“Look out,” Daniel Blue sings on “Where It Goes,” Welcome You's sweeping, panoramic finale. “You don’t, you don’t, you don’t know/ Where it goes." That's partially Blue's mantra: That no matter what you do, fate still has a way of doing whatever it pleases.
That certainly describes the journey Blue set out on when he first picked up a broken guitar, the morning after an “epic, terrible night” almost ten years ago.
But that journey led here, as Blue and the rest of the six-piece band set Welcome You free from its four-year gestation -- a collection of 11 stadium-huge anthems and far-out sonic excursions, steeped in classic rock and psychedelia, that breaks new ground for the band and announces itself as one of the most ambitious and powerful albums of 2015. It's a fresh statement for Blue, a triumph of his creative drive, and the realization of 10 years of vision and hard work.
It was 2006, and Blue was living and working in Tacoma, Wash. as a fashion designer. There were only three strings left on the guitar he reached for that morning, and Blue didn’t know a thing about music, so he just tuned all them to the same note. When he started strumming, his first song came to him in a flash of inspiration. In that moment, Blue says, “I was struck with the clear notion that it was time to pursue my lifelong dream of music."
Before he knew it, he’d gotten rid of his sewing supplies and had teamed up with local hip-hop producer Buddy Ross. Together, the duo created a sound that merged Blue’s newfound knack for writing powerful songs with Ross’ music know-how and unusual style. The pair brought on a drummer and a guitar player and hit the road.
That was the beginning of Motopony -- a band Blue named out of his dedication to being devotedly physical and spiritual in a digital world. The “moto” -- the mechanical side -- and the “pony” -- the animal.
Motopony grew in local popularity, and in 2011 they released Motopony -- a confident debut in which Blue's deft folk melodies and persistent fingerpicking were undergirded by Ross' future-pop production.
The record was an immediate hit, propelling the band well beyond the comfy evergreen environs of Western Washington. L.A.'s KCRW, the holy grail for high-acheiving indie rock bands, slapped it into rotation; Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton praised it on NPR's All Songs Considered. The band's live show floored audiences and reviewers across the country.
By the beginning of 2012, Motopony had holed up and recorded the framework for their follow up. But just as they started to dig into the meat of the record, Ross quit the band. Soon after, the label that put out Motopony went out of business. Blue found himself alone with some 36 songs the band had prepared for their second record. There he was again -- alone in a dark place illuminated by nothing but his guitar. "I lost my safety-net crutch," he says. "And I wondered, without all that, am I even a musician?"
But the songs kept coming. In 2014, Blue assembled a band flush with top-shelf musicians, including drummer Forrest Mauvais, who stuck around from the band's previous incarnation, and Mike Notter, who would prove to be a good foil for Blue's hard-charging boisterousness ("the Spock to my Kirk," Blue says). Blue filled out the lineup with Andrew Butler on keys, Nate Daley on guitar, and Terry Mattson on bass.
The band helped Blue whittle down his 36 songs -- songs that had weathered the test of time, surviving two years and several new band members -- into a 5-song EP that announced a revitalized rock band with a new direction and a new sense of collaboration. Idle Beauty was a summary of where the band had been and a map of where it was going. On its surface, it's a collection of folk songs. But album-rock ambition, and Blue's drive to transcend his own best work, bubble just beneath the surface.
On Welcome You, that ambition finally boils over.
The band approached the album as a clean slate. Blue insisted that songwriting be collaborative; band members brought in melodies and riffs that were then painstakingly built into full songs. Meanwhile, Blue accessed classic rock's golden era for inspiration -- "whatever it was they were tapping into," he says. "That freedom of constraints that stayed glued to blues and soul."
What Motopony delivered is an enveloping, assured masterpiece, a full-throated artistic statement that speaks the language of rock and roll history and earns a place among the most original contemporary music. Hammond organs wail; buzzed Laurel Canyon guitars hang in the air; walls of vocal harmony swell and fill every corner of sonic space. Choruses soar, as in "Changing," in all its chest-clutching glory, and "Daylights Gone," with its wild-hearted pop ecstacy. The thick, funky grooves of "Gypsy Woman" ascend to hallucinatory heights before melting into spacey soundscapes.
Welcome You sees Blue looking back at what he's been through, and, in some ways, taking time to savor his victories, sometimes blissfully -- he says he wants his music to give "a little bit of hope, and a little bit of light."
"Welcome You," the opening track, brings listeners in with open arms and a carefree bounce; "1971" is pure, soulful reverie that hearkens back to arena rock's heyday, lifted by a refrain that would make Robert Plant and Jon Bon Jovi proud; "Livin' in the Fire" is a swaggering confrontation with the forces that try to inhibit and define the creative spirit, anchored by a sinister groove.
But under the swaying chorus of "Molly," there's something else -- the reverie is underpinned by a sense that all the fun is nothing more than "the sweet illusion of a world that cannot stick." The melody floats, the guitars reverberate, but there's a missing element of truth.
And it's no accident that the album concludes with "Where It Goes," a warning, and a challenge. To a large degree, Blue says, Welcome You is "...a challenge to take all the losses and wins into account and still be able to say it was worth it. Just because you followed the rules you set for yourself doesn’t mean you did it right, and just because you had to break the rules your culture has put on you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong. The message of this whole record is summed up in the promise of a desired welcome and the warning of an unpredictable future. We don’t really get to judge our life or the fruit of it, nor can we predict that we will get to where we want to go, so keep your eyes open, kids.”
Motopony set out to record “Live to tape, no digital interface”, which they accomplished with the help of vintage analog master producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Heartless Bastards. Trail of Dead). The recordings were perfect, and exactly what they set out to do, but as Blue stated, sometimes following your own rules doesn’t mean you did it right, and the band humbled themselves after meeting Guy Massey (Radiohead, Spritualized, The Libertines) at a show in London. Blue confesses, “We listened to what we did in the studio repeatedly like starving animals, but at the last note, no one could admit that it satisfied our imaginations of where it could go.” Massey mixed a few songs while the band traveled in India after leaving the UK. “When the test mixes came back, I wept at the console…I thought, “there it is, he gets it, he did it…WE’VE done it.”
With all the challenges Motopony has overcome, Welcome You is proof that Blue and the band, with a long road behind them, are still -- thankfully -- taking the road ahead with fire, drive and a willingness to release ego for the better of the soul.
It’s like Blue sings in Daylights Gone, “your time has come / you pull my mind away…”