Longtime Northwest musician Karl Blau has left the area for Philadelphia, where he has started a new band and just released an EP with members of The War on Drugs. KEXP’s Janice Headley talks with Karl about this new project, Opal Eskar.
It’s hard to imagine the Northwest music scene without Karl Blau.
A born and bred Washingtonian, Karl was raised on Samish Island, and became a mainstay in Anacortes after graduating high school. In the late ‘90s, he began releasing albums on Knw-Yr-Own Records, the label ran by Bret Lunsford of Beat Happening. In the 2000’s, Karl became a producer at Dub Narcotic, the in-house recording studio for legendary local label K Records. He worked on albums by LAKE, The Curious Mystery, and Your Heart Breaks, just to name a very few.
In 2015, he launched the Anacortes Music Channel, a live music venue and a 24/7 streaming station of exclusively Anacortes music. He even launched a monthly music publication titled Show Chime, and founded the Anacortes Music Project, a non-profit with goals of preserving Anacortes history, and boosting local shows and local artist profiles.
All of which makes it especially surprising… that Karl Blau now lives in Philadelphia.
I know. That's crazy, right?
Karl recently spoke with KEXP from the backyard of his new home in the Germantown neighborhood…
I was the last person to think that would happen. But, yeah, it happened all of a sudden. We were living this house for, like, 13 years, in Anacortes, and we loved it. But then they were like, "oh, we're" — you know, we were renting — like, "we're selling the house." And we've always wanted to give our daughters — [Karl's wife] Calli and I have an 11-year-old and a 22-year-old now — but, let's give them a little different culture for a while. You know how the Northwest is. So, yeah, I feel like it was good to just bring them into a different kind of a place where they could get exposed to the world a little more.
True to Karl’s sense of community and collaboration, it wasn’t long before he formed a new band, called Opal Eskar.
The group features guitarist Heyward Howkins and multi-instrumentalist Chet Delcampo, as well as Charlie Hall and Robbie Bennett, both of The War on Drugs. Today, they released their self-titled debut EP on Karl’s own Spiral Valley Records. The band name comes from a geological event, combined with Chet's love of the word "opal."
An eskar is basically like — when a glacier goes along, it turns boulders into gravel eventually, and then it deposits that as it's receding and rolls back. On the front edge of that, there's this deposit of different geological, you know, stones and things. It's almost like, I think of like seaweed on the shore. You know, how it makes a line?
Opal Eskar’s gentle, melodic songs fit right into Karl’s discography. Their first single together – titled “Sunlight Is Breakin' Out” – captures springtime in a song with its soulful, laid back vibe. Karl tells us how the group came together:
Chet had heard my stuff and heard that I had moved to Philly. And he's a producer of really kind of exquisite, really opalescent production work. And so, yeah, he sent these seeds of songs that they had worked on. I sent demos back of my ideas. I was just basically coming up with all the lyrics and, more or less, the melodies. It was like reverse engineering a song for me, and placing these stones just along the way.
The EP’s opening track – titled “And Yet Love Rules” – even hints at Karl’s work in the Americana genre with its subtle lap steel guitar. In the song, Karl asks the listener to “let the innocence of our inner child — the curiosity that permeates life — help lead our actions and interactions.”
I was just getting into this mantra in that track, thinking about how it's often said that love is all you need. Love is everything. References to love. And so it's just a question like, oh, yeah, okay, so, love rules, but what next? What's possible then? And how do we start to implement that rule? More a meditation, I guess you could say.
It’s a positivity that radiates into the following track, “Open Mind!,” song title punctuated with an exclamation point at the end.
I was getting into, like, Green Eggs and Ham or Marvin K. Mooney, Dr. Seuss, kind of, mindset on that. What are all the ways you could open your mind? You could do it this way, or this way, this way. Let me count the ways! Like, just do it. Let's do this! [laughs] Try to take the positive, but in a way of like, really in your face about it.
And ultimately, you can take the boy out of the Northwest, but you can’t take the Northwest out of the boy. The imagery of home continues to appear in Karl’s songwriting, like on the track “The Woodsman”...
Yeah, there's a lot of little references in there. I grew up in the woods in the Northwest, so definitely when I think of the woods, I think of the evergreens. Where it's very different here. It's deciduous, so the forest dies every year and then it comes back and it's very dramatic. It's just down to nothing but like the bare brown grays. But in the summer, you can't see through it, it's so thick. So, it's very different. But anyway, yeah, there's a reference to a Solvents song in there, if you listen closely, and all sorts of Northwest ties. My heart's in the Northwest, for sure.
Sadly, it’s a prevailing issue we’ve seen for local artists – for years now, here on Sound & Vision, we’ve spoken with musicians who’ve been priced out of the area (see here and here). At the end of 2022, the Seattle Times reported that “median rent prices for a one-bedroom had risen 9% in the last year alone.” Last year’s Cost of Living Index report showed the overall cost of living in Seattle was 50% higher than the average for the 265 cities surveyed. Current average rent in Seattle for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,200.
It's super, super hard to live affordably there. It's an expensive town to live in. We kind of locked into this rent thing, but once we were out of that... That was another factor, like, well, could we even find a place that we could afford? And that was the question.
But as Karl has shown with Opal Eskar, no matter where you go, there you are. And Karl will continue to be one of our country’s finest songwriters, coast to coast.
The Northwest is just this perfect little bubble, or, you know, seemingly. In Anacortes, we have the refinery in our face there all the time, and that's real and we see that. But, I think in different ways, it's been really mind-opening. And I'd like to think, throughout my life, I'll just keep working as an artist towards new and different and better, in the sense of more-connected. But yeah, I mean, I'll be back. Shucks. Yeah.
Opal Eskar's self-titled debut EP is out now via Spiral Valley Records and available on Bandcamp.
Photographer Niffer Calderwood shares shots from the cozy show at the Moore Theatre in Seattle.
Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today’s song, featured on The Morn…
Our second live performance of the day came from Mr. Karl Blau, long a fixture of the local music scene in Anacortes, WA, who has released upwards of 30 records since the early-90s. Playing tracks from a forthcoming record, as well as his interpretations of songs from the 60s and 70s presented on 2…