blinker-the-star-2020-interview

Photo: Emmanuelle Boies / Courtesy of the artist

Blinker the Star’s Jordon Zadorozny Reflects on a Career That’s Come Full-Circle

With Juvenile Universe, Blinker the Star's Jordon Zadorozny has once again crafted some of today's most vibrant, dynamic rock.

Juvenile Universe
Blinker the Star
Nile River Records
20 November 2020

When Blinker the Star released their third album August Everywhere in 1999, the moment was ripe for project founder and mastermind Jordon Zadorozny to stake out his own niche by embodying both DIY and pop sensibilities in a way that was unmistakably his own. At the time, a generation of independent-minded artists like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Morphine, Soul Coughing, and even the Brian Jonestown Massacre had managed to preserve their creative essence even as they entered into partnerships with labels that gave them sizable production budgets to work with. We may look back on the ’90s as the time when alternative music took on all the excesses of the mainstream, but the fact is that the period is filled with examples of artful records that benefitted from a rare alignment of commercial and creative instincts. It was that confluence of forces that paved the way for Zadorozny to combine the most compelling aspects of heavy rock, psychedelia, space rock, prog, and ’70s AM pop on August Everywhere, exemplified most visibly by its single “Below the Sliding Doors”.

After spending the decade releasing albums via A&M and Dreamworks, Zadorozny took matters back into his own hands, eventually relocating back to his native Pembroke, Ontario (a small town near the Quebec border about 90 miles outside of Ottawa, pronounced pem-brook). A child of two musical parents who owned a music store, Zadorozny began recording himself as a pre-teen. Working under the guidance of Failure bandleader/producer Ken Andrews on August Everywhere (and its 1996 predecessor A Bourgeois Kitten), Zadorozny’s studio-rat instincts blossoming into a full-blown production career of his own, producing the likes of Melissa Auf der Maur and the highly awarded Canadian star Sam Roberts alongside collaborations with Chris Cornell, Lindsey Buckingham, and others.

Since reviving Blinker The Star as a solo vehicle earlier this decade, Zadorozny has been on something of a hot streak, approaching his own music with a renewed vigor that’s resulted in three new full-length releases since 2017. On his brand new album Juvenile Universe, tunes like “You Missed the Last Bus”, “Only to Run Wild” and the title track, Zadorozny has once again crafted some of the most dynamic, vibrant rock of the modern era, setting a template for how ’90s artists can age gracefully to make music that’s stunningly contemporary. Never one whose work was defined by angst alone, with Juvenile Universe Zadorozny has come up with a mature, rather adult twist on rock that reaches far beyond ’90s stereotypes—while also showcasing the masterful songwriting touch that enables us to imagine another new batch of songs as present-day radio staples.

As a case in point, the visually resplendent video for “Only to Run Wild” touches on themes like time, nostalgia, memory, and solitude with an emotional power that permeates the album as a whole. Zadorozny reflected back on those themes on a call with PopMatters around the time of the new album’s release. An edited transcript follows.

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Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay

Your life/career journey goes from Pembroke, Ontario to Montreal to Los Angeles, and then back to Pembroke. What were each of those adjustments like for you?

I’d say that the biggest adjustment, really, was the jump from Pembroke to Montreal. Everything else was smoother after that. My first year in Montreal, I was in the shadows a little bit, because geographically I was way out in the west end attending university studying English literature. It’s an older demographic in that part of town, and I was somewhat serious about my studies, so I wasn’t downtown much. I kind of got fed up with that, so my second year there I started putting some ads in the local weeklies.

And then I met [future Hole bassist] Melissa Auf der Maur and Steve Durand—her partner in the band Tinker, who were kind of like the hot indie band in Montreal at that time—through passing around a demo tape of rough mixes that basically became the first Blinker the Star album. They got ahold of it and got in contact with me because they were looking for a guitar player. Even though I’d been recording on my own for years at that point, I consider meeting them the point where I entered the ‘real world’ of being in bands and making this a public thing instead of just a bedroom thing.

Steve and Melissa were already a couple of years deep into ‘the scene’, as it were, in Montreal, which was really stoner-y, very astrology-based, and really in the clouds, literally and figuratively. It was a whole new world from rural, farmery Pembroke where I grew up, which was very nuts-and-bolts and I was the weird kid. So that was the big adjustment. Learning the dynamics of band democracy—or lack thereof—all those sorts of things happened very quickly over a one-year period once I’d met Melissa in Steve and joined Tinker. So that was the big adjustment. And that’s where my story begins [as far as the albums are concerned].

