Last of the Blacksmiths
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Last of the Blacksmiths

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The best kept secret in music

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Interview: Last of the Blacksmiths

Sometimes, you hear a CD that just kills you with its effective sound and total control of the music. Recently, the Last of the Blacksmiths' album did just that to yours truly. Add to that the instantly friendly members of the band and their eagerness to give Indieworkshop a little face-time. Luckily for you, gentle readers, this interview coincides with a little tour of the West Coast that this San Francisco band is about to making, so go see them and get knocked out by their sound.




First question, what's with the name? Does it imply a tie to a past now gone, or some kind of comment on technology? Is it a literary reference? What gives?

Nathan: No, the name isn't a comment on technology or a literary reference. You could say it's a music reference, I guess. What happened was, we wanted to name our group "The Blacksmiths", so I googled the name and found out that there already was a band with that name. Since we really liked the name, it crossed my mind that there was a song by the Band called "Last of the Blacksmiths," so I suggested that to the guys and everyone seemed to like it, since in a round-about way, we still got the name we wanted, without the risk of another band having the same name. The other motivation that crossed my mind for picking this name was that if just by chance, someone who liked our music googled our name, they might see that there is a song by the Band with the same name, and maybe, just maybe, they'd be curious enough to hear the song that they might get to hear Richard Manuel's sweet, sweet, voice for the first time. That is, assuming the person wasn't a fan already.

Nigel: We used to joke about this other explanation for the name, but I always felt connected to it. We all really loved American "Black" music…soul, blues, and rock and roll… and "The Smiths" was also one of our all time favorite bands. So putting them together as "blacksmiths" was a fun and unique, some might say an odd way to pay respects.

Jake: I actually didn't know Nigel or Nathan until after the name had been chosen, but it is definitely one of the things that drew me to them. I think even though the name was not intended to create a sort of harkening back nostalgia, it does so just by the nature of the people who thought it up. That's a huge reason why I was so honored to be invited to join the band-because these guys are truly the most sincere, honest people I have ever met. And that sincerity, at least to me, makes me think how more people must have been in the past, when lives were not so cluttered and busy the way they seem today. While it's true that we are definitely not past purists, I think we, as a group, take pride in creating music with a certain unhurried pace to it, and to me it is reminiscent of how life must have been before I was alive.

Give us a condensed history of the band. Who are you? When did you start playing in the band? Give us some big moments in the history of the Last of the Blacksmiths.

Nathan: Well, Nigel and I had been playing together in another band for about three years until that group broke up. We still wanted to play music together, so we tried to put together a new group. For another two years, we struggled to keep a solid lineup together, until in late 2003, we met Jake and Bert on Craig list, and finally found what we'd been looking for. The moment where the four of us played together for the first time, was really the biggest moment in the history our group.

You recorded and all but mixed your record yourselves. Do you think that this is important in anyway in your growth as musicians? Are you happy with the results? Would you continue this way in the future?

Nathan: Bert and Nigel were the one's who did most of the recording work, but I guess I can still say that going through the process had to help our musical growth in one way or another. I'm mostly happy with the results, with exception for things we didn't have much control over, like not having an optimal room to record in, or the freedom to not worry about time constraints. Although it was a worthwhile experience in a lot of ways, I don't really want to continue this way so much in the future, because by doing all the recording work, we end up having less and less time to actually play music together.

