Currently on tour, and just a few days after their sold-out Montréal gig on the 31st of January, we had the chance to be on the phone with Tarek Jafar who, together with Justin Tessier, make up the talented Canadian band The Blue Stones. We interviewed him and talked about their distinguished sound, challenges, achievements and future projects.
Montreal Rocks: Black Holes is actually your first studio album supported by a big label, but it is also a re-release of the 2015 namesake collection. How was this experience for you? Personally and technically speaking, how was it to re-record songs that you had been playing for a while by then?
Tarek Jafar: It’s funny because that album, it wasn’t re-recorded, it was actually just remixed and mastered independently, but a lot of people, you know, because we did take it down and then had a re-release, naturally people thought that we re-recorded the songs. They’re actually the same recordings that we had from when we initially recorded the album, just remixed and remastered and then finally released.
MR: Ah, ok! Thank you for clarifying that. And also how did having the support of a label change the game for you, if so?
Tarek: Well you know, we have a great label, they really care about us as musicians. We had heard these stories about some labels where they basically limit your creativity or limit your artistic expression, but in the case of our label, we’re very fortunate that they don’t do any of that and they let us be who we are and play the music that we want to record. But then I think, by having a label, that they can obviously fund you financially so that you can go on larger tours, that you can record with better producers or maybe in better studios or better environments, and then they distribute your album. It has in-house press teams that will get the word out about the band and the music, and then they have radio connections where they set up things like, well, this interview that we’re having right now, or radio visits… So it’s just nice to have an organization that’s backing you and sort of pushing on every level to help break this band.
MR: I’d like to go back with you just for a little while to the origins. When exactly was the project “The Blue Stones” born? I mean, not only talking in terms of time, so when did your peculiar, scratchy/bluesy sound come alive? Where does your sound come from? What was the creative process behind it?
Tarek: Yeah, I think it’s really just… It came naturally. You listen to a lot of different types of music, and we always have, and I personally draw influences from a lot of different types of artists and bands. So I think the music that I was writing was just a reflection of all of these influences coming into one, and the way that I play is just the way that I found was the easiest way to express all the music that I was writing, which was just through a guitar and vocals. But I don’t think we necessarily sat down, Justin and I, and said “ok, this is what we want to sound like”; everything that we sound like just came naturally, between our different influences, our shared influences, and then also just us playing together and being friends for a long time… and we have a signature sound because of that.
MR: You’ve been talking about influences, can you name a few? Just to have an idea…
Tarek: Sure, yeah. I’d say a band called Mute Math, they were a big influence on myself early on and Justin as well. Also rappers like Jay-Z, Kanye West and J. Cole were big influences on me. I listened to a lot of their music when I was younger and as I developed as my own artist. But there‘ve just been so many of them… Foals is another big one… And then even a few of the early Coldplay albums like Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y: those were big influences on me… Just because they’re great songs which have great melodies, I feel like that influenced me a great deal as well.
MR: A nice mix of different sounds, definitely…
Tarek: Oh, yeah! Nice mix of alternative and hip hop and I still listen to the mix of those.
MR: Oh, that’s great. So I’m just thinking about you as a band. If you could pick one, what would be your perfect “habitat”? I mean, where do you find yourself more at ease, like, on stage, in the studio, at home writing, shooting a video…?
Tarek: To be honest, I feel like on stage is my favourite place to be. That’s when I feel the most alive, and I’m sure you probably saw that at the show (laughs).
MR: Oh yeah! It was great, I have to say. Lots of energy!
I wanna go now to a kind of “thorny question”, let’s call it like that. So, what is the aspect, if any, that you truly dislike within the music industry as per your experience up to now?
Tarek: Oh, I see… Interesting. Mmm… That’s a good question actually, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. I would say… Well, I think there’s a lot that’s being asked of artists, as far as the travelling, and making the visits, and working day in and day out to put on good shows, especially artists at our level who are still sort of grinding to try and breakthrough, right? I think there’s a lot being asked, and a lot of people might think of it as, you know, we get the glorious lifestyle of touring and you look great every night, you split like a rock star… but it’s hard work most of the time. And I feel like sometimes, depending on what your label is, or who your agent is, or what have you, and it doesn’t necessarily apply to us because we’ve had really good experiences with our label, but I feel like some labels don’t appreciate that in their artists, and they sort of put them through the wringer and dismiss who they are as human beings, and just kind of treat them as… commodities, or ways of making money. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s really disheartening because these are people. These are people who have emotions and they get tired and they get overworked, so… I guess I’ve seen it happen a few times and when I do, I just feel bad…
MR: You’re talking about a form of exploitation, somehow, of the artists…
Tarek: Yeah, for sure. It even got to some point where it’s like a mental health issue for a lot of artists… And I think that aspect of the music industry can be pretty nasty.
MR: Another question that could go together with the previous one somehow: what is the biggest challenge you have faced so far, as a band, as a musician, as an artist?
Tarek: The biggest challenge, mmm… I guess it’s trying to maintain your artistic or your creative career, so your music career, who you are on stage, who you are as an artist, balancing that between who you are at home, who you are as an actual real person. Drawing the line between: “Hey I’m Tarek from The Blue Stones”, or “Hey I’m Tarek”… When you have the lines blurred between who you are as an artist and who you are as a person, sometimes it’s hard to separate your personal life and your professional life, and that can be a challenge too. Because everybody needs to be able to take a step back and take care of themselves, in order to be able to do this job.
MR: Yeah. And did you find a way to face this challenge? Do you have any way of balancing your professional life?
Tarek: Basically when I’m home, I try to maintain a routine. I try to keep up on my house, I try to really relax… Really take time away from the tour life. And I feel like that way it sort of helps me feel like a real person again, and I’m able to go back out on the road and not feel the effects of it as much. That’s pretty much how I do it: I just maintain a good routine at home, eating well, sleeping a lot, things like that.
MR: Okay, so in order to be recharged…
Tarek: Yeah, just recharge. Take your time to recharge. Totally fine.
MR: So, I want to say: congratulations on your nomination for the Juno Award as Breakthrough Group of the Year, definitely a great recognition. Generally speaking, what are you expecting from this moment of your life?
Tarek: Well, I mean, the nomination helps, because I feel like now we’re put into a national sort of view where a lot of people are being like: “Oh wow, who are these guys that are being nominated?” And it’s been really nice to see all the shows selling out, and people checking out our music and all our fan interaction increasing. So it’s really a nice upward trend for us right now and we’re really just riding the wave and getting ready to release a whole bunch of new songs which we’re very very excited about. I feel like 2020 is looking like a pretty driving year for The Blue Stones, so I’m excited.
MR: That’s great! Indeed my next question was exactly that, about your future projects… I know you will be ending the tour at the end of summer, so I’m curious: do you guys already have new material and can we get any sort of anticipation regarding when to expect a new album to be released or other singles?
Tarek: Well, we’re hoping for summer 2020 for a new album, but we will be releasing some singles along the way to that album release. So yes, something is coming very soon.
MR: Oh, that’s great! Thank you very much Tarek for your time. Keep on rocking as you do, and I really hope to see you soon at another concert, because I had lots of fun, it was great..
Tarek: I’m so glad. Thank you, Francesca, it’s great talking with you.
Interview conducted by Francesca Sacerdoti on February 12th, 2020.