IN LONG FORM: A BLUSH(INGLY) BELATED RESPONSE TO HEARTS GROW DULL (PART ONE)

IN LONG FORM: A BLUSH(INGLY) BELATED RESPONSE TO HEARTS GROW DULL (PART ONE)

Adelaide shoegaze/dream pop outfit Blush Response, led by DIY multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and producer (and soon be to be qualified veterinarian) Alister Douglas, dropped their long awaited debut album Hearts Grow Dull back in April.  Instructive as it is intoxicating, it’s a work of personal catharsis poignant in its processing of loss and regret. But it also highly reflective and expectant in its overall disposition and the genres Douglas and Blush Response trade in lend themselves particularly well lyrically and musically to both descriptions. Introspection and illumination are the twin musical and lyrical pillars Hearts Grow Dull rests on but their construction and that of the band that would eventually solidify them live would take four long painstaking years for Douglas to construct.

I first met Douglas in 2016 at a Blush Response gig. I can recall how impressed I was at both the performance and his genuinely forthcoming but respectfully shy and retiring demeanor. I also recall his reply to my obligatory question as to when an album or at least some new material would surface as one of pained acceptance that it wasn’t going to be anytime soon. That didn’t sit well with me given the promise I saw and after that, I occasionally checked the socials for updates and wondered where Douglas was at with things. However, when Hearts Grow Dull finally did arrive, it took me almost a month after the April 5 release date to realise. Annoyed I had let it pass me by and even more so when I heard its promise fulfilled, I began writing a mea culpa like post/review based on an incomplete back story of those 4 years based on the small doses of effusive praise the album had received online. It soon became apparent that the paucity of information around the album and its long gestation period meant that something more substantial had to be written to shine a light on Douglas, the band’s assembly and the creative process behind the album itself.

To these ends, I reached out to Alister Douglas with the idea of doing a feature on him and his multi-faceted relationship with and DIY approach to playing and making music and to sketch an outline, a Douglas/Blush Response potted history if you like, focusing on the artistic and logistical journey that produced Hearts Grow Dull and Blush Response as a dedicated, fully fledged band.

Original Line-up at rehearsal (2015) – Emily Retsas, Luke Eygenraam, Alister Douglas, Tony Marshall

First off it must be said that Douglas’s idea to assemble and establish a band around his musical vision and release an album’s worth of material has been around much longer than Blush Response. But as far as the delay of Hearts Grow Dull itself is concerned many factors were at play. Before addressing them it’s important to note that for independent artists in general, who must support themselves and their creative outlet with day jobs or studies, the time between drinks in terms of releases and output can be significantly increased. And at the same time, there’s an essential grounding found in the creativity stemming from being an independent artist, one comes from the struggle of trying to juggle songwriting, a band, a job and/or study as well as being able to earn the money to fund music projects to the necessary level. For Douglas, who has combined music with doing a degree in veterinarian studies, the twin enemy of time constraints and energy levels would have often conspired against the creative forces. But those creative forces across art forms and centrally a love of making music has always been the driving force in his life and has served to keep him going when times became tough.

“Music has always been the most important thing to me. Whether it’s playing in bands, writing music for my projects, recording friends’ bands, writing music for ads, or recording music for myself that will never be released, making music has remained the one consistent thing that I’ve always been trying to pursue. The jobs I have worked and the courses I have studied have always been secondary. I try my hand at other creative outlets like photography, video, graphic design, but they are all usually done as a way to facilitate or work with the music (designing band t-shirts, press photos, gig posters, music videos etc.)”

Happily, having to adhere to a recording budget wasn’t a constraining factor that affected Douglas that much in terms of what was needed to record Hearts Grow Dull. The longevity of experience centering on his multifarious DIY ability to write, play, record and produce, meant that he had assembled much of the playing and recording gear and know-how he needed. The time-consuming process it took to assemble a band that could fully commit to his vision however was a different story. Even though the live and the recorded aspects are separate entities, this undoubtedly played a role and Blush Response has had five different line-up configurations since the first was assembled in late 2014. This and the self-critical eye that he casts over his work was also a factor and resulted in the entire first recording of the album being binned. And while it didn’t play much of a role in the length of time taken to write the album, Douglas’ experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) did create its challenges;

“I’m trying to be more open with talking about mental health and how it shapes my music and my everyday life. OCD can be a very frustrating condition. It can also be a very time consuming one. I wouldn’t say my experience with OCD contributed greatly to the length of time the album took to complete, but it certainly didn’t help.”

