A Force To Reckon With

`Burn The Ships’ has been released a while ago and I personally think it is one of this year’s hard rocking highlights. With `Burn The Ships’ under their belt Blacktop Mojo is a force to reckon with. Their driving hardrock is deeply rooted in the classic era and hints the greatness of classics in the Southern Rock vein being injected with a modern twist. Matt James, the band’s vocalist is blessed with power and range to get every metal head nodding from row 1, all the way to the back of the stadium. On top the man’s voice slows an occasional reminiscence to the unique voice of Chris Cornell [R.I.P.], one of the most compelling voices in hardrock history. This unique edge combined with the passion and power of the band’s unique metal blend makes `Burn The Ships’ an album to land in my 2017 top 10, and perhaps even makes it to the first 3 to grab this years’ gold. After our recent review on we reached out to the band to introduce Blacktop Mojo to the European fans. Matt James himself, in the back of the band’s van, took all the time needed to answer our questions.

How is the response of the media and fans?
,,The response has been phenomenal from both. We’ve gotten some awesome reviews in some great publications and people at our shows really seem to be digging the songs from the new album’’

The album title refers to you guys burning your ships behind you, as there is no turning back now other than focus on Blacktop Mojo full time. How hard is it as a musician and band living off music?
,,Chasing what you want and trying to make a living at it is hard in any field. Trying to make a living in music is no different than if you’re good at baking and want to open up a bakery. You have to have good people around you and laser focus on where you want to go. It would be a lot more difficult if we didn’t have each other to lean on.’’

Blacktop Mojo literally burned their ships behind them to conquer the world with their unique blend of hardrock music. All members gave up their careers and jobs to focus on their dream and make it in music. A decision beyond the imaginable, with the band members now living together pursuing their dream. It is quite an endeavour….

I recently read you guys all live together under the same roof. Doesn’t this also put immense pressure on the band members?
,,What’s weird is it really doesn’t. Everybody told us we were crazy to move into the same house and have to spend so much time in a van together, but we genuinely enjoy being around each other.’’

Comradry travels far, but I can imagine you guys every once in a while have to blow off steam….
,,We definitely like finding non-musical ways to blow off steam. We like to go out with all the guys in the band and go clay shooting quite a bit. We just recently had some friends take us hunting out in West Texas. Hanging out outside and firing off guns is awesome for stress relief. We also all play XBOX from time to time and we go to the gym almost every day. With all those different outlets on top of playing music, it’s pretty hard to be stressed for too long.’’

With our magazine, we focus on hardrock and metal music as well as on lifestyle attached to it. Anything you can share on the lifestyle of you guys being stuck together 24/7?
,,We wake up and make coffee, go to the gym, write songs, then between 3 and 5pm we switch the coffee out for whiskey and keep going.’’

They live the rock ‘n roll dream as comrades, but I seem unable to lure Mr. James into anything out of the ordinary as statement…

That’s it, no odd stories to share?
,,None specifically, but there have been many nights where everyone’s had a bunch of drinks and we’ll break out the acoustic guitars and play every song we know for our friends while everyone sings at the top of their lungs. God bless our neighbours for not calling the cops on us!’’

In order to be able to share lives together and onstage, you all must have a background and long running friendships, right?

How did Blacktop Mojo grown to be the band they currently are?
,,We started out playing Country music venues, kind of our of necessity. Where we live at in Texas, there aren’t a whole lot of rock bars around and we wanted to play anywhere we could, so we learned some country covers and would drop in rock tunes here and there. We never really felt at home playing country though, and as we started writing the first album `I Am’, we realized the songs were turning away from country and getting heavier and heavier. Once we had enough songs for an album, we took a look at all the songs and said; “Well I guess we’re a rock band now.”

One of the focal points of the band’s music is the strong and heartfelt emotion unloading through the melodies and lyrics. Lyrically the songs strike hard without coming across all to pretentious. It’s heartfelt band emotional, without being judgemental or condescending. It just grabs you on the spot and warps you into the musical setting aligning with the words perfectly.

I can relay to so many segments of the lyrics even though it doesn’t always come across as biographical. How much of your own personal lives have you brought in to cling to the masses and fans?
,,There’s definitely a lot of biographical stuff in there. While not every song is a word for word life story, the concepts all come from personal observations or emotions we’ve gone through.’’

,,Prodigal’’ to me is one of the best examples. I relay to it personally and it does not leave my ‘repeat play’ when I’m traveling. It is the perfect example of lyrical content striking deep in the heart. Is it a personal life story?
,,,,Prodigal’’ is kind of the story of someone who grows up in a small town and wants to go onto bigger and better things. All too often I’ve seen people give up on what they want to do because someone tells them they can’t do it, or for any number of other reasons. “Prodigal” is about not listening to those negative influences in your life and trusting yourself.’’

Another focal point and stronghold of Blacktop Mojo’s `Burn The Ships’ is the power unloading in all songs. The craftsmanship is striking and the arrangements are spot on. This, combined with the excitement of an onstage sound and attitude implemented, make the album come across as vivid and drop dead honest. The organic sound and the jam-packed vibe are present all over like it was in the good ol’ days of hardrock. Blacktop Mojo truly fires on all engines throughout the album!

The album displays enormous intensity and thrive. With the debut in mind you have certainly grown and matured. Songs are pointy and the craftsmanship is exceptional. How do you guys compose?
,,We all five get in a room together. Sometimes we just jam until we find something we like and then take whatever we find and build on it. Other times someone will have a riff or a lyric idea and we’ll build on that. Once we get something that we are happy with, we’ll bring it to our producer, Philip Mosley, and he’ll help us arrange it and get it polished up. He’s kind of the unofficial 6th member of the band.’’

