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Jamie Blacker / ESA - 2009-09-01 [return to interviews]
Interview by Christopher Roddy
Jamie Blacker. The name strikes fear into the hearts of mortal men. A curse infects the lips of those who dare speak his name. Terrible things will befall any unlucky souls who encounter the sight of his visage. Okay, not really. Blacker is actually one of the nicest, most affable guys you could meet. He's a music fan's musician; as much a fan in his own right and an admirer of powerful music as he is a creative powerhouse on his own. While he cut his teeth with Metal guitar he has quickly managed to become one of the most astounding purveyors of rhythmic Industrial in the global scene with a handful of solid releases that have impressed pretty much anyone who has heard them. The reason? Blacker has an astute sense of what is most compelling in a musical composition as evidenced by his most recent release on Tympanik Audio, The Sea & The Silence. He graciously lended a great deal of his time to me to discuss a broad range of topics, not the least of which included the finite life cycle of the project that has granted him so many accolades, ESA (Electronic Substance Abuse).

DTC: Having started out in the Metal scene how were you introduced to acts like Winterkälte and Converter? Were there specific individuals that brought Industrial to your attention? What was the impetus that made you decide to take the electronic route?

Jamie Blacker: It was quite a staggered introduction if I’m honest; I got into Industrial music without really being aware of it. When I was very young I saw a Front Line Assembly video on MTV and proceeded to get extremely excited and described it with pinpoint accuracy to a predictably bored pair of parents. So the weekend after I purchased (with a sizable pocket money advance) Millennium and Caustic Grip along with Skinny Puppy’s seminal release, Too Dark Park, as the very knowledgeable and extremely helpful shop owner told me I would dig (no pun intended)...and I did! I think my parents must have become quite worried at their 13-year-old son listening to a band called "Skinny Puppy" at full blast whilst playing Streetfighter 2 in half-day shifts.

I then got in to Heavy Metal and met people as you do in the scene that recommended other subgenres and found myself full circle, back with FLA and Skinny Puppy...along with some of the more noisy and ambient projects. From there it’s a very predictable sequence of events. Situations occurred and friendships developed which swayed me toward the kind of audio dirges that I produce today. The funny thing is I found a selection of Black Metal songs on tape that I recorded when I was around 15 under the guise Black Millennium and there are tracks on these tapes that I made by sticking a low budget microphone in front of a pair of dumbbells and rattling them around! I think Industrial is possibly the wrong term but it seems I always harbored a hankering towards the electronic/experimental side of music.

DTC: Many Rock-oriented minds originally balk at the idea of using the tools of electronic music, deeming them as "fake" and judging the styles as being "not real music." Did you originally come from this sort of "purist" standpoint or were you easily swayed by the power of what you heard?

Jamie Blacker: I will admit I think it’s a more satisfying and probably ultimately respected talent to create music with live instruments. This is why I attempt to incorporate them into the creation of ESA as much as I can. I also think that a lot of EBM and so called "Industrial" artists are really just game players! There’s not much difference in a lot of respects to playing Tetris and building a track; not really musicianship but I certainly don’t feel any bitterness toward it. It is what it is!

DTC: So then do you feel your background (musical and otherwise) gives you any sort of advantage when composing your music? Do you hear other electronic acts and wonder if they might benefit from the things you learned in the Metal scene? I'm not necessarily asking you to call out what you feel are "inferior acts" specifically, I'm just curious as to your mindset on electronic composers in general and if there are any acts out there whose songwriting seems deficient due to a lack of understanding where organic composition is concerned.

Jamie Blacker: Nice lead on! I think that speaking specifically from my experience...I have in the bank the knowledge of how to write a "song." I am not too proud to admit that I think I personally suffer in production and all that frequency faff...and in all honesty I am quite jealous of how unnameable others can use mathematics (for lack of a better word) to obtain the perfect kick or bass line. However, I think I am un-comparatively strong when it comes to structure. I know how to lift a track and build a pattern that just works. I think that this stems from writing songs with a full band and I am glad that I had gained this experience earlier on. I have heard a lot of Industrial and noise which in my opinion is totally pointless and without focus. Should you happily have just put away 2g of Ketamin then this is likely what will your rock your world but I would hope that ESA means just as much on the headphones in your living room as it does on the dancefloor...where a straight kick and snare will have musically illiterate morons flap over the "genius" of that great big krsch sound.

