Record Of The Week: Blvck Hippie’s ‘If You Feel Alone At Parties’

In choosing the title If You Feel Alone At Parties for the new Blvck Hippie album, front man Josh Shaw spelled out a vantage point that he’s especially adept at speaking to: sociable souls who are also excruciatingly self-conscious.

An ascendant presence in the Memphis DIY scene, the band grew out of a solo project that Shaw undertook to fulfill college course requirements while studying composition. It remains an outlet for his angular, serrated guitar lines and melodies and his poetic yet diaristic agonizing over disconnects between inner turmoil and relationships’ perpetual, small disappointments. And the artistic identity of the indie rock-, emo- and post-punk-devoted, Black front man is a role that he inhabits with 360 degree awareness, recognizing that it was once popularly coded as white and seeking to boost the visibility of those who share his interests and look like him.

Shaw and his band mates, including his roommate and longtime drummer Casey Rittinger, had only three days’ worth of studio time to burn recording their debut full-length, and they attacked the project, and the prickly intricacy of the shape-shifting passages in some of Shaw’s song structures, with keyed-up, youthful intensity.

Shaw’s pointillistic, clean-toned guitar figures sound restless over the thrashy precision of the drum pattern during “Art School,” a song that shrugs at idealism and chafes at privilege. “The door is open,” Shaw sings, setting up the barbed line, “‘Cause everyone deserves to pay at art school.”

During “Answering Machine, propelled by terse, needling lead guitar lines, he’s tortured by how he might have failed friends who’ve died. Shaw and co. are at their most magnetic during “Bunkbed,” a blistering tune impatient with certain barriers to intimacy, those related to mental health and being young and unable to afford your own place. Leading Blvck Hippie through this briery musical territory, Shaw is already owning his.

On The Record: A Q&A With Josh Shaw Of Blvck Hippie

Jewly Hight: I’m curious: whose voice is it on that voice mail message during the album interlude advising you to enter the Tiny Desk Contest?

Josh Shaw: That is my late cousin slash uncle. He was always super invested in my art and stuff like that, and would always just call me all the time, and always leave these voicemails being like, “Hey, I heard about this. You should try this, try that.” He passed about two years ago, so I forgot I had the voicemail. I was just going through old Google drive files and listened to it. I wanted to pay him some kind of like tribute on the record.

JH: I am actually one of the Tiny Desk judges this year. And I get this and I can picture I can picture tons of messages exactly like that being left by loved ones of artists.

This is our listeners first introduction to your music, other than hearing us play your song “Bunkbed” on the air the in the past, so I want to establish a sense of your background. The name that you ultimately chose for the band, Blvck Hippie, was actually a nickname that your mother gave you, in childhood. What kinds of idiosyncratic qualities was she picking up on in you during your younger years that inspired that nickname?

JS: Me and my brother were fairly eccentric kids. My mom especially would always make sure we were cultured. She’d always take us to art museums, if we ever went to a city, and she always just pushed as much art and culture on us as possible, just so we could be more well-defined people. And I think I took to it a lot. So did my brother. And I was just honestly just like kind of a weird kid. I was just consistently just obscenely weird. It’s a lot harder when you’re growing up different. In some circles, when you’re a person of color, it’s hard to be different. I feel like her nicknaming me that was kind of a blessing in a sense and an acceptance of me being different and stuff like that. It kind of pushed me to be more eclectic and eccentric and different than what I feel like I’m supposed to be.

JH: I hear a lot of self-awareness in what you’re saying and in how you present your music. I know you’ve pinpointed Kid Cudi’s 2015 grunge album, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, as a game changer for your outlook. When you point to that project, what are you getting at? What internalized messages about what constitutes Black music or what Black artists are “allowed” to talk about in their music, when it comes to things like mental health, did you begin to question when you heard Kid Cudi?

JS: I first got into Kid Cudi when I was, like, 15. That was kind of when I first started realizing that I had depression and mental health problems. And he was the only person that looked like me at the time that was talking about it. So I’ve always just been a huge Cudi fan. But in 2015, that was the year I picked up guitar. I knew, like, three chords and I was just writing a bunch of songs. I wasn’t really planning on recording or releasing them or doing anything.

I had a recording class that semester [in college], so I had to produce something or whatever. And when the [Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven] album came out, I listened to it. I knew leading up to it he talked about how he played guitar and bass on the record, and he had just picked up guitar himself. Basically it showed me that a Black dude who literally is known for his influence on the hip-hop genre completely switched genres and did it really well and did it in a very, extremely vulnerable way. And it wasn’t like super well received, the album wasn’t. But it just kind of pushed me, because I have no excuse.

Kid Cudi literally changed his whole genre for the record like that, because that was the only way he felt he could get those kind of feelings out in the way he did. And I was like, “I can do that. Cudi did it, so I can do it,” kind of thing. It kind of made me push myself a lot more, writing on guitar and playing things that I know that I have no business playing and [I’m] not good enough [to do] and forced myself to learn it so I can record it. It pushed me to be OK with being different and it kind of created an avenue for me.

