When we last checked in on the shape-shifting, convention-defying, mighty, musical mystery that is Datura Blues, we had been shaken by the seismic sonics emanating from their Pacific Northwest locale, shaken in particular by their commanding EP entitled “Damn These Shackles of Gravity!”
At the time, we were at a loss to properly describe the collective’s controlled chaos – moving as nimbly as it does from moment-to-moment within song-after-song, never resting in one area too long, as if its sound is propelled not only by amplification, but also by the fear of becoming sonically complacent, a fear the band keeps at bay with absurd consistency.
Nearly one year later, we’re no closer to finding the proper words to describe Datura Blues. Luckily, two of the brothers of blues themselves – Oryan Peterson and Andrew Pritchard – have provided us all the clues we could ever need. Enjoy.
We’ll have to admit to knowing relatively little – actually, nothing – about plants and plant life (though we enjoy the music of both Herbcraft and The Seeds). What can you tell us about the botanical connection of the name, Datura Blues? Is there a personal element to the choice in band name?
“Then Buddha accepted alms in his bowl, offered by the goddess who dwelt in the Datura grove, and he blessed her with benedictions…” – The Buddha-Karita
ORYAN: The above quote, a scene depicting Buddha making love to a goddess beneath Datura trees … That and a famous portrait of Shiva as Nataraja, in which the Cosmic Dancer is draped with bell shaped flowers. These were our earliest introductions to Datura. Its relationship to dieties, references in Mythology. Upon further research we discovered it had a sort of nefarious reputation in both New and Old World cultures: Embraced by witches in Europe, in West Africa and the Caribbean by Shamans, as a deceptive spirit guide in Casteneda lore. One of its common nicknames, Angel’s Trumpet, is a reference to the Book of Revelation. Early members of Datura Blues found inspiration in exploring various dichotomies. Despite Datura’s seemingly dark-natured disposition, it is actually a specimen of flora that leaches heavy metal toxins from the soil. Stems, seeds, roots, flowers … every part is deadly poisonous but it purifies the Earth of Human contamination! The symbolic nature and significance of Datura representing both destructive and healing powers was recognized as an appropriate coat of arms.
The “band” was formed to address that same balance (or lack thereof,) within social constructs. Datura Blues’ architects essentially saw Western Culture’s obsession with Rock and Roll as an opportunity to subversively reach people through a popular artistic medium, while pursuing a motivated effort to induce catharsis. That particular idealism expanded to assimilating the imagery, worldviews and customs of other cultures into our theatrical devices. Concerts were observed more as musical ceremonies, everything was ritualized … I always enjoyed the implication of Datura, the plant and band name, having pan-global metaphorical interpretations …
Similarly, we cannot profess having anything beyond a rudimentary – and perhaps intensely personal – understanding of what is commonly referred to as “the blues.” What was the thought behind using a word with so much history (some might say baggage) in the name of your band? What, if anything, does the concept of “the blues” mean to you?
ANDREW: “The Blues” is loaded with various degrees and types of meaning. From the casual listener to the aficionado to the Genuine Bluesman, anyone who has heard Datura Blues, either live or on record, knows that we are not a “blues band” in the traditional sense. We do not use twelve bar, I, IV, V progressions, nor do we currently lyrically engage the themes typically associated with the Blues. I listen to, and love, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly, and Elmore James and I think they’ve got all that pretty well covered, thank you very much. The “blues” in Datura Blues acknowledges the lineage, or roots, of Datura Blues. Like Muddy Waters sings, “The blues had a baby, and they named that baby Rock & Roll.” Though stripped of a precise musicological connection to the blues style, I think that a lot of our music expresses universal blues feelings – the pain of existence vs. the despair of nonbeing, yearning, radiant joy, hope, loss, and exalted states of being. Our music has the blues in the way that “Guernica,” Munch’s “The Scream,” or Jackson Pollock have the blues. It all comes from the same wonderful, unfathomable, and mysterious place. Heart. Soul Spirit. Anima. Whatever you want to call it.
