Two years ago I was given an album by my local record store guy and I just fell in love with the heavy guitar and strong hooks. It was The Blue Stones “Black Holes.” I knew I had to see this band live and on a cold night in February 2019 went to see the Canadian duo at a little club called Pianos in a back street of New York City. When I walked into that small room the small stage had only a two bandmember set up. I didn’t think there was any way this band could recreate that full sound with just two people. I was wrong.
Over the course of 2020, they were nominated for a Juno Award for Breakthrough band of the year. They also released four singles produced by Paul Meany and they put together a video “Live in Display” highlighting the new singles. This Friday, February 18th they release their sophomore album “Hidden Gems.”
Dutch: How did you meet?
Tarik Jafar: We met in high school and we played on the football team together. We kinda had mutual friends and we continued being friends for five or six years before we even played a single note with each other. I know Justin had played in High school bands and I was writing music but I wasn’t public about it. I just did it for myself. I didn’t share with anybody and I reached the point where I wanted to, and I reached out to Justin and said “Hey Man I write a bit of music myself. Do you want to take a listen to it.” and I sent I’m a few tracks. He said yeah let’s just jam these out, I felt comfortable enough because he was one of my closest friends and he was the only musically inclined one in our friend group at least someone who has done something with music. From there we jammed together a few times and thought it sounded good to play our first show, That’s when it took off.
D: Have you thought about adding a third member?
Justin: Initially we talked about it. We figured lets start writing as a two-piece and playing shows and eventually when we get out in the bar scene, we would meet a bass player along the way or someone for keys, we just realized that people were saying just keep doing it on your own, “It sounds good with just the two of you. You don’t really need anyone else.” I think we were unconsciously compensating for not having that member like when we would write and rehearse songs we would tweak things so that it would sound more full. Like Tarik not playing a lot on the upper part of the neck, just incorporating a boomier drum kit. I think that when we started playing with people on bass, we jammed with people a couple of times, and it was just kind of floating on top not really sitting in. We just put that on the back burner for now. We are not principally against it.
Touring and Songwriting
D: Whats it like touring all over the country with just the two of you?
T: The family has grown a little bit since, the maximum we have toured with is 6 guys total.
J: When it was just the two of us for a long time. It was always fun. we had such a small vehicle. We never towed a trailer until this year, so that was always nice, we would do our first tours when we were DIY, we would fit all of our gear in a Chevy Impala , then we did a cross country tour in a Kia Sorrento, so those were comfortable. But it’s tough because you do all the driving. It’s nice to expand the family and bring people into it. We realize that getting good people is more important than getting the right skill set. People can learn along the way, we’re cool to help them. You gotta be a cool person to come on the road with us.
D: After your cross country trip you toured Europe. How was that?
T: They just love live music there, it’s amazing. They adore it. We were in Berlin playing a show, we would finish a song and everyone would clap, maybe 10 seconds of applause and cheering, and then it would go dead silent. Completely silent. I would look at Justin like are we doing something wrong? I didn’t understand. I just so happened to speak to someone who is German and he said they are just listening to you, paying attention to you and they are quiet out of a sign of respect. I’m here to watch you and I want to watch everything so they don’t speak, they just watch you and I thought that was the coolest little spin of what we thought was going on because on one hand, we thought we were messing up but on the other hand, no, they like you so much they are quiet between songs because they are waiting for your next move.
D: I find the process of songwriting a complete mystery. Tell me about your songwriting process.
T: It’s pretty natural, to be honest. I never sat down and thought It’s time to song write. I’ll already be playing on a guitar and a riff will come up that I’ll just start playing with. “Oh, this is something I can build off of?” So I hear a melody that will be ringing in my head and let me get this down on a voice recorder so I can remember it for later, so when I do pick up a guitar and start jamming around I’ll have something I can work off of. It starts with a natural solo jam session and songs just build from that.
D: How do you work in Justin?
T: The way that it has worked is that I do the majority of the songwriting myself in the demo stage. I’ll lay down riffs, melody ideas, vocal ideas, sometimes I lay down drum ideas just to give Justin an idea of what I have in my head at the time of writing. I’ll send him that. He’ll go through what I have written and he’ll come back with “I really like this,” or “This drumbeat is good but I could probably do this instead.” Or I’ll send him something that didn’t have drums at all and he’ll record his idea of what an early drum sound would be, primarily I’ll just throw all my ideas down. Lets say 15 to 20 ideas for songs, some of them in different completion percentages. He’ll say I like this and I don’t like this and we will widdle down from that point.
D: Have you had shows that you didn’t like.?
T: Oh yeah, it’s inevitable, any band or artist performing like you are going to get some shit ones, you can’t really take it too hard, it’s probably pretty easy to let it get to you, but you shouldn’t, especially if you have a whole tour ahead of you, you don’t want to let one show set the standard.
D: Your first album has two musical interludes, which I thought were really clever. What made you think like that? I could listen to the first album from beginning to end and it feels like an experience
T: That’s the thing, we had that in mind. At that time we were still album guys. We enjoy listening to an album from start to finish, we want to be taken on that ride. We also wanted to do that for our music and back when Black Holes was being recorded, we wanted to have that palate cleanser of an interlude in between some songs, even just something to just get you set for what’s coming next. Those interludes were critical, especially the placement of them. You have one before the very first song and you have one before the very last song, It’s something that I always want to incorporate, I’m not afraid of including interludes.
