WYATT BLAIR: ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE
photography by ben rice
If you don’t know Lolipop Records’ Wyatt Blair, here’s a simple introduction: if you like things like rock, pop, fun, guitars or being alive, you already have (or you need!) a copy of Blair’s Banana Cream Dream, which finally came out on vinyl last year after original issue on (of course) cassette. And if you liked Banana Cream Dream, you better strap on your fingerless gloves and tighten up your headband because Blair’s coming album Point Of No Return is gonna take you somewhere you’ve never been before. In this interview, we call it ‘montage rock’ because that’s what it is: in every scene of dramatic character evolution in every VHS B-movie from the late 80s, there’s a song that plays that makes you think everything is possible, and that’s the sound and feel that Blair zeroed in on for this album. This isn’t yacht rock or even yacht punk—as he says, it’s not a joke, even if sounds funny. (Although from a production standpoint, it’s downright fascinating: jaguar growling sample? Absolutely. Cracking whip sample? Let’s use two! Bleaked-out Zevon style song about soul-sucking L.A. life? Yes, with steel drums!) Instead, it’s a pop album pushed to the limit: Thin Lizzy chasing the Top Gun soundtrack through high-G aerobatics, lightning-struck by hook after harmonic hook. Some albums seem like they should be movies; Point Of No Return will make your own actual life feel like a movie … if you’ve got the guts to let it. Point of No Return is out Friday on Burger and Lolipop, and Wyatt Blair performs all over Southern California this weekend. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Why does this record sound the way it does? Because this is not a style a lot of people are messing with right now.
Wyatt Blair: I didn’t have a real game plan. I really like pop music; I’ve always liked pop music. It’s almost like when I did Banana Cream Dream, my whole goal was like, ‘I’m not gonna use one effect. I’m not gonna use a fucking guitar pedal, I’m not gonna use shit. I’m just gonna plug my guitar into my tape machine.’ At the time, all these bands—there were just too many effects and pedals and like … trippiness. I want to make the most basic-sounding rock record—see if I can do it. It was more of a test to myself—how far in that direction I could go? And then for this, it was like … I don’t feel much heart in music anymore sometimes. I mean, there’s bands out there that have heart, obviously. But at the time I was writing these songs, I got really into anthem rock—like, arena rock. I just really like what it fucking embodies. It makes me wanna put a fist up in the air, like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Like I feel something. I was like, ‘Man, I want to make a real, honest record.’
That’s interesting because this sound is supposedly the opposite of honest—it’s so produced and over-the-top. I feel like when people think about music that sounds honest to them, they’ll think of like really spare folk or raw punk or something. Not this rocked-out phasered-out sound. What about this sound to you felt like it had heart?
Wyatt Blair: All of it starts with like … if something makes me smile or laugh, I’m attracted to that. I’ve always been attracted to funny things. I just like funny shit. I was listening to a lot of Kenny Loggins, and I was like, ‘This is fucking hilarious!’ Like, ‘This is fucking awesome.’ I couldn’t stop listening to it. The Top Gun soundtrack was a huge inspiration to me. That was the biggest inspiration to me for that record, really. My friend Louis [Filliger] actually showed me the ‘Playing With The Boys’ song years ago, and it put the biggest smile on my face. I was crying laughing: ‘This is the best song I’ve ever heard.’ And from there, I just started listening to so much of that—Kenny Loggins and like Whitesnake and all this shit. I was like … something about this music makes me wanna go fuckin’ do shit.
Like jump on your dirtbike and go rescue the Karate Kid just when he’s about to be defeated?
Wyatt Blair: Exactly. I wanna break some bricks and fucking run. I feel like the music runs through my body so quickly.
You know what this is? It’s montage rock. This whole album is designed to soundtrack a montage of you rapidly improving your life.
