A Interview with Don Rauf of Life In A Blender

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Within the hotbed that is New York City lies a treasure trove of artists and bands that span across all genres, age groups and more. Life In A Blender is one of those bands. Don Rauf is the leader of Life In A Blender, and to say that he, along with his bandmates, have created something truly unique would be an understatement. If you’re a fan of Captain Beefheart, Frank Zapppa and all things noisy and Indie, then Life In A Blender is for you. They’ve got their own sound, and they combine it with interesting literary elements shrouded and tinged with a quirky sensibility that can only be described as a true “blending” of genres and motifs. If this kind of thing is for you, then head over to Life In A Blender’s Bandcamp here. But first, sink your teeth into this interview with Don Rauf. He’s got a unique sense of humor and style. Cheers.

Andrew:
Don, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been some year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to keep your mind off the ever-raging dumpster fire?

Don:
I’ve been standing on the front porch a lot, angrily shaking my fist at the clouds. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the basement with my imaginary friends—who are my best friends—the ones I can count on. Because my real friends are horrible. Plus, I have a piano in the basement. And, my wife and I have been writing mountains of postcards to help Ossoff and Warnock win the Senate runoff in Georgia. If my colorful Sharpie work doesn’t get out the vote, democracy is over. Also I’ve been doing Beer.

Andrew:
Tell us a bit about your backstory? How did you get into music?

Don:
Growing up, we had a player piano in the basement that we would cram spools into. Then you’d sit on the stool and pump the pedals like you were in the Tour de France. My whole family had enormous thighs. “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” were major hits on the old piano. I pointed at the old piano one day, and told my parents, “I want to grow up to be like him!”

I really did find my first guitar in a dump. I was in junior high bringing up the rear with two friends as we marched single file through the neighborhood dump to get to this drug store to buy all sorts of crap. Along the way, my foot came down on what sounded like a hollow box. I stopped and scraped through some trash and pulled out a guitar case, and inside was a 12-string guitar that wasn’t in too bad of shape. After killing my two friends, I took the guitar home and started to learn how to play. I insist each song that I write to this day always contains essence of dump.

Andrew:
As an artist, who are some of your earliest influences? As you’ve evolved musically, how have those influences changed?

Don:
In Poughkeepsie growing up, the rock station WPDH would play the expected hits but also the station would throw in a lot of unexpected songs—Tom Waits, London Wainwright, Randy Newman, Arlo Guthrie. My ear kept gravitating to those singer-songwriters who were going down some slightly twisted strange, dark but humorous path rather than just Styx and the Pure Prairie League.

Then Dave Moody, who I’ve known since junior high seemed to be always hearing about newer “Alternative” Rock—Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, B-52s, Devo, Talking Heads….so because that music was hitting just as our teenage selves were forming, we latched on and that music melded into our brains. That influence seeped in and stayed there. I think I’m open to all different sounds and ideas now, and I like to think we vary our sound from song to song, so there’s not really one current influence.

Andrew:
Your band, Life In A Blender has a new EP out. It’s called Satsuma and it’s pretty great. Tell us more about the new EP.
My understanding is 5 of the 6 tracks on Satsuma are inspired by the Bushwick Book Club. How did that tie in come to be?

Don:
The album features five songs inspired by literary works: “Vacancy for a Bluebird” comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country, “Soul Deliverer” is based on Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, “Party in the Drunken Forest” is from The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and “A Freak of Nature with a Lonely Heart” is from Dean Haspiel’s comic The Red Hook.

I wrote these songs for the Bushwick Book Club (BBC), which a great creative project started by Susan Hwang. She brings musicians together, usually about once a month to write a new song based on one particular book. Her idea caught on and now branches of the Bushwick Book Club all over the country and in London and Sweden too.

We started recording maybe summer of 2019 and I think originally we were heading for a full album. Still, it’s almost 30 minutes…what is the cut off for LP vs. EP? We had basic tracks down, fortunately, when the outbreak slammed us all. We even had the horn tracks set—-thanks to Jackie Coleman, Kevin Moehringer, and Drew Krasner.

Then we spent months obsessively brooding over every detail—because we had the time. We did a bunch of overdubs long distance, and we decided to make it more of a custom-made book with a CD featuring original art for each song and cocktails inspired by the songs.

The album, by the way, is on FANG Records, which was started decades ago by my old roommate and friend Chris Rael, who has his own amazing band, Church of Betty. Except for our very first album, we’ve put out every Blender album on FANG. 

Andrew:
I really like how each track has its own accompanying artwork and a cocktail recipe to pair along with it. Very creative. Was that your idea?

