In the spotlight – Blokeacola

In the spotlight – Blokeacola

Welsh-born Blokeacola is the man sporting a bright orange helmet making psychedelic indie pop. He played in bands for years in the UK before becoming a solo artist and then moving to Hangzhou (China). He released his debut single ‘Make It On Your Own’ in 2020 and recently released an EPWig Game‘.

Tell me about your journey as a musician. What got you interested in music and what was your first attempt at writing songs? 

“My dad is a songwriter/musician and music was always a big deal for my immediate family. I was thus listening to lots of different music from an early age. The primary school I went to in Wales was also very encouraging when it came to kids participating in music. I don’t think that can be underestimated. I remember my dad recording me on his home set-up when I was a very small kid, singing away random stuff, so it was obviously in me. I remember being the one picked at primary school to sing solo after numerous kids had been auditioned so I could apparently hold a note early on.”

“Later on it’s that familiar story of teenagers setting about finding their own musical identity. I remember pulling an old bass guitar out of a shed with my buddy that used to belong to my uncle. I still use it and in fact I’ve just started a new project with aforementioned buddy. (More about that later…) I started trying to write songs in my teens but, playing in a band with the singer the established songwriter, it took me a small while to be comfortable playing that role despite her being very supportive and complimentary.”

“I only tentatively started inflicting my own stuff on people whilst at Leeds uni then, when I graduated, forming a band was all I wanted to do. So I stuck around in Leeds for around a decade writing, gigging and recording. When the band finished I became a solo artist and played in other people’s bands too.”

“Eventually my wife and I felt we had to leave the UK or we wouldn’t be able to find a work and family life balance we were satisfied with so we moved to China. At first I earned decent enough money here playing music to pay the bills but once we had kids and wanted to buy our own home it was obvious I needed proof of a steady income to satisfy the mortgage people so I became a teacher full-time.”

“The reality of my current life in Hangzhou doesn’t really lend itself to me playing live regularly any longer but I’m always writing and recording. I just can’t get enough of it! So, to sum up, a family love for music, my dad nurturing my home recording instincts and primary school encouraging music all contributed massively I reckon. Ask anyone that grew up in Wales about singing in choirs.”

What specific themes cover your music?

“There have been a few different themes in my songwriting over the years regarding the different projects I’ve been involved in. Sometimes social commentary, but generally the usual stuff people sing about I guess though I’ve always felt an inclination to try put a darkly humorous spin on things which would intermittently reveal itself and point towards where I was heading maybe. I think some people I was close to were more attuned to that side of me than I was actually. I would get defensive if people expressed an opinion about what themes I should be covering. I think I’ve always had the capacity to make people laugh in conversation or in music with my dry wit and by satirising but I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage because of my life experiences and suffering from poor mental health a lot of the time so I don’t think I was switched on enough to play to my strengths and allow that side of my personality to come through more. I was probably wallowing in my own sadness too much of the time.”

“I feel with the Blokeacola persona I’ve finally arrived at a place where I can balance the gloom with the chortles. My lyrical approach is really just to note down the absurd and regurgitate it because I think we live in very strange times and that’s what I want to reflect. It might be completely deadpan but the jokes are there.”

What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

“My recording journey has involved a fair bit of trial and error, though I don’t like the word error because I believe it’s never a mistake to try different things out. I’m finally at a stage in my life where I have a tiny bit of disposable income so I can afford to invest in well recorded drums and some lower budget rack gear, including a preamp.The kindness of my friend lending me a really decent condenser microphone has also made a very positive difference to my overall sound. He’s a total legend. Big up John Carroll.”

“Recently servicing my guitar has helped a lot too. On my recent recordings, I’ve really leaned into having new noiseless pick-ups and a new bridge and tremolo unit fitted. I’ve been enjoying a having a very clean sound on the guitar, writing two main guitar parts and experimenting with different reverb settings.”

“I don’t want this to come across like you need to spend money to make music though. The best advice is just learn to work with what you’ve got or what’s affordable. Everyone probably has their own selection of stuff on and off the computer they gravitate towards. That’s your unique sound. Combine it with your own unique personality. There’s nothing wrong with limitations and once you have the odd bit of decentish stuff at your disposal you’ve already learnt enough to really hit your stride. Fingers crossed anyway!”

