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Getting to know The Black Lab Guy. An in-depth chat with Andy Ellis

11 July 2023

Hi Andy, as always, can we start with some background? Can you tell me a bit about the musical journey that has got you to where you are today?

For sure. I’m a guy who wears a lot of hats. I was born in the UK but grew up in Chicago. In the mid 90’s by the time I was 17, I was gigging all over the greater Chicago area as a guitar player, playing both original music and covers, and my band at the time made a self-produced full length album. At 18, I moved to Southern California, and while I studied sound engineering, I was writing pop songs, making beats for rappers, and also composing electronic music.

At 21 I started working in major studios in LA – interning, running, assistant engineering. Every waking hour I wasn’t doing someone else’s bidding I wrote, produced, and mixed music, both for other artists as well as myself. Looking back at that time I guess I never slept. From the studio scene I joined alternative rock band Black Lab who was signed to Epic records at the time in which I’ve made music for over two decades. Black Lab, as well as my later projects, never did any extensive touring though, so for the most part I’ve worked throughout my music career in various capacities non-stop in the studio.

I’m under the impression that those who know me for certain music don’t necessarily know about a lot of my other work. Professionally, I’m a songwriter, producer, engineer, mixer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist; and lately I’ve been making more and more visual art to compliment the music. So some know me as the Black Lab guy, others came to know me more specifically as a mix engineer; still more know me from my electro-pop-duo The Boom Circuits, who many discovered from our songs in TV shows, or our song featured in the last Twilight movie, and another single released on influential EDM label Armada.

Others know me simply as a writer and producer of lots of songs in film and television. More recently, a totally different group of people started paying attention because of my songwriting work with Alan Parsons including his single “Miracle” sung by Jason Mraz. And finally, a few people know me simply from my solo album “Sunshine at the Edge of the Earth.” I’ve found I’m not really fulfilled unless I’ve got my hands in all the different aspects of the process of creating music.

And elaborate on your musical influences and inspirations both within and outside the music world.

Wow ok, so at this point I’ve been influenced by an almost infinite variety of music and culture, so maybe it’s best for me to just talk about the very very beginning, the really early stuff that sent me on my way.

In the UK, I have some of my earliest memories in life riding around in the car with my parents listening to Abba. Before I could read or write, maybe before I could even speak, I was humming those amazing melodies. I also remember being both terrified and mesmerized by guys with multi-colored mohawks walking around down by the River Thames. My mom told me they were punk rockers.

I’d say my biggest influence though was simply being a child of 80’s. I grew up in a world where Star Wars, Japanese Robots, Video Games, and Electric Guitars were the coolest things in the universe. My Mom (who was a music teacher) forced me to start playing the piano before I even turned 4. I was not a fan of music lessons so credit where credit is due, it was Marty McFly who convinced me that playing electric guitar was the most awesome thing I could do with my life. Back to the Future lead me straight to Chuck Berry’s greatest hits, and using my piano training & my dad’s cheap old folk guitar, I learned how to play those songs when I was about ten. By the time I was a teenager, it was all I wanted to do.

Late 80’s radio was a huge early influence on me as well. I would record all my favorite songs off the radio onto various cassettes, and then I would exclusively record an entire 120 minute cassette of my favorite song at the moment so no matter what I was doing I could listen to it on repeat over and over again. One week it would be The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter”, the next it would be “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and the following week it was probably “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Hilariously, one time I think I made a whole cassette of U2’s “New Years Day” playing off a record at 45 rpm’s rather than the correct 33. I loved it!

Now that I look at the arc of it all, at first for me, music was torture with the piano lessons, then it transformed and became empowering when I realized that I could actually make stuff sound like what I wanted to hear, and then it further evolved into something that I took extraordinarily seriously, probably a little too seriously. Now I think I’ve arrived at a place where I’m having more fun creating music than ever probably because I understand that realizing a vision is going to require a certain amount of insanity along the way. Sometimes it may be my own, and at other times I’ll be the one pulling someone back from the brink.

The track “My Town” evolved from the writing of the initial riff. What were the various stages of its development?

Well, so the main riff was something I just walked up to the piano in my studio and improvised one day. It felt so good I just wanted to play it over and over again – now that I think about it, kinda like my 120 minute cassette when I was a kid. Eventually when I recorded it, the musical track became this extended 12 minute somewhat EDM thing. I would play it for myself and occasionally for friends when I had a party, all instrumental. But then one day the lyrics just poured out and I felt this really vital internal conflict of “where am I now?” in relation to where I belong. It wasn’t obvious at that time what was happening; it took me writing at least several more songs before I realized oh, I’m making a solo album. For a while I was unsure if I even wanted to sing an album but as I wrote more, it was so specifically me and what I was feeling, I decided making my own album start to finish was what was happening and I had to follow through with it. As the rest of the record developed, the “My Town” arrangement became the more refined and condensed version that’s on the album and finally the video.

The new music video for “My Town” also went through various stages of change and challenges for you. Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, so the first single for Sunshine at the Edge of the Earth was “Wasteland (Where’s All The Money)” which is a counterpart to “My Town” in the sense that it’s exploring the same theme but from the opposite perspective – where’s the real “wasteland” as opposed to where’s the real “my town”? I initially imagined I would make a video for both.

