By Nicholas Jason Lopez
Often referred to as the “Black Sheep Of Country,” Howlin’ Anton Bleak showed some versatility with the release of his remix album ‘Country Stranger’ earlier his year via Screamlite Records, a result of his work with the likes of Die Kur, This Is Radio Silence and Tribes Of Medusa.
It features remixes of tracks on his debut solo album ‘Stranger Country’ and encompasses sounds that range from independent industrial and dark ambient to neo-folk.
The Music Bugle had the opportunity to talk with Bleak – also known as the frontman of death-blues band Bleak – about what he’s been up to this year and more.
Music Bugle – How have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – It’s hard to think of anyone, any family, which has not been affected by this awful pandemic. In my family, we lost my grandfather and several other relatives were very sick. It has affected the lives and livelihoods of so many friends. Musically, which seems minor in comparison to the devastating loss of life, there was also an impact. After many years of playing in bands, I released my debut solo album ‘Stranger Country‘ via the wonderful independent label/collective Screamlite Records. Critically, it was very well-received and I feel it was strong musically, largely thanks to the participation of the core band AP Clarke and Jim lacey, the special guests who contributed to it and Ays Kura of the mighty Die Kur, who produced it. Being unable to tour the record made it hard to get it out there. Nonetheless, we got played on quite a few radio shows and the community reception was heartwarming too. So much to be grateful for. The pandemic also forced many of us to think creatively about how to maintain momentum, continuity and community. The result of that is the remixes project Country Stranger, which came out in May. My friends from the Brooklyn dark ambient band Tribes of Medusa sent me a remix of one of the tracks from the debut solo album unprompted. It was utterly mesmeric and so, prompted by this brilliant and unexpected act, I reached out to other friends, all of them great independent artists across a range of genres – metal, industrial, neofolk. Forcing alt-country, which was the source material, on a collision course with those genres seemed unthinkable and yet, the outcome is an amazing coherent collection of tracks of very high artistic value. It may take people a while to truly comprehend what has been done – to take one of the most traditional and conservative music genres, disassemble it so completely and rebuild it from the ground up into something beautiful and monstrous in equal measure. One shocked DJ who was sent a preview of it wrote back saying that no one he is aware of is doing anything remotely similar. During the pandemic in my spare time, I’ve also been volunteering as a motorcycle community responder, delivering diagnostic equipment to patients in distress, medicines and food to vulnerable shielding people and protective equipment to key workers. I am only one of many thousands of such volunteers and I hope our contribution helped to lighten the burden of the heroic frontline workers and ease the suffering of families and individuals.
Music Bugle – What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – In terms of the process of creating music, I have turned to Brian Eno’s oblique strategies more than once and each time, the somewhat esoteric advice contained therein truly hit the nail on the head. Of course, one might argue that it’s all about how one interprets what’s on the card, but the prompts are invaluable. They are an incredible pathfinding tool.
Music Bugle – Where do you go when you need a break?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – There haven’t really been many opportunities for that. Walking my elderly rescue dog helps, as do motorbike rides, even when the reason for the trip is not necessarily a joyful one. Music is a wonderful escape, but it’s not been possible to attend gigs or perform. That is something I very much look forward to being able to do and I’m hugely grateful to the scientific and medical community for the vaccination programs, which I hope will bring that closer.
Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – There is so much great independent music being produced right now. Several of my friends who have contributed remixes to Country Stranger have recently had great records out – Die Kur, Oblivion Guest, This Is Radio Silence, Naevus, Machine Rox and of course, Brooklyn’s Tribes of Medusa. I know The Pool have new material in Berlin and members of Autorotation have a new Serbian language post punk project Tantrum Zentrum. Hana Piranha, who contributed harp to my song “Cowboy from Hell” on ‘Stranger Country‘ has a new project called Hviress and My friend and very longterm musical collaborator, AP Clarke also released a great album recently. Then, of course, there are several fantastic recent releases from the community of artists who are part of the Screamlite collective. First new music from Borrowed Body in several years and great singles from Foxpalmer and Darklight Horizon. There is certainly no shortage of great new music.
Music Bugle – To you, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – Musically, I’d say that my solo album ‘Stranger Country‘ is up there. It was only possible thanks to the support and participation of wonderful friends. I am proud to count them among my friends and very proud of what it was possible to achieve – and I don’t only mean musical collaborators, many of whom I’ve already mentioned. The photographer Tom Godber and videographer ThemGuidedMissiles are a huge part of that journey too.
Music Bugle – What makes you the most proud about where you come from?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – An interesting question. I’ll interpret that in the context of music. My musical journey has been nonlinear and I think I’m proud of always keeping my ears open, always trying to learn and appreciate new things or things which are new to me, so perhaps, it’s better to say that I am proud of the way I have travelled on that journey. I am proud too of the music which the bands I’ve played and continue to play in made. I’ve travelled through blues, metal, industrial, folk, even musical theatre and I am grateful for every step of that path.
Music Bugle – What do you wish happened more in today’s music industry?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – Great question! I wish for our communities to recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible, but I know that is some way off. With that, I hope there will be more local gigs. It’s hard for less well-known artists and for smaller venues and they need a lot more support than they have had. We must remember how valuable art and music are, not just for entertainment, but for a sense of togetherness.
Music Bugle – What has been your hardest challenge lately?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – Beyond the challenges suffered by so many people in the pandemic, musically, I’d say it’s discipline. I’m writing new material bit-by-bit and it’s important to have stringent quality control and only progress new songs to the demo stage when they are of high enough quality. That can be a tricky process if one is particularly focused on a specific musical concept or idea, so as to miss the wood for the trees, so to speak.
Music Bugle – Does social media help or hurt musicians?
Howlin’ Anton Bleak – On the whole, I think it helps a lot. That’s where I find out about the majority of gigs and releases. During the pandemic, many artists made good use of livestream functionality and certainly, in some cases, it has helped to keep communities together. It can hurt those who misuse it, but those also tend to do that in their other interactions, it’s not the fault of the delivery mechanism. I don’t know how the world will look after the pandemic. In the UK and elsewhere, many people are leaving big cities. International travel too will take a long time to get back to its pre-pandemic levels. What does that mean for live music? More local gigs in pubs and community centres, outdoor jams, smaller community-focused festivals? If it does go that way and coupled with more of a move towards paid social media functionality, it may be that it plays less of a role in that way and becomes more about publishing content. In any case, it’s a useful way to engage with those who want to know about one’s music and to learn about the music of others.