Interview: Free Blood – Flowing in a New Vein

Free Blood are a band who know all about change. Back in 2008 when the band consisted of boy/girl duo John Pugh (you’ll remember him from !!!) and New York based fashion designer Madeline Davy, they were pumping out the type of noise that seemed to rage against the swathes of  ‘The’ prefixed indie groups that have long since fallen into the cauldron of musical obscurity. Free Blood’s fusion of electro-tinged scuzz-funk and their ability to keep any party going indefinitely was a million miles away from the established musical landscape. After a healthy set of releases on independent labels like Adventures Close To Home and DFA, Pugh and Davy seemed to call time on Free Blood. But time was never actually called. Davy decided to concentrate on her fashion work with Octopi NYC and Pugh took the musical germ that had been created by the two of them and nurtured it. Now it has grown into a sonic man-eater. Free Blood is now a fully formed five piece outfit consisting of Sarah Spratt (microphone), Greg Giuffre (drums), Rob Perez (guitars, bass), Brian Time (bass, keyboards) and of course John Pugh (microphone, guitar, keyboard). The sound created by Free Blood today isn’t a million miles away from the early singles… it’s just bigger, scuzzier, funkier. Imagine Suicide spinning Detroit techno and classic soul records at a huge warehouse party. With the first Free Blood album proper on the horizon, we were lucky enough to catch up with John Pugh to talk about musical evolution, being locked away in a studio and dancing. There’s a party happening somewhere. A party you wish you were at. It’s called Free Blood.

Over the past couple of years the band have gone through a period of evolution. You’ve swelled from two, to multiple members. How did that happen? 

I’ve always tried to keep the “free” in Free Blood which has led to some re-inventions or recalibrations along the way. First it was dictated by the drum machines I was using to write songs with. The initial batch of songs were all based around pre-set rhythms from this old Electroharmonix drum machine. It was just that with vocals, bass and a Rhodes keyboard. Very minimal. Then we upgraded to the Korg Electribe and I rewrote everything based around the beats I was building on that. Now we had not only densely-populated programs but the ability to sample loops. When we finally got in the studio the songs all went through another transformation, since I ended up adding a lot of non-electronic instruments (acoustic guitar, upright piano, drums, percussion, saxophones, cellos) to the heavily electronic base. Emerging from the studio we were now a two-piece and had a drum machine loaded with drum loops and piano and string samples. It was closer to the recorded versions but ultimately it just turned us into a karaoke band. The Brothers (who produced the first release The Singles) stepped in on live drums and guitar which helped, but within a matter of months of this line-up the Korg died inexplicably (natural causes?) and I had to recalibrate again. I started using Logic on the laptop as a drum machine/sampler stand-in, and the search for a permanent band began.

Was the expansion of the band something that was planned or did it happen naturally?

First I knew I wanted live drums with the electronic drums which was a quality on the recordings that I loved and wanted to build on. After months of jamming with different folks I found a drummer who could play circles around the programming. We were back to a 3-piece, but I felt like we weren’t a complete picture.  The new drummer found a bass player and then the bass player found a keyboard player and then everything got scrambled before clicking into place. At some point during all this the laptop was becoming increasingly unreliable at live shows, crashing or freezing up for mysterious reasons. So I returned to the Korg, but with a totally different approach. Instead of loading it with studio samples and elaborate arrangements I used it as an augmentation to the live percussion. I wanted to bring back some breathing room so I limited it to just four elements: kick, snare/claps, percussion and electro-bass.  In short, Free Blood finally moved out of the studio-versions-played-live mentality and into the live-versions-played-live-er reality.

You’ve got a new female vocalist. How has this affected the vocal dynamics of the music? 

Sarah has been a god-send. She’s got an awesome old-school punk-soul sensibility but can also sound like a German robot if she needs to (but she’d rather not, thank you).  Free Blood has always been centered on rhythm and voice, and exploring what we can do with those two elements to create both an emotional and physical response. Sarah is right there ready to explore so we’ve gotten adventurous in our approach to the songs. It’s been interesting to have her join the group as we are in the midst of finishing our full-length, because it’s allowed us to work out vocal arrangements and harmonies in the relative calm of the recording environment before jumping into the noise-haze of the practice space and then jumping into the blitzkrieg of the stage.

Your live shows look pretty raucous. How has the live experience of Free Blood changed with the new line up?  

No two Free Blood shows are ever the same, which is a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the difference can be either a tune takes itself in an amazing direction that sends chills up your spine or something has gone horribly wrong (and sometimes BOTH). We try to keep it loose and tight at the same time. Honestly this line-up is hands down the tightest we’ve ever been. It’s almost like an angry machine. The looseness is unavoidably still there as we go through the process of finding that psychic sonic connection necessary to play as an ensemble. But it definitely feels like the real action has kicked in now that we have started to play out more with this line-up. The heat coming off a live band increases the vibe of menace in the songs while still making room for some nuance.  As always audience energy is a big factor for every show, because the fourth wall is hard for me to maintain. Showtime stress combines with excitement and a splash of booze and just boils up into raucousness. I guess that raucousness tends to spill out either onto the stage or (literally) off the stage. Free Blood is looking for an all over body music experience, for brain, ears, heart, crotch and feet.  Live music is crazy in the way it can affect you, and I think we’ve only begun to explore the possibilities. There’s emotion in it but there’s also motion. That is, the motion of sound waves pressing against our bodies. I’ve had some pretty intimate moments with a subwoofer.

