If pinned down and made to name one band this year which has most explosively leapt into view, US rockers Black Belt KARATE not only has to be high in contention but in all honesty probably steals the accolade. With an introduction which has been as musically fiery as it is creative and as insatiably passionate as it is absurdly addictive, the quartet from Los Angeles has awakened a greedy appetite in a swelling legion of fans on both sides of the pond. From a blaze of refreshing indie punk, garage rock, and blues seduction, provided by debut EP Volume 1 and first single Camouflage (Man On Fire) as well as a devastatingly impressive live show, this quartet is a potent force on a very steep ascent. Greedy to dig deeper into the band we had the pleasure of talking with three quarters of BBK, vocalist Ryan Hanifl, bassist Harry Ostrem, and guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis (drummer Ryan Brown unavailable as he is currently out on tour with Dweezil Zappa). Touching on the band and its member’s backgrounds, LA, songwriting through to Oingo Boingo, and Wild Sex, this is what BBK revealed…
Hi Guys and many thanks for taking time to talk with us.
First up for all readers this side of the Atlantic and maybe a couple in the US still unaware of Black Belt KARATE tell us about the band, its members and what brought you all together?
Ryan (Hanifl – vocals): Jason & I’s innate disgust in one another’s personal taste in music. It was really more on a dare than anything else. “Hey I dare you to write a song with me that we’ll like”. I still hate everything he likes
Harry (Ostrem – bass): Basically, all of us have played in numerous bands and to some degree, gotten our asses kicked by pouring our hearts and hopes into groups that succumb to premature dissolution. At the end of the day, despite previous heartache, we are rock musicians born and bred to play in a band. Our desire to create and perform great rock and roll is what brought us together and has sustained us thus far. I think our past hardships have helped us approach this band with a certain sense of maturity. Jason and I have never argued.
Jason (Mezilis – guitar / producer): This is true; yes…Harry and I get along famously. And yes, Ryan has terrible taste in music. We’ve actually tortured him on long road trips with Iron Maiden on endless loop…a tactic similar to the Bush-era practice of interrogation with Guantanamo Bay prisoners. But at the end of the day Ryan Brown (drums) gets one up on us all with his pathological love of old Zappa records
You have been/are involved in other bands before BBK, tell us about your backgrounds and was there something lacking in those sounds which you all wanted to explore in BBK?
Jason: A big part of the sound of this band has been in my head for years, as a production aspect in terms of the stripped-down approach, and BBK came from finally finding the right talent to make that happen. These guys are inspiring to work with, and in terms of filling a ‘hole’ yeah I think with any artistic venture you have to believe that you’re contributing something that is needed, that isn’t represented in the current mix of things.
Harry: I put all of my rock and roll eggs in one basket for years, which led to an awesome band and an album that I am very proud of. But like the old story goes, it takes much more than great music and players to keep a band together. I vowed to never again put myself in a musical corner. Black Belt Karate has supplied a platform where I can play my heart out, invest my time in music I truly believe in, and have the freedom to pursue individual artistic ventures. One of the key ingredients in making Black Belt Karate work is that everyone is supportive of everyone’s entire artistic career.
Jason: Harry moves around a lot on stage
Your debut EP Volume 1, which was released earlier this year in the US has just had its UK unleashing, how has the responses here to it been in comparison to back home?
Harry: People in LA don’t listen to music; they just listen to themselves 😉
Jason: The UK audience has been incredibly receptive…it’s been fantastic. Radio and press have responded very warmly, and we’ve been getting letters and messages from new fans that are discovering us through that support. It’s pretty damn cool…and exactly what we hoped for, when we made the initial push to reach across the pond. UK fans have traditionally had an understanding of the energy of honest rock n roll, dating back for decades, that is as true and relevant today as ever, it seems.
We called the EP a blaze of refreshing indie punk, garage rock, and a spatter of blues devilry with a healthy brew of funk; it is a riot of multi-coloured flames and fiery spices suggesting a wealth of inspirations. What and who are the more impacting inspirations to your creativity with BBK?