Despite his humble disposition, Douglas has played virtually everything on as well as recorded, produced and self-released all three Blush Response releases. The almost stadium sized sound you hear on Hearts Grow Dull was generated by Douglas at home in his makeshift home studio. The wide array of the instruments he plays stems from his love of music which first manifested itself in early childhood. From playing piano at aged 6, his dexterous musical ability became apparent over time when he refused to be shunted into what he saw as the stifling strictures of conventional music at school. No doubt influenced by his father who was an active musician he soon eschewed any notions being a classically trained pianist and began tinkering with his father’s keyboards and samplers. His association with the guitar began around aged 10 but didn’t really become significant until his early teens when got his first suitable one, having previously taught himself on a left-handed guitar. Quitting music tuition in Year 11 he turned his hand to the bass guitar, joining friend Tom West’s band at 17. His drumming ability had always been there too and out of this musical childhood Douglas the multi-instrumentalist was born. But in his humble view even today its just as a jack of all trades, master of none;

I still don’t really consider myself good enough at any one instrument to call myself a guitarist or a drummer, or even a piano player. As with many things in life, I can’t decide on one thing to commit all my attention to, so I end up trying to do everything. This prevents me from becoming really proficient at any one thing but, as it stands, I can play well enough to write songs, and that’s good enough for me.

Original Line-up: Eygenraam, Retsas, Marshall & Douglas
Photo Credit: Toby Rady

Despite his self-effacing sentiments, Douglas was obviously good enough to hold his own in a variety of bands across several instruments in his late teens and during his 20’s. After Tom West’s band, he enjoyed stints with The Warsaw Flowers (guitar, keys), 20th Century Graduates (guitar, keys, drums), Mountbatten (drums) and Wild Oats (drums) before joining 60s inspired pop band Alphabette as guitarist in 2012 where he would remain until last year. Throughout this period however, his desire to create his own music and start his own band was strong. The name Blush Response first surfaced in 2012 as just another solo moniker among the many he had created over the years to name and give order to the plethora of diverse solo projects he created but did nothing with. The original material, self-described as Heatmiser/Death Cab For Cutie worship, is unrecognisable from what the project has become. That material was also soon abandoned and the Facebook page he’d created under Blush Response would lay dormant until 2014. At this point Douglas was playing drums and guitar in Wild Oats and Alphabette respectively, two very different pop bands and was keen for a creative outlet that incorporated a totally different focus and application for his next solo venture.

Reconfigured Original Line-up: Douglas, Retsas, Marshall (guitar), Eygenraam (drums – obscured)
Photo Credit: Adam Vanderwerf

Instruments were put aside as Douglas went down the electronic route channeling the vibe of the early part of this decade, creating the 80s inspired synth pop project Firs which he spent much of 2013 immersed in. After playing live a few times and writing enough tracks to release a debut EP, he began what turned out to be a torturous recording process late that year where, and not for the first or last time, overthinking and self-doubt crept in to see him shelve the project temporarily. But out of such adversity comes opportunity and Douglas, as an escape from Firs and never one to lie idle, was drawn back to guitar reinvigorated by an idea that he’d had for a while to start a dream pop infused shoegaze project. Introduced to the music of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive in his early 20’s by a former partner, he was also listening to 90’s band Rocketship and drawing inspiration from the late (and great) Melbourne artist Fergus Miller, aka Bored Nothing, and Brooklyn fuzz merchants The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. Temporarily releasing himself from Firs, he would run with this idea in February 2014 when he made what turned out to be three pivotal decisions in the context of the here and now: Recording four pop infused shoegaze influenced tracks in the space of a week, reactivating the Blush Response moniker and uploading the 4 tracks to Bandcamp under the title Telltale. The hasty process suggests Douglas had very little expectation for the EP but whatever came of it he at least had fulfilled a creative ambition to write and record in those genres.

