Under the droneroom moniker, Blake Conley’s project is one of many that is new to us in 2022. Once dubbed the ‘certified Kentucky Colonel’, droneroom doesn’t just pose as another number in the sphere of new music. Conley’s project is up there with the finest to have entered our consciousness since the inception of Sun 13, joining the likes of Matt Christensen, Clara Engel, All Structures Align, and Kenneth James Gibson.
Conley has been making music for years, and after the obligatory deep dive, the year 2022 could be viewed as his most fertile.
In between a range of live recordings, the gun-slinging drone of Sage Metallic was the first thing that hit the sweet stop. Following that, the excellent Whatever Truthful Understanding, comprising of acoustic-based, sun-drenched roadhouse drone seemingly inspired by the fractured-folk of Ben Chasney. The desert terrains and the U.K. aren’t likely bedfellows, but listening to this record, and it’s a suitable escape from the dark, damp landscapes that envelopes us here in Ol’ Blighty.
Now there’s Conley’s latest LP, Easy Payday. Far removed, not just from the two aforementioned releases, but from everything else he’s done, too. On Easy Payday, Conley replaces the earthy, countrified twang with hypno-drones more aligned with the tonality of Sunn O))) (On the third day I will be perfected), and otherworldly dreamscapes fit for high-altitudes (The Forest Eats the Horses).
Joined by percussionist Josh Byrd, Conley explores the underbelly of long-form, and it reaches feverish new depths on closing piece, Porter Rockwell. A 27 minute improv’ assault with the kind of percussion that poses as axe splitting through oak.
Easy Payday emphatically rounds off Conley’s year. An artist always looking for new ways to present his multi-dimensional offerings. Last month, we caught up with Conley to talk about his journey so far.
Sun 13: What are your first memories of music?
Blake Conley: “My father was a truck driver with a taste for country music. Often during the summers, in lieu of a traditional family vacations, we would just pile into the 18 wheeler and ride across country. There wasn’t really much sightseeing beyond just watching the road and scenery flying past. My father would play cassettes of country music on the drive and the first thing I really connected with was the sounds of Marty Robbins. He often sang story songs, so getting these visuals of cowboys and shootouts while moving swiftly through the southwest at five years old has probably imprinted itself onto me in ways that I didn’t completely realise till I was much older and starting to find my true musical voice in droneroom.”
S13: You’re based in Las Vegas, Nevada, right?
BC: “I actually recently relocated from Vegas. On a stopover in Tennessee, trying to determine where to go next. I grew up in rural TN, before relocating to Nashville for 10 years. From there it was onto Louisville KY, which is honestly my favourite place I’ve lived. The music scene there is so rich and fertile and supportive. My time in Vegas was relatively short. Hampered by some mental health things that resulted in my current status of location unknown. I really loved the desert, but I can’t really say there is a lot to love about Las Vegas itself.”
S13: Can you tell us about the ideas behind Easy Payday?
BC: “The title Easy Payday is sort of derived from my noticing the prevalence of the word ‘easy’ in various late ’60s/’70s things. From songs (Take It Easy, Easy Like Sunday Morning, I’m Easy from the Robert Altman film Nashville) to cinema (Easy Rider). The Payday was taken from the film of the same name starring Rip Torn, about a hell-bent on self destruction country singer. Combined, I thought it sounded like a soft rock singer songwriter record. I came up with the title separately from the music.
“The music stemmed from chewing on dub reggae and works such as Low’s Double Negative where you have traditional songs, but the person producing it basically goes in and rearranges it. I wanted to essentially send someone some heavier drone/fuzz guitar pieces I had been working on and have them absolutely destroy them. I had a few people I mulled for this task and one of the first people I thought of was Josh Byrd. Josh plays drums in an incredible band named Skin Tension, but I first encountered him via another project named Working in Retail. He seemed like a person who could really decimate and restructure what I was doing, so I broached the subject. Sent him a 12 minute washed out formless drift of a guitar piece and in his hands it became a 27 minute wind tunnel of exhausting but soothing drone. Needless to say I was beyond pleased and provided him with the other three pieces and here we have it.
