Read Part One here
Our feature on Alister Douglas, his band Blush Response and the release of their debut Hearts Grow Dull was initially was going to be a one part feature, a potted history if you like of what the talented artist was up to during the near four years between those first EP’s and this album. It ended up covering much more. The Adelaide multi-instrumentalist had already spent a decade playing in several bands before launching Blush Response in 2014 as both a studio and live project. And those pre-Blush Response elements are crucial in understanding how Douglas ticks as an artist. Thus Part 1 delved into the difficulties of assembling the band and getting it humming as Douglas wanted it. We ended that half of the story on a high at a time late in 2017 when Walter Marsh (bass) and Zach Caporale (guitar) assembled around existing drummer Joseph Caporaso and Douglas and saved a dream that was almost dashed. Part 2 seeks to shed light on a quite separate process, the one that involved the painstaking three year journey of writing, recording and presenting the 10 tracks as Hearts Grow Dull, a process that began in January 2015 and would not end until the album’s release in April early this year.
As was alluded to in Part 1, the important aspect to remember about Blush Response and Hearts Grow Dull is that the writing and recording project and the live band have always remained totally separate entities. With the sound quality of the final recording, many might find it hard to believe that Douglas recorded the whole album in its entirety at home. In what is some feat, and, Apart from Emily Retsas’ and Brodie J. Brümmer’s contributions to ‘Cruel’, Douglas wrote every note, every lyric and played every instrument.
Having releasing the EP’s and assembled the band by the end of 2014, it took several months into the following year for the conscious writing process for Hearts Grow Dull to begin. With the pitch driven crush of ‘Without You‘ and the cacophonous slow burner ‘Blasphemy‘ under his belt, Douglas began writing what would turn out to be album’s title track and its heavy, ultra personal centrepiece. Centring on Douglas’ musings on the difficulties he was having navigating a long distance relationship this would serve as a catalyst to explore the effects that distance can have on emotions and feelings more generally and this theme would become the glue that bound the album together.
“It started with long distance relationships and physical absence, but then I started to think about the emotional distance that can be a product of depression, a lack of empathy, or a betrayal of trust. It all sounds a bit melodramatic and overwrought when I describe it like that, but that was the concept”.
Alister Douglas — Blush Response ‘Hearts Grow Dull’ Album Launch Live @ The Crown & Anchor Hotel, Adelaide. March 2018 (Photo: Alex Kwong)
While they are lyrically still enmeshed with feelings of helplessness and fraught with self doubt, the next two tracks written show the glimmers of hope that shone through as Douglas was trying in vain to assist his significant other from distance. It was during this time that he would write three of the more upbeat and empathetic tracks on the album, ‘Fall Apart‘ with its cascading layers of guitar and devastatingly angular bass line, ‘Cruel’ with its tunefully dreamy yet crunchy full steam ahead pop and ‘The Week That Never Was‘, an almost jangle pop like track with wistful nostalgia written all over it. The juxtaposition between lyrical and musical content is as thrilling as it is jarring. The former two tracks served as a departure from his normal writing process in that ‘Fall Apart’ was built around its bass line and ‘Cruel‘ benefited from Retsas slowly altering the character of its bass lines during her live performances of it and on the second recording of the album Brummer would contribute the killer guitar solo. Douglas gives an insight into how his multi-instrumental abilities feed into how he writes generally and describes how both tracks came about;
“I don’t really see myself as a bass player, drummer, or even guitarist really, just someone who can play those instruments well enough to put together a song. Of all the instruments I play, I’m probably most confident on drums, but because I consider the things that define Blush Response’s sound to be the vocal melody/harmony and the guitar textures, that’s where I generally start. My general pattern would be to start with some guitar chords and come up with a melody over that. The melody will then often dictate where the guitar goes next. Once I have a bit of an idea where the guitar and melody are taking me, I’ll record some drums which I’ll chop up and build the structure of the song. Bass usually follows once I have the whole song structure in place. Lyrics usually come last.”
“There were are few exceptions to this, including ‘Cruel’, which started from drums and bass, and Fall Apart, which started from a bass idea. It was great to have Emily and Brodie involved in the recording of Cruel, too. Emily had tweaked the bass line during the months of playing it live and had come up with this great ascending line that really lifts the bridge, so it only made sense to have her record it for the album. I floated the idea to Brodie about playing a guitar solo for ‘Cruel’ when we played with them in Adelaide the first time. We were geeking out about recording after the show (Flyying Colours were working on Mindfulness at the same time as I was recording Hearts Grow Dull) and I was lamenting my inability to write proper guitar solos (I don’t know my scales, so mine are often either simple melodies or just noise). His solo rips. I’m so glad he was keen.”