DTC: Heh. So how did you decide upon Electronic Substance Abuse as the name for this incarnation? When I originally heard "ESA" I thought of Electric Sonic Amplitude.

Jamie Blacker: Honestly? I have my good friend Luke from Sermon Of Hypocrisy to thank for that particular diamond. He wrote lyrics to a Black Metal song some time ago and named it "Black Substance Abuse." I felt as I had guided him through so many drunken and potentially dangerous situations over the years that I was justified in borrowing, indefinitely, his magic and just alter his title slightly. I think the words work together and I think it is a perfect description of the kind of sound I make.

DTC: What is your approach to songwriting? Can you cite specific tracks (particularly on your latest release) and take us through how you constructed them? Furthermore, are songs born of random experimentation or do you have specific sounds and rhythms in mind that you attempt to replicate?

Jamie Blacker: Good question! The first couple of ESA demos and the first album proper, Devotion, Discipline & Denial were predominantly comprised of tracks which were created in their majority through experimentation. In simpler terms: turning on my Roland sequencer and seeing what happens. Whatever vibes that leaked through are there purely on a sub conscious level. This approach altered significantly on the second release, How Pure Would Your Utopia Be?, and even more so on The Sea & the Silence. I am gracious to now have sounds, structures and ideas almost constantly swimming around my head and every thing I have started to write has always been sparked by some initial inspiration.

If you would like me to use examples then it is this simple (and probably much less exciting than you imagine); On "The Devil Worships Me" I wanted to create a very long dark ambient tune with the most demonic and oppressive sounding pad I could imagine, coupled with tribal leanings. I did so. I’m a genuine believer in if you want something...and imagine will be yours and on this small level I think you can draw a comparison. I take a lot of inspiration from films and soundtracks and obviously other bands. If something makes me sit up and listen then I know I’m onto something and I will always proceed to incorporate those ideas into my own style. I am a big fan of an experimental Norwegian band called Ulver who without fail inspire me consistently so I owe a lot of thanks to them but there is always such a wide pool of ideas out there to draw from.

DTC: Cool! I really dig Ulver.

Jamie Blacker: I'm going to see them live in about 6 weeks. They are playing a few dates around Europe after the reception of their one-off gig at the Norwegian festival of Literature so that will be brilliant. I certainly never thought I would ever get to see them play live!!

DTC: I'm truly envious. Anyway, how do you ascertain when a track should end given the length of a number of your songs?

Jamie Blacker: I think a song lasts as long as it needs to in order for the point to be made. Some don’t require much procrastination at all whereas as others, out of respect, demand it. Such as "Randomly Selected, Part 2." This was such a bold track for me to write and I am so happy with it. I think it required its pace in order to make it as anthemic as I could and I have no reservations in going over the 7 minute mark as long as there is no cycle of repetition and the listener is always kept intrigued and satisfied. This is always paramount in the writing process to me.

DTC: In spite of the harsh nature of much of the darker subgenres of Metal there are a number of bands who can actually chart these days, due in large part to the internet communities revolving around these styles. Why has the same level of popularity/acceptance eluded dark electronic acts in your opinion?

Jamie Blacker: I just don’t think it is as inviting on an aesthetic and marketable level to the younger fan base. I think that the insurgence in the Metal scene over the last 10 years is without doubt a brilliant thing. There are so many forward thinking bands out there, some comprised of members too young to drink! I think it’s great but I think a lot of it is to do with the well structured marketing ploys of the larger music companies out there and the guys with the real money. Industrial/dark electronic music as a genre has never and will never have much money. So in practical terms, there is never a springboard to jump from.

I also think that Rock/Metal is so very much more accessible by its very nature. Dark electronic music will never be all that doesn’t matter how many Combichrists are out there. The Guitar is mightier than the Synth..and we all know it 

DTC: But do you have any ideas at all on how to increase the fan base for this type of music? Mainstream success doesn't necessarily have to be a goal but reaching a point where a number of artists can sell more than a couple hundred CDs shouldn't seem out of reach.

