In April of 2016, “Waving Hand,” Blessed’s debut single, premiered on Noisey accompanied by a write-up which acknowledged difficulty trying to place the Fraser Valley band “into one, two, or even 100 genres.” Three years and two critically-lauded EPs later, Blessed have continued to evolve, eschewing artistic boundaries, categorization, and the creative entropy that often threatens to overtake many new or up and coming acts as they set out to make a name for themselves.
The band is poised to release their debut LP SALT on April 5 at the Abbotsford Rugby Club before pressing on with the rest of a staggering 47-stop tour of North America (covering at least 34 provinces and states). It’s a daunting schedule for any performer, but right now, Drew Riekman (vocals, guitar) says he’s taking it all in stride.
“I’ve stepped outside of the house we’re staying at,” Riekman tells me over the phone. “It’s probably 30 degrees and sunny. Maybe a little bit of clouds, but nothing terrible today. It’s a beautiful day in Austin, Texas.”
The rest of Blessed are in the house, perhaps grabbing a bite or relaxing: biding their time as best they can before the first of three gigs at SXSW, where they’ve been showcasing material from SALT, such as the record’s second single “Disease,” a lurching, anxious track whose overlapping rhythms and keenly defined melodies, stacked atop one another, deftly avoid becoming overcrowded or cacophonous.
While overlapping or competing elements have been part of Blessed’s repertoire for some time (see II’s aptly-named “Headache”), what’s most striking about “Disease” is the amount of space it gives those elements to unfold, a trait that applies generally to most of the material on SALT. (Even the frenetic, wide-eyed “Pill”; especially the shapeshifting, hypnotic “Caribou.”) In addition to being reflective of the band’s ever-broadening stylistic pallette, Blessed’s willingness to dive into uncharted territory on SALT is (unsurprisingly, at this point) entirely deliberate.
“We kind of had a rule while we were writing,” says Riekman. “We would try everything once. No idea was off the table. We couldn’t say no to something until we had tried it. That helped push things in directions that maybe you didn’t think would work initially.”
Although there’s new ground being broken in just about every cut on SALT, “Anchor” will likely stand out to listeners as the farthest out the band has gone in experimenting with new ideas: marrying percussive elements in a starkly digital environment, the track is at once groovy and deeply unsettling. Further still, that SALT incorporates as many electronic elements as it does coincides with multi-instrumentalist Matt McKeen’s entry to Blessed.
“Everyone was starting to become more interested in the textural, ambient side of things,” says McKeen. “Synthesizers were thrown around a bit prior to me joining. When I got in here, they had someone who was able to focus on that specifically, and it really came naturally out of what we’re all excited about.”
As evidenced by the three singles currently out, however new a direction Blessed is moving in throughout SALT, they remain, at their core, the same band. “Zealot,” for example, grows out of a central melodic theme with a determination that’s explicitly organic. It’s during the moments on SALT that stand out as progressive within Blessed’s already progressive ethos, such as that at “Zealot”’s three-minute mark, when the band sustains one of its characteristic voltas for just long enough to pull the context of familiarity out from under the listener (taking with it our ability to anticipate a return to an earlier melody or harmony, and in turn leaving us in a state of discomfort and suspension, struggling to make sense of the new sonic space we have entered) that it’s made clear just how much growth the band has made on SALT.
Given how evident Blessed’s movement into new territory is throughout SALT, it might come as a surprise that rather than setting sail with a destination in mind, the band has opted for a deliberate habit of continuous, relentless curiosity.
“We had such a natural evolution from EP one to EP two,” says Riekman, “I think you could hear elements of the expanding range of music we wanted to create. Blessed has always been dictated by this idea that we wanted to have no limits, we wanted to be able to write whatever we wanted without boundaries.”
Taken in this context, tracks on SALT which would otherwise be considered a jarring departure for the band (“Anchor,” “Caribou”) instead come across as completely natural steps taken by a band looking to find whatever there is to be found by taking the scenic route as opposed to the highway. Blessed seem to understand where many don’t that if what you’re looking for is to find something new, it makes just as much sense to park the car and walk.
Just as the band chose to explore new sonic avenues while recording SALT, they chose to endure more uncertainty in the process by releasing the record independently.
