Blacklistt: Out of a black spot

By Scott Kara

After a tumultuous few years, the lads from Blacklistt are about to hit the road to tour their debut album. They talk to Scott Kara.

The debut album by Blacklistt (left to right, Gareth, Marcus, Damian and Karl) picks up where Blindspott left off, only sounds bigger and more accomplished.
The debut album by Blacklistt (left to right, Gareth, Marcus, Damian and Karl) picks up where Blindspott left off, only sounds bigger and more accomplished.

The first time I met the lads from Blacklistt, they were drinking beer in a garage in West Auckland and listening to System of a Down. That was way back in 2001, when they were called Blindspott, and the afternoon gathering was a pre-drinks warm-up before the Tool concert at North Shore Events Centre.

As the night wore on, the boozing and bad behaviour made for a great yarn about a bunch of guys who, over the next few years, would become New Zealand's biggest rock band with songs such as Nil By Mouth, Room to Breathe and ballad Phlex, which peaked at No3 on the singles charts.

"We just missed out on No1 from those American Idol guys," remembers guitarist Marcus Powell today of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard taking the two top spots.

There was no such miss with the release of debut album Blindspott in 2002, which hit No1 and went on to sell more than 50,000 copies.

Since then, things have changed. They still like a few beers. But in 2007, after two albums, line-up changes, and personal differences got in the way, Blindspott broke up.

However in 2010, Powell, keyboard player and turntablist Karl Vilisini and bass player Gareth Fleming started jamming again and, with singer Damian Alexander soon on board, were back in business as Blacklistt.

A bitter battle over the rights to the name Blindspott with former bandmate Shelton Woolright, which has now been resolved, was a slight glitch in their comeback, but there was no doubt they still had a solid fanbase after headlining Wellington's Homegrown in 2011 and 2012, and a sold-out tour throughout May and June last year.

This month they head out on a 12-date nationwide tour in support of Blacklistt, the band's debut album, which is released tomorrow. The tour kicks off with an all-ages show on September 28 at Zeal, in their old stomping ground of Henderson, and includes a show at the Powerstation on October 17.

"Looking back [to the Blindspott days] we were all pretty ego-driven," says Powell. "Who knows. Maybe our prefrontal cortex wasn't quite developed, and all the booze stunted it for a while. We made some pretty bad mistakes and I don't think we had the tools at that time to sit down and talk it out with each other.

"This time round everything is out in the open. We agree on everything, and the Apra [royalty] splits are finally all evenly cut. It's just a better vibe and we're just jamming because we love to jam."

This newfound unity comes through on the new album. It picks up where Blindspott left off, only it sounds bigger and more accomplished.

"I love the album, I've been thrashing it," laughs Powell.

But he admits a decade ago they would never have been able to make this album. First, technology has come a long way and new single Home makes Phlex sound empty in comparison.

"We bought a program called Contact for this album, and it's like, if you want to sound like Alicia Keys you just hit this button. Or the Deftones? Hit that button. It's amazing what you can do these days.

"But we still make up the riffs and the hearts of the songs is still ours."

And second, they've all grown up and feel at ease with being more musically ambitious.

"By throwing that rulebook out we got to try more things. It's quite an emotional and creative album."

In turn, the songs are more sophisticated and elaborate and much of the time driven by Vilisini's more quirky and unusual musical outlook. So there's everything from taonga puoro on call-to-arms opener Tell Me Who ("It's about making a statement"), through to sad and touching serenades such as Home (a poignant and catchy track penned during a "writing weekend" on Waiheke Island, which is something Blindspott would certainly not have done) and Sky Tonight (about a family member of Alexander's who died in a helicopter accident).

But then there are the trademark angry tunes such as Burn (with swearing and cursing like the Blindspott of old) and the brutal and deathly Icon, a track that takes you back to that boozy garage party in West Auckland.

"I turned up to band practice in quite an angry mood," recounts Powell, "and I can't remember what I was pissed off at, but yeah, I came in quite grumpy and I said, 'Right, we're going to make a Westie anthem tonight', and it ended up being that."

It's remarkable that for a band who made their name in the age of nu metal and rap rock, a genre that was seemingly very much of a certain time, that Blacklistt still sound current and have maintained a rabidly loyal fan base while most other bands from that scene have faded into obscurity.

Powell puts it down to the fact they play from their hearts, and as well as doing it for themselves they also make music for their fans (some of whom contributed backing vocals on Home).

"Fans have said to me, 'I feel like part of the band'," he offers. "And we also keep up with all the new music that comes out. But there's just an honesty about us. We play from our hearts."

Who: Blacklistt
What: The band formerly known as Blindspott are back with a new album
Line-up: Damian Alexander (vocals), Marcus Powell (guitars), Karl Vilisini (keyboards, turntables), Gareth Fleming (bass)
New album: Blacklistt, out tomorrow
Also listen to: Blindspott (2002); End the Silence (2006)

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