For much of the 1970s and 1980s, Blue Öyster Cult were one of the leading heavy rock bands on the planet. Their fortune was not solely due to the music – although it was damn good – but also in the aura surrounding the band due to their lyrical focus on dark esoteric futuristic, fantasy and vampire themes (which came initially from the band’s creator and mentor Sandy Pearlman) and their reputation as an awesome live act (lasers and all). The band’s star waned towards the end of the 1980s and their recording output dried up apart from a couple of releases around the turn of the millennium. But the band continued touring, and as long as the founding members and core writing duo of Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma remained together there was hope for the fans that the band might return to the studio to produce new material. And now that’s happened with the recent release of the aptly titled The Symbol Remains. So, what better excuse did Velvet Thunder need to talk to Eric Bloom?
I inevitably start by asking Bloom how it feels to be back talking about a new Blue Öyster Cult album after almost two decades. ‘Well we’re very glad to have some new music out!’ exclaims Bloom ‘and we hope everybody likes it. We’ve very hopeful that after a few weeks out now it seems to be doing well. All the reviews seem to be positive. So, so far so good!’. After nearly two decades away from the studio, I am curious to discover if the songs were newly written or whether the ideas had a longer gestation period and Bloom responds ‘Well we’ve been trying to get a record deal for a few years so some of the songs were written over those last few years. I know Buck had three songs which he’d put out by himself and were available on the Internet as home demos. Richie Castellano has written at least one or two songs in the past that he was sitting on. And everything else was new – say seven or eight songs are new and four or five were ready to go. We started writing new material as soon as we got the contract and then started rehearsing at the end of last summer before getting ready to record about a year ago.’
I inquire if they managed to complete the recording before Covid-19 struck. ‘Not exactly’ reflects Bloom. ‘We did all the basic tracks when we were all in one room in a recording studio: drums, bass, everyone was there. And then we had a break to do some shows and then Covid-19 hit so the rest of the album – all the vocals, guitars and keyboards – was all done from lockdown from everybody’s homes.’
‘It was kind of an interesting process’ he continues. ‘As an example, I set up a home studio in my house in an extra bedroom. I had a vocal booth, a microphone, and Richie Castellano who was the engineer on my sessions would pop up on Zoom on my laptop and I would sing and record into my computer. Then at the end of the session, like two or three hours later, we would upload the session from my computer to his house in New York where he would mix down the session into the main track. And then when the whole process was over, Richie uploaded all the files to Tom Lord-Alge for mixing in his studio in Miami. Tom sent the mixed sessions back to all of us and we made notes and sent them back to him and he continued mixing until we were all happy. So, it was all done by remote control!’. It’s amazing what you can do with the technology these days, I point out. ‘Yes, I would say that five years ago we couldn’t have done it that way’ observes Bloom.
The album title is clearly a nice way of saying the band is still here after all these years but those who are not avid fans of the band might not realise that it’s also a phrase from the band’s song Shadow Of California (from The Revölution by Night album). Since those lyrics were written by Sandy Pearlman, who passed away in 2016, I suspect there’s a deliberate tribute to the band’s creator intended there. ’Yes, I chose that as a tribute to Sandy’ confirms Bloom before further explaining ‘I took out a book of Blue Öyster Cult lyrics that I have and noted down twenty or thirty phrases that Pearlman penned that I thought might be a good title but that one stood out to me. And I sent it out to our manager, Steve Schenck, and to Buck and they both thought that was a good choice. After that we sent that off to the art department of Frontier Records with some ideas for the artwork.’
The band have turned to mainstream writers for lyrics over the years and for this album it was no exception with several contributions from well-known American sci-fi author John Shirley. I’m curious as to whether the band gave John any hints as to subject matter areas or whether Shirley submitted multiple ideas and the band just picked what they felt worked best. ‘It works both ways’ explains Bloom. ‘I know that on a song called Florida Man Buck had an idea for a song and he asked John Shirley to write the lyric and they worked on it together. But for That Was Me, Box In My Head and Nightmare Epiphany those are lyrics that John wrote and sent to us via email. Over the years he would send us stuff with a note “For your consideration. If you want to use these, feel free”. He might have sent those lyrics two, three or four years ago. As an example, the That Was Me lyric he sent to me saying “Eric you might like this lyric” so I took it and I went to Richie Castellano’s house and said “Let’s work on this song, I think this is a good lyric”. And that’s how that song came to be.’