“I had hit a bit of a wall with recording an EP for a solo electronic project called Firs that I was performing under and found myself more drawn to playing guitar, after having been focusing on synths for the previous several months. I had it in the back of my mind for a while that I wanted to start a dream pop/shoegaze project as it was a genre that I was very fond of. The change of focus from synth to guitar was apparently refreshing and I ended up recording the Telltale EP in a week or so, drawing from scraps of lyrics and chords that I had slowly been pulling together over the years. One of the more complete demos that I re-recorded for the EP was Without A Sound, which was the first song I wrote that I’d consider influenced by shoegaze.”

 

Without A Sound (Demo Version)

Blush Response (AUS)

Unreleased demo (2012)

Audio Stream

 

The steady interest that grew around Telltale in the first part of 2014 caught Douglas by complete surprise. The only promotion he did for it was to send an email to James Bannerman at Sounds Better With Reverb, alerting him to the release. Bannerman liked it so much he posted about it immediately and from that point Blush Response as a serious musical option began to take a hold. Nevertheless, a clear head and semblance of renewal combined to help Douglas complete the troublesome Firs recording and release the EP Sweet Nothings in May. Running both projects simultaneously at this point, after the Firs release as he quickly returned to writing more Blush Response material and gradually an organic shift away from Firs and towards Blush Response took hold. In August, Douglas released the project’s second EP, Dead Air, in August which featured the cacophonous ‘Without You’, a track which firmly established Blush Response’s shoegaze credentials. After this, momentum really started to gather pace and, over the next two months, Firs was left to die a natural death and was no more by October.

 

Without You (Original Version)

Blush Response (AUS)

From the EP, ‘Dead Air’, Self Released. (2014)

Audio Stream

In the end, the artistic rewards associated with Blush Response and unexpected attention and respect and attention it was getting nationally and internationally made the decision to shelve Firs an easy one. Reflecting on the attention the EPs received, Douglas was blown away and is clear eyed, aware and grateful about where it came from;

“The support for the EPs took me completely by surprise, for sure. Especially considering I wasn’t making a big deal about them myself. [They gained] momentum in spite of my lack of self-promotion. Previous bands I had been in had received some decent local and, in some cases, minor national attention, but all of a sudden there were blogs from all over the world posting about the EPs, people sending me messages of support, Bandcamp sales, Best Of 2014 list appearances, compilations. Japan, France, Brazil, Italy, United States. The EPs were even getting some decent seeding numbers some Russian torrent site. It was crazy.”

He also readily points out the pivotal role that music bloggers like the aforementioned Bannerman and other played in getting the word out. But he reserves special praise for Renato Malizia and his Sao Paulo based
The Blog That Celebrates Itself:

“Renato puts so much effort into that blog, organising compilation after compilation dedicated to the genre, and he has been very supportive of Blush Response from the beginning. We have appeared on two of the TBTCI compilations: once with the original version of Blasphemy and once with a cover of Chapterhouse’s ‘In My Arms’.

 

Blasphemy (Original Version)

Blush Response (AUS)

From the compilation, ‘Autumn Noises’, The Blog That Celebrates Itself Records. (2015)

Audio Stream

 

In My Arms (Cover)

Blush Response (AUS)

From the compilation, ‘Treasures, A Tribute To Chapterhouse’, The Blog That Celebrates Itself Records. (2016)

Audio Stream

 

 

And as for the general support from across the globe, Douglas puts that down to the passion and loyal essence that characterises the online shoegaze community:

“I really think that it is because the online shoegaze community is so passionate about the genre that I got any attention at all. More than any other genre or scene I’ve been a part of, the shoegaze community, especially the Facebook groups dedicated to the genre, love to champion new acts and share their upcoming and unknown favourites. It’s a really supportive and encouraging scene. So, yeah, blogs and Facebook groups more so than radio or print media were to thank for the coverage the EPs received.”

