“Six Dumb Questions” is a new feature I’ve started to help further introduce new bands who’ve either been reviewed, On the Radar-ed, etc., who I think deserve more coverage. One such act is the Parisian trio Blaak Heat Shujaa, whose self-titled album was reviewed last week. I asked guitarist Thomas Bellier if he’d be interested in partaking of the six dumb questions I had about his band, and he was more than accommodating, as you’ll see.
Blaak Heat Shujaa is Bellier alongside bassist/vocalist Antoine Morel-Vulliez and drummer Timothée Gacon. Their album Blaak Heat Shujaa was recorded in Banning, CA, with the venerable Scott Reeder. Below, Bellier discusses this experience, the origin of his band’s name and more in the span of just six dumb questions.
1. How did Blaak Heat Shujaa get together?
We started the band in 2008. We were all going to the same school back then, and one day during some BS class on EU policy, Antoine noticed a Fender sticker on my notebook. So we sat next to each other and realized we had similar musical tastes. Antoine hooked us up with our drummer Tim and a few weeks later we were in the studio practicing. Antoine had brought over another guitar player and a keyboard player, but it was clear that the magic was only happening between Tim, Antoine and I! We met again a few days later without telling those two other guys and started writing songs. At first we were really influenced by neo-psychedelia (bands like Dead Meadow and Black Angels) but quickly we started incorporating desert rock influences into our material. We played our first two shows (which were “epic,” but in a bad way…) at our school and then Antoine moved to Uganda and I moved to L.A., so nothing happened for a while, and then we moved back to Paris in 2009 and started writing the songs that are on the album. In the meantime we had really gotten into stoner rock so we started incorporating heaviness into our songs, while at the same time preserving the trippy, psychedelic element.
2. Where did you come up with the name and what does it mean?
We started off performing as Black Light Black Heat, as the Velvet Underground was an influence for us (and also for the bands we liked) back then, but quickly we started moving away from that. Also we thought it was funny since about 50 percent of the bands we were listening to had “black” in their names. We kept the name for a while, but about two months before going to Scott’s, after a few chicken taquitos and many margaritas and IPAs (West Coast IPAs are way stronger than the stuff you guys have on the East Coast), my girlfriend and I were like “BLBH needs a better name!” We were thinking that since we had completely dropped the Velvet Underground influence, keeping that name didn’t make sense anymore. Plus Antoine had told me in the past that he was open to changing the name. And really, we realized that the Velvet Underground represented everything we’re against: hip New Yorkers, Andy Warhol, Nico… hell, how did we even pick that name in the first place? So we thought “Black Heat” sounded good, but since we can’t afford a good lawyer we tought we’d spell it “Blaak Heat” (you guys have heard of the eponymous 1970s funk band, right?), kind of like with a Dutch spelling. Quickly we were told this wasn’t enought to avoid getting sued, so we looked into adding another word. Antoine came up with “Shujaa,” which in Swahili means warrior, some kind of hero with magical powers. Antoine is fluent in Swahili and has spent a lot of time in Africa, so to us it made sense to honor that influence through our band name, since it does affect our music. But dude, people keep getting the name wrong. I’ve seen it spelled “Black Heat Sujja.”
3. What was it like recording with Scott Reeder? Rumor has it he’s the nicest guy in the universe – care to comment?
To us it was a defining experience, as musicians but also as human beings. The vibe was perfect. Scott is an all around cool dude, with zero hangups. I’m sure you’re thinking “Well, that’s how everybody is in stoner/desert rock.” That’s not true. There are a lot of drama queens and wannabe rock stars in that field of music, people just hide it well. Plus Scott is a smart guy, so it’s very easy to establish a sane relationship with him. We hit it off pretty fast, and in no time we were messing around the studio and drinking all together. The great thing was that Scott had a lot of respect for our music. It made us feel very comfortable, and instead of being scared of trying new things in front of such a legend of desert rock, we were encouraged to innovate and mess around with our parts. For instance, when we were done tracking a part, we’d go into weird/stupid jams, and we knew Scott was still tracking. Turns out we used a lot of stuff from those jams on the final mixes! The crazy thing is that Scott understands our sound better than we do. For example, we didn’t really know what effects to put on the vocals (we used to play live with a lot of reverb on the vocals), and he came up with some crazy delays and flangers that matched the spirit of the songs perfectly. Now, we use that same combination of effects for live shows, and it sounds so freaking good.
