Blues and Lasers
Interview with Scott Tournet
Contributing Writer : Garret K. Woodward [TheRFW.com/blog/Garret]
When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
At a recent performance in the Brooklyn Bowl, budding rock group Blues and Lasers took the stage in celebration of their latest independent release- After All We’re Only Human.
Forgetting to take off their musical boots at the door, the quintet nonchalantly muddied the floors of the trendy venue. Their appearance is a haze of freak flag lion manes, aviator sunglasses, and shaggy mustaches. The sound is menacing although embracing, refreshing yet obviously aged in whiskey barrels and scratched rock records. The clarity, precision, and fuck-your-girlfriend nature of the band puts you in a manic, at times psychotic, trance.
It also is a far cry from their day jobs.
Three-fifths of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals (Scott Tournet – guitar, Benny Yurco – guitar, Matt Burr – drums) trade in the girls (Potter, Catherine Popper) for another drummer (Steve Sharon) and bassist (John Rogone). The intention is pure, one of rebellion and revulsion amid the current music industry- a revolt ironic in contrast to the recent endeavors of Ms. Potter heading to Hollywood.
Regardless, the band has the tenacious grit of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, three-part harmonies in the spirit Crosby Stills and Nash, and a passion for preserving the past akin to Jack White.
At the center of this is Tournet. Since the dissolving of his original solo act a few years ago, he took the reigns once again and formed an ensemble chalked full of legitimate blues-rock melodies.
Since then, Tournet has proved not only his self-sufficiency, but also that of Yurco and Burr, outside the realm of the whirlwind media circus that is Grace Potter.
Garret K. Woodward: What is Blues and Lasers?
Scott Tournet: An idea that turned into a band. It came from an all-day jam session I had while I was in college. A couple of my musician friends came into town after we hadn’t seen each other for about a year. We had all been deeply immersed in different types of music. One friend was only playing slide guitar in open tunings, while another was deeply into effects pedals and weird sonic textures. I was kind of the middleman, as I had been in more of a straight-ahead rock and roll group. We also had two drummers going that day. I don’t think we stopped playing for six or seven hours. That’s the cool thing about a big group, one person could go take a piss and the music, the music, would keep going. That day was pure bliss and that’s what Blues and Lasers is about, for me at least, trying to recapture that moment of freedom and contrasting musical styles.
GKW: What are the influences? I find a lot of different traits in the music.
ST: Some influences that I’m aware of are AC/DC, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, early Pink Floyd, Rage Against The Machine, Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Spiritualized. But I’m really only speaking for me. John is a huge Motown fan and I think that comes through. Steve is a [John] Bonham fan and also brought in some weird Wilco and Beatle-esque sounds. Matt has the taste of Ringo [Starr] and was elemental in helping with subtlety of arrangements. Benny loves Howlin’ Rain and Steve Malkmus and brought some of those opposing flavors to the table. People often put it into a “classic rock” category though I don’t feel that does it justice. We absolutely draw from the past, but there is so much more to it than that.
GKW: What was your first encounter with blues music? What does it represent to you?
ST: To be honest, the first blues show I saw was B.B. King and I wasn’t that moved by it. Respect to B.B., as I have since found a lot of his work that is incredible, but this was in the 90′s and everyone was in tuxedos and they had the horns and the cheesy synths. It was just way too slick for my taste. Hendrix was probably the first “blues” artist that moved me. That one note in “Machine Gun” where he holds it forever or when he makes the dying soldier sounds at the end of the song. After that I found more traditional blues like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues”, which gave me goose bumps.
GKW: Will the band always be a side project to Grace Potter and The Nocturnals?
ST: As of now that’s what it is because we play way more with the Grace Potter than with B&L. The reason I don’t see it that way is because it’s my main songwriting outlet, you know? I help add music to songs Grace has already written, minus a few collaborations here and there. I love being a part of the Nocturnals and value my part in it, but B&L affords me, and Benny, the chance to write lyrics and songs. I’ve been writing since I started playing, so it’s something I want to share with people and not just keep hidden in a notebook somewhere. That’s why B&L is essential for me as an artist.
