It's not your average music that you would hear on the radio, but it's something you might hear elsewhere. Taken from the cues of film soundtracks, Detroit-based musician Bret Autrey, known on record as Blue Stahli, takes a cinematic approach into his projects that sonically creates the ebb and flow of emotions through music that touches on everything from hip-hop, industrial, metal and electronic music.
After almost giving up on having a career in music while still in his home place of Phoenix, AZ, Autrey caught the ear of one his musical heroes, Klayton of the Detroit-based project Celldweller. After making the move to Detroit to work for Klayton at FiXT Music, Autrey's transformation into the Blue Stahli character would finally come to fruition.
Recently, Autrey released his newest Blue Stahli album titled The Devil, and I was able to chat with him about his beginnings in making music and how the Blue Stahli project came to be, along with the new album The Devil.
How did come about making music?
It goes way back to when my mom actually rescued this old piano from 1910 that was sitting in a community center. It was just open to the public and people would come in and little kids would come in and bang on it. It eventually got past the point of no return and they were going to throw it out. This is at a church. She was like, "Don't take it to the dump. Even if it doesn't sound the greatest, its still looks nice so I'll take it."
That got set up in my childhood home, and I would come out as a kid and just prink around with it and figure out little things by ear and teach myself little melodies. I wound up actually coming up with my own little notation system that I would write out on legal pads. I wish I could even remember what the hell kind of chicken scratch I was writing down.
I faked my way through three years of piano where I would be given a lesson and then I would then take that to a neighbor, who was a concert pianist and have him play it for me a couple times, so I could see what his hands were doing and hear how it was supposed to go, then I'd just fake my way through it.
I never actually learned how to read music. The guys who taught me to play guitar pretty much just taught me to teach myself. He was a friend that was in town from college back when I was 15. He would send me home with a Queen album and say, "Here's your homework. Just play along with this and try to figure it out."
That's how I always approach stuff -- I was just listening and trying to emulate, failing really terribly and doing it anyways because I liked all the weird noises I could make. Also, when I was around 15 was when I got into programming and synthesis and stuff like that. Back in those days, I used these DOS-based programs called trackers and the first ones were like 8-bit. So this thing called Scream Tracker, it was created by this demo group called Future Crew. There was no graphical interface. It basically looked like a spreadsheet and you had to code things in hexadecimal to make it work.
I got a graduated version of that that worked in 16-bit called Impulse Tracker. That's really how I taught myself how to put stuff together. I would so a lot of sampling of my own and loading in things from other recordings things I have made to do drums and stuff like that, or setting up a keyboard and doing stuff on the internal sequencer, recording that into the computer, and then dropping that in this weird DOS-based tracker. Then I discovered the modern DOS stuff like Cubase and stuff from there probably around 2003. I've been in that environment for a while but now I'm going back to the tracker-based stuff and finding a way to marry those two worlds and get that cool underground hackery way to put stuff together and mixing that with the more modernized version of what I've been doing.
What was the first project you did?
It was super embarrassing. I started a little electronic project with some friends in high school called VOXiS. It was then and it is now absolutely the worst music and unfortunately it's very easy to find. I was just talking to my label manager going "Oh shit! One of these albums is on Spotify!" It was me and two other guys and we were doing this all with the DOS-based tracker stuff, but we would record to cassette then pass it out to people. We were super into the tracker based demo scene on BBS's. We would just lose our minds over that shit. Stuff like in biology class when we had to dissect things I was like spell out the band name and stuff, take a picture and like yeah this is super edgy. We'll put this on our cassette. Really not good ideas for not good music. It all spiraled out of control from them. The funny this is the guy who was doing the art, the two other guys I started that project with I've know from first grade, the guy who was doing the art for it does a lot of my art now. With the new The Devil, he actually did the cover and all the photo treatments and a lot of the merch design. The other guy who did some of music with me is now a horror author and every now and again works Blue Stahli into some of his stories. It's kind of weird that we still find ways to do stuff together and be like "Remember when we were 15! Let's still do cool stuff!'
How did Blue Stahli come about?
