Ace coverstory January 21, 1998. Photos by Forrest Payne for Ace.
Never Mind the Rancor: Here Come the Blueberries!
“My brother gave me a present call something like ‘The Book of Real Losers,’ or ‘The Big Book of Losers,'” for Christmas and told me ‘don’t take this the wrong way,'” admits Otto Helmuth, lead singer and guitarist for the Blueberries.
Notwithstanding the obvious debate about the “right” way to take a gift like that, Helmuth could be speaking on behalf of virtually any starving artist/musician/writer/creative-types in Lexington — a town that’s not exactly known for its kindness to creativity/artistry (See also, new “All Garth, All the Time” radio format.)
This is, of course, bearing in mind that, by local standards, the Blueberries are widely acknowledged as a big success. Definitely A list. Although they’ve had a few ups and downs, it’s a rare Saturday at Lynagh’s that they wouldn’t pack the house. Though they admit to falling a little short of the drawing power of say, the more-or-less defunct 10 Ft. Pole (whom they take the time to compliment as “the thinking man’s ‘fun’ band’) not to mention a Catawampus Universe.
Helmuth, who’s preparing for fatherhood, along with the CD release, says, “the first time I see my kid even DRAW a picture of a guitar or a drumkit, man, it’s LOCKDOWN.”
Asked if he’s kidding, he thinks only a second before responding, “No way. I wouldn’t wish this on my offspring…it’s a life of ‘hey honey, I’m off to Kalamazoo for the weekend where I’ll probably spend about a thousand bucks and then head into the studio where you won’t see me for three weeks, is that ok?'”
Talking about the difficult process of making a living in the music business, drummer Andy Mason and bassist Chad Ward recall a period of maybe one month where they actually lived off being in the band — “out of seven years, four vans, or is it three/’ and two CDs [Dinner, and Museum].'”
Now everything they make goes into the band “fund,” which means that essentially, most of the time, they more or less have to pay to be Blueberries.
And it’s been that way almost from the beginning. Helmuth and Ward had known each other from high school, and though the “ubiquitous Tim Welch” was the initial drummer, former Paul K bassist Steve Poulton introduced them to Andy Mason at a party, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or as the band puts it, “Thus began our long journey into debt.”
Helmuth remembers sending Dinner out to all the major labels as soon as it was complete, only to be greeted with an avalanche in his mailbox of “Returned to Sender. Unsolicited Material.” He says, “I was going to save all of those labels and make a CD cover out of them…but I never got around to it.”
The band hadn’t settled on the title of their upcoming CD at press, so a few suggestions were jokingly tossed around during the interview…like Bitterness, and Rancor. Then they say maybe they’ll just announce the title at the door at their CD release party.
They know they’re facing an uphill battle — that this record probably isn’t any more likely than the first two to propel them into (God forbid) Hootie-dom. They’re down to just writing what they love. Helmuth reflects on the time when, “we got to the point where we hated what we were doing. We had a shitty year. We tried to record. We went in and had a failed session — spent a thousand bucks on bad songs.”
They’re also far older and wiser than they were when they at least hoped Dinner would be the next big thing. Ward says they’ve recovered from what he describes as “first CD syndrome.”
At this point, he picks up a local ad promotion catalog from a nearby desk and starts flipping through it, noting that they could get Blueberries pens. He adds, “They’re only $1.75 each if we buy 350.” Passing it around, he notes cheerfully, “look, we could get Blueberries sporting goods, golf balls — hey, here’s a keychain we could get in the shape of a boot or a bear.”
Helmuth wants to know if they have crayons.
Discussing the marketing end of the business, they admit, “None of us are willing or able, or have the time to sit on the phone all the time, doing what it takes to make the connections.” They describe a local colleague (who’s enjoyed a pretty good run) whose strategy was to make connections with college newspaper writers — “and he stuck with them till some of them made it to Rolling Stone or Spin…Talk about your long term marketing strategy…And it paid off for him, they admit ungrudgingly.
They’re also just as aware of the darker side of the scene — the people for whom the investment never really pays off, and they tell a story of a singer/songwriter who was in the hospital dying of alcoholism; he got up, left the hospital, and walked across the street to a liquor store (IV still attached) — which readily sold it to him.
It’s pretty apparent from the sympathy with which they tell the story that none of them seem quite prepared to die for their art just yet. They all agree they’d stop before they hit that wall. Where to draw that line, exactly, is up for debate though.
Referring back to the other colleague’s more successful story, they acknowledge, “That’s what we’re up against. There are bands out there who have six guys working a record everyday, all day. Not to mention the 10 million other bands like us” who are just sending out their material, hoping to have it heard.
They’re also realistic about the fact that living in a college town means a certain amount of running to stand still — when a huge percentage of your live public is going to be comprised of kids in their late teens and early twenties — who, for the most part, rotate every four years or so.
Of changing tastes, for example, they note that the new record has none of the alterna-country flavor that Museum did — characterizing the new effort, after much debate amongst themselves, as more “straight ahead rock.”
Ward laughs, “just tell them it’s Husker Du-meets-Elton John.” Then he reconsiders, “No. Let’s call it …jazz.”
They agree about one thing,” At this point, our views are all more realistic.” Ward says, “getting signed,” isn’t the eye on the prize he concentrates on these days. And Helmuth says what it comes down to for him now is when “someone tells me a song was part of their life. That’s the best,” when that happens.”
Their goal now? “The ability to keep playing the music we like — the music we want to make and that we want to hear.”
The long-anticipated Blueberries CD Release Party is February 28 at Lynagh’s. The CD will also be available for sale at local outlets.
OTTO HELMUTH lead singer, guitarist, sometimes percussion, piano etc Got his real musical start at 18, while attending Belmont College (a Baptist school in Nashville) in Serious George, which included other sometimes-local scenesters Steve Poulton and Chris Sullivan. They got a manager almost immediately and a development deal with a label that also included Vanilla Ice and Tracy Chapman. Asked to elaborate on the nature of that kind of “deal,” the band quickly describes it as “a tax write-off for the labels.” He hooked up again with Chad Ward in Lexington (whom he’d known and played with in high school) and they recruited Tim Welch — characterized by them as “the catalyst drummer for virtually every band in town.”
ANDY MASON drummer, has sat in with everybody from Paul K to the Yonders to “every incarnation of a Chris Sullivan band. Recently traveled around the country as part of Michelle Shocked’s opening act. (Her brother Max Johnston, formerly of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, lives here in Lexington.) His current singer/songwriter project is the Damn Rathers.
CHAD WARD describes his biography as pretty much “ditto for Otto’s” except for Serious George. Then his bandmates prod him to mention “Porno Finger” which he describes as “a heavy metal experimental jazz fusion rock band that’s still in the experimental stage.” Part of the problem seems to be that the necessary “Swedish guitar players are in short supply around here.”