"I think I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm a musician now."
It's taken some time, and not a little resistance, to come to that realization for Daniel Blumberg. One of the most determinedly original artists in independent music for the better part of a decade, Blumberg is nothing if not principled, curious and restless. To a fault, the commercial-minded might say -- and they did, when after fronting one of the great debuts of the 2010s, the self-titled Yuck, he split from the '90s-mining fuzz-rock band. Tears were shed, heads were scratched, but Blumberg knew it was necessary. Despite Yuck's ascendant place in indie rock and their rightful acclaim, he had found himself in a place he never wanted to be, and ultimately, couldn't stomach: a world in which music is regarded as product, and where touring to promote that product night after night is a fact of life.
He first stretched his solo muscles while still with Yuck as Oupa, tender, tentative, and piano-based; he grew bolder upon leaving Yuck with Hebronix, whose 2013 LP Unreal, sprawling and guitar-driven, was produced by a paragon of badass iconoclasm, Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux and Howling Hex.
But his fundamental musical transformation came with his discovery of the world of improvisational music, and his affiliation with free-form players centered around Café OTO, a hub of art and experimental music in London's Dalston neighborhood. It's been a nearly five-year period of discovery for Blumberg, during which -- well off the radar of pop music circles and journalists -- he blew up his old way of approaching music to explore a more radical and rewarding path. This week, he's "coming back to songs" with Minus, one of the more unique and exquisite records you're likely to hear this year.
"It feels like a reboot, in a way," Blumberg says. Minus merges stark and affecting songs of heartbreak with improvised, free-music playing from two OTO regulars who have become essential partners of Blumberg's—violinist Billy Steiger and double bassist Tom Wheatley—as well as veteran drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Cat Power, Xylouris White). All three musicians are, Blumberg contends, as key to the record as he is—so much so that he asked his label, Mute, to include their initials on the album cover along with his name. And although this is the first release of his career under his own moniker rather than an alias, "In a way, it's the most collaborative record I've ever made," he explains. "Jim is the best song drummer, but he's also got that more free, unique voice—similar to Tom and Billy. You can hear, they're all playing like lead instruments, really—or each singing, in my opinion."
Nowhere is that choir singing more radically apparent (along with string contributions from cellist Ute Kanngiesser, who Blumberg calls "one of my favorite musicians ever") than on "Madder." The longest track on Minus, it's also in Blumberg's words, its "most extreme." A two-minute ambient opening of rattles and rolls and a two-minute closing squall of drum and noisy guitar sandwich a delicate piano ballad peppered with free form squeals. "I went to go up to work with a painter in the Orkney Islands every summer," he says of creating the song. "There was a painter that I met and I was really blown away by called Brendan Colvert, and I just really felt an affiliation with him and wanted to learn from him. And so every summer I would go up for a month to work, more on visual stuff, but the last time when I went up there with a broken heart. And I wrote 'Madder' there, in his bungalow. And when I finished writing that song was when I thought, 'Okay we've got a record. We need to make a record, we've got enough.' It felt like the moment that the record came into being."
That "broken heart" Daniel refers to was, in a way, the impetus to return to songwriting after years of immersing himself in more atonal, free music. He and his girlfriend of seven years—actress Stacy Martin—had split, to devastating effect. "It was a bad breakup, and someone sent me a song record," he recalls. "And it was like a switch clicking. And I was suddenly connected to songs again, and I appreciated the love song." While he and Martin have since reunited, the scars of their time apart are all over Minus, which wears its source material explicitly. The title track, and its mantra-like line "Minus the intent to feel" over piano, snare and mournful strings, is beautiful and wrenching; in plucked waltz time, "Permanent" declares "My eyes are a permanent red"; and in "The Fuse": "Be there in the nude/ I tore into your sweater/ I could not forget her." And special mention must be given to "Stacked," as there is nothing prettier on the record—"All of my records are stacked/ And I can't stop looking back" he sings over tinkling piano. It's stunning, and evokes the heart-rending quality of some of history's great songs of longing and heartache: "Nothing Compares 2 U," "The Blower's Daughter," Beck's Sea Change.
"People say, 'Was it a cathartic record to make?'" Blumberg offers. "And I think it could actually kind of be the opposite, because you're just sort of dwelling on horrible things." But he adds that at least with a breakup, you can identify what it is that's got you down. "The problems in my life are when I don't know the why—when there is seemingly nothing wrong, and you still can't—you start to not be able to function. I haven't been the most stable, mentally." Blumberg has struggled with depression over the years, and Mute's press release for Minus reveals that he was hospitalized only a week before recording the album. It's not a topic he wants to elaborate on, but adds that he's much better at the moment. "The day after the record got mastered I went back on this medication which helps me a lot, really. And since then I've thought, 'Oh, I was a bit of a mess!'"