Jamie Blacker: Promotion is certainly not a strength of mine so I would feel a fraud in attempting pearls of wisdom in this area. However, there is a fine line between a lot of harsh mainstream techno and’s just there’s a wall of ignorance separating the two and should that wall be pulled down there’s potential for maybe a slightly bigger slice of the cake. The question we really want it!? I think the majority of us are very territorial of the Industrial genre and wouldn’t wish it any more mainstream in the slightest. Personally, it makes no difference to me and I certainly wouldn’t feel like a sell out.

DTC: How are harsh electronic and ambient similar in your estimation? And how is it that they go so well together? Even beyond electronic music, acts like Sunn O))) and the various projects of Mark Spybey utilize roaring sounds in a more ambient sense. And your last album in particular features some brilliant ambient moments. Why do these seemingly disparate avenues intersect so well?

Jamie Blacker: I guess it’s all down to Dynamics. If you lay down 40 minutes of non-stop violent beats then where’s the contrast? Where is the breakdown and build up which causes the pulse to quicken? Ambient works as it is easy to make it dark ("The longer the note...the more dread," and all that) so follow that with a chunky venomous rhythm and you’ve got a template that

DTC: Switching gears a little, how do you take criticism? Do you read what other people write about your work? Do you get defensive or can you take the opinions of others to heart?

Jamie Blacker: So far, I have been very fortunate in any media attention regarding ESA live and ESA recordings. This has come as quite a shock that I have not yet managed to uncover anything particularly negative toward any aspect of ESA. Now I’m sure this luck will not last and when that happens I will have to gauge my reaction then. I think it’s a double-edged sword really as I make what I make...for me! I don’t start writing with any real goals or regard to target audiences or keeping people happy. I create with my own satisfaction in mind so if I should hear a negative view on my material I still know that I did what I did to please myself. However, taking this into account I am probably opening myself up a little too much and as what I make is so personal any criticism could be taken a lot more to heart than it should. I guess we will have to wait and see.

DTC: Are critics at all important, particularly in an age when anyone can pretty much hear anything they want and decide for themselves without outside influence?

Jamie Blacker: I do believe that reviews are very important. I actually find it quite interesting reading someone else’s point of view on albums and live performances that I feel strongly about (should that be positive or negative). Everyone has something slightly different that they are looking for though and I think that it is important to make ones own mind up.

DTC: Okay then, since critics get a pass from you do you view file sharing as an enormous threat to music or do you come at it from a more accepting standpoint?

Jamie Blacker: I think that there are enough sites out there which make available a platform to sample what a band or artist has to offer. With this in mind, there is no excuse for illegal downloading and file sharing. Small time artists such as myself spend ridiculous amounts of money creating the music; the label then proceeds to spend ridiculous amounts of money manufacturing a product. Then the average file junkie puts it all on his IPOD for free...fuck off! Save it for Metallica and Oasis, who make more money on merchandise in 4 seconds than I could make in full time employment over a lifetime.

There is an argument that a band just starting up should only really expect to release music digitally for free to get known and gain listeners. However, when that hard work is done do you not think it would be more appropriate to treat that band with a little respect and help them along to make the music you become a fan of?

DTC: Does the term "Industrial" have any relevance any more? As much as it's still widely applied there are many people who feel true "Industrial" died over a decade and a half ago and the music carrying that flag these days is nothing of the sort. Are labels such as this even relevant anymore?

Jamie Blacker: You know what? I don’t know what Industial is. Who does? Who feels that they are the high lords of the table who decide who is Industrial and who is not? I think there are a lot of bands and artists out there labeling themselves quite proudly as Industrial which sound nothing like what I think Industrial should sound like but I would never be as arrogant as to suggest if that scene is dead or if it was ever indeed a scene. I have always classified ESA (when asked to) as dark, rhythmical electronic music, which I think is a pretty fair description and prevents any ego trips as to what genre I belong to. Genre classification is for nerds, probably the same highly intelligent people who jump on the next ridiculous tag or like to sit in their bedrooms thinking up new mega cool marketing slogans for bands...such as Manga Drillcore or maybe Terrornoise!?

I think I have been classified as Power Noise pretty sparingly over the past four years. I do not feel that this is very accurate...but you know what? If it sounds like how Power Noise "should" sound to somebody then that is his or her preference and who am I to argue?

DTC: Having dealt with a few record labels how do you feel about them? Would you much rather be able to do everything on your own or do you see labels as a necessary component of your craft? Have your experiences been vastly different between them or have they all performed exactly as you would have liked/expected? What positive guidance, if any, have they offered that has helped you along your way?

