Friday, June 8, 2012

The funny thing about signal2noise?

Doug Blair and John Anthony hope to bump up
the signal2noise profile ... well, maybe after Blair
gets back from the 30th anniversary W.A.S.P. tour.
Funny thing about this band? There’s lots, actually. Like the name, signal2noise, with its stubborn insistence on the lower case. Or, more significantly, how frontman Doug Blair who, since 2006, has been playing that mad, custom-made guitar with the buzzsaw blade and lasers that track his fretwork with W.A.S.P. — that in-your-face metal band with a perfect PMRC pedigree, a band that has been scaring the dickens out of American mommies and daddies for three decades — ever ended up leading an essentially progressive classic rock act, heavy but “Beatles-ish underneath,” in the first place. Or how s2n (hmmm, the name even looks funny when it’s abbreviated) started out as an ambitious, if ultimately, neglected side project of not one, but two bigger acts, shunted aside before getting out of the musical gate. Which, and this is kind of funny, may have been a good thing, the delays giving the band a chance “to develop, to percolate,” says Blair. Or, how it started out as a power trio, facing all the problems associated with that form, like trying to fill the space after the guitarist takes off to solo, but fixes the “problem” by morphing into a power duo. Or how s2n has put out one album, “Fight Mental Illness,” and has done most of the grunt work for a follow-up, but has no firm plans about what to do with the final product when it’s done: Maybe doing it the old-fashioned way, maybe linking directly to metal news websites, getting the music directly to the fans. 

Normally folks would hump the albums at live shows, but, funny thing about s2n, the band just doesn’t get out all that much. They’ve been around for a decade and have played maybe 25 shows total, including two high-profile gigs with ‘80s rockers Tesla. “And that might be the highlight of our live career, who knows,” says Blair, a North Shore resident holed-up in Cali-Cali, cutting a new album with WA.S.P. and gearing up for 30 Years of Thunder, the band’s anniversary stomp through Europe. Which seems funny at first, the dearth of shows, but, for now, s2n is a studio entity, and, as far as Blair is concerned, if that’s how it shakes out, fine. Because, he says, it’s more than just rocking out, it’s about reaching out, it’s about growing. It’s about possibilities. He’s happy with what he’s getting out of the band, musically and experientially — and is thrilled with the response he’s gotten when s2n does get out. “The audience really gets it,” he says. But, with W.A.S.P. geared up for a big tour, signal2noise has been shunted off to the side again, guaranteeing neglect, at least for now. “I have to figure out how to juggle time,” he says.

Running it down
The funny thing goes back to 1988, when drummer Stet Howland left Run 21 — a flashy Hartford-based club act known for big visuals and a bit of theater, like Blair jumping on a bar, playing leads while dancing around glasses and bottles, that kind of thing — for W.A.S.P. They auditioned for a replacement, and who walks through the door? Yup, John Anthony, the guy who, about a dozen years later would team up with Blair on s2n. He didn’t get the job; ironically, the Boston-based Anthony got passed over because he sounded a little too much like Howland, and the band wanted to pursue a different direction. It enjoyed a long run, but never got over the hump professionally. Blair launched s2n as a trio in 1996. Both projects went belly-up, at least temporarily, when Blair moved to Boston to work at Parker Guitars in Andover. He had been thinking about reviving the project, but it never got off the ground. Then, a dozen years after their last encounter, Blair runs into Anthony at the Claddach in Lawrence. He was playing in Orange Parade, a cover band based in southern Maine. Didn’t recognize him at first. They hit it off. Their first rehearsal was in a space at Portland International Jetport in 2001. They kicked out the beginnings of four tunes in the first couple of hours. A week later, they were in Blair’s rehearsal studio in downtown Boston, and that was “the beginning of s2n in its true form,” says Blair.
Funny thing, Blair still thought of s2n as a trio, but couldn’t find a bassist, someone who clicked, so he decided to go it alone, playing bass and guitar. At the same time. In real time. And that’s when s2n emerged as a power-duo. It’s not unheard of, the power duo. You’ve got ferocious, feedback-laden blues rockers like the White Stripes doing it; you’ve got idiosyncratic rockers like XDS, the former Experimental Dental School, a trio, now playing as a duo. You’ve got indie acts like Drums and Tuba, fusing electronica, prog-rock, jazz and even industrial, probably the most unusual expression of the form.

They all face the same issues as power trios — filling the quiet spaces when the lead takes off. There are ways of dealing with the issue — shooting for a bigger bass sound or filling with synths or electronics. Blair tried both routes, but, being a total gearhead, tried a different direction. It gets its “unique, populated sound,” as Blair puts it, with gear and electronics, but mostly with guitars of his own design. Like his GuitarCross, a guitar-bass hybrid similar to the Novax used by Charlie Hunter, who Blair calls his hero. (“The guy invented his own guitar, created his own genre and he’s still one of the best all-time players around,” he says.) He enjoys it because of its range. You have to think like a bass player and a guitar player. You have to use both sides of the brain, similar to what a drummer does. Three bass strings allow a variety of playing styles, the five guitar strings allow for full chording and even lead playing. Tunings create chord and bass line possibilities. And shortcomings? Yeah, some. It’s not a lead instrument, which has been Blair’s bacon, although slide and whammy action are “all possibilities.” The gear “helps realize the potential of the power duo, allowing flexibility, breaking down boundaries and opening up the field.”
Then there’s the Mutant Twin, the double-neck acoustic-electric he debuted at Axis in 1990 in “Let The Angels Scream,” the Run 21 song. Another funny thing, that instrument helped land Blair a seat on the 1992 W.A.S.P. tour bus because it helped light up the acoustic sections of the “Crimson Idol,” a dark concept album about the rise and fall of a fictional rock star named Jonathan Steel, and an album that hinted at a different direction for the band. He also uses the Asia, a 12-string that pairs steel and nylon strings, providing support and harmony lines.

Steak, sizzle, sauce
It’s a tasty project, s2n, especially if you listen to Blair talk, how the guitar is like laying down a slab of meat on the grill, a thick, steaming tasty rib eye. The drum slices the meat. The vocals are like steak sauce, dripping down, covering everything with an amazing flavor.” Mmmmmm .... rib eye. “I essentially make a wall of sound and he chops it up,” Blair says.  “Over the years, our perspectives toward what we’re doing and the industry in general have changed consistently, which would be natural as our situations, musically and personally, have changed,” he says. “Fate has its way with us.”

Blair, who just signed on with Whole Music, the Amesbury-Byfield music school run by Crazy Maggy frontman E.J. Ouellette, will host the Ultimate Guitar Workshop, where he will show off his collection of custom-made guitars. He’s still a teacher, he’s still a student. He’s still learning, could learn forever. Has to be. “You can’t just dig into the repertoire, because it’s new, there is no repertoire,” he says. “The music is defining itself in real time. There isn’t any chance to fall back on something. I have to make it happen. Sometimes it happens by design, sometimes it just happens: Cool musical accidents occur, sometimes you careen off the edge in a mad catastrophe. Doesn’t matter. It’s all good.”

 And, funny thing is, when you listen, you don’t know there’s only two people behind the music.

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