Anything changed in your approach since the debut?
,,I’d say the approach is pretty much the same. The only thing different about the approach I might say is the amount of pre-production we did for the second album compared to the first. We spent about 2 straight weeks on pre-production before going in to make the first album, whereas on the second album, we kind of gradually put it together over most of a year.’’

`I Am’ lies 3 years behind us now, released in 2014. It was an excellent introduction to the band but not yet the landmark album `Burn The Ships’ is.

How do you look back on the debut now?
,,Definitely fondly. We had a hell of a lot of fun being in a studio setting for the first time and I think we learned quite a bit that week.’’

How do you look back onto the process of `Burn The Ships’ with the album being released and reviews piling?
,,I think it kind of makes our heads spin a little bit. We worked a really long time on it so to be able to finally share it with everyone has been awesome, and to have so many people digging in and listening to it to review it has been incredible. It’s been very fulfilling for all of us I think.’’

Any personal picks on the album that are close to you, and why?
,,I think one of my personal favourites would have to be ,,Underneath’’, because of the way we recorded it. It was just Phil playing the acoustic and me singing along in a live take. Most of the time the music’s mostly done before I add any vocals so to be able to kind of create the whole thing in a moment was really cool.’’

With the 100% genuine sound and feeling breathing from each and every Blacktop Mojo track it is somewhat odd to find a cover version of a classic rock anthem. Though the band nails it and injects ,,Dream On’’ with their unique sound, it still stands out as an oddity to me. I want to know why they featured it…

Why did you guys include ,,Dream On’’, the Aerosmith cover version?
,,We originally just did it for fun, but it garnered a lot of attention on YouTube, so it made us take a look at putting it on the album because a lot of people were telling us they found the cover and it lead them to go listen to all of our original music.’’

A friend of mine indeed did discover your music because of this cover version I played to him…. Very recognisable to what you sketch here. Above all: You nailed it…. For sure, but I would have preferred more of Blacktop Mojo music to be honest… but it might also throw people and potential fans off.

Any regrets on releasing this one as the video to precede the album?
,,Not at all! It lead a lot of people to us that may not have listened otherwise. I don’t think they are thrown off. We’d put out a few cover videos periodically before that while we were writing the second album, so I don’t think they were caught off guard by it.’’

Indeed it does attract listeners that don’t necessarily get introduced to the band through other channels. Listening to the other cover versions indeed adds up to the words of Matt. Aside that it also hints the influences of the band and their wide array of musical input from the scene and from the past. Southern Rock elements are keenly injected into a cocktail of powerful hardrock riffs that link to classic rock as much as it does to the better side of the grunge era. It’s a mix of styles the band manages to drive home as their own unique sound.

When I listened to the album, a ton of emotions are throwing me over. I hear blues, southern rock…. I hear heavy metal and contemporary rock. It all distilled into Blacktop Mojo. The variety is king on the album without missing the typical unique band sound. Which bands and musicians influenced you all as players?
Matt agrees: ,,We all listen to everything from hardcore metal to folk to country and everything in between. The bands we all kind of agree are influences on all of us would be Alice In Chains, Tool, and Soundgarden to name a few. Our drummer, Nathan [Gillis], is a huge fan of Danny Carey and I’m a huge fan the late Chris Cornell and Layne Staley. Our bass player, Catt [Matt Curtis], is a big Flea fan so there’s a little of that funk in his playing. KI [Kenneth Irwin – rhythm guitar] likes a lot of hardcore music. One of his favourite bands is Whitechapel. [Ryan] Kiefer, our lead guitar player, is influenced a lot by Mark Tremonti as well as Stevie Ray Vaughn. Pretty diverse indeed.’’

How do you feel about the scene and journalists trying to label you down in a certain direction of segment of music?
,,I think it’s cool really. Everyone seems to come up with a different way to describe us so that’s fun to see.’’

How would you personally classify Blacktop Mojo?
,,Hard Southern Rock!’’

The plus in all the diversity displayed in your music is the keen ear for melody in your compositions as well as the wide and warm range of vocals by you. Your voice is recognizable and hints big names in the field. A sharp edge, deep and charismatic overall sound, with a ting of (sometimes) Cornell…. I think you are one of the focal points in between the musical tornado of Blacktop Mojo…. Who influenced you vocally?
,,Thank you. That is a huge compliment. Chris Cornell is definitely one of my heroes. I’d say him, Layne Staley, and Robert Plant are some of my biggest vocal influences.’’

With `Burn The Ships’ in your luggage, wouldn’t it be time to explore more of the world?
,,Definitely! Our biggest goal is to be able to see the world and share our music with as many people as want to listen.’’

Anything set for the European market yet? Your music could be big over here….
,,Nothing to speak of yet, but we’re not ruling it out. We definitely want to come over there and rock with you guys as soon as we’re able.’’

With `Burn The Ships’ gathering this much attention it is strange the band has no record-deal in their pocket. The quality is reckoned and journalists do praise the band. It seems like a matter of time really…

Any interest coming from record companies to sign you for other countries?
Matt’s answer however disgruntles me deeply: ,,I don’t think we’ve had any that I’m aware of.’’

It’s strange to hear quality bands hardly being recognised nowadays, but it also creates more creative diversity in getting to reach the goals set. Blacktop Mojo take things one step at the time, the classic approach.

Anything else in the pipeline for the next couple of months?
,,We’ve got our first single, ,,Where The Wind Blows’’, at radio now and we’ll be rolling out on our first leg of our U.S. tour in July and hitting as many places over here as we can.’’

With my eyes on their touring agenda I see an increasing number of dates. Good to see, but it’s only a matter of time before the pace picks up and Blacktop Mojo is taken on a nation wide tour. They certainly deserve it!
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