Jamie Blacker: I am happy to say I am on a very professional and highly respectful/respected label. I have absolute confidence in them and we work very well together.

I do personally feel that labels are very important as my promotional skills and marketing talents are very humble and it is something I not only avoid but also very much dislike. So on that basis...having someone else say the right words is a massive bonus!

DTC: From where does your fascination with good/evil;light/dark;god/satan stem? It seems to be a recurring theme in your music and I'm curious as to whether this comes from a spiritual or religious background or just random observations as you've traveled through life.

Jamie Blacker: Yeah, this will probably be yet another very disappointing answer to be honest. I am not a Satanist nor do I own a hundred dusty books about majic. I am an atheist through and through; I have absolutely no belief in any kind of religious reprisal or supernatural battles. I do however find the notion of religion extremely interesting. I hate everything it stands for in today’s world (i.e., war, murder and power abuse) but the background and myths behind any religion I find very stimulating. I seem to always subconsciously turn to the notion of Satan and God as I find it such an incredibly dark subject. I believe that we are all excusably desensitized to what "Satan" is or rather was believed to be. The old pictures and scriptures about what the Devil did to man and what man did to their neighbor and what man did to the woman in defense of the Devil is still blood curdling and jaw me anyway.

I write very dark music and I feel that this subject keeps occurring as I find it inspirational and interesting. I have absolutely no desire to sing about politics and all the "real" crap that surrounds us on a day to day basis. Music is about why not escape.

DTC: What is the significance of the Sea/water and why did it play such a huge role on your last release?

Jamie Blacker: It’s kind of a long story really. I went through a pretty torrid year during the writing of The Sea. It was comprised of a few personal problems and also health issues. I found myself pretty dislocated from normality and ended up spending some time on my favorite part of the coast as a means to escape a little. I found myself sitting and watching the Sea and the way it moves - its beauty and its power - for long periods of time and this is essentially the catalyst for the concept of the album. I find the power of the sea intriguing. I both respect its absolute energy and also its almost sensual movement. The ironic thing is that I cannot swim and have almost drowned twice so I fully appreciate the danger and unforgiving element of water.

From here, all I had to do was put together a rough concept which I could use as a platform for including the sea as a subject for the main part of album. I hope that I have delivered that.

DTC: Given your Metal past how do you approach your music from a performance standpoint? There's been a lot of criticism regarding live electronic music and the questionable decision to merely present oneself on stage as a lone musician and a laptop. Some regard that as inferior to the "band" approach of having various players creating "organic" music that is "truly live." In the past you've utilized projected images and even had a hand in creating short films to accompany the music. How has your live performance evolved over the years?

Jamie Blacker: This has been something that has become almost an obsession with me over the past four years. I understand totally how the "one man and his laptop" thing has become such a bane for audiences and I have felt it myself. I think there are a very select few that can pull it off but it’s very rare. I think just the fact that there is only one focal point on stage is half the problem. Combine that with the focal point in question desperately concentrating on playing a flawless impro set and it’s gonna get pretty jaded from an aesthetic point of view.

What do I do? Well I incorporate a number of things. Firstly, I play as much of the actual beats as I can live. I have drum pads which allows me to do this. It feels a lot more live when you only get to hear a sound as you hit something. I also try to restrict laptop use and have most of my patterns on a Roland sequencer which also allows for some nice effects controlling, etc. so there is always something different to how it is on CD. I also perform live vocals which I feel creates a more live connection with the crowd and I also do my best to provide appropriate original projections to accompany the set. Oh and I try to incorporate live guitars whenever the situation allows. However, as most shows tend to be overseas...this is nearly always ruled out.

I like to get carried away on stage and as such I always hope that I am providing a decent show. It would be a lot easier and much less stressful if I was accompanied by another member or a full band, however I have such a personal connection with the songs and am such a self-declared control freak that I would find this extremely hard to come to terms with. I find it hard to trust others' capability and would have to have it proved that what I required would be delivered.

DTC: Have there been any bizarre encounters at a show, either with a member of the audience or someone involved with the venue? What have your experiences with booking shows been like and have there been instances which have provided some unexpected learning experiences that still cause you to shudder at the thought?

