“There’s a quote from Ezra Pound where he says, ‘The image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.’ The mission of my writing is to use imagery,” said Yost, who’s inspired by the late 20th century American poet’s development of imagism, a movement that stressed the precision and economy of language.
Alongside Blank Tape Tax bassist Hayley McNichol, Yost employs astute, concise lyrics and raw, brisk instrumentation to address internal challenges with mental health, relationships and loss. While only 21 minutes long, Plastic Vapid Sexual Cool provides a detailed analysis beneath the surface.
“‘Hospital’ is about me having a mental breakdown, but it’s also about a number of other things,” Yost said. “I have my interpretation as the author, but you, the listener, may have another interpretation based on the words, and your interpretation is just as valid an interpretation as mine is.”
“The most important music to me is my music and the music of my friends because it’s the soundtrack to my life. It makes me think of old venues like the Genesis, the old Sanctuary, Toepfer House and Elijah’s (Q-Nails),” said Yost, who’s based in Detroit.
“It also makes me think of our friendships and our time together as a family. Starting Kickpop Records is about releasing music for me and my friends and to maintain the catalogs of a few artists so their music will always be out there to listen to.”
Yost launched Kickpop Records, a small DIY label, during the pandemic and released his first project, KP-005, or Kickpop Records Sampler No. 1, on 10-inch vinyl earlier this summer. While the vinyl release quickly sold out, listeners can still spin the compelling, cerebral project via Spotify.
“The idea for the (compilation) came from Broadacre bassist Matt Farrett. Matt and I were talking about releasing the nine-song Broadacre project, and he suggested we test the waters on a (compilation) first.”
Editor’s Note: According to John Hopkins Medicine, 26 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from mental illness. That means for every 100 people you meet, 26 of them are struggling with mental illness. NAMI research also shows roughly 5 percent of adults in the U.S. struggle with serious mental illness, and 1 percent of Americans suffer from psychotic disorders.
The Detroit experimental group and rotating collective boldly recounts the internal anguish associated with lingering mental illness battles on “My Book,” which is now available on all streaming platforms.
“It’s a story about living with bipolar 1 disorder and what recovering from a psychotic break and subsequent hospitalization has been like in a recovery process that has lasted four years. Only recently has mental illness become something that is seen as less stigmatized to talk about in certain circles,” said Ben Yost, Blank Tape Tax’s drummer-vocalist.
“However, in most places, there is still a misunderstanding surrounding mental illness, especially with a disorder like bipolar psychosis, which affects 1 percent of all Americans. Although it was not written with this intention, ‘My Book’ has come to start a dialogue about mental illness and remind people that feelings are mentionable and manageable. Getting help is not a sign of weakness, but rather one of strength.”
Throughout “My Book’s” lo-fi home demo, Blank Tape Tax beautifully reveals that inner strength with Emily Parrish (vocals) and Kavon Williams (piano). Surrounded by somber piano, Parrish poignantly sings, “The words for me are hard to say/I suffer through them every day/And I just want you to hear my pain and to relate/I want to say some old cliché/But oh what the fuck/Here it goes anyway.”
“That being said, I feel conflicted about the lyrics of ‘My Book’ because I felt initially when I wrote them that they were too negative and self-pitying, but after hearing Emily perform it, I’ve come to think that the song is ultimately a positive thing,” Yost said.
“‘My Book’ was written in a few minutes as a stream-of-consciousness poem. I often write this way using free association. I recorded Logan Gaval’s first full-length, Number One, on Flesh and Bone Records, and I was listening to that at the time. I liked the way he sounded like Elliott Smith, and I wanted to write a song in that style (sort of like ‘Needle in the Hay’).”
Yost initially wrote “My Book” as a waltz on his guitar and recorded a demo. The track later blossomed once Parrish added her thoughtful vocals and Williams performed his haunting piano part in Wayne State University’s Old Main Guitar Room.
“I had always planned on re-releasing ‘My Book’ as a single. It took this long primarily because we were still forming a lineup while it was recorded, and then the pandemic hit. When Emily first sang it for us, it was awesome. It reminded me of Janis Ian, but more emotive. Emily really made the song her own while Kavon’s piano was perfect for the song,” Yost said.
Blank Tape Tax also filmed a VHS camcorder-inspired video for “My Book,” which features warm snippets of home movie style footage interspersed with a live performance of Yost, Parrish and Williams. Yost developed the raw, vintage concept for the video after watching two seminal early ‘90s skateboard videos, Blind Skateboards’ “Video Days” and Alien Workshop’s “Memory Screen.”
“The Blind video was a major influence on me as a young kid, and later in life when I saw ‘Memory Screen,’ my imagination had totally been captured by that style of filmmaking. I had also been a fan of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, and the first two Blank Tape Tax videos for ‘Baby’ and ‘Peachy’ had been done in a similar style by visual artist Genevieve Kuzak,” said Yost, who worked with Ethan Long and Nathan Wilkey to edit the “My Book” video.
“I actually ended up being the one behind the camera while filming ‘My Book’ just out of necessity. The footage fits the audio nicely because they were both captured on tape, which gives it a warm home movie quality. All but the editing and mastering were done using analog technology and magnetic tape.”
Looking ahead, Yost and his current Blank Tape Tax lineup of Michael King (upright bass), William Marshall Bennett (piano), Mark Royzenblat (guitar), Issac Burgess (guitar) and Parrish (vocals) will release additional new material soon.
“We have no previews of anything other than lo-fi home demos. We’re trying to do more stuff in high fidelity, and we plan on a single and an EP. We’re also debating doing a full-length since there’s no touring,” Yost said.