GKW: You were recently in Rolling Stone magazine. How many copies did you buy for your mother?
ST: [Laughs] Actually none. She’s an archivist at heart and got to the newsstands way before I did. I’m terrible at keeping up with press stuff and keeping it nice. My copy is in the bathroom with coffee stains on it.
GKW: How much do Grace Potter and The Nocturnals influence Blues and Lasers?
ST: While sonically B&L is different from the Nocturnals, we are influenced as performers through playing so much in Grace Potter. Personally, I have recently been working a lot on singing and Grace has been an incredible influence in that category. She’s makes it seem so effortless, but at the same time she’s really aware of the technique and has given me a lot of tips which have helped a lot. Benny, Grace, and I have also had some very cool conversations about songwriting that have seeped into B&L’s songwriting. Grace Potter has helped B&L “trim the fat” a little.
GKW: How much do Blues and Lasers influence Grace Potter and The Nocturnals?
ST: That’s a tricky one because Benny was in B&L before he was in the Nocturnals. Since adding him, the Nocturnals now has the B&L guitar sound because that’s just the sound that Benny and I make when we play together. Overall though, I’d say that the heaviness of B&L and the experimentation has influenced the Nocturnals some.
GKW: What’s more important in a blues song, the squeal of the guitar riff or the squeal of the singer?
ST: Neither, though when a guitarist is playing the blues the right way then they should be making their guitar sound like a human voice. Whichever instrument or voice makes you feel something; that’s what’s doing it right.
GKW: Do you have to live through the blues to sing them?
ST: That’s a tricky one. Sometimes you have these young kids that can emulate the sound perfectly like the dude from Back Yard Tire Fire or Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, etcetera, that come along and sound exactly like the real thing. But when you listen closer there’s an authenticity that’s missing in my opinion. When I listen to Buddy Guy or Roy Buchanan or Albert King there is a certain pain I hear in some of the special notes that’s like a human cry. It literally makes me feel that emotion. I feel like you can only really hit that note if you’ve felt that pain or loss in real life. It’s technically possible to imitate that same note, but it’s like a blues note you can buy from Tijuana.
GKW: What influence does Junior Kimbrough have on you?
ST: For a while I was obsessed with him and R.L. Burnside. That style of blues was like a breath of fresh air after all the blues festivals we’d play with white dudes in Hawaiian shirts trying to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I feel like so many people today won’t even give blues a chance because it’s been ruined by people who think it’s about technique and volume. My parents, for example, couldn’t stand the blues until I showed them all the different things it could be. They just thought it was music for drunken people in a bar that was too loud. To be honest, these days we’re moving further and further away from the blues when it comes to musical form. I’m interested in the feeling and emotion of the blues, but I feel like it’s my obligation to extract those things and inject them into new musical forms and landscapes. That’s really what Blues & Lasers is about.
GKW: What’s the difference between a blues guitar riff and a rock guitar riff?
ST: [Laughs] Semantics. Nah. A blues guitar riff is like making love and a rock guitar riff is like fucking. Naughty, but true.
GKW: There are obvious influences from Neil Young & Crazy Horse. What about his music reaches into you and evokes such energy?
ST: I find Neil and the Horse’s music and energy to be very pure, strong, and unpretentious. It’s very strong and masculine without posturing. I feel a very strong masculine energy when I plug in and get on stage, but I never want it to come off as the cliché guitar guy with his shirt unbuttoned five buttons. I like that Neil and the Horse always dressed like shit. I also like the way they get in each other’s faces and feed off of each other. They are pleasing themselves first and by doing that they are then pleasing the audience.
GKW: In an interview Young did some 30 years ago, he said he felt like he, as a musician, was a big dinosaur who moved at his own pace, whereas, at that time and nowadays, there aren’t as many big dinosaurs around, but plenty of small and speedy dinosaurs. In essence, he is speaking of a slow burn, an organic process of letting your creativity and mindset at the time guide you, rather than by a label or trend. How do you approach your career? Are you a big dinosaur or a small one?
