Phil Cohen of Blackout Balter Dishes on the Band’s Eating Habits and Why They Don’t Rehearse in a Bad-Ass Rock Cave

August 23, 2016

Tell us about your tour vehicle. Any notable breakdown stories?

I wish I had some great story to tell you: maybe the one where we hit the road in our custom Scooby Doo van complete with purple shag carpet and vintage blacklights in it or something like that. Before our shows we park that van outside antique stores and get craft lattes with mustache shapes in the foam at expensive artisan coffee shops; and at night, after our shows, we solve mysteries. But it’s not like this with us. When we go on the road, we usually just rent a van and strap a U-Haul trailer to it. If we break down, we call AAA and take it to the shop. When it comes to this sort of stuff, we’re probably the least-interesting band in the world…

In truth, we’re trying to solve big problems each and every day, so the last thing I really want to waste my time on is getting under the hood of some shitty vehicle. We’re real artists and real professionals–we’re worried about doing big things and we can’t let these little things get in the way.

As a side-note, I’m not the manliest guy in the world. [laughs] I mean, I’m a pretty tall guy and I’ve been told I have big hands [laughs], so I guess I’m manly in that regard, but when it comes to doing manly stuff like fixing broken sinks, lumberjacking, and changing engines in cars, I’m the least manly guy in the world. No doubt–there’s a certain bit of appeal to that stuff when I say it, but it’s just not me. [laughs] When shit breaks, I just call people.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

[laughs]. Man, I’m not sure if I have a great answer for this one either. There’s a great vegan place with the most amazing organic produce and homemade tofu in Brooklyn that we always go to. [laughs] That’s a joke. Once again, we’re really boring when it comes to this sort of stuff. I think we’re much more interesting in other ways. But, regarding food, we hop on Yelp and we look for 4-star ratings. We like Mexican food a lot, but we like many types of food. I eat virtually everything, and Misha eats literally everything. [laughs] If there’s something weird on a menu, Misha will order it, and if there isn’t, he’ll make it weird anyway. Tongue? No problem for Mish. Brain? No problem for Mish. Amelia is a vegetarian, but Chris eats just about anything too.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I guess I’ve never really thought about that. When we’re not touring, I’m guessing that I break a string or two every couple of weeks. When we’re playing out, I’d say I break one string a night, though I’ve tried to prevent this from happening. I’ve had some mid-song mishaps with busted strings. Like, not being able to play integral pieces of songs. I guess that’s the beauty of live music, though. [laughs] I think Amelia can go a while on her strings, and I don’t think Mish busts too many. Chris hits pretty hard, though, so he’ll probably go through a few heads and cymbals on tour. All in all, I’d say we’re dropping a few hundred bucks on strings each year, and a grand on drum equipment.

Where do you rehearse?

Man—you’ll hate my saying this again, but we’re surprisingly boring when it comes to this stuff. [laughs] Our rehearsal space is in the burbs, so it’s pretty quiet where we rehearse. Once again, I sort of wish I could tell you about the TVs we throw out the window and all the super-models who love to hang there, but it’s a very quiet space. I think we’re really different than other rock musicians, as we don’t really garner our experiences through music, per se. We garner our experiences outside of music; and then we bring these non-music-based experiences into our art. Our rehearsal space is more like a pottery studio than it is a bad-ass rock cave, or something like that. It’s a serious space we use to create our art. The world is filled with all the crazy aesthetics one could ever imagine, and I love engaging in this world. But when it comes to my art, I’m looking for a place where I can do some serious thinking.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

Um–probably “Cuts like a knife.” [laughs]. No joke, when I was a young teen, I actually did write a song that had “Cuts like a knife” as its main refrain. [laughs] Of course, this is probably the most cliché lyric the world has ever seen.

I do remember that one of the first songs I ever wrote was called “On The Run,” and, with a bundle of teenage angst, I cringe to say that I wrote the line, “Don’t look at me the way you look at your own son. Though you think about me, I still feel I’m on the run.” [sighs] Man–I would never write that today! I was probably 15 when I wrote that.

One of the first songs we put together as Blackout Balter was called “Black Daughter” and it was not a reference to an African-American, though many people thought it was. It’s a reference to an old silhouette cut-out image of a girl. I really like this song, and we still play it live. The opening lyric is “Oh, Black Daughter—your silhouette face. Another night with your marquee grace. Been around since you’ve been on the street. Another volley in a vacant field. Oh, Black Daughter—you’re wearing me thin. Your heated spoon and your midnight sin. Far away from your modern man. Long gone, bitter long gone.”

Let’s hope those very early recordings never get released! [laughs] I’m sure there’s much more of that “Cuts like a knife” stuff.

Describe your first gig.

