Los Angeles-by-way-of-Portland’s indie rock quarter Balto and their newest single, “Black Snake, Mojave Blues,” are sun-soaked desert dwellers, grooving with an offbeat, psychedelic-tinged mystique, but that wasn’t always the case. First, there was the stint in journalism in Moscow that resulted in heartbreak, followed by a one-way trip on a train bound to Siberia with only a guitar and an empty notebook and manic months spent in a third class train carriage.
Now, singer-songwriter Dan Sheron calls the sunny Gold Coast home, and the dramatic geographical change is obvious in “Black Snake, Mojave Blues.” I caught up with him and had a few minutes to talk music, the creative process, and escaping melancholy.
You made a big move from the Pacific Northwest to LA. How did that impact you as a band and as songwriters?
It might sound like an obvious answer, but I do think the weather has an effect; your surroundings are always going to seep into your craft, and the juxtaposition of 300-something days of sunshine against 200-plus days of rain is a real influence.
The writing is just different in LA. It’s literally sunnier; melancholy has less of a gravitational force. We definitely started cranking the tempos up when we got here. That said, I’m tremendously grateful to have spent my formative years as a writer in the Northwest; it forces you to look inward and develop a voice about that personal landscape, and I don’t know if that’s the direction my work would have gone in if we’d always been in southern California.
What’s the creative process like? How has it evolved over the years, as you guys have written and performed together?
Usually, I’ll come to the band with a sketch of a song – lyrics, chords, melodies – and leave the rest up to the hive mind. We’ll knock through various rhythmic ideas, feelings, just toss paint up against the wall until it feels right. It often seems like chipping away at an ice block or something; you put in enough time and sweat and blood, and it takes on more detail as the hours roll by. At the end, you stand back and go, “How the fuck did we do that?” The rest is just knowing one another as musicians and people: how to communicate, bring ideas up, be vulnerable, etc.
“Black Snake Mojave Blues” is a song about everything feeling wrong, but after listening to it, it just feels so right. How did you capture that contradiction in the song, and did you intend to from the start?
That was actually entirely unintentional. I had written a lot of the lyrics as a free-write while on tour in Austria, and originally thought it was going to be this slow, sad song about failure. But I’d also just moved to Los Angeles (see earlier about sunshine), and when I got home, I started knocking around an uptempo blues with my slide, and just shouted the lyrics over the top. It fit really well, and with a few tweaks, it took on a whole different character. Now I can’t even imagine what the original sad song was supposed to sound like.
Where do you draw inspiration from when writing? Which artists and bands have inspired you the most over your career?
That’s a complicated question. I’ve never been good at making stuff up, so my work ends up being a reflection of whatever tail I’m chasing around my mind at the time. It’s all personal in one way or another. And as such, the songwriters I tend to look up to are folks who take a really hard, unflinching look at themselves and the world they inhabit. Also, I’m often attracted to material that seems a little touched by mania.
What’s next for Balto?
We have a bunch of dates planned west of the Rockies for the spring, and are tracking the rest of a record that should be done by the summer. It’s looking like we’ll go to Europe again too.