Ryan: I find creativity in the moment. If the vibe ain’t right, the shoe won’t fit
Jason: You did say all those very kind things, and I think we owe you five bucks now for it. Yeah I would agree with Ryan, for us inspiration is very abstract…it comes much more from the energy of a new riff, or a rhythm, or a vocal. Sometimes a great tune can be inspired by something as basic as the rhythm of your footsteps, when you’re in the right mood to find a groove on it. We draw much more on the immediacy of a feeling / vibe than we do off specifics. On the production side of things, the basic approach is to keep it as raw and honest as possible, and still sound good coming out of the speakers…there’s always the notion of “if this came on the radio right now, how would it make you feel” – and then dial that in so it’s where you want it, in terms of not only energy but also relevance. There’s a certain way to mix familiar elements into a new, exciting delivery. Bands like Muse, The White Stripes, even Radiohead…all the music that you hear and love contains elements of what’s come before…but stirred in a new pot, or with a different spice.
Harry: “Multi-coloured flames and fiery spices”…I think the same description can be applied to Gandalf’s urine…
You are often tagged as a super group because of your other bands and projects, not a term we like in any respect, how do you feel about that labelling of you? Is it a compliment or more of a burden?
Ryan: We’re a super group?
Harry: It’s a burden! I am so tired of being compared to Cream, Bad Company, Asia, and Atoms for Peace. Can’t the public just let us be!
Jason: You forgot Toto…
Tell us about the band name and did you consider how hard it would be to find you in a Google search 😉
Ryan: There was no thought whatsoever in the band name. It was a throw-a-way lyric in one of our first songs. Maybe that will come back to haunt us. Hopefully it will
Jason: The name came up randomly, yeah…but there’s something about the energy of it that just made immediate sense. One of those ‘light switch’ moments, and a quick “Google” search and iTunes check later, it was ours! Far as the rest…we own the goddamn internet. Go ahead, Google it…see what happens
Your songs on the evidence of the EP and the single Camouflage (Man On Fire) are raucously energetic and ridiculously infectious but come with a wonderfully textured sound and structure which suggests your music is an organic creature but carefully sculpted. Is this the reality?
Harry: I think that is a good way to put it. There is a song-writing process in place, but despite this structure, there is plenty of room for inspiration and collaboration.
How does the songwriting work within the band?
Ryan: Jason comes up with a bunch of meandering chords. Ryan (myself) writes a bunch of meandering melodies. Harry grows out his moustache and tells us about his day. Ryan (Brown – drums) does Chewbacca noises the whole time
Jason: That’s actually a surprisingly accurate summation of it
Harry: Jason and Hanifl are the main song writers in the band. They make pretty tasty demos and send them out to Brown (drums) and myself. Once we have learned the material as it is on the demos, we get into the studio and jam out the tunes. This is where each individual member gets to put their stamp on the song. Jason and Hanifl are both very open to the rhythm section’s ideas, which is a sign of respect and trust. No one is told what to play, but we all give suggestions. I also have some of my own demos I am preparing for the band; but don’t tell Jason.
It is quite a democratic process then or are there moments of more volatile debate when it comes to creating songs? 😉
Ryan: I would say any debate ever is not about the songs, it’s about other stuff…
Harry: We don’t debate on songs very much. The Ryan’s often debate turnip and radish prices and how this will affect the global market and the value of the Euro. I spend most of my time debating with myself how well Larry Bird’s game would translate in today’s NBA. Jason doesn’t debate so much as masturbate during rehearsal.
Jason: (strange gurgling sound)
You have obviously brought the EP to stages in the States but any plans to treat us in the UK and Europe to it live?
Jason: Yes! We actually have a few smaller festivals locked in for late June 2014, in England and Scotland…we’re working with local booking agents to secure a good run through – ideally would be at least a few weeks, perhaps even a month or so, as far throughout Europe / UK as we can make happen. Lot of time between now and then, we’ll see what opportunities present themselves…but yes certainly hope to bring the band overseas next year.
The EP has a strong live feel to its presence and energy, how was it recorded?
Harry: We record on to tape, which is a first for me. Instead of being singularly focused on precision by watching a wave form and playing to click, we play our parts, listen to each other live, and evaluate whole takes. I have really enjoyed this process. It has helped me think of how the bass-lines play off of the other instruments in the band, as opposed to just trying to play the part “right”.
How much would you say of your previous projects and the way you have worked in studios with them helped or added to the experience of recording Volume 1?
Jason: Ryan (Hanifl) and I had a band previous a number of years ago called ‘Your Horrible Smile’…some of the elements of this band can be traced back to that sound we initially crafted back when. But as far as overall experience, everything do you professionally affects your next move, so for myself working with a group of guys this professional and experienced in the recording world definitely makes me step up my production skills. It’s a great challenge
You come from LA but listening to the EP I would not say it had that typical or recognisable feel of other artists and sounds from the city. How do you fit in with the local scene do you think?
