For most of us, there hasn’t been much to do for a year. Touring was put on hold. Travel was put on hold. Life was put on hold.
But Will Stewart figured out things to do. He made records with half of the musicians in Birmingham and now he’s releasing a new one at what seems like a weekly rate. He played on Janet Simpson’s debut solo effort, Safe Distance, which was released in March. He recorded an EP with Slack Times. And now at long last, the full length debut from The Blips has arrived. If ever there was a Birmingham supergroup, The Blips is it.
The group includes Stewart, Taylor Hollingsworth [Dead Fingers, Conor Obert’s Mystic Valley Band], Wes McDonald [Vulture Whale, Terry Ohms], Chris McCauley [Holy Youth] and Eric Wallace [formerly of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires]. The record is infectious skate-punk; something that sounds far out of character for Stewart. But it works. And they’ve been itching to play it in front of an audience for over a year.
Will’s a transplant like me. He grew up in Montgomery, but he’s been in Birmingham longer now than he was ever there. We talked about 2020 ruining all of our plans, how he spent his Covid vacation, what a The Blips show would hypothetically look like [it’s coming soon enough!] and jam bands. As a proven master of a good top five list, I made him give me a few of those, too.
How did you end up creating, like, three bands over the past year? How did you find time for all of it?
Really the only thing that popped up post Covid was the Slack Times thing. With The Blips – while we’re releasing it [April 9] – we were ready to do it this time last year. It was already in the can before Covid. We played that show at Seasick the Saturday before everything shut down. I was fully expecting that show to be canceled.
Janet [Simpson’s] album was kind of the same thing. She was planning on releasing that in April of last year.
Chris [McCauley] approached me about Slack Times. He said, “Let’s do this recording project where we go to Water Valley [Mississippi] and record with Matt Patton [Drive-By Truckers] and Bronson [Tew] over at the old Fat Possum studio.” And I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it.” Chris was childhood friends with Bronson.
It has been pretty static this whole time, even though I had all this going.
The Blips existed before…
We had already recorded the album. That was late 2019. We were prepping the album to be released at this time last year. When Covid hit, we thought, “Well, we can’t even gig on this. Let’s just hold off on it.” I’m sure you’re about to see a whole slew of releases that were supposed to come on this time last year.
Unless you’re Beyonce – someone like that has a big enough following where they can just put something out and not have to tour on it. When we put something out, we have to tour on it. Or at least gig on it; play a show so we can sell records and stuff. It’s a hard thing if you can’t play shows for someone like us.
Does that mean we can expect The Blips shows? Is this a thing that’s about to happen?
There’s still so many unknowns. We definitely want to do outdoor stuff; but we’re still cautious, and we still want to be responsible. We don’t want to send a signal that it’s “no holds barred – let’s do a barn burner at The Nick and pack it wall-to-wall.” I don’t think that would be appropriate for obvious reasons. We are playing an outdoor show at Ghost Train on May 8, and we’re going to bill it as a release thing. We’re going to try to do all outdoor stuff until we get a very clear signal that it’s cool to do stuff inside.
What does a The Blips show look like? Obviously, it’s the full record, but is there Will Stewart stuff? Is there Taylor Hollingsworth stuff?
We just have the ten songs from the album. So we haven’t figured that out yet. If we get a 90-minute gig, we have to do something. We do have a bunch of new material that we’ve been rehearsing. We can do the album, two new tunes – we’ve kicked around a couple of covers. We haven’t gotten to the point where we’d do stuff off of [Stewart’s debut solo album] County Seat or anything like that. [laughs]
But there’s a lot of Taylor’s stuff – his body of work is a lot larger than anyone else’s in the band. Wes McDonald has a lot of stuff. Vulture Whale…
Yeah, the Vulture Whale stuff would definitely fit in with what you guys do…
Oh, yeah, for sure. We’ve talked about that. But we haven’t gotten to the point where we need to do it yet. But it’s cool to have those options.
You obviously have a great relationship with Janet. Would bringing her into that fold ever be a thing?
She and I talked recently and she said that she was basically done with music until this kid from Montgomery talked her out of retirement…
Any time that I can get Janet Simpson in the fold, it’s going to be a net positive. She’s going to elevate anything that she’s a part of. When I read that interview, which was great, that was honestly the first time I heard that. We had never even talked about that. I was flattered and honored that I could be the person to coax her into giving it another shot.
