Allen Blickle: The Reluctant Rocker
Baroness drummer Allen Blickle is sitting in a Starbucks in San Francisco around the corner from The Fillmore, where his band will play in a few hours. The tour, curiously dubbed The Ophidian Trek, has the Savannah-based rockers sandwiched between two of metal’s most extreme offerings, Decapitated and Meshuggah. The usual moshpit-inducing lineup this ain’t.
“I never really listen to metal anymore,” says the energetic Blickle, whose checked shirt and short hair neatly parted to the side make him come across more like a Beach Boy than one of underground rock’s most powerful bashers. “I was really into that kind of stuff but then gradually got out of listening to it on a regular basis.” The metamorphosis, he explains, was a result of all the different genres he was exposed to as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I kind of try to incorporate beats that are just a little different,” he says with an impish smile. “Just to screw with people’s heads.” New release Yellow & Green, a 19-song double album, does plenty of that. The band’s 2006 debut, Red, and follow-up, Blue, were broad canvasses of prog-doom drenched in a golden haze. Yellow & Green — with its lush textures, intricate melodies, and occasional folk vibe — makes those records seems pedestrian. The changes have been wrought so artfully, however, we’re confident existing fans cannot help but warm to Baroness’ latest phase.
In late 2011, Blickle was holed up at Hoboken, New Jersey’s Water Music Studios, where he spent nine days in the huge drum room capturing beats that range from thunderous pocket and dirty-wash hat work to moody toms and feathery hat work. Blickle then joined the rest of the band in Texas at Elmwood Studios with John Congleton (Explosions In The Sky, Xiu Xiu), who also produced 2009’s Blue, so he could do the vocal sub, remixing, and assorted percussion.
Blickle laid down many of the drum tracks without the benefit of scratch tracks. This was not a problem until he slammed out “Board Up The House,” in which the outro is in 7/4, which really threw the guitarists John Baizley and Pete Adams. For Baroness, the germs of songs sometimes begin with beats. The drummer has a general tempo map, where he’ll sketch out blocks of notes at, say, 120, 135, or then maybe 150 bpm, and for good measure, eight bars of some other cool beat, which he’ll then give to Baisley to run with. That was the approach on “Psalms Alive,” which has an almost breakbeat feel to it. “What we wanted to do is cut that up to have jerky, glitch-y kind of drums where it kind of goes in and out,” he explains. “It wasn’t really difficult to record but to replicate in an organic sense I think is going to be really difficult live.”
The penchant for non-cliché drumming goes back to a university band instructor who got him to sever the backbeat chain that bound him. “I was really good at the funk and rock stuff, like the 4/4 standards,” he says. “But then getting into jazz was really difficult for me for some reason to have that flow or be intuitive that way. Like, listening to The Beatles or Nirvana and then just flipping it completely, and not knowing how these beats, like 5/4, or some sort of time signature you never even thought about, works. Or just not always landing on the 1, you know? You try to push it to the next [level]. So I think that sort of opened my mind up for switching things up, playing lighter, or sitting back and letting the band take it instead of the drummer.”
It’s no surprise the tech-friendly Blickle uses a click in the studio. “Even when we were just demoing I wanted to do everything to a click,” he says. “I’ve listed to older tracks and I can totally tell if I’m speeding up or slowing down, and while I was doing this I hate the idea of knowing it’s not perfect, so I just had the click on so I wouldn’t have to think about it.” For live performances, however, he never uses a metronome.
The drums sound wildly different from track to track on Yellow & Green. For the toms it was a matter of changing the filters and compressing the notes, but the multiple snare tones that you hear are the result of 19 different drums, including a 1932 Ludwig Black Beauty.
Blickle comes from a musical family. His mother, a classically trained pianist, started her two sons on the instrument when they were children. “I took on piano more than my brother did,” he says of his elder sibling, Brian, who played guitar in Baroness from 2005 to 2008. “I was learning Debussy or Satie or some sort of old classical pieces and just getting into rock music, which my mom was always into. We’d steal her Led Zeppelin albums when we were young, like every kid does.”
Unlike adolescents who need to convince a parent of music’s worthiness as a career, no such effort was necessary in the educated, arts-loving Blickle household. Even her sons’ defection from the classical world to rock and roll wasn’t a disappointment. “She cries when she sees me play she’s so happy — like, totally amazed that I’m out here doing this.”
The early music education paid off in other ways. Blickle did most of the keyboards on Yellow & Green, the first Baroness disc to feature them. At the “home studio” in Brooklyn he does production work for different bands and singer/songwriters. “We just do keys and beats and stuff at my place,” he says. “I don’t have electronic drums there. I don’t even have a drum set in New York, actually, so I don’t even really get to practice drums ever. It’s totally stupid.”