Nigel: The first thing that comes to mind about growth is our friendships. And also recording independently as a band, gluing together, being inspired, challenging each other and making important, sometimes difficult decisions about our album has brought a higher understanding on what we're doing together as a band. And now in practice, even more so then before, my attention is pulled to all of our parts when we're writing a new song together. It has made me think about how our parts will translate to a recording. And as far as the album goes, I'm happy with the results. There are things you wish you would have, could have, or should have d - Indie Workshop


Last of the Blacksmiths “Last of the Blacksmiths” (Independent 2005)

A riveting, ravishing debut gleaming with understated opulence and a slow burning cool. The major curses of most self-released albums are: They sound either numbingly anonymous or so heavily influenced and derivative they are, in all but name, tribute acts. The tracks are usually quickly and cheaply produced with any flashes of inspiration well trampled under a leaden mix. Puerile or toe-curlingly pretentious lyrics--often mercifully muted by the same ham-fisted mix. The artwork is usually a sloppy collage knocked up by someone’s girlfriend at the office with a few more blurry pics in the insert of the guys sulking with their guitars. Essentially, a completely forgettable vanity project given away to friends with the vast unsold remainder gathering dust in the attic along with the yellowing reviews from the local paper. Well, Last of the Blacksmiths is an exception to all of the above. This unassuming California quartet is pure quality from every angle, a standard to which every other unsigned band should aspire. From the intelligent, evocative lyrics to the unhurried, textured musicianship to the simple, tasteful design of the inserts extending even to the delicate, cream bird silhouettes printed on the disc, this package is a treasure containing an even greater treasure. Recorded live on a faulty Tascam 388 in Nathan Wanta’s house while his parents were away, these songs have a distinctly informal, low-key atmosphere but are certainly not lo-fi. Despite one track being recorded in the living room with Nathan’s grandfather sitting in the corner waiting for his fish supper, these have the intimacy of a home recording but none of the associated lo-fi shortcomings. The sound is faithful and pristine; so much so that studio technology could well have compromised its natural integrity. This reel to reel is real.

Calling themselves the Blacksmiths has more to do with their love of 60’s black music and The Smiths than any attempt to conjure up some iconic americana image of sweaty labourers and all the tired horses etc. Having said that, don’t expect much in the way of grinding soul or clever Morrissey-isms. With their sad keyboards, brushed drumming and a lazy, loping melancholia, LotB meander around Wills Oldham and Johnson territory with space, patience and a general cool oozing through every uncluttered track. It’s a cliché but true in these songs: the notes not played are as palpable as those that are. The lyrics are equally spare and evocative with words rarely wasted. In ‘Tree Song’, a dying tree laments the fact that children are always indoors saying ‘I don’t know why those kids never come out of their houses/I haven’t felt the climb of their hands in years’. ‘Grass Blade’ evokes memories of a simpler time ‘before televisions were in cars/when it was good enough to stare outside the window at the moving stuff’. ‘In My Hands’ with guest violin from Jolie Holland, reads like a hymn of affection centred around a father’s guiding hand. Other songs, ‘Pete McKenzie’ and ‘Russian River’ also explore the shifting ground between fathers and sons, ends and beginnings. Over 14 tracks and almost an hour of music (all originals except for ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’), this is a remarkably weighty and mature debut. Taking the simple, timeless stories of the everyman--caught between home and beyond, moving on and looking back-- and framing those stories in an equally timeless but contemporary way is something few bands manage. The inevitable comparisons to laid-back Wilco, Richmond Fontaine, even The Band are accurate and justified.


Date review added: Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Reviewer: Robin Cracknell
Reviewers Rating:
Related web link: www.lastoftheblacksmiths.com

http://www.americana-uk.com/auk/modules.php?op=modload&name=Reviews&file=index&req=showcontent&id=1569
- Americana UK


Last of the Blacksmith's

Thrasher Magazine, June, 2005 by Ryan Henry

SAN FRANCISCO'S LAST OF THE BLACKSMITHS began recording their first full-length in March 2004. Using a Tascam 388 (a 1980's era eight-channel mixing board-slash-I/4" reel-to-reel recorder, of which only seven channels worked), the band committed to tape--live--more than a dozen of the prettiest, soulful songs you ever did hear (or in your case, are about to). They spent the following months mixing and adding to the tunes with similarly-minded players like Jolie Holland and Matt Henry Cunitz. The result is really a masterpiece of an album.

