Interview: with Blue Ray

Johnny Steines' solo project takes its cues from...Buffalo Bill

Johnny Steines doesn’t really give a shit. But also, he really does. It’s a contradiction somewhere between a punk ethos and a control-freak’s demand for quality control. His Boston, Mass. band, now back to being a solo project, is named Blue Ray. Why? “ I thought it was a funny name,” he says. 

When we speak Monday, Johnny is lighting a joint when he appears on camera. He shows me the marijuana seedlings he’s sprouted under grow lights. One moment he says, “I’m not a musician.” A minute later he says, “I’ll never stop making music. It’s the only thing I like to do.” Enthusiasm is more important than talent; luckily, Johnny possesses both traits in equal measure. 

Don’t believe me? Check out his new album, Explain This, out April 1 (self-released). Here’s what you’ll hear: Synths, guitars, drum machines in the upper BPM, desperation, disco, Depeche Mode, and The Jim Carroll Band. Stuff you can dance to if it doesn’t make you feel too self-conscious first. 

Before music, drawing and sculpture were the creative outlets to which Johnny was devoted. He studied art history in college. His sonic sensibility is similar to how a painter composes drama on the canvas. Focal points, depth, details. Explain This can be likened to a busy Renoir. (The Impressionists were punks once, too.) Everything in its right place. Like the wild strums on “Where Are You” that sound like turkey calls or the shouted harmony on the song’s refrain. There’s plenty of noise to revel in. So listen. Live, Laugh, Love. And read on for the interview. 

Me: How did Blue Ray as a project begin?

Johnny: It started off my recording project. I was in bands that I never really loved and I started making albums online for fun. It was called something else back then. It was called Green John. And I changed it when Aiden joined me as the drummer when we were a live band. But yeah, it started out of a solo project and then a friend joined me on it and it became a duo. And now it’s back to solo recording because of the pandemic. 

Me: I read some stuff online. It seems like [drummer] Aiden [Breen] was planning on being phased out after Live, Laugh, Love. Is that right?

Johnny: Yeah, yeah. He was moving to Colorado so that was the last thing we did together

Me: How do you think things have been different since you’ve picked back up as a solo project? 

Johnny: I still have just as much fun with it. I really, honestly love playing live shows, but recording albums is just what I like to do the most. It’s more fun. So I’m pretty happy right now. I have a ton of fucking time—I’m not working—just to try make more fun shit. Cause it’s also like you could make it a whole crazy world as opposed to you’re recording a band you kinda wanna have that honest recording of what you sound like. But with recording albums like this it’s kinda like a free-for-all. I can add a bunch of shit I could never replicate live. 

Me: What made you wanna [cover Chris Isaak’s] “Wicked Game?”

Johnny: I don’t really know. I both hate that song and undeniably whenever I hear it I’m like “I like it.” I like the desperate shit. I started covering that song and thought this actually will fit really well on this album cause it’s like this desperate mess of a character, is what I was trying to go for so I like those songs that are like, “I’m gonna fucking die if you don’t love me back.” 

Me: How would you explain the mood of Explain This

Johnny: I was trying to think about it a bit in preparation for this interview (not that I really think that much about shit like that to be honest; I’m pretty much thoughtless when it comes to making music until I’m done with it), but it definitely is an antagonist hero’s journey to make it more of a literature sort of thing. It sort of like this character I can very much relate to. This narcissist, needy person. I wanted this album to start off with this person being ignored. I don’t go to therapy anymore but when I did I always thought it was interesting how much I liked talking about myself. And yea, everyone does, but like I just felt like it go to the point where I was trying to make myself look nice for my therapist and put on a fucking show and shit like that. 

Me: I’ve never done stand-up comedy, but I always thought therapy felt like a way to practice stand-up comedy. Like, if I made my therapist laugh, I was like “I’ll write that one down. I could work on that.” 

Johnny: Totally, totally. Whenever there was a moment where I felt like I think he likes me right now I felt so good. 

Me: I heard your live shows are some exciting stuff. What do you think the live experience offers a Blue-Ray fan that the record can’t? 

Johnny: I don’t think I ever made an album—even the two that I did with Aiden that were supposed to be more like how we sound live—definitely don’t do it. It’s a lot sloppier. I think that that’s the most important thing. We’re pretty bad in a way. We have our good shows, but we also have a lot of bad shows. After one set, I was really pissed-off and this guy comes up to me and he’s like, “You know, the Replacements, like, all their shows were bad, man. Don’t worry about it.” 

Me: Did that make you feel better or worse? 

Johnny: Worse, I think, but it definitely should have made me feel better. I think we lose it a lot more. It was definitely meant to be a bit of a shit show, which at times I was upset about. I wanted to be good still. But I’m also happy that it was a pretty fun experience for us. Obviously, I’m a stressed-out person. I used to throw up before a lot of shows just cause I was nervous. But once I got past that and I was on stage, it was just like OK this is fine again. The album’s definitely a lot more like polish it, even though they’re pretty jankily recorded I try hard to make them sound like listenable or something. 

Me: I hate to ask such a trite question, but what your influences? Who are you trying to sound like. Well, not sound like but who makes you feel like I can do this, too? 

Johnny: No, yeah, I think ripping-off people is a huge part of art. I think there’s people who know how to do it and there’s people who don’t. And you can tell if something’s like “this is trying to be like this” and it’s second-best. I think I’ve definitely had the people I’ve been trying to rip-off for awhile. I’m kind of running out of them at this point. For this album…Silence of the Lambs was what I was thinking of the whole time. Like, Q Lazzarus is one of my favorite artists ever. And they did that song, “Goodbye Horses,” in the movie. I’ve been trying to get influenced by musicians who I want to sound like and then it developed into characters, where it’s like “Buffalo Bill” is the character that I was trying to relate to for this album. If “Buffalo Bill” made music it would be good. You know it would be. 

Me: What are your hopes with putting out music? 

Johnny: I don’t fucking know right now. I don’t know what the point of any of this is. I deleted a bunch off my Bandcamp lately because I wanted to make myself seem better and the first albums I put out were really not that good. I mean, I like them; I think there’s a whole lot in there. I’ve been obsessed with people who make a lot of music. Mark E. Smith [of the Fall] and Robert Pollard [of Guided by Voices] are the big two for me. I’ve always been obsessed with discographies so I do want to make a lot of albums.