JH: In other interviews, you’ve talked about your experience studying composition in college and pinpointed a moment when you thought you might pursue becoming a session player or something like that. But you ultimately decided that that was that was contrary to who you are artistically. What was the choice in your mind? Did you see it as choosing between that and a DIY ethos?

JS: It wasn’t a conscious choice. I think I’ve always looked at music like the way people look at stuff in heist movies—like one last heist, and then I’ll get out of the game. It was in my mind, “If I find a steady job in the industry, then I’m going to quit doing music because it’s just so hard to be so vulnerable.” In 2015, when my grandma passed and one of my friends was killed, it kind of forced me to write. At the time, I was sober and I didn’t really have any outlets. Music became my medium. I felt like it’s always just kind of stuck around, no matter how much I wish I could quit and do something else or be a session musician. I always tried to find other jobs in the industry to quit [making my own music], and eventually it just became the fact that I can’t do anything else and love it or be as good at it and just, like, feel it.

I made this decision last January, February, when I went back to school and I dropped out and kind of just took a nuclear bomb to my personal life and my life in general to focus fully on doing this music and not trying to find ways out and just decided this is what I’m going to do. I put my all into it. I just stop trying to run away from my, quote unquote, destiny. Like the whole metaphor from the Bible of Jonah and the whale, I feel like I was definitely trying to do that. I felt like the music and the stuff that’s been going on with my mental health, that was kind of the whale. It kind of just captured me, and I’m glad it did.

JH: That is a very evocative use of a Bible story as metaphor. I like it.

JS: My dad is a pastor, so from day one, I got Bible metaphors out of the wazoo

JH: I gather that the DIY ethos was very much in effect during the making of this album, that you recorded the whole thing in something like three days. Was that at all an obstacle when it came to making the album that you wanted to make?

JS: The original plan was to make an EP, but more songs just kept getting written. So we were like, “Alright, we’re going to do an album and we don’t have a lot of money. So we can only do it in three days.” We did come back in to record the strings and then I re-tracked some rhythm guitar at another time. So it was more like, probably in terms of labor, three and a half days, really.

But the crazy thing was the third day was twenty-one hours straight, which was pretty insane. There are still parts, like the synth parts and stuff, that I don’t remember playing. I know I played them, but I was half-asleep or jacked-up on caffeine. I always pride myself in trying to get as much done in short bursts as humanly possible. I realize that time is a nice thing that is not afforded to everybody that doesn’t have a lot of money, in terms of music. So it wasn’t more of an obstacle, but it was a little of an inconvenience. Just having to get a twenty-one-hour day to get everything else done was pretty taxing and pretty terrible. And I went to work the next day in a restaurant, so that was awful. But I mean, it was more like an obstacle for like my sleep schedule, but that’s about it.

JH: In the album opener “Art School,” I hear a sense of almost unbearable self-awareness and ambivalence toward a space like art school, where the stakes or expectations or options or access might be different if you happen to not be rich or not be white. Can you tell me about the perspective that’s coming through in the snippets of conversation in your lyrics?

JS: When I went back to school, I was a composition major, and that was probably the biggest reason why I wrote “Art School,” because as you said, especially in art spaces, I feel like there’s so much little afforded to when you’re actually kind of broke and not, like, upper middle-class in some capacity. It always bothers me that the most successful artists are usually like people with money. So it came out in that song, because I just like crapping on, I guess, liberal arts kids are whatever.

I think the song is just mostly just my annoyance with high art and what high art means in academic senses, and how it’s really just not very inclusive of people in color and women and people in the LGBTQ community. It’s mostly just a niche for rich, straight, white men, for lack of a better term. And personally, it always has bothered me. And I always hated how hard I feel like we had to work. A lot of that angst and anger came out in the song.

JH: There’s a through line between the reality you were talking about around the making of the album, working within what was available to you in terms of studio time, and what you’re depicting in that song “Art School.”

JS: Definitely. I get angry sometimes knowing that if we weren’t a Black-fronted band, it would be a lot easier in a lot of capacities. But I also feel like I’m actually lucky because I’m on the cover of a bunch of really cool, indie publications. I feel like it’s first world problems complaining about it. But I do realize that it’s substantially harder for artists who don’t come from some fancy school or come from money or come automatically knowing some industry head or something like that. I think that song kind of points it out without being annoying about it or trying to be self-righteous.

JH: In the song “Answering Machine,” there seems to be almost this escalating sense of anxiety about a connection to someone just disintegrating. How did you try to use that barely controlled chaos of the two guitar parts in counterpoint, especially that needling, constantly in motion lead guitar line and that lurching drum pattern, to get that sensation across?

JS: I focus on death a lot. I’ve dealt with with a lot of loss, especially in my late 20s, of losing people my age a lot. And I wanted to write a song and talk about dealing with that. And dealing with some of the guilt of it too, not being there for people, because that’s the first thing you think of when you lose people: “Oh, was I there for them enough?”

