Interview by Tarja Virmakari
I’m sitting here with W.A.S.P.’s lead guitarist DOUGLAS BLAIR aboard the HMS Bore, his Turku hotel residence while in Finland. It just so happens the Bore is a retired cast-iron 1960’s-era ferry ship, a fittingly odd place to live for this gypsy rocker.
Hello, Douglas, how are you today?
I’m great, Tarja! Thanks for coming over! What do you think of this cool heavy metal boat that goes nowhere? It’s actually bolted to the pier …
Oh yeah, it’s a different place for a meeting for sure. You’ve had quite a busy summer with W.A.S.P., and there are other things in the works. Tell our readers what you’ve been up to?
It’s been an amazing summer! We did 17 shows: 6 warm-up headlining shows in Russia, and then 11 festivals including Sweden Rock, South Park, Graspop and Wacken. All of them were killer, and the audiences ruled! I got to see Alter Bridge, Apocalyptica and TNT, Alice Cooper and Sabbath… it’s like going away to summer camp with only your rock friends!
I also have three new ESP guitars that I’d been tweaking and customizing for over a year. I’ve never had brand new guitars to tour with before, and I’m pretty sure that they helped me play better… they completely rock!!
What’s next for you with W.A.S.P.? The new CD is highly anticipated.
Yes. I’ll head back over to Los Angeles next week to finish recording leads for this thing. The delays have been unfortunate, but out of our control. I’m not even playing the same way as I did in ’12 when I first tracked! None of us are even the same people, but that could turn out to be a really cool thing. Whatever natural evolution there has been, it’s all gonna’ be in there!
I’ll have my 80’s-90’s studio guitars, but this time I’ll also bring a trusty old stage guitar, recently retired, the Washburn N4 with the illuminated stained-glass church window. It has a rare acoustic ‘sustainer’ system built into it, that I’m suspecting will work very well as the tape spins.
Can you tell us a little bit about your recording experience there?
Well, right after I re-joined the band in ‘06, we dove straight into Dominator lead recording work. So, it’s always been a main part of being in this band for me. I’m really proud of the collaborative recording process that has evolved between Blackie and I: he gets my best notes and performances onto his old-school 2” Studer tape machine by not only engineering, but by also listening objectively, and being there as the singer. Because, as a lead player — and I’ll use Neal Schon (Journey) and Keith Scott (Bryan Adams) as perfect examples — your highest goal is to best compliment the melody and vocals, while trying to make a statement with the lead, that can also stand on its own. Nuno Bettencourt (Extreme/Rhianna) and Ronnie LeTekro (TNT) are also winning champions at this.
I feel we’ve really achieved this on leads like ‘Heaven’s Hung In Black’, ‘Live To Die’ and ‘Crazy’. On the other hand, sometimes the best takes are just the ripping first-timers with absolutely zero thought involved, just going for it! ‘Thunder Red’ is one of those.
Also, I’m given TWO tracks on the machine to work with — that means I’m looking for takes with continuity and pacing from front to back. We can get in and fix stuff, but there’s no reason to record anything that I naturally would not or could not do. So, once we get a good one, I’ll try to outdo it on the other track, and so forth. This is so opposite of the typical current mindset of infinite, endless tries “until it’s perfect”. Fuck that — it has no heart, no life! It’s tougher this way, and can get frustrating. But I really love what we decide to go with over time. It’s more genuine, pimples and all.
As an American from the East Coast, what makes you decide to ‘hang your hat’ here in Finland?
Well, my contacts here, all initially found through W.A.S.P., have expanded to encompass many cool opportunities from recording to performing, guitar design and education. And they keep growing, a perfect example being you Tarja, at Metal Shock!
And, ever since first being turned on to H.I.M. by one of my guitar students, I’ve grown more interested in Finnish culture: not only the prolific music scene, but also instrument builders and the overall attitude of design and creativity here. Music tastes are wide and diverse, and with quality: Opeth, and Devin Townsend, for example, enjoy a high level of respect and regard. So, when I finally traveled here to play in ’06, it really felt like a place I wanted to stay longer. It’s been great to be able to spend so much time here. It reminds me of the New England (US) rock scene when I was growing up, from which so many current players came from.
For a while now, you’ve been involved with Rock Academy Finland based here in Turku, for whom you are a visiting professor. So, please tell us the story behind this?