Daniel hardly seems like a mess today, only five days before Minus' release. In fact, he seems to be in great spirits, via Skype from Mute's London offices, especially when talking about the album and his collaborators. "I've never been so excited for a release before," he declares. He's shaved off his signature mop top of curls, but he still smokes the hand-rolleds, just as he did when I first met him in 2011. He's also still a constant, compulsive drawer. Even before music, he is first and foremost an arresting visual artist, who treats drawing as only slightly less crucial than breathing—it helps with his mental stability as well, he says. I point out, hanging on the wall over my shoulder, one of his drawings, framed, that he sent me seven years ago. Even during the course of our interview, he creates two drawings. "I speak better when I draw!" he says.
His artwork has adorned all of his releases, his style evoking raw outsider figures like legendary shut-in Henry Darger, even the twisted tastes of Francis Bacon, and in 2015 he won a scholarship to study at London's Royal Drawing School. In the music video for "Minus," Blumberg can be seen furiously creating a collection of faces in charcoal—and demonstrating a unique talent for drawing simultaneously with both hands. "I'm very right-handed, but I draw a lot with my left hand because it makes different marks," he explains. "Especially after I studied, I did some really intense life drawings classes and stuff, and my left hand was basically my best friend. Because you just have to un-learn all that stuff, in a way. It's always a balance." As he says, is music. "It's always a mixture kind of, between rational work and just trying to do instinctive stuff. So, it's like using your left hand, you can't control it as much."
"I can't get away," Daniel sang on the rousing opener to Yuck's debut all those years ago. But it turns out he could get away—and even manage to do what few artists get a chance to: start over. At Café OTO and its nearby Project Space, he was surrounded by a group of bold and unconventional musicians who were uninterested in or unaware of his past with Yuck. Starting a clean slate after fronting a breakthrough indie band has given him a new enthusiasm for things he once disdained.
"I'm excited to play live now," says Blumberg of upcoming shows with Steiger, Wheatley and White, beginning on Friday at Rough Trade East in London. That might seem like quite a statement from a guy who once bemoaned touring in the Yuck days. But that's the point: as with other aspects of music, Daniel's done a complete reset on what "playing live" means, and what it most definitely does not mean is playing the same set night after night, the better to deliver the hits in familiar form. "I wouldn't do that, and it would be impossible to do with this," he asserts. "You know, it's just absurd. I never used to understand why musicians played live. It was weird, it was like, imagine if you're a painter and you make a painting and you just walk around the world going, 'Look. Look at the painting that I made!' and not doing any more painting."
But now things are different. With the way Daniel plays music now, and the people he plays with, live shows are their own experiences, not meant to be replicated. "Even if we tried to play it the same, we wouldn't be able to," he explains. "There's no scores or set list—it's truly always different. If we get bored of a song we just don't play it. There's so much material, we might play a song for 20 minutes, we might play a song for one minute. We can do whatever we want. We might not play any songs. So I am excited to play live. I like playing live now. It's become—it's the opposite now, it's become really what I do." A progressive musician needs a progressive-minded audience, and if there are fans disappointed that Blumberg and his fellow artists might not play a particular song, well, he says, so be it. "I definitely won't be playing all the songs every night," he insists. "And the people who don't like it can not come if they don't want to, or listen to another artist—like, no one is forced to do anything. But if they come to see me then that is what they are seeing. Or me, or Billy—Billy might decide. You know he is an artist, and he dictates what happens sometimes as well. And that's just the whole thing, really. I mean imagine if I asked everyone what they wanted the whole time! I'd be like—Jesus! Do you know how many people have told me what to do over the years? They've said, 'Oh you should have done this', or 'Why aren't you doing that?' or 'Why are you playing with that…' I just can't."
It's rare to find an artist who doesn't just pay lip service to playing by their own rules, but actually does it. As far back as 2011, while on the road with Yuck, Daniel told me he was "uncomfortable" with the "entertainer side of things" and now, after five years mostly away from public view, he's managed to re-emerge as an artist who lives in his moment and is interested in moving ever forward. Perhaps records and music videos are forever—but if Daniel Blumberg could erase the past, would he? "Yeah, I always wanna do that," he admits. "I mean, I do that in my house actually. There's nothing on the walls, because I fill the walls up, and then I take them down, so that I can fill them up again. I mean, the drawing situation has kind of gotten out of hand because I don't really get rid of the work. But I really like to have nothing, no decoration, for the walls to be white when I work so that then I can fill it up. So yeah, it would be great in a way if I could erase that stuff."