As the global pandemic struck, Danny Lee Blackwell (Night Beats) made the move from his birthplace of Texas to the streets of old Hollywood to make his fifth album, Outlaw R&B.
The neighbourhoods were on fire as apocalyptic wildfires spread across the state and the Covid pandemic took hold. Rescue workers struggled to keep the city’s growing population of homeless people safe from the dual-threat they were facing. Raging protests at the murder of George Floyd saw 50,000 people take to the Hollywood streets. An influx of drugs flooded into the city as California saw a surge in overdoses across the state. The city was on lockdown, stringent stay at home orders were put in place as the glittering dream of Tinseltown became a modern nightmare. In among the upheaval, Danny Lee Blackwell, having just moved to the city from Texas, set about writing what will be his fifth album under his Night Beats moniker.
“The streets were emptied yet the unsheltered population grew and grew,” says Blackwell. “Simultaneously, social uprisings gained monumental traction as more fallacies of our American culture were exposed every day. The sickness in the air was palpable. There’s not enough words to describe the enormity of the plight at hand, wherein one hand we were fighting a disease of the body, we also were battling a sickness of the mind. We still are.”
Those feelings fed directly into the songs he was writing. New Day, a song which he calls his “postcard from purgatory” embodies the fear through a time when he holed himself up with canned goods and Akira Kurosawa films, unable to sleep as the world outside seemingly crumbled around him. The song is a brooding take on the type of garage-psych that he has been writing as Night Beats over the last decade. There’s a classic 60’s haze to it, like the Elevators covering Nancy Sinatra over a heady brew. A bout of insomnia winds through it, the vocals soft and gentle as a lullaby until the chorus rises with a sleepless man’s question. “Why does the night take control of my eyes?”
It’s one of the more laid back songs of the album, moving like gentle rolling waves. It’s no surprise then that, having again soaked up Kurosawa’s films during that time, the video for the song has Blackwell as the outlaw, shot over sickly colours, hues of reds, blues and greens blending together, colour tones that the Japanese director used in his film Dodes’ka-den to convey the toxic conditions of slum life.
He continues: “The daily soundtrack of life consisted of helicopters flying overhead, despondent news broadcasts, and fireworks, gunshots. There’s actually helicopters overhead right now, it’s just part of daily life here. I am fortunate to call myself a writer, and it is just in my nature to translate the absurdity of daily life into song. I try and toe the line between storytelling and introspection, as one can be in a burning house.”
That concept of telling the tale of the protagonists through the lens of 2020 comes out perfectly on recent single Ticket, a song that kicks up a psych rhythm akin to his fellow Texans Black Angels. It, as with much of Night Beats’ output, is clearly indebted to the ground laid by Roky Erikson and 13th Floor Elevators, whose legacy runs strong through the Texan garage-psych sound, a style that spread through to California bands like The Warlocks. As Blackwell said on their 2016 KEXP session, “If you can’t deny it, you might as well own it.” And own it he does, in style. The song is a direct telling of the events that surrounded him through this turbulent time, the police brutality that rocked the nation and the world at large. He shifts the narrative through the song, from victim to perpetrator, over an almost paranoic pounding backdrop as the song “unravels into a mad chase out of the rabbit hole we live in.”
That feeling of pursuit is captured in the video, shot during lockdown on the deserted streets as the fires encroached, and the song itself could easily soundtrack some of the greatest cinematic chase scenes: relentless, spacious, always driving forward and bearing down. ”I wanted to capture the essence of Ticket in a way that explored the dystopian nature of Los Angeles in 2020. I love film noir from the 50s and grew up on skate videos of the late 90s/early 2000s. I wanted to try and combine those two moulds in a Skate Film Noir where our character is being chased by an implied danger. Dayana Young travels through the city of LA on her skateboard almost with childlike wonderment – to the backdrop of empty foggy streets, decaying urban life, police sirens and helicopters flying by.”
Again, on promoting the video, he returns to the question of how introspective we can be whilst our house is in flames around us. It’s one of the most pertinent and pressing questions we can ask ourselves as the world turns in and on itself, isolation and protectionism taking the place of solidarity and collaboration. It begs the question that, if we have to escape, where do we go? It’s the question that permeates Outlaw R&B, driven by apocalyptic preoccupations, how are we to escape?
That nightmarish vision comes out on Crypt, on which Blackwell claims he stepped into his alter-ego, and it is certainly the darkest song on the album, rhythmic and surreal, the vocals bathed in distortion as the music swirls. But the question remains, if we throw up walls, physical or figurative, are we keeping danger out or locking ourselves in? With that in mind, I wonder what the figure of the outlaw means to Blackwell in the context of his new album.
“The term outlaw was originally attached to the idea of the wanderer, the outlier, those without borders or constrictions. I write music for those who don’t belong. Identity is a weird thing but we’re allowed to appreciate and celebrate things as long as we don’t fall into our own traps. Much like psychedelia, the term “outlaw” to me cannot be defined fully. It’s more of a self-journey of the mind, while holding on to “the pocket”, or the rhythm. I will say that I love Willie Nelson and his influence of Outlaw Country is definitely something I can relate to. This is my way of expressing my world, although it doesn’t mean you have to spend a night in a Belgian jail on mushrooms because you hit a cop, but it doesn’t hurt.”
