Bradley Skaught photo: Patric Carver)
The Bye Bye Blackbirds are one of the tightest bands in the Bay Area.
Around for more than a decade, the Blackbirds play each set with the enthusiasm of teenagers but the musical acumen of a veteran band. Only two members of the band, Bradley Skaught and Lenny Gill, have been consistent throughout the years, but the Blackbirds sound has been solid since the beginning – power-pop with sophisticated but accessible arrangements cloaked in honey-sweet melodies. I’ve seen the Blackbirds live several times, and they never disappoint.
Take Out the Poison is set to be released soon. I sat down with frontman Skaught for iced tea and cappuccinos at Timeless Coffee for a chat.
The Bay Bridged: Can you give me a little history of the band?
Bradley Skaught: Yeah, we started about 12 years ago. Lenny was playing drums then, now he’s on guitar. We’ve had a series of drummers since then (laughs). I mean, we’ve had really good drummers. It’s actually been sort of impressive…I mean, there’s three on our latest record, the new album.
TBB: Is Jozef (Jozef Becker, formerly of Thin White Rope) now a permanent part of the Blackbirds?
BS: Uh, well, yeah.
TBB: Well, as permanent as a drummer can be.
BS: (laughs) Yeah, I just don’t use that word anymore, but, yes, he’s an actual band member. By his own invitation, too; he actually asked to keep playing with us. That’s a rarity. It’s great.
TBB: With so many changes to your lineup, would you say that the sound has been consistent? That’s a lot of change to still be able to maintain the same sound.
BS: Yeah, to a certain extent. The original guitar player and I had actually been playing music even longer than that. He and I had been involved in different projects for many, many, many years. So, we had our own distinctive guitar personalities, and we’d built them up for over a decade or more. So, when he left, that changed the sound, for sure. There was some debate, at least in my mind, about whether we should scrap it altogether. New band name, start over…I think it was one of Lenny’s friends who said, ‘As long as you’re writing the songs and singing, it’s going to be consistent.’ So, I trusted that. Every version of the band has had a different harmony blend, but I feel like it’s kind of consistent. Lenny’s a very different guitar player. I think you’ll hear that on this new album; he’s lead guitar for the first time. I think it’s like the arch of any band that’s been around this long. Very few bands that have been around for so long sound exactly the same. They still sound like an aspect of themselves. I feel like that’s true for us.
TBB: Yeah, I’ve seen you guys play a few times and the lineup has always been slightly different, but the sound is that same. KC (KC Bowman) seems to be an undulating member of the band.
BS: To be fair, he’s been to every show since he became an unofficial member. He’s on the current record and the previous record. We don’t tie him down to anything, though. That’s just now how he’s comfortable. I just extend him an invitation to everything, and he shows up to every show so far, and the occasional recording session. Whenever he does, he does great things. Yeah, but, KC does whatever he wants.
TBB: I feel like someone with a rock and roll name like KC Bowman just can’t be tied down. They’re going to do whatever they want, regardless.
BS: (laughs) Well, yeah, and, to be fair, he’s just so good. I don’t ever have to worry about him. If he shows up, he’s going to do something cool. He’s going to sing well, he’s going to perform, he’s going to help in the studio. Whatever he does, he’s so naturally talented, he’s always going to bring something valuable. When you go through that many lineup changes and that many traumatic band changes, it’s nice to have someone you just don’t need to worry about.
TBB: You do seem to have a lot of talent in your outfit right now.
BS: Yeah, Aaron’s (Aaron Rubin, formerly of the Mr. T. Experience) like that, too. He’s not going to make many mistakes; he’s going to put a lot into it. He’s going to play creatively and imaginatively. Everyone that plays with us is a solid performer. I think part of it is just being older and being in a band, too, you just don’t want to babysit or try to motivate people. You just want people to show up and do what they’re going to do, and do it well. We’ve had a lot of what I think of as deputy band members. Our friend Bill Swan will show up and play trumpet. He doesn’t practice with us; he knows three songs. He’ll show up, though, and he’s great. We can depend on him.
TBB: It sounds like you have managed to really create a cohesive unit even though there’s been so many changes. One thing that I’ve notice remains consistent is that you do the bulk of the songwriting. Can you tell me about how you developed as a songwriter?
