Blue Ray: Innovation in Simplicity
by James Ammirato
The Boston DIY scene is an enigmatic one. In a city full of emerging musicians, it’s hard to use a singular genre to describe the whole scene. Right now, however, there is a massive glut of indie rock and pop, similar to Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail. While a lot of it is great, I personally prefer bands with a more punk-oriented attitude, bands that are fast and loud and get right to the point.
Enter Blue Ray, the current project of guitarist/singer Johnny Steines and drummer Aidan Breen. Blue Ray manages to make an unbelievable amount of sound given the stripped down nature of their instrumentation, even though they’re just a two-piece. Johnny plugs a Boss Metal Zone pedal into his mic and cranks it all the way, creating a constant stream of feedback when he turns it on. When he screams into it, the feedback’s pitch is drastically changed and reshaped in a random way. Think of playing an instrument, but when changing notes, the result is unplanned, due to the chaotic nature of feedback. This is a wholly unique vocal style and sound that I had never seen before, or even heard about being done. Aidan complements Johnny perfectly by playing a simple, yet highly effective minimalistic style, wailing on the drums to make up the other half of the band’s sound, fast and loud, but never careless.
I was first turned on to Blue Ray after a friend described them as “his current favorite band in Boston,” and proceeded to play me some of their most well-known LP, 2018’s Open Sesame. It was the kind of moment where I knew I would need to see the band live to fully experience what I was hearing. A couple weeks later, I was able to see them and was blown away by what I saw. I reached out to Johnny about an interview and was able to talk to him and Aidan at their house.
Both Johnny and Aidan live at local house venue Trixie’s Palace. A typical Boston show house, Trixie’s has a basement where bands play, and a nice upstairs to hang out at in between sets, not to mention an indoor porch lining the exterior. There’s a large foyer upon entry, and a living room with a couple overstuffed couches where we sat. High ceilings looked down on us as I spoke to them about the band.
How did Blue Ray start?
Johnny Steines: We started playing last… January?
Aidan Breen: I think we’re about a year old. February I think was our first show.
JS: Yeah, we’re like right over a year old.
AB: We met because we were playing shows together. Johnny was in this band, Crispy Lips, and I was in this band for a long time, Underwater Bear Ballet, that was going through a bunch of name changes so I don’t know what we were going by at that point.
JS: Sponge Glow probably.
AB: Yeah, Sponge Glow by then. And then we played at Midway [Café] after my band broke up, I played solo and you guys played, and then what, I think you just messaged me on Facebook seeing if I wanted to play drums with Cove Sauce.
JS: Yeah, our old band was Cove Sauce. Don’t talk about that one too much.
Where did the name come from? Is it a play on the DVD format?
JS: Not really, I kind of just liked it. I guess it is a little bit of a play on that, because the quality of the music is lo-fi typically, and recorded pretty poorly, so maybe it’s a little bit of a quality thing, but I guess I was just thinking of rays of blue light as a nice visual for feedback, since there’s a lot of feedback in the band. I don’t really know, though, there’s not really a meaning.
AB: That’s what you always said, you were always just like “a ray of blue light.”
So I’ve seen you guys twice, and there’s a lot of genre names floating around right now, but I feel like you guys could fall under a lot of different genres, considering there are a lot of different elements to your music. When people ask you what kind of music you play, what do you usually say?
JS: Rock. Or maybe rock ‘n’ roll.
AB: I always used to tell people punk, because I feel like that might prepare them a little more, but it depends on who I’m talking to. Usually I’ll say like a loud punk band cause it gives them more of an idea of whether or not it’s something they’re into than if you just say rock.
JS: Sometimes I say loud. Or loud rock.
You didn’t really mention that Blue Ray is noisy, but I think of you guys as noise punk or something along those lines.
JS: That’s fine with me.
I mean you guys are noisier than a lot of bands that are popular in Boston right now.
JS: Our new album is more like that, too.
The most recent one?
AB: The one we’re working on, it’s a lot heavier and darker.
JS: A lot of the live songs we play that aren’t recorded are gonna be on this one. [This new album] is kind of trying to push in that direction more, and just be more noisy and heavy.
Do you guys record here? Or do you go to a studio?
