Blue Heron: Breaking Bad-Asses

Blue Heron performing at their record-release party on July 8, 2022

“In the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” -Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox), The American President

Twenty-five years ago — shortly after the demise of Palm Desert, California’s Kyuss roughly 10 hours to the west — a new oasis of low-end heavy rock began to form in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The year 1997 saw the birth of MeteorCity Records, a label devoted to sludge, psych, drone and doom. The label quenched the thirst of hard-rock fans thirsty for more thunderous, bottom-heavy rock beyond what they found on Man’s Ruin Records (which collapsed in 2001).

In addition to bands including members of the Atomic Bitchwax and Hermano, MeteorCity facilitated more exposure for Spiritu, a stoner-rock band featuring label co-founder Jadd Shickler and guitarist Mike Chavez. MeteorCity and its other cofounder, Aaron Emmel, later relocated to Idaho; Shickler kept the fires burning in Albuquerque with two more labels, Magnetic Eye Records and Blues Funeral Recordings.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Shickler reunited with Chavez in 2018 for a new band based in the high desert, Blue Heron. After COVID-related delays, their first album, Ephemeral, finally dropped in late May. The band enshrined the record with an album-release party earlier this month in their hometown. In the coming weeks, the band will play gigs including RippleFest in Austin, Texas; and Monolith on the Mesa in Taos, New Mexico.

“This is the busiest four months this band has had since it started,” Shickler recently told the Bad Penny. “We had the album come out, we’re promoting the album, playing some festivals, and we’re trying to get into the studio to record a couple of more songs to get in line for a split [with Texas’ High Desert Queen].”

While Shickler easily could’ve released Ephemeral on Magnetic Eye, he noted that the band received more validation by issuing it through different labels: Seeing Red issued it in the U.S. and Kozmik Artifactz in Europe. The split 7-inch will be mixed by engineer Ken Riley of Rio Grande Studios and come out through Ripple Music, for which Shickler serves as label manager.

“The split is to keep us productive,” Shickler added.

In case you haven’t noticed, the singer isn’t having any issues with industriousness. Nor does anyone question his fealty to the sand-blasted sounds that attracted him to desert rock in the first place. With Ephemeral, Shickler, Chavez, bassist Steve Schmidlapp and drummer Ricardo Sanchez saw some of their long-awaited dreams turn from mirages into reality.

“When Chav and I started Spiritu, we didn’t know we weren’t good enough yet to release what we’re releasing now,” Shickler reminisced. “Some of what we did holds up, some of it doesn’t. It was so satisfying to be back in a band with him, knowing that I’ll be able to feel good in 30 years about what we put out.”

He continued: “Even if we finished tomorrow, I’m going to feel really good about the writing, the sound and the contributions by all the members.”

Unlike some musicians, Shickler doesn’t have any problem with people referring to Blue Heron as “stoner rock.” It’s just that the term might not share the same connotations as others might think.

“I always understood ‘stoner rock’ as something where no one was trying to rein in the musician — if they want to run a nine-minute jam, they can go for it,” he said. “I don’t think the normalization of weed matters in terms of perception of that music; it exists as an alternative to commercial rock and commercial metal. No one is trying to become a huge rock star by writing stoner rock.”

Blue Heron’s greatest contribution to the subgenre (by Shickler’s definition of the term) is its 13-minute centerpiece, “Sayonara” — which, naturally, is track number two on Ephemeral.

“I don’t get tired of listening to it or playing it,” Shickler divulged. “That song is a beast, and it feels like a perfect epic. It’s one of my most proud musical moments that I’ve ever been part of as a musician.”

Blue Heron have both opened and closed their concerts with their quintessential track, which follows the more curiously named “Futurola” on the new record.

“[My bandmates] came up with the term,” Shickler shared. “We were at the beginning of COVID and were joking about what the future would look like after the pandemic: ‘Futurola Corona.’ The song was actually pretty political. I don’t usually write preachy stuff, but I was pretty disgusted by what I was seeing around the January 6 insurrection and the general attitudes by followers of the right.”

He elaborated: “I’m not great at overt references. But if you hear what the song is about and go into it with that in mind, it’s clear. There’s a line from The American President [the 1999 film starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening] where they’re talking about the absence of true leadership: ‘People will [crawl through] the desert [toward a mirage], and [when they discover there’s no water], they’ll drink the sand.’ That line resonated a lot with me; I pretty much took it whole cloth.”

References to another touchstone in film and TV could pop up in the near future, if Shickler gets his way with Blue Heron. He revealed that he is trying to coax his bandmates to shoot a video for one of Blue Heron’s songs at locations previously used for another Albuquerque-based entity: the Breaking Bad franchise.

“We could go to the car wash, the hot dog place … if people get the references, they would like it; if they don’t get the references, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Shickler said.

The Blue Heron singer/record label guru/Big Trouble in Little China fanatic (more on that soon) disclosed that he had an even closer brush with the franchise, whose Better Call Saul spinoff ends in roughly one month.

“Remember when Walt moved out and had a little apartment? That was a block away from an apartment where my wife and I lived,” he said. “A couple of times, we were walking down the street into the bar and retail district, and it was blocked off because there was a film crew there. It was happening before we knew the show well. A couple of weeks after that, we saw [Bryan] Cranston crossing the street into that same district. And after that, I went to a signing and Q&A for [Cranston’s A Life in Parts memoir,] and [Bob] Odenkirk served as MC/interviewer.”

It’s unclear whether any Breaking Bad actors or crew members have attended Blue Heron shows. But it’s certain that the band’s upcoming slate of performances will be its juiciest to date: They include performances with the Obsessed and Heavy Temple in Arlington, Texas, on Wednesday; at RippleFest on Saturday; with Elder and Ruby the Hatchet in Albuquerque on August 16; and at Monolith on the Mesa in early September.

Whether because of COVID, Trump or other disasters, Shickler may view the country as having a glass of water that’s half-full or half-empty. But what won’t change is this: The ever-productive music lover will always have water in his glass — desert be damned.

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