Some time ago, I had the honor and pleasure of sitting down for lunch with Doug Blair, guitarist of the legendary rock band W.A.S.P.!
We discussed life, music, movies, and other important topics.
Below is my interview with the guitar virtuoso himself. Thanks Doug once again for your time and hospitality!
And thanks to my brother Sami for the photos. Check out his photography at https://www.instagram.com/viikatephotography/
How did you end up in Finland?
If you think about the kind of music we play, which would be classic rock, the market for it has decreased in the States while it has increased here in Europe. So we are certainly not the only band that found better opportunities for work abroad than in our own country.
Blackie [Lawless] will often say, “The audience in this place [in Europe] reminds me of the Troubadour (iconic LA venue) in ’87!” I wasn’t there at the Troubadour in ’87, but I know what he means! It’s a good kind of mini observation of what’s happening on a larger scale: in the US, our genre’s audiences have been aging and constantly getting smaller. European bands perhaps don’t realize this, because they’ve always played venues here. For an American rock band however, the effect is pretty evident. But I firmly believe that the ongoing stylistic turnover in the states – and UK as well – is what has always driven the whole industry, at least in US and Europe.
So before I came here, I lived over near Boston, where I taught private guitar lessons for years. One day, a student showed me a stack of CDs and said, “This band is called H.I.M., and they’re from Finland!” Sometime after that I re-joined W.A.S.P., and we played the Sauna Festival [a rock and metal festival in Tampere, Finland. -admin], and I was really interested in checking out what was going on over here musically. I had discovered Apocalyptica, and heard that Ville Valo(H.I.M.) was a big W.A.S.P. fan!
Long story short, we played here in Turku a couple of times, and I got to know a really cool dude named Mark Bertenyil, who stage managed our shows. He told me about a program called Rock Academy, which teaches and coaches young bands. I did a few guitar clinics for them, and later began to teach there permanently. This gave me a great way to come to this country!
One of the cool things people know about this town is that Doug Blair of W.A.S.P. lives on a ship here. Can you tell us a bit more about this choice of yours?
It’s dictated more by practical circumstances than anything else. I’ve had an apartment and a house and all that stuff, but it’s just not practical when I spend so much time every year on tour with W.A.S.P. There’s a wonderful feeling of freedom in living on the ship.
If you’re locked down to a day-to-day normal routine and lifestyle at home, going out on the road means you have to really uproot all of it — this is why a lot of guys in bands don’t like to tour. They get used to the traditional home life, so then flying around and staying in hotels becomes too much of an effort. I went through all that myself, and we like to call it “The Void” — like there’s a “home mode” and a “tour mode” in your head, and you have to be a totally different person in each one. It messes you up a bit.
For me, living on a ship means I get to stay on that “tour mode”, which makes taking off again to go on tour that much easier. Plus I avoid that “post tour depression” of getting back home and feeling bored after the excitement of the tour. The ship I live on is like a giant tour bus – one that stays still (laughs)!
I’m also no longer interested in accumulating crap, because it ends up just weighing you down. This way, I can tour with the band — or any band, I can take a trip to Russia or Stockholm really easily, and all that good stuff. Material acquisitions have become secondary, as they should be.
What’s the current status of W.A.S.P. ? What are you guys up to?
“Well, just this morning, two summer festivals were announced — one here in Finland and one in Bulgaria. The Finnish one is Sauna Open Air — and ironically we played this fest in 2006, after which I was asked to ‘stay on’ with the band! We have played there once since, when it was called Radio City. I expect that there will be more announced as it quite a trip from California for two fests.
We’re in a great place musically because we never regressed into a “nostalgia band”. There are certain bands that can just play their old hits from the past, and that’s all their audiences wanna hear. But with us, our audience wants to hear the new stuff as well! The kids are crazy about Dominator and Golgotha and Babylon. Our new stuff can measure up to the old stuff. [My favorite song from the band is “Scream” from their album Golgotha. -admin]
Album-wise, there’s a lot of material, so it’s just a matter of how to release it. Golgotha is still going well, so I don’t think there’s any rush. A lot of the bands in our genre are really paranoid about people forgetting about them if they’re not constantly releasing or touring, so they end up over-releasing material. We don’t want to make that mistake. There’s value in leaving the audience desiring more!
If you look at the development of W.A.S.P. through the years, it seems like there’s lately been an added component of spirituality in your music and lyrics.
Blackie is creating the lyrics on his own, and I think nowadays he’s able to put more of his spirituality into the music, which is awesome. He’s a prototypical singer-songwriter, backed by a powerful band.
