NIGHT BEATS: WHY NOT TAKE DESSERT WITH DINNER?
illustration by felipe flores
Night Beats first exploded into the wider world with a 2010 song called “H-Bomb,” so it makes sense that their newest album Who Sold My Generation (Heavenly) feels more than a little post-apocalyptic. Like the title—which is not a question, you’ll note—indicates, whatever happened has already happened, and now we’re all dealing with the aftermath. Night Beats had a private catastrophe of their own just as they began making this album—they lost their bass player, which is especially bad news for a three-piece—but luck and friendship combined to recruit Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been, who stepped into play bass, keep spirits up and make sure Who Sold got finished. (Chris Ziegler interviews him about his work in the new L.A. RECORD.) The result is an record that sounds more together and focused than ever, even if it’s a last-stand kind of together—the same us-against-the-world feel that haunted the 13th Floor Elevators’ last ghostly full-length. Desperate times call for desperate rock ‘n’ roll—and analog recordings—same as it always has been. Band founder Danny Lee Blackwell speaks now about the soul, the sold and what happens if you miss the last train to Jordan. They perform tonight at the Echo. This interview by Kristina Benson and Chris Ziegler.
The album is Who Sold My Generation—why do you feel like you were sold?
Danny Lee Blackwell (vocals/guitar): It’s a conscious decision to not put a question mark. It’s a question and a statement, and if you listen to the record, I feel it speaks for itself. Listeners can create their own version of what that means. That’s partly why I don’t add a question mark. Who Sold Our Generation, I feel like … it’s as common as turning on the news or the radio. Is this really the best we can do? Is this how we’re treating our lives and the people around us? Not to be a curmudgeon like ‘back in the day, we had good ol’ boys singing …’ It’s not like that—it’s selling a culture. There’s so much more to our experience as a group of human beings.
‘Celebration No. 1’ is like a talking blues that starts the album, and you’re immediately talking about the ‘sons of the sold generation’—how they’ll come to your town and plunder everything, like a Viking thing. So besides the sold generation—who are the sons of the sold generation?
Danny Lee Blackwell: The sons of the sold generation, that’s like kind of the Cronos in mythology—you know, the father of Zeus. He eats his children, and Zeus escapes from his belly. I’m a big classics fan—The Odyssey and Homer and Apollo … the Golden Fleece. You know those old sixties claymation movies?
Ray Harryhausen—he rules.
Danny Lee Blackwell: Clash of the Titans. Those are my jams. The sons of the sold generation comes from, like … the bearer of bad news. The bad figure that leads to a dirty path, you know?
This album does feel like a narrator observing a tragedy unfold. And you know, Homer was a poet. If they’d have had records then, he could’ve done a triple-LP.
Danny Lee Blackwell: The blind bard, yeah. That would be so fucking cool.
What about the single ‘No Cops’? That could be about any number of tragedies.
Danny Lee Blackwell: Ferguson shooting, Trayvon Martin … the abuse of power, the police state this country’s become is alarming and scary and I don’t feel enough people are willing to talk about it and bring it to light and actually do something. You can make the same argument to me, like I’m just playing a rock ‘n’ roll show, but no—that’s how a lot of shit gets changed. I know I started really caring about stuff when I heard ‘Masters of War,’ the Bob Dylan song. When I started to read certain things or listen to certain things, that had a huge impact on me. Be aware that you can sell yourself so easily and uncautiously. You can sell yourself by laughing at a bad joke or trying to fit in with the cool kids or something. It’s not just my generation. It’s a lot of generations. But I can only speak for my generation cuz it’s my people.
And the song ‘Last Train to Jordan’—that means the last chance to get out and get to the truth or the promised land, right? The last chance to escape to something better. What is this the last chance for? And did you catch that train? Or are you watching those lights go over the horizon?
