The Pinhook was packed by the time Blanko Basnet took the stage. I have to admit, I missed the openers, “The Hot at Nights”, whom I was told were terrific.
Blanko Basnet debuts “Ocean Meets the Animal”
by: Aaron Mandel
Blanko Basnet was premiering their new album “Ocean Meets the Animal”. Long-haired, local rock legend, and Clarion Content fav, Joe Hall, is the front man. The album was five years in the making. Hall shares the stage with Matt McElroy and Matt Skinner Peterson of Canine Heart Sounds and his mate from Hammer no More the Fingers, drummer, Jeff Stickley.
Hall told me Stickley lead the way in finding the floaty vibe for the tune “Yossarian” and executed insanely cool drum fills all over the record, he continued, noting that on eleven of the tunes Stickley came up with his own interpretations of programmed drum beats that he made in Hall’s words “better and more interesting”.
Hall described how the album came together, “We tracked the core of the album in three days at the Fidelitorium in Kernersville, North Carolina during the January 2017 snowstorm. We then took our time tracking vocals at my house in downtown Durham over the next few months.”
Amelia Meath, of Sylvan Esso fame, stopped by the home studio and recorded back-up vocals on four of the tunes.
Hall said, “She is an incredible vocalist and musician! She knocked out her takes in no time.”
“Ocean Meets the Animal” was truly a collaborative effort.
Hall told me, “Every song on the album was shaped by collaboration with the entire band, a significant departure from the largely solo, self-titled, 2013 release. The core of the tunes “Minnow” and “Every Dollar” were guitar riffs that Skinner came up with, [and] Matt McElroy (bass, vocals) and Matt Skinner Peterson (guitar, keys, vocals) also contributed to the lyrics on the record.”
He said, “Chris Boerner engineered the session at the Fidelitorium, mixed, mastered, and helped produce the album. He was incredibly influential throughout the process. It’s hard to describe how really small changes during the recording process can make such a big impact on the final sound, but his influence is all over this record in those small, but impactful, ways.”
Hall went on, “Nick Sanborn also helped in production. He listened to many different iterations of the album demos and helped us make decisions about song structure, song selection, and overall sound/vibe. He encouraged us to commit to “Every Dollar”, which we ended up finishing in the studio; one of those tunes that just came together last minute.”
At The Pinhook, Blanko Basnet wore tan sports jackets that looked borrowed from Genesis (Phil Collins era). Blanko Basnet’s sound is alternatively dreamy and powerful, with a dash of zany. It never booms when it gets loud, it only deepens, becomes even more plush, richer, fuller, textured. As if every note was both thoughtful and thought-laden. Only apropos for our information saturated era.
Hall informed the crowd with a tone that almost verged on surprise, “Hey, we put out a record today, y’all.” There was a hint of awe, as if he almost couldn’t believe it, a tiny bit of falsetto cracking on the word y’all. Five years in the process will do that to you. But Hall is nothing if not a perfectionist. I remember interviewing him years ago when I already thought he had a great voice, and he shared with me that he was going to a vocal coach to get better.
It is a lesson that vibes across passions from sports to furniture making to music, the best are constantly working to improve themselves at their craft. (Because they love it, because they want to do it as best they possibly can.)(2)
The crowd exploded with applause in response to Hall’s announcement. Blanko Basnet proceeded to play the full album straight through.(3)
In Blanko Basnet, you can hear some of the influences of the Hammer no More the Fingers sound that Hall and Stickley are steeped in. I particularly catch it in the melodic and smooth lyrics of “Eyes” and the guitar in “Berry”.
Although my buddy with whom I attended, Eli McDuffie, one half of the dynamic duo, LiLa, said that he really heard the Canine Heart Sounds influence that McElroy and Skinner Peterson bring to Blanko Basnet. He added, “which is amazing, because Canine Heart Sounds is amazing.”
Performing live, when Blanko Basnet’s powerful guitar riffs really have him feeling it, Hall will indulge in big back bends, as if he is doing the limbo. His shoulders nearly parallel to the floor, knees deeply bent, he closes his eyes and the music pours out of him. (I’d say he plays his ass off, but clearly he already has.)
The other half of LiLa, Jonathan LeSueur, hopped on stage for “Will it All” bringing his own melodic keyboard sounds and high tenor voice to the mix, singing the part performed by Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso on the album cut.
Hall brimmed with enthusiasm. Emoted real joy. From stage he offered a heartfelt thanks to his wife Ashlie, “Hey everybody, there’s my wife,” he said, pointing her out behind The Pinhook merch counter where they were selling the Blanko Basnet vinyl. She blushed. Hall continued, “She helped me write the lyrics on the whole album. You’re a wordsmith, baby.”
They smiled a private smile at each other before the band launched back into song.
Hall told me later, “Ashlie helped out a great deal with lyrics. For me, lyrics are always the last piece of the puzzle in our tunes and Ashlie has challenged me to bring greater meaning and purpose to our writing. A great example of that is the tune “Berry“, for which I had a solid foundation, but the lyrics were missing a cohesive theme and had an element of randomness. We went on a hike together and she relayed to me that some of the lines made her think of an experience she went through where she was stuck in the middle of a difficult relationship that involved two of her closest friends. We applied the story we wanted to tell to the vocal melody that had already been written.”
In another example, Hall told me that writing, “”All We Are” we [he and Ashlie] were sitting in the window seat at Lucky’s on Main Street eating sandwiches. It was after the election and our hearts were heavy. We were discussing the importance of the role of lifting up others with less of a platform and amplifying voices not as easily heard, that we should be playing as allies. We talked about Black Lives Matter and our privilege and how we wanted to do better.”
Hall offers on the Blanko Basnet Bandcamp that, “Please dig in – there’s a message waiting for you.” At the end of the album, the title track, “Ocean Meets the Animal”, is where this becomes most explicit for me.
“Home is where the ocean meets the animal
Open up your eyes you’ll see you’re not alone
If all we had came to this finitude”
Finitude is defined as the state of having limits or bounds. The social and ecological messaging is explicit enough. Our planet, our environment has limits. We are creatures that live within this world. We, too, are subject to these limits. This reality should become more self-evidently, globally and locally, daily.
We are all in it together.
A few days later, I was still thinking about the Blanko Basnet show as I sat in on the Mothership Member Showcase. I should explain, The Mothership is the unique and special co-working space where the Clarion Content is headquartered. Member Showcase is an opportunity for members to show and share what they are working on, doing, and enjoying; business related or not.
Renown photographer, Justin Cook, was telling us about his side project, chronicling sea rise, via the story of one tiny community cemetery on a barrier island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
During the talkback after Cook’s presentation, I said to him, “I just heard this album, I really feel like I should share with you. It is so on the same message.” I got as far as, “It is Blanko Basnet,” before Justin Cook interrupted.
“I shot the cover art for that album.”
Even I sometimes shake my head in wonder at Durham’s two and a half degrees of separation. Is it a coincidence or a collision of intentionality?
We care pretty hard in this town.
1 We’re working on our Clarion Content Social Media game since leaving it to me is clearly a bad idea.
2 Long-time readers know I am fond of Coach Cutcliffe’s maxim, “Strive for perfection, achieve excellence.” Duke’s Football Coach goes on “Strive for excellent, achieve good. Strive for good enough, achieve mediocre. Strive for mediocre, well(pronounced ‘wail’) you know what you end up with then…”
3 Hard not to consider this a nod to the Hammer no More the Fingers era when it was the Hammer move to play the whole album. In fact, they once played their entire catalog, a three hour show, to honor super fan and video cataloger, Eric Chen.