As the band, we’re approaching the songs as musicians who record and perform them – we don’t really get involved in that early songwriting process — that is very private, as it should be. But with arrangements and leads and other ideas, yes we do contribute then. We make the music work live and on the records.
But you’re right, the songs are getting stronger in all ways, and the spiritual component of the lyrics plays into that growth. Though in some ways, that spirituality was already quite present on albums like Crimson Idol, and even some of the stuff on Headless Children. I think society itself has changed and become more sensitive and reactive to it, which is odd to say the least. A level of spirituality has always been present in so much great music, whether perceived as such or not. A great example would be King’s X!
What are the most essential/influential records in your life?
That’s a really tough question. I’m gonna say “All The World’s A Stage” (1976) by Rush, because it had a major impact on all of us young musicians back in the day, playing in our cellars and wanting to make it in music. I saw them live many times, too. They were amazing at playing their instruments, but it wasn’t just a technical performance — the music also took you on a journey. “All The World’s A Stage” is a great live record — it introduced us to a relatively hard-to-discover, iconic and influential group in a cool way.
When “Van Halen” (1978) first came out, we were all really amped up about Eddie and his guitar. He like single-handedly saved rock guitar at that point! Kiss’s “Alive” (1975) is great, as is Peter Frampton’s live album [“Frampton Comes Alive”, 1976]. Judas Priest’s “Unleashed From The East” (1982). All King’s X’s albums. Type O Negative’s “October Rust” (1996) and Tool’s “AEnima” (1996). And throughout, Rush kept evolving and re-inventing themselves!
Lately, I’ve been greatly inspired by Porcupine Tree. When you start making your own music and finding your own style, you retreat somewhat from outside music for a while. You shift from being a listener to being a writer. For me, there was a big gap after my listening to Rush, for example. But Steven Wilson [of Porcupine Tree] has been an inspiration to me as of late. He’s a modern icon and genius, and a consummate performer. And listening to his music motivates and validates my own creativity in a way, because it’s unapologetically non-commercial. It shows you don’t have to follow like sheep to make it, even now!
I’m not one of these jaded old dudes who say ‘Everything is shit these days!’ It’s not true — there’s a lot of really, really good music out there. I also don’t believe in the concept of the “golden years”: there are a lot of musicians out there writing their best stuff at a mature age. Devin Townsend still blows my mind, as does Blackie Lawless! He can still put together amazing songs, and he’s still amazingly talented!
How tight is the music community? Do you keep in touch with other bands?
That has changed quite a bit with the emergence of social media. But I think most people keep in touch with really long-term friends the same ways they used to. But as far as bands go, we see each other on tour, and we use technology to keep in touch. But it’s a kind of an on again/off again affair, because bands always have so many things going on, that you don’t have time to keep up with everything that’s happening with everyone else. It’s action overload — and it forces you to pull inward a bit to keep focused.
In the long run, you do end up having a kind of community of musicians, where you follow each other’s stuff, and you hear something they’ve done and you go “Cool!” When I see contemporaries constantly coming out with new stuff, it keeps me inspired as well — by making me mad! (laughs)
What are your top movies?
I’m gonna name my four favorites: The Crow (1994), Contact (1997), Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the Hunger Games trilogy.
I like these movies because they take you to another world, and let you look at life through someone else’s eyes for a while. And because they make you reflect upon and assess what the f*** is going on around us now.
And “The Crow”, of course, has amazing music, both the original score and the song contributions from bands like The Cure, NIN and Rage Against The Machine. The film is like Type O’s ‘October Rust’ in optical form, taking you to this dark, rainy place. It’s a love story and a story of revenge, and it plays with the age-old concept of love conquering over death. It’s romantic in many ways, not only the obvious ways.
“Contact” is a different thing. It’s a long movie, and it deals with the idea of being able to travel to another universe. Jodie Foster’s character does that and nobody believes her, but she knows in her heart that the experience was real. The film was able to kind of predict the growing intensity that exists nowadays between science and religion, and the film examines this duality and debate really well. The story has multiple layers, and it can be viewed from different angles. I come away differently every time.
As for “Hunger Games”, there’s the big obvious adventure to be enjoyed on the surface-level of it, but there’s much more nuanced stuff happening below the surface, which shows the quality of the writing. Below the surface, it deals with politics and poverty, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The characters are multi-dimensional too: the President turns out not to be the worst of them all in the end, and the main character is kind of lost as to her role in the greater scheme of things. Plus the trilogy conveys a beautiful love story. The film is a great metaphor for all of us: where do we fit in on an immediate level? How about the greater scheme of things? Are these two levels in balance in our lives?