ST: Well as much as I love Neil and always talk him up, he did have the luxury off making a shit-load of money off Harvest and CSNY. [Laughs]. Once you are able to pay for basic necessities and have a consistent following you are in a much more comfortable place to do what you want. The music world has changed so much since then. With the Nocturnals, we are still struggling to pay our crew and to even pay ourselves enough to pay the bills. I still have a roommate and I don’t own a car. With B&L we’ve gone out of pocket just to play shows and get two albums out. A lot of people don’t realize that. Stylistically speaking I try not to follow trends and sometimes that means that you get overlooked by a lot of the kids. You hope that in the long run your music will outlive the hipsters and the trends and be timeless.
GKW: Once the record is out and you do a handful of shows, what next for B&L? Wait until the Nocturnals take a break after this summer? Is it hard to put the group on the backburner just when it starts to build momentum?
ST: We will be pushing the album as much as possible and will be doing a leg of a tour with the Nocturnals and a few festivals that Grace Potter will also be playing. It is hard to put B&L on the back burner, especially for Steve and John. I’m not going to lie. That being said, we simply cannot afford to go out and tour on our own at this point, so it’s not really the time to push it yet. We hope that enough people can hear the album so that when we do go out and play that there will be some people waiting to listen to us. There’s nothing worse than going into debt to tour and only playing to five people, which are three of your friends, the promoter, and one crazy drunk dude. I’ve already done plenty of that in my life.
GKW: What does the word “rockstar” mean to you? How do feel when someone puts that moniker on you?
ST: I’m confused by it. I genuinely got into all of this because I had a burning desire to make music everyday. I never got into it to be a “rockstar”. People started laying that on me from time to time about five years ago and it always made me feel weird. I think it was because we were playing jam festivals where a lot of the musicians stand still when they play and we jumped around a lot. I just naturally move to the music when I’m playing. It’s not pre-conceived. Do “rockstars” still owe college loans?
GKW: “Fallen Friend”. A helluva catchy melody. How did that guitar riff come about? How did the song take shape?
ST: Fallen Friend is a tune Benny wrote a few years back. I was over at his house two winters ago and he was playing some random tunes from old live shows with his old band. This tune stuck out to me and I asked him if he wanted to bring it into the B&L mix. I think it was the first song he brought to B&L. Another interesting thing about it is that when we first played it, it had totally different lyrics and vocal melody. The day Benny was cutting his vocals for it he came in with brand new lyrics and a whole different vocal approach. At first we were like, “What the fuck are you doing? He’s lost it this time”. [Laughs]. Then it grew on us and we realized that he was totally right. We all spent a good part of that day passing the microphone around in the control room coming up with the accompanying harmonies. Very enjoyable tune to record. I think that comes across in the performance.
GKW: Can you elaborate on the studio you worked in? What was the approach? I listen to the record and see a stripped down process, which has resulted in the best product.
ST: It’s called Tank Studios and it’s in the North end of Burlington [Vermont]. It’s a space that’s shared between three guys, one of which is Ben Collette who is our engineer and mixer. It’s small, but I love it. It’s got a great vibe. It’s where we did overdubs and mixed the last album too. The approach was pretty much dictated by time and money, to be honest, which in some ways is nice because you don’t have a chance to over think it. We did two days of basic tracks last summer where we tracked all nine songs. Once we had played a couple more shows, we took the money we’d earned and went in to begin completing the tracks. We pretty much went tune by tune until it was almost complete. For example, we did “After All We’re Only Human” first and recorded the lead vocals, backing vocals, and some subtle keyboard. Then we moved onto “Fallen Friend”, where we added vocals, harmonies, and slide guitar. “Breaking My Heart” was next and we added vocals, harmonies, keys, and an extra guitar at the end. After going through all the tunes like that, with breaks for touring with Grace Potter and playing shows to generate money to pay the studio bill, we then would add or alter little things as we would see fit. Extra guitars on “Glory”, lap steel on “Before You Use Me”, the weird vocal delay effect at the end of “After All We’re Only Human”, etcetera. We’d kind of retrace each tune until it was to the point that we wanted it.
