I had the opportunity to chat with Blackout Balter’s lead vocalist, Phil Cohen, on Skype recently for an interview. As an up-and-coming, not yet well-known band, it was the perfect time to get to know him as well as where he wants the band to go and what it was like to work with The Killers’ Dave Keuning. Check out the chat they had about MIT, war zones, and most importantly, the brand new alternative-rock EP, Twist And Bend, coming out July 8.
MEB: We’ll start off easy: how did you come up with the name Blackout Balter?
Phil: Well, the word Balter is an Old English term for “to dance clumsily” or “to dance without a care” and we, as a band, really like that word because, of course, with regard to music, there is a lot of clumsy dancing and we’re a pretty high energy band on stage. So it just seemed to fit. “Balter” was very interesting to us and so Blackout Balter came to be from there. We took this Old English word and we shocked it back into life.
How would you describe your music to newcomers?
I think we’re alternative rock, right down the middle of modern day alternative rock. We have a strong punk rock influence, at least personally I know I do, and I think that shows through on the music. We also have a good infusion of ’90s alternative music as well. Probably ’70s underground rock and ’80s alternative. We have a bunch thrown into the mix. Going off of my influences, the ’70s underground scene. So really, Iggy Pop, Patty Smith, and New York Dolls. My gateway into that world when I was younger was the ’80s hardcore punk scene. My cousins Bane and Andrew got me really interested in ’80s hardcore punk when I was an early teen. That kind of opened up my eyes to new sounds and exciting energy. Then came Nirvana and during the early days of Weezer, I really gravitated towards the first two albums. I like to say we’re straightforward alternative rock and roll. We definitely have a punk influence and some catchy pop sensibilities.
To be a tad cliché, what is your favorite song to play?
I like “Edison” a lot. It’s actually the last song on the album and it’s a very high energy song. Usually there’s a lot of energy on stage happening when we’re playing “Edison”. We tend to close out our sets with this song and it’s a really good time. I know we, as a band, all like that.
You came from MIT which is a pretty high quality and famed university, right?
I went to grad school there.
How did you manage to go from MIT to music? Like, how did you begin?
I actually don’t get this question a lot; that’s a really good question. I’ve been a very serious songwriter/musician and really, an artist, since I was an early teen. It doesn’t matter what I was doing at a particular phase of my life, I would always be writing songs; I’d always be an active musician. The same thing went for my time at MIT. I was an active musician while I was there and to me, it was always a natural transition. Go to grad school, learn a bunch of cool new stuff, and interact with a bunch of super high-level people which were folk who personally enriched my life. All of that could come out in some way, shape, or form into the art that I make. It actually seems like a really weird transition, but to me, it all made a ton of sense.
I will tell you something really cool – and most people don’t know this – but MIT is generally acknowledged as one of, if not the best, engineering and technical schools in the entire world. So, a lot of people say that, “Oh, technical and engineering means math and math means almost the opposite of art and creativity.” What I found there was very refreshing and that is: the quantitative and the qualitative coexist very well at MIT. The folks that are super quantitative are some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet. So, this whole notion where you have this right side of the brain and this left side of the brain and this part focuses on math, while this part focuses on the fuzzy stuff like literature; I think that is total bullshit. I’ve seen it firsthand in a super intense, high-powered environment like MIT. So I thought the experience was amazing and it enriched my life. I hope that through Twist & Bend and the songs I have written, that kind of experience shows through.
Actually, on the MIT crest, there is an engineer and a poet. So, the juxtaposition of those two different types of people are represented throughout MIT very strongly; it’s part of the DNA there.
How did you come to meet your bandmates? Did you always know them?
