Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blair ax project: Making guitars, making a racket

W.A.S.P. guitarist Doug Blair and his Blade guitar.
OK, class: settle down. Hey. I. Said. Settle. Down! Now! … OK, that's better. This week in Port Rules: Our Impact on the History of Rock and Roll, we're going to look at "Babylon's Burning," a video from W.A.S.P.'s 2009 album "Babylon," That, of course, that's the infamous Blackie Lawless center stage, playing bass and singing. Nope, no mistaking that melodic howl. He's the only original member of the band, which is celebrating three decades of scaring and creeping out American mommies and daddies with his rude and crude lyrics, adding fuel to the obnoxious fire, especially during the early years, with his in-your-face antics, like throwing raw meat into the audience or firing up the old flame-throwing or buzz-sawing codpiece or using bound-and-gagged women as props. Cute, eh? All of which earned the rockers, who emerged from the metal stew with bands like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot in the early ‘80s, a big old target on their backs from self-righteous censors like the so-called Parents Music Resource Council. And, in the spirit of the PMRC, a word of warning about the video: Try not to focus on the ridiculous Raiders’ T Blackie’s wearing, or, for that matter, the Raiders emblem on his bass. Poor guy's from the West Coast and doesn't know any better. And, to be fair, the Raiders did manage to win as many games as they lost this year — finishing the season a full game better than the bottom-dwellers. Which is playoff-worthy in that division. Besides, this time the spotlight's not on Blackie. We're looking at the guy stage left. That's Doug Blair, a Newburyport resident for about a decade and a three-time member of the band. That's him playing the crazy-looking guitar, which, like the guitarist, has roots in the city.

Keeping it simple, the guitar is called the Blade — for obvious reasons. It’s a custom-made ax, a faux Les Paul with a whirling buzz-saw blade and laser fretboard. Not that Blair, who moved to the city about a decade ago because he fell in love with the food at Stella’s (or so he says) would ever put something like this so simply. He’s a gearhead and enjoys the tech-talk. So let’s indulge him: He re-shaped the headstocks from the standard three and three to a pointy Jackson-style six in-line by cutting one side straight, adding a section of maple, and cutting out the new shape. With new tuning gears installed, he removed the original nuts and a poured/shaped epoxy 'shelf' to support a Kahler nut, keeping the strings from slipping and maintaining tuning during bends. He also installed six mini lasers in a bridge. By aiming these lasers directly down the strings, the guitarist's fingertips are hit with red laser light. But what really gives the guitar its look is the 12-inch table saw blade on the face of the guitar. The blade complements the band logo. He traced a 12-inch record, cut jags into it “and I started thinking, ‘hmmmm, this thing could actually work.’” Once you got past some technical issues. That’s when he brought in Scott MacDiamard, owner of MacDiarmid Machine Corp., “an extremely talented machine and hobby shop” in the industrial park. The blade was cut so the outer edge could spin, using a model airplane propeller motor-powered by batteries. None of this has any effect on the music, of course. It’s only rock and roll, but it’s cool to watch. No doubt about that. Which is exactly the point with a flashy, visual band like W.A.S.P.  The visual sizzle is very much a part of the show. “We’re a theatrically based band,” says Blair. “Anything visually cool enough, but not tacky, something that people will remember, that's what we want.  This bit of flash comes with a price — the damned guitar weighs about 20 pounds, which doesn’t sound like a whole lot until you have the strap cutting into your shoulder. He used the guitar on “Dominator” and “Babylon” albums, as well on tours from 2007-2009.

The Whole story
Blair just signed on with Whole Music, and will head up the school’s rock and guitar department Later this year Blair will host the Ultimate Guitar Workshop, where he will show off his collection of custom-made guitars, like the Mutant Twins — double neck, electric-acoustic, which was his ace in the hole when he first signed on with W.A.S.P., and so-called Guitar Cross, which he uses to power Signal2Noise, a duo that sounds like a power trio, thanks to this eight-string guitar. Yup, eight strings. More on that later.

He’ll necessarily be something of a visiting professor at Whole Music, seeing how he’ll have to cut a few classes this spring to record a new album with W.A.S.P., its twenty-first, and then hit the road in September for the band’s 30 Years of Thunder tour. The two-hour show will be a retrospective, of sorts. The first set will feature songs from the first four albums. The second set will be a 25- minute shortened version of “The Crimson Idol,” a concept album originally conceived of as a Blackie Lawless solo shot before becoming, ultimately, the band’s fifth studio album. A third set will tie everything together. But if you wanna see the show, make sure your passport’s in order. So far, the show is a tramp through the Europe and the former Soviet bloc, which, for an old school, theatrical act like W.A.S.P., is where the action is. ”It’s an amazingly good time to be doing that kind of thing in Europe,” he says. There’s still a bunch of old bastards in faded tees, but half the audience, Blair estimates, is second- and third-wavers, about the same vintage as the previously mentioned tees. “Classic rock and metal never fades away there,” he says.

Yo Dougie, Blackie here
This year’s tour will mark Blair’s second decade with the band. Sort of.

He "got the call," the first one, back in 1992. He was living in Connecticut at the time, playing in Run 21, a flashy local act known for big visuals and a bit of theater, like when Blair would jump on the bar and do his thing while dancing around glasses and bottles. Also performing in Run 21 was Stet Howland, who would pack his bags for the coast and sign on with W.A.S.P. Blair got his call, pretty much out of the blue. They told him to get on the next flight for the coast.