Blush Response (AUS)
From the album, ‘Hearts Grow Dull’, Self Released
Directed and Edited by Alister Douglas with cinematography by Thomas Sweets (2018)
The final track written for the record is also Douglas’ favourite. The crashing closer ‘Safe And Sound‘ came almost two years after the title track was written. It slow and deliberative disposition arguably allows Douglas to best reflect his penchant musically for the quiet/loud dynamic the punctuates his approach to the shoegaze dynamic. The stunning space created between its tunnel of reverb and its almost acoustic sounding edge makes for a dramatic but rather hope filled finale.
Blush Response Live — ‘Hearts Grow Dull’ Album launch @ The Crown & Anchor, Adelaide. March 2018. (Photo: Alex Kwong)
However, it transpired that the recording process was not due to end there, as the journey the contemplative track ‘Drive‘ underwent gives a clue as to how Douglas operates and why Hearts Grow Dull is such a cohesive listen. Inspired at the time by Baltimore duo Beach House, ‘Drive’ in its original incarnation was a much slower, dreamier and less dense version compared with now. Douglas would scrap this version feeling by the end of the first recording of the album in 2016 that it no longer was commensurate with the records overall musical feel. The reworked version that you hear on the album came after combining elements of the original with some ‘old demo scraps’ souping things up significantly. ‘Horizon’ copped the same treatment. The length of time taken and the bits and pieces approach taken to writing songs would usually threaten any album’s cohesion. But Douglas’ ruthless and meticulous approach to his creations and the fact he writes and records simultaneously actually does the opposite and serves to strengthen it.
“My writing process kind of blurs into the recording process, there’s no clear distinction where one ends and the other begins. Because the two processes aren’t clearly defined it means that I don’t have a pool of finished songs that I pick and choose from to assemble a record. I’ll start writing and recording and idea and, if it there’s something I like about it, I’ll keep going with it. If on the other hand it’s falling flat or feeling forced, it will fall by the wayside. I just kept demoing like this until I had an album’s worth of material. There was probably around 6 or so ideas that never made it past an an early demo or sketch.”
“After having completed the recording process, I found that it wasn’t coming together how I hoped from a production point, so I decided to scrap the majority of what had been recorded and start again. Though, by this point I knew the 10 songs that would make up the record so the process was quicker. However, late during the second recording, the original versions of Drive and Horizon got cut because, after listening to this album from start to finish for so long, I decided they didn’t fit with the flow of the album and sounded out of place. This lead to me basically writing two whole new songs with the same lyrics, but this time pushing them further into the heavier and darker side of the sound I had been working on.”
Drive (Early Version)
Blush Response (AUS)
That the writing process took so long and the first recording of Hearts Grows Dull ended up being scrapped in early 2016 may be suggestive that Douglas is some sort of self-sabotaging and fastidious control-freak. Nothing could be further from the truth however. Three factors are important to note and need to be noted to understand the world of the independent artist, a world which naturally and necessarily must take in other endeavours, whether for need or want. For as I write this Douglas is completing his final exams in Veterinary Science at Adelaide University. In addition to the trials and tribulations above, there is little doubt that embarking on this intellectually taxing and time consuming endeavour also played a large role in the wait for the album. This important factor nothwithstanding, creating art and music that is of any worth must naturally involve the whole gamut of human emotions and states, from confidence and assurance to being wracked with uncertainty and self doubt. And thirdly, a self effacing perfectionist he maybe, there is little doubt that the aforementioned condition of OCD that Douglas lives with fed into the whole songwriting and recording experience and decisions taken during it;
“When I really get into a recording frame of mind, I often neglect to look after myself a little. I don’t sleep enough or during normal hours, I forget to eat, I don’t socialise, normal routine falls by the wayside. Unfortunately, lack of sleep and lack of self care exacerbate my OCD, so you can see the predicament. In day to day life, I’ve become pretty good at minimising the intrusive thoughts and diffusing compulsions, or if I can’t then I’m good at internalising them. But writing and recording music can be both emotionally draining and also an inherently repetitive process, especially if the song has heavy subject matter, which makes me susceptible to getting caught up in the obsessive compulsive loop. I wouldn’t want to guess how many takes I discarded and re-recorded because I had some negative association or intrusive thought during the take.”
“Negatives aside, even if it did prolong the recording process, I don’t think this album would exist in the same way if I didn’t have this experience. Living with OCD means I’m prone to over-thinking, catastrophising, and over-analysing things that happen around me, which in all likelihood gives me a somewhat unique perspective on my life that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I think this informs a lot of my lyrics and themes. Songs like Without a Sound, Blasphemy, Without You, Fall Apart, and Hearts Grow Dull wouldn’t exist if I didn’t think in this way.”
