Interview with Kelsey Warren of Blak Emoji: New Sounds

– by Wendy Morley –

Kelsey Warren has a long, respected history in the musical universe that exists within New York City, where he has played and sung in just about any possible configuration. Warren studied jazz guitar, classical voice and music theory at the University of Miami.

His newest creation Blak Emoji is a clear departure for him. Though his voice is as distinctive as ever, the band’s sound may be a shock to his former bands’ fans. Warren’s long-term commitment to heavy alt rock/punk has been set aside to allow his passion for Prince and a rekindled romance with retro dance beats and electronica to combine and create something you’ve likely never heard before, though tracks like “Sapiosexual” are still mega-rocking.

His obvious intelligence, songwriting maturity, honed talent and willingness to go anywhere the song requires – and a band willing to go there with him – create a full-on unique musical experience.

Blak Emoji is: Kelsey Warren on guitar/vocals, Bryan Percivall on bass/synth, Sylvana Joyce on keyboard and Max Tholenaar-Maples on drums. The band just released their first full-length album, KUMI.

Wendy Morley: Jazz, classical, dance, punk, funk, rock – you have my attention! Listening to Blak Emoji for the first time, I was especially interested in the contrast between your soulful voice and electronica. Where does this come from?

Kelsey Warren: Yeah. I’ve always been attracted to this sound. There’ve been bands and people in the past who have done that; it’s predominantly an electronic sound but the vocalist brings something else. Maybe someone like Yaz, with Alison Moyet. Even Annie Lennox when Eurythmics started. Very electro but she’s got this voice that, you know it’s not the cold sprocket type of vibe. It’s got a lot of soul. And I’m always attracted to that. There’s been a few times that I want to hear protest songs done electronically. I like to hear things vice versa. There was an LCD Soundsystem song with a line where he says I heard your band got rid of your turntables and got guitars, and the next one is I read your band got rid of your guitars and got turntables. I love those types of mixes. So this whole album’s kind of like that.

WM: You threw Yaz at me –– somebody I haven’t thought of for a long time but I remember Alison Moyet, that amazing voice. Think I’m gonna have to go listen to them again.

So I’ve found with this site The Violet Wave that I keep going back to the topic of the creative artistic process. In that vein I wonder do you feel that being an artist is part of your self-identity.

KW: Oh God yeah. For better or worse yes. It’s like there’s always things with artists, whether they’re making a film or a movie or music, something about themselves is always going to come out. You see a Woody Allen movie and you know it’s Woody Allen. It’s a part of him.

It doesn’t represent 100 percent of you as a person, but some work you can put out that might be 10 percent and some 95. But I can’t really separate the two. That’s my life.

WM: Do you feel that you have a responsibility as an artist?

KW: I’m going to say yes and no. Yes because I do feel like I have a responsibility but also there’s the artist side … part of me is like yes I do need I do have a responsibility to myself as an artist and to other people. And then the other part of me says ‘Fuck you,’ you know? I think the responsibility is to have a healthy mix of what you feel you need to do but still have enough spark to just jump off a cliff, figuratively speaking.

I love when certain artists are at that age – when you’re doing music for a long time or you get older and you start to think about things more consciously as opposed to when you’re 22 and you’re just jumping in an audience and jumping on someone’s head you’re not even thinking about, ‘Oh my God I hope I don’t hurt them.’ But then that can sometimes be really restrictive.

WM: I feel like there are very few artists who can continue writing songs that are great past the age of 40 or so. I find that they just tend to slip into this vein, some kind of a groove – ditch I’ll call it! – that they don’t really quite know how to climb out of anymore. There are only a few who can still be creative and do something really new after that point.

KW: It does get harder I think. And maybe that’s because of what you’re saying. It’s hard to maintain that mix and have your thing but still spark a challenge. U2 is doing it. They’ve been around for close to 40 years or something. But the fact that they’ve managed to stay around for so long and have managed to keep their core audience and have the Joshua Tree and then do something totally different and experimental like the POP album … sometimes it works beautifully and sometimes it doesn’t. But to be able to be an artist and have a responsibility to yourself to say, I’m bored. I need to do something different. And I hope I don’t piss people off and I don’t want to. But if it happens, so be it.

WM: How long has Blak Emoji been in existence? Are you the sole songwriter?

KW: About three years. I got a little bored with the band I was in before Blak Emoji, so I started recording some songs in the studio. I had no plan; I just knew I wanted to do some music that was a little different from what I was doing. I didn’t have a band name. I didn’t have a concept. I just wanted to record. That became Blak Emoji at the end of 2015. The first single came out in 2016 I think. February.

So it’s kind of like a Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails thing where it’s Trent but it’s Nine Inch Nails. It’s a guy but it’s a band. It is a full band as opposed to hired musicians. And I mean I do write the songs – I kind of isolate myself and write right at home and then we get into a rehearsal space I’m like OK. Let’s do this. So it’s a band but I write the tunes and produce. I’m that guy.

WM: Do you feel like a mentor to the others in your band?

KW: I don’t know if I’m a mentor to these guys because they’re so badass on their own. I would say the last year we really gelled together as a unit. It’s less the Kelsey show and more a band. Like when you see us live, Sylvana is incredible – she just starts going off and does all these amazing cool vocal things. And Max the drummer also does a lot of programming, he’s so good with crafting certain sounds for song. You know sometimes drummers want to just drum and it annoys you. He understands space, he understands groove. He knows when to pull out the crazy stuff and he knows how to shape things and I love that about him. Brian does a lot of bass key stuff. We all have little electronic gadgets.

WM: What do you see as the difference between what you want your audience to get out of listening to an album or a record as opposed to going to a live performance?