ORYAN: We try and emulate Blues musicians with sincerity … as colorful storytellers, travelling bards, stewards of culture. To, in turn, develop and pass on our own Mythology. As music, the Blues are eviscerating roots, networking miles deep and eventually reaching the source of rock and roll. As an emotive storytelling device, Blues evoke Saudade, inexplicable longing, nostalgia. It demands we acknowledge the Universe’s less attractive features … I also have a romantic view of the Robert Johnson crossroads myth. Sacrifice. Playing in this group definitely involves sacrificing a bit of one’s Soul.
Is it appropriate to define Datura Blues as a “collective,” one with a membership that expands and contracts with each project? What are the positive and negative aspects to this model of producing your art?
ANDREW: Creative destruction keeps things fresh and keeps you on your toes and ideally ensures that you’ll meet other musicians whose ideas will teach you to be a better player and person. Yet it is sometimes frustrating to not be able to consistently play out certain older songs-good songs which feel great to play-because everybody can’t know everything.
ORYAN: It would be safe to say that a collective tenet was scribbled into our original gospel … Datura Blues have always been more concerned with including people than with impressing them. The group has been an excuse to blur the lines, to explore the exotic, to establish lasting relationships. We are a community, so of course we want to involve as many folks as possible. There is usually a core of three or four people that steer the song writing process and an entire bloodline of satellite members who contribute to recordings or performances as their schedules allow. Ultimately, however, Datura Blues operates and exists beyond its Founding Fathers, beyond its present and future donors.
The Positive: Keeps you on your toes, every performance is a challenge, keeps us humble, our Family is always growing. We have had over 40 contributors over the past 12 years. An evolving membership also understands that connections are malleable. How we identify with ourselves, with others, or how we behave day to day … Datura Blues maintain strong friendships, despite challenges such as distance, time, or space.
The Negative: Obviously, not being able to commit to one set of material for too long. Certain songs can only be performed under certain conditions, with certain personnel or instrumentation. It can also be a little sad, getting so close to people over the years only to watch them mature past the group and move on, (though many former members still participate in some fashion.)
What are your own experiences with musical projects, both preceding the existence of Datura Blues and outside of Datura Blues? Can you recall the first live music experience of your life that made the most impact on yourself? What was it about that experience that made it so memorable or impressive for you?
ORYAN: An early live music experience that greatly impacted my life? That would be my first local punk show in 1994 (I feel extremely lucky to have grown up within a scene that accepted the all ages community with open arms.) There was a band on the bill called Couch of Eureka, whose singer also played a stand-up drum kit. He had huge blonde dreads and he was beating the shit out of his snare and crash cymbal … then he starts throwing up all over the snare, and in true punk rock form, never misses a beat! I remember looking up at the stage to see puke launching from this drum head onto the crowd. Sticks pounding, dreads suspended in slow motion … LOUD as all Hell! That was a powerful moment … Having cut my teeth on what was considered by many at the time to be a golden era of music in Humboldt County, I came from what was fondly referred to as the Punk scene. Although the term really did represent more of an idea than an aesthetic. This meant bands that identified with anything other than Blues, Funk, Reggae or the Grateful Dead fell under the “Punk” blanket moniker. Members of my high school band, Elysium, were just as high on classic rock, Hendrix and The Moody Blues as we were Operation Ivy, Siren and NoMeansNo. But we played shows with metal bands, ska bands, experimental pop bands, harsh noise bands and real, dirt-under-the-nails punk bands. I started booking benefit concerts for the Arcata Skate Park when I was fifteen years old and had the honor of working with two of my all-time favorite musicians, Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance,) and Ethan Miller (Comets on Fire, Howlin’Rain,) before they left Humboldt for greener pastures. In college I assembled a noise collective called the Medieval Jug Band that taught me the in’s and out’s of communicating with a group whose roster, instrumentation and material fluctuated from one gig to the next … By the time we started Datura Blues, Owen Ott III and I had been playing together for years in formal and traditional rock outfits. Datura Blues was conceived with this sort of back to basics, DIY, grassroots ethos. Dirty, noisy, sloppy, collective-sprited punk rock.