GKW: How did you and Benny Yurco meet?
ST: I blew up his amp at a Senator Bernie Sanders benefit at Higher Ground [Burlington, VT]. [Laughs]. He loaned it to the club and I was performing with Grace Potter. All the sudden it started smoking. I dropped off a back up amp that I had because I felt guilty. Little did I know that he was a gear junkie who had a few amps. The first time I met him was the night before New Year’s Eve [at Higher Ground] when Grace Potter was playing again. He said, “Hi, I’m Benny. You blew up my amp” in a very friendly tone. [Laughs]. He brought me into the other room in Higher Ground and showed me this Marshall he had that was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. The manager of the club had to come in and tell him to stop. [Laughs]. Apparently that wasn’t the first time either. We’ve been fast friends since.
GKW: I feel, after listening to the record, that you are really in your element within these songs. The potential and sound I knew you were capable of is radiating out of this album. Is B&L the real Scott Tournet?
ST: [Pauses]. I think Blues & Lasers plays to my strengths, yes. Especially as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader. To be honest though, I often feel like a chameleon, in real life and in music. I go through a lot of changes. One month I only want to play electric music, the next month it’s only acoustic. One month I’m in L.A. partying and going crazy and then I’m back in Vermont going for walks, reading, and not even talking to people for days at a time. I’ve got lots of personalities and like to wear a lot of hats so to speak. From an audience perspective, I’d say that people tend to appreciate the rocked out, sweaty, guitar playing me the most. So, that being said, I think B & L might be the most attractive version of me, but not the “real” me completely.
GKW: In “Breakin’ My Heart”, you sing of a dream where you talk to Muddy Waters and he tells you that radio, these days, doesn’t play his/your music anymore. Tell me about that dream. And, what’s wrong with radio? What will it take to play good music on it again- dare I say blues music again?
ST: That dream wasn’t real, but it was a great moment where I realized that you could write anything you want and take it in any direction you want. Part of this song is talking about mainstream radio and American Idol, though part of it is actually talking about the uber hipster indie movement that’s been taking place the past few years too. Mainstream has been overlooking blues and soul and feeling in favor of shtick, gimmick, and celebrity for years now. There’s nothing new going on with that. It’s something to mention again for sure though. The whole hipster movement on the other hand is this very white suburban thing that is draped in layers upon layers of irony. I mean the kids in the bands now look like the kids in Revenge Of The Nerds all the sudden. [Laughs]. I get where it comes from and respect where the movement comes from and why it needed to happen, but at this point it’s becoming a parody of itself. If I see any more bands with glockenspiels and clarinets and girls in Mormon dresses and bangs I’m going to puke. It’s just as cliché as dudes with their shirts unbuttoned down to their belt buckle playing Les Paul’s, which is what it’s rebelling against. To get back to the song though, I think it served as a mantra for me during a time when nobody mainstream wanted to hear our music. The hipster kids hated us, and there were a lot of the dudes in the audience that just wanted to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan covers. I felt entirely disconnected singing and thinking about the music I believed in and moved me. Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Otis Redding, and Spiritualized gave me hope.
GKW: B&L has this “Man-Cave” emotion to it. You have your work with Grace Potter, your life, your other priorities, but with this, is it your true escape from society? Playing music with your chums in a hidden pocket of the world, rocking out on a Saturday night? I feel that even if the band, and its recordings, never saw the light of day, it wouldn’t matter, cause you at least got to hangout with your buddies and jam.
ST: You nailed it. That was the original philosophy behind the band. Get together and play all day. What comes from it will come. Let it be natural. I’ve been writing and recording and jamming since I first picked up a guitar. It’s my release. I need to do it. I’ve always done it and probably always will. Just recently I’ve been pushing a little harder for other people to hear it. I hope they like it, but if they don’t it’s not going to stop me.