Blush Response (Douglas, Caparoso & Marsh) — ‘Hearts Grow Dull’ Album launch Live @ The Crown & Anchor Hotel, Adelaide. March 2018 (Photo: Alex Kwong)
The final piece of the puzzle was the search for a fitting piece of artwork for the cover. Scouring the internet, Douglas happened upon some paintings by Colombian artist Cesar Biojo, whose modus operandi is to depict human self-perceptions through method of both creation and destruction. For Douglas, the effects contained in Biojo’s work translated well to his both lyrically and musically, especially through the effects vocally and instrumentally. His elaborations below illustrate both a high level of artistic thinking and his painstaking all-round commitment to all ensuring aspects of Hearts Grow Dull, visually and sonically aligned to convey Douglas’ themes of distance, perception, loss and renewal;
“I really love those covers that Jack Vanzet did for the EPs. The colourful hazy smears were a perfect representation of the sound of those songs to me, but I wanted something a bit different for the album to set it apart from the EPs. The songs on the album sound more direct and personal and the production, including the treatment of the vocals, is more upfront, so I wanted something that was less abstract, and something that captured the feeling that I was trying to describe with the songs. I came across Cesar Biojo’s work on Instagram, trawling random art tags.
“I was immediately drawn to his style – the near photo-realistic oil figures that would be incredible alone, but the fact that he then goes on to obscure and destroy them with spatulas, irons, paint spills etc. gives them a whole other layer of depth that clean photorealism can’t communicate alone. I feel like he uses his spatula and paint drips in the same way that I use fuzz and reverb. Looking through his paintings, as soon as I saw ‘Rita 1’ I knew that had to be the cover. The posture, the way the hands grip the shoulders, the way the paint smears distort the detail. Thankfully he was open to licensing the piece for the cover. Anything else would have been a consolation prize. I listened to an interview he did where he described his art as trying to capture the impermanence of being, something that normally keeps me up at night, but he is such an enthusiastic and cheerful person that even talk of inevitable death sounded hopeful and beautiful.”
Hearts Grow Dull Album Cover – Cesar Biojo “Rita 1”
All the pieces of the album had come together in first half of 2017, which preceded the tumultuous happenings personally and personnel wise alluded to in Part 1. Besides having to deal with that, Douglas ran into a bit of brick wall with shopping the album to labels, partly due to pitching so close to the intended release window and also due to Douglas’ self-acknowledged lack of self-promotional acumen. So at the end of 2017, once the new line up was assembled and settled, he decided to self-release it and end any further delay. Since its release on April 5 this year, the response to Hearts Grow Dull has been rightly and deservedly positive, within general independent music circles and the global Shoegaze blogosphere in particular. And objectively speaking, it more than meets any expectations that may have grown during that three year writing period. The way Douglas blends shoegaze with a dream pop aesthetic heightens the aspects that are loved in both elements highlights just why they make perfect bedfellows in the right hands. And while happy with the finished product Douglas admits to being so close to and enmeshed with his creations for such a long time that any objectivity or perspective on how others would perceive it was impossible so he has been rather overwhelmed with the attention;
“While I knew I was happy with the final product, I wasn’t sure what anybody else would think. So to have people from all over the world sending me messages of appreciation, and for people to be coming up to us at the launch shows to say how much they love the album is a really gratifying thing.”
Much of the reception has focused on its soaring dynamic and fresh take on paths well-travelled. The perfect blend of shoegaze and dream pop that Hearts Grow Dull eventually became and the musical environment it was released into has provided an opportune base for Douglas to explore new horizons as a band, both live and in the studio. And the growing confidence and renewal within the shoegaze world over that past few years means that said environment is ripe and ready for the next chapter in the Blush Response story. Tellingly he has begun to loosen the reins a little and has recently brought Caporale, Marsh and Caporaso into the recording realm. The quartet are currently in the process of recording two tracks as a band, one new and one a rework of an old idea. These will see release in early 2019 but beyond that Douglas remains coy on the details.
Douglas also reports that the writing process has already begun on a follow up to the album and while the soon to be veterinarian freely admits that its release will be a long way off, Hearts Grow Dull has certainly more than set down the tone and whetted the appetite for whatever transpires, as the two EP’s from 2014 did similarly for it. How that process plays out, what emanates from it and when it surfaces is anyone’s guess — even Douglas’. But one thing is certain. It will be a meticulously constructed and independently created musical work of both substance and sincerity, two qualities as a DIY artist Douglas possesses in spades.
James Stocker – November 27, 2018
Blush Response play the Governor Hindmarsh in Adelaide on the 6th December in support of Holy Holy, the project of fellow Australian artists Timothy Carroll and Oscar Dawson. Tickets here. The band then headline a show at the Metropolitan on the 15th December, again in their home city, with Holy Forrest, DRAINING and Glass in support. Tickets at the door.
In the meantime, pick up a copy of Hearts Grow Dull digitally and on limited edition white vinyl here.