I didn’t always know them. The first person in the band who I met was Chris Dorsey, who’s the drummer of the band. We met a couple years ago at a neighborhood block party. I had just recently moved from Wichita, Kansas, believe it or not, to the Boston area. Shortly after I moved to town, we had this block party. I had heard prior to this block party that there was this really good drummer who lived in the neighborhood. I ran into Chris and we started talking. He quickly found out that I was a songwriting and I found out he was the drummer I heard so much about. I said, “Oh my gosh, Chris, it’s great to finally meet you! I have a bunch of songs I’ve written over the past year or so. I’d love to send them to you and I’d love to start working on them with you.” He said, “Great, go for it.” I probably send him ten or fifteen songs. He responded really well to them and said, “Phil, we have to start rehearsing.” We ended up rehearsing and recording some music that ultimately, some of that music would become Blackout Balter stuff, but a lot of it was traditional indie-rock, kind of singer-songwriter stuff. We scratched a lot of that Twist & Bend.
Then I went away to MIT, which was right down the road from where I was living, and I met Misha [Kostandov], who plays keys and guitar for us. MIT is in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Misha, at the time, graduated from Brown, which is in Providence, Rhode Island. He was heading up to MIT to start a software company and MIT is big on entrepreneurship and tech, so we met through the MIT network as one of the people he was trying to start a company with was one of my classmates. I heard he was a piano player, so Misha and I befriended each other. Before we knew it, we started playing music together and I started testing him out, to which he was amazing, of course. I introduced him to Chris and the rest is history.
I was a big fan of a band called New Highway Hymnal, which was on the Boston scene. I just so happened to reach out to Amelia [Gormley], which was New Highway Hymnal’s bassist. I loved her music and how she played. Now, she’s our bassist. And that’s how everything came together and how we met.
You mentioned that you would describe yourself as alternative rock, but you had some sort of indie rock songs. Would you ever want to go back to including indie songs in there?
I think the path we’re on with regard to Blackout Balter is a very interesting path. The songs we’re writing today post-Twist & Bend are still within the realm of Twist & Bend, but we’re experimenting with new things and pushing art, as I’d say, even further. I think there’s room to dive more into the indie rock realm and what have you, but I think the path we’re taking is continuing to head down the alternative rock path and to push the boundaries of alternative rock. I’m very excited about the direction we’re continuing to head.
So, Twist & Bend is coming out soon. What are your thoughts and ideas about it? It can be anything, the EP as a whole, what songs are about, etc.
I’m really excited about the EP as a whole. I think it’s a great representation of who we are as a band, a really good representation of who I am, personally, as a songwriter and all of the experiences that I’ve lived in some way, shape, or form. All these real life experiences almost show their faces through Twist & Bend and the songs on Twist & Bend. So, I’m very proud of the work. Also, we haven’t talked much about this, but I have been very excited to expose the relationship that I have with Dave Keuning of The Killers who, of course, was a part of the album. I still can’t believe that happened and it’s just this very cool life experience that we had. I know that while we were in Vegas, we didn’t take one second of our time for granted. I feel very confident that that kind of living in the moment type of attitude showed through on the album. Overall, I’m very excited for everyone to hear all of the songs on the album. Up to this point, we’ve released three singles and have gotten a great response. But, it’ll be interesting to hear what everyone thinks of the album once it’s released in full.
What kinds of themes have been brought up in this EP?
Well, a big theme that always seems to come up is the theme of war; a lot of the themes that I’m going to bring up are going to sound very cliché. The theme of war, the theme of love, the theme of running away from something, trying to leave something and move onto the next phase of your life. The theme of death is in a lot of those songs, even though I think it’s pretty well disguised. So, all of those themes sound super cliché and as I talk about them, I feel like I’m in the movie Spinal Tap. It sounds so cliché, but I’ve lived a lot of deep and rich experiences in my life. I’ve been deployed with the military in Afghanistan and I’ve seen a bunch of stuff there. I’ve done a lot of things that maybe most professional artists haven’t done and I think that’s really what I leverage when I create my art and write my songs. I hope that shows through in a unique and creative way and I think it does. Those themes that I mentioned are prevalent throughout the entire EP in one way or another and often times those themes are pretty well disguised, but that disguise is pretty intentional as well.
