TEST – Going for Clarity with Blake Stokes

Written by Colin Kirkland Blake Stokes is growing up. He just had a child; he finally moved out of his rehearsal space; and he is no longer getting drunk...

Written by Colin Kirkland

Blake Stokes is growing up. He just had a child; he finally moved out of his rehearsal space; and he is no longer getting drunk on stage. Instead, he is using clarity and concision to best represent the sonic chaos heard in his LA punk-rock trio, TEST. Late last year, Stokes, Wayne Meza, and Morgan Ponder released their debut EP entitled, Tremble and Vibrate, which set the tone for their new brash, solicitous sound. I was able to talk with Stokes about evolving as a musician, the process of creating their latest single, “7th Street Metro,” and the discipline it takes to leave the studio with something finished.

When Blake Stokes first met TEST bassist, Wayne Meza, they were frequently closing down a club in Houston, Texas. They were each intertwined with separate bands playing the same venue and immediately hit it off, bonding heavily over The Smashing Pumpkins and an array of British bands, for Stokes informed me that he is an undercover Anglophile. When they decided to combine their talents, they moved to Los Angeles to be part of a larger city-scene. With several other musicians, they moved into a studio space in Vernon, a dingy, industrial area right outside of the city. Stokes and Meza agreed that illegally living in their leased studio would only be short-term. “But once you start doing it, you’re like this is fucking easy, this is cheap, this kind of fulfills all your needs,” reflected Stokes, “So you can end up there longer than you think.” Stokes lived there on and off for four years. It is now just their studio. I was curious about what it is currently like due to the band members’ separate living arrangements. “Has this changed the band dynamic at all,” I asked Stokes.
“There was something very cool for me about waking up in the morning and just seeing equipment,” he said, “It kept you absolutely in that mindset where there wasn’t any sort of tangible separation between the band and day-job or the band and ‘regular life’ (What’s that?). I did really like that full immersion of it. But the trade-off is that no one lives here anymore so it’s a work space exclusively now, which is better for creative stuff…the separation is probably healthier for the overall productivity of what we’re doing.” It was clear that Stokes still missed the romanticized version of this full-time punk lifestyle, but in order to fulfill his creative goals, he needed a new perspective.

Before TEST came to fruition, Meza and Stokes messed around with a larger band that didn’t work out – “Do we want to continue to deal with this unwieldy five-headed thing or do we want to pair it down to where I just start playing guitar?” contemplated Stokes. He was the lead singer and the only instrument he somewhat played was drums. After they broke up, Meza gave Stokes a barebones lesson in guitar: “Wayne’s extent of my guitar lesson was put a finger here, move two over, one down and that’s a power chord, you’re done…The first show, Clash style, I had stickers on my fucking guitar for where to put my fingers. That’s how it came to be.” It’s been five years since Stokes started learning guitar and he now has a much better grasp on it. During this time, Meza and Stokes lost their drummer. Their manager introduced them to Morgan Ponder, a drummer for a band that was splitting some of the same bills. Stokes recalled their first interaction: “I didn’t remember meeting him because I was probably drunk (laughs).” Shortly after, in 2015, Stokes, Meza, and Ponder created TEST.

Stokes delivers the opening lines of Tremble and Vibrate with a confidant drawl; “Last night I took a drive / To find my severed head.” After talking to him, it seemed as if the EP was a definitive landmark for TEST, a declaration of their new band, new sound and new presence in the LA music scene. While working on Tremble in 2016, Stokes became heavily influenced by one of his favorite bands, Guided by Voices, and their ability to create songs that make every second stand out. “There’s a song on their Best Of that’s twenty-four seconds,” said Stokes, “And the thing I like about that, as I started to write by myself, is that that’s all you need. I hate when there’s too much shit, when it turns into three separate songs in one.” When TEST had a few demos recorded, they went to Trey Findley, a musician who plays in the LA band, Liphemra. With Findley’s production expertise, they record the EP and gradually released the songs to the public. According to Stokes, “That kind of set the tone for everything now.”

TEST is going for clarity, an objective that might help other aspiring musicians. When I asked about how the band has evolved since Tremble, Stokes walked me through a few ideas he and the band are working with in order to create concise, thoughtful songs for their upcoming album; in Stokes’ words it’s about “simplifying, pairing down, and focusing.” “There’s something I used to do in old bands that I’m trying to be more sensible about – not every change in the song has to have every single fucking instrument and vocal changing.” There’s a brand new song that Stokes is working on and he is discovering that what appears almost “too simple” may actually be the best option. Meza guided him in the direction of the simple riff route when he first heard it, a display of the innate connection between the two TEST founders. “It’s that instinct that says, ‘Don’t overthink this,” said Stokes, “Letting the song take route and do its thing seems antithetical to what your brain wants to do.” While delving into the concept of creative concision, Stokes brought up a musical observation: “When you read interviews with famous musicians, they ask them ‘How long did it take you to write something like that?’ Almost across the board, they’ll be like, ‘Twenty minutes…’ Generally, if you don’t have the song the first couple go-rounds, it’s probably not that good and you’re just overcooking it at that point. We’ve absolutely had ideas and songs like that.” However, their most recent single clicked immediately. “7th Street Metro” is a heart-thumping, stir crazy road-race through swirling wind gusts and it was written within twenty minutes off a random guitar riff.

When I first read TEST’s bio about closing out bars, taking cheap tequila shots, and squatting in a studio space in the middle of an industrial park, I didn’t expect the high level of discipline that Stokes now infuses into his music-making. Following the advice of Nick Cave, Stokes believes now that when he goes to the studio, in which he used to live, he doesn’t focus on anything besides the work – “We’re here to work, it’s not some kind of weird, ‘Am I sleeping? Am I balancing my checkbook?” Nick Cave said that whenever he was done playing for the day, he would have to finish at least one draft of what he was focusing on during the session. In response to this method, Stokes told me that, “Putting constructs, limitations and rules on yourself like that is really helpful.” Now, when Stokes is leaving the studio he makes sure he has a fresh demo to play in the car-ride home. And even though “a lot of the times it’s shit,” it’s finished and it might become something for the upcoming record. Stokes reflected on his evolving mindset: “Most bands are dudes who like the same records who can kinda play instruments, want to get drunk and make noise together and I was absolutely that for years and it’s a fucking blast. But it reaches a point where you’re moving across country, you’re renting a space, and you’re putting your own money into what you’re doing and it’s like, ‘Okay, so are we serious?’ If you are…you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not taking it seriously…for a lot of people that do this, it’s something that they have to do. That’s why you stop getting wasted at shows and stop being a fucking fool and you force yourself to come finish a demo.”

If you are ever in Los Angeles, you can find Stokes at The Hi Hat, a newer club that TEST plays rather frequently. He won’t be waiting in the dressing room before going on, but will instead be out in the audience checking out the opening acts, waiting to indulge in any alcoholic substances until after his set. Check out “7th Street Metro” and stay tuned for newer tunes!

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