BS: Well, first of all, in the original lineup of the band, we had two songwriters. The original bass player was a songwriter, and a good one, too. So, for the first EP we kind of split the songwriting. Then, we parted with him and I took over as the main songwriter. I’d been writing songs, though, since I was a kid, a teenager…when I started the Blackbirds, one of the goals was a real emphasis on songwriting. Melody, structure, lyrics – we really wanted it to be very realized, structured, mature. Everything was going to be built around strong songwriting. I had made a record with a previous band and worked with other projects, kind of learning how to write. This band, though, it was going to be like a focusing process for me, a time to get serious. I kept asking myself what I wanted to accomplish, what I was good at, and what I needed to get better at as a songwriter. It was sort of the mission statement of the band that it was going to be a song-based band, and those of us writing the songs were going to write really good songs. I think I got a lot better once the decision was made that this was going to be about songwriting. I’ve always been song-oriented. I’ve never been in a band where I just wrote riffs. I always wrote songs that could be played on an acoustic guitar, that had strong melodies – kind of the old-fashioned way of, ‘Here’s the complete song, now we’ll introduce it to the band and come up with arrangements and put it together.’
TBB: Yeah, when I listen to your songs and I hear that I’m reminded of Big Star’s #1, where each song seems like a complete package. That’s a connection I make. I am wondering what connections you make. What do you think the Blackbirds sound like?
BS: That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t have a million names I can rattle off because I’ve listened to so much an absorbed so much that it is, really, hundreds of names. You mentioned Big Star, who are huge heroes of mine. So, that kind of thinking about a guitar band and how to function makes a lot of sense. The influences at this point are so smashed together, though. I think that’s what makes us sound so distinctive. I mean, you don’t think, Oh, they obviously listened to this record and recreated it.” Maybe I’m wrong, but when I hear it, I hear a million different things going on. There’s power-pop, that’s a genre most people are comfortable labeling us as, but there’s a lot of country to it, a lot of folk, heavy rock, jangly folk rock…there’s a lot of stuff because I listen to a lot of stuff and I try to learn from a lot of stuff. I don’t write with an end result in mind, and a lot of times the writing doesn’t even reflect what I am listening to at the moment.
TBB: Are there any local bands that you’re into lately?
BS: There are a lot of local people. KC’s Band, the Corner Laughers. They’re phenomenal. Chuck Prophet, he’s great, too. I think what I like about Chuck is that there’s just not a lot of great rock bands in the Bay Area. There’s a lot of indie, kind of jangly, very beautiful stuff, but Chuck Prophet is kind of like an old-school rock n’ roll guy. He’s also one of the few that have stayed (laughs). He didn’t get popular and move away.
TBB: Yeah, he’s not living in Brooklyn in a brownstone.
BS: Or in LA.
TBB: Well, you all seem to be doing okay so far. Let’s talk about your new album, Take Out the Poison. How does it compare to previous Blackbird albums?
BS: I think it’s very different from the previous one. The previous record had a pretty distinctive sound all the way through for the most part. There were a few little deviations. It was deliberately done that way. We wanted to make this consistent guitar rock record where every song felt like it was all tied together. This record was almost the opposite. I had seven or eight of the songs before I realized I had almost an album’s worth of stuff. Every one of the songs had like its own little thing, even through the making of the record, it was like, “Do these belong together?” So, that became the focus, giving each song its own little place to sit. I think it does flow very nicely, but it’s a very diverse record. It’s got some country type stuff, which the last record didn’t. This record has various spots with that twang to it. It was very scattered, it came in bits in pieces. It just kind of fell together.
TBB: It sounds like the record came to you.
BS: Yeah, well, maybe some people don’t care about this kind of thing, but for me, I need to just be as good as I possibly can be every time. It comes down to being a poet, a painter. You’ve got to try and be a part of the conversation artistically. You’ve got to do it and try to be as good as you can. You can’t worry about whether or not what you produce is going to filter its way to find ears. You’ve just got to write good songs.
Take Out the Poison will be available August 25, and they’ll be playing the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park on August 26.