Don:
I am forced to give Mark Lerner credit for that. We reached out to friends who drink excessively and to Barbes, our favorite club/bar in Brooklyn where we often play. Olivier, who owns Barbes, reached out to his star bartender Justin Briggs, and he came up with two of the cocktails—The Bluebird and The Black and Rolling Tongue, which I especially like. It has mezcal, fernet, sweet vermouth, and lemon…I think it really does make your tongue black and roll, which is something I find not unpleasant. But it might be an acquired taste. Still, you should try it. Right now!

Andrew:
Where can we get the new EP? What formats will it be on? I heard that if you order the CD version there will be some extras included? Is that true?

Don:
The physical product and downloads are available at www.lifeinablender.net. Of course, you can stream on all the streamers, and we will put your .000000001 cent in the bank with each listen. Enough to buy a sandwich for a microbe.

I am afraid the only extras are the original art, and cocktail recipes, and lyrics all in an inconveniently shaped book that will awkwardly jut out of your CD rack so you can find it instantly.

Life in a Blender makes the big time • Brooklyn Paper

Andrew:
As a songwriter, you’re nothing short of original. How did you develop your signature style? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Don:
Thank you. Can I repeat answers? That would be easiest. I aspired to write songs with some humor and cleverness—like Randy Newman, Loudon, Tom Waits. I am several leagues beneath their sea but I wanted to swim in a pool like theirs. Otherwise, I keep the red notebook with scraps of lyrics, pull from various phrases. I want to avoid lyrics that have been written before and not be afraid to be awkward and that has probably all contributed to our barely detectable popularity. But we still have a pulse.

Andrew:
Let’s switch gears a bit now. Tell me your thoughts on the current state of the music scene these days? What’s it like out there for an indie artist?

Don:
I think we travel endlessly in the same circles so we probably see and hear too much of ourselves. “Oh, look. There we are again.” We play our usual couple spots in New York—Barbes and Rockwood Music Hall. Occasionally, Joe’s Pub gives us the beckoning finger—not the other one. It seems more people than ever are in bands and there’s a lot to like but I often can’t find it. You put on “Life in a Blender Radio” on Spotify and every other song is Camper van Beethoven. I guess this is my way of saying I know only a small sliver of the music scene today. It definitely is harder to make money because everyone is streaming and no one really wants tangible product. So every Indie artist must be driven by some irrational compulsion and delusion that they are doing something vital and they just can’t stop.

I’m lucky to have been playing with incredibly creative and cute band members for decades—Mark Lerner, Al Houghton, Ken Meyer, Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, and Dave Moody. I feel we just barrel along because we all want to keep making new music, and we’re often surprised to hear what we will do next. I will say this again: I’m so lucky to play with these people—there’s a thick glue.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Taps? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Don:
I love vinyl. I tend to go to the used album stores. I’m mostly in Seattle now so I had been going to the amazing Bop Street Records a lot. Unfortunately, they closed this year—mostly because of the pandemic, but they had just an endless treasure trove of old vinyl. I also really like Silver Platters and Fat Cat Records…I bought Oscar Brand’s Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads and an album of bird songs from the Northeastern US. I’m attracted to birds and many of our songs feature birds.

Zig At The Gig with Don Rauf - YouTube

Andrew:
Once COVID-19 is finished with us, what’s next for both you and the band?

Don:
This is the year we’re going to try to become popular. We’re committed to spending our remaining twilight years on Zoom. Like so many bands, we miss the live shows—the smell of each fan, the noises that come out of them, and their expressions when we finish. So it will be great to play live again, and I’ve been writing a ton of new material in lockdown so we really want to get together in person to work on it. I think we can make a cozy antiseptic bubble in the woods, work on the new material, and maybe even start recording more.   

Andrew:
Last question. How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist compared to your earlier days? Has the mission statement of Life In A Blender changed?

Don:
I like the way the writer John Burdick describes our music today:

“LiaB is Chamber Punk. They have a chamber range of referentiality and anything-can-happen aesthetic more reminiscent of Naked City, to me, than say Beefheart, but there’s a core atomic style–somewhere between Pub Rock, Punk, spy. Where LiaB is beefheartian is in the lyrics. It is pretty masterful to be that surreal AND that emotionally rooted, and in that way the band really is the company of the Captain.”

This is high praise and means a lot. When we started, we definitely were more jokey. And while jokey can be great, I think I’ve moved on from writing songs about dogs humping. But one never knows.

Musically, I love the phrase Chamber Punk because I think we still have an in-your-face, raw, and DIY approach but we’ve been able to add orchestration to the basic Rock band set-up that we started with, and it all supports the songs without being too fancy pants.

Life in a Blender, with Don Rauf at the helm, to perform at Rockwood Music  Hall - New York Daily News

Want to learn more about the music of Life In A Blender? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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