By coincidence, Mark Bertenyi, co-director of this program, was working as stage manager at W.A.S.P.’s last Turku show back in 2012, at an awesome venue called Logomo. This place has a giant rolling wall of seats that adjusts the room capacity for any audience size! Anyway, I mentioned that I’d been thinking about arranging guitar clinics while touring, and his eyes lit up: “well, you MUST check out what we’re doing here!” At the end of the tour, I flew right up there and did a clinic for them. I’ve been coming back ever since!
In short, it’s an Arts and Culture Ministry-funded social/music project that focuses on organized bands, which is right up my alley. After teaching individual players for so long, I’ve finally found a great way to start giving back some valuable wisdom, if you’d call it that, to the next generation of bands.
It’s well-known that Finland has invested heavily in their education and youth, and it’s really apparent to me, and to the band, when we play here. The independence of the kids, their confidence… it brings to mind a cool video, “Let The Truce Be Known” by Orphaned Land showing kids growing up with guns instead of guitars. Our wish is it will always be guitars, or paint brushes, pens or cameras, or whatever. The Academy thrives on the accelerated development of these young musicians, and it’s only a matter of time before one of these band breaks out.
Working with this motivated team has lit a fire under my ass, and opened up many other doors as well. And the program has now grown to 8 national cities, and will soon cross borders into other countries. These will all be places I’ll visit, to work with their groups.
Many of our readers obviously know you as a guitarist in W.A.S.P. But, let’s talk a bit about your own project SIGNAL2NOISE. It’s not a new project, as your debut album “Fighting Mental Illness” came out back in 2007, but for your several commitments, it has stayed somehow in the background. Soon you will introduce it here in Finland… why now?
I’m finally set-up logistically, and have slowly flown my s2n gear over from the US. There are many reasons why now, but a big break from W.A.S.P. through the winter means I have some good down time to be productive. And I just love those Finnish winters …
Seriously, I feel it will be accepted and appreciated here.
Tell us about the instrument you play, the GuitarCross.
It’s simply a double-stringed guitar, in which you press and play the string pairs together, but they’re amplified separately. That’s the trick, and one string of the pair is a bass string, while the other a guitar string. As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before in this way. You can fake it with electronics, of course. But there’s nothing like real strings.
Most of the music I grew up listening to, and practicing as I learned how to play guitar, was blues-based rock and usually had guitar and bass intertwining, trading roles, playing together and apart in rythym and chords. Much of this came from early boogie-woogie blues piano. What’s really cool about the GX — and Charlie Hunter’s 7- and 8-string guitars — is that two parts can be played together, just like on a piano. So, you kind of go around full circle, but plugged into this generation’s world of analog and digital in/out.
And as a side-note, the GX is not made to just be ‘tapped’ with two hands, it’s made to played just like a guitar or a bass… with all the possibilities you can imagine. There are many stringed instruments with multiple outputs, but most are tapped.
You call Signal2Noise a ‘power duo.’ That’s odd — please elaborate.
Well, I grew up on the classic ‘power trios’ like Hendrix, Robin Trower, Frank Morino, Rush, Triumph and even Led Zep if you’re talking instrumentally. It’s logical that we’re following a similar path of power with dynamics — ‘light and shade’ — to quote Jimmy Page, acoustic and electric instruments, and primarily live execution. I’m really striving to reach the Opeth/Devin Townsend/Porcupine Tree sphere of diversity and power.
Composing on this machine is no different than on an acoustic guitar: chords and bass lines must be interwoven, making open tunings quite useful, and forcing you to be very clever to create compatible parts that are effective and playable. s2n has been my writing outlet since 1995, first as a trio, and then as the power duo, playing the GX. Playing leads on the GX is possible, but it’s not a priority or a necessity — and because of that, I can focus exclusively on playing lead guitar in W.A.S.P.
Also, because s2n is quite divergent from W.A.S.P., there’s no musical conflict — it’s easy to keep them in two separate worlds, and working with one totally inspires the work of the other: perhaps similar to being both a painter and a photographer.
Why this project-name?
The ‘signal-to-noise ratio’ is just an old term for the measurement of actual audible sound compared to plain noise. Of course, digital audio has almost made the term obsolete, so I figured we’d steal it: signal2noise. I also like the metaphor of something sounding like music or clear sound, then devolving into pure noise, like fading to black, if you will…
It’s obvious that you think ‘outside the box’. What drives you to do this?
Well, it seems to me that so many follow what everyone else does, instead of trying to find their own way. I’m definitely inspired by the pioneer-type people that take a big chance on something that may fail. And I’m an Aquarian, so by nature compelled to see and do things rather differently. You have to get good at failing, and moving forward.