Are there any musicians who inspire you? What qualities do you admire about them?

“Too many to name. I’m always hearing things that make me want to record and to get better and that could be anything from 60s psychpop to 90s hip-hop through to a brand new release. If I had to pick a very recent example I’d say listen to Silk Sonic ‘Leave the Door Open’. Somehow I missed it when it was first released. Lyrically some might find it’s rather silly, not that I’m one to judge, but the production, chord changes, arrangement and performances are sublime. That’s just one of so many different examples of great music out there old and new – I admire anyone that can deliver that level of ear candy to my lugs. It could be Elliott Smith. It could be Outkast. It could be an act very few people have even heard of. Anyone that is on top of their game is an inspiration.”

“I guess if I had to pick one particular quality I admire it would be that talent of creating a brilliant final recording, whether it’s just one individual responsible or a huge team involved.”

Tell me about your production process. What software do you use and how do you go about making a track?

“I’m probably one of the few remaining people in the world that still uses Sony Acid (laughs). My dad showed me how to use it when I was a kid, so it’s just very familiar to me. Though, of course, I bet I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of what it can do.”

“My process has varied over the years but I’d say for Blokeacola the general pattern I fall into is get a drum loop going, then just start by using the instrument I most feel like using, likely guitar, bass or synth. When I have recorded a part or parts with that instrument I can then start to plan out the drums properly for the different sections and start adding the different instruments. Maybe I might just have a synth line and work out the vocals straight away. It depends. I’ll always have a lyric bank ready so the moment I’ve some instrumentation that inspires a vocal line I can start singing along and work out which words I’m using and where they are going to go. This might involve using nothing but words I have already written down in my lyric bank over a long period of time. But I might be inspired to write some new words as well if they come. Maybe I’ll suddenly come up with a line and the whole song will stem from that and the lyric bank then helps fill in the blanks. I tend to not go too deep into the mixing side of things until the song is all planned out minus the recorded vocals.”

“Then I’ll start with the EQ, working out what reverbs, delays, compressors to use, etc. It’s often nice to do a bit of mixing before I record the vocals because if the track is sounding really good in the headphones then it makes singing over the top of it a really joyful experience. But it doesn’t have to go that way. If I know I’ve only a limited amount of time to record a vocal before the family comes home for example, then I’ll just sing over whatever I can muster.”

How do you decide when a song is finished? Do you find yourself forever wanting to tweak and re-record etc?

“As time has gone on I feel like I’ve become much better at learning when enough is enough. The best way is to take breaks. If you come back refreshed and enjoy what you’ve done then someone else will hopefully enjoy it too. It’s a never ending battle though trying to balance your obsessive side with your lazy side. It’s very easy to fall into either trap, not doing enough or doing too much. I think a lot of people involved in this type of endeavour will tell you that the act of creating is an enormous amount of fun then suddenly you hit this point where you’re supposed to finish it and that bit seems to take forever. Some things you’re doing at this end stage are probably things that need to be done. But you can also end up in this place where the track has probably been finished for a while to all intents and purposes, but it’s hard to let go because it’s this thing that you’re attached to and have spent such a wonderful time with! But let go you must because any changes you’re making at this point most people probably wouldn’t notice anyway and indeed you might not even notice them yourself given enough time. And also you risk ruining the track and losing your way with it – forgetting what you wanted it to be in the first place. Go and do something else is best. Then start something new you will quickly feel equally enamoured with.”

Is there a specific sound or technique that you would like to incorporate in your music, but haven’t been able to?

“It feels strange to be answering like this when you consider what amazing stuff is at other people’s disposal that have more investment behind them than I do or are simply better engineers and producers than I am but not really! I think because I’ve learned to appreciate limitations. And also there is just so much you can potentially do with computers these days anyway. That said, it would be amazing to try being a little more hands off. Perhaps for a completely different type of project. To be able to say to a great producer, OK here’s a song with guitar, bass and vocals and no processing. You find a good string arranger, add a brass section, etc, whatever we agree it needs. Go to town on it. Swap out all of my parts if you really want to. Let’s have no ego interfering here. Whatever you think serves the song best. It would be a very interesting experience to give songs to other perhaps more established artists, and hear what they can do with my material in a state of the art studio with the best engineers, session musicians, etc. It’s not so much the case at the moment because I’m very focused on the specific projects I’m involved in so my writing and production seems to fit them, but I’m sure I’ve written plenty of songs in the past that maybe don’t suit me as an artist or that I haven’t done justice to because a midi brass part just doesn’t cut the mustard or whatever.”