D: What have you learned from the multiple festival shows you done?
T: We played with Foals in Columbus and I’ve been a fan for a very long time. Not only is this the first time we are seeing Foals play, but we are opening for them. Just a cool way to experience that for the first time. I did learn from a couple of vocalists at shows how to properly warm up my voice
D: The Blue Stones opened for Reinwolf on their tour through the midwest. How did that come about?
J: It was a lot of fun. It was funny because Reinwolf is part of the reason we do what we do on the level of what we do. Our manager is a big Reinwolf fan and was listening to Reinwolf years ago on Spotify and left it going after the album was done and we came on. It starts playing similar music (after an album ends on Spotify). It was cool going on tour with Reinwolf, it was a really cool fit and they are awesome dudes and we had a bunch of good shows together. It was a lot of fun.
T: It was years in the making, we thought the same thing too. It was only a few shows, but it was still really great.”
On their New Album
D: How have things changed from recording your first album to the new music?
T: The biggest change is Paul Meaney, He’s been a lifelong hero of both of us. From his days in Mute Math. He was pitched our music early on, in 2019 or maybe it was 2020. We were super excited to have him. It was like working with one of your heroes. So he lent his ear for production. He took the demos that we had already written and brought us down to New Orleans to do a writing session with him, just to turn up certain things in the songs. It’s just amazing to have his touch on the songs on this next album. It’s just so cool. It’s almost the perfect fit because we were influenced by him early on and his influenced carved the sound for the Blue Stones and then you go back to have one of your albums produced by one of your influences so it’s enhancing whatever sound that was. It was nice. It didn’t sound too foreign. It still sounds like us, just a more refined version of us. That’s what you can expect for the next music. More refined Blue Stones. If Black Holes is loose, ambient, and gritty you can expect this upcoming album to be tight and clean. It punches and it hits hard.
D: There’s a weight to the new sound. It lands hard. I saw Mute Math at Irving Plaza and Paul Meaney played four instruments that night, including drums and keyboards at the same time. How did Paul Meaney push you or inspire you differently than what you would have done?
T: The one I remember is being at his house and it was more of a fanboy moment. He has the demo on and we are sitting behind him and he just slowly pulls out this keyboard from under his desk and he just plays a couple of notes and I look at Justin. I wanted to scream
J: It was Crazy
T: This is the guy we’ve seen do this on stage so much and now he’s about to do it on our music and I just freaked out. He pushed both of us in certain ways. Sometimes it was very apparent and sometimes he would do it in a really sly way that would get the most out of us. I always like to say this when I talk about Paul. He’s kinda like the antithesis of the statement “Don’t meet your hero.” Because he’s such a good guy and very humble and he’s just a very very good coach. He’s respectful and there was never really bad blood between anybody, even when you consider working on something so subjective and creative like music. It was never an issue. It was just good vibes. He has a great way of getting the most out of us.
J: Darren King is one of the best drummers of all time and Paul worked so closely with him in Mute Math I learned a lot about the way they (Mutemath) approach how to write drums for a specific song and there were a lot of times I came to him with an idea that he totally flipped on its head, and asked, what if you approached it completely differently. There’s one song he took the reins on and was a really cool approach and something I would never have thought of before. I had to absorb it for a week and a half to just understand what’s going on, then put my own spin on it. It was really cool to put on the student cap for a little bit. I think that’s what you want your producer to do, push you out of your comfort zone in a way that is going to serve the song beyond what your abilities are. Kinda have to rise up to that. Other than that, He’s a cool dude. If you like his music you should meet him as a person. He’s one of our friends now.
D: Tell me about working on the song “Grim.”
T: If someone was to ask what do the Blue Stones sound like I would hope they would show them the song “Grim.” It’s a perfect balance between what’s coming and what’s already been released. It’s got a lot more swagger and we’ve settled into our sound as a duo and we’re just a lot more confident. I feel like “Grim” is a great song to represent that. But it’s also just a great way of displaying the wide range of influence that goes into our music. We listen to a lot of different kinds of music and it comes out in different ways. I think it’s easy to lock us into a rock n’ roll band, but I think we are more than that. I think we are in that new age of artists where we have listened to a bunch of different types of music and it does come out as a genre-bending sound. It’s us just playing off of what we listen to. So “Grim” is that new swagger, clean-cut sound but also has that weight of the rock genes in us. A mix of hip hop and funk and some R&B in there as well. Even the cadence of the way the lyrics are sung, that’s hip-hoppy.
D: Grim has a hip hop beat.
J: The inspiration behind that beat is Tarik working with a sample pack that he ended up writing to. I tweaked it and gave it my own flair. A fun little fact, when we were at Pauls’ house for the initial working session. I think we brought four to six songs there to kinda work through. We were trying to sub in a different drumbeat and I had this app on my phone that is a simple drum machine. I worked it through that just to give him an idea.. Paul said “fuck it just give me your phone and we can record this straight in so that was the demo drums.” Drum machine, early 90’s MPC kinda beat. He ended up keeping it in a little bit of the song. In the first verse at about 26 seconds the drums kick away and it goes to this electronic beat and that’s was the demo beat we were using for months when we were building the song. It’s a nice little throwback touch he input there.
Their new album Hidden Gems is due out March 18th and my vinyl preorder is already in.