By Carl Begai
Guitarist / vocalist / self-styled hand model Jason Bieler was a founding member and the main songwriter for Saigon Kick, launched in 1988. The band’s on again / off again career had more twists, turns, ups and down than a drug-addled rollercoaster designer’s masterpiece, but longstanding fans agree to a man (and woman) that Saigon Kick’s first two albums – the self-titled debut (1991) and The Lizard (1992) – are untouchable works of distortion heavy art (your arguments are invalid). While the band has since been laid to rest Bieler continues to make music, and in fact he never stopped even when they were in a holding pattern for years at a time. Most of it has been released independently over Bandcamp under the Owl Stretching moniker, but Bieler decided towards the end of 2019 to work on a second full blown solo album rather just single releases. The end result is Songs For The Apocalypse featuring a literal truckload of guest musicians playing to and for Bieler’s unique vision. And even though it will satisfy many a Saigon Kick fan’s want for something heavy from the man – this is the loudest he’s been in ages – one should leave all preconceived notions at the door before going in.
Prior to the making of Songs For The Apocalypse, Bieler began moving away from the Owl Stretching name in favour of his own. Devised as a one-man project with the goal of bringing a song to life within 24 hours of coming up with an idea, Owl Stretching was an ongoing experiment used to refine his craft. Sadly, not as many people were aware of it as there should have been, but the new album may change that by putting the Jason Bieler name in lights.
“That could happen,” agrees Bieler. “Having the label I’m with now (Frontiers) and talking to different people that I work with, they all told me ‘Dude, you don’t realize you’re already obscure, so by naming it Owl Stretching you aren’t helping the cause in any way, shape or form. You’re making looking for a needle in a haystack the logical choice compared to what you’re doing.’ And they were right, of course. I decided to just change it to my name to make it a little bit easier for those people that were looking.”
Up until now Bieler has been releasing his music through his own label, Bieler Bros. Records. Songs For The Apocalypse, on the other hand, is being issued through a much bigger – some would say “proper” – record company, meaning he had to give up a certain amount of control. Not necessarily appealing for an artist that has spent years calling his own shots, but Bieler is happy with the decision.
“The idea of being able to yell at people that wanted me on their label for screwing things up was appealing,” Bieler laughs. “In all fairness we had conversations over time and they were really nice folks. And if I didn’t have anybody else to be accountable to for finishing things it was just going to sit there and be this never ending project. I kind of liked the idea that there was an obligation, there was a timeline, and there was a plan because the people on the other side of it were kind of tapping their fingers saying ‘Okay, what are you doing?’ That created a finite sense of responsibility to finish the record. That was the allure, and the label has done a great job with the things they do.”
“They saw what I did to hair metal with a ballad; imagine what I’ll do to their company with this record (laughs). To their credit, the first note of music they heard was the mastered record. Whether that’s because they’re convinced they’ve signed somebody who is completely insane, I don’t know (laughs). They’ve been super supportive, so I’ve been cautiously optimistic. The label did all the things they’re supposed to do, so it’s been a good process. The most interesting part is that a lot of new people are discovering my music, which is something I hadn’t anticipated.”
“The funniest thing for me is that I’ve ended up on these massive new metal release Spotify playlists. Those people have no clue who I am or where I came from, so the whole demographic is 20 – 40 year-olds. I hate to be too optimistic about it but it’s whole brand new world to me of people who know nothing about the past. It’s nice to see the record out there with Steven Wilson’s new record and those types of associations.”
Delving into Songs For The Apocalypse, there are certainly moments reminiscent of the first two Saigon Kick records and the criminally underrated Devil In The Details album from 1995, but there are moments where Bieler pushes the music beyond and sideways from what some long time fans are expecting. Nothing about this is contrived; it’s his normal musical thought process following the first coffee of the morning.
“I look at it like I had put together my own virtual eco-system,” Bieler offers. “If you came to my studio or my house, we’re just as likely to have Barry Manilow blasting as we are to have Meshuggah blasting. Often-times right next to each other on the same playlist. My favourite quote is ‘There are two types of music; good, and the other kind.'”
“There are people that love Saigon Kick and that’s amazing. I’m proud of all those records and what we did, and because I wrote the majority of that stuff I think the DNA still carries forward. I am so blissfuly unaware about what everyone else is thinking about what I’m supposed to do, and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. It’s just the creative way I’ve always operated: ‘What do I feel like doing today?’ And if it feels right to me or if I’m inspired in that moment, that’s what happens. Obviously when it’s done it’s nice to hear people say ‘Oh my God, that’s great!’ There’s a part of everybody that wants to have their work liked, but there’s another part of me that doesn’t give a shit about what people think. I’m not going to decide to add banjo to something because people didn’t like the original song idea. It doesn’t factor into the creative process for me.”