Has living abroad influenced your sound in any way?

“I imagine it has in some way because I’ve lived here for around a decade now, so that’s a big chunk of my entire existence. I don’t think it’s something you can really pinpoint with any certainty though. It’s not like I use Chinese traditional instruments for example, although that’s not to say I wouldn’t like to try my hand at incorporating some into my music given the right circumstances. Looking at the world through the perspective of someone living here will affect my lyrics I’m sure and also the emotions I channel. At the same time though, for me music is a retreat. Somewhere to go that provides my own private bubble I can exist in. In some ways then I’m trying to escape the world, whichever part of it I happen to reside in at that moment in time. Though of course I’m trying to make sense of it too. Perhaps you can’t make sense of anything unless you take a step back from it. I feel like I’m a reasonably self-aware person and I’d guess that there are plenty of things about my sound that would remain the same wherever I live. I can be quite reclusive and introverted, maybe even increasingly misanthropic as I get older. I feel quite aloof from things wherever I am with no overwhelming urge to involve myself in anything that isn’t music or family. Particularly now my ankle won’t seemingly allow me to play football with others any longer. Locations are also rendered somewhat meaningless because of the Internet. So I’m still very influenced by non-Chinese music despite living in China. I have spent a fair amount of time immersing myself in what you might refer to as music scenes here but as a family man that has a full time job, I just haven’t been able to do that for a long time now so I’d say what directly influences me in the main is the music I listen to at home, which is rarely Chinese music unless my family are playing it. So yes and no I guess is the answer (laughs).”

You released your album ‘Mango Insane’ earlier this year and recently the EP ‘Wig Game’. Do you plan your releases or do you just finish an album and release it?

“When I finished ‘Mango Insane’ I was really pleased with it so I didn’t want it to just be released as an album and forgotten about with barely any listeners. So even though it was meant to be an album I made the difficult decision to release every track as a single first. I wanted as many people as possible to hear it so taking it track by track seemed the best way given the reality of modern streaming. It was exhausting doing it that way but I feel like the hard work paid off because I at least have a small following now of people genuinely interested in what I’m doing.”

“I’m trying different things out but I think the general pattern my releases will follow from here will be release EPs and albums on Bandcamp first, to increase the likelihood of actual purchases. Then release the individual tracks slowly, song by song, month by month, everywhere else. This means I will always have something to promote whilst I’m working on my next release. Letting things out slowly to give more people more chances to get on board with what I’m doing seems to be the most sensible way of going about things. The only frustrating thing about that way of doing it is I feel like I have a lot more music in me than this type of release schedule allows for. But perhaps it’s important to learn you can still make all the music you want, you just don’t have to record or release it all.”

Do you find determining the order of songs on an album to be a challenge, and how important is that to you?

“I think I would find it a challenge if I sat around thinking about it for too long but I don’t tend to torture myself like that. Maybe I’ll release in the order they were written/recorded and that’s happened across different projects a few times if memory serves me well. They often just seem to naturally suit that order. I guess because if I’m in the mindset of making an album or an EP I’m already thinking how do I want this to begin and where do I want it to go, on some level. I will sometimes move things around a bit if it occurs to me it’s flowing better that way though, obviously. I think I’m quite intuitive. The answer will often just come to me rather than having to work up a sweat about it.”

How do you approach creating new album art?

“Further back when I was a different type of solo artist I would often ask an old friend to do my artwork because I had this perception of myself as someone that couldn’t do that kind of art. I’ve since discovered that I really enjoy it. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier than ever to use different types of software to do this stuff. I’ve tried different things at different times. Sometimes I like to blend random images together.”

“My most recent EP ‘Wig Game’ I used an old photo a friend sent to me of him and me as kids in his family’s back garden in the 80s. Then for the lyric sheet I digitally altered an old picture of our dads from the 70s. The subject matter of that EP is partly about living in this utterly bizarre era whilst an older world that somehow seems much simpler now, fades out of view whilst at the same time it’s being continually manipulated and served back up to us in bitesize chunks, so the artwork approach felt appropriate.”