After the release of and response to Dead Air, Douglas was now determined to see whether he could bring his long-held ambition to fruition and constitute ‘Blush Response – DIY bedroom project’ as ‘Blush Response – fully fledged band’. The eight tracks across Telltale and Dead Air also demanded to be played and heard live and the momentum they had received needed to be harnessed and utilised. It’s important to mention that from here it’s necessary to separate the live band story from Douglas’s songwriting and recording efforts.

As February 2014 was a pivotal time in the Blush Response story so was November of that same year. It was during that month the project began its complicated life as a live band with friend and former drummer in 20th Century Graduates Luke Eygenraam (ex-Central Deli Band & The Waterslides) joining Douglas on guitar and another friend Tony Marshall (The Honey Pies, Alpen) taking drums. The line-up was completed when bassist, Emily Retsas, (formerly of The Sunbirds) took up the invitation to jam with the trio and was hired on the spot. December 2014 marked another milestone when Retsas, Eygenraam, Marshall and Douglas played the very first Blush Response gig at the now defunct Worldsend in Hindley Street’s West End joining Contrast and Ride Into The Sun.

with Mark Curtis & Tony Marshall @ Roogaze Festival. The Tote, Melbourne.


Curtis, Retsas & Douglas @ Roogaze Festival. The Tote, Melbourne.
Both photos: Emma Matsuda

The band in this first incarnation remained a band in its infancy for the almost two years it lasted but for a brief break in the winter of 2015 when Eygenraam traveled to Canada for a couple of weeks and Mark Curtis filled in for two gigs in his absence, including an appearance at the inaugural Roogaze Festival at iconic Melbourne venue, The Tote. Upon Eygenraam’s return, he and Marshall would swap instruments at Douglas’ request, assuming their new musical positions until October 2016. While more than just friends playing a friend’s music, it is important to note that neither Eygenraam or Marshall had any particular devotion to the genre that Douglas was intent on exploring and it was unfair to expect them to take the forensic approach to learning the new songs as he introduced them. What was initially a help but later perhaps a relative hindrance, was the friendship Douglas had with Eygenraam and Marshall and their long standing musical history. While the friendship initially served to bed down and bring comfort to the stressful and difficult process of assembling a band and getting it to gel, the familiarity the three shared was preventing the serious semi-detached band dynamic needed to take the next step, especially at a time when Douglas had virtually written most of the tracks that would appear on Hearts Grow Dull and was ready to up the ante.

“They nailed everything I asked them to do, and it was really nice playing in a band with them because we are close mates. It’s just that after a while I felt like they were getting a bit bored with just rote learning what I was giving them. Because I felt like they were getting bored, I felt awkward trying to tell them how to play and didn’t really feel like there was a drive to learn new songs. It created a weird dynamic and because they were far more proficient at their instruments than I was, it felt weird to direct them to play something that may be a bit simple for them, even if it was what I felt the song needed.”

Sensing the waning interest, Douglas decided to build the band up from the group again. The departures would result in the arrival of current drummer Joseph Caporaso (House Of Jade, Ollie English) and guitarist Alex Dearman (ex-Weightless, Glass) with Retsas happy to continue on bass. Explaining the changes, Douglas states; 

“I had just started to bring some new songs to the band to start working out how to play live (I thought the album would be out early-mid 2017 at this point) and for some reason or other it didn’t really feel like it was coming together quite how I’d hoped. I figured this was as good a time as any to change things up a bit. Emily was keen to stick around and I had just started jamming with a new friend, Alex Dearman, who played in like-minded local band Glass. Alex had previously played in Weightless and Glass, amongst others, but was more involved in the heavier scenes than I frequented. After trying out a few drummers we were lucky enough to find Joseph Caporaso. This line up was the first time I think I felt like the band was becoming something of its own live.”

