The Past Is Prologue: Blixie Perestroika On Creating ‘Ambition Is Low’ For Its Own Sake

[Cover photo credit to Chloé McLennan]

Blixie Perestroika recently released debut album Ambition Is Low, the culmination of several years of work, which was also heralded by a series of fascinating and moody videos that high lighted the dark electronica and haunting soundscapes created by the artist alongside collaborators Jack Dawe and Morgan Corbeau. That’s no surprise considering that Blixie and Dawe both have a history and fascination with film, and also work on film projects.

Blixie feels that she has a complex relationship with social media and self-promotion, and those themes even have a place in the album’s title, which suggests that the best way to be creative may be to side-step a drive for dominance in society and create things for their own sake. The album covers plenty of ground sonically and thematically, but has a prevailing mood of questioning the future’s outcome by considering the darker eras of our past and the continuance of their legacy. Bringing things down to a personal, creative level, Blixie shifts some of that potential gloom with dynamic, emotive sound explorations alongside Dawe and Corbeau.

I corresponded with Blixie Perestroika about the genesis and scope of Ambition is Low and this is what she kindly shared with me in return.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that you’ve been writing songs for some time, and I see that the album is quite full, at 14 songs, but was it difficult to choose which songs would make it into recorded form and be featured on the album? What helped you make that choice?

Blixie Perestroika: It was difficult – I wanted more on there but the guys drew a line. The funny thing was that we were recording over a couple of years in which a stunning amount of upheaval took place, personally and most importantly – politically. Jack and I were both in the UK having got out of L.A. pre-Trump and found ourselves in an environment that felt sort of hostile and precarious, not what I was expecting. Like something had to give, something impending…and then came the Brexit referendum…and then Trump, and everything kicked off, and things quickly became surreal…and that was before Covid!

After that length of time writing and recording, we had to sacrifice a lot of songs that just felt out of time…belonging to a bygone era, even though in reality it was a crossover of just a few months. The upshot was that we now have about two additional albums of recorded material, so it was tricky choosing what to abandon.

I’m probably the most recalcitrant bastard in the band and wanted to expunge all of the stuff that belonged on the first album and lock it in there forever…but Jack and Morgan were clearer-sighted and thinking more in terms of dynamic range and listener endurance! It’s not exactly recreational music to begin with, so I think they made the right call – my version would have been 25 tracks of sonic bludgeoning.

HMS: How do you feel about the current trend of releasing singles rather than albums or even EPs? Why was creating a longer collection important to you?

Blixie: I (un-magnanimously) accept the current trend…however, I think the way people are finding and listening to music is evolving rapidly, so I’m not counting out the album forever. The world has changed, I don’t think music moves culture anymore, people are overwhelmed and bombarded. I don’t expect people to sit around clasping their hands for the next album of their favourite artist…but listening to albums in their entirety by bands who have intention and meaning remains sacred to us.

So…as for bringing out an album as opposed to singles…due to my natural pessimism, we weren’t really thinking of trying to get an audience and how it would play out. I just really wanted it to stand in my head and hands as a coherent piece of work and that meant it was the length it was. It’s okay if people can’t be bothered listening to it long form. For those that do…there’s a lot in there that isn’t obvious on the first listen. Layers upon layers.

HMS: When it comes to the album title Ambition is Low, and your thinking about the ever-present need to push and promote in all fields these days, do you feel that creating work “for ourselves” becomes a defiant act? Or would thinking like that make the work too reactionary?

Blixie: Yes to both: I think it can be a defiant act, but that could also make the work too reactionary. However, I don’t think making work “for ourselves” is always an act of defiance, or that using defiance as an impetus to create automatically ensures that the work is too reactionary…Maybe it depends on the level of solipsism of the creator involved! I know there’s a level of hypocrisy veiled in sarcasm in putting out an album called “Ambition is Low” – and then doing an interview about it!

We do struggle with the idea of releasing anything at all in this climate of desperate narcissism, but also don’t want to invalidate the massive energy expended on creating just because of this alien zeitgeist. All I know, in our case, is that we started out because we loved and needed to make music…and were trying to do something for “the ages and not the age”. It was for “ourselves” initially because I genuinely didn’t think there was any love for the genre-less weird dark stuff we produce. I thought it was all lost to the 90s! I also knew that I couldn’t participate in the “push and promote” culture via social media etc. because, a) I’m not on any social media and b) I would have been really grim at it.

HMS: How did your band come together and what sort of musical interests and sound directions did they bring to the album?

BP: I was working on a bunch of deranged songs while Jack and I were collaborating on something very different – a film project. We would procrastinate for hours, just driving around listening to music – Smashing Pumpkins, NIN, Dead Confederates, Tori Amos etc., and he was one of the few guys I’ve known that loved so many of the same core bands.

I then found out he’d been in bands in Chicago and L.A. and was a very talented musician, drummer, and writer. I was extremely wary about singing in front of anyone or showing what I’d been recording due to many previous bad experiences, but he got what I was doing, and we started writing immediately. We both write and create instrumentation/textures, but he was mainly in charge of percussion on this album.

We were about half-way through the album and just wading through surrealism times when we realized that we needed fresh ears and perspective, which is when Morgan came along. He is an insanely talented drummer and multi-instrumentalist, and came through and did some amazing drumming and arrangements.

