Full of great songs and surprising sonic detail, The Blue Stones have delivered the goods big time on their second album, Hidden Gems. Fuzz-blues anthems like Shakin' Off The Rust flow alongside the brooding grooves of One By One and Make This Easy to reveal a duo with depth. And it's certainly not by chance, though Tarek Jafar doesn't know any other way.
"Funny enough, I’ve never been in another band," the vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist with the Ontario combo tells us. "This is the first group I’ve been a part of, and you can barely call it a 'group'. I’ve spoken to other musicians in larger bands however, and it seems like they have similar experiences with the writing process."
We wonder if that process is freer or more restricted than those other bands when there's only him and drummer Justin Tessier involved.
"As a songwriter, most definitely. As a guitar player, I feel more restricted," admits Tarek. By not having two, three, or four people to have to run songs by, I feel I’m able to really take the reigns on our sound and style. Thankfully, Justin trusts me enough to lead the songwriting, and I feel that I can really explore and experiment on my own without my ideas clashing with multiple perspectives. We completely dodge the 'too many cooks in the kitchen' scenario.
But he's spinning a lot of plates in the Blue Stones' sound.
"As a guitarist, I’m a little restricted," continues Tarek. "This is because when I’m performing live, I am responsible to hold down the entirety of a song’s melody and rhythm section. Sure, there are times where I hit a looper and get to go off on a lead run, or when Justin triggers bass pads allowing me to explore the fretboard for a while, but when it comes to being a 'free' guitarist, I feel like I’m chained to playing the main riff. On a more positive note, it’s challenged me to use my voice as another instrument in the band that can be more improvised and explorative."
That cannot be overstated – blues rock, hip-hop, soul and funk swirl in the Blues Stones sound. So before we go into Tarek's album inspiration, we wanted to find out more about the duo's process and tones.
Does playing in a duo make you consider your dynamic with the drums in a different way?
"Not necessarily. I’m not really thinking about how a certain riff will fit with drums as I’m writing it. More often than not, I’m writing guitar parts to drum loops or beat samples anyway. There’s nothing that motivates me more than a downright nasty beat."
Guitar players often want to fill the sound but you’re very good at dropping back and creating space for other sounds to breathe, was that a learning curve as your sound developed with Justin?
"Although I think we’ve always had a push and pull dynamic, it definitely took many shows to perfect that balance. When you’re a young and fresh musician, you want to play your ass off at 100% effort and volume because you think it’ll impress people.
"As you mature and develop your sound, you understand the importance of the subtleties, and the beauty of breathing space within a performance."
You take on keyboard duties too, does that also make you consider the role of guitar in the bigger picture differently?
"Although I’ve delved into more keyboard playing lately, it is usually used as an added flourishment to assist the guitar in most of our songs. The only way it makes me reconsider guitar is if it somehow would affect the flow of the song during a live performance. Otherwise, each part is written in support of the main backbone, which would be guitar and drums."
How did working with Paul Meany on this album affect your approach to parts and tones in the studio? Were you still laying down a live foundation track as a duo?
"Paul was a fantastic producer in that he took who we are as a band and didn’t try to change us. He simply 'enhanced' our sound, and used arrangement changes, samples, and magical keys and production tricks to bring each song to life in its own unique way.
"For this record, we didn’t lay down a live foundation track, however we did so for the Live On Display performance that was released in support of the upcoming album."
What became your go-to gear for this record?
"My go-to pieces of gear were the Aqua Puss Analog Delay pedal by Way Huge, the Canyon effects pedal by EHX, the Box of Rock – Double Rock distortion by ZVEX (personal fave), and this incredible vintage Traynor stack. I believe it was a Traynor YBA-1 Bass Master Mark II, with an accompanying 6x10 cab. Beastly."
How do you approach the bass parts live? Any pedals that you’ve found are great in the duo setup for filling out the bottom end live– octave, whammy etc?
"My go-to pedals for a great low-end push are the Double Rock by Z.Vex and the Pitchfork Octaver (in Nano size so it has less of a pedalboard footprint) by EHX.
"Otherwise, I achieve a thicker low-end by playing heavy gauge strings, using a boomy amp (currently on the Mesa Dual Rectifier Roadster with a 4x12 cab) and using guitar techniques like palm-muting to increase my presence."
There’s some great fuzz sounds on the record too – any favourites?