Alex Dearman & Emily Retsas
Photo Credit: Alister Douglas

Emily Retsas & Alex Dearman
Photo Credit: Amber Waves

It was now that the band started to really take shape, but Retsas and Dearman would only remain in Blush Response until the middle of 2017 when career ambitions and commitments to other bands conspired against their continued involvement. Retsas had become heavily involved in a natural extension of the very important work she’d been doing as an educator and mentor for girls in music at Adelaide’s Northern Sound System: In early 2016, she had been invited to the Los Angeles chapter of the Rock and Roll Camp For Girls, a proactive mentoring and resilience building program that began in Portland in 1984 and aims to help girls build the self-confidence and leadership skills needed to navigate the still very unequal musical landscape. A program that also seeks to counter the ridiculous, but sadly still prevalent, deficits in perception many misguided men have about the musical abilities of 50% of the human species. As a life-long musician, Retsas had long been keen to pursue opportunities as a bass player overseas and finally decided to up sticks and head to Los Angeles in June 2017. Since her departure, the in-demand musician has performed bass duties alongside Shirley Manson and Fiona apple and is currently playing in several bands, including The Dead Ships, ExSage, Doe Paoro and Entrance.


Playing The Gov, Adelaide. Douglas, Caparoso, Retsas, Dearman.

Retsas’ departure had a significant impact on Douglas personally as well as professionally, the two having formed a relationship in the intervening years, and combined with Dearman leaving soon after due to commitments in Little Dust becoming too much to balance, it was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak.

“This was devastating as all of a sudden I had lost 2 members. If I’m honest, this was nearly enough to put the band the live band on hold for a while. I was not in a good place, trying to come to terms with the loss of a relationship and feeling so sick of band/social politics in such a small local scene. I just wanted to focus on recording at that time. Thankfully we already had some shows locked in, including a show with Deafcult and tour dates with Hyla, both of which were a big deal for me.”

Blush Response w/ Brodie J. Brummer

When adversity strikes, solace and succor can often come from the unlikeliest of places. The setbacks allowed Douglas to complete the recording of Hearts Grow Dull and time to contemplate long term replacements. The immediacy of the live show issues were cleared up pretty quickly with some old friends stepping into the breach. As a temporary answer to his bass problem and to manage though the live bookings, his former Wild Oats and Mountbatten band mate Walter Marsh surprised him by offering to fill in on bass, a gesture which was readily and gratefully accepted. When two more good mates, and excellent guitarists, Josh Battersby (Horror My Friend, West Thebarton) and Brodie Brümmer (Flyying Colours) agreed to take Dearman’s role for the Adelaide and Melbourne shows respectively, it felt as though the stars had aligned.

Blush Response w/ Josh Battersby
Photo Credit: Amber Waves

The final pieces in the Blush Response band jigsaw would quickly take shape beginning with Marsh offering his services full time and guitarist Zach Caporale (ex-Dead End Friends, Daydream) soon joining.

“Following that run of dates, Walter asked if I would be keen for him to join the band full time, which of course I was. I didn’t think this was Walter’s kind of music but I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth so to speak and we set out to try find a new guitarist. The only time I had met Zach Caporale before he had a jam with me was when he came to my house to pick up a Blush Response t-shirt that he had online. He was the first person to buy one, something that I still tease him about as he’s not allowed to wear the shirt anymore. I knew of his previous bands Dead End Friends and Daydream, and had played the Adelaide Hyla show with his band Urban Youth. Zach was a perfect fit. And that brings us to now.

James Stocker, Editor & Chief Writer.

 

Blasphemy (Album Version)

Blush Response (AUS)

From the album, ‘Hearts Grow Dull’, Self Released

Audio Stream

 

Without You (Album Version)

Blush Response (AUS)

From the album, ‘Hearts Grow Dull’, Self Released

Audio Stream

 

The Current Line UpJoseph Caporaso on drums, Alister Douglas on guitar and vocalsZach Caporale on guitarWalter Marsh on bass.

 

Coming in July

Part Two – The Here & Now:  The New Blush Response dynamic; the writing, recording and release of Hearts Grow Dull