“For ‘Mango Insane’ I had created a different photo, apart from one track which uses a still from John Carroll’s amazing lyric video animation for ‘Bullets and Condoms’, for each single, so the final album artwork is all those singles together. It seemed the most representative way of summing up the creative journey I’d been on.”

If a record label approached you now about putting out your next album, would you consider it?

“I’d have to see exactly what they were offering. It’d be great to work with people that could improve my reach. I’d love to collaborate on innovative new ways to approach the question of how someone like me living in China can better tap into a global market. It’d be fantastic to get a distribution deal sorted and also to earn decent money from publishing. But I’m also extremely cautious of giving up my independence because the music industry is generally a very shady business. Both my dad’s experiences passed down to me and also my own have more than taught me that. And that’s before you read about all the other problems other artists have encountered once they’ve signed a deal. If I have to earn very little money from it and hardly anyone has really heard of me then that’s fine because I love making music and anything else I get from it is a bonus.”

“Truth be told music has already given me everything because I met my wife in a bar I was playing an acoustic set in and she gave me two beautiful children so what record label could ever beat that?”

What projects are your currently working on?

“I’m waiting for the masters to come back for a new Blokeacola EP I will release in the early months of next year. I’ve also just completed a collaborative album with the aforementioned old buddy of mine. It’s 50 minutes long and we’re really pleased with it. Our name is Shrube. We just need to get it mastered then we can start doing things like sorting out the release schedule, settling on artwork and the like. The same friend and I have also just started working on a track with a drummer based in the US so it will be interesting to see what comes of that. I just got some new equipment I’ve been saving up for delivered the other day so looking forward to using that to work on some new tracks.”

Will we ever see the face behind the orange helmet? 😉

“If someone really wants to find out who I am then I am sure it wouldn’t take much work (laughs). I have not gone to Banksy like lengths to conceal my true identity. Truth be told, I never expected people to take any notice. I saw the helmet lying around one day and it started as a bit of a joke. I already had this name Blokeacola that I used before as a way of filing music away that didn’t really suit what I was doing at that time before thinking, actually, it’s a great name and I should do more with it. It’s a silly name and wearing a bright orange helmet is silly too so they seemed to go together well. I also quickly realized the helmet was more fun for photos and animations with the added bonus I didn’t have to comb my hair, make myself as presentable, think too much about what I’m wearing or feel insecure about how I really look. Plus it’s a good way of making use of something I never actually wear often to drive my scooter because I tend to use the metro more these days anyway. Perhaps if I’d have known a decent amount of people would actually like the music then I’d have tried harder to cover my tracks and not use my real name in my songwriter credits. I don’t think I will ever lose the helmet for this Blokeacola project though because it would just feel wrong. It’s become synonymous with the name. I think it’s more about tapping into that sense of the ridiculous though than hiding though hiding probably does come into it.”

What’s your favourite song from the Cool Top 20 and why?

“There’s no way I could choose anything other than ‘Tramp in St Tropez’ by Joe Adhemar. Joe has been kind enough to say Blokeacola has inspired him and that’s a massive compliment to feel like I’ve provided even a drop of added fuel to fire such a talented artist. I’d also have to say the feeling is mutual. I really enjoy Joe’s songwriting and production and feel like there’s a certain musical kinship evident despite only having ever talked to him via Twitter.”

What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?

“There are really so many talented artists I’ve stumbled across that deserve mentioning but for the sake of picking one track I’m going to choose ‘Not Like Hollywood’ by Feardrops. I know David from this duo from his time in Hangzhou. He has a lot of different projects under his belt and was even signed to Parlophone back in the days when we were both learning our crafts in different parts of Yorkshire. Whatever it is that is required to be a quality recording artist and performer, he has it and it’s dovetailing beautifully with his current musical partner in crime. Also nothing but respect for the fact David still gets out and plays live in China regularly despite, like me, having two kids and a full-time job, not to mention Covid restrictions constantly shutting everything down. I honestly don’t know where he finds the energy and the willpower to rehearse and hone a live set, organize and play gigs whilst also recording such brilliant material. Looking after kids is exhausting enough and that’s before you even factor in day jobs and lockdowns interfering with everything. Respectulations.”

More about Blokeacola on Bandcamp, Instagram, Facebook & Twitter.

(Photos by Louis Gray)