BLACK BELT KARATE
Interview with Jason Achilles Mezilis
STEAM I remember meeting you back in 2006 when you were on tour with Your Horrible Smile. The two things that stick out in my mind were your awesome long hair and your nick name. So when did you cut your hair and do you still go by Jason “the Great”?
JM I do. I found that ego can serve you well in the right situation. Rock n roll without ego would be a pretty boring thing. As for the hair, I cut it when I moved to Hollywood. I saw an old video of one of my shows and I thought I look like early 90’s Soundgarden; which looked great back then, but not now. I was really afraid to cut it at first, because I’d had long hair for so long that it had become almost a security blanket but I knew I needed something fresh and I haven’t regretted it for even two seconds. It’s also improved my dating life.
STEAM Ah yes, girls have a thing about dating guys with better hair. (laughing) What bands are you currently in?
JM Black Belt Karate (BBK) is my band, my vision. I’ve drawn together the best musicians I can to serve my vision. Basically BBK is my sound from the last 13 years or so finally coming out of the speakers. And I feel very proud to be able to say that. So that’s BBK. I joined Owl, which is Chris Wyse’s (The Cult) vision, and my role in that band is to bring my ingredient to his recipe, if that makes any sense. When I’m with Owl it’s a different sound for me and approach. I’m playing with the one of the most amazing bass players and drummers (Dan Dinsmore [The Clay People]) that you could hope for in a band. This is a band pushes me hard to be a better musician too, from my performance caliber. I am also a player and not producer or engineer, so it puts me back into the performer only state which is kind of refreshing as it allows me different freedoms.
STEAM How did you get involved with Owl?
JM Chris asked me to come in and play guitar on the first album, Owl (2007). I didn’t know I was part of the band until I saw it in print, so it was as much a surprise for me as it was for everyone else. I had told him that if he needed me I’d be happy to be part of it. Another friend of ours, Eric Bradley, played on the album with me and then Eric wasn’t available, he was working on another project, so I got move into the first chair so to speak; it was a pretty interesting surprise.
STEAM That’s very cool. Tell me about the guys in BBK. I know that Ryan (former lead singer for YHS) is your lead singer.
JM Yeah, Ryan Hanifl is the lead singer, we reconnected after o number of years apart and I found that I wasn’t going to find anyone better to work with, so we reinstated our working relationship and we found a new focus based off what we did before. So this new band is a more focus version of the initial work we did years ago. And with the best rhythm section that money can buy; can’t buy frankly.
Ryan Brown and I have been friends and played in a number of projects together and he’s always been so busy as a sessions player that it never occurred to me to invite him to my band. One day we happen to be at the Viper Room, Ryan (lead singer) and I just started writing songs together, and I saw the two Ryans talking and I saw the mutual respect that they had for each other. These are two of the best players I knew, so when I saw this communication I knew that this was my band because I could see that they could get my message across. Harry Ostrem was recommended by another bass player, Greg Coates who is one of the best bass players in Los Angeles and I also knew he wasn’t available and I could trust the direction he pointed me in. So Harry’s audition was that I invited him over for a BBQ with about 20 of my friends and asked them what they thought of Harry; which was all good, I said great, he’s in. We didn’t even play music until the end of the night, but by that time I’d already decided he was the guy. It was really vibe first and music second, because when you’re with this caliber of players everyone knows you can play, that’s not the issue. The issue is can you find people you can work with, so every time I’m on stage I feel very blessed to be there with these guys.
STEAM How did you choose BBK for a band name?
JM One of the first songs we wrote was BBK. It was the first song we played live and it was a throwaway lyric that our singer was working on and still nobody knows what the hell it meant, but I was talking with the drummer and made the comment that it would make a good band name and he gave me that look where you have that little spark. That’s when I realized it had that there was electricity with energy behind the name and our feeling is that our music has that same immediacy with it. Everyone liked BBK and so we went with it. I think it translates well and it doesn’t stick with any specific style. It’s always had to come up with a good, unique name that doesn’t define just one song or style.