The album kicks off full throttle with That Was Me – the perfect album opener – which makes me wonder how the sequencing of the songs on the album was chosen. ‘Well, sequencing is always a little bit of err…. I don’t know….science meets chemistry’ confesses Bloom ‘because everyone has their own idea of what the sequence should be. When it comes to sequencing it has a lot to do with the key of the song, the tempo, who’s singing it, and you want variety in terms of which songs follow which in a good way. We kicked it around for at least a week. Buck, Richie, Steve Schenck and I all had our ideas. I think in general, everyone thought that That Was Me should be the opener and Steve believed firmly that because there were three lead vocals on the record, it should be one of each singer for the first three songs. It changed around a little bit over a period of about a week. And to try to get three or four people to agree, it’s not easy but we think it came out fine.’
My personal favourite on the album is the heavy ballad Tainted Blood with its classic Cult riff and of course a very typical Cult lyric, so I ask Bloom to explain how that track came together. ‘Yeah, I wrote that lyric on an airplane!’ remembers Bloom. ‘I had the concept in my mind for a while about a vampire who wanted to kill himself. I had to think about why he would want to kill himself considering he could live forever, so I started writing the lyric – the pre-chorus section was the first thing I wrote – and I knew the chords I wanted to have under it. So I went to Richie’s house ‘cos he lives near me and I laid that out to him and he said “Are you sure you want this song to be a ballad?” and I said “Yes, absolutely, because Blue Öyster Cult is not known for writing ballads!”, so Richie and I fleshed the song out a little. And then we had a gig to play in New England, and it was a two hour drive from the airport at Boston, and on that drive I said to Richie “Why don’t we work on that song?” so Richie got out his laptop and in that two hour drive we finished the song just by batting ideas back and forth. When Richie got home he did a full demo and sent it to me. I said to him “You’re singing this really well so why don’t you sing the song on the album.” So, for that song, it was my idea and I did the beginning of it, and Richie fleshed it out and he’s singing it. When it came to the track The Alchemist, he wrote it 100% but he thought I should sing it, so we traded vocals.’
The mention of The Alchemist causes me to interject to say what a great YouTube video the band did for that track with Bloom dressed up like Gandalf in an ancient castle. ‘Yes, we made that video in Richie’s garage!’ exclaims Bloom laughing. ‘The days of making $100,000 videos are over. We had no budget whatsoever so we did it as fast and cheap as we could and it’s mostly a lot of editing by Steve Schenck and Richie that put that altogether. And for me, well they bought some odds and ends and bottles and things and a backdrop of bricks and they draped it on the back of the inside of Richie’s garage and that’s my castle!’
I also pick up on the point about The Alchemist being 100% written by Castellano and mention that several reviews highlight this track as the song that sounds most like the classic Blue Öyster Cult style. ‘I’m going to give Richie a lot of accolades here because he is a very brilliant player, and singer, and writer’ responds Bloom seriously. ‘You could tell him to write a song like Rogers and Hammerstein, you know, and he can write one. If you ask him to write an Andrew Lloyd-Webber type of song he could write one. He went to college for musical composition and audio engineering and he has a Masters Degree. And then to me he’s like my third son; he’s about the same age as my own children. Anyway, he did a great job on this record.’
I observe that like all Blue Öyster Cult albums there is variety in styles across the new album. I ask whether this in general reflects Bloom’s preference for writing heavier riff-based songs while Buck Dharma tends towards the more reflective and melody-focused songs. ‘Yes, in general that’s true’ concurs Bloom. ‘I like something with a little edge to it. Buck’s songs are much cleverer than my songs! He’s a very clever guy and he can play guitar with – you know those lists of the top ten guitar guys – he can play with any of them. And he’s just a very astute writer, player and singer. He’s got the whole package and it shows on this record. He’s done some great songs.’
Bloom clearly admires Buck Dharma but I dig a little more and ask whether there is ever any sense of competition or even conflict in terms of songs or which songs get picked for the albums. ‘No, not at all’ replies Bloom without hesitation. ‘I know how good he is and he’s obviously in a terrific place in the musical world for himself and I think he deserves all of it.’
