Q&A: Guy Blakeslee of the Entrance Band

One of the founding members of the Convocation-formerly the Convocation Of . . . -Guy Blakeslee moved to California several years ago and formed Entrance, a band that shifted comfortably between bluegrass and folk, lush orchestral rock, and, finally, a wonderful, populist take on blues-rock. His debut record as the Entrance Band, with Paz Lenchantin and Derek James, comes out at the end of this month on Ecstatic Peace. This week we e-mailed with Blakeslee during a quick break in the Canadian leg of the Entrance Band's tour. Topics discussed include Baltimore's dwindled underage scene, the civil rights movement, and the band behind Entrance.

City Paper: How did you go from Entrance to the Entrance Band? As in, how did the three-piece come about?

Guy Blakeslee: Although "Entrance" began in 2001 as a "solo" project when I quit my previous band, Baltimore's The Convocation Of . . . , the goal in the back of my head was always to return to the electrified three-piece format. The solid line-up of myself, Paz Lenchantin on bass, and Derek James on drums came together in 2004, but I had played with both of them separately in the previous years . . .

I moved to California to begin working with Paz on new songs and Derek started flying out from his then-home of Chicago to do shows and tours with us and it wasn't long before we congealed into a real band, and wanted the name to reflect this, thus: "The Entrance Band." Our partnership works really well on so many levels, not least of which is that we are good friends and enjoy each other's company. But it all becomes obvious to me while we are in the act of playing together that there is a chemistry between us that continues to expand and that somehow we were meant to combine musical forces to become greater than the sum of our individual parts.

CP:There a few songs on your new record that have appeared on earlier Entrance records. Can you talk some about recreating those?

GB: While most of the songs on our new album, The Entrance Band, were written together over the past few years, a few of the songs were in my head even before I recorded any solo albums and I was saving them for the proper presentation of guitar, bass, and drums. And a couple of them have appeared on previous albums as well, and we all agreed that rerecording them-the way they are played by the trio in a LIVE setting-was a good idea. The way we naturally changed the songs by playing them as a group was something I thought would be really important to document as the beginnings of the chemistry between the three of us. This even enabled me to re-work lyrics and guitar ideas to fit what the rhythm section was doing and took the songs from a thin, hollow sound to the fully realized sonic reality you can hear on the record.

CP:I wonder about the song "M.L.K." So many indie-ish bands now strive hard for obscurity, but you wrote a song around one of the biggest icons imaginable. What was the thinking behind the track?

GB: Growing up in Baltimore, issues of race and poverty were in the forefront of my consciousness. As I grew up I became more and more interested in all the brave Americans who put their lives on the line to try to do something about the injustices plaguing our nation. I even took classes in High School (Park School of Baltimore) about the Civil Rights Movement. My teacher, John Roemer, was elemental in the Maryland Civil Rights struggle and once took a punch in the face to integrate an amusement park in the 1950s. To me, Martin Luther King Jr., 40 years after his death, is the resonating energy of a movement that has come a long way in some areas of society but has not reached its goal or even an approximation of it. So since I was 10 or 11 years old I have had this song brewing in my mind. My mother gave me a bunch of music, very specific, when I first started writing songs-Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan . . . people who wrote about the issues of their day and about social consciousness.

Punk Rock amplified and vitalized this approach for me and I got into bands like Crass and Bikini Kill. To make a long story short, "M.L.K." is the first song I have written lyrics for in which I knew the title and the basic point I wanted to get across before the music came to fruition. Paz and I developed the music over a bunch of creative sessions in the summer a couple years ago and when Derek brought the beat in it all clicked.

I think purposeful obscurity is a kind of elitism. Our music may be esoteric in some ways but ultimately it is totally populist. We are influenced by pop culture and mass culture just like anyone else in our society, and are certainly not it! If anything I would like our music to seep its way into this mass consciousness. Martin Luther King has been so co-opted and commercialized that it's easy for the average person not to feel the POWER of his deeds and his words and even easier to think that his work, his DREAM is a thing of the past. When I look at the state our society is in, it seems nothing is more clear and needed than the dream and energy of King, and the reason I chose him as an icon, an ideal, is because he accomplished so much with so little. All he had was energy, commitment, spirit, and people willing to believe and risk for what he was putting out there.

Far from being irrelevant or obvious, I feel like his true radicalism, [which] holds true spiritual power, has been forgotten. And what I'm saying is: "We're not there yet. We can make it, but we're going to have to try, and if we don't we'll be moving backwards." The change he spoke of and worked towards, much like Gandhi, who was his main inspiration, is a change in our hearts and minds . . . once this change takes hold, magical events unfold.

CP: How collaborative are the new songs?

GB: The songs, the whole band project-it is all completely collaborative. It is a BAND in the true sense of the word, a gang with a certain approach to music that is shared within the group and differs from the approach taken by those outside the group. So, 100-percent collaborative!!!! We have all jumped off the cliff into full on commitment to the music and each other and this is where any success, artistic or otherwise, comes from.

CP:Entrance has touched on a few styles over the years, from string orchestrations to very simple folk to bluegrass to rock. How did you settle on the relatively consistent sound of the new record?

GB: Because of the fully collaborative aspect, consistency is a natural outgrowth. As a solo artist I was certainly exploring myself and what I could do as a solitary troubadour. But once the band began, we had a sound from the beginning that was a natural occurrence and has been consistent even as it morphs and changes because it's coming from the same three minds and sets of hands, the same three hearts. Each time we play things differently but it's always from within our musical reality which is a pretty solid agreement and things unfold without having to be spoken.

CP:What do you miss about Baltimore?

GB: I moved to California four years ago to start working with Paz on new music and because my girlfriend Maximilla and I had been hobo-ing around England and really wanted to return to America. I am really glad I moved to California and don't see myself LIVING in Baltimore anytime soon. But of course there are a lot of things I miss about it-my family, my best friend Tommy still lives there along with a lot of other lifelong friends, the Pretty Boy reservoir, Red Emma's coffee shop in the apartment building where I used to live, the whole neighborhood of Mount Vernon, the Enoch Pratt Library. And the influx of creative souls who have moved into town since I started my wandering over 5 years ago.

When I have returned to Baltimore a few times recently there has been a really good energy and a lot of great music and art events taking place. Maybe what I miss the most is something that is long gone, the underage scene that I was such a part of before I turned 18 . . . places like the Loft, the Small Intestine, and the Laff n' Spit which some folks may remember. These are the places where I forged my own musical identity and I will always remember the unique situations these underground venues presented to young kids. I was booking shows at these places when I was in middle school and was lucky to have such avenues for creative expression and learning the nuts and bolts of what DIY music is all about.

Even as our album is coming out on Universal-Motown, I will always consider my heart to be forged in the basement shows and all ages illegal venues that Baltimore had when I was growing up. Nothing could have been a better education about the self and the scene and the point of it all. I try to keep this ethic with me in everything that I do and while there were and still are similar scenes in other cities, Baltimore was uniquely alive with this kind of activity and it made me who I am today. Seeing Lungfish and Fugazi and the Great Unraveling blow my mind before I knew what was hitting me . . . this was a distinctly local phenomenon.

I guess in conclusion what I miss most about Baltimore is my MOM and you can print that. Cheers!!!

The Entrance Band plays the Ottobar Aug. 24. For more information visit theottobar.com

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