You’ve got an album coming out. How does it feel to have the LP coming to fruition? 

It’s been a LONG time coming, so it feels amazing to actually see the business end of the stick. It is about half old songs dating back to pretty much the beginning of the band and half new tunes that are rapidly becoming not that new anymore (at least to those of us who have spent the last year and a half listening to rough mixes). All the tunes FEEL new since we recorded them during the process of putting the live band together, so there was a lot of re-vamping and re-re-vamping happening as we accrued new members. Of course it took me way too long to put it all together, which is due to my own slowness/brokeness/perfectionism/sloppiness/ADD/OCD/lack of a PhD etc. etc. I think next time around will be much smoother if I can find management, a label and affordable childcare.

What was the process of recording the album like and what was the biggest high and the biggest low?  

We have been recording this record on a serious recession-era budget. We started by just tracking basic instrumentation in our practice space (live drums, loud amp-type stuff) and our drummer’s apartment (direct keyboards, drum machine, vocals). Then we found a couple of different proper studios to do more elaborate tracking, overdubs and mixing. The first was The Wild Arctic in Long Island City (before they relocated) with Dean Baltulonis. This was the first time we recorded with a live band set-up (bass, guitars and drums playing to a scratch vocal and drum machine)rather than piecing each element together as a overdub jigsaw puzzle. We only got about a quarter of the songs done there, before Dean skipped town so we worked for a couple of months on prepping the rest of the songs and figuring out how to pay for everything. Then we got in touch with Matt Boynton at Vacation Island Recording. He was happy to have us and we were happy to be back in a real studio with big loud amps and a baby grand piano and no complaining neighbors. We are returning there in June to finish final mixes and get this thing done! As far as highs and lows it’s been pretty much a steady slog all the way through. Things have changed dramatically through this process; we gained a bass player/keyboardist, lost a singer, gained a new singer, lost our tempers/minds, etc. The biggest high will undoubtedly be when the songs are done and sound gorgeous and dangerous. The biggest low will be if we run out of money before that happens.

You’ve recently put two new tracks up on your site and made them available for free. What made you decide to do this? 

We were hungry to give people a taste of what we were up to, since it had been literally years since we put new music into the world. Those years were spent weathering a lot of personal upheaval for me and professional upheaval for the band, so it felt good to have new songs and a new band and some new listeners who had caught us live and were just as hungry as we were to hear new Free Blood. Those two tracks were the first things we completed at Vacation Island and we saw them as small hints at what was to come. We put them up on our new-fangled web site (freebloodmusic.com) as a gift to those who were listening closely and to get the attention of those who weren’t. Go check them out, I’ll wait……

How important do you think it is for a band to make its music freely available?  

Again my punk roots keep reminding me that it’s ok to step outside the game sometimes to bring the business of making music back into a very human, basic and capital-free place. The internet has created an era where music is being hunted down by cold-blooded killers so we might as well offer up a sacrifice to satiate the blood-lust. What used to be demonized as “home-taping” and the tape-trading underground has now been exploded into the virtual world, which means word-of-mouth now operates on a global level. Though I miss cassette tapes, free music is still pretty awesome.  I don’t claim to understand where the music industry is headed, but I don’t get the feeling that a lot of bands (or labels for that matter) are making a living off just record sales. Folks listen to pretty much whatever they want for free (whether the band makes it available or not). But if you want to own an object that you can listen to and look at and fondle and roll drugs on, go buy the music on an LP record (CDs are garbage). And if you like that, go pay some money to see the band play live when they come to town. Touring your ass off seems to be the only reliable way to make some kind of living in the band-world. That and licensing.

There’s a scuzzy, pop-funk vibe to Free Blood. What are the inspirations behind the band’s sound?

I think scuzzy, pop-funk is a pretty fair pigeon-hole to be in if that’s what is required. It’s hard to place all the band’s inspirations, because there are a lot of them. I grew up listening to a lot of 80’s funk like Midnight Star and Cameo, so that’s probably where the pop-funk came from. The scuzz is a by-product of punk, primarily from the bands I revered in the 90’s like the Mummies and the Scissor Girls. With the band I’ve tried to channel groups that subverted the standard rock-band interpretation like Os Mutantes and Pere Ubu. I’m always looking for ways to ultimately create a signature sound that sets us apart from all other bands. For me that means guitars sound like drums, bass sounds like guitar, drums sound like bass and vocals sound like a slightly drunken argument.

What can we expect from Free Blood in the next year? 

Well the record will be done and done in June, after which we will triple-time our efforts to get it out into the world. Tour tour tour tour tour tour.

You can listen to more Free Blood over at their soundcloud page. Free Blood will be coming to a village, town, city or house party near you soon. Keep yourself informed at freebloodmusic.com.

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