Holy Moly! Zack Anderson Tells Us Where Blues Pills Gets Their 'Rhythm In The Blood'
Blues Pills is coming up on a ten year anniversary in 2021 and the release of their new album Holy Moly acts as an excellent credo for the direction that they are pursuing into more challenging territory. For those who were struck by their previous album Lady in Gold, on the new effort you'll find the same "fingerprints", as co-songwriter and guitarist Zack Anderson describes it, but you're also going to find flashes of modernity that set off their vintage vibe with even more flair.
The current band lineup has changed a little, featuring Kristoffer Schanders, André Kvarnström, Elin Larsson alongside Zack Anderson, who has moved from bass to lead guitar. This shift, along with a combination of their analog elements with digital mixing by Andrew Schneps, may be part of what gives Holy Moly such a defiant, future-facing kick, but it could also have a lot to do with some tough times the band went through and their own reaction to forging a new path.
Zack Anderson spoke with Tower's PULSE! about Holy Moly, that perennial debate between analog and digital, why he and the band are "vintage" or not, and how having a female vocalist has been received by public over the years.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that you used analog equipment in your studio to record Holy Moly. Do you also have analog equipment that you can use at home?
Zack Anderson: I used to be a pure analog guy and started recording on [TASCAM] Portastudio, which uses cassette tapes, when I was a teenager. From the beginning of playing music, I was getting into recording, because me and my step-brother started playing together at the same time. We wanted to start recording demos, so it feels like recording has been part of the music from the very beginning. That kind of evolved, and as the band got bigger, I was able to afford nicer gear and started collecting more stuff.
But just recently, in the last couple of years, I started to embrace digital recording as well. Now I have a kind of hybrid set up, with vintage preamps and microphones, and I have tape machines as well, but I have some pretty nice converters to get everything into the computer.
HMS: That’s awesome!
ZA: In the case of Holy Moly, which we just made, it was recorded with all vintage equipment, but we needed to put everything on the computer regardless because Andrew Scheps, who mixed the album, mixes that entirely on the computer. He lives in England now, so we’ve never met him, but we recorded everything and sent him all the files.
HMS: That’s very common right now that people are mixing at a distance, and even Producing at a distance, especially in due to the pandemic. Did you need to use Zoom and e-mails a lot?
ZA: It was pretty much by e-mail. It’s pretty common these days for the biggest mixing engineers, who are using digital. It goes to show that if all the biggest mixing engineers are using digital these days, there’s actually nothing wrong with it. The technology has come so far. When you come from analog, you have the feeling that analog has a way of making everything sound better. It just has a character to it that’s sort of forgiving.
But I think a lot of peoples’ first impressions of digital may be with equipment that isn’t very high quality, and they automatically think that all digital sounds bad. But over the years, if you are in nicer studios, you begin to hear high-end digital stuff and realize that it actually sounds good.
HMS: It seems like on the highest level of digital these days, they claim that they can make it sound better than analog, or even make it sound exactly like analog if that’s what you want. But on the lowest level of digital, you can easily lose the warmth associated with analog.
ZA: Yes, exactly. With lower digital things, it can sound quite harsh. But I think they’ve now figured out how to combine the best of both worlds, with these high-end tape converters. They add character in the same way that tape did, so everything is getting a little more pleasing to the ears.
HMS: For a lot of bands right now, getting that warmth back is something they are trying to achieve by more of a live recording approach. And maybe the vocals are mixed separately.
ZA: That’s a really good point as well. This whole debate of analog vs. digital ties into the workflow of recording. One thing I like about analog is that there are limitations, so you’re forced to make decisions up front. With digital, you can save a thousand takes and you lose the moment, in a way.
You’re looking at the computer screen and saving all these takes. Whereas with analog, you have to decide right on the spot, because if you do a new take, you’re going to erase over the old take. That has more of an effect on how the album turns out, in the decision making. It can also bring excitement to the recording session when there are tapes spinning versus computer screens, especially for bands who aren’t often in the studio. I remember the first time I was in a studio recording, I saw the tapes spinning, and it was such an experience.
HMS: I grew up around a 4-track recorder and I’ll never forget the sounds and physicality about that. Maybe those kinds of experiences just bring out the right things in the moment for some people, too.
ZA: I also think you need some of those blemishes in the music to make it exciting, but that’s just my opinion.
HMS: I’m a huge fan of early Rock ‘n Roll, Blues, and Americana. What made you look towards the 60s and 70s as a musician?
ZA: I think the seed was planted from the very beginning, because my earliest memories are of my Dad’s records. They were Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, The Doors, and The Beatles. That’s the earliest music I can remember. Then, as a teen in the early 2000s, I had a period where I was searching and trying to listen to more modern music. There were some quick phases where I listened to some Rap for a while, then Metal. When I was 14, I heard The White Stripes and “Seven Nation Army”. Around that time, I had also gotten a guitar and learned to play “Seven Nation Army”. From that time onwards I wanted to be in a band. It felt so cool. That song is so cool but it’s also pretty easy to play.
