Myth of a Man: We sit down with Night Beats' Danny Lee Blackwell
In North London I’m sitting on a balcony with Danny Lee Blackwell, who pours two glasses of red wine and offers a smoke. A wide-brim hat makes a shadow fall over his face, he speaks quietly and takes slow drags on his cigarette. Blackwell is fitting the title of his fourth studio album Myth of a Man. Danny and myself are familiar with each other, and he’s just as welcoming today as he was on our first encounter. A lot has changed in that time, and the biggest change is that Danny has dropped his fourth record under the name Night Beats. After the energy from their sold out show just an hour before in London calms down, Danny and I get talking.
How are you doing today?
I’m doing good, just getting over a cold. I always feel a bit bad after travelling on a plane with all that recycled oxygen. It’s not too long though.
Where are you based nowadays?
Well, I’m still in Texas, but Night Beats members go from California to Canada. It depends, on the record all the guys are from Nashville.
So you’ve been spending some time in Nashville?
That’s where I recorded the last record. I was there for about a week.
You did this record in a week?
Actually about five or six days. A day to fly in and a day to rest, maybe eight days total.
That’s not bad to finish off a record. Myth of a Man, congratulations on the release. Has it been a long time coming?
Well my philosophy is not to rush releases, because in the mean time I’m working on a bunch of other stuff. It’s periodically every 3 years that Night Beats release a record. For me, it’s a good steady pace.
What have you been doing in the meantime? We had to at Bristol Psych Fest last summer, but the record was done by then?
Yeah we were finished by then. I’ve been working and touring with other projects, and also spending a lot of time with my dad. He’s an old timer.
No, not at all. He’s sorta the poler opposite, but he’s my father. I gotta spend that precious time while I can.
Yeah, I feel your dad will always have something to say that no one else will.
Yeah, you could say that… Or he’s got nothing to say, which is what a lot of people would say.
Myth of a Man sounds like Danny is exploring new influence and treading new water. The record saw Danny spending time in Nashville, Tennessee, working with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Departing from the acid trip of 2013’s Sonic Bloom and the fast paced 2016’s Who Sold My Generation, the record is a fresh sound of rock and roll and blues, with a polished input from Auerbach.
So how was it working with Dan Auerbach?
It was great, he was fun to work with and we did a lot of writing on the spot together. A lot of the songs came from old ideas, a lot came from stuff that we made up there with other musicians around. It was sorta a long time coming in the sense that there’s a lot of songs I hadn’t found the right sort of people to materialise them with. I really am not stoked on the idea of having a group that just solely relies on, how do I put this, like, you have to play bass if you’re the bassist, you have to play guitar if you’re the guitarist. I’d rather have a person I can write with that can show me an idea on anything, and if they’re really good at one thing I can just be like, go for it, and then I can add stuff on top. It was great working with those guys.
So Dan did have quite a bit of input into the new record?
How was your relationship with him before that, were you close?
No, not close. It was kind of, I see you, you know?
Yeah, you sorta knew each other.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely knew him more than he knew me. It kind of made sense though, we had a lot of phone calls and long conversations before I went down to make sure we really knew what was going to happen.
Had you met him before?
Yeah, plenty of times.
And you kicked it off with a good relationship?
Yeah, absolutely. On a separate note, Robert Been from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, me and him are very very close friends.
He did Who Sold My Generation?
He helped produce it and played on it, and that came about in a similar but sort of different way. Maybe because we have a similar mindset about things, not to say that Dan and I don’t but with Robert it’s a different kind of thing, you know? Not to compare or anything though. It’s good, I can call him and ask him about a good restaurant in Nashville or something!
Myth of a Man is undoubtably very different to your previous work under Night Beats. With this new sound did you go into writing the record with the mind set of making things a bit different or was it very organic?
It was totally natural. My whole idea is that there is no formula.
But you weren’t writing it knowing Dan would come in to work on it, right?
No, I had a ton of stuff already written. I brought a lot of that. But then there was also a disillusion of the ego, you know thinking ‘this is cool’, but then we would sit down together and I ended up maybe not even telling him certain ideas, but I worked it into another idea. I wasn’t writing anything knowing that he would be a part of it, it was just writing thinking, ‘alright, let's see what happens’. I sent him references and demos, he liked them, but we didn’t have any sort of blueprint before recording. We just both had what we wanted to accomplish in a very round about way.
The record has had the time to settle in now, people have been able to have a few listens. I’ve heard some reviews saying that it’s not the Night Beats and that it’s a new thing.
People are afraid of change.
Would you agree that it’s more of a new venture and not the old Night Beats?
I am the Night Beats, so it is Night Beats. I try and stay away from those reviews, and bless you because we are friends, but I try and stay far away from people like you who write about the music.
Thank you! I get it, no one particularly wants to care about what people think of your music or art.