And then you moved to LA.

By the time I got out to California, I was already on A&M records so I had a bit of support, even though I’d been signed out of New York and my A&R was in New York. When I went out to LA, they were like, “Okay, you go kid.” But I was lucky because I was sort of adopted immediately by Ken Andrews and his larger web of friends and professional acquaintances. That was really, really informing. These were guys who were in bands like Tool and Failure who had made this heavier music and were then repelled by where the heavy guitar sound had gone by ’97 and were retreating back into things like the Beach Boys and early Bowie and exploring those possibilities again—the softer textures, but still with an awareness of dissonance, and still really arty.

The [1997] album Free Mars by Lusk [a one-off project that features former Tool bassist Paul D’Amour, Medicine bandleader Brad Laner, longtime Guns N’ Roses hired hand Chris Pittman, and Failure’s Greg Edwards] was by far the most influential to me. Those four people kind of became my best friends, Brad Laner and Chris Pittman especially. Having done those first two Blinker records, which were in the shadow of grunge and the Pumpkins and Cobain and Pavement, [it was really pivotal] meeting these guys and seeing how they were turning their backs on that and going into an artier, more exciting world. That was right when I was writing and demoing for August Everywhere. I’d moved into a guest house in Laurel Canyon that was owned by the A&R guy who had signed both Tool and Lusk, so Sunday barbecues were full of these people. A lot of them ended up helping shape August Everywhere, that’s for sure.

One of the things that jump out about August Everywhere is that it sounds like it was made by someone who didn’t subscribe to stylistic divisions as a young listener. There’s something about the energy of Blinker the Star where it seems like that’s not—

An issue? [Laughs.] Yeah, I can definitely pinpoint that to my teen years growing up. I was obviously obsessed with music and hung out with other kids who were obsessed with music, but out here, where there were no shows, there was less division between punk kids and goth kids and more mainstream ‘rock kids’ or whatever. We were allowed to like the Beach Boys and Black Flag at the same time, and both things made sense. When everything gets jumbled up and there’s no clear sense of fashion to follow, it’s all fair game. That’s the way it seemed to us.

That’s a really unique circumstance. It’s more typical for adolescents to be very defined about their tribal allegiances when it comes to music.

Yeah, we were not like that. We really weren’t.

It’s like you couldn’t afford to be because there weren’t enough people for it to get too cliquey.

We were gleefully all over the place. It was kind of weird in our school, too, because sometimes you’d see the preppier kids into things like Joy Division. Everything was really mixed up. At the parties I remember, jocks would unwittingly be listening to Alien Sex Fiend or Skinny Puppy and really wouldn’t have a problem with it. It was quite blended. Also, the radio station in Pembroke would change every year or so between country and AM pop. So it was all over the place.

Your parents are bluegrass/folk musicians. There’s a tiny aspect of that that surfaces in your music every now and again, but how did their background have an impact on you?

My dad was sort of a prodigy growing up. His mother recognized this very early and sent him to classical violin lessons when he was like three or four years old. He then became a celebrated fiddle player in the country-bluegrass style—what they call Canadian fiddle music, which is a mix of French and Gaelic influences. And then my mom grew up in a more rural environment around things like barn dances. Fiddle players would come through their little town to play a Saturday night show and everyone would be all excited. She learned to play by ear, basically. She’s a really intuitive, natural musician and my dad is the more schooled musician.

So they met up and performed and made records together. They sort of helped each other—Dad made Mom more technical and Mom introduced him to different feels and taught him different ways to accent a tune. So I got both of those things. My mom sat me down and taught me ear training when I was a kid on the piano, so I could recognize relationships and chords early on. And then my dad, who was more studious, would teach me jazz forms on the guitar and show me things like Django Reinhardt.

Okay, because your music also conveys a sense that there doesn’t have to be a tension between technical ability and feeling or emotion.

I hope not, yeah! I mean, I would agree. I think about, for example, how influenced I am by Richard Thompson at times when I hear some of my older records. I’ll hear a guitar solo and I’ll know exactly where it came from. He has this astounding technical ability, but he’s like a feral cat sometimes. So yeah, I definitely feel comfortable and feel no dissonance between technical ability and emotion. Technicality has to translate into emotion or brute physical force for it to be worthy for me. [Laughs.] I’m finding music to be more physical as I get older. I judge my own music on the physicality of it now.