Excuse the next bit of interview, we started ranting about war. But to continue with the chat: I totally get the whole war feel. Surprisingly, not a lot of bands have the whole war thing going on or a theme of war.
Well, maybe death metal bands, but we’re definitely not a death metal band (laughs).
I recently interviewed a band called Dash|Ten and their entire power trio that they have going on is all from the Army. A lot of their songs have themes of war too. I actually brought up for a discussion post for one of my classes the question of, “Is your job worth dying for?”, because a lot of war reporters get killed and they don’t mean to.
That’s really interesting. To that point, when I was in Afghanistan, I remember I was corresponding with my dad and he said, “Phil, I’ve been reflecting on your being away and reflecting on life and there are very few things that I would die for.” That’s what my dad said. Now, my dad and I are very close, he’s an amazing guy. I said, “Well, that’s really interesting, dad, because there are many, many, many things I would die for.” To your discussion about journalism and being in a hostile environment, I think if you’re passionate about something, you stand on principle and it’s natural to be willing to die for them. I think that’s a pretty interesting conversation and I definitely don’t mean to digress.
One of my classmates brought up the fact that journalists who die overseas while they’re technically in the military without the military training should get the burial and the pride of being over there like a soldier. They’re worth it; they’re over there.
Seeing those guys over there like journalists, government contractors, and people who are not formal military, I always thought it was a weird dynamic. So, that’s a really good debate to have: whether these journalists who are embedded with soldiers and what have you…whether they should have the same military honors. I always thought this was a weird thing because you have a journalist on a convoy or a civilian on a convoy and it’s a totally different mindset. It’s a different type of training the military goes through compared to, let’s say, journalists, government, or civilians. That’s a pretty deep debate, I think. It’s a really cool question for debate, essentially full military honors for journalists or any embedded civilian. It was definitely an interesting dynamic: the civilian versus the military over in combat.
I agree. A lot of the time journalists get murdered for what they’re writing because they’re writing the truth about what’s happening. Why they’re over there, why the militaries are fighting. They’re opening it up for us to understand and people over there don’t like that, so they purposefully kill them.
Maybe a way to look at it is: should there be some sort of formal journalism track and some sort of formal journalism designation that puts these war correspondent in a specific category. Maybe the term “war correspondent” is enough, but maybe not. Maybe there’s some sort of national federal group of war correspondents, but actually, the press shouldn’t be tied to the government (laughs). But anyway, those are some really deep questions that I’m glad to discuss. It’s interesting to think about those things.
To bring it back to the interview: how did you feel about Dave Keuning playing with you?
Dave is amazing. He’s not only an amazing artist, he is an outstanding person and we love Dave. We are honored to be able to call him a friend. It was amazing to work with him in the studio because we got to see, essentially, inside his creative process and how quickly he got to work. As an example for “Heavy Hand”, he was sitting in a corner of the studio listening to some of the draft tracks we had put together for the song. He just picked up his guitar when it was his turn to draft and even the first notes he played, he ended up banging out this amazing solo. I remember asking, “Hey Dave, did you pull that out of your ass? That was so amazing what you just did.” He said, “No, I was just listening to the music over in the corner and I was just humming some melodies that I was thinking about for the guitar solo. So, I just picked up the guitar and I played it.” That sort of insight into his creative process was priceless. It was amazing and we saw that all transpire in front of us.
Dave did play cello as well and that whole experience was pretty darn cool too. I didn’t even know he played cello, but apparently Dave has played cello since he was a young guy. He went to Berkeley College of Music one summer to do kind of like a cello summer camp and Berkeley College of Music is right in the Boston area. So, when he heard “Goodbye Cambridge”, he said, “Hey, Phil. Is this like Cambridge, Massachusetts, like, right across the river from Boston?” And I said, “Yes, it is.” And he’s like, “Well, that’s pretty darn cool. I’d like to play cello on that because I had one of the best times of my life going to Berkeley College of Music playing cello one summer and now I’m playing cello on a song that’s essentially about the same area.” It was pretty surreal. Dave Keuning is in the studio. This rock God, this guitar God, and there he is banging away on a cello for one of our tracks. It was pretty cool.