But that’s not to say that the record sits to much on that heavy psych sound, far from it. Hell In Texas is a wonderful wandering homage to Blackwell’s home state, a typical classic Western motif, while the oldest song from the album, Holy Roller, is a great basic pounding psych tune, light a spritely as it grooves along. There is also a significant Eastern influence to songs like Shadow and Cream Johnny, as he explains:
“I am half Indian from my mother’s side. She was a Bharatanatyam dancer as a teenager so I was really drawn to classic Bollywood at a young age. I was lucky to discover the sounds of Mohammed Rafi and 13th Floor Elevators around the same time so I naturally drew lines connecting these worlds. If you listen to a lot of the music coming out of India, Iran, Thailand etc during the 60’s you can hear similar tones and phrases dominant in Western Rock and Roll of the same era. What I love about those sounds is the bravery in the vocals. I grew up in the Catholic church so real singing wasn’t exactly encouraged, hence why I can’t stand my own voice most of the time. I look to my heroes Roky Erickson or Selda Bağcan to find the courage to let my voice go where it wants.”
It’s that desire to somehow remain in the shadows that prompted the whole concept of Night Beats from the beginning, the desire for the freedom to write the songs that came naturally without being tagged as a solo artist with his name out there and up in lights. As he develops: “Night Beats started off as my basement project that let me write freely without coming off as a solo artist. I think that’s confused people over the years, but I’ve always tried to serve the music and the journey. That being said, I’ve always wanted to make records with people that can bring a certain magic into the room. I could meet someone one day and invite them into the studio the next. For this record, I played 90% of the instruments and wrote the songs primarily on my own. I never felt any satisfaction from having my name glued to a project, it’s more about giving the music to the masses and letting them enjoy it however they want.”
While it’s true that, as with much of his work as Night Beats, the vocals are often drenched in a similar fuzz sound to his wild guitar work, adding to the mysteriousness of both Blackwell’s lyrics and character, there are outstanding moments on Outlaw R&B where he strips that back and allows his vocals to take front and centre. Sitting in the middle of the album, Never Look Back is a rocking Back From The Grave-style garage number that really shakes and shows that other side of his garage roots.
“Most fans of that genre know the classics off Nuggets, Girls in the Garage or Back from the Grave compilations, it’s a sound I can’t seem to shake. I wear my influences on my sleeve and try to encourage people to dig into my influences that have helped me find my voice. At this point, my references are 50-80 years old so, in a way, it’s to keep a tradition alive and celebrate it. I’ll always love The Luv’d Ones, Los Saicos, Seaders. But I gravitate more towards Sixto Rodriguez, Bill Withers and Selda Bağcan.”
It’s in that blend where Outlaw R&B shines. The album also marks the first full studio album for London’s Fuzz Club Records, who last year released the wonderful That’s All You Got. Such a strong song, I ask why he chose to leave it off the new album, especially given the more individual classic soul/R&B vibe of it.
“I had the pleasure of working with Fuzz Club a few times over the years. We had recorded a live session album with them a few years back and performed at their festival in Eindhoven. I always loved the idea of calling it home but hadn’t considered it until I was rebuilding my base at the beginning of 2020, luckily they accept my brand of crazy. [But] that song is a special one, I felt like it needed to be on its own for various reasons. The fact that it’s a co-write with my comrade Robert Levon Been (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) made it a special thing on its own. He’s an old soul that I respect beyond words so I wanted to find a way to release this tune that didn’t exist on the album but lived in a nearby village. The undeniable R&B sound of that song is a sign of more things to come.”
It’s certainly a departure from the sound that we’ve generally come to expect from Night Beats’ records, always moving within that garage-psych sound. At times, like on 2016’s Who Sold My Generation, the rabbit hole is disappearing further above your heads as you spin uncontrollably down into the psychedelic swirls that wind through the captivating songs. The album built perfectly on 2014’s Sonic Bloom with its hazy and crunching Summer Of Love vibes. His step away from this sound on 2019’s Myth Of A Man (Heavenly Records) saw some critics bemoan the change in style, perhaps coming with the realisation that Night Beats is Blackwell’s own vision, carved out and directed by the songs that flow from him, rather than a band in its true form. It’s worth noting that the very name under which he works, Night Beats, is a direct reference to the Sam Cooke album, Night Beat and thus the soul and R&B influence is rarely too far away, just waiting to be drawn upon. However, his new album, Outlaw R&B, reasserts him as a potent psych force, and his previous 7″, That’s All You Got, shows that he has many more than one feather in his hat, one which will be great to hear him mine in the future.
As the sun dips over the Hollywood hills, the nightcrawlers make their way from the shadows, the helicopters circle overhead and the streets are bathed again in the pulsating blue lights of those policing a city which, as with many around the world, desperately needs to find its way out of the stagnancy that the global pandemic has bestowed on us. One year on from his move to Old Hollywood, from when our everyday lives were suddenly filled with the vernacular of virologists, I ask what else, apart from Outlaw R&B has got him through the last year.
“Chess, cigarettes, coffee and piano. I’ve recently upgraded from musical typing on my keyboard to a midi keyboard. So I’ve been learning songs I love from Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo and Carl Thomas. “I live to write and share my songs and ideas, that’s it.”
Right now, that’s all we need.
Outlaw R&B is released on Fuzz Club Records on the 7th of May. It is available now on pre-order from their website.
Photos by Hamilton Boyce.
Words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.