Arts…by Paul Rigg
How do dark characters in a virtual bar inspire music, art, drama and comics? Paul Rigg meets Blue Identity, the band at the centre of an original and unusual project.
When I first meet Eme Navarro, the founder of transatlantic Madrid-based rock and blues group Blue Identity, he surprises me: “I don’t like listening to music sung in Spanish,” he admits, “I prefer English and American music because the lyrics sound better. I love bands like Iggy Pop, The Clash and Tom Waits. That’s why Tom Macintosh, our Canadian singer, is so important to our band; people want to hear the lyrics perfectly pronounced in English.”
Blue Identity are currently hot news. Their great sound and performances have regularly drawn the interest of high profile media like Spanish TVE1 and Vaughan Systems, and have led to heavy play on Radio 5. But their notoriety is growing because they are also part of a groundbreaking project that links stories, comics and music through a novel and creative website called “Latabernadelescoces” (“The Scotsman’s Tavern”).
A bar is born
The website concept, the brainchild of Seville-based keyboardist José María Tornero, is a virtual bar populated by virtual characters. A glance at the site’s ‘Dramatis Personae’ gives the characters’ names, all of whom seem to have hit rock bottom. They need to drown their sorrows and tell their tales. This internet-based project quickly attracted dozens of real-life writers, artists, directors and designers, some working on the virtual side, others bringing the ideas to real life, in a creative whirlwind in some ways reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Factory.
As a brief overview, the writers create the characters for the website, making sure they have dark and colourful pasts. In the real world, artists then develop these characters in comic strips. Plays, videos and short films are produced by directors and actors, whilst the designers make t-shirts which are sold on-line and at Blue Identity concerts. The virtual characters and their stories form the basis to the band’s lyrics and songs.
The Scotsman’s Tavern is also at the vanguard of making its comics, stories and music available for free download. “I want people to listen to our music and to download it,” says Eme Navarro, who in addition to founding Blue Identity is also a key figure in the Cultura libre (free culture) movement in Spain, “We must fight against all forms of censorship on the internet and make culture available for all.”
This pioneering attitude, coupled with the energy of the artists involved, has produced many surprisingly inventive results in a very short period of time. Javier Castelló, a young filmmaker, wrote and directed a short film entitled “The Scotsman’s Tavern” that was enthusiastically received when it opened at the Pinto Short Film Festival in May. The film brings several of the virtual characters to life, and interweaves footage of Blue Identity playing on stage. “We’d just finished a gig in Pinto when the film crew suddenly started transforming the place into the Tavern,” explains lead singer Tom Macintosh. “It was nearly six in the morning and we were all in zombie mode, but the adrenalin quickly got going as soon as the lights came on. Nonetheless, I am very pleased it was shot in black and white!” The pilot video for the band’s track “Sweet Black Angel” was an offshoot of the film.
Blue Identity’s first full-length music video, “Aileen Star”, recounts the story of a young woman whose dreams of becoming a star end in tatters, and she winds up at the end of a factory production line, staring into deep space. “It is a grim representation of the downside of the entertainment industry,” says Macintosh, “but it nevertheless received well over one thousand You Tube hits soon after it was made available on-line.”
Taking the lead
Macintosh’s involvement with Blue Identity began under curious circumstances. “Two years ago, shortly after the band were formed, they were looking for a native English-speaking singer–and I was the first to come along!” he laughs. “Actually one of the band members, Mariana, was giving my daughter piano lessons. I mentioned that I used to sing in bands in Canada and shortly afterwards I was invited to a rehearsal. Eighteen months later we had 12 original songs and were ready for our first gig in Madrid’s La Fídula. It was packed that night–people were hanging off the rafters. Things just started rollin’ after that.”
“I think everybody likes rock music sung in English,” he continues, echoing Eme Navarro’s feelings about the importance of language, “when I listen to [Frenchman] Johnny Hallyday all his licks are American, but it just doesn’t have bite. But I also enjoy Spanish songs–musicians like Ketama, Kiko Veneno and Fito y Fitipaldis. They go heavy but sing in Spanish. I like those guys.”
Breaking with tradition
Unusually, in a world of rock traditionally dominated by men, Blue Identity’s drummer is a woman, Mariana Hernández. She studied symphonic percussion in Madrid’s Arturo Soria Music Conservatory, is the highly accomplished anchor for the band, and one of her compositions, “Divine Sign”, is amongst their most popular numbers. Two of Madrid’s top musicians complete the line up: Varian Villanueva on bass and Rafael ‘Vali’ Redondo on lead guitar. All members contribute lyrics and music for the songs.
Professional engagements aside, the band are also committed to ‘giving something back’ by playing charity gigs. They have contributed towards raising funds for a hospital in Tanzania and played in a concert to help provide clean drinking water for people in Cameroon. Around 400 people attended the Cameroon charity gig and Tom Macintosh remembers it as a particular success. “We’d just come back from our tour of Galicia so we were tight, my pipes were working well and we got an excellent reaction from the audience. Everything came together and, most importantly, the charity raised more than €2,000.”
Juan Calleja is one of the writers currently putting the final touches to a play based on the characters from the Scotsman’s Tavern. When the final version hits the stage early in the New Year, it is planned that Blue Identity will play live to support the performance. “It’s a monologue by the bar owner,” explains Calleja, “in which he talks about the issues in his own life and those of the Tavern’s characters.”
February 2011 should see the release of the band’s first full-length CD, as well as a book and a comic containing the characters’ stories. “For this project it is essential that the various elements are sold together because the root of the idea is to combine literature, art and music. The Tavern must have everything,” comments Calleja. As part of the promotion Blue Identity are scheduled to play live in the music mega-store FNAC in Madrid, and looking longer term, they plan to hit the UK towards the end of next year. “We would of course love most of all to play our set in some bars and taverns in Scotland” concludes Eme Navarro. “We are really looking forward to seeing how our songs and stories will go down there.”
Blues Identity plan to tour Scotland next year and are looking for help with promotion and venues. Anyone who can help please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org