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Theo Bleckmann & the Westerlies: This Land Is Their Land

The dynamic vocalist and the bold brass ensemble make beautiful (protest) music together

Theo Bleckmanan and the Westerlies
Left to right: Chloe Rowlands, Willem de Koch, Theo Bleckmann, Riley Mulherkar, and Andy Clausen (photo: John Labbé)

DEMOCRACY FOR FIVE
Back to Putney, Vermont, in 2016. The first song Bleckmann brought to this new collaborative project was his own composition “Another Holiday.” Immediately, Rowlands recalled, it was “five minds working together as one.”

“I didn’t just bring in the song and arrange it,” Bleckmann noted. “I became one of them; I got my hands dirty with them. Everybody was contributing and talking. This kind of democracy is very difficult.” 

“And exciting, like the very best improvisation,” Rowlands chimed in. “We worked eight hours a day, but always around each other: hanging, talking, sequestered from everything else. The entire situation was intimate, filled with laughter. We had a such a great time at all times. We have this policy in the Westerlies where if somebody has an idea they want to try that has never been tried before—maybe taking a third valve slide out of a trumpet—we have to try it, no matter what. Theo loved that. He had that spirit as well, which made it all the more pleasurable. And never was there a moment where ego got in the way.”

“Working with young musicians who grew up with my music and could play any style—classical, jazz, new music, ambient, rock—is fascinating because it’s a different animal than the musicians I played with as I grew up,” Bleckmann acknowledged. “Back then, musicians were proudly renowned for doing one thing. Now, this new group of musicians is open-minded and highly skilled, geniuses on their instruments yet with the soul of a puppy dog. Incredible. … Plus, they’re the most heavenly brass section you could find. Period. The Westerlies never sound like those annoying brass outfits that hit you over the head—that’s what makes this unique.”

That and the approach they took to recording This Land, which was an experimental first for the Westerlies. “All of the previous Westerlies albums were straight quartet music recorded in a way like a string quartet would be recorded, where we keep everything as four straight voices,” Rowlands explained. “Here we layered, overdubbed, added extra octaves, had sections dedicated to improvising over. It took us to interesting places that we would not have reached otherwise. I loved going in these directions as I am someone who is fascinated by working with effects.”

It’s an unusual album for Bleckmann too. Although he’s written and curated plenty of socially conscious songs before, This Land is more direct and unflinching about it. Take, for example, the reclamation of songwriter Joe Glazer’s “Look for the Union Label,” originally used for a 1970s television commercial. Arranged ever so cleverly by Bleckmann, its subtle, pomp-and-circumstantial classicism is right up the Westerlies’ alley.

“What appealed to me was that ‘Union Label’ was written for commercial advertising purposes,” Bleckmann emphasized. “It was a made-for-TV idea of labor and unions … this ‘spirit’ of America that isn’t quite real. I love that the Westerlies and I are taking source material not from art music or even jazz, but rather this bizarre place: TV. Another thing that was remarkable about this song is its lyrics, asking the consumer to consider the source of where you’re buying stuff, because considering that source will actually help the garment workers making it. Well, that didn’t really go so well, did it? How many people truly consider where their clothes come from? Not enough not to buy elsewhere. That failed greatly in its day. The idea of an America based on union—makers and consumer both from the U.S.A.—is completely antithetical to the American dream of individualized freedom, to be and to buy and to wear whatever I want. That is an interesting dichotomy, a paradox to me, a bizarre idea of what has never worked or could never work in America.”

The first track Bleckmann and the Westerlies worked on together was also the first track they recorded together, and it stands out as the truest testament to This Land’s tone, as well as to their collaboration: Bleckmann’s “Another Holiday.” Penned in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016, in which 49 people were killed, it’s a vision of America filled with “BBQ and pie,” all fireworks displays and summer lawns; that is, until those picnics grow rife with a hidden brand of hate, exposing how even the seemingly safest havens can be filled with menace.

“That song came out of me as no other song has come out of me before,” Bleckmann said proudly. “I usually labor over all of my compositions, but this one came out very quickly and spontaneously. Though we all live in a safe environment as gay and trans people in big cities within our own communities, when we go back to our homes beyond the big city … where you come from … it becomes an issue,” he continues in a rush of words. “And it’s always around a holiday that you go home. It all gets pushed in your face. You have to be somebody else, but just for a few days. It’s painful. There is an idea of family and happiness that you can have but just don’t say anything. Be quiet. You just play along, but you are never fully allowed to be who you really are. You are yourself—up to a point.” 

PEACE AT LAST?
At the end of our conversation, I asked what an audience—their audience, separate and together—might learn about the Westerlies and Theo Bleckmann from This Land that they didn’t know before.

Rowlands focused on sonics, how the album goes much further from a production standpoint than any previous Westerlies release. “There are so many moments where we sound regal … we surprised even ourselves,” she said. “There’s a wide range of sound that we use here that people might have never thought of or heard from us before.”

Bleckmann, however, went a different route.

“I don’t want people to think anything. I want them to feel. Like how I felt anger about the holidays, or a befuddlement with TV, politics, and the culture. Now, of course, I promise that listeners won’t miss drums or the beat—that this brass sound is its own world, complete, and that you will be moved by the sound and the people who are playing it. But feel it. We talked about resistance so often while making This Land, but refuge too was a big part of our duty in making it. A refuge that the listener could feel too. We wanted this music to be healing, in order to deal, gently, with what’s happened in this country over the last four years. I hope there is a calmness here. Finally.”

Whether that calm is meant for This Land or this land is up to the listener.