"Definitely that Double Rock by Z.Vex and the Sub Buzz pedal by Vancouver’s own Union Tube And Transistor. That’s what gives me the fuzzy “oomph” I need during songs like Spirit and the like."
10 albums that changed Tarek Jafar's life
1. Kanye West – Graduation (2007)
"The golden age of Kanye, with his production and wit in full force. The album is banger after banger after banger. I tie this album to my younger self, a kid listening to 'Can’t Tell Me Nothing' and finding confidence and cheekiness modelled after the alphas of the hip-hop world. 2000-2010 was the decade of slick hop, and this is its bible."
2. Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
"As far as songwriting goes, it’s hard to find a modern band as strong as Coldplay. I’ve probably listened to this album front to back around 150 times in my life, and I almost always hear something different.
"As a budding musician at the time, I would drive home from work blaring In My Place or Politik loud enough to cover the sound of my own voice following along. I feel like those sessions helped me develop trust in my singing ability.
3. Mutemath – Odd Soul (2011)
"As I’ve mentioned multiple times in interviews over the years, Mutemath is one of my biggest influences. Stellar production, songwriting authenticity, and an unbelievable stage presence are a few of the reasons why.
"Odd Soul was a perfect meshing of electronic, blues, and alternative rock led by Paul Meany’s soulful vocals and Darren King’s downright filthy drumming. Fortunately, we were able to work with Paul on our upcoming album which, for a Mutemath diehard, was a bit of an "oh sh*t" moment."
4. The Black Keys – Rubber Factory (2004)
With The Blue Stones, we’ve received a lot of comparisons to Dan and Pat over the years. Although I don’t necessarily agree, I would be lying if I said they hadn’t influenced a love for gritty blues rock with their third studio album.
"An album fit for the working man, with midwestern state’s heart and soul. This album changed my perception on what it means to be a 'band'. A minimalist duo in their early stages showing off what a great guitar riff and backing beat can do on their own."
5. Foals – What Went Down (2015)
"Hard to say that this album 'changed' my life, but it definitely left a substantial mark. I had moved to Leeds, UK from 2015-2017 and this album was basically the soundtrack to my time in England.
"A number of Foals’ albums are life soundtrack worthy however this one in particular struck a chord closest to my musical heart. Mountain at my Gates was highly relevant during a time of big changes in my own life."
6. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is arguably the best hip-hop album of all time. Alright hear me out: I understand that Reasonable Doubt is probably up there also, and yes Nas’ Illmatic changed the game, but with production powerhouses like Kanye, Timbaland and Pharrell setting the scene beneath Jay-Z’s lyrical prowess, it was inevitable that The Black Album would become one of his best.
"I’ve had this argument with many people over the years, and usually end my debates with one point: 99 Problems."
7. J.Cole - Born Sinner (2013)
"I draw so many comparisons to the shit J. Cole raps about. Especially when he raps about his early days at University, balancing school life with his ambition for a career in music.
"Born Sinner touches on a lot of that, and also what it’s like to be a young guy full of unbridled ambition. I’ve always appreciated the album for that. Runaway… damn, real talk."
8. Linkin’ Park – Meteora (2003)
"Little needs to be said about this album. It’s a modern rock staple. I’d listen to Faint on repeat, VERY loudly in front of my cousins. They thought I needed help. I was completely content in the angsty world Chester had created."
9. Alberta Cross – Broken Side of Time (2009)
“Song Three Blues is in my top 10 songs of all time. This album is so severely underrated. It hugely influenced both of us; with its melancholic vocal lines and washed out blues-y guitar riffs.
"There’s a real atmosphere to this album. I remember discussing why we weren’t completely happy with the tone of our very first EP with Justin while having this album in the background. It dawned on us both that we were yearning for more 'space' and atmosphere in our recordings. The gents in Alberta Cross put on an atmospheric clinic for us."
10. Sam Roberts – Chemical City (2006)
Sam Roberts was the first concert I’d ever attended. It was outdoors, at a Raceway amphitheater in Lasalle, Ontario. He played the entirety of Chemical City, so naturally I went and purchased the album after the show. It became the score to my senior years of high school, and Bridge To Nowhere was the first song I had performed on an acoustic guitar—very awkwardly—to my high school crush."
Hidden Gems by The Blue Stones is out now via eOne – for more info visit thebluestonesmusic.com