For Blank Tape Tax, Bobbi Jean Three Legs and Yolanda Renee King serve as the true heroes of our time.
The Detroit experimental group seeks inspiration from the two activists as they push the boundaries for equality and change in a polarizing post-Trump world. Today, Bobbi Jean Three Legs and Yolanda Renee King continually inspire a new generation of political and creative leaders speaking up about the nation’s growing social divide.
That new generation of leaders includes Blank Tape Tax drummer-vocalist Ben Yost and a rotating collective of members and collaborators, including Emily Parrish (vocals), JJ Stanbury (keys), Ja’Vahn “Jay VII” Peterson (production) and Greet Death’s Logan Gaval (guitar). Together, they poetically channel that political struggle on Blank Tape Tax’s latest single, “Hey Donnie,” via Kickpop Records.
“From my perspective, Bobbi Jean Three Legs was the leading voice in the fight against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. To this day, her eloquence and bravery makes me emotional to think about when it comes to the clear abuses that took place surrounding DAPL, not only in regard to the brutal treatment of protesters, but also to the sheer disregard on behalf of the American government toward indigenous people in general,” Yost said.
“Yolanda Renee King is the granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and in 2018 spoke at the March for Our Lives, which I saw replayed on TV. I was inspired by her because of her poignancy and age. She was very young, and her message was very succinct. Seeing so many young people stepping up to the plate, so to speak, at that time in my life made me want to make music that reflected the emotions I felt seeing all of this happen.”
Along with Yost, Blank Tape Tax wraps that intense emotional spirit in pithy hardcore punk and bebop jazz elements throughout the 44-second, anti-Trump anthem, “Hey Donnie.” Enraged drums, roaring sax, buzzy electric guitars and fierce bass sonically protest the opposition as Parrish defiantly sings, “Hey Donnie, I want to know.”
“I’m not sure ‘Hey Donnie’ comes close to serving as a fitting anthem. They should have sent a poet. But sometimes just trying can mean the whole world, and we may not have gotten it perfect with this song, but maybe someone will come along and do it better. That’s what I learned from Bobbi Jean Three Legs, to try your best, even if you’re not a Malcolm X, MLK, Bob Dylan or Woodie Guthrie,” said Yost, who initially wrote the track in 2017, but believes it takes on new relevance in 2021.
“The meaning of the track has not changed; we won’t back down. That being said, I’m not a great political activist. I’m just an average musician. Real activists are people like Nakia Wallace here in Detroit. I just write songs.”
The Detroit experimental sextet of Ben Yost (drums, vocals), Emily Parrish (vocals), Michael King (upright bass), William Marshall Bennett (piano), Mark Royzenblat (guitar) and Issac Burgess (guitar) beautifully reinterprets Minor Threat’s “Filler” as a timeless, feverish tribute to modal jazz.
“I was practicing a lot of up-tempo swing and double-time swing, and I was listening to a lot of John Coltrane. The way I was going about practicing involved listening to a song in my mind. I’d hum along to the song, ‘Impressions,’ by Coltrane, and I would play and imagine the song, and every now and then, I would hum ‘Filler’ by Minor Threat. That’s how it started,” Yost said.
That coincidental fusion sparked the melodic, glistening frenzy of Blank Tape Tax’s refreshing rendition of “Filler,” out today via all streaming platforms. Frantic upright bass, thunderous drums, crashing cymbals, sleek piano and swirling electric guitars seamlessly blend two divergent genres into a magnetic, holistic sound.
Backed by lush, intelligent instrumentation throughout “Filler,” Parrish soulfully sings, “Your brain is clay/What’s going on? You picked up a bible/And now you’re gone/You call it religion/You’re full of shit/Filler.”
“I think there are similarities between certain types of hardcore, like 7 Seconds, Minor Threat and Better Than a Thousand, and modal jazz, like Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, especially in up-tempo stuff. The pulse is really similar between the D-beat and up-tempo swing,” Yost said.
“I had written a piano score for it, and I gave it to William, and he read it down. If I write a song, then I’ll bring it to the band, and I’ll just say, ‘This is kind of how it goes.’ And then they’ll kind of just do their own thing, and whatever they come up with is awesome. I’m totally happy with it, and there’s not a whole lot of talking back and forth, like ‘Oh, you should do this,’ or ‘No, you should change that.’ Everyone already knows what to do, and it just falls into place. I’ve never had that in other bands.”
Along with his bandmates, Yost recorded “Filler,” originally a 1984 track written and recorded by Minor Threat, during a live performance for the Hazel Park-based podcast, “Broadcast from Cow Haus,” in March. While the podcast episode’s release has been pushed back, Tom Skill and Joshua Young, co-hosts of “Broadcast from Cow Haus” and members of Detroit ska band CbJ, encouraged Blank Tape Tax to put out the track.
“We did four songs, and there’s a video of all of it. They do their show in season blocks, and they are two episodes short of a season right now. They need to wait to get those two new episodes filmed before they can put everything out,” said Yost, whose band name comes from a levy that was placed on purchasing blank tapes.
While the world turns to chaos outside, it’s time to search for solace inside.
Throw work, school and virtual commitments aside for some long overdue relaxation. With headphones in hand, adjust the volume and press play to start a new musical journey into uncharted local and regional waters.
The latest edition of The Stratton Playlist serves as a refreshing sonic escape from politics, pandemics and people. Visit country-filled skies, fuzzy lo-fi jams, jazzy hip-hop points, psych rock bangers, vibrant piano pop anthems and other new terrain.