KW: They’re like two separate things to me. From the few people have heard the album already I’ve gotten a lot of: ‘There’s a theme here. There’s a beginning, middle, end.’ Is there a theme? I guess there is. I love the generation of albums and albums as a whole, but I also love the single generation too. So I love both. You have a choice to listen to something as a whole or pieces and I do both all the time.

WM: It’s created as a whole but you have the option to take pieces out if you wish.

KW: Right exactly. Exactly. So I hope that people at least get to enjoy the whole ride listening to it. Not all the time, you know sometimes you just want to take the shortcut and listen to three or four tracks. I do that and that’s great. And I’m thankful for that but at least I have the option to be like wow this is a cool album from beginning to end.

Live is kind of like the same thing, at least I find when you play in front of an audience that doesn’t know you. I love that more than anything, because it’s like a big test of are they going to stay for one song, are they gonna stay for two songs or are they going to take the whole ride from beginning to end. So it’s kind of the same but different.

WM: So is that something you challenge yourself with as a live performer where you’re like ‘I’m going to take these guys on a ride?’

KW: Oh hell yeah. Totally. That’s the fun of it. We have a great base now and great fans and I’m so thankful for that. But I hope we get to do more supporting tours because I love going to a place where I don’t know anybody and they don’t know who the fuck you are. And they’re all standing here like this. [demonstrates a closed-off look] I love that more than anything because then I get to see can I move that person or can I not. Feedback is great.

WM: I actually love going to hear people who I don’t know. My biggest passion in life is to go hear someone I don’t know and discover someone fantastic. 

Ok, so it’s one thing to play music and it’s quite another to create. Still another to create something truly unique. So where does that come from for you?

KW: I don’t know because I don’t think about it so much. I know that I have a base as far as music knowledge – maybe music theory and playing a bunch of different instruments and having classical training and having the jazz training, but when I write a song I don’t think about any of it.

So again there are things that come out that are beyond control. Sometimes you’re conscious, like this is gonna be this tune and this is gonna be that song and a three-minute pop thing, but it’s funny because I just go wherever that inspiration takes me and it’s like having all the knowledge but not knowing what the fuck to do with it!

WM: You know what though, I’ve been writing for a long time. What I find interesting is when I mentor younger writers and I see things they are doing that are less effective than they could be. And I can easily kind of go in and see a sentence or see a paragraph and change a few things around and say ‘Now look how much stronger that is.’ In that process I remember I was once there, but I don’t remember how I got from there to here. So you’re improving even if you’re not really conscious of the constant improvement. I feel like with your kind of training and your musical background and experience that just informs everything you do without you being aware of it. Would you say that that’s kind of fair?

KW: Yeah it’s osmosis – there are things that are always going to come out … there are things that come out that I don’t even want to come out! I always say never fight the song. Never fight it, whatever happens with it. Let it go and it’s probably going to be a great song and if not, then just put it aside.

WM: I’ve been talking a lot lately with people about the craft of whatever art you take part in, and how people just kind of have this idea that oh you’re a great singer and that’s something that you were born with and it’s all natural, and aren’t you lucky, not understanding the work and practice that goes behind taking that spark of talent to a much higher level. So what do you think about how that training affects you? Because you’ve studied musical theory and classical voice and jazz guitar, and these must inform you in some way. Do you feel that it just makes everything easier for you? Or do you find that allows you to go to places that you would never have imagined?

KW: More so to the second. I definitely go to go to places that you’d never imagine. Again, I try not to think about it so much. It’s like you know you’re a singer, and you have all that training, and you do warm ups. Before a gig, you’ll do all these little vocal things and these vocal stylings, and then you get up onstage and if you want something to really rock, whether it’s electronic music or metal music, you get out there and then you break all the rules that you’ve ever learned.

So all this training means you can maybe scream properly and hold your voice the next day by screaming properly, but still you are screaming. I had that battle in school. Being in a classical vocal environment, which really wasn’t my thing. But again I was doing it for the knowledge to learn that I can apply this to what I do when I’m in a screaming band or when I’m doing electronic music. Take somebody like that group Disclosure from the UK. I loved that album so much because it was like, all right somebody did an electronic dance album and you can break all of these songs down acoustically and they’re just as badass.

WM: I always say you can tell a good song when you hear a different arrangement and it still sounds good.

KW: Right. So they’re deejays but you’re like OK. These guys know what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s theory or whatever but they know what they’re doing. There’s something more than just two guys on turntables. They’re way beyond that, and that can be with a three-chord song.

WM: So what do you what would you say to somebody who I’m not going to say necessarily wants to be a musician but could be, but really somebody who wants to live in that creative space in their life.

KW: Keep doing what you’re doing. There’s always time. You have to do so many things now. I feel like you have to do more business things than you did before. As an artist. So make sure you know a little bit of that, because the art is one thing but the business is gonna take your art from here to there. So always learn a little bit of business but also make sure that you stay true to your art. Don’t stop creating. Don’t stop learning. Like I know a lot, but there’s a lot I don’t know and it’s cool. Always be a sponge. Always be accepting of new ideas or old ideas that you haven’t discovered. I’ve heard some stuff recently that I’ve never heard before. It’s great to rediscover.

Really that’s a joy for me. It’s always a joy finding some new artists that you’ve never heard, or going to some gallery and seeing a painting, like wow that was out 10 years ago? But it’s still new to you it’s fresh and it keeps your ideas new. It keeps you fresh as a writer or filmmaker or whatever. Be a sponge.

WM: Any information about your album that’s just now coming out, KUMI?

KW: I hope you like it! Play it. I hope that there is at least one of the 10 songs you like.

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