My filmmaker friends Michael Mike Canon, Khorri Ellis, and I, made the “Wasteland” video with virtually no budget, pirate style, sneaking around in the coolest locations we could find around LA. I edited it all together and the response was really great so when it came time to make a video for the second single “My Town”, I was super confident that we could do it regardless of our resources. I was wrong…

I thought it would be really cool, since everyone had an HD camera in their pocket now, to do something that actively involved others. So I made a little video asking fans, friends, and anyone who wanted to participate, to send me footage that they thought was iconic and represented where they lived – in motion. That part of my idea worked, people actually uploaded me video they filmed from different places all over the world.

The other half of the idea was that Mike & Khorri would shoot two different Andys singing against a green screen which would create a kind of dialog with myself, and then I would layer it on top of an edit of all the footage that people had sent me – hopefully communicating the question “where is my town, really?”. Long story short, the ambition of all this completely eclipsed my resources, time available, and technical ability. After working on it off and on for over six months I felt like I had completely failed. I was pretty heartbroken especially because I had asked others to participate, but I felt I had no choice but to abandon it. I had to move on.

Then Covid happened and really shook things up to the point where I decided to leave LA and move to Austin, Texas.

Ironically, leaving my town of 25 years put all the ideas that had been circling in “My Town” back at the forefront of my mind. I found myself in a new life connecting to a new place, and this revealed something deeper about the meaning of the song to me, bringing me back to it, informing me more about myself. That sparked me revisiting the video.

I found all the footage in the same shape I’d left it when I abandoned the project, but now the time away really opened up a new perspective on how to put it all together and I saw a path to finishing it. So this spring on the fifth year anniversary of the album I finally released the music video for “My Town”.

Tell us more about the album, Sunshine at the Edge of the Earth, regarding both message and music?

I describe Sunshine at the Edge of the Earth as a musical journey through my internal conflicts with existence, where I try and sort out what I actually care about, trying to find where the meaning really is. Each song represents its own specific conflict, while overall there is this thematic linear thread through the album of: I’ve lost all relationship to my place in the world and sense of purpose; that’s an extraordinarily isolating place to be; ultimately, what is it that really matters here?

A big thing that was going through my head at the time around 2016 was frustration with the state of the music business as well as our culture itself and having ideas that I had no outlet to express. I also remember feeling an enormous need to create something that I could stand behind, that I felt was a strong artistic statement regardless of its commercial status. Perhaps another way to say that is, I needed to find something that I could listen to and feel “Yes, this is the music I should be making!”

Listening to it now, all the songs sound different from each other to me in a positive way. Nothing is repeating itself. Also, I hear it celebrating the good things technology has done for music. For its fifth anniversary, I just released the instrumental version of the entire album for those who just want to connect with the music itself.

Where exactly is “your town,” both in terms of what you are saying via the song and where do you actually call home?

I’m still not sure exactly where “my town” is, or what it is for that matter. But I think I’m getting closer and that’s all you can do. I haven’t been here in Austin very long but I’m getting this general feeling, everywhere around me, that people here deeply care about music more than anywhere I’ve ever been and that’s pretty inspiring!

Finally, what does the future hold for you?

No one ever really knows, right, but that’s what’s exciting about it. I’m starting to share much more of my process of making music. I’m going to be sharing content on Youtube and see how it evolves depending on what people respond to. I’ve been putting together a lot of video material where people can see me and others in the studio creating, as well as discussing things relating to music production that we really enjoy. I’ll be sharing stuff that’s entertaining, inspiring, and also should be helpful to others in their own creative endeavors. I’ll be sharing new music in progress.

Finishing the “My Town” video has really refreshed my interest in what can be done with music and visual art both on and off the internet. I’ve composed a collection of music under the moniker Los Vangellis that goes along thematically with fine artwork by UltraMod artist Sean Danconia that we are putting out on vinyl. Over the pandemic, I created my first art book of hand drawn Mandalas exploring what this new AI tech can do to create video based on music and lyrics fused those with some of this visual art I created. I’m hoping that leads to interesting new music videos both for unreleased music I’ve already finished as well as new material I’m working on for various projects.

I continue to mix music for other artists, write songs, produce, compose; I’m happiest when I do something different every day. But I think we have to do something different now overall with regards to the music business. The old formats don’t seem relevant anymore. Genre is almost meaningless now and everyone fighting to get streaming plays is just feeding a beast that doesn’t ultimately go anywhere satisfying, either for the artists or the fans. If streaming is the only goal, music becomes too commodified and impersonal. It communicates the idea that this universe of music human beings created isn’t actually astoundingly valuable in and of itself. We all just move non-stop on to the next thing. It doesn’t connect people and art in any intimate or meaningful way.

We need communities and avenues that reveal the vitality in the things people create and reward people for participating! I definitely don’t have the answer, but I think that is where energy is best spent now, looking for something that melds art and music into a more expansive experience. I think a good metaphor is we need to take all this technology and discover the next great thing everyone can do together around the campfire.

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