Jamie Blacker: You learn all the time. When you first start to perform it’s easy to allow yourself to get walked all over by organizers. They have many tricks up their sleeves, ranging from massive guilt trips to actually running out of the club when it comes to pay-up time. I would say, therefore, that I now know not to allow such a situation to happen. It takes a while but as your confidence does your skepticism.

The weirdest thing that happened to me was when a guy got up on stage halfway through the set and sniffed my neck...that was nice. I’ve also had dancers join me in the early days, two of which took far too many pills washed down with vodka and proceeded to knock my equipment over. Good professional times.

DTC: How do you view each of your releases? Are you able to look back at each one and point to specific things that really advanced your ability? Can you listen to your own music once the recordings are behind you? Is there anything you've done in the past that you wish you could take back or, at the very least, you hope no one ever hears?

Jamie Blacker: I am reasonably proud of each album and some of the demos too but of course it’s very easy to wince at certain elements of a less mature recording. There are certain things that I literally cannot sit through (I will not indulge) and that’s when the ability to walk away or press stop is called into action. Before I had a real theme for ESA I used some pretty uninspiring samples which I never wish to hear again. Hopefully I won’t have to.

DTC: You're not averse to collaborations having recently teamed up with Tony Young of Autoclav1.1. What sort of collaborations do you have lined up for the future?

Jamie Blacker: I have roughly 5 or 6 collabs in the pipeline. It’s just a matter of finding a point in time in which both parties have a reasonable window to work. I like collaborating very much, it has so many positive aspects, e.g.: the ability to work in a way that wouldn’t ordinarily work with ESA, the opportunity to work with someone you have respect for and also collaborating always without fail provides some kind or a learning experience. I have future collabs with Lucidstatic, Ad·ver·sary, Flint Glass, PCP Principle and others at some points in the future.

DTC: You did an interview where you stated that you would spend the next year or so working on a new album and that it would be "the last" ESA record. Say it ain't so! You're not going to walk away from this project so soon are you? What do you have planned?

Jamie Blacker: The next album will be a double album which I hope to use as a platform to exorcise everything I could want or hope to achieve with ESA. I feel that I would like to indulge in other genres and art forms after this. I do not want to carry on if I do not have fresh ideas and concepts and I feel that this may prove fraudulent if I keep it going. I have no desire to be 47 yrs old and still banging out dark electronic music.

DTC: Having already stated who influenced you and the older acts that you appreciate what newer artists have blown you away, be they electronic musicians or otherwise?

Jamie Blacker: I listen to a lot of Metal to be honest. I don’t tend to really contribute to the Industrial scene much by buying albums. I feel pretty guilty about it but aggressive guitar driven music is where my heart lies.

DTC: Are there albums in your collection that people might be surprised to learn are personal favorites? Any outright guilty pleasures?

Jamie Blacker: Guilty pleasures? Well I went to see Anthrax live last month if that registers?

DTC: Anthrax are a classic act. No need to feel any guilt over that. Was that Dan Nelson guy they shitcanned still fronting the band or was John Bush back with them?

Jamie Blacker: Actually the Anthrax show was at Sonisphere festival over in Knebworth. Metallica, NIN, Lamb of God, Machine Head, Killing Joke, Mastodon and Black Sabbath (minus Ozzy) played so it was a really fun festival! John Bush sang with Anthrax (for one last show it seems) and it was great. Sound Of White Noise is genuinely my favorite metal albums of all time. It has such a feel good Rock thing going on. I like their older stuff too but that was the pinnacle for me.

DTC: Ideally, where would you like to be five years from now, personally and professionally? What goals have you set for yourself and, beyond those, where do your wildest dreams place you?

Jamie Blacker: I want to have released the fourth ESA album and the remix album we spoke about earlier in this interview. I would like to play a few more shows and that’s it really. I no longer have any goals related to ESA which aren’t already within grasp. This is probably the true reason why I do not intend to carry it on into the next decade but we will see. Wildest dreams? A log cabin in a large expanse of forest, enough money to live on comfortably, a dog and a beautiful woman. I’m pretty boring really.

DTC: It's been such a treat to chat so extensively with you Jamie. Thanks a lot for all the time and consideration and good luck to you!

Jamie Blacker: Thank you so much for the questions and I hope we speak again soon. Thanks to all those that sat and read through my drivel.

See also: Review: The Sea & The Silence

See also: Review: The Immaculate Manipulation