“At this point in my career – and I hate to say comeback – to have this kind of acceptance and a broadening of the fanbase is incredible. If you had told me back in the day I’d make a record at this point in my life and have it critically accepted, I would have said you were out of your fucking mind. I’m enjoying the ride. The best gift for me was to get to make this record with the people that are on it, and to collaborate with my friends. Whatever else happens, that’s fantastic.”
Ultimately, Songs For The Apocalypse should be viewed as a mix of Saigon Kick-isms and Bieler’s love for throwing things against the wall – with childlike glee – to see what sticks.
“I wanted to lure people in with some fuzzy, warm things that might feel slightly familiar,” he says “and by the time they’ve taken a few steps in it’s so far to get back out that they’ll just finish the record. It’s like a horrible hike.”
With his brain set on making a full-on solo album, Bieler decided to ask several of his musician friends if they would guest on the record. To his surprise none of the 25 to 30 of the chosen on his wishlist told him to go play in traffic. Those guests – now known as The Baron Von Bielski Orchestra – include Jeff Scott Soto (Sons Of Apollo), Todd La Torre (Queensryche), Devin Townsend, David Ellefson (Megadeth), Benji Webbe (Skindred), Butch Walker, Pat Badger (Extreme) and Bumblefoot (Sons Of Apollo) to name a few.
“Just due to the nature of this business – schedules, obligations and so on – I figured most of them would say no,” Bieler reveals. “I figured I’d get three or four guys on board and that would be awesome. Shockingly, everybody I asked said ‘Absofuckinglutely, when do we start?’ To have people like Devin Townsend, Butch Walker and David Ellefson wanting to contribute to this… I don’t want to make this whole interview about how lucky and positive I am and how the world is full of bunnies, happiness and rainbows, but it’s pretty damn awesome.”
“My playground is demented and large with lots of apparatus,” he continues. “I didn’t want to put Devin on the record because he’s Devin Townsend, or Butch Walker or David Ellefson because, oh, there’s a name. Who gives a fuck? Everybody has a guest on their record. I wanted to make sure that they had the freedom to do what they do, and that being the case, I didn’t want it to feel like those performances had been shoehorned into the songs. I wish I could say I drew all this out in PowerPoint, but it all just fell together. There was a fear moment where everybody was confirmed, and I had this horrible thought: what if one of the guys sends me something that isn’t right or it’s terrible or it doesn’t fit the record? How am I going to call one of these guys up and say ‘Hey, I know in my world of irrelevance, you took the time out of your day to contribute a part, but it sucks.’ I’m telling you, every single time I heard a part that was sent to me it was a ‘Holy shit!’ moment. They crushed it. It’s almost like I’m guesting on their record.”
Putting things in perspective, Bieler is at a point where he is able to recharge his career three decades after he and his Saigon Kick bandmates gave the hard rock / hair metal world a much needed kick in the teeth. Thirty years on and still relevant as an artist is not something to be dismissed.
“Thanks for that (laughs). I’ve made music my entire life, from the age of 18 until now, and I’ve been able to carve out a life. That to me is as successful as you can possibly dream of. Having a hit is wonderful, all those kinds of things are great, but I’m well aware that the vast majority of super-talented musicians don’t get to do that. They have to work other jobs or do other things. Me, I wake up, grab a coffee and go to my studio. What kind of a life is that? There is not a day that goes by where I don’t count my blessings.”
Seeing as how Bieler is currently basking in the glow of bunnies, happiness and rainbows, it begs the question: Will there be a follow-up to Songs For The Apocalypse? Preferably without the shadow of a global pandemic as a backdrop…
“Absolutely. I’ve never had a more fun and creative process. Just the dynamic of having all these genius brains around, interacting with them and hearing their takes on things, I’ve never been more inspired. Everybody was so cool and easy to work with, and excited about doing it, I was almost bummed out I couldn’t release a triple record. I’m really excited and encouraged by what’s happened so far, so we’ll see where it goes.” ̓
All photo insanity courtesy of the frighteningly creative or incredibly bored Robert Merrick.
Go to Bieler’s Bandcamp page for his full catalogue of Owl Stretching music and assorted odds n’ bits here: https://jasonbieler.bandcamp.com/