Blair, who was also writing for Mixx Magazine, about building and playing guitars, was also teaching. After he got the call, he told his students he was going away for a while, but didn't know how long. It turned out to be not as long as he had hoped, but long enough. He joined the touring band to support “Crimson Idol,” a dark concept album about the rise and fall of a fictional rock star named Jonathan Steel, an album that, surprisingly, included a lot of acoustic guitar work, hinting at a different direction for the band. It was supposed to be a Lawless solo album, but Blackie ended up caving to pressure from beancounters to put it out as W.A.S.P.’s fifth studio album. Blair had two weeks to jump into his new role, and only one night rehearsal with the full band. Looking back, Blair sees the short stint as "a blessing in disguise." The ‘90s were not very kind to the band. Shock swerved into schlock. The show became increasing over the top, cartoony, but without the fun, and with an aftertaste of desperation. The rep had become a burden.

The second call came in 2001, when he signed on for a couple of dates on the band’s Unholy Terror Tour after on-again-off-again guitarist took a permanent powder.

The third came five years later, and had Blair playing in a very different band, at least as far as content is concerned. Blackie, according to published reports, had become a born-again Christian, and had walked away from at least some of the excess of his earlier music, vowing, for example, to never play “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)” again. He eschewed the cock rock mentality and turned to serious subjects on the last two albums. In 2007’s “Dominator,” he sneers at our post-9/11 role as worldwide bully — and, for the record, Blackie doesn’t like bullies. “Babylon,” released two years later, explores end-time verities and dark Biblical prophecy. And, despite the flash, splash and bravado of Blackie’s life on stage, Blair’s got nothing to say about on the guy’s personal demons or beliefs. “You tour with him, you live with him,” he says. “Whatever he’s thinking, it’s not that apparent. We just go out and we kick butt. I sense more honesty. His heart is in it.”

So what’s the anniversary album gonna sound like?

Sorry, you gotta talk to Blackie on that one. Songwriting is a one-man show in W.A.S.P.  “We don't get to collaborate,” Blair says. “He writes it, we go out and play it. That's enough.””

Gotta love dem sammiches
He moved to Newburyport in 2003. Why? He makes a joke about falling in love with the food at Stella's. And, no joke, he does like the food there. Who doesn’t like the Favorite, roast beef, melted cheddar cheese, red onion, tomato and creamy Caesar dressing on fresh Italian … mmmmm, creamy. But, obviously, it was more than that. He’s not sure how exactly he ended up in the Port. Probably hanging out on Plum Island, he figures, and taking a trip into town. He was living in Andover at the time, working at Parker Guitars. There’s just nothing there. “Here there was more of a community,” he says. He was impressed with the local scene, went to a few Tiger Saw living room shows, for example. “I realized what a nice town it was,” he says, “with everyone walking around on the weekend. There was, and still is, a real sense of community here.” He had done some teaching over the years, but was looking for a more institutional gig, an actual brick and mortar school. He hooked up with Whole Music through old pal Mike Gruen, a local bass ace who plays with Red Tail Hawk and in E.J. Ouellette’s band Crazy Maggy — as well as teaching at Whole Music.

Blair “is the real deal, a true rocker and an international touring professional," says Ouellette, who is Whole Music’s founder. "We're psyched to have him." Blair will also be involved in the school’s Artist Development program, which has put out eight singles by local artists in the past couple of months.  "I think that musicians should never stop learning,” he says. “I am constantly seeking inspiration from others, including my students. It keeps me current.”

He’s also keeping busy — and staying current — with Signal2Noise, a duo with percussionist-vocalist John Anthony. It’s a small band with a big sound, thanks, in part, to Blair’s GuitarCross, which has five guitar strings and three bass strings. The signals are sent to separate amplifiers. It’s similar to the Novax used by jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, whom Blair describes as his hero. He also uses a unique acoustic called the Asia, 12-string that pairs steel and nylon strings. He describes the music as progressive classic rock” that’s Beatles-ish … underneath. It’s a two-piece, but has a much bigger sound. “I essentially make a wall of sound and he chops it up."  They’ve released one album, “Fight Mental Illness,” and have a half-dozen tunes in the can for a second. They’ve played out a few times, most noticeably opening for Tesla at the Hampton Beach Casino and the Paradise, a couple of years ago, but, considering his schedule, the band has been on the back burner.

He’s also thinking about tweaking the design for the Blade, too. Maybe letting the blade get rusty. That would look pretty cool. Maybe swapping out the steel blade for aluminum, take a little of the weight off. Maybe paint it white …?
 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks JC! Always amazed at the artistic talent that is available on the North Shore.

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  2. I just heard about Blair when I asked a machinit at a place I consult to borrow a set of feller gages for my son, also a guitarist, who asked me for feeler gages to tune his guitar somehow. I do not understand it, but I want to help my son and if guitar is his life, I am behind him 100%. Anyway, I have no speakers at this Newburyport machine shop I am at right now, but I cannot wait to hear some of W.A.S.P.'s music ... from what I am reading here, it may be right up my alley. Anything like Ted Nugent and I know I will like it. B.Goss - Amesbury / Newburyport

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