Beast, Please be Still is a Datura Blues pseudoymn/sister act I formed with the intention of having more space to explore improvisation … Since 1999, I have been playing solo classical guitar as Die Geister Beschworen (Summon the Spirits).
ANDREW: I recorded boxes of tapes with people in Boston and Chicago that were never heard beyond the living room or basement- a lot of ponderous improv that was never supposed to be heard beyond those spaces. I was also half of a couple of somewhat structured psych rock duos that fellapart when life happened. I could never pinpoint what, exactly, I wanted in or from a musical collaboration. Then life happened, I ended up in Portland, met the guys in Datura Blues, and realized, ” Ah, yes, that’s exactly what I want.” Currently, I also play bass and slide guitar in Rainbow Riders, which showcases the work of my friend, the talented singer/songwriter David Coffman, who, not coincidentally, has become a regular contributor to the Datura Blues. I’ve also recently become involved with another mostly instrumental group, Stoker. More generally, my experience with musical projects has shown me how to live; the wisdom of improv permeates my life. How to listen, how to live in the moment, how to (hopefully) work well with others, patience, and how to pay attention to the vibrations that suffuse our environment and are us are musical lessons I can directly apply whether or not I’m holding an instrument.
What is the origin of the title of your EP, “Damn These Shackles of Gravity”? When it comes to determining song titles and such as part of a collective … how does that work?
ORYAN: Datura Blues recordings always point to the psychological state of the band … Songs and albums have working titles until we give them context. We then correlate titles with connected themes … “Damn These Shackles of Gravity!” concludes a third and final act dedicated to the element of Air: Transition, rapid and unexpected movement, chaos, departure, Ascension … The first two works are, “Is It As It Is, Brother?” (a CD release) and “Is It As It Is, Sister?” (a DVD documenting the band’s 2007 tour of Eastern Europe.) All three projects are dedicated to a former Datura Blues satellite member, Polish photojournalist/ethnologist Lucas Jaworski, who contributed tracks to two Datura Blues albums and remains a source of inspiration. In 2010, Lucas passed away after a tragic fall while on location in Ethiopia, an event which spurred this devoted trilogy.
Looking back across the entirety of music created by Datura Blues over the years, do you see certain patterns or eras emerge? How do you explain the sound of the band to the uninitiated? What is the most off-base comparison you have ever heard someone make regarding the music of Datura Blues?
ORYAN: Since we’ve always prided ourselves on being difficult to categorize I don’t know that I’ve ever heard an unsound comparison. Some of my favorites have been to: Danny Elfman, Guns N’Roses, The Wicker Man, Morricone, New Age nature soundtracks, Comets on Fire … Someone once recounted a particular set of ours as being similar to “swimming with dolphins, only to realize you’re being circled by sharks,” which I have always found amusing. The band itself may be a means to a end but it is also an evolutionary process, often unpredictable. There’s a lot of ebb and flow, uncertainty, improvisation. There have been similar personality types, in regards to members, but other than that I haven’t noticed many patterns among the various incarnations. I would describe Datura Blues to the uninitiated as a steam engine without brakes.
What music have you been listening to lately? Push comes to shove, what is your favorite Midday Veil song?
ANDREW: All things Grails have been in heavy rotation since I first discovered them several years ago. I’ve been listening to the debut album from Dusu Mali,a newish Portland band lead by a guitar ripper from Mali. It’s a solid hybrid of West African Rhythms and western rock styles. It’s distinct from Afro-beat, which is always close to my stereo, but still groovy in the right way. More generally I’ve been into any and all kinds of spiritual music, but I don’t mean just stuff that’s explicitly spiritual, such as gospel or classical Indian music, though I listen to that too. Spiritual music, for me, is any music that’s sanctified, that I perceive as coming from a genuine place of open-heartedness, or that consciously or inadvertently cultivates a spiritual state of consciousness. As with the blues, it’s more about a feeling than a precise technical thing, though, not coincidentally, the blues and the “spiritual music” – sometimes one and the same – that I prefer, use many of the same techniques to create that feeling, go to that place, or alter that state of consciousness. It’s why I listen to Midday Veil all the time, and I’m not just saying that because that’s your follow up question. Seriously, my household now owns their first record on CD and vinyl. I’m gonna cheat, just a little, and say that my favorite Midday Veil song is two songs, “Asymptote (Part 1)” and “Asymptote (Part2),” but to me they are really just one song because Part 1 builds the infrastructure for the headspace that Part 2 explores. I remember the first time we played a show together they played this song. I was already into what they were doing that night, and then they played this song. It was one of those rare times when you remember the exact moment when you become a fan of a band. The geometry of that guitar riff plus that groove plus those vocals triggers the light show in my mind every time.
