On The Line with Tarek Jafar of The Blue Stones

This past week, I interviewed the cool, suave frontman, Tarek Jafar, of the bluesy alternative rock band, The Blue Stones.

Alex Obert: Tell me about growing up, life in Canada.

Tarek Jafar: Honestly, I had a pretty standard upbringing. My parents moved from overseas and they had me when they were like twenty eight or something. It was a pretty standard childhood, I rode my bike, went to school and stuff. Moved around a lot when I was younger, but we settled in a place called Windsor, Ontario, I call myself born and raised there. Went to high school, had a pretty standard high school life, partied, did all that fun stuff. Like I said, it’s a pretty standard upbringing, my parents were big on teaching us discipline and stuff when I was younger and I learned at a young age to be responsible. My Dad is not from the country, so he had this mindset like, “Okay, you have to grow up, be a doctor, and that’s how you’re gonna be successful.” Where as my Mom was kind of the more artsy side which is where I got the music from. She taught piano and she exposed us to all this great music at a young age and that’s why I think I started playing guitar when I was around ten years old. So yeah, growing up in Canada is like growing up in the states. (laughs) Same thing pretty much.

AO: What do you enjoy most about Canada in particular?

TJ: There are a lot of things that I enjoy. I enjoy that the drinking age is lower, it’s nineteen here. I also enjoy the fact that the government helps us out a lot when it comes to schooling, so it’s not as high of a tuition. And to add to that fact, there’s actually a university in my hometown, so there wasn’t debt coming out of school, which is a good thing. A lot of students find that once they graduate, they’re in huge amounts of debt. I like that, the health care system is good, I actually work for the health care system, I work as an exercise therapist. The government takes care of you. But it’s got its ups and downs. I think now it’s starting to head to a more conservative state in the country, so we’re getting a lot of cuts for the people who don’t have much and a lot of people who have much are getting more. We’re kind of flip flopping right now. Other than that, it’s a good place to live.

AO: What’s the Canadian music scene like from where you live and grew up?

TJ: Windsor is actually a very blue collar town. Everybody here works hard. There’s factory workers here, there’s people who work standard nine to five, so that kind of reflects in the music scene too. You have all of these bands who kind of work so hard in developing their sound and developing their talents that it’s a very cultured scene here. I’ve said many times that out of all the places we’ve played in Canada and some places in the states, that Windsor is one of the most talented music tools, and I really admire the fact that I live in a town that’s like that. In general, Ontario is kind of the heart of the music scene on a national scale. But it’s weird man, Canadian musicians, unless you’re a solo act like Justin Bieber or something like that, I find that Canadian musicians have always found it hard to bust down the doors into the states, and spread and have exposure in the states. I think it’s always been tough for Canadian bands, so I’ve found that they reach a plateau of success and they kind of stay there. Because there’s some huge bands in Canada. Like for example, there’s a big rock artist in Canada, his name is Sam Roberts. He’s big in Canada. He can probably walk around and everybody would know who he was, but you go fifteen miles into the states and nobody would know what his name is. It’s just kind of like you reach a plateau and then you can’t break down the doors into the states, it’s very hard. So that’s always been kind of an obstacle for Canadian musicians.

AO: Regarding the Canadian music scene and your band, tell me how you first met Justin and what that first meeting was like.

TJ: I met Justin early high school, we actually played on the same hockey team, obviously a Canadian playing hockey, right? We went to high school together, we had a mutual group of friends, we all became really good friends through high school and it wasn’t until around second year university that we talked about the idea of jamming together. We both had been playing individually for a long time, but we hadn’t really had any serious bands, I guess you would call it. So when we went to the university, we just started jamming a little bit and we liked what we heard. It was just the two of us. So we recorded and we put it out for people, all the while, keeping in mind that we might need a bassist eventually. But it just kind of worked out that we kept playing shows, that people kept saying it sounded great. And we would always ask, “Was there something missing?” And they’d be like, “No, it sounded great.” So we kind of just kept with it and the sound developed. And that’s kind of where we are today.

AO: With your band, how did you get the name, The Blue Stones?

TJ: It was just kind of offered to us by a friend. It’s funny, I can still remember the conversations back and forth between Justin and I, trying to throw around band names. But somebody just mentioned, “What about The Blue Stones?” And we both just sat there and we were like, “Yeah, you know what, that works.” I guess it has enough boldness in the name, we didn’t really want to get into this metaphorically speaking, like a metaphor, we just wanted to keep it simple, and it just sounded right, so we stuck with it.

AO: What are some of the original names that you guys were thinking of, but didn’t decide on?

TJ: Okay, well we we’re going to go by The Ambassadors because the bridge between Windsor and Detroit is called the Ambassador Bridge, so we were gonna go by The Ambassadors. We were gonna go by Bluefound Revolutionaries. That was another one too. We were going to go with The Border City Brawlers and I’m really happy that we didn’t. That would have been kind of embarrassing. But yeah, that’s pretty much it. Those names were tossed around, at least from what I can remember.

AO: Which bands did you listen to growing up and which ones influenced you in your sound?