What songs did he play on with you guys?
He played the cello on “Goodbye Cambridge” and guitar on both “Heavy Hand” and “Hello Operator”.
Do you have any plans for the future with Blackout Balter? Any tours coming up or new music?
We’re always working on stuff and I’m a super active songwriter. I’m always creating. We have a ton planned for the future and we have some very big goals for the band. Make no mistake and I definitely don’t want to sound arrogant, but we’re swinging for the fences. We want to be one of the biggest bands in the world. So, we’ve been very fortunate to build a very strong team even outside of the direct band to include management and agents. We have a lot of big plans for the future to include a U.S. and European tour and a lot of new music in the coming year. I’m very happy with the direction of how the songwriting is going post Twist & Bend. I was very happy with how Twist & Bend came out and the songs are on that album, but the stuff we’re moving toward now, I think, pushes art even further, which is exciting for me.
Where is the one place you’d want to go to perform, anywhere in the world?
I would say we would definitely – and this is well within our grasp – want to get over to England and play some of the big key festivals. Of course, Reading and Leeds. That would be a dream for us. A ton of our heroes played those festivals, so it would be a dream come true. Definitely England and to play the festival circuit would be amazing. I would say, too, we’re very excited for a full European tour and I’m sure that’ll happen in the near future. But I also very much look forward to getting to Australia. That’s part of the world that is very far from where we live, but it’s supposed to be very beautiful. I know that we have a bit of a growing fan base there, so it would be nice to know the people over there a little more.
I listened to your interview with Concert Crap and I absolutely loved your response to the East Coast/West Coast debate. As a true Jersian, I will not take that you love both coasts equally. There has to be more love for one over the other. Which is it?
My roots are here; my roots are on the East Coast. I am a full East Coaster and I understand the people out on the East Coast because I’m one of them. So, it’s like the East Coasters with the harder outer shell and a little bit of an edge to them. But once you break through that hard outer shell, they’re the best and most loyal friends that anyone could ever have in the entire world. That sort of thing, that is East Coast, in my eyes, to a T and I love it. I mean, that’s me. So, of course, I’d have to pick East Coast. But, I will say, L.A. is freaking amazing. A lot of people say a bunch of bad things about L.A., but I’ve been there a ton and I absolutely love it out there. I think one of the reasons I love it is because there are a lot of transplants out to LA. It’s not like everyone was born and raised in the L.A. area, so you get a great mix of diversity out there. You get East Coasters, West Coasters. You get everyone out there and I really like that diversity. East Coast wins, though, definitely.
Is there anything else you’d like the fans of Mind Equals Blown to know about the band or the music?
Yeah, actually there is. Let’s be honest, we’re not a huge band yet. We’re still, what some people would call, an undiscovered band. Even though that’s the case, we do have a growing fan base and those people who are a part of the fan base are extremely important to me and the entire band. We don’t look at those people actually as fans, we look at those people as friends and even family. The reason I say this is because it’s easy to like a band when they’re selling out stadiums and when they’re playing on every radio station that you listen to. It’s a lot more difficult to like a band when they’re lesser known. There’s a little risk that all these people, these early adopters as I call them, are taking in liking us and telling their friends about us. Because of that and the interest we get from these people, we feel forever indebted to them. We love them like close friends and family and we will absolutely never ever forget the early fan base. I will tell you, the interesting thing is, I think that we, as a band, take so much pride in these people and we genuinely care about them so much that we know their names, we check them out via social, we know what they like, we know what they don’t like, we know where they’re from. They care about us, but we really care about them too. I just want those great people to understand how much we care about them.
Be sure to check out Blackout Balter’s new EP, Twist & Bend, coming out July 8!