“It’s surprising how much Nazi ideology still impacts everything and we don’t realize it. The CIA was founded by Nazi scientists,” says Guy Blakeslee.
The 25-year-old singer-songwriter who records as Entrance, is not spouting conspiracy theories. He is, in a roundabout way, explaining the themes anchoring his third album, Prayer of Death. It is about fear. And psychological fascism. And, of course, death. But it is not a dour or cynical record. In exploring such heavy topics, Blakeslee hopes to overcome them. Not only that, but use them as tools for motivation rather than paralysis.
“There are different kinds of fear, but it’s the same emotion, whether it’s of Osama bin Laden or losing your job. It’s a feeling you have that corrupts your system and keeps you from acting in a positive manner,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “The idea behind the album is taking fear and turning it into something that makes you fearless instead of powerless.”
Blakeslee knows firsthand about fear’s capacity to inspire. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was touring the country in a band he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with. Amidst the despair and confusion of that day, Blakeslee took the moment as a sign to change his situation before it was too late. He left the group soon afterward and created Entrance, a vehicle for his burgeoning fascination with American roots music and international folk traditions. Three records in, Blakeslee is a favorite of the blogosphere, his chilling voice earning him comparisons to Leadbelly and Syd Barrett (for whom he is a physical dead-ringer). He has gigs supporting Cat Power, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, beginning this month, he’ll join one of his teenage idols, Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement), on his current project, the Jicks. And for him to reach this point, all it took was a simple realization, “I said, ‘I’m not going to be afraid anymore.’ ” That could be the album’s mantra.
Growing up in Baltimore, Blakeslee’s first experiences as a musician were of the punk variety, playing with “a bunch of guys who wanted to sound like Bikini Kill.” It wasn’t until much later, after he established himself in post-hardcore trio the Convocation Of …, that his younger brother introduced him to the blues. He became obsessed, particularly with early Delta singer-guitarist Skip James.
“Even if I didn’t know what he was saying, the peculiar vibe he has is very striking. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Especially if you’re a kid mystified by the guitar and singing, the stuff he was doing will probably blow your mind.” Having his eyes opened to an entirely new world of music, Blakeslee quit his band, moved to Chicago and started listening almost exclusively to recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s. “Old blues musicians were the most complex musicians of our time and people don’t realize it,” he says. “They think [the blues] is so simple, but it’s more complex than we can wrap our heads around today.”
On his own, Blakeslee began writing songs closer in spirit to Charley Patton and Robert Johnson than Fugazi, searching for the link connecting his experiences in 21st century America to that of impoverished, disenfranchised men living in the prewar South. He became a regular at the popular Chicago bar the Hideout, performing at a weekly Monday night revue hosted by Matt Sweeney, at the time a member of Billy Corgan’s short-lived post-Smashing Pumpkins project Zwan. Eventually, he caught the attention of New York label Tiger Style Records, which released his debut under the Entrance moniker, The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm, in 2003. Raw, ramshackle and spiritually transcendent, the album thrust Blakeslee into the emerging “psychedelic folk” renaissance, alongside the likes of his friend Devendra Banhart.
Entrance’s second album, 2004’s Wandering Stranger, continued down the path set by Kingdom of Heaven, with more spare and spindly revivalist blues. For his latest record, however, Blakeslee decided to alter his direction a bit. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and the sermons of hellfire preacher J.M. Gates, he describes Prayer of Death as both a “rock opera” and a gospel album. “The overall idea of it is similar to a lot of really primitive Christianity of southern America in the 1920s and ’30s,” he explains.
“The main thing of gospel singers was to sing about death to be ready for death.” Instead of going it mostly alone and acoustic, Blakeslee plugs in and utilizes a full band more than in the past, using multiple instruments to craft a swirling vortex of sound. It is still loose and partly improvisational, only more viscerally charged.
But the biggest difference, says Blakeslee, is himself. Before, even his original material had been built more or less on the foundations of other songs. Now, he is working on creating his own link in the chain of history, the one that runs from 1920s Mississippi to 2007 L.A. “Each record was partially a cover song before,” he says. “What I focus on now is bringing it back to the present day, and writing stuff that’s never been heard before.” n
Entrance performs a solo acoustic set at Just Play Music in Santa Barbara — 619 State St., 963-8677 — on Jan. 13 at 6 p.m. He opens for Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks at Soho — 1221 State St. #205, 962-7776 — later that night.