TJ: Growing up, I listened to a whole bunch of music. Anything from rock to rap to hip hop, anything really. My biggest influences, one of them is Sam Roberts, he’s the soundtrack to my high school years. I remember in high school is where I was exposed to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and things like that. Those guys just blew my mind. But a whole bunch along the way, it’s just so hard to pinpoint. I was and am still a big Jay Z fan. I used to listen to a lot of Kanye West as well. Hip Hop, the rhythms and the beats kind of influence me to this day. I find that some of the beats are just unstoppable. It just comes out when I make a riff or when I make a rhythm guitar section. Back to the influences, the style that we play now, there was a pretty pivotal point where I met Justin and we were jamming and he introduced me to The Black Keys and pretty much from there, we took off into a bluesy sound. I really, really love The Black Keys, especially their earlier records like The Big Come Up and Rubber Factory, Thickfreakness, those records are huge for me. Along with that, I listen to a band called Mutemath. I remember watching their live show and it just blew my mind. Those guys are just entertainers and all the while, they just laid down some of the nastiest riffs ever and I just love em. They’re melodious and at the same time, they’re heavy hitting. And I think that’s kind of the style that I took from the most. I wanted to make these heavy hitting riffs, all the while, having that melody that people can cling on to. And for me, that band symbolized that the most. What else, all the standards like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, obviously were huge. A lot of Queens of the Stone Age influences us as well. My Morning Jacket is a big influence on both of us. From the old blues guys, Muddy Waters. I saw BB King live in concert, it’s just amazing watching him playing the guitar. Howlin’ Wolf, he’s an old blues guy. Pretty much a mix, it’s so hard when people ask me this question because there’s just so many. But for the most part, I would say The Black Keys, Mutemath, and My Morning Jacket had the most influence on me, personally. And Rage Against The Machine. I think every guy can get on board with Rage Against The Machine, I don’t know what it is, I just feel like it may be for dudes.

AO: So with The Blue Stones, tell me what a typical band practice/jam session is like.

TJ: Okay, well we go into this dark, dank basement where it kind of smells. Then we set up all of our instruments. We usually like to jam with the instruments that we play with live. I know a lot of people use back-ups, but I feel like I wanna know what it sounds like in practice. What I’m using on stage, I wanna use the same thing in practice so I can get it perfect. But usually what will happen is I’ll have a couple of songs that I’ve written, they might just be riffs, they might be full songs and vocals, but I’ll bring those to practice. Sometimes, I’ll send them to Justin beforehand so he can get a handle on what sort of a drumbeat he wants to go with. And we just go from there. Then we work on the songs, we’ll work on segments of songs. We always like to have something a little different for our live show than we do recording, so one song on the album might be totally different when we play it live. We try and work on our live show as a whole, making it entertaining for them to watch. Just going through the songs, working on jams, trying some new stuff. I get a lot of input from Justin. I am the only singer, I am the only guitarist in the band, so I pretty much write everything. So I’m kind of lucky to have Justin, not only is he skilled in playing the drums, but he’s skilled musically. So it’s nice to get his input sometimes. I think that’s what’s shaped the songs in a way where we both really enjoy playing them and they end up sounding really nice because we both have our influence on them.

AO: With practice leading up to live shows, tell me about your most recent gig.

TJ: Most recent gig, we played at the Capital Theatre in Windsor. This was kind of like our return hometown show, we haven’t played here in a couple months. So the place was just jam-packed and it was amazing. Honestly, they had a lighting set up for the stage, the sound was incredible, the team that we were working with was incredible. The theatre was packed and it was honestly the closest to feeling like rockstars that we’ve ever felt. It’s kind of crazy, it was one of the first times where we’d play a song and we kind of keep playing notes, but everybody else would be singing the song in the audience. So that was kind of a cool feeling. It’s funny that you ask that question, it kind of worked out that the last show that we played is one of our best ever. It was a lot of fun.

AO: What’s it like having your own music videos?

TJ: It’s pretty cool. If you want to look at it as a business card, you can hear our music and see what we look like and feel like we’re live. But it’s nice because all of the music videos that we’ve had, actually with exception to the first one, we’ve written ourselves, so we’ve written the concept for the music videos. We’ve gotten together with friends in the film scenes in Windsor and Toronto and we’ve collaborated on these ideas and they end up turning out pretty well. We’re just kind of lucky to have these great friends who know how to work the cameras and the lighting. They have access to all this amazing gear. And the city of Windsor is great for it too. For example, our last music video, Rolling With The Punches, we needed a boxing ring for it. And we just called one up in Windsor and they were more than happy to just let us use it for the weekend. So we’re just kind of lucky that we have access to these things and we can make videos that we like to make. So it is a pretty cool feeling having those kinds of music videos. We’re big on acting and film, as well as playing. So it’s really cool to get to mesh those things together.

AO: You mentioned Rolling With The Punches, how do you feel you’ve rolled with the punches as a musician?