Anyone that has played music knows that if you aren’t always affirmed and you don’t keep climbing the so-called rungs on the ladder, you’re going to feel defeated. It’s so easy to throw your hands up and say, “Well, I tried. What’s the point.” I totally get anyone that has ever been there and feels that way. I feel that way all the time.
She could play with The Blips right now and take it to the next level. We haven’t talked about that, but of course. For a while when I was playing with Terry Ohms [McDonald’s solo project], we were talking about Janet playing guitar and doing vocals. Anyone would benefit from Janet playing on their record. For the last – however many years – I started playing with her in 2011 or 2012. We started playing together before I went to Nashville for a few years. She elevates everything. Everything she does is great.
I asked her and I’ll ask you, too: do you think there will be another Timber record?
We talked about it. We have six or seven Timber songs that we haven’t recorded. I texted Janet in the throes of the shutdown and said, “Let’s cut a whole new Timber album in the dead of Covid winter. Let’s make it really dark.” [laughs] It never panned out. We definitely have the material. She’s rolling out her new album. I’ve got The Blips. I’m in the middle of tracking a new solo record. It’s hard to find the time for all of this.
Somehow, you find the time for all of it…[laughs]
[laughs] Well, you can do this kind of stuff when you’re single during a pandemic.
We’ve talked about how you’re a huge jam band fan. Have you ever thought about a Will Stewart jam band?
All the time!
What does that look like? Do you know what musicians would be in that lineup?
I haven’t thought about the actual personnel on the album, but Birmingham is a great city for it. I could assemble a great group of guys and girls if I wanted to.
For a long time, I resisted doing any solos. I’d say, “Let’s just work on the songs” because that’s off-putting to people sometimes. But I like it. It comes natural to me. So I slowly stopped resisting it in live shows because it comes natural to me. I listen to that kind of music. I’m not going to resist it. It makes the show more interesting. I don’t want to play the record note-for-note. That’s boring. What’s the point of that? I can sit at my house and listen to the record.
I’ve always had the spirit of improv, even if it’s just extending a section for a minute and jamming on it. That’s fun for me.
Alright, a few top fives. Top five Phish songs. Not specific dates or jams. Just songs.
Immediately, I’ll say “You Enjoy Myself.” I have a lot of memories attached to that song for a lot of reasons. It might be their best instrumental song, too.
I have a good friend that is a way bigger Phish fan than I’ll ever be, and he swears by “Tweezer,” but I think there’s a lot of room in “You Enjoy Myself.”
All the early stuff – “Harry Hood.” Phish is really good at – you know with a live Phish show, there’s the build and release. That’s what they are the masters of; you add the lights, and you’re good.
I like “Lawn Boy.” Just a Page [McConnell], silly ballad thing. I like “Mike’s Song” a lot. “Cavern” is a good one. All that Picture of Nectar stuff. But I like all the proggy stuff, too. The older I get, the less I like the Gamehenge stuff. It’s just so super nerdy. I like “The Lizards.”
I got into Phish in like sixth grade. I was in Columbia House. They sent me A Live One, which to me, is still their best official live album. I was like, “What the [expletive] is this?” I put it in. When you get a CD and you’re that young, you’re like, “Well, I’m gonna like this. That was a big thing. I don’t get new CDs very often, so I’m gonna like this.” And I was like, “Wow! I really like this!” That was when they were truly blowing up.
There was a lot of good stuff on Farmhouse, too. Alright, I’ll add a deep cut for the last spot:
- “You Enjoy Myself.”
- “Mike’s Song.”
- “Harry Hood.”
- “Lawn Boy.”
- “Seven Below.”
Top five Grateful Dead shows.
Whoa! Okay. Why don’t we do years? [laughs]
That narrows the field.
Top five Alabama running backs of all time.
I have a special place in my heart for Shaud Williams. He had the most heart I’ve ever seen in an Alabama running back. And I was in school when he was the guy.
- Shaud Wiliams.
- Shaun Alexander.
- Derrick Henry.
- Mark Ingram.
- Trent Richardson.
The Blips is out everywhere today.