A certain mystique was created around Blue Öyster Cult, especially in those early days fuelled also by the the mysterious symbol associated with the band. I wonder if Bloom is willing to tell us of its origin. ‘That came from the artist, Bill Gawlik, who did the first two album covers’ Bloom is happy to reveal. ‘He incorporated that design in the first album cover and of course we loved it right away and we incorporated it all the way through to the present. Bill got it from a book of symbols. It’s an ancient symbol and I’ve seen it referred to as meaning lots of different things: a symbol for alchemy; a symbol for Saturn; or a symbol for chaos. Anyway, we trademarked it a long time ago and it means only one thing now!’
Perhaps the high-point of that Blue Öyster Cult mystique was the pseudo-religious cover and title of On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, with the title coming from the brilliant phrase used to introduce the band on stage. I inquire about the source of that phrase. ‘I believe that came from the late great Sam Judd who was on our crew, although I’m not certain’ affirms Bloom before continuing: ‘When we first started touring – when we hardly had any crew at all – we had an opening act called Hydra from Atlanta and Sam was working for them. We got friendly with all of them. When we got more popular and we needed more guys, Hydra had just broken up and we asked Sam to join our crew and he was on our crew for many many years. He passed away maybe 5 years ago. And he was a very unusual guy. He was a very hefty, very heavy guy. You’d think he was just some hick from down south who wore big overalls and who would just scrape the crap of his shoes! But he was extremely bright and he was into World War Two, law, and aircraft amongst other stuff. He used to do all out stage announcing and I believe he’s the one that coined that phrase.’
Secret Treaties is generally considered by fans to be the best album recorded by the band so I’m curious to know if the band had a sense of writing a landmark album at the time of its making. ‘You know when you’re writing records, or in the middle of recording, you don’t think about stuff like that’ explains Bloom candidly. ‘You’re just doing the best you can and you cross your fingers that some magic might happen. I’m sure when Buck wrote (Don’t Fear) The Reaper he didn’t think it was going to be what it is 45 years later. Of course you could ask him that yourself!’ laughs Bloom. I point out that (Don’t Fear) The Reaper and Godzilla were not really typical commercial singles. ‘No, they’re not’ agrees Bloom. ‘There’s some magic about certain songs that just – there’s a phrase we use in America: that they have legs. You know they just last and last and last, and they get played constantly. It’s like Dark Side Of The Moon. It gets played forever.’
After the massive success of Agents Of Fortune and Spectres, Mirrors marked a downturn in fortunes so I wonder whether there’s anything he’d like to be able to go back and change about that album. ‘Change something about Mirrors? No, you can’t go back, you know’ reflects Bloom. ‘When you’re making it, you think you’re doing the right thing. And it’s hard for me to even remember what was going on at that time. You just do the best you can at that point in time. I will tell you one quick anecdote about that record though. I took the responsibility for the artwork on that record which you’ll remember it is a picture of the rear-view mirror of a car. I had a friend of mine, Loren Salazar, who was a renowned artist and I was looking through his pieces and he had that artwork – you know it looks like a photograph but it’s not; it was actually an oil painting. So, I contacted him and he was fine with us using it and he sent the original artwork via Federal Express from Seattle where he lived to New York so that they could render it to make the artwork for the record. But Federal Express lost the artwork! So, we had to scramble. Luckily he had a transparency of the original artwork which he sent so the album cover comes from the transparency of the lost artwork’.
And on the subject of that cover, Bloom has one more thing to add: ‘And one further thing, you can tell your readers if they do have a copy of Mirrors they can hold up their album cover if they have vinyl and look at the clouds above the mirror and there are certain little odd things floating in the sky and they’ll realise it’s not a photograph, as it seems, but it’s a painting because there are little squiggles floating in the sky – it’s little male things floating there – and that was part of the original oil painting. And that’s a little hidden thing from the artist. I don’t think we knew that either until after it was printed!’
Coming back to the present, I wrap up by asking about any plans the band have to visit UK shores. ‘Yes, we’d hoped to be over there right now with Deep Purple. We were really looking forward to that’ comments Bloom rather sadly. ‘For now, it’s been rescheduled for October next year with dates in London and all over England.’ Fingers crossed that those dates will be feasible next autumn and we’ll have the pleasure to once again see this legendary band – whether on our feet or on our knees.