TJ: Well, my friend, we’ve got a long list of shows we’ve played where there’s maybe three or four people. (laughs) When you’re a musician, you’re not always going to play to fifty or a hundred people at a packed bar. So you’ve gotta be able to go up on stage and you play a hundred percent whether there’s two or three people in the bar or two or three hundred people in the bar. And I feel like that alone is rolling in the punches. As well as we’ve sent our music away, I remember in the earlier days, your first album is kind of something where you’re getting used to the whole idea of recording, so it’s maybe not your best, but we sent that one around, and we got a lot of rejection letters from radio stations saying it sounded too poppy for their station. So it’s kind of like you take that and you come back a little stronger. So we rolled with the punches there, I suppose. And then just along the way, you meet people who genuinely want to help you and those are the people that you stay with. And then you meet people who are looking for something else and those are people you’ve gotta separate yourself from.

AO: What’s it like having your music on hit TV shows? What’s that feeling like?

TJ: It’s really cool. It’s funny when you don’t know when it’s gonna happen. There’s been some times where they actually contractually cannot tell us when the song is gonna play. So you’ll be sitting there watching an episode and you’ll be like, “Oh my God! That’s our song right there!” It’s cool and people in our hometown have really taken interest in kind of following what shows we’re gonna be played on. So it’s really nice. It is really cool. It shows you that, hey, maybe your stuff is good enough for major network television and you’re not doing so bad. You know what I mean? It’s a nice little boost of motivation there.

AO: In any movie or TV show in history, what do you think your band’s music would be perfect for?

TJ: Such a great question. I’m a big Breaking Bad fan, so if they ever asked us to use any one of our songs, it would be a yes in a heartbeat. I would have loved if some of our music was played in The Departed, that is like one of my all time favorite movies. That would have been awesome. Anything that Tarantino has released. (laughs) That would have been great. Reservoir Dogs would have been awesome.

AO: Just curious, what are you into outside of music?

TJ: I like acting. I like doing short films, local films, that you can just jump on and audition for. So I took a liking to that. That’s pretty much my second biggest hobby, I would say. Other than that, I’m a big sports guy, football fan, I like the Lions. Yes, you can make fun of me for that. It’s okay. Sports, pretty much. I’m a big traveler too. My family has been to a lot of different places and it’s great to see a place where you don’t live, you just kind of get humbled by that. You come back home and you pick up some new knowledge. Worldly knowledge. I like to travel, I like seeing new places, and I like trying new things. Food as well, I’m a big foodie, trying new foods anytime that I can.

AO: You talked about traveling, where do you hope to play someday?

TJ: I really, really wanna play New York City. Well Saturday Night Live would obviously be the ultimate for me. I would love to play Saturday Night Live. But if you’re talking abroad, I would love to play in London, England. I just feel like it’s got such a rich musical history there. So I think that would probably be my number one. If not there, for some reason, I’ve never been to Germany and I’ve never been to Berlin, for some reason I wanna just see it. So I’d like to go there and maybe play. Pretty much all of Europe. London, England is number one for sure.

AO: So before we wrap up, I’m gonna do a speed round with you. I ask you a question, just answer the first thing that comes to mind.

TJ: Absolutely.

AO: Favorite song at the moment.

TJ: Tell Your Heart Heads Up by Mutemath.

AO: Favorite frontman.

TJ: Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys.

AO: Favorite band name.

TJ: The White Stripes.

AO: Favorite guilty pleasure song.

TJ: Mirrors by Justin Timberlake.

AO: First concert you ever went to.

TJ: Sam Roberts.

AO: First song you learned on guitar.

TJ: Smoke on the Water.

AO: If you could listen to a band for the first time again, which would it be?

TJ: It would be Mutemath. A hundred percent.

AO: What are you up to for the rest of the year with your band and in general?

TJ: Right now, we’re thinking about going back in the studio, recording about five songs for a vinyl release. That’ll be our first vinyl release ever, so that’s something that we’re looking forward to. Other than that, we’re planning on touring Canada again. We usually go to Ontario and out onto the East Coast. We’re gonna plan on doing that once more and also, we’re working on our paperwork to be able to tour the states. We want to hit as far as Chicago and the surrounding areas, around Michigan. That’s pretty much our next goal and also we’re building our fanbase. We’ve always wanted to do this ourselves, for the independent prospect of it, rather than kind of jump onto a record label as soon as we can. But it’s proving to be tough, but we’re working on it. We love to play, so we’ll play anywhere and just building our fanbase is our number one right now. So we’re gonna continue to do that.

AO: Where can readers reach you and check out updates with your band?

TJ: http://www.thebluestones.ca

And then on our home page, you can listen to every one of our albums, you can stream any of our albums online. You can actually download any one of our songs for free. We have it there on Bandcamp. It’s pay what you can. So if you wanna pay a cent for it, go right ahead. If you wanna pay fifteen bucks for it, go ahead. It’s there for people to download and listen to and enjoy. And you can also find us on Facebook, just type in The Blue Stones, and that’s our page, that’s where we post all of our show dates and other kind of information, pictures, blogs, things like that.

AO: When fans and readers listen to you, what’s the song that you think that they should start with?

TJ: Start with Rolling with the Punches. Start with that and just keep going down. Or Make Your Move.

AO: Well I’d like to thank you for your time.

TJ: Thank you, Alex. I appreciate it.

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