You said a few years ago that August Everywhere was the result of you getting closer to your vision of pop music. How early on did you have a sense that you even had a vision of pop music?

I remember certain moments. I started to become more aware once I got to the back end of the Beatles catalog at age nine. I was struck by the fact that it didn’t sound like a rock and roll band anymore, and it didn’t sound like the Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly records my mom had played for me. [I could tell that] this stuff was constructed in a way I didn’t understand. But I would say that when XTC’s Skylarking came out and I listened to it and absorbed it—I guess I was maybe 13 or 14—that’s when I was able to very consciously go, “Okay, how did they actually do that? And how can I get close to it?” That coincided with getting my first 4-track machine at home, which I brought back from my parents’ music store. They allowed me to bring these things home and try them out.

Obviously, the fire at your parents’ music store worked out well for you, but how did your parents take it when they had to close?

By that point, my mom had sort of re-taken over the store, so it was her baby at the end. My dad had started a violin shop in Ottawa at that point, but she was shocked because she loves having something to do every day. With that gone, I remember she was [at a loss]. She eventually transitioned very nicely, though. She kind of realized later with hindsight that she was getting close to retail burnout from selling stuff to people. So it worked out well in the end but, I remember her talking not too long ago about how out of sorts she was at first, not knowing what to do. It was shocking at the time, for sure.

We now have two new Blinker the Star albums to show for you having to curtail producing other artists out of your studio. How out of sorts were you having to make that adjustment?

Really okay. My production career started around 2002, and at the beginning, it consisted of 100% of people coming to the studio. But at this point, almost 80 percent of my work comes via the internet—mixing, adding final overdubs, mastering. So the transition wasn’t too bad. Plus, I really do thrive alone.

Some of the statements you’ve issued when you’ve released singles from these last two albums—like when you described “Only to Run Wild” as “a paean to those who must live free and roam this earth alone”—suggest that it’s occurred to you that there may not be enough space to be both creative and have a life partner.

Well, yeah. I don’t have it fully sorted out in my own life, but I think I have it mostly sorted out. Of course, I’ve encountered people who really cannot do both things. It’s a weird hole to square when you encounter that—certainly when I encountered it. It’s very difficult, and it hung around in my imagination for a long time, because it had always made sense to me that one could [balance] those two things. My parents did break up. They remained and remain really close and continued to make music together way after the marriage was over. So I have this odd blueprint. [Laughs.] But, ultimately, it’s a positive one because they still have affection for each other.

How did your preference for solitude work with being a parent?

Tricky at first, and then things got smoother with parenting. But then things got rockier with the marriage. We ended up splitting up, but we only live a few miles apart, and everything’s super-amicable. The kids go back and forth. I basically live in the studio, which is on 50 acres of farmland. There are barns and they have a pretty fun life when they come out here, so it’s now quite smooth.

You’ve expressed a lingering affinity for LA. When you relocated to the States, what kinds of things did you pick up on about American culture that other Canadians who haven’t lived here wouldn’t be aware of?

Well, the first thing I noticed is that, when you’re standing in line at Rite Aid, people talk to each other in the USA. In Canada, they’re slightly embarrassed to be anywhere and really don’t want to talk to anyone. The best is the return line at Fry’s, the electronics store. The grievances! And then the grievances turn into life stories. That kind of thing doesn’t really happen in Canada. There’s sort of a British hangover here in culture that pervades. It’s mistaken for politeness but it’s shyness, I think. [Laughs.]

I’d never encountered a musical culture like Los Angeles. There’s nothing like it. And God, I love eating out there. The weather’s perfect for me too. I grew up here and played hockey growing up, but I have no tolerance for winter anymore as an adult. But I mean, LA’s not America. My impressions of the whole country were formed touring on the first three albums, and of course, it’s so starkly different regionally. Up here, the gun laws are really strict, and pre-internet, we had no idea you could walk into a diner in certain states with a gun showing. We were beyond shocked as young Canadian boys. Things like that.

How easy do you think it would be for you to spot another Canadian without being told where they’re from?

[Laughing:] It’s usually pretty easy. The best Canada Day parties of all time are in Los Angeles. I was invited to a few at the home of Dave [Foley] from Kids in the Hall, and these were the most riotous, great parties. Doughboys and Sloan and Melissa—all the Canadians were there. We had great gatherings. And of course, I remember going to see the Tragically Hip at the House of Blues, and it was a hoser fest! Every Canadian in Los Angeles county was there. [Laughs.]