STEAM Do you write a lot of the songs for BBK?
JM It’s a good collaboration between me and the singer, Ryan. I’ll write the melody, he’ll write the words, and we’ll present it to Ryan and Harry in a rough recording. We’ll take that together and turn it from a stereo-sounding demo with drum-machine tracks and my terrible bass playing into a real high energy progressive garage rock that we do. I’m sure that at some point this formula will change, but for now that’s how it works. Everyone in BBK is very equal, so we all have a say.
STEAM OK, you told me about your writing process, but I believe you, BBK, are doing something that’s a little stand out from the rest. What is that?
JM True, BBK is putting out a new song every month in 2014, so check out iTunes, our website, and our facebook! We’re also planning to take a good 10 days to tour in August, either going up the west coast or out towards the east. We’re still booking gigs, so watch for updates and information on the website and facebook.
STEAM The songs and music I have heard are just great! So besides the BBK and OWL projects, I understand you are the music producer for the upcoming movie “The Last Beat”.
JM The movie is loosely based on Jim Morrison’s final days. Basically we’re recording all the music for the sound track and the music the band will be performing in the movie and releasing, either as an EP or a full length album, in conjunction with the movie. All that work is being recorded at my studio through the console, using similar microphones and equipment to what they would have used. I don’t have all the equipment so they are bringing some in, but we’re recording it all on analog tape. Part of the reason they chose Organic Audio Recorders is because I still record on tape.
STEAM That leads perfectly to your studio. So are you all analog or do you work with digital records too?
It’s an analog-digital hybrid and it’s different for every project. For example, with BBK we record the music on tape in a couple performances and then transfer it to the computer for some minor editing, then record the vocals, and take it back through the console again. It’s a good balance between that organic sound and the ability to use more vocal tracks. That’s why the band’s sound is very organic. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.
STEAM Can you explain your recording process for analog and digital?
JM Typically people don’t go digital-analog-digital because you lose something in translation, it’s best to get the sound you’re looking for in the beginning. You can create warmth with digital, but it is a very neutral recording that it is also very accurate. So what I like to do is capture the analog sound with all its flaws, its strange equalization curves, and the way it effects the tones; and then take a good digital photograph of that and work with it from there. That is my preferred process, but everyone is different.
STEAM Tell me about how you got into the music business?
JM I opened the studio three or four years ago, but I’ve been collecting equipment, like the console and tape machine, since I was 19. I was 17 when I decided that this is what I was going to do for a living; I had graduated high school and had to choose a major. I went to USC Berkley and got my bachelors’ degree in music. I’ve been pretty fortunate that my parents have been and still continue to be supportive and patient with my choice. I believe that raising a musician is not easy and I never wish it on anyone. My mom has always been there for me, whereas my father is more of the “if this is what you want to do with your life, then you better do it right and make a living out of it” mentality.
STEAM What instruments do you play besides bass very badly?
JM Guitar reasonably well and uniquely. Piano really f***ing good! Piano was my first instrument and I can definitely kick the shit out of anything. Guitar has always been a less technical and more expression instrument for me. Part of that expression that tells a lot about me is that I have a thoughtful delivery. When I was first learning guitar at age 16, sitting at the end of my bed and unlike others who would practice scale or one song, I would play just one note over and over to learn how to hold that it and make that one note sound as beautiful as possible by finding that balance between vibrato and how to pick it. For me it’s always been about tone and delivery first and technicality second. Piano is very technical at least it started out that way and expression came about later. I studied classical piano over a long number of years but I didn’t understand the emotion behind classical until many years later. And then of course I found rock and roll and it went south from there. (laughing) Things like ragtime and blues piano, sort of an expressive freeform, where you can get technically crazy on it but still have the improv? I’m really good at that stuff.
STEAM Jason, it is always a pleasure talking with you, please keep us updated on your plans and we’ll keep listening for those new songs!