AB: So far we’ve only recorded here.
JS: I was talking about maybe going to a studio for this album, but I don’t think I want to anymore.
AB: I think we can do a fine job on our own.
Do you have a slated release date for the new record?
JS: We still haven’t started recording it yet, we’re almost done writing everything, because we wanna make it long, and it’s a lot of songs that we haven’t even played live yet. I still have to write things and I’m adding a few extras to it, but we know what it’s called.
AB: Johnny’s super prolific as a writer, but he’s also very picky, so it makes it a difficult process.
Do you mix and master everything?
AB: We mix it, but--
JS: Everything except Open Sesame I’ve mixed, but on Open Sesame we really did everything together. This one is gonna be that process again where we’re probably gonna do everything together, just because they’re the songs we’ve been playing together and wrote together.
What’s your general songwriting process?
JS: There’s usually one part first, I tend to write the beginnings of songs and then not really know where to go with them which is why they’re so short a lot of the time, so we’ll start with a drum part that Aidan has or a guitar part that I have. Every now and then there’s a full idea that someone has but that doesn’t usually happen.
AB: Or it just all comes together really quickly.
JS: It’s usually one or two ideas that we put together.
AB: A lot of the songs on Open Sesame came together really quickly.
JS: Yeah I think four of them were written in one day, in one sitting. And I had only come up with those ideas the day before, and just fucked around with a guitar, and Aidan kind of just did what he wanted to do over those.
AB: I feel like [writing the new album] has been a more intense writing process because we’re trying to be more collaborative and more experimental, but I think Johnny generally has the skeleton ideas and then we just try to put them together, which sometimes can go really well if we’re both in very inspired moods--
JS: Yeah sometimes it can go really well.
AB: Sometimes it’s amazing, usually it’s just really frustrating, especially because the way I write songs is that I write them and then they’re done and I’m not used to so much trial and error necessarily so I get frustrated sometimes.
JS: I don’t do that unless the song is perfect, like those four songs when we finished them, we didn’t touch them I don’t think.
What are some of your biggest influences?
JS: Definitely some bands in Boston have really influenced me.
AB: I like Rong.
JS: Yeah we both really like Rong, they’re super inspiring to us.
AB: Rong is one of the best bands in Boston right now, if not the best.
JS: We just played with Bugs and Rats, that’s a band we’ve loved forever, that was amazing for us.
JS: Yeah we really love Victoria Shen and Dana. There’s definitely a lot more that I can’t think of right now. One of my favorite bands was from Boston, (New England) Patriots, they’re so good.
AB: Some of the older Boston bands that aren’t around anymore too, like Guerilla Toss when they were in Boston, and Sediment Club.
JS: I really like ABBA.
AB: We both love ABBA.
JS: We really like dance music, and any sort of disco, like Electric Light Orchestra. We really like this band Viagra Boys, they’re so dance-y and funny.
AB: I feel like Johnny and I have a lot of overlap but our primary tastes are very different, which is an interesting dynamic.
JS: Aidan loves Mr. Bungle.
AB: Yeah I really love Mr. Bungle, and Nick Cave.
JS: I like Wilco.
AB: Yeah I don’t like Wilco.
JS: We both hate Radiohead.
Any guilty pleasure bands? Or not guilty necessarily, but when you said you guys like ABBA I was thinking of artists that people might not expect you to listen to.
JS: I like the Goo Goo Dolls.
AB: I like musicals, I feel like that’s a guilty pleasure.
JS: Why is that guilty? That’s cool.
AB: Because I feel like so many people think musicals are lame, but the music from some musicals is amazing. But like if someone asked me what I was listening to and it was the soundtrack from the Book of Mormon I’d be like… a podcast.
JS: I wanna repeat that I really like the Goo Goo Dolls. They’re really not good and I really love them. Also Jimmy Eat World. That’s not even guilty, I don’t know.
AB: I really like mid-2000’s or late ‘90s era pop, like middle school bangers.
Seeing you guys live, I can tell you’re a very cohesive band, and I think that always makes the music you make better. Would you say that living together and generally being around each other a lot helps that? Or do you think you just gel as musicians?