ORYAN: I like to consider myself as having a finger on the pulse of the Pacific-Northwest scene. Between booking/promoting events around Portland and hosting a weekly radio program featuring experimental sounds exclusively from the Left Coast, I am very familiar with my native musical terrain. But to be honest, for enjoyment, these days I only listen to the local classical station.
If you could ask one musician – or one group of musicians – to become part of the Datura Blues collective, who would it be and why?
ANDREW: Pharoah Sanders. This was a tough question at first. Initially, I wanted to say the entire lineup from Bitches Brew era Miles Davis, or mid-sixties Coltrane, for all of the obvious reasons that make those two of the more beloved groups in music history. Though it’s certainly a personal fantasy for me to play with those groups, I think those groups, collectively, had such strong personalities, with towering figures full of huge ideas as their respective band leaders that I’d be slightly concerned about the “too many cooks in the kitchen” phenomenon. Only slightly, though. Pharoah Sanders is one of the most amazing, inspirational soloists I have ever heard on any instrument. He is truly sanctified, melodically empathetic, and you can tell that every note he breathes into a saxophone comes from a place of genuine open-hearted love. I always feel that his performances, especially the recordings with Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane, make intense, profound music even more intense, profound, and moving. Regardless of who he plays with, his sax just FEELS more elevated and expresses a reverence, a depth of meaning, a holy yearning, as well as a beatific grandiloquence that consistently sends shivers down my spine and makes me think about the ways in which one could or should access higher power. Which is to say he would be perfect for Datura Blues. I just assume he’s one of those players whose mere being raises the level of play of all involved. Given our musical interests, habits, and desires, as well as the fact that we have a terrific sax player, Todd Swikart, who loves playing with other horn players, a serial collaborator such as Pharoah Sanders would be a great fit.
ORYAN: Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar)!
We’ve seen one of the defining tenets of Datura Blues described as “compassion towards one’s demons rather than hatred.” Can you elaborate on this idea for us? How does this train of thought impact your life, both from a musical and from a personal perspective? We’re reminded of the words of two legendary weirdos, both of whom we believe had tremendous Hawkwind collections. First, Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.” And was it not Monster Magnet mainman Dave Wyndorf who advised, “If you want to spank your demons and make them pay, then baby, I’m your man of the hour”? Your thoughts?
“Beast, Please be Still …” is a Datura Blues Mantra borrowed from our 2003 album “Master the Tempest is Raging!” It is basically just a poetic rendering of the Golden Rule. For my senior thesis, I spun the mantra into a conceptual web of mythological relevance, coloring it as a sought after cultural trend. Every culture reacts to its demons in unique ways. Some respond with reverence and respect, others with fear or hostility. Addressing these differences gave BPBS a metaphorical purpose and provided Datura Blues with an empathetic focal point. Observing one’s own struggles, failings and limitations in others establishes common ground. Issues become less daunting, more manageable. Being humble, exercising humility, balancing temperament, demonstrating patience, acknowledging impermanence and accepting imperfection are foundations for real social dialogue. Tame the Beast with grace and modesty and it will cease to be your enemy … offer it respect and you may discover a potential and valuable ally.
What’s next for Datura Blues?
ORYAN: Ted Neeley is approaching seventy, we should probably catch up with him soon …