Outside of Blackout Balter, my first gig was at my high school in Vermont. It was my first band; and, looking back, I still feel that we were really good. We were super raw, and all of us were into real punk rock music, not this fake pop-punk stuff you sometimes hear on the radio. I’m still very into guitar feedback, and you can hear this a bit throughout “Twist and Bend,” but, back then, all of us in the band were really into feedback. The show was in the basement of one of our main school buildings, and the small room was packed with probably 50 or so kids. I remember one of the school administrators looking at my amp and turning down the volume even before we made a sound. [laughs] She walked away, I turned up the volume even louder than it had been before, and we opened up our set with a song that was pure feedback and noise. Just ear-piercing guitar squeals and cymbal crashes. All the kids started moshing around, and I remember losing the hat I was wearing during that first song. I miss that hat [laughs].

Our first gig as Blackout Balter was many years later. You know—we’re still a new band. [laughs]. I think our first gig as Blackout was at this great rock club in Cambridge, Mass called The Middle East. Though no one knew us, there was a pretty good turnout, and I think we turned a lot of heads. Misha almost got hit by a beer bottle that was thrown on stage, and an old harmonica mic that I use on a few songs died while I was singing. I remember throwing that mic on the ground, then hopping into the audience to finish the song, and I don’t think people were ready for that. [laughs]. It was like water and oil! For some reason, we seem to be paired with folk-rock bands, and the audience often doesn’t know what to think of us yelling into microphones. [laughs].

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

Oh, man–we’re all about taking over the world! [laughs] We’re all entrepreneurs, so three of us own software companies. In our last day jobs, Chris, Misha, and I led teams of people. It’s what we do: we create things and work with people we really care about. I really don’t have time for anything else in life. Bullshit jobs are not for us—we know what we want, and we’re not going to spend a minute wasting time on things that we don’t care about. The same goes for music—we create music, and we work with people we really care about.

My favorite day job is my current one: music. After this, it’d probably be my software company and the guest lecturing I get to do, from time-to-time, at MIT. I also really enjoyed my time as a military officer. After that, maybe my time as a hockey player, and then maybe my time as a Subway sandwich artist. [laughs] When I worked at Subway, this girl used to come in and order extra-crispy bacon. I would put the bacon in the microwave, then I’d bring it out to her and she’d say, “Nope.” Then, I’d put it back into the microwave and bring it back out to her and she’d say, “Nope.” Then, I got the drill. When this girl came into my Subway, I’d throw the bacon into the microwave for three minutes. The microwave would start crackling and smoking; and, when I took the bacon out of the microwave, the bacon would be black, and she’d say, “Perfect.” Is that a metaphor for something? [laughs].

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

As I mentioned before, we’re a new band, so it’s early for us. We’re building a solid foundation, and one that we hope will grow with time. The Music Industry is a tough one these days. When you look at healthy segments of the Entertainment Industry, and compare them to the music segment, what you find is pretty amazing and really speaks to the need of disruption in the Music Industry.

We, as a band, and as people who really care about music as art, are working hard to do our part and change it up for the better. It’s not just enough to boycott streaming, or something like this–it’s a bigger issue that has to do with how people are consuming music these days, what people really want, and basic economic principles like supply and demand. Maybe most importantly, the Industry is suffering from years and years of over-litigation, as there are, what I like to call, false boundaries everywhere. We are working on tackling some pretty tough problems, but that’s what gets me excited.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

When I started getting very serious about music, I didn’t understand how important it was to build a team. You could have the best music in the world, but without a good team in place, your music is likely to go nowhere. It’s a shame–it really is. I wish the best of everything just floated to the top, but the reality is that it doesn’t. When you look in virtually any vending machine, you’re going to find that little over-priced bag of “Grandma’s” cookies. That billion-dollar product tastes like total crap, but it’s in every vending machine in the US.

Blackout Balter’s roots can be traced back to 2014, when singer Phil Cohen met drummer Chris Dorsey at a neighborhood block party. A mutual love of ‘70s underground rock led to an exchange of demos and within weeks, the two were in a studio working on songs that would eventually become Twist and Bend. They completed their lineup after finding keyboardist/guitarist/Ivy League grad Misha Kostandov and bassist Amelia Gormley, a Berklee College of Music grad and a founding member of the band New Highway Hymnal.

Fast forward a year and the band found themselves recording their debut EP in Las Vegas.  Their Vegas invitation came courtesy of The Killers guitarist Dave Keuning, who took a shine to the band’s songs.  Keuning also performs on the EP, titled Twist and Bend.

Taking their name from the Middle English term “balter,” which means to dance without a care, the quartet spent the past year sharpening their sound and playing every hole-in-the-wall up and down the East Coast.

Connect with the band online and on the road.