One of Milwaukee's own troubadour musicians -- Eric Beaumount, better known as Eric Blowtorch -- continues to find new ways of expressing himself and reveling in his all-encompassing passion for music. He's tried out a wide range of styles over the years from ska, reggae and soul to rock, funk, hip-hop and jazz.
That openness came to Blowtorch when he was about 18 or 19 years old, when he heard about Tom Robison. One day someone played him Tom Robinson's "Rising Free" EP which had the song "Glad to be Gay," causing great change in his thinking.
"As a straight dude, I suddenly realized this person was just like me; he just wanted the right to live his life the way he wanted," says Blowtorch. "I perceived people different instantly when I heard that song. It took about six minutes to undo 18 years of bad programming. Music can change people's lives."
It's that philosophy that's especially driven him to write and listen to quite a bit of reggae and Jamaican music, styles soaked in the blood and sweat of powerful rhythms and persuasive vocals.
"I like that it can direct anger so it can be constructive so you can reroute emotions that there's some morality to the emotions," says Blowtorch. He also likes the news-gathering, spiritual, and party nature of the genres, among other things.
As he made circles playing around the globe over the years, the Milwaukee native found new friends in all kinds of musicians, many leading to collaborations. His latest EP collaboration, "Groping in the Dark," finds the musician teaming up with Prince Jazzbo and U-Roy, two of the most legendary Jamaican/reggae musicians out there. It was his first collaboration with U-Roy and second with Jazzbo.
"I knew U-Roy and Jazzbo were pretty accessible guys and they were pretty close to the top of the list for me," says Blowtorch. "They're able to express a variety of ideas and moods on their records that I thought, 'Yeah, these are two guys I want to visit when I'm down there.'"
Blowtorch first met both of them in Kingston, Jamaica in 2007. Jazzbo and U-Roy have made their reputation as deejays, which, in the case of reggae deejays, talks over the rhythm. They also have been known to make singjay records, which the vocals combine toasting and singing allows for vocal embellishments.
"Jazzbo and U-Roy aren't crooners but you could say they've made a lot of singjay records," says Blowtorch.
Soon after he had written the "Groping in the Dark" arrangements with help from fellow Milwaukee musician Didier Leplae, Blowtorch says he handed U-Roy and Jazzbo the song in case they wanted to add something to it.
"I just said 'Here's a song, listen to it and tell me if you want to do something over it.' And they both wanted to work," says Blowtorch. "These guys have never gotten 1/10th of their due."
In the following years U-Roy and Jazzbo added to the composition, giving it their own interpretation.
"I think it's a good idea," says Jazzbo of the collaboration. "It keeps the reggae music alive."
The basic structure of the composition features Didier Leplae on yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer and Eric Blowtorch on guitar, backed by a steady drum beat.
"I think ... rhythmically (it) is the most complex (thing I've done) because there's all these rhythms going on," says Blowtorch. "It's a programmed drum track but all the sounds you hear is us playing and recording that into a computer like drumsticks kind of clicking each other."
That complex and addicting beat came as a result of Leplae and Blowtorch using ordinary, homemade objects to make noise. To achieve this they experimented hitting objects such as cymbals, pots, pans and even paints buckets.
"We used a paint can with dried paint on bottom of it so when you hit it from below you kind of got this rumble. It wasn't a musical rumble but Didier was able to tune it and play certain sounds backwards."
When it came time to make the lyrics, it was pretty straightforward message. The lyrics were inspired by The Clash's Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg, two musicians who have (or in the case of Bragg still are) voicing strong opinion on socialism and sex.
Strummer had said he was "trying to grope in a socialist way toward a future where the world might be a less miserable place," while Blowtorch's mentor and friend Bragg talks about sex and socialism in his songs.
Blowtorch channels both as he signs, "You gird your loins, I'll stick out my chest/and put that constitution to the test." Blowtorch says he believes the song is a "preemptive strike" and says he values socialism's philosophy of helping out your less fortunate. Despite the big theme, he said it was important to keep the song upbeat.
"For "Groping in the Dark" with socialism and healthy consensual sex as the metaphor I decided it had to be upbeat, at least the major verses had to be in a major key," says Blowtorch. "I used to write upbeat music and downbeat lyrics. Now I'm more interested in integrating them. I've learned to make the lyrics conform to the mood of the lyrics."
In order to achieve the best vocals, Blowtorch went to the extremes to have his vocals bleed through at least part of each cut and having his voice dubbed.
"Sometimes it's not enough to strip it down to drum and bass so I thought I'd stick in my voice to see if it worked it with," says Blowtorch. "We squished my voice into a high mid-range and maybe put some echo on it then it sounded alright."
U-Roy's version, "Groping in the Park," serves as a second part of that message while Prince Jazzbo's version, "Trample War," is a fiery anti-racist and anti-violence declaration.
"They had no problem with the song," says Blowtorch. "It was like falling off a log for them. They both gave me more than what I needed for each song so you could tell they were enthusiastic about it."
Jazzbo agreed along those lines, saying that his desire to make a statement of helping the less fortunate made the lyrics come quickly.
"It's an inborn thing. I get them from my head," says Jazzbo. "It's is just what goes on in day to day life with poor people."
Following this experience, the future looks plenty busy for Blowtorch. He has an album's worth of music with his band the Welders and plans to also team up with Jazzbo again for a Jamaican showcase, which is six songs (three songs per side) on a LP. The later will include vocal and dub versions, with the dubs using a Jazzbo talk over.
Blowtorch plans to keep enjoying making music, especially in reggae and similar styles and experimenting with what he can achieve.
"If it's a really direct lyric, sort of a journalist kind of lyric, then I know I want it to be some kind of reggae thing and what kind of beat behind it," says Blowtorch. "As my tastes and abilities have expanded I've realized just because it's got a reggae baseline it doesn't need a reggae beat it can be a bunch of beats."
He also adds that experimenting means sometimes having to get out of your familiar environment or thinking.
"In a segregated city like Milwaukee that's very hard," says Blowtorch of seeing different perspectives. "You have to leave the city sometimes or go in parts of the city you ordinarily wouldn't."
Notes about "Groping in the Dark:
- Groping in the Dark 10" 45 RPM vinyl digital reggae single tracklist:
- "Groping in the Dark," a vocal by Eric Blowtorch
- "Groping in the Park," a singjay vocal by U-Roy
- "Trample War," a singjay vocal by Prince Jazzbo
- "Groping," an instrumental version by Pumpkin World All-Stars
- Groping in the Dark" is available in most Milwaukee vinyl shops and from Ernie B's Reggae Distribution (ebreggae.com).
- Rhythm track and Eric Blowtorch's vocals were recorded at Pumpkin World and Bobby Peru's Penthouse in Milwaukee.
- Vocal cuts were mixed by Shane Olivo at Bobby Peru's Penthouse, and the instrumental was mixed by Didier Leplae at Pumpkin World.