Also we wanted to make sure that it stood out differently sonically than a lot of other stuff on the record. It’s the only song on the record with guitar fuzz, and I really just wanted it to be aggressive and angry and sound like how we play it live, because a very like emotionally raw song. …Sometimes that’s part of the stages of grief; anger and bargaining are part of it. I feel like anger is like unleashed in that song, when the fuzz comes in.

At first, it seems a lot more chill and relaxed, still sad. And then the chorus hits. The guitar solo is insane, because we recorded with multiple fuzz pedals and we recorded over it. But it was also the only guitar solo I play on the record that wasn’t written before. So I improvised it and we recorded and had to go back over it. And I was like, “Dude, I do not remember what I played.” But it ended up working out really well, because it kind of fit into that chaos a little bit with not all the notes being exactly the same.

JH: The title track is really the antithesis of a party song about feeling caught up in the moment and really connected to everyone you’re around. What’s the vantage point that you’re depicting in that song?

JS: I started writing it when I was still a composition major. This is, like, the seventh version of it, because I sit on stuff a while and rework it a bunch.

The lyrics for it were supposed to be like you’re at some cool loft party in New York or something like that. And then I rewrote them to be more sad. I wanted to convey that you’re at a party, you’re supposed be having fun, but it’s extremely alone and isolating and the people you surround yourself with don’t really care about you, even if they’re supposed to. It’s something I’ve experienced my entire life.

JH: Like I mentioned, we’ve played your song “Bunkbed” on WNXP before. The lyrics describe, on the one hand, really concrete details, but also emotional extremes. It’s diaristic and poetic at the same time, and gives us all these snippets of conversation. How did all of that help make it more vivid or immediate for you? And why did you write it in what feels like present tense, like these things are in the midst of happening?

JS: I came up with the concept first, the concept of a bunk bed being probably the most lonely way to look at sleeping with somebody, because instead of having the intimacy and closeness of being in the same bed, you’re separated—and the separation being mental health problems. I feel like that’s a huge deterring factor in getting somebody with mental health issues, is they build all these barriers and they do all these things that separate you from them. And that’s kind of what the song was kind of talking about.

But as you said, like more concrete in a way, but also semi like vague a little bit, too. And I kind of want to make it more storytell-y too. And I was like back when I was like super into like metaphors for stuff. And I always like the metaphor of a bad relationship being a relationship between yourself and your own mental health, but telling through the tale of like a romantic relationship.

I didn’t think anyone was actually going to like that song. I just know I personally liked it. When it was well received, it kind of blew my mind, because I really I didn’t think anyone was going to care. It’s also the first song I really applied everything I learned in composition to it. Because it’s kind of through-composed, so I kind of just flowed through the song, kind of let the song tell me where to go instead of trying to set up barriers like, “OK, I need to have a chorus here.” It’s kind of like there’s movement, there’s motion and you’re just being moved by it.

JH: It’s been a number of years since your breakthrough in outlook when you got into that Kid Cudi album. So what has it been like searching out indie rock, emo, postpunk, stylistic lineages, and also the Afropunk movement, and finding your reference points, figuring out where you fit? And what difference has it made to you to get acquainted with Black music-makers who have come along before you?

JS: My dad always said this thing: “You have to find your tribe.” To find the people that you can relate to the most. I’ve been trying to seek out and find a lot of Black folks, bands, indie bands that are Black-fronted. I started curating a playlist for it and everything. But I really wasn’t super exposed to it much really until in 2019 when this band that’s blowing up now called Proper—they’re an all-Black punk band from Brooklyn—reached out to us and they were coming through Memphis. Playing with them was the first time I ever played like a bill with a band that sounded like me with someone that looked like me as the front person. And I was like, “Holy smokes.”

So I kind of started seeking things out, and through seeking out newer artists, I started finding the past and started researching that, because there’s a lot of bands that kind of started postpunk that were Black, like A.R. Kane, the ones that coined the phrase “dream pop” in the ‘80s, like bands like Majesty Crush, who were a shoegaze band from Detroit in the ‘90s, and they’re flat out amazing.

So I kind of like seeking the older roots and finding inspiration, and seeing how they influenced the genre and how a lot of a lot of the early pioneers of the genres that I kind of hop between were all people that look like me. I feel like it’s my job to bring attention to them and to bring attention to the newer artists and then basically create this safe space. In the next 10 years, if there’s a weird, Black kid that likes this album or whatever, and they want to start a band with some of their friends at their school, they can easily walk into the DIY scene—the countrywide scene—and see a lot more faces that look like them and be more accepted and feel safer in those spaces.

I remember my first time going to a DIY venue. Everybody just looked at me and it was very awkward and very uncomfortable and I don’t want to ever have that happen to anybody else. So in my mind, by researching the past and the present and seeing the bands are coming out now and the bands that predated us and influenced the genres that we’re in, you can be able to create a better future for other Black artists.