After the VOXiS teenage high school thing ran its course, I sort of relegated myself to never really make it in music. I'll just always have to do this on the side and have a day job. I just flittered around from various musical thing to musical thing, which was everything from doing production for other people locally or I was a guitarist in a drag queen fronted punk band that played biker bars, then I was the composer and DJ for burlesque troop that would play Vegas all the time, all the while, just have little ideas for what I wanted Blue Stahli to be, but never had the confidence to fully pursue. At one point, I was doing another little collab side project thing and was doing a remix for Klayton of Celldweller. I was a huge fan of his from forever. His music has always been the absolute pinnacle to me. I never in a million years dreamed 'Oh my God! I get to remix one of these things'. They were going be doing a Celldweller remix contest, but the other guy in this collab project was, at the time, his assistant, so we couldn't be eligible. Klayton of Celldweller was like 'You know what? Go ahead and do a thing and we'll use it as the example track'. We put in a shit ton of work on that and Klay heard it, and wanted to talk to me about doing some studio stuff. So I flew up here, met with Klayton, and he offered me a position in the studio, not as an artist or not signed to the label, just being a studio bitch, like time correcting, editing, and clean up and stuff like that. He'd only heard little bits of what I had done before, so just on a whim, on that chance, I loaded up my car with nothing but clothes, some music gear, and one of the burlesque performers for navigation, and headed up here.
Your music is an aggressive mix of metal, industrial, drum-n-bass and a lot of other things. What influenced you to have this wide mix of sounds?
I was really into the soundtracks of movies, not even the scores themselves. In the 90s, that was the thing to do. There were people that would have the soundtracks to movies that 'Oh I haven't seen the movie, but I got the soundtrack because everything on here is really cool'. The two things that really sealed it in were the soundtrack to Hackers and Virtuosity. Here's an album that I'm listening to where it goes everywhere from like trance to hip-hop to full on fist in the air rock-n-roll to trip hop stuff to singer/songwriter thing. Why can't this all be from one band? Who says it has to be a soundtrack for this to work? I listen to this as a regular album and enjoy it. Why can't a regular artist do this? That was the force behind all of this was that I was determined to make a project where I wouldn't paint myself into a corner because I would get really bored if all I did was rock stuff, or if all I did was instrumental electronic stuff. That's why the main Blue Stahli vocal stuff is typically on the electronic rock tip, but then I put out these albums called Antisleep that the styles range from like lounge funk 60s music to more like EDM chill wave and stuff like that. It's a wild mix of genres and I just relentlessly done it so often so that fans who follow pretty much know what they can expect is whatever they weren't expecting.
What's the theme behind the new album The Devil?
That's the fun thing. I've had a lot of people writing in private messages and stuff like that going "Hey, are you a Satanist? What is it you are trying to say with this?" What I'm hoping is the people that had those questions, pretty much all their questions for that will be answered with the title track "The Devil" and the song that immediately follows it "Demon", but more so the entire concept of why I wanted to do this album in the way that I did. It actually spawned from something really funny. I was going through old photo albums when I was visiting back home in Phoenix for a not funny reason, my grandfather had passed and we were having the memorial service for him so we wanted to get a bunch of pictures together, and I stumbled on this picture of myself that I never seen before. I apparently was two or three years old, it was Halloween, and I'm standing there in this little devil baby costumes with a pitchfork on it. I pull it out and show it to my mom, 'is this me in this thing dressed as a little devil baby?' She's like 'Oh yeah! Me and some other lady in the neighborhood made that outfit for you. You loved that thing!' As soon as I saw that, this is an album cover! This has to be an album cover. I got to use this as artwork for something because this is great! I showed that to my art guy and he pulled it into Photoshop, pulled the pitchfork, and that pitchfork logo branded on everything centered around this album is the same pitchfork logo my mom and her friend made on this old school Halloween costume. At that point, I didn't know lyrically or thematically what it was going to mean. I just knew this picture is fuckin' great and this is an album cover or sticker or something and I wanted to do something centered around this because this is hilarious.
"The Devil" and "Demon" end the album. Was that conscious choice to end it that way?
Absolutely. Especially putting "Demon" right at the end of everything. The album is done in such a meticulous and slick production style. I love doing lo-fi stuff, but just as much as I love doing that, I love doing the really super tight, almost pop production sort of stuff with walls of tracks and doing a big cinematic movie trailer kind of sound. I knew with most of the songs on this album having that kind of production stuff, which was absolutely intentional. I could already hear someone giving it an negative review like it would be good but its production is this overproduced, too slick thing! Motherfucker that's on purpose! It's a reactionary thing to that and to do a style I haven't really done before. "Demon" was done through super analog gear. We ran it through a bunch of modular stuff and analog things for everything. I wanted to get that mix of well recorded but with a lo-fi indy-ish spirit. Even the lyrics were written during a road trip out to nowhere where I was like I need to get into the car and just drive for hours upon end and whatever the hell direction, and wound up writing all the lyrics in the car. Since I knew that song was going to close the album, I just let the song hang.
Blue Stahli's album "The Devil" is available now. For more information, visit bluestahli.com.