We all live in middle of nowhere where there aren’t a lot of young people, so we had heard of him on the grapevine…and knew that he was a vegan and a big animal lover, so I figured we would at least superficially have things in common. In hindsight, it’s actually a kind of miracle that we live in the same region and were drawn together in this way.

HMS: Since making the songs on the album has been a process of several years, have some individual songs changed along the way? Are there any that have changed dramatically between their start and what we see on the release?

Blixie: Only a couple, because as I mentioned some that we recorded at the start seem positively antediluvian for how much the world changed in the last few years, so they’re sitting on a shelf somewhere. However “Light the Lamps” was a full throttle, layered, and huge sounding rock song until one day Jack asked me to do it “live”…He’d broken down the piano arrangements and made a simplified but haunting “acoustic” version. We did one take and decided to keep it and ditch the original.

Also “Everything and Nothing” was a sprawling, very heavy saga, and Morgan came along and broke it down into the cinematic , spacy thing it is today. The only other one was “Drowned and the Saved” which is my questioning/ hopeless love letter to Primo Levi. I had about five different melodies for it and couldn’t hear straight. I wanted it to be a simple love letter, but it’s not that simple: y’olde desperation, denial and pessimism crept in. So in the end there are a lot of layers.

HMS: I see that you moved to Europe where the a lot of work on the album took place. How significantly did a sense of the past influence your work?

Blixie: Hah, almost completely. The past is prologue…I studied history for a long time, so how the past informs the future is kind of all I think about. It used to be challenging to stay in the present because I was very agitated about what I considered to be a dangerous level of complacency, apathy, corruption, and distraction: fascism’s petri dish, our glossed-over capability for atrocity…But I feel like after years and years of ranting, the past has veered into view and history is being written by a very volatile hand. I’m just trying to pay attention.

HMS: More specifically, are there sensibilities that you feel that Jack Dawe and Morgan Corbeau brought to the mood and world of Ambition is Low?

Blixie: Jack is the mood of Ambition is Low – He’s a world builder but his approach is almost chemical, analytical. He’s able to leave it in the studio and doesn’t suffer. They are both very imaginative multi-instrumentalists who come from very different angles musically. They are coincidentally both drummers, so there’s a mutual understanding there, especially about laying complex and dense parts which support rather than overshadow the music. Morgan is a classically trained musician and very careful to not overplay, despite the fact that he is capable of extremely complex and dynamic drumming. He is also the pair of fresh eyes and ears when Jack and I are too immersed in the world of it all…

HMS: The song “Everything and Nothing” has a really haunting opening that’s led by vocals and suggests a few key questions and ideas. That’s a bold choice. Did you hesitate about leaving it so spare to start off with? The same question really goes for the quieter interlude with “I have the key” further into the song.

Blixie: Hah, that was Morgan’s idea for the arrangement, hearing through the many layers that Jack and I had put in. It always began starkly, but kicked in quite quickly. Morgan let it develop and held it back further. It was a bold move, but on the balance of the album, I think it was important to have that dynamic range. It turned it into a very different song.

Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key is one of my favourite Giallo films, so it was a bit of a bitter in-joke to myself. Morgan’s arrangement brought out the vulnerability and hope. Sometimes I veer too far into “Wagnerian levels of doom”, so it helps to be steered out.

HMS: The video for “Everything and Nothing” suggests fragments of a more naturalistic story (in the mountains on the train) and a more structured story (like in Venice). Does that duality play into the song’s themes for you?

Blixie: Indeed…funny you should notice that because it’s actually part of a way longer story…While we’ve been recording, we’ve been making a larger project that includes a narrative film. The music videos are pieces from that film. And yes, duality is a constant theme…the idea we contain multitudes, what is reality and truth…The duality in this song is being a split personality, belonging in one place and striving to be someone in another, finding that place empty, and realising it’s too late to go home.

HMS: On “My North”, this idea of a person becoming our whole world and trusting that it will continue forever is so universal that it really can go back thousands of years. Some songwriters try to come up with ways of saying things that haven’t been heard before when it comes to relationship songs, but here you seem committed to speaking as directly as possible even when alluding to poetry. Do you think there is a place for simplicity?

Blixie: Oh absolutely, “Keep it simple, stupid” was a constant from my father. I can’t help complicating things…but some of the greatest films/lyrics focus on a theme and tell it explicitly and directly, and there is huge power in that. I struggle to write directly about love, and I don’t try and be clever or interesting about it, and therefore inadvertently avoid it altogether…So Auden stood in for me on “My North”.

What I loved about Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (which are the basis of the “My North” lyrics) is that it is so direct – to an almost over-the-top degree. That maudlin appeal when you are at the end of the road in a relationship, and you debase yourself in the hope of getting someone back. It’s a close cousin to Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” – that kind of teenage madness in devastation: the stars may as well be pulled out of the sky.

Apparently, Auden wrote it for a play where its theatricality was perfectly pitched – but it then had a second – and much more enduring life – as this sincerely received, undeniable poem that lovelorn people everywhere have claimed as their totem. I certainly did. Being of perhaps an emotionally excessive nature I had it cut out and stuck on my bedroom wall…and then one day it came to pass.

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