Harry: We don’t.
Jason: There’s not much a local scene here…not sure when that last was, but yeah we don’t sound much like other bands on the local level. There’s some obvious lines to draw to some of the more successful locally-spawned bands, like the ‘desert-rock’ vibe and whatnot…but in terms of bands that we play with that are friends of ours, yeah everything is pretty different. It’s not Seattle, that’s for sure
Has the city impacted on the band musically in any way or as an inspiration?
Jason: Not musically, not so much…our music isn’t about LA necessarily, I think everyone in the band draws their own inspiration from a more personal headspace…but it is an inspiring place to be in terms of having everything you need here to get a great band going, in terms of industry and so forth. Kind of like being in a giant “band boot camp” or something….it’s a working city, and inspires you to do the same. One of the things that’s ironically great about Los Angeles is you don’t fall in love with the city for what it is, but rather what it gives you…so it’s easy to leave for work (i.e. touring) on extended periods without getting terribly homesick, ha!
Your next single is a cover of an Oingo Boingo song, a band we adore. Tell us about that and why you chose this song out of all their great tracks to cover?
Jason: We actually learned the song initially at the request of our drummer, it was a song his wife really dug and always wanted to hear him play in one band or another. It turned out surprisingly good, and we put it to tape at the suggestion of a good friend of ours, who saw us perform the tune live.
You have re-invented the song, Wild Sex (In the Working Class), made it your own without losing its creators essence, how did you approach recording the song without just doing a bland copy like so many other bands do with cover songs?
Jason: Well thanks man. Yeah I personally have always loved doing cover tunes; it’s a great “bridge” for new fans to get an idea of your overall vibe, by connecting the dots in their head to something they may already be familiar with. Ryan (Hanifl) in particular did a really good job making this tune all his own, and the whole band stepped up in a great way. It was definitely interesting trying to rework Xylophone and full horn arrangements (along with layered guitar tracks) down to a single pass on the instrument. But that’s a big staple of our sound, that what you hear on our recordings is how the band pulls it off live, so it was fun to make it work. Also, we had no idea our singer played harmonica so well until we did this tune…that was a fun surprise.
What is it about Oingo Boingo which gives you thrills and as also an LA band it is safe to assume they were a big inspiration on you as musicians?
Jason: I wouldn’t say a “big inspiration” as much as just a really fun one. The music is fucking great, anytime they come on the radio it gets turned up! And of course Danny Elfman is a monster, so anything that can contribute to touching his legacy is pretty damn cool
Tell us about the great video for Building Walls, a track off of the EP.
Jason: That video was directed by our very talented friend Tyler Jackson, who has done all our videos previous. We were fortunate to be able to get [actor] James Duval on board, which was fantastic, and so wanted to construct a concept that could revolve around him – basically Tyler and myself sat down together and watched old ‘The Twilight Zone’ episodes until something good hit, and then he ran with it like a champ. The domestic-couple nature of it was pretty much at my urging, and Tyler pushed hard for the supernatural / otherworldly elements of it. It was definitely an ambitious shoot, 4 days of full-shooting with a 20+ crew for band and background footage. Tyler’s looking to produce a short film from what we shot, not sure when that will be released…but he got 40 pages worth of script out of the whole thing. It was a lot of work!
What comes next apart from the new single for BBK?
Harry: Christmas special, 2014 college tour, European tour next summer, and Volume II.
Jason: We’ll have some more singles out, possibly sneaks from the new record next year as well
Will there be gaps of silence from the band due to your other commitments or is this a ride which will be pretty much continuous?
Jason: We try and time everything so there’s a continuous flow…if we can’t be playing / touring momentarily due to other commitments, then we’ll still use that time for video releases, new singles. Or reworking the website for better merch, or whatever can be done. Playing with talented (and busy) guys like this takes a lot of planning ahead…but it’s worth it
Once again a big thanks for sharing time with us; anything you would like to add or reveal for the readers?
Harry: We’re really young and largely successful, so if this band doesn’t work out, that’s cool.
Jason: Nice 🙂
Photos, artwork, and video still courtesy of and copyrighted to Carl Mahoney / Studio Mahoney, David Urbanic, and Tyler Jackson
Read the review of the Volume 1 EP @ https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/black-belt-karate-volume-1/
The RingMaster Review 05/11/2013
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