Interview – Ethan Hawke and Ben Dickey – Blaze
MG: [To Dickey] Since you are a musician, too, what kind of music did you focus on before this movie?
BD: Before this movie, oh, anything and everything that turned me on. I had a rock n’roll band for a long time, and I was in a punk rock band when I was younger. I loved roots, blues, all different kinds of songs. It’s clear to me quickly when I listen to somebody who I want to hear and watch [them] perform, it’s in their eyes before it’s in their voice. I’ve been obsessed for the last eight years with Nina Simone; I keep revisiting why I can’t get to the bottom of why I’m obsessed with her. It’s her absolute wild freedom. I don’t know if you’ve heard [her] cover of “Isn’t It a Pity” by George Harrison. It’s like ten minutes long and posing the question of isn’t it a pity the way we hurt each other and cut each other down. She’ll finish the stanza and then, in the cadence of the verses, turn to the audience and say, “This is a real question, people. Why are we doing this?” and then she goes on. She adds all these different things, and it’s one of those performances where you don’t know what’s coming.
MG: That reminds me of a line I wrote down when Blaze is talking to Sybil about her acting: “Once it’s in the air, it’s like it’s always been there.” Once Nina Simone covers it, it’s not George Harrison’s song anymore. It’s her song.
MG: You were talking about how she discourses with the audience; one of the hardest scenes to watch was in Chicago at the blues club. As a singer of different genres of music, do you engage with your audience (not to the destructive extent that Blaze did)?
I noticed that the scenes you did when you were singing, whether the audience was totally enrapt in the performance or just chitchatting, he’s singing about the post, the sign in the background, the man on the phone, the ladies talking, the blonde taking cocaine. People don’t realize that his songs are evolving as he’s watching everything around him, and sometimes that makes him –
MG: Because he’s too overstimulated.
BD: Right. In that Chicago scene I think he had an expectation that in Chicago, people listen to you play. He knew that John Prine had made it there and that John had been delivering the mail and started writing songs, and he could go to a little club to perform them and people would listen. When he got there, Sybil tells stories to the point that he didn’t want to be famous, he didn’t want a record deal, he just wanted your attention for a little bit. In the case of Chicago, he was nervous so he got drunk and erratic. You saw that again in New York.
He torpedoed his own Tweed many times, and I think in Chicago he was like a) I’m still scared to be up here doing this, and b) you’re right, he’s overstimulated because he’s not listening to within he’s listening to without. He’s got these songs to perform and he’s not in them; instead, he’s outside and listening to all this input and agitated that it won’t stop. He thinks that the way to deal with it is by pleading with them; originally, he says, “I have feelings but if you guys could let me sing for you, it’d be cool.” I think in his drunken way, he thought, “That’ll work.” Then, he goes into this whole thing where he’s like “I’ll just join this fuckin’ chatter.”
I’ve experienced being on stage with a full house of people who are talking over a performance and it’s bonkers. Why’d you come to the gig? But, it’s important for me as a professional and a musician and artist to block it out. Within or without, I’m doing this.
MG: Is it harder to block out a room of fifty people in an intimate little club or a huge venue?
BD: I’ve been in situations where someone’s said, “Hey, play me your new song,” and there’s four people out there. I start playing and people start talking, and it’s harder then because you’ve asked me to do something. A smaller group is louder.
My band put out a record that I was certain was going to elevate us to a place where were going to be able make music and only music, and not have to have side jobs. It didn’t happen and I was certain about it, and I had a lot of people in the business who were saying that it was going to happen. When that happened, I threw expectations out and started to examine what was important about performing music, writing music, sharing music, being in an ensemble, all that stuff, and just wanted to make that thing that mattered. I wanted to leave behind any inclination to punish anyone for talking over me or make them feel bad because, in the end, the way I wanted to look at it was I’m going to say what I’m going to say. It was difficult to do and it took a long time for me to learn it, but ultimately what happens is that people realize this guy’s got something to say.
MG: Do you agree with what Townes Van Zandt said at the end of the film about the “drive”: how you have to blow off your family, job, security, happiness…?
BD: I used to. When I was young and wouldn’t take a full-time job because it would interfere with what I was trying to do. I went on my first tour with a punk-rock band when I was seventeen and we put it together ourselves and bought a little bullshit Dodge van and hauled out. As I got older, I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to have a trade other than music, and I wanted to figure it out. My perception was that the only way to do it was to jump without a parachute and fly and I did it in certain ways. There were times when I wasn’t exactly homeless but I didn’t have a place to live for periods of, like, eighteen months where I’d crash on couches and sleep in my car and stuff. It didn’t seem painful at the time because I could see the horizon which was music. I thought this won’t be like this forever – I’ll figure it out. Eventually, I got into being a chef which was a strange thing to happen. That took me away from [music], but the people in my life who have supported me and the musicians in my life who I look up to are not free-falling like that. They’re rooted in their partners or friends or another trade or something else that keeps them grounded. I was lucky because I had people in my life who permitted me to hurt myself and there were certainly times when I thought to get into this business you had to get deep into the blues. I’ve been there and been desolate, sad, broke, and trying to figure out where to go next, but in the back of my mind I was romanticizing all that and figuring out how to make it work.
MG: Are things fast for you right now?
BD: They’re really fast, you know?
MG: Y’all are going to make a western (The Kid, directed by Vincent D’Onofrio).
BD: We did already.
MG: Oh, it’s done? I thought it was in pre-.
BD: No, we finished. Ethan has actually seen a cut of it, but I haven’t. I wrote a song that made it in there.
MG: Do you sing it in the film or is it part of the soundtrack?
BD: The soundtrack. My character is not a musician, but it was a fascinating experience.
MG: It’s about another legend.
BD: Yeah, it’s a wonderful story about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, but it’s really about this twelve-year-old boy and his seventeen-year-old sister whose lives just happen to wrap around these guys’ lives. I play a real guy named Jim East who was part of Garrett’s posse and is credited for being kind of his right-hand man with a little bit better education than some of those guys. Also, Jim East worshipped Daniel Boone and other frontiersmen.
MG: The romantic side of the frontier.
BD: Exactly. Amongst all these individuals, Jim East was the straight-shooter and who I call the only male adult who’s got a moral compass and, by all accounts, wanted to respect nature and the rule of law. I didn’t have to say too much and was basically a character on a bison (laughs), and Vincent was a really fun director to work for because he works really quickly and he wants you to get to where you need to be fast.
MG: Where did you shoot?
BD: Santa Fe, and it was great, great fun. [On Blaze]: We are really proud of this film and we wanted to be in Texas. We didn’t know if we were going to get to do it..(my) life is moving all around and I’m really proud to be doing what I’m doing.
MG: Plus, it’s the first biopic I can think of about someone who is not a household name, so everybody gets to start from zero and not have any preconceptions of who this man is.
BD: It’s funny: I know a lot of chefs in my life and across the spectrum of cooking styles and foods, they all have found Blaze. I don’t know how, but a lot of people you wouldn’t imagine. I don’t know what that’s about but it’s there, and the people who found him accidentally are very drawn to him.
MG: Well, he said, “Stars shine for themselves and burn out, but legends last forever. People can. Songs can. It’s just a matter of time.”
BD: That’s right.
MG: I guess little sparks have come up over time.
BD: He’s pushing us, he sure is.