“That’s definitely been a massively eye-opening experience,” says Riekman. “The band, in the last year and a bit, has started working with a lot of new people in the industry side of things. We made the conscious decision to release the record by ourselves, instead of with a label. Which has been a wildly interesting ride on how to release a record properly. But I think it’s been an amazing experience learning everything, [and] going forward we know what it’s like to release a record.”
Certainly indicative of the creative freedom that Blessed afford themselves, the decision to release SALT independently places them in a sort of limbo: no longer the scrappy home team punching above their weight, the band’s acumen and progress has given Riekman an appreciation for the retention of control afforded by a DIY release, especially in a notoriously grueling industry.
“If I could go back and tell myself anything,” says Riekman, “it’s that releasing independently and doing everything as much as you can in a DIY sense is actually the best way to move forwards. I’d reassure myself that this is actually a really good way of doing it. The more you have control over your own project, the more you have control over your own finances, the more you can rely on yourself to get things done instead of other people, that’s what’s going to make things actually happen. I know a lot of people want booking agents. A lot of people want management. But realistically, the more you can do on your own, and the more you can grow on your own and the more you can be the person of contact for your project — and I think this applies across the board — if you have the capacity to take those things on, or if you have friends who are willing to help you and [can] keep everything independent for as long as possible, if you can keep growing creatively and independently, there’s a huge value in that. As much as it seems nice to have someone else come along and take on the workload for you, they might not do the job that you want them to do, they might have other ideas in how they see something proceeding. You have to really implicitly trust the people you work with in this industry because it moves so quickly and people forget about you so fast. So if you can just work on your own and form those connections and be a generally nice person, clean up after yourself when you stay at people’s houses. There’s so many facets to it that all play into the end result.”
Taking initiative, even when facing down bleak realities, is only half the job. The other half, says Riekman, is compassion.
“A lot of people are going to say they’re interested in what you’re doing, and that doesn’t necessarily come to fruition,” says Riekman. “It’s not the fault of the band, and it’s not the fault of the person either. The industry is just so inundated with a million people wanting a million things that it’s very easy for you to [get lost in that].”
It’s refreshing to hear Riekman speak so frankly, and yet with no resentment in his voice. Immediately afterwards, drummer Jake Holmes makes a point to drive home his appreciation for the support that Blessed has seen both at home and abroad.
“Seeing the team of people that we have working with us,” says Holmes. “Banding with us and having faith in us and believing in what we’re doing. That really pushes me and us as a band forward.”
As we finish up, I offhandedly ask the band whether they’re excited for their April 5 Abbotsford date. Without skipping a beat, Reuben Houweling chimes in, his answer ringing clear above the rustling caused by his leaning forwards.
“This is Reuben here, yes I am.”
Almost immediately afterwards, Riekman launches into an answer that embodies the passion, gratitude, and work ethic behind Blessed’s resplendent output, not to mention his hometown pride.
“The bands that are playing [the Rugby Club on April 5] and Jamison (Teen Daze) DJing it I think is an incredible culmination, but not an expansive coverage, of the amazing art the Valley is creating right now,” says Riekman. “Art that the city doesn’t care for at all to the point where we had to rent a private club as a venue, because there’s no venue in town to facilitate all the amazing people creating art. So, I’m incredibly excited that we found a venue willing to host it. And [grateful to] this city that supported us from day one. Our first show was in a basement in the Fraser Valley. We wouldn’t be in Austin, Texas if it weren’t for so many people in the Fraser Valley caring about what we were doing initially. Not only am I stoked, but I feel like we owe us putting on the best bill and show and having all our friends play. It’s probably the show that I’ve been most excited for in the Valley in a long time, [excitement] which has nothing to do with Blessed playing, as much as it has to do with showcasing all the other unreal artists that are also doing things in the Valley.”
As we finish our conversation, the boys head out to find lunch.
You can catch Blessed at SALT’s April 5 Abbotsford release show at The Rugby Club accompanied by Kristin Witko, The Sylvia Platters, and Warm Amps, on April 6 at Red Gate Arts Society Vancouver with Swim Team, Primp, and Warm Amps, and on the road through North America for the next couple of months.