“I decided early in the process that giving a soft rock title to an album of deconstructed fuzz guitar would be really funny and delightfully incongruent. It put pictures in my head of small factory towns that have fallen into disrepair when the company decides to relocate. Places that are haunted by their glory days. Faded memories of hope. So that became sort of the overarching idea of the project.
“Finally the idea was brought to final fruition by the photos supplied by Zachary Corsa of Nonconnah who has an eye for the very landscapes I hear in the music. He took all the photos except the cover and they sum everything up nicely.”
S13: It’s such a big shift from Whatever Truthful Understanding. Was this intentional or did it just unravel that way?
BC: “It was intentional in a way. Honestly Whatever Truthful Understanding was a departure from anything I had done before just by nature of it being acoustic, along with the incorporation of a full rhythm section on Mojave Pastoral, and the use of field recordings and voice-mails.
“So, having made that, the logic to me was ‘Well, I did a big acoustic record, what should the next challenge be to keep from repeating myself, given droneroom is essentially myself and a guitar?’ So a loud, broken down and rebuilt album seemed like the way to achieve that.
“And Moonlight Cypress Archetypes, given Josh had had releases on the label and that they have released albums of an extreme, yet equally location based nature prior, seemed like the perfect home. And they graciously said yes!”
S13: Porter Rockwell is such a big finish. With a lot of free-jazz influences I wasn’t expecting that. Can you tell us how this composition came about?
BC: “Well, a lot of that is Josh. He is an incredibly inventive drummer in the Zach Hill/ Brian Chippendale/Rashid Ali school of drumming. That style that is both incredibly tight and so seemingly loose. The type of drummer where they are probably the only one who knows where the downbeat actually is. Being a big fan of this, I told him I definitely wanted one song to have his drumming on it (on every track would sort of rob the singular performance if it’s, well, singularity), but I let him pick the one he wanted. I didn’t even know which one till he sent me the tracks back.”
“The original track was around 24 minutes and Josh’s manipulations somehow added an extra three minutes and then he laid down a one take 24 minute straight drum assault on it. I was in complete awe. Not enough kind words can be said about what he did to that song and the rest of the record.
“It’s actually kind of funny in that, in its original version, the song has basically a 14 minute outro where I start spacing the chord changes further and further apart (I believe I got to a 32 or 36 count between changes by the very end) and had to keep slowly cranking up the delay repeats and gain on the fuzz to prevent any silence. So it develops this neat trick with the drums where the guitar is getting slower and slower while the drums remain frenetic which changes the whole mood of the track.”
S13: Have your inspirations changed over the years?
BC: “I wouldn’t say changed as much as expanded and reaffirmed. The works of, say, Low, Six Organs of Admittance, Earth, Minutemen, The Jesus Lizard, David Pajo and Slint, Codeine, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, The Body, Meat Puppets, Mary Timony, Magik Markers, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie Prince Billy, the overall works of any artists who were once considered under the banner of New Weird America, and Joseph Allred (both musically and philosophically in Joseph’s case) have been there from the start.
“Then getting into Loren Connors, more deeply into Alan Licht, Elizabeth Cotton, Sonny Sharrock, more recently Daniel Bachman, Bill Mackay, BIG|BRAVE, David Grubbs, Bill Frisell, and numerous others that I could spend all day listing, often reaffirmed beliefs of approaches I had or shed a new light on an angle I hadn’t thought about.
“I’m equally inspired by the spirit and energy of writers like Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Mcmurty, and Thomas Mcguane. And filmmakers like Kelly Reichart, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, and Dennis Hopper. Television shows like the Leftovers. All these people are just so evocative in ways that trickle into how I think when trying to create.