No, I like you, and when we first met I thought you and what you do was super cool, but honestly, I know there’s reviews out there saying that we are selling out and that Night Beats has changed and it’s just sorta like, fuck off, you know? It’s songs that I wrote and other people helped with. ‘What did you do?’ Is what I want to say to those people. Do you have something to say? I pour my heart and soul into what I do, I got up at six every morning and went to the studio, and I’m very proud of it. It is Night Beats. It’s a different chapter of the same book. I definitely understand people’s sentiment, but I also don’t give a fuck.
It can be hard for fans to accept change. You fall for a band for a specific sound, maybe it’s different to anything else you know or just something you can get down to. It can create a tough time for an artist to explore new paths, the backlash of Dylan going electric an 1965 is a testament to just how attached and dismissive critics and ticket buyers can be.
Danny’s ties with the psychedelic genre are strong. He’s been in projects with the likes of Christian Bland, and is known for his work with the Reverberation Appreciation Society who have put out releases from Joel Gion (Brian Jonestown Massacre), Night Beats, Holy Wave and The UFO Club (Danny’s project with Christian Bland). They’re also responsible for arguably the biggest festival in the psychedelic scene, Levitation, which takes place in Texas and France.
With your close ties to things that are considered psychedelic, I wanted to know, what is psychedelic to you?
One thing I hate about any genre is repeating yourself. Let’s take the godfathers 13th Floor Elevators; if you listen to Easter Everywhere or their covers of Bob Dylan, sure you can hear Roky and you can hear Tommy Hall’s influence, but as a wide rounded answer, there is no definition to psychedelic, if you have a definition then you spoil it. You don’t understand it. It doesn’t mean you use a delay pedal, or a lot of reverb, or you talk about trippy shit, that is the downfall of psychedelic music. And I’ve been lobbed into that category, sure, fine, whatever, but a lot of people say country is one thing, or blues is one thing, but for me, a lot of hip hop is psychedelic. A lot of blues is country. Not everything has to have a boundary, and that to me is psychedelic. A lack of boundaries.
You grew up in Dallas but made a move to Seattle. What do you think prompted that move?
I wanted a bigger city that I thought would be more of a nurturing place for young bands trying stuff out. A big influence from Seattle was the grunge movement, and I was a big fan growing up and I still am. It was different there, there was much more of a younger and DIY scene which I just wan’t used to because there wasn’t much going on like that in Dallas.
At the time was it a pretty daunting move? You loved the music coming from the city but other than knowing your ambition you wouldn’t have known the success that would come to Night Beats.
I guess, but I never wanted to make anything that sounded like it was coming out of Seattle or Dallas, or any specific place.
I don’t think you ever have. It can feel quite suffocating at times trying to make music in one city when it gets associated with a sound.
Yeah, I was trying to not be stuck in anything like that.
When we were in my apartment you were playing a lot of soul and blues, and you mentioned you play the blues and rock and roll, but where did that love come from?
I think it was very natural. My main influence as a kid was classical music, because that’s what I was shown most of. But then I found the blues which turned me on to soul, with Sam Cooke who the band is named after. It just spoke to me, as long as music has soul I’ll dig it. Soul music is everything to me, it can be found in any sort of genre. As far as up bringing goes, music wise, I have those regional influences such as blues, country and folk, and music that Texas breathes and lives, but I come from a very diverse family, and there’s influence that you may not be able to hear in Night Beats, but it’s there. If you really listen I think you can hear it.
You’ve been swapping out members recently, last time we saw you you had Sam who’s in the band still and Jonah who’s with Mattiel now. Tonight it’s a new line up, and you’ve got Calvin Love joining you for these dates. You are Night Beats, but for you how is that changing of band members?
For me the music needs to stay alive, and if I can find the right players who can handle it then I gravitate towards those sort of people. It’s just the way that life goes. Not to find myself in a cliché but people have kids, have drug problems, want to move on, anything can get in the way. This ship is still sailing, and as long as I can keep good people around who will support me, it’s fine. Granted, the change has been strange, especially for fans, and has been confusing, I understand, but the only thing I can ask is that people listen to the music and continue to support it. I could have easily just called the band, ‘The Danny Lee-Blackwell Show’, but I decided to call it Night Beats because it’s a gang. I’m a leader but I’m here to play with people.
Danny is Night Beats and Night Beats is Danny. In my time with Danny, he’s been warm and open, and has shared just how much making music means to him. There’s always going to be evolution for an artist, it’s the only healthy way forward, and Myth of a Man is certainly proof of that. Change is what keeps rock and roll alive, and it’s people with a mindset like Danny Lee-Blackwell’s who are gonna keep it rolling.
Keep up to date with Night Beats here.
Night Beats recently had their tour van broken into whilst touring the States. You can help them out by donating here.
by Nathan McLaren-Stewart