Wyatt Blair: [laughs] I guess, yeah. I really didn’t have any specific influence. Even at the time, I wasn’t listening to Thin Lizzy or any of that shit. It was just Kenny Loggins, Top Gun, Whitesnake … I bought a Metal Zone pedal kind of as a joke that I found for like twenty bucks. And this drum machine that I had, I was just using that and I made some demos, and I was just, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go out to Arizona for two weeks, and knock out as much as I can.’ I did some vocals here, and then I mixed at Lolipop. I had some friends play on it. It’s the only record I’ve ever written where I co-wrote a song [with Louis Filliger.] We randomly wrote that song together: ‘I’ll just throw it on the record. Why not?’ This record was very, very spur of the moment. When I write songs, I’ll try and write a verse and a chorus. And when I have a verse and a chorus, I’m like, ‘I have a song!’ But I don’t actually sit down and construct that song and add bridges … like this record, I tried my hardest to have the best pre-choruses I could. I want all the pre-choruses to be better than the choruses, you know? I’d never done that before, so it was like, ‘Alright, how am I going to do this?’ I sat down and figured it out, literally the moment that the song was being recorded—I just figured it out. ‘I have a verse and a chorus, and I’ll figure out how to smash ‘em together once the mic is in front of me.’ And I just do that. It was supposed to be done a long time ago. The only reason it took me so long is like, I got back to L.A. from recording in Arizona, and I just got so bogged down with, you know, work. I seriously didn’t touch it for a year. It was just sitting on my computer.
So Lolipop Records prevented this from coming out on Lolipop Records?
Wyatt Blair: Totally, man!
Did you found Lolipop? Or co-found it?
Wyatt Blair: I started it. I really wanted to put out comedy on cassette. I was getting really into stand-up comedy, and that’s why the misspelling is LOL—like ‘laugh out loud.’ No one got it.
What a revelation!
Wyatt Blair: But it was way harder for me to figure out how to put out comedy, so I ended up putting out my friends’ bands for fun. And then it just has been bands. But the intention was … it was really a joke. It wasn’t supposed to be a serious record label. I don’t know how to run a business, I don’t know how to use Photoshop—I still don’t use Photoshop, I use Pages. Every cassette we do I make on Pages.
When you were first doing Lolipop, how much were you personally doing?
Wyatt Blair: I was doing it all myself. It was so fucking spur of the moment. This all started in my parents’ garage when I was like, nineteen. I had a desk in there. My parents kind of let me have the garage—that was my spot, and I had all my posters everywhere and my drum set. It was like my man cave. I remember being so fucking bored. I didn’t go out, really. I just recorded all day and night, and my friends would come over and we’d record more shit, and I was like, ‘There needs to be an outlet for all of this.’ I just drew a lollipop on a piece of paper and I took a picture of it and I made a Facebook page. ‘Oh. Alright. It’s done.’ It’s always been an open door, and there’s been people that have come in and helped.
An open garage door.
Wyatt Blair: Exactly. I’ve always had a yes mentality.
Like in improv—‘Yes, and … ?’
Wyatt Blair: Honestly … I feel weird saying it, but it’s like a joke that hasn’t reached the punchline yet or something?
Better a joke that hasn’t reached the punchline than to be a joke that doesn’t have a punchline.
Wyatt Blair: I’m searching for that. I think the confusion is what makes it so real. We only care about the music. I don’t like anyone even knowing that I run it. I’ve booked Lolipop tours and did merch with bands and I played, and people were like, ‘Oh, you’re a Lolipop band!’ ‘Yeah. A Lolipop band.’ They had no idea, and I love it. I don’t tell them, and I don’t want to tell them. Who gives a shit? Like, the heart—the logo is who we are. I’m just helping do all the shit. [laughs]
So how do you deal with the split personality aspect of doing all the label things for all the other bands and sort of melting into the crowd, and then all of a sudden releasing a solo album that is very extremely ‘you.’ This isn’t like …. a shy record.
Wyatt Blair: That’s the hardest thing. It’s like business and pleasure, or business and creativity—I still haven’t found the right balance, you know? I’ll go months where it’s Lolipop all day and night, 24/7. I don’t even get to think about picking up a guitar. Then I’ll feel like, ‘Oh, what am I doing? I write songs, too! What the fuck! I need to get all these songs out of me.’ And then I’ll go a few weeks where I’m always on a guitar trying to record. I don’t have the mentality like ‘I’ll do a little bit of that and a little bit of this.’ It’s always been, ‘I’m gonna fucking put my whole fucking self into this, or I’m not going to do it at all.’ This record that I’m coming out with has taken me two years to make just for that reason. I recorded it in Arizona at my family’s house. My dad plays drums, so he has a drum room and he let me set up my shit in there. It was a process. I know that I’m done with the record when I already hate it, so … I’m done with it. I could rant on about bands that are all self-confident in their music. It’s like, you’re not doing something right, then—you need to hate your music. That’s how it works.