Danny Lee Blackwell: Jordan is referenced a lot in gospel music. It’s seen as the promised land, as you said. The song never answers the question. ‘I’ll take the last train to Jordan,’ but it doesn’t say I got on the train—doesn’t say I got my ticket stamped. Overarchingly, it’s about … who sold my generation? Is this the last time to make a change? The last time to say something or stand up or do something? The whole kind of overarching question-slash-statement is that it is not a question; it’s not a statement. It’s in-between, and it gives the opportunity to do something about it. When I’m talking about going to Jordan and finding the answer, that’s always up in the air, so to speak.
Why do you feel that this is some kind of crucial moment for choice? People say every generation thinks it’s the one that will see the apocalypse, and I’m a child of the Cold War, anyway. But sometimes I feel like people use that saying to dismiss the idea that there are important things happening now that need to be addressed while they still can be addressed.
Danny Lee Blackwell: I’m not a child of the Cold War but I’m a child of 9/11, you know? I’m a child of this weird pseudoapocalyptic kind of vibe that is just shoved down everyone’s throats, young and old.
The dream-state police state?
Danny Lee Blackwell: Exactly. No joke there—it’s real. When it comes down to chances and, like, ultimate times—ultimatum moments—there’s a lot to be said about the time that we live in. We’re one of the first generations—not the—one of the first generations to live in a world where there’s a kill-all switch. Literally a button that someone can push somewhere that ends human civilization. That’s a larger theme that’s not super relevant to what I’m talking about—
—but it’s a nice device.
Danny Lee Blackwell: There’s also the corroding of society within popular culture. There’s some sort of weird complacency that people developed to where they’re OK with the shit that’s on the radio. They’re OK with people saying the most horrendous … even like a decent candidate as Hillary Clinton, she’ll get away with saying some fucked-up stuff. I think it was the last Democratic debate when she was asked the question like, ‘Who are your biggest enemies?’ Which, to start off, is like kind of a fucked-up question. Her answer, though, was like, ‘Blah-blah-blah Iran.’ You’re talking about a whole country. You’re not saying the regime. You’re not talking about the politics of maybe Ahmadinejad. You’re talking about a country that’s full of people. That’s the same rhetoric that, you know—extremist views on America, they’re like, ‘Fuck America.’ Does that mean fuck me? I guess so. All I’m saying is there’s a rhetoric that happens within popular culture, within politics, within every single thing that’s just not conducive to love and peace. Not to be a hippie or anything, but let’s be real here, you know. Nothing gets done if you’re trying to blow up the world or destroy the radio. We live in an age of a dead radio. It’s really a weird time to try to make sense of it all.
That’s interesting you link those two. I know people sometimes dismiss music that tries to be political—like Billy Bragg, ‘mixing pop and politics / they ask me what the use is.’ But at the same time, I learned about a lot of ideas I never would’ve know existed because music—like you said when you talk about hearing ‘Masters of War.’ So how much of what you believe is morally right do you think you got from music?
Danny Lee Blackwell: Another good question. I would say probably ninety percent. I was raised by my brother, so my brother taught me a lot. But all those like really pivotal real messages that came from through came from … the voices of someone I wanted to talk to, you know? Wanted to listen to. So if I hear a song by Marvin Gaye, or if I hear Bob Dylan or somebody tell me that, ‘Hey, make sure to look over your shoulder sometimes, you know? Make sure that you treat people with love.’ That I learned from music. I’d say a whole large portion, man. Like honestly. Maybe definitely the majority. That’s like the guiding voice to anybody, you know? You know, if you believe in God or religion or anything—all that stuff is rooted in the foundations of a good song, whether it be a pop song or folk song or soul or R&B, whatever. Those things are thankfully there within good music. And it’s cool to, like, lay it down to a twelve-bar blues. That’s a big plus.
What is your favorite era of American psychedelia? Not just the 60s but like—the 50s bohemian CIA experiment era, or the 70s trash-acid era, or like weird fringe 80s psych … when do you find the most inspiration?