Truth in advertising—In the Blazes finds Aaron Lee Tasjan more than just one toke over the line. But it’s cool. The charmingly self-deprecating underdog of an East Nashville songwriter can handle his business. Instead of the munchies, young gun Tasjan—who cut his teeth playing lead guitar in late-period incarnations of The New York Dolls and Drivin N Cryin—wound up with one hell of a debut LP.
“I read something about Guy Clark getting high and just making songs up, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do that,’” Tasjan says. “So I wrote the record in the haze of being stoned all the time. Probably too stoned—like, shoulda-gone-to-the-doctor-a-couple-times stoned. But overdoing it allowed me to understand why that’s not such a good idea. I was learning things along the way.”
In December 2014, Tasjan spent a week recording In the Blazes at New Monkey Studio in Los Angeles, the same hallowed space where Elliott Smith cut his final record From a Basement on the Hill. At the helm for the sessions was Tasjan’s good buddy Eli Thomson of the band Everest, whom he’d met on tour while pulling a stint with Brooklyn indie-folk outfit Alberta Cross, and who produced Delta Spirit’s Ode to Sunshine. “Eli is a very grounded dude, personality-wise—he has a zen way of being,” Tasjan says. “On a subconscious level, that’s a comforting thing to be around during the creative process. You’re relaxed enough to try new things and blow it. And for better or worse, part of my thing is messing up—I have to mess it up first to do it great.
“Really, that idea permeates my life, far beyond being a songwriter,” Tasjan explains. “I always identify with the underdog. Some people, if you look at ‘em, you wouldn’t think much of them, but then they surprise you. It turns out there’s something about them that blows your mind. And that’s kind of the overarching theme of most of the songs on In the Blazes.”
The well-connected Thomson brought in some simpatico players for the sessions, including Father John Misty drummer Dan Bailey and solo artist/multi-instrumentalist David Vandervelde, who played guitar, piano, added backing vocals, and filled in as backup engineer whenever Thomson needed to focus on producing. In just seven days, working almost entirely live, Tasjan and the band breathed life into a sound that’s been mostly out-of-vogue for the last decade, one that doesn’t use reverb as a crutch—one that’s rooted in the sounds of the mid ‘70s.
“What I was listening to most going into this record was John Prine’s Common Sense,” Tasjan says. “He made it in Memphis in 1975, and it’s got all that Leon Russell stuff happening. I love the sound—it’s a much more dry kind of thing than a lot of what’s happening today. There was definitely an effort with In the Blazes to capture the music as it came out and not add a lot of effects—to go for something really pure. Only backing vocals and piano were overdubbed. The guitar, drums and every lead vocal were cut totally live, and there’s not a single vocal edit on the entire album.”
Stylistically, In the Blazes runs the gamut of American roots music, from folk, country and blues to rock & roll. It calls down the quiet thunder of Kristofferson & Prine, with lyrics that’ll snap you out of the deepest trance and make you listen up. There’s fanboat bayou swamp-soul boogie, Fillmore West buzzing-bee Quicksilver guitar mayhem, sweltering latenight R&B shuffles, twangadelic California country, and plenty of good old chiming American rock & roll. Through it all, Tasjan seems to be traveling the same heartworn highways as his hero Guy Clark and that whole ‘70s Nashville outsider gang, only 40 years down the road. In the Blazes is funny, heartfelt and honest. It stars The Ramones, America, girls, trucks, booze, trains, Skynyrd and plenty of other survivors surviving themselves, not to mention a great little turn of phrase around every corner. What becomes undeniably apparent through it all is that Tasjan is the kind of singer-songwriter who will win the hearts and minds of those who are normally bored out of their minds by singer-songwriters. Here’s how he ended up this way…
Aaron Lee Tasjan was raised in Ohio. He started playing guitar at age 11, mainly to sing Oasis songs and get middle-school chicks. With these goals in mind, he learned to play by ear. He cut his teeth in teenage garage bands and was eventually persuaded by a hip chorus teacher to get respectable and join the high-school jazz ensemble. This gig led him to a performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he won an award for playing Duke Ellington without adding any flashy guitar solos, which put him square on the path for a jazz-guitar scholarship to Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music. First semester, though, Aaron Lee realized he liked smoking weed and listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with his buddy across the street more than going to music school. So he ditched Berklee, moved to Brooklyn and joined poppy rock & roll band Semi-Precious Weapons. They scored a major-label deal, and wound up on MTV. That shit made Aaron Lee nervous, and honestly a bit surly toward his musical compadres, so he quit the band, who promptly went on to tour the world opening for Lady Gaga. But Aaron Lee was like, “Nah, it’s cool,” and started a new band called the Madison Square Gardeners. Before long, he got that call to play lead guitar on tour with legendary cult rock & rollers The New York Dolls. When he got back from the road, he befriended another rock & roll cult legend, Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney, and started backing him on solo gigs. Before long, Aaron Lee was invited to join DNC. He calls Kinney, Kev. He also calls him his best friend.
After a while, though Tasjan—who’d been playing solo acoustic gigs the whole time in between his work as a hired gun—felt confident enough in his songs that he was compelled to go off on his damn fool crusade as a solo artist. “I’d always wanted to try it out,” he says, “but it’s such a daunting task. I really had to work up to a place where I felt comfortable stepping out on my own.”
He put out his first EP, Crooked River Burning, in 2014. It was produced by Anton Fier (Lounge Lizards, The Feelies) and reached #1 on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart. Now, with In the Blazes, Tasjan’s got a proper full-length, and a record that has the makings of classic debut. So what has he learned on the long road to get here?
“At some point, if you’re going to keep playing music, you have to reconcile what your reasons are for doing it. It’s often such an up and down kind of thing. For both the New York Dolls and Drivin N Cryin, it was like, ‘Holy crap, we’re on top of the world,’ and the next moment you’re totally destitute. When I think about Kevn, and why he does it—he’ll say to me, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve had, when I go up there and sing, I feel so much better. And I can tell that’s why he’s doing it. It happens to get him by in the world, as well, but he’d be doing it either way. I’ve learned that you’ve got to be in it for the right reasons—and so long as your heart’s in the right place, nobody is gonna judge you too harshly.”-Steve LaBate (Paste Magazine, Baby Robot Media)

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