Tuesday, August 02, 2011

"Ain't nobody coming that ain't already here" The Blackfire Revelation Story

    

I was mightily impressed by the super-heavy, sludgy sound of New Orleans' Blackfire Revelation, who have recently issued their self-titled album digitally. Formed in New Orleans in 2003 by singer/guitarist J.R. Fields and drummer Hank Haney, the group released an EP, Gold and Guns On 51, in 2004 on their own Southern Reconstruction label, and the EP was later re-released by Fat Possum Records. In 2005 the band undertook a long international tour with New York noise rockers Unsane, then not much was heard from them until this year, when their self-titled full-length album appeared as a digital release. The album was actually completed back in 2005, but Fields decided to shelve the project. The reason for the delayed release is a fascinating story in itself, one I had the chance to discuss with Fields recently.

J.R. Fields onstage in France with Blackfire Revelation.

Blackfire Revelation has gotten some rave notices in the underground metal press, and rightfully so. But I think their music has the potential to appeal to those outside the metal audience as well. Fans of Blue Cheer, the MC5, the Stooges, Soundgarden and Green River will find plenty to appreciate in Blackfire Revelations' heavy, sludgy, Southern gumbo.

I had a blast talking with J.R. Fields about Blackfire Revelation, the city of New Orleans, life on the road, as well as Hurricane Katrina and its impact on his life and his band. Blackfire Revelation may be on hiatus now, but the music they made shouldn't be forgotten, nor should what the band went through to create it.

Me: I like both your releases, Gold and Guns On 51 and the new one Blackfire Revelation, but it's not the first music that comes to mind when I think of New Orleans. It sounds a bit more like Detroit 1969 to me.

J.R.: Well, the reason I live in New Orleans is because New Orleans is the freest city in North America. You can pretty much do whatever you want down here, whenever you want to. And I think that comes through in the music. Aside from it being kinda bluesy and kinda Southern, New Orleans has a big influence on what I do. It's raw down here. It's gritty. It could fall to pieces at any time. I feel like a lot of that comes out in our music.

Me: I've never visited New Orleans myself, but I've heard the same thing from many people, that it's the freest city in America.

J.R.: People here have a lot of freedom. You go other places and it seems the farther North you go the more rules there are. You can't drink in the street. Bars close. Down here you're left to self-control, and that can either make you or break you.

Me: It doesn't sound like the kind of place where you have to work hard to fit in.

J.R.: Yeah. I feel like a lot of people down here really aren't concerned with fitting in. We're kinda just lost down here in the swamp. It's really disconnected from the rest of the states. I can tell you from being in a band, versus maybe bands from L.A. or San Francisco, or New York or Boston. We have to drive a full day to pretty much get to any other major market, which would be Austin or Atlanta, which depending on traffic can take up to ten hours to get to either of those cities.

Me: I think, as someone who lives in the Northeast, that's hard for me to relate to. I live in Rhode Island now, and I'm just a few minutes from Providence, and that's just 45 minutes to Boston, and just a few hours to New York. Everything here is very compact, so we have different conception of space here.

J.R.: Right, and if you're a band from up there, you can kinda be a part of the scene in all those towns around you. You're just a few hours from a number of major cities there. Whereas down here, we're a little more isolated. And I think that lends itself to making the bands down here just kinda do our own thing.

Me: Before you formed Blackfire Revelation, I understand that you were in film school at University of New Orleans. What led to you decision to leave school and start a band?

J.R.: I was just sick of college and all the other bullshit. Up until a certain point, I always did what I was "supposed" to be doing. But I worked on a few films, commercials, stuff like that, and I realized I didn't want to be in college, and I didn't want to be in the film industry. What I wanted to do was play in a rock band and travel the world doing crazy shit.

Me: Is that where the "Revelation" in Blackfire Revelation comes from?

J.R.: Actually, Blackfire Revelation, the name, it actually came from a dream that I had right around that time. I had this dream, and there was this fire that was burning black, and the sound that it was making was the sound of tape hiss. And the fire didn't necessarily "speak" to me, but I guess it did, and it told me "Put your faith in music, and follow that, and everything else will fall into place." So, I had a "blackfire revelation," so the next day I thought it would make sense to call the band that.

Me: So you guys put out the Gold And Guns On 51 EP on your own and then on Fat Possum, and then you went on tour with Unsane in 2005, right?

J.R.: Yeah, we did a lot of shows. Over the course of a year-and-a-half we did probably 70 to 80 shows with Unsane in the U.S. and Europe.