“Honestly, I am a bit of a sponge and anything I listen to or read or watch is likely to influence me, even if it isn’t in a direct way. It could just be a feeling or mood that only I will notice.”
S13: Can you tell us about your creative process?
BC: “It’s honestly gotten really…loose…in the pandemic years. For a two-and-a -half record stretch, I was very into the structure that looping created. Then I started to feel confined by this, so I started taking away the structure, while also sort of limiting my resources. I started working off a singular drone bed instead of a fully formed loop and started minimizing the pedals used as well to see what I could be forced to create in an improvised setting with the small amount of tools I allowed myself. I even quit using guitar picks!
“And given I am generally recording myself in a small room, I’ve had to be conscious of drastic volume changes or any pedals that might audibly click when turned on, so often I’m trying to be reliant on a core pedal tone with very minimal switching. So I essentially rebuilt the box around myself.”
S13: You’ve been prolific with new music for quite some time now. Is it a case that you’re always working on things?
BC: “In a way, yes. I’m always thinking of concepts or albums that could be. Similar to my box line above, I will often have a gist of what a record should be like and then try to improvise within that concept. For example, I knew Whatever Truthful Understanding was going to be all acoustic, so that was the rule. Easy Payday was the result of just wanting to play a few loud guitar things and then having the deconstruction idea. The album that will come after Easy Payday is all lapsteel along with a full album guest collaborator who will remain a surprise for now.
“So essentially I have had a lot of free time and opportunities to release things came up during the pandemic, along with a bit of mental health induced mania that has resulted in a creative burst. In addition, I started to get semi bored of myself and have a couple of collaborative releases in the pipeline (and Easy Payday is part of this collaborative pursuit).
S13: Engaging with your work, and I get a sense that your surroundings are very influential. Do you see it that way?
BC: “I do. Having grown up with a lot of riding through changing landscapes, I have found myself always drawn to that feeling and imagery of motion and shifting and the expands of stillness. Driving stretches of highways, curvy backroads, the Martian emptiness of a desert…these are things that really soothe my head and heart and I think that drifts into the music along with shades of anxiety and uncertainty.
“Honestly, I sort of see and hope to convey a canvas for the listener to, err, paint their own journey. Whatever visuals or moods they bring or derive to the music is all valid to me. I prefer it if someone else tells me what they hear and see over what I do as I’m often recording and following mood or headspace I’m in.
S13: With such an immense body of work, how important is a platform like Bandcamp to facilitate your releases?
BC: “I love Bandcamp. I sort of view my releases as series of major and minor works. Major works are anything that has a physical component and minor works are often digital only. This isn’t to take away from the digital releases as I put as much craft and concern into the minor works as the majors. They are often little unique segments of experiments or pieces that don’t quite have a home on the larger concept albums. One of recent digital releases, for example, is two live improvisations a week apart in performance. They are both derived from the same bones and structure, but I allow a lot of room for the moment to dictate how it will be fleshed out. So presenting them back to back was a way to see how they are similar and how they are different.
S13: I see that you have a few live dates locked in, too. How important is the live experience to what droneroom does?
BC: “I love playing out. I went a bit overboard. 2018-2019 which got shut down in the pandemic. Which was honestly probably a good thing as it forced me to take a break and recreate myself. I was definitely feeling burnout on my approach, but too driven by momentum to stop myself. So a forced stop was something I needed. And now I’ve been comfortable enough to stick my toes back out and I am back in an area where I have a lot more places to play in a very small area (cities in the western US are waaaay further apart than you realise if you are not from there originally). So getting to play out and go to cities where friends are that I haven’t seen in a couple of years has been nice and I’m looking forward to continuing that.
“Thanks so much for all the questions and considerate investigation of the material. One final shout out to Josh Byrd for producing the album and Ryan at Moonlight Cypress Archetypes for releasing it!”
Easy Payday is out now via Moonlight Cypress Archetypes. Purchase from Bandcamp.