And “Shawshank” — what can you even say about that? It’s so powerful in so many ways, it’s kind of hard to watch. It succeeds in encapsulating what feels like an entire lifetime into a few hours with such compelling writing and acting. And true freindship that many of us never really experience.
I’d also like to mention “The Lives of Others” (2006), a beautiful German film that takes place towards the end of the Cold War. There are these artists and writers in East Berlin trying to publish to the outside, and then there’s the Stazi agent spying on them, totally stuck in the past. Great, great movie.
How about your favorite books?
I’m not a big reader. Part of that has to do with time management: you end up prioritizing your time in a way where you place your own work and exercising over other things. There’s also the influence of social media: nowadays, the time you would have used to read a good book is used to looking at stuff online, and catching up with what other people are doing, all that s**t. So if I’m gonna name books, it’s gonna be biographies, other people’s stories, as opposed to fiction, which is just random made-up stuff.
I love Maynard James Keenan’s bio, because he spent time in Boston and moved to L.A., just like I did.
How do you listen to music? Do you still use CD’s and all that stuff?
I have music in my computer, but I don’t listen to Spotify, for instance – I’m a conscientious Spotify objector. I don’t use streaming movies or music, because they undermine the entire industry. Of course, from a consumer standpoint, those servives offer more choice, but more choice isn’t necessarily always a good thing. If you have too much choice, you’ll never be able to figure out what you like, what’s your “thing”. Spotify is an app that works on quantity, not quality. But there are pro’s – and it will all fall into place.
I use Pandora at home in the States sometimes, and I’ve discovered some great music through that, but I’m pretty sure Pandora pays the artists better, so I don’t have a guilty conscience about that. When I find good stuff through there, I buy their albums and go to their concerts, and try to support them in that way.
Buying a record also inspires you to listen to the whole album, rather than picking a song from this band and picking a song from that band. Oftentimes, albums are worlds onto themselves, and you have to discover them accordingly – not just one song from this album and another off of that album.
If you look at the Spotify page of W.A.S.P., you have literally hundreds of thousands of listeners each month. Does that transform into money for you?
Not directly to me, no. Spotify makes its most money from advertising, and pays so little to artists. Maybe that’ll be rectified eventually, but the only direct benefit of Spotify and other streaming services is exposure, but then, if it comes down to just this vague “exposure” versus actually getting something for your work, I would go for the latter option.
Streaming services condition people to think there’s no need to pay for art. Why would you pay for something that’s available for free 24/7, you know. So it’s become the dilemma of our age.
How does a band in 2018 generate income?
Touring, playing shows, and merchandise. Vinyl has also made a comeback, and there are now more vinyl factories. And vinyl can be a big source of income for a band: you do a vinyl version of your album, and your cut of the sales can be really good. And people will always love to hold something physical in their hands.
Funnily enough, if I was a young guy putting together my two-piece band [signal2noise -admin] now in 2018, I would never record. We would be the band that you have to come see live – period. Some might say “You’re cutting off your potential audience!” But I would respond, “Then we just have to be good enough to be that kind of a draw — that people actually show up and pay to see us!” Of course, there would be bootleg recordings, but still, there would be that live element you would have to experience personally. Just like a live play production — it’s worked for centuries. Humans love live action!
Nowadays, it’s like Blackie says: “Records are just advertisements for tours!” Exactly! Which is ass-backwards to how it once was. But I kind of like it, as it puts the emphasis back on the live shows, which I love doing. And it allows the good bands that really work hard, to progress and reach further.
Speaking of which, where can people see you play live?
At the moment I’m working with the Rock Academy project, planning an ‘apprentice’ guitar-building stint, and organizing guitar clinics across Scandinavia. So, I’m a bit spread out! (laughs)
Right now, the only live act I’m concentrating on is a project called signal2noise, which is a two-piece band doing experimental music. We put it together with a friend in Boston, and released a few independent albums, but we didn’t do that many live shows. Now, I’m working on that again here in Finland with a local drummer, and it’s as challenging and enjoyable as ever!
I use an instrument I built myself that I call a “Guitar Cross”. It’s an 8-string instrument with 3 bass strings and 5 guitar strings. It was inspired by my hero Charlie Hunter, a jazz guy who plays a similar instrument. When I play it, it sounds really cool, like Rush or Rage Against the Machine. And because of this instrument, when signal2noise plays as a duo, we actually sound like a trio. And hopefully, we’ll be able to get out there soon and play some shows.
People can find our music at www.s2nusa.com That’s the only place it exists right now.