Me: And that tour coincided with Katrina hitting. What was that like?

J.R.: Aw, that was crazy, man. You know, my birthday is August 27th, which was two days before Katrina hit. And we were actually playing a show that night in Hickory, North Carolina. We had seen in the news that a hurricane was coming, and we were kinda worried about it, but there had been hurricanes before, and usually they blow a few people's roofs off, and knock a few trees down, and some people stay and some people go, but a few days later everything is business as usual. So we didn't think that much of it. 
J.R. Fields of Blackfire Revelation
But we played the show that night, and we then we went back to our hotel afterwards. We checked in around two or three in the morning and we flicked on the T.V. and just saw this behemoth monster that was Katrina just looking like it was about to swallow up the city. And right then we literally just took a shower and went to the front desk to check out and go home. So we left right then and made a beeline for the city. But when we got to Meridian, Mississippi the roads had been converted and all lanes were headed out. They weren't letting anybody into New Orleans. So that kinda started several months of us moving around. We lived in Atlanta for a while, we were in Jackson, Mississippi for a while, we were in Memphis for a while, and we were in Oxford. We could only sit back and watch it play out on T.V.

Me: It sounds like it must have been a surreal experience. It's hard for me to imagine. You must have felt at times like you didn't know if you'd ever be able to go back.

J.R.: Yeah, we didn't. What a lot of people forget is that during the first days, after the city started filling up with water, they were saying on the news that it could take a year for the water to drain out of the city. So everything was really up in the air as to when we would get to go back and if we would ever get to go back. Which is a weird spot to be in. That's a situation that [laughs] you never expect to find yourself in. It's strange when they tell you your city is "closed until further notice." And especially for me, my dog was still in the city, and of course I had friends that were still here, let alone the few worldly possessions that I may prize were still in New Orleans. It was definitely a really strange time.

Me: Did you feel like you had become Wandering Minstrels from the Middle Ages or something?

J.R.: Well, I think maybe we felt like that already being on tour for so long. We were already wandering minstrels if there ever were any. But it's definitely weird just being vagabonds. For a while there we'd just play a show to make a few bucks. Luckily for us the guys from Fat Possum kinda took us in. We went to Oxford where they have a studio with a trailer out back. So we'd just hang out and watch the news and wait to hear something about when we could go home. It was crazy.

Me: I have to ask, was your dog okay?

J.R.: Yeah, he was. It's actually a funny story. He was at my wife's apartment (or my now wife's apartment, she was my girlfriend at the time). She lives above her shop (she has a retail shop here in New Orleans). When they looted Wal-Mart, she went over and grabbed one of those forty-pound bags of dog food. And she took two bins and dumped the food in there, then filled up another bin with five or six gallons of water for him. So she locked him in the store with the food and the water, and he actually saved her store from being looted, because he'd be in there barking through the window. Then after four or five days one of our neighbors was able to get in through a back window and he took the dog. And then he would patrol the block with the dog and a shovel and run off looters.

Me: Wow. [pause] How are things in New Orleans today?

J.R.: They're good…for some people. If you drive around New Orleans, uptown and in the French Quarter, and the older parts of the city, it looks like nothing ever happened. But if you venture into the Ninth Ward up into Lakeview, you'll see buildings that look like the storm just hit them yesterday, and it's been five years…There are still people moving back every day. Maybe they moved away, and now finally have the money to come back, or are just now getting their insurance money. I tell people all the time my son, who was born after Katrina, someday when he drives around New Orleans in fifteen years, he'll still be driving by bombed-out houses from Katrina.

Me: I think that's likely. I grew up outside Washington D.C., and when I was a teenager driving around the city, I'd see sections of the city that were still damaged from the riots that took place after MLK was assassinated a year before I was born. Parts of the city still looked like a war zone all those years later. So those kinds of scars can take a long time to heal.

J.R.: It's going to take a long time. And that's assuming that it doesn't happen again. I ask people all the time as a trick question, "Did you see the press conference where the Mayor and the Governor declared the levees are fixed and it's safe to return now?" But the truth is, that press conference never happened. People were allowed back, and we're still here now, but the levees could break again. There are still major infrastructure problems in this city. We're pretty much just riding this out on luck and the hope that we don't get hit by a storm of that magnitude again.

Me: Do you feel like New Orleans has been forgotten?

