a certain mindset when you go on stage now? Is there still this yearning you describe?
“I don’t know if this should be printed, but… before a set I always try to meditate. That means I basically need everybody to leave the room. To fuck off. It doesn’t need to be that long, but right before I go on and right after I get off stage, I just need to be left alone for a minute or two. It’s not a policy though, but if I can’t have some time for myself inside the venue, I take a walk. I get’s me right in that mood that I need to play. But that yearning is always there. It just amps it up. I also really like having a quick ‘huddle’ with my dudes before we go up. I don’t know another world for it right now, but it’s the same as in sports so I guess I could use it. It’s a moment of silence together as a group, after which we remind ourselves why we are there. Which is: having fun and sending a message. What’s that message? It’s ‘All hail rock’n’roll’. It isn’t something we’ve done from the beginning. It gradually felt more necessary. Maybe if I’d had that same sentiment in the beginning, things would have gone smoother, but you can’t live in the past and you learn every day.”
”We have grown and learned quite a lot though, also literally,” he goes on. ”Last time I met you, we were a three-piece, now we’re with five. There have been ,and still are, different things sprawling around with the band. With my music. Sprawling and growing. And that is more than ok. If anything, it’s been a better adaptation to my songs. We’ve come to learn that, and that is exactly what growth is. You don’t want to stay on the same chapter of the same page of the same book forever. You want to be able to turn the page and learn more, right? It can be really elevating and enlightening to learn what to do and not do next time, in both writing and playing music. But doing something with that knowledge, that is not just renewing or changing, it is actually growing. I choose to call my brainchild that is this band ‘Night Beats’, not the Danny Lee Blackwell show, because you can also learn from each other. It comes down to your environment and the people that inspire you too. People don’t always understand that even if the music is yours, others can inspire. With the five of us, where are growing again. It feels very natural and right at this point.” He looks proud, speaking about his new band members, explaining that it’s sometimes hard to find the good fit, but he has really found it in them.
”I prefer to learn and change constantly, but call it growth. Because I believe you can never completely change, you’ll always be you. My brain doesn’t really focusses on people’s expectations in how you need to change or not change. I got lucky in that. I have a real motivation to try new things and experiment but I’ll always be myself. I like the idea of adding by subtraction. A persons growth, It’s like a book. One book. And there’s different chapters and sentences in which the character grows and makes mistakes and learns again, but it stays one book. It’s one big story in the end. The interesting question isn’t that there is growth, that is inevitable, but more about what it is that drives you to want to progress. What is making you do it? I just write and use what is right up and close around me. So it was already there from the first record. With my new album it’s the same, I haven’t really changed but I do have more people elaborating on it and that does make it different, but not changed, explained differently.”
This must make your music very close to your heart, telling your own story like that.
”It is sort of, yes. I write all my music in my head before it ends up being a live performance, and it can be pretty cool to see it as a finished product after it started out as just a thought. There is definitely an element of satisfaction in it. I write a lot on the road but not everything. Inspiration comes from anywhere. It’s the shape of your shoes, having this conversation right now.”
He points out my square nosed, black leather boots. I pull my legs under me on the sofa, after glancing at them together for a few seconds. He’s silent for a bit. Offers me some green tea. Otherwise whiskey from the bottle that is standing on the table before us. He goes on.
”The way that the draft comes into this room can give me a whole new idea for a song. Different things inspire me. I hope that is how most people see and take creation. It’s everything from the way that this door creaks…” – he gestures at the shabby greenroom door – “…to the kitchen sounds from the restaurant downstairs. The nice thing about getting your inspiration from the little things, is that it is viewed so differently by every person. Real life is the most interesting thing, it’s not the same for anybody, but it is the most relatable at the same time. I wear my heart on my sleeve and it always comes from a place of love, so yes, that does make it pretty close to my heart.”