That was something that got me excited. From there, I liked the retro revival that was happening with The Black Keys and The White Stripes and stuff like that. From there, my musical tastes shifted in that direction, and I started collecting records around age 16. I started to find all this obscure Blues and Psychedelic Rock from the 60s and the 70s. Then I was pretty much hooked on that. There was a period of years where I didn’t listen to anything if it wasn’t from the 60s or 70s.
HMS: During that time, did you ever say to yourself, “If I want to be a modern musician, I better look at this other stuff”? Or did you just follow your instinct towards what you liked the most?
ZA: At the time when I first got into older music, to me it was something brand new because I didn’t grow up during that time. At the time, I thought it was cool that I was too cool to listen to anything else. [Laughs] I had this mindset that anything that wasn’t old wasn’t cool. But by the time I got into my 20s, like now, I listened to everything. But as for musical tastes, I don’t know why I like the 60s and the 70s, but also music that’s come out in the last ten years. I don’t know why the 80s and the 90s don’t seem so great to me. Maybe a little bit of the 90s has some good stuff. [Laughs]
HMS: The thing about being into this older music, is you’ll notice and hear the traditions everywhere. The DNA of the 60s and the 70s is so prevalent in modern music.
ZA: You can also see that music come back. That style of music has made a lot of comebacks over the years.
HMS: What do you think the phrase “Vintage Rock” means? People apply that phrase to The Blues Pills. Do you like it or have any issues with it?
ZA: I’m not really bothered by it. I definitely understand where it comes from. Especially when we started this band, I was still in that phase where I thought only old music was cool. So old music was a huge inspiration for the band. But when we made this album, Holy Moly, I think we passed that point.
Now I don’t really see us as a Vintage Rock band anymore. I just see us as Rock. Some of the songs are even modern, but at the same time there is a vintage fingerprint implanted into our music that probably will never go away.
HMS: I absolutely agree with you and that’s partly why I asked the question. I think Holy Moly is not a Vintage Rock album. It goes beyond that. It’s fine for people to use those terms, but now it might start to become limiting for you. Thanks for confirming my suspicion.
ZA: I agree.
HMS: You’ve also done some great videos for this album, putting out four pretty dynamic pieces. Your Instagram account, by the way, is pretty outstanding. Whatever your strategy you’re using, it’s a good one.
ZA: It’s become weirdly important these days. Because of Corona, it’s become even more important to communicate with fans.
HMS: Were the videos a strategy because you can’t tour, or were they all done before the pandemic?
ZA: A bit of both. There was already a plan to do more videos this time because internet presence becomes more important all the time. Then because of the pandemic, we did even more. We actually have another video coming out, so it will be five. It was accelerated by having nothing else to do.
HMS: Some of them were filmed in a studio, like “Proud Woman” at Revolver Films. Was that before the pandemic?
ZA: “Proud Woman” was before, and then we did another with them, “Low Road”, and that was the beginning when everything started happening with the pandemic. The other two videos, “Rhythm in the Blood” and “Kiss My Past Goodbye”, were more homemade, basically.
HMS: Really? I wouldn’t necessarily have known that, though there is more live performance and less stylized elements. But actually, the most stylized one, the one most like an art film, is “Rhythm in the Blood”.
ZA: The lowest budget one was “Kiss My Past Goodbye” since it wasn’t really planned at all. It was filmed in a few hours at a practice. The record label wanted to release a lyric video and we thought that it looked so cheesy that we said, “Let’s just make a video right now ourselves.” It was just us in the practice space, and we filmed it and I edited it on my computer. [Laughs]
HMS: That is wonderful. I’ve never heard anyone confess that there was a video they didn’t like so they didn’t release it. Why didn’t you like it?
ZA: It was nothing fancy, but the style was the issue. Because of the style of our band, even a homemade video might be better than a style that doesn’t really fit.
HMS: I saw that some of the promo images for this album show the band members with glowing red eyes or beams of red light streaming out. What’s that about?
ZA: That’s fairly random. It’s one of those things that really was completely out of the blue. The photos we took with the red background was from when we were in the studio filming the “Proud Woman” video. We took the photos because it matched with the video.
Then it was our friend who’s a graphic designer who has done all the layouts for the album, as well as the singles and the album art. We actually didn’t know he was going to do that. We asked him to do the layout for the album, and when he sent it back, he had added laser eyes. [Laughs] We said, “That looks cool, I guess.” He gets the credit for that.
HMS: That’s awesome! He captured your souls.
ZA: It reminds me of a 70s horror/sci-fi thing.
HMS: Exactly, it crossed over between horror and sci-fi. The red color is like horror and the beams are sci-fi. It’s like a B-movie horror/sci-fi crossover, like “Space Invaders from Hell!” I like it.
Were there some ideas that you knew that you wanted to engage with on the new album, or did that just come together over time? Was there a plan?