Recording at Scott’s studio was such a trip. The setting is unique. It’s in Banning, CA, more or less where the desert starts, about 25 minutes west of Palm Springs. The nature is beautiful there (Yucca trees, yellow hills…) and you can only see one neighbor from the studio. There’s even a mystical dimension, as the Morongo Indian reservation is just up the hill from the studio. We were working late hours and it was plain fantastic to walk out of the studio while buzzed and look at the stars… Actually, I think I spent more time watching my step (it was rattlesnake season) than checking out the stars… Did I tell you that we used a rattlesnake’s rattle for percussion on a track? Scott and his wife Renee have a lot of animals on their ranch — dogs, horses, miniature horses, peacocks, moufflons… some cows were mowing the lawn when we were there, too. It was all in good fun until the bull started charging our drummer Tim. From where we were we couldn’t really see what was happening and heard weird animal moans. All I know is that after that Tim couldn’t sit on his drum stool anymore.
4. You did a show while you were in the desert recording as well. How did that go? And how was it sharing the stage with Yawning Man in Paris?
That show was fun. Alfredo [Hernandez] set it up for us (he was playing with his jam project, Brothers of the Kemosabe, with Sean from Waxy on bass), and we played a small venue in downtown Palm Springs (the touristy neighborhood). Dali’s Llama played that night too. It was on a weekday, so not a lot of people came out… I think there were about nine people in front of the stage when BHS played. But who cares when two of those nine people are Kyuss members (Alfredo and Scott), right? We got drunk on Bud Light and played our loudest set ever.
Sharing the bill with Yawning Man was great too. I’m good friends with Alfredo and Gary, and it’s always plenty of fun to hang out with them. They had a day off in France during their tour so I offered to set up a gig in Paris. We played a small venue that had a 90db limitation. Can you imagine the sound guy’s face when he saw Alfredo’s 28’ bass drum? Before the show we asked for two bags of ice and a bucket in order to make sangria for the bands… The bartender was like, “Well, I can give you a cup of ice if you want!” And then she told Gary beer was six Euros… He and Alfredo were like, “What is wrong with this town?” Welcome to our world, amigos.
5. Is there much of a stoner rock scene in Paris? Who are some bands you’ve played with people should know about?
There’s no such thing in Paris. However, there are a few stoner bands in France. The thing is that most of them really lack originality. Like one of my good friends was recently observing, in France we have a French Karma to Burn, a French QOTSA… I mean, they sound good, but in the end they’re just trying to recreate another band’s sound. Nobody’s being creative. Wanna hear a hilarious anecdote? A band whose name I won’t mention covered “Twenty” when they opened for Karma to Burn. How fucking ridiculous is that? There’s a stoner/psych band from Lille that we’re good friends with, Glowsun. You should check them out, they just got picked up by the best booking agency out here in the EU, Sound of Liberation. You’re asking about a stoner scene, but let me tell you it’s about the same thing for psychedelic music out here. It’s very, very frustrating. I mean, Paris is a terrible city. People are all about the fancy stores, the VIP clubs, and high fashion. Dude, I’ve reached the point where I feel lucky when I find a bar that serves beer for under 5 Euros (that’s about 6 bucks). Also, people look at you weird on the metro if you’re not wearing a polo shirt and expensive shoes. Long hair is even worse…
6. How much is Blaak Heat Shujaa going to play out? Will you tour Europe?
We’re currently looking for a booker. We’re hoping that with all the great reviews the album is getting it’ll happen soon. We are so ready to hit the road, and we’ve already got new material to perform live. People who like our music should spread the word!
We have budding plans to tour Europe with a band you’re probably familiar with, since they’re from Brooklyn, La Otracina. In the meantime, we’re throwing a release party in Paris on Oct. 5, and then on Oct. 18, we’ll be opening for one of my favorite bands, Farflung.
Tags: Blaak Heat Shujaa, France, Improvising Beings, Paris