The Blacksmiths, whether on stage or on record, reach places musically that take most bands years to find. They transcend time, in their understanding and translation of American blues, folk, rock, and old-timey melodies; tone, in a respect for open space within the music and focused playing of their instruments; harmony, in the way their voices blend together so effortlessly; and rhythm, by confidently relying on a synergy and feel that exists amongst hem--they're neither slow nor fast, just perfectly unrestrained. Listening to the music they make will release all the tension from your body and take you to a better place. Every time.

Talk about how this record came to be.

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Nathan: It makes me smile when I think about it. We were all excited because we thought we were going to get to record our album in a really nice studio for free, but then we found out that wasn't going to happen so we all pulled together and figured out bow we'd be able to do it in an alternative space. I thought, "Well, my parents are gone, we can do it there." And Bert had the Tascam 388, and be and Nigel knew how to do some recording stuff, and Jake had the truck to provide the "pro transport," which made it all possible. It's kinda neat how we pulled together and did it.

Was the goal from the outset to record a full-length?

Nigel: Yeah. Actually, two or three songs didn't even make it on the album, because we were over-ambitious. It's a 54-minute long album.

Bert, since it was your tapemachine, were you scared to be responsible for the undertaking?

Bert: No, I've recorded at least four or five other bands with the same set-up. I knew that the end results were gonna be decent, and I also knew we were gonna dump it in ProTools and add to it. At that point, the eighth track of the 388 wasn't fully dead yet. We took it apart on Nathan's parents floor--you should have seen it--I had it on its side trying to taken the bottom off and I was stripping all the screws, worrying that I'd never get the thing back together again. When I finally got it open I was so frightened by its guts that I just closed it back up.

Exactly how many days were you at Nathan's parents' house in Manteca?

Jake: Seven. Nathan's parents were awesome. They were there for a few of the days; they'd get home from work and listen to us while we were tracking.

Would they be in the same room?

All: Sometimes.

Bert: During the tracking of "Columbus Stockade Blues," the cut that actually made it on the album--dinner was ready, right? Like, it was cooked?

Jake: We were hurrying to finish before dinner.

Bert: We had already done a few takes, but were thinking, "We should do one more ..." And Nathan's parents were so stoked and so cool, they just said "Yeah! Sure!" But Nathan was like, "Hey, you know, if my grandpa waits too long to eat, he gets kinda impatient ..." I remember his grandpa was sitting on the couch across the living room from me, and there's one part of the song where I hit the crash cymbal real hard--I wasn't paying attention, just in the moment--but hitting that crash woke me up and I remember looking over at his grandpa and he was staring at me, like he was really freaked out. He wasn't expecting that. I felt really bad.

Nigel: It's pretty funny, because that was the only time you hit the crash that hard. And that's part of the reason why we chose that take, because it has such a good energy.

List off the guest musicians who played on the record.

Nigel: Matt Henry Cunitz played Hammond B3 on "Columbus Stockade Blues," and pump organ on "Saloon Song" and "Knowing Me." "Jolie Holland" played viola on "Tree Song" and violin on "In My Hands." Alisa Rose played violin on "Russian River." Rufus Wanta, Nathan's grandfather, played harmonica on "In My Hands."

Did you guys have an idea that you wanted these people to be on the album ahead of time?

Jake: Half-and-half. Some were an afterthought, some were planned.

Nigel: As far as having Jolie play, I had recorded her at my house a few months prior, so when she offered to return the favor my mind went straight to her violin playing. Jolie liked both songs and played beautifully on them. I'm glad she chose to play the viola on "Tree Song."

Nathan: My grandpa really liked the violin on "In My Hands." Nigel: That's one of the things that - Thrasher Magazine


Discography

Last of the Blacksmiths, self-titled LP

And Then Some, 7" single

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Label Bio: taken from
http://www.vanguardsquad.com/comrades/lotb.php

San Francisco-based Last of the Blacksmiths formed in 2003 and self-released their first album in 2005. The eponymous 12-song CD (engineered by Bert and Nigel) is filled with beautifully penned and masterfully arranged original works. The band plays in the San Francisco area and tours regularly.