You say that when you first heard albums with this sound, you were laughing, and I can see that happening here, too: ‘Wyatt’s so funny! This is so 80s and stuff!’ But listening to the actual songs, this seems like a pretty serious record. Maybe your most serious?
Wyatt Blair: That’s the problem. That’s my biggest fear. I’m really self-conscious about this record, to be honest, but I felt the same way when I put out Banana Cream Dream—but less because I didn’t care as much about shit back then. Banana Cream Dream was supposed to be a joke—really purposefully a joke, so I didn’t feel weird putting it out because I thought it would just be pretty obvious. But obviously, songwriting is a really big passion of mine. I’m really serious about songwriting. To me, those songs were the first songs I ever wrote, and I’m serious about them, but the concept was supposed to be comedy. This record was a similar deal, but the songs are serious to me. They’re not funny songs. The sound is funny, and I kind of wanted to do this as kind of a giant ‘fuck you’ to everyone—not outwardly, but you know … I’m trying to write songs here, and if you can’t see that because it sounds funny to you, then it won’t make sense. I’m not a super crazy meticulous musician. I’m not some crazy-talented guy. I just really like writing songs, and I really tried to push myself with this record. Musically and writing-wise. I’m scared people aren’t going to go that deep because they’re just going to be like, ‘That sounds funny!’ And they’re going to move on: ‘Oh, it’s a joke.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is a joke, but…’
This record has heart, like you said. You can tell you’re singing about things you care about.
Wyatt Blair: That was the whole goal. I don’t like super ethereal lyrics. I’ve never been into that. I’m not gonna fucking fly in the clouds and pick pearls in fucking trees and shit. I just wanna talk.
No hobbit rock?
Wyatt Blair: I wanna hear about a song where someone got their heart broken, or like, shit’s going on and they’re really upset about something. That’s where I’m like, ‘Yeah! Fuck yeah! Yes, you get it, we get it … this record makes sense to me, it speaks to me.’ I’ve always been more attracted to that kind of shit. I wanted to harp on that big time on this one. I don’t think it came across as much with Banana Cream Dream because it was songs about girls and hanging out and shit. But this, I was like, ‘I’m gonna dig a little deeper.’
I mean, just the way it starts: ‘In this world, win or lose, day or night, only the strong survive.’ It’s definitely montage rock. I can see Wyatt tightening his headband and cracking his knuckles in his fingerless gloves. But it’s also kind of what you want from a pop song—it’s the underdog becoming strong and going out to overcome.
Wyatt Blair: Exactly. That’s the whole point.
People want a little heroism in their songs, because they want to feel that heroic things can happen, you know? Or that they can be heroic too?
Wyatt Blair: Yeah—I just want to make people smile, you know? I’m not trying to sell out shows and do all this crazy shit. If someone just fucking smiles and they sing back those lyrics and they feel something: ‘Yeah, fucking only the strong survive!’ I’ve been struggling a lot on a personal level with depression and anxiety and all this shit, and this was my way get past that. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m shitty at articulating myself.
Do you wanna put on a guitar and sing it to me?
Wyatt Blair: [laughs] It’s supposed to be a pick-me-up. Honestly, it’s totally a self-indulgent record. All my records are self-indulgent, and I’m totally just like, ‘Yo, I’m fucking depressed, this shit makes me laugh—I hope it makes you laugh, too.’ Hopefully I can help other people out.
Is there a difference between the Wyatt Blair on this record and the Wyatt Blair who’s walking around Echo Park every day?
Wyatt Blair: Absolutely. On the record, I try to embody this person that speaks for the people.
The pop hero.
Wyatt Blair: I kind of want people to not like the record when it comes out because it doesn’t sound relevant—it doesn’t sound cool to what’s going on right now. That’s always been my goal.
To make records people don’t like?