Hunting
The Hungry Ghost:
An interview with Detroit multimedia
writer/artist/musician Blake Chen


by Jon Macha

 

With 3 albums and an ongoing online comic, Blake Chen is creating his own art world through a combination of sound and vision. Often centering on his character "The Hungry Ghost," Chen utilizes these two stand-alone art forms to manifest a unique artistic experience.

His music melds electronica with Dylanesque folk strumming to explore rarely visited musical territory. The comic is produced with 3D modeling software and can be read by anyone over the Internet. The comic is titled "The Cass Corridor" and his tale of music and vampires is set in that historic Detroit district.

thedetroiter.com's Jon Macha caught up with Chen to discuss his experiences and artistic visions, including his connections to the city.

You seem to be creating a world with your art. Could you please describe your art and your music and how it coalesces into The Hungry Ghost?

I'm a storyteller who loves to play with different ways of telling a story. I play with words, sounds, images - whatever medium that's appropriate and fun. At the moment, I would describe my music style as goth-country trip hop - if Massive Attack made an album with Johnny Cash, this is what I imagine it would sound like! The comics I'm working on are in the vein of DC's Vertigo line, with more of the dark, spiritual, suspenseful stuff and less of the gratuitous blood 'n' guts stuff... if you know what I mean.

Storytelling throughout the ages has been told through every means possible; written word, campfire poetry, drawings on walls, etc. There is a clear connection between your music and your comic, tell me the connections and overall goal of using these different mediums.

Ultimately, they are separate entities, and can be enjoyed separately. However, The Hungry Ghost album does make a cool soundtrack to the "Cass Corridor" comic, and the comic, in turn, expands and explores the mood and lyrical themes inherent in the music. I believe it does make the overall experience richer. For instance, a recurring emotional thread in my songs is the yearning to explore, the pleasure of satisfying one's curiosity, which is an essential theme in "Cass Corridor". The Rona Eden character [a journalist] embodies that. She's an explorer who's willing to go to some pretty dark places to satisfy her curiosities.

Could you tell us about the progression of your art? Discuss some of the early days, how you learned to create, some of your early creations, and how you evolved to where you are.

I love to dabble, therefore I always hated school growing up. I'd zone out in class, I'd be drawing faces of masked men on a textbook during a science lecture. Looking back, I should never have gone to school in the first place. As you'd expect, I spent my college years skipping lectures! My focus was totally elsewhere. I dabbled in theater, poetry, film.... Ultimately, I came to realize that a true artist cannot really be defined. People like to categorize - oh, he's a musician, she's a dancer, etc. But art is essentially about communication, and you communicate with all the tools at your disposal. One of the first pieces I ever completed was a play called "A Tale of Two Spirits", about two souls who are to be born into the world, when one of them finds out her would-be earth mother has had an abortion. To this day, it's still a work I'm very proud of.

Your music is an amalgamation of dark electronica and contemporary folk, could you discuss your song writing process?

Again, it's all about using the tools I have to communicate an idea, a feeling, a mood. The tools are, at this point in time, my trusty acoustic guitar, pen and paper, keyboards, and a collection of loops and samples. Sometimes it begins with a riff I've been carrying around in my head, or it could be a phrase or sentence jotted down after waking from a dream. Or through fiddling around I might come up with a sonic landscape, then go from there. "Walk On Fire" was such a piece. I had the music all done, basically, and the words that I added later were inspired by the music's mood. "Heaven is a Dark Place" was the other way around. All I had to start with was the title, scribbled on a piece of paper. It sounded like a revelation of some sort. I thought, hmm, so there's this guy who's seen heaven, and it was nothing like he imagined. And of course, one person's perception of heaven could seem like hell to another. So from that premise I began to write, and had almost all the lyrics done before I tackled the music.

Similarly, could you please talk about the process of your visual art?

3D comics are still a relatively new thing, so it's a medium that's constantly being re-defined as new techniques are discovered and new styles are pioneered. I have to say, I love that. There's so much that's unknown, so many paths waiting to be paved. From what I've seen, a lot of 3D artists out there tend to borrow visually from superhero comics. I see a lot of [Jack the "King"] Kirby-influenced stuff, for example. My intention is to bring a more cinematic approach to 3D storytelling.

Who are some artists that you are either influenced by, or wish to recommend to others?

Hitchcock's "The Birds" is my all-time favorite scary movie. Comics don't get any more magical than the first 14 issues of Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" run. Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and The Songs of Leonard Cohen are my desert island albums. I've recently discovered Neil Gaiman's Sandman books. He has such a terrific imagination. Talk about creating a world! What a fantastic set of characters... Dream, Desire, Death... wow. I also have to mention M. Night Shyamalan, the most gifted filmmaker currently working in the Hollywood system. "Sixth Sense" was deliciously creepy.

Detroit is known to be an artistic city, and has produced many unique artists. Please discuss some of your experiences in Detroit that have influenced you as an artist.

Detroit has some great venues for bands that are starting out, like the Old Miami and Third Street Saloon. There's a nurturing environment here that's rather unique. You get to meet a lot of interesting folk... certainly I've come across a few in my travails, some I found so fascinating I made them characters in my comic! The setting for "Cass Corridor" is basically the underground bar music scene where I developed my sound.

What are some of your favorite venues to play in, or to listen to Detroit music?

Apart from the two I've mentioned, the Wired Frog in Eastpointe is another venue that gives new bands a chance. I can't stress enough how important that is. There are two kinds of venues: one nurtures talent and the other plunders talent. The Elbow Room in Ypsilanti is a good example of a nurturing venue. As for the plunderers, I won't name names, but everyone in the scene knows who they are... I hope!

Detroit artists are starting to bring a spotlight back to the city and are helping to bring some much-needed respect to southeast Michigan. What do you think the future holds for Detroit artists? What do you hope it holds?

Again, it's all about developing and maintaining a nurturing environment for local acts. There's a reason why so many Detroit artists are big right now. It's not a coincidence or an accident, it's the result of years of effort by people like Tom Ness, whose Jam Rag gives much-needed attention to local acts that nobody knows about. Or The Impaler, who always lets new bands open for him, whether they have their own draw or not. Then there's April Hilger-Hampton, who for awhile was the Berry Gordy of the Ann Arbor folk scene. These are the people who sow the seeds, who toil in anonymity, and ask for nothing in return but our continued support for the scene. -jm


To find out more about what the future holds in store for Chen and "The Hungry Ghost" check out his website, http://www.thehungryghost.com. The "Cass Corridor" comic is available in serial form from the site, as well as music downloads and links to purchasing his CDs (through www.CDBaby.com.)

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