ZA: It wasn’t really planned, but I think because we had so much more time to write the songs, the songs came to us naturally. That happened on the first album, too. When it’s like that, the songs on the albums get a lot more real, in a way. They feel more autobiographical because they are things that really happened to you or that you were inspired to write.
Versus most of the album Lady in Gold and a lot of other songs we’ve gone were written in the studio, with the pressure on, needing to hurry. A lot of the time, the lyrics don’t get as deep because you’re trying to write quickly. So on Holy Moly, more of the songs are inspired by real events.
HMS: That makes a lot of sense. Some of the information about the album suggests that the band has been through some difficult times, but I think the sound of the album seems more about defiance and has a sense of fighting back. I know there were some big changes in the band, and you changed over to being lead guitarist on this album.
ZA: There were a lot of things that happened at the same time, and it was almost like we had a bad luck streak for a while in our personal lives. We also had a friend who passed away, and our dog was hit by a car. A lot of shitty things happened, including our old guitar player leaving the band. It was an overwhelming time, in a way.
But I think it is true that when we finally got out of this and went to the studio to make the album, there was an energy to it like what you were talking about. That we were going to do it and make it good. It felt like we were pretty determined to make the best album we could, maybe even with the sense that we had a lot of people doubting us as well, with the lineup changes. I think we had a bit of this attitude, like, “We are going to show you!”
HMS: That’s something people respond to because it’s so universal. If music can help us feel that way, we need it.
ZA: Sometimes lineup changes bring new energy, too, and it can become something fresh. I think everyone was at the point where we were ready to go in different directions, but this happened instead, and the album turned out great.
HMS: What was the transition like for you, to go from bass to lead guitar?
ZA: It’s still a process, since we haven’t had a chance to play live much, but I think what made a difference was that I wrote the songs with a guitar from the beginning. Me and Elin [Larsson] had always been the main songwriters. We still write songs the way we’ve always done it, but then I had to put effort and time into practicing to play lead guitar. So I basically practiced guitar every day for a year, building up soloing skills. I’m still working on that.
HMS: You now have even more time to practice! I’m sorry.
ZA: It’s been so long now that I’m not even nervous anymore. It also relieves pressure that we’ve gotten such a good response from the album.
HMS: This may be a strange question, but as a band, how often do you think about the fact that you have a female lead singer, and that it’s not as common to have a female lead vocalist? Of course, there are many wonderful female singers, but it’s still disproportionate out there.
ZA: Within the band, and even when we started the band, I didn’t even think about it. But, of course, over the years, you start to notice certain things. When I first started the band, I thought it was weird how often I heard all kinds of different people say things like, “The band is awesome, but I just don’t like female vocals.”
HMS: What the what?? No.
ZA: It seems like there’s a group of people who just don’t like female vocals. In Rock music, it also seems like if you’re a female vocalist, to be respected, you have to be really amazing. But it seems like guys aren’t really judged as harshly. I see bands where the guy isn’t necessarily singing great, but no one says anything bad about it. But if you’re a girl and you’re not the best, they are very quick to say, “She’s not that good.”
HMS: Yes, they are hyper-critical about it. It’s like female vocalists are under a microscope. I think that’s true.
ZA: Exactly. That’s my experience.
Also, there’s another thing, is that we get the backhanded compliments: “I normally don’t like female vocals, but you all are pretty good.”
HMS: Oh my God. You’re telling me what I thought might be true, but it’s still hard to hear. [Laughs]
ZA: There was a whole thing when we released “Proud Woman”. We had so many haters and then I felt naïve. It never even crossed my mind that people might react like that. It seemed so normal to me to release that song. When we put it out there, people were saying, “The band is ruined! Now it’s feminist!”
It was also funny because on our first album, the first song was called, “High Class Woman” and no one even batted an eyelid. But the moment you release a song called, “Proud Woman”, people lose their shit.
HMS: That combination of words, I guess.
ZA: I saw a message on Facebook yesterday that said, “I’m disappointed because the album sounds good but it’s too much about female power, now.” I’m wondering, because there’s one song called “Proud Woman”, that’s too much female power?
HMS: Even among the things you released early, there were four songs, and that’s only one of them. So even at only 25%, that’s still too much for some people. That’s ridiculous.
ZA: That woke me up a bit. Then I thought, “That’s exactly the reason why this song is relevant. Thanks for proving us right.”
HMS: Our Tower Records motto is “No Music, No Life”, also written “Know Music, Know Life”. Which one do you prefer and how does it apply to your life?
ZA: It’s hard to pick the best one. Maybe “Know Music, Know Life” because of how it triggers more thought behind it. It is true that music really is just expressing life. I kind of like that. But I like “No Music, No Life”, too, because it’s a bit funnier.
I always think about that when I hear people say, “I just don’t like music.” How is that even possible? I feel like there are so many different kinds of music that there must be something that you would like. But I like the idea that you don’t have a life if you don’t have music. It’s a good motto.
HMS: Yes, thank you to the 1960s and the Summer of Love.
Leave a comment