What were your feelings going back to Pembroke as an adult?

[Laughs.] It was pretty comfortable. I moved downtown and set up what I thought was going to be a temporary space. I’d gotten married and had kids and my wife at the time had a great job, so we were like, “Okay, let’s buy a house.” Bands were willing to travel from Toronto and Montreal to record, so everything was okay. And at that point, I really knew that my life was [now going to be] in the studio. When the album-tour, album-tour cycle of a major-label artist ended for me, I was relieved, like “Thank God I don’t have to rehearse the band. It’s so much better just to make records.” It took me a little while to get back into gear with making my own records again, but I was very happy to get off that roller coaster. I mean, I’d love to have a reason to tour and say no. That would be great. [Laughs.]

When people leave their hometown and come back, there are often a lot of mixed feelings that come with that. But it doesn’t sound like there wasn’t much inner conflict there for you.

No, there really wasn’t.

Let’s talk about your major-label experiences. You were initially on A&M subsidiary Treat & Release, then on A&M proper, then on Dreamworks.

When the band signed with A&M, it was a real hands-off approach. We were not a priority for them. At that time, the majors would sign 20 bands and hope that two of them blew up. That made sense financially. You could throw all this money at [the wall]. We were given medium-sized recording and touring budgets and no video budget. And then I developed a [passing] but friendly relationship with David Anderle, who was senior vice president of A&R. He had been following along while we were making August Everywhere. When we were mixing the album, it became known within the industry that all these labels were going to fold into one Universal Music Group and that Seagrams was buying them all.

We were basically fucked because we were a tiny baby band still, and we were fighting to finish this record. We knew that other bands were getting their budgets cut off, so I made this Hail-Mary call to Anderle. I don’t know if it had any impact, but I think it did because we mysteriously did not get our budget cut off. I was able to finish the album, mix it, and master it. Then, in the general kerfuffle of Universal firing hundreds of staff, my A&R rep got fired and Jimmy Iovine [then in charge of the newly-merged company Interscope Geffen A&M] listened to the record and said “Would you consider trying to write a single? Because we like the album.” At this point, Dreamworks had come sniffing and we’d had a couple of secret meetings in way North Hollywood at out-of-the-way restaurants. They were really paranoid about being seen—

Trying to poach someone else’s act.

Yeah, while we were still under contract. So I said “no” to the Universal proposal, got dropped swiftly, and then Dreamworks sent a gift basket a couple of days later. I recorded two more songs for them, but they basically got a completed record. They were very excited about it. It was a much different experience. They gave us a
huge promotional budget of a million dollars. They were very hands-on, really into the album, and I had good relationships with a number of people at the company. It was great. They were excellent.

Why do you think A&M let you walk away with the record?

The reason I was given by my lawyer was that it was an optics thing. Universal didn’t want to be seen as this bogeyman dropping every single band. So, when they could get off the hook—like “Oh, Blinker The Star landed okay. They got their contract transferred to Dreamworks”—from their perspective it was like, “There’s one less band we have to quote-unquote ‘drop’ and look like corporate monsters.”

You don’t have the horror-story experience that we hear about with so many other bands who sign with majors.

No. I didn’t have the hit-album, dream-comes-true experience, but I’ve had this continuously forward-moving, always-working-on-music life.

You’ve said before that you’d love to make a record with a $280,000 budget again. But judging by the results you’ve been getting, it seems like there are lots of creative benefits to working at the scale you’re working at.

Yeah, it can sometimes be stimulating to create your own limitations, to make your own little box and kind of work within it. I feel like somehow that can spur more unusual results than just doing what you’d normally do in a studio. It forces me to try to imagine a little bit bigger than my own—I was going to say “four walls”, but I have my space cordoned-off into many multiple 10-degree angles. [Laughs.] I almost like to set up happy accidents, like pointing the microphone in a direction that would be sort of wrong or even useless.

You can create some really unique ambiences. Because at this point, we all have the same or similar software and have access to a lot of the same samples that are out there, so I like to make a point of creating sonic spaces or textures that can’t be replicated unless you’re here. And even then, it would be a different day with different humidity in the air, so the microphones would sound different. I like to make little restrictions for myself. When there are too many options, it can be a heavy load. It’s good to box yourself in a little bit.

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