AB: I think we got lucky and just gel because I feel like when we started playing together it was in the same form that it is now, I was on drums and Johnny was playing guitar, and it was very different music at that point, but the type of guitar that Johnny plays is super fun to play drums over, and it’s high-energy which I like. I primarily play guitar and I feel like whenever I’m playing guitar or singing I have a little more trouble letting loose, but when I’m playing drums you kind of just have to go for it. But I think we were lucky, we just gelled from the get-go.
JS: It is nice living together, because if we’re home, we’re typically doing something pretty low-key. Every now and then I’ll get really bored and it’s nice to be able to go downstairs and just be really fucking loud. It makes being in a band a lot easier.
AB: Yeah we don’t have regular rehearsal days, we’re usually just like, ‘Wanna play right now?
JS: It’s really helpful ‘cause [Aidan] will be upstairs and I’ll have an idea and we can try it out quickly.
As far as the band, do you have any tour plans, label plans, anything on the horizon? What’s the future of Blue Ray?
AB: We have a lot of plans and no plans.
JS: We had a bunch of things we were planning, we were gonna move to LA, we were gonna do a tour in Australia which we had to cancel, or postpone at least. I don’t really know what the plan is, but we both wanna move somewhere together because we’re pretty directionless. I’m pretty open right now with what I wanna do, I just wanna make a big change. I feel like we’re both in the same spot right now. As long as we’re both in the same place we’ll still be a band, our direction is just a little bit questionable right now, but I think that’s a good place to be in as a band.
AB: I guess we’re open to record companies as well, but I feel like we’re both pretty particular, so it would have to be one that works for both of us, and one where we like all the other bands as well. I still wanna self-release, if I decide to get that off the ground.
JS: I like the idea of a label, I’ll let anyone put it out.
I have a couple more questions for Johnny. You have that blue guitar that looks totally gutted, did you do that? What’s the story there?
JS: I like that story. I used Aidan’s green guitar for the backup in our set, and I broke it while playing it. I didn’t notice, it was just an unrepairable crack because it’s a neck-through guitar, and I broke it right around the neck--
AB: Smashing it on the cymbals.
JS: Yeah, we didn’t even notice, but it’s unusable, and you can’t fix it. You can kind of use it.
AB: Nah, it’s fucked.
JS: Anyway, we put all the electronics in the blue guitar which our friend left downstairs and didn’t want anymore, just a Squier. But our friend helped us wire it and solder it and get it ready.
AB: Big thanks to Dan Simon.
JS: Yeah, Dan Simon, thank you. And that’s just the same guitar now, really basic, there’s Humbuckers in it. But it looks really shitty, which I like.
And with your vocal setup with the Boss Metal Zone, did you come up with that yourself or did you see someone else do that?
JS: I assume someone’s already done it, but we were just fucking with it, I remember I started recording with it because it sounded like Elmo, but it was always low so it wouldn’t feed back, and then we were playing Open Sesame songs with it.
AB: I don’t wanna take credit for it but I think I told you you should try it, because we were fucking around with lots of different effects, and that’s my pedal.
JS: Oh yeah! I remember that now, I was trying to replicate this GarageBand effect I was using called megaphone, and I was trying to find a pedal that could recreate that live, and then I think [Aidan] did recommend I use that, and then I just started leaving it on for parts. I’m sure someone’s done that, but I didn’t see anyone do it before. Also we realized that if you put the mic up to the drums and the amps and turn it on low it would pick up everything and kind of resonate in this weird robot way. It was accidental.
I’ve of course seen people use pedals for vocal setups, but that was something I’d never seen or even heard of doing, and I think it makes you guys sound unique, it’s such a signature sound, and it works so well.
AB: It’s funny cause it’s like the shittiest pedal.
JS: My mom was at one of our shows and at one point she just couldn’t take it.
I only survived because of my earplugs.
JS: Sam from Boston Hassle was like ‘You gotta tell people before you do that to wear earplugs,’ and I was like yeah you’re probably right, but he was serious.
AB: The thing is if people don’t wear earplugs to shows, what are you gonna do… ‘sorry.’
Any final thoughts?
AB: Listen to our new album when it comes out.
JS: It’s called Live Laugh Love. It’s gonna be dirty.