J.R.: No, I don't. New Orleans isn't the only place that has this type of shit. If nothing else, I think people should realize that the earth is a dangerous place to live. Look at what just happened in Japan, look at the floods in the Midwest, look at the fires in Arizona. Pretty much anywhere you live there's shit that Mother Nature is going to throw at you, and at the end of the day you really can't depend on the government or anybody else to come fix your problems. The best you can do is to deal with whatever blows Mother Nature deals you the best you can.

Me: I want to talk a little bit about your new release. The album was completed five years ago. Why was there such a delay in releasing it?

J.R.: I basically just shut down the operation. I came back after Katrina, and I wrote that record between October of 2005 and January 2006. Then we recorded the material and did a few tours, but then I just shelved the material to focus on some other things that I wanted to do. I just kinda rediscovered it a few months back, and I feel like it's something that deserves to be out there.

Me: I agree. How did that post-Katrina environment effect your songwriting and the sound of the record?

J.R.: Well, listening back now…I didn't listen to the record at all for three or four years, so listening to it now, I almost feel like I'm a third party. Which is an interesting thing to be able to hear your own music like that. Listening to the lyrics, I feel like every song, either directly or indirectly, states my anger or frustration at what was going on at that time. In the song "Diamond In The Rough" there's this one lyric that says, "Ain't nobody coming that ain't already here." I feel like that was how we felt at the time…here we are buried in bullshit, and the only people who were going to dig us out was ourselves.

There are a number of other lyrics that I feel like touch on the shit that was going on then. And listening to it now, I get comparisons all the time where people say "Oh, this album is so much heavier and angrier than Gold And Guns On 51." But it was a heavier and angrier time.

Me: Absolutely. And I think for me, as a listener, and maybe this goes straight to what the role of art should do, but it really hits you on a visceral level. It makes you feel that in a way that is hard to experience, or at least is a different experience from watching images on T.V., as horrible as those were to watch. I feel like the music on this hits you on a gut level and gives you a different way of processing those events and that environment.

J.R.: Yeah, and you know at the time I didn't say, "I want to make an angry rock record about all this frustrating bullshit." But listening back to it now as a third party, it kinda sounds like that. There are a lot of references on the record to Heaven and Hell. And that really doesn't have as much to do with religion as it does with the fact that anyone's environment at any given time can be Heaven or Hell. And at that time it was a toss-up as to which New Orleans would become, or if it would even survive or not.

Me: Absolutely. And I think it's a better album for not being an intentional, literal statement about post-Katrina New Orleans. I feel like a lot of times when people try to do that kind of thing, it doesn't really work.

J.R.: Yeah. The only song on there that's literally about Katrina is the opening track "Flood." That's the one song on the record that is really directly about the bullshit that was going down. So yeah, like you're saying it's not entirely literal, but it did help me process what was going on at the time.

Me: Do you think that you maybe needed a little bit of distance from it before you were able to put it out there for other people?

J.R.: I think I did, and I think I needed distance from music as a whole at the time. Which is why I've been on break for five years. For a two or three year stretch there we were either on the road or in the studio, or at home busting ass so we could either be on the road or the in the studio. So toward the end of that run there was some other shit I wanted to do in my life, so I had to lay it down to do that.

Me: What are your future plans for Blackfire Revelations, if any?

J.R.: Well, Blackfire Revelation, I'm not gonna say it's over. But Blackfire Revelation, to me, is what I do with Hank. I have a new band that I'm working on now called The Snake and Pony Show. And chances are that any future recordings or live shows I do will be with that band. I'll still play Blackfire Revelation songs, but as far as moving forward it'll be with The Snake And Pony Show.

Me: I'll keep an ear open for that. In the meantime, how can folks get the Blackfire Revelation material? I know it's on iTunes, where else is it?

J.R.: It's available at all major digital music retailers; iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Zune, eMusic. I'm pretty much just doing a full on digital release.

Me: Any plans for a physical release, or will this album only exist online?

J.R.: Just online. It'll probably just stay online. At some point in the future I might like to do a vinyl release if that makes sense financially. But for right now it's just digital.

Me: Well, I hope people get a chance to hear it, because I think it's music that shouldn't be overlooked, and it shouldn't be forgotten, so I'm glad you decided to go ahead and make it available.

J.R.: Well thanks! Like I said, I may not perform as Blackfire Revelation anymore, but if anybody wants to hear those songs, they can come see me live… And I'm hoping to have a Snake And Pony Show record out by the middle of next year.

Me: Well I'm looking forward to hearing more from you, and thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me today.

J.R.: Well thanks for calling and take care.
J.R. Fields.

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