Nathan and Nigel grew up in California’s Central Valley. It’s a region that was once rich in agriculture, but following an influx of urban families seeking respite from the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, soon became a paradise/wasteland for commuter parents and latchkey kids. (The Central Valley is a central theme throughout the band’s album.) Jake grew up in California’s capitol, Sacramento, and after earning his degree in Marine Biology, spent time in San Diego, Mexico, and Lake Tahoe before finally settling in San Francisco. Bert, a native of El Paso, Texas, enjoys bicycles and books as well as drums.

There are so many wonderful things that can be said about the Blacksmiths’ music, but for me, the most interesting is their contribution to oral tradition. The album documents the lives of these four gentlemen. It’s folk music, both traditionally and categorically: the Blacksmiths play all the instruments one would associate with folk music (banjo, mandolin, etc.) and their songs are traditional in that they serve people. The Blacksmiths not only tell stories of their own time and culture, but they preserve stories of their forefathers--quite literally. Three of the songs on their album were written as poems in the late ’60s by Rufus Wanta, grandfather of Blacksmith Nathan Wanta. The poems sat collecting dust for the last thirty years, but the band not only made them part of living history, but asked Rufus to play harmonica on the album, too. The fact that Rufus’ songs don’t seem “old” next to the ’Blacksmith originals is a testament to their endurance, but also to the importance of passing down stories from one generation to the next. Or, as Rufus wrote, “Knowing me will take much longer than one life.”

It must be rare in this day and age that a grandfather and his grandson (not to mention his grandson’s friends) can see eye-to-eye on music. Generations make it a point to diverge from their predecessors; in this respect, the Blacksmiths are no exception. The band members all cut their individual musical teeth within the punk idiom. Nathan, Bert, and Nigel were in various distorted guitar-driven bands before forming the Blacksmiths. Likewise, Jake started plucking on his father’s dusty bass in the family basement, teaching himself how to play Rage Against the Machine tunes. For as different as they sound, the fundamental tenets of punk and folk aren’t that dissimilar.

Folk music was born as a way of story telling: handing down tales by word of mouth from the elder to the young. Music was a form of communication in rural societies. In the early 1900s, the music transformed from communication to art, from process to performance, and the music became the dispatch for a general class of people, the laborers, rail-riders, cowboys, ranchers...the lower class. In fact, musicologists say the term “folk music” was an invention of the bourgeois. The music was the voice of the people in Appalachia, the Delta, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Plains, and the songs were the accounts of daily life. The topics reflected the people, labor, the union, family, fascism, communism, and the embrace of (or resistance to) the American dream. The ’60s birthed the new breed of folkies that most people now are familiar with, the "protest singer." There is much debate on folk music and how to define it--a task further complicated by the myriad sub-genres: traditional folk, electric folk, alt country, rural, No Depression, Americana, old timey, indie folk, etc. There is a similar confusion about punk rock. For lack of what it is, we can be clear that punk is not a participant in mainstream culture. This is where the paradigm of folk and punk intersect: to carry your experience to others without an outside influence. It is with this in mind that I consider Last of the Blacksmiths to be the ideal punk rock band and the ideal folk band: completely self-reliant.

Anyone who has studied folk music knows that it thrives best in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture. That’s fantastic for those who live in the proverbial backwoods. But what about the millions of us who live in cities and towns and--God forbid--suburbs? Is it not our job to preserve this culture, however hideous it may seem? Last of the Blacksmiths do just that. Their songs address the events that shape their lives: living in tract homes; working on a tomato farm; rearing children; spending in excess. It’s noble to practice tradition, but the real challenge lies in preserving that tradition in the face of cultural “advancements.” Wh