Yet another glorious Portland summer music festival season draws to a close this weekend with …
A couple decades of playing music and making art around New England has lead to a cult-like following for the grizzled, unassuming Dan Blakeslee. Some come out for his Christmas shows, where the perennially friendly singer-songwriter takes on an elven glow of good cheer. Others know him best as the good Doctor Gasp, the masked, singing and dancing avatar of old-timey Halloween. Still others know him only by his artwork, such as the painted sign above a coffee shop or the logo on their favorite can of beer. Across the patchwork of Dan’s career as an artist, the warmth of his personality shines through. I heard the jovial rhythms of his Mainer accent when we spoke on the phone just shy of midnight last week. He was in Arizona, on his way to that evening’s spot to crash.
Interested listeners can find him next week, Wednesday April 4th, in Portland’s most fitting venue: Laurelthirst Public House, hole-in-the-wall home to cheap beer, vintage bric-a-brac, and the occasional outbreak of middle-aged swingdancing.
Eleven: How was your show tonight?
Dan Blakeslee: Man, my show tonight was good. It was one of those things––playing in the corner of a pub. But it was a pub where people actually listen and get into it. Even though they’re talking, they’re in it, which is so nice because I’ve played many pubs before where people don’t give a shit. This year I’ve started playing more art spaces and things that feed my soul, but when you’re on the road you can’t be as choosy.
11: So how far into this tour are you?
DB: About two weeks, and I’m along for two months. This one was a little easier to book because I did my first cross-country tour almost two years ago and now I’m playing some of the same places.
11: …starting to make good on connections.
DB: Right, but still it was no piece of cakes. [laughs] Oh my god…
11: You’re pretty much a 1-man project.
DB: Yup, I’m my own manager, booking agent, PR guy, designer… all that. Man I can’t wait to have someone to help with it one day. It’s just a lot of work.
11: Are you mostly playing songs from [new LP] The Alley Walker?
DB: Yeah, depending. If it’s a forty-five minute set, the bulk of it is songs from The Alley Walker. But tonight I played two hours, so that was a mix of old songs, new songs, and brand new ones.
11: Oh, cool. Have you written any on the road this time? I know that your “Johnny and June” song came from a hotel night or something like that.
DB: Yeah, true. It’s been a really busy trek so far and most of my travel time has been like seven or eight hours a day. So I really haven’t had that much time to chill. I get to hotel rooms at two or three in the morning. I always feel bad waking up the person at the front desk. I’m just trying to get ahead of traffic.
DB: No, I just brought the mermaid because she appears in the album (not the cover, but on the inside of the LP). I did a drawing of my pick-guard and brought her to life, so I figured I’d bring the mermaid guitar with me—it’s her first time on the road.
11: Yeah, so side D of your double-LP has an etching of a mermaid instead of any music tracks. How did it come out that way?
DB: I gave them the same picture that’s in the gatefold, and they used it to make an etching. It was the first time they’d ever done something like that at the Record Plant in Burlington, VT. I didn’t realize that the album is 56 minutes long and you can’t fit that on a traditional LP. You can only fit 44 minutes. I didn’t want to put just three songs on each side–I wanted to figure out something to do with Side D and I have a few albums that are etched back home in my collection. I proposed it to them and they were originally gonna send them out. Then they were like, “You know what? We’re gonna figure it out.” I have no idea how they did it.
11: Where’s your head at on these super long drives? Do you have any recurring thoughts or are you someone who can just be in the moment, looking at the road?
DB: Now that I’m on roads that are less congested, there’s a lot of thinkin’. I brought a lot of local albums of friends that I’ve played with, friends who tour from other parts of the country and local pals. I always bring my pals with me when I’m on tour. But I’ve been shutting off the radio for couple-hour stretches, just to think and decompress, let my mind wander. Once you get past Austin, if you’re not going through one of the major towns, it’s pretty easy, super flat.
11: It’s not New England. It’s all open.
DB: Right, right. Though I love my New England.
11: Well, the music’s very New England. You’ve got your salty sea shanty on The Alley Walker, and a tribute to the old Piscataqua Bridge in Portsmouth, NH. How are you received? Is there a pattern among people who show up to your shows?
DB: Not really. I mean in this day and age it’s a totally different animal than the days where you could just put up your flyers and send out your press release. There’s not as many people seeing live music because they could stay home instead. I think it’s good—it kind of weeds out some people.
11: The people who come want to be there.
DB: Yeah. And the whole thing with me doing this tour is to spread my songs further than I’m able to reach at home. I’ve done donuts over New England so many times. Although the best way to tour the whole country is to do it a lot, to keep yourself on people’s minds. But it’s really hard and daunting to do a whole country tour.
11: Yeah, it’s hard to be everywhere at once.
DB: Mmhm. So the whole reason I’m doing the tour now is because Dr. Gasp got in the way. Every October I gotta circle back to New England and do Dr. Gasp, the Halloween thing, because it works. It’s so much fun for me. It’s hectic, but it helps get out that punk/art-weirdo side out of me that a lot of people don’t know about.
11: It’s kind of like you, turned up to 11.
DB: Right! So I was originally gonna do this tour last September through October. I did an east coast leg from Maine down to Charleston and Austin and back up, and then did Dr. Gasp. Originally I was going to do this second leg in November, but it just felt like too much to do three months in a row.
11: Your social media tends to make it look like you really enjoy your time in the desert. Are you having the time to walk around and take it in
DB: Yeah, I can’t wait to get to Joshua tree again. Have you ever been there?
11: Natalie and I camped there. It’s wild.
DB: Isn’t it so amazing? It totally blew my mind. Me, I had never done a cross-country tour until two years ago and so everything like the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, giant cacti and redwoods… I’d only see that stuff in National Geographics or online. I get into such a heightened dream state in those environments that I’m incapable of doing regular stuff. I have so many emails and stuff to catch up on with people and I just can’t do it. I’m like, “I’m sorry! I’m gone!”
11: Did you take any art projects on the road?
DB: I did. I tried to be minimalist, but it really helps in the pockets of the tour where you’re not getting paid that much to have some extra income. The way I like to tour is to show up in a town a night or two before I’m playing and hang out in town, meet some people, hang out with friends, and then play the show and go to the next town.
11: To acclamate?
DB: Exactly. And also to catch up on laundry, work, e-mails, whatever. This tour is moving much faster than my last one, where I had more days to be like, “Oh I’ll hang out in Los Angeles for a few days. I’ve never been to that town.” The one thing I regretted last time is I was only in Portland for one day, so this time I made sure to get at least two days in—I wish it was more. I wish there was some way to go for three months and really spend a week in each town, do an art show or something.
11: Have you busked at all on this trip? You’re one of the only people I’ve known who makes that work.
DB: I haven’t had a chance to. I was going to do it at South by Southwest, but you don’t get as much quality listening during that festival. It’s sort of like, “Oh I’ll throw this guy a buck. I’m walking by, he’s doing his thing.” But I’d rather someone stop by and listen than give me a buck, even though I need the buck.
– Tyler Burdwod