New classic pop songs from Oakland
The Bye Bye Blackbirds would like their songs to become present day standards, a goal implied by the band’s evocative name. “We chose a title that was reflective of our love affair with songwriting and song craft,” said Bradley Skaught, the Blackbirds’ main songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist.
The Oakland based band released their sixth album, August Lightning Complex, a few months back. It was written and recorded during the COVID lockdown, and deals with the issues the pandemic raised, locally and nationally. “Everyone was already in a state of anxiety, so the virus amplified the tension and conflicts in the world,” Skaught continued. “Like any good songwriter, I was responding to that. I was isolated, out of work and unable to see anyone, besides my wife, for months.
“I was locked in my own cocoon during the firestorm season in 2020, when the sky turned orange. August Lightning was the name they gave one of the fires, so it seemed fitting for an album of songs that came to me, as if falling out of the sky. I made simple demos and sent them to everyone, so they could write their parts. When the lockdown eased, we got together in our Oakland rehearsal space—all of us masked—and worked out the arrangements. After we were all vaxxed, we went into Sharkbite Studios. The mood was upbeat and creative. It was the first time we’d been together in a long time.”
The resulting album addresses the COVID crisis with wry lyrics and upbeat melodies. “Want Show As Young” is a blend of folk, country and rock, that looks at the lockdown with sarcastic lyrics and a stomping rock beat, featuring a memorable twangy guitar hook. Skaught sings in a hopeful tone, promising salvation through music. “We Got Lost” is a mid-tempo R&B tune. Its uplifting call and response chorus has a hint of gospel music. It surveys the aftermath of disaster, with resignation and hope.
“I picked up one of my dad’s guitars when I was in sixth grade. I’d go to a sheet music store, look at chord diagrams, draw them in my notebook and go home and learn them. I was in a few high school bands, but the other guys wanted to hang out, be social and drink. I’d be saying, ‘When are we gonna play? If you don’t wanna play, go home.’ I was listening to college radio and heard R.E.M., The Smiths, The Replacements and Robin Hitchcock. They were underground and sounded like real people. That flipped a switch in my head. I wanted to be part of that conversation.”
After college, Skaught moved to the Bay Area, started working at Amoeba Records and got serious about songwriting. In Oakland, he met Scott Miller, the leader of Game Theory, an influential underground band of the early ’80s. “We became friends. I learned a lot from him about what made songs tick. He had a distinctive style, and discussing the writing process with him was inspirational. He had a distinctive perspective and always had a fresh take on everything I was listening to, or he was listening to. I showed him some of the songs I was working on and he helped steer me in the right direction.”
The first band Skaught put together was Belle Da Gama, a short-lived group that made one album. “I was experimenting, trying out ideas. I was still learning how to write and perform. I eventually started The Blackbirds, with a more focused approach and a name that was easier to remember. We’ve gone through a series of personnel shifts over the years, before finding the current lineup. Since we’re an indie outfit, I write the songs, book the shows and handle promotion. There’s no money or glory in it—we all have day jobs—but we love the music and try our best to get it out into the world.”
With the pandemic winding down, The Blackbirds are getting ready to play live again. They’ll be appearing at The Golden Bull, 412 14th St., Oakland on Dec. 10 (goldenbullbar.com).