Both have envisioned, and created a genre out of thin air, meaning where there was nothing like it before. Charlie made a guitar he could play both bass and guitar upon, then taught himself how to play it for 10 years. Now, he has an indescribable style and technique that no one can even get near, or begin to understand. Apocalyptica did the same thing by applying concert cello technique and attitude to guitar amps and metal music. Who would ever have thought it could work? That’s the stuff that drives me with s2n, and otherwise.
You’ve gotten involved in several other musical projects of late. What is Dreams In The Witch House all about?
It’s something I heard about from a Swedish colleague, that’s really turned into a super project. Co-produced in Los Angeles and Stockholm, it’s a rock opera adaptation of a very twisted 1933 H.P. Lovecraft short story based near where I grew up in New England, and released on CD and double violet-colored LP! I played leads on two cool songs, along with Bruce Kulick (ex-KISS, Grand Funk) on two as well, and many other guest musicians. The record has been very well-received, and we’ll have some excellent press and interviews in an upcoming Sweden Rock Magazine issue. I think I’ve done five international events with them, so it’s growing at a nice pace. The goals are theater performances, rock festival appearances, a full-length feature movie, and some record sales, of course. And it’s kind of a perfect compliment to W.A.S.P.
And, please tell us about your recent collaboration with Germany’s Lord Of The Lost. How did it all come about?
I finally checked out the Trash Fest, a notorious goth fest held in Helsinki, last October, after hearing about it for so long. My ex had turned me on to Lord Of The Lost, who I contend may be heirs to the Rammstein throne — they are so motivated and totally slam!
They also play these insanely beautiful guitars built down in Hamburg that I wanted to see. So, I got the ‘mother lode’ as we call it — saw the band, checked out the guitars, and met the guys… my head almost exploded! Turns out they were working on a new record, so back in the US, I made sure to stay in touch with the guitarist a bit, and they welcomed my offer to solo on a track.
The “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” lead was recorded in my rehearsal room with on GarageBand — the cheapest, most ubiquitous program ever! It’s what you hear on their new CD “From The Flame Into The Fire” and I’m really proud of it. It was a kinda’ dark time for me, and gave me a great outlet for some tension. I really want to do more of this ‘guest ambushing’ with more of our peers like Apocalyptica and Deathstars! I think it’s a cool thing to do, that brings the scene a bit closer together. Kirk Hammet guesting on the new Exodus record is so sweet! Things like that.
Original W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes has recently been seen in various interviews commenting about his reasons for leaving the US for Europe. In regards to your own gradual relocation, what are your thoughts on this?
Well, even if we don’t articulate it in quite the same way, I’m with him all the way — in fact, I started making my move long before he told me that he wanted to. My reasoning may be a bit more, well, positive — as you can see, I’ve been able to find a variety of cool side work over here that I coudn’t find at home. Also, I’m not quite so anti-US … I percieve the scene here being just much healthier and diverse — for our particular genre of classic rock. It’s simply a matter of working where the market is best for what you do.
Boston, for example, is still extremely active musically, only with a new generation of bands and players that us rockers don’t quite relate to as well, that’s all. Just a different style — but absolutely vital none-the-less. So, the US will always evolve faster — which is critical — and it’s the only reason any of us are here playing our kind of music in the first place, right? Otherwise, we’d still be playing big band or something!
I think Chris is a cool guy and great guitarist, and I wish him all the luck getting going over here. There’s a lot of opportunity to be harvested, that’s for sure — and he’s an icon.
Do you have any strange road stories to tell our readers?
Well, I was once invited to see Opeth play not too far from my home. I got an sms from the guitarist, Fredrik, asking if I’d stop and pick up some ‘fresh vegetables’ … not thinking it could mean anything else, I indeed stopped at my local grocer and grabbed some brocholli, greens, string beans, etc. and drove down to the show. I showed the guys a few guitars that I’d brought as they chomped away quite happily on the veggies, which were apparently overlooked by the venue’s hospitality team.
Well, it turns out that the guys had actually meant some fresh ‘weed’, and they thought I was making a joke on them — the joke was on ME, because I had no idea that Swedish slang for marijuana was vegetables!! And obviously they had found some!
And a final statement to the Metal Shock Finland readers?
Thanks for reading — and like Metal Shock FI, fully support the bands and talents that you dig, or they won’t be around tomorrow! See you all out on the road in the near future! Peace.
Thank-YOU, Doug, for this pleasant chat and good words! Take care, and see you again and soon on the road, too! Peace! \m/
The links used in the article:
Rock Academy Finland
“Let The Truce Be Known” by Orphaned Land
Dreams In The Witch House
Lord Of The Lost
Lord Of The Lost – “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead”