The devil and Brendan Stone
Folk band Blue Oaks channels dark magic on debut album
To barter his soul, Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroad. He took Johnson’s guitar that midnight, perfectly tuned its strings, played a few songs and returned it with a curse of Delta blues mastery. Others claim the two traded in a graveyard. The myth of how Johnson got the ability to make Depression-era music history—overnight—depends on the maker.
Almost a century after Johnson’s death, Blue Oaks frontman Brendan Stone says he may have encountered the Old Boy, too. Cute, curious and creepy signs of Satan’s intervention turn up in his story of making the four-piece’s debut album, To Be Kind is Sin.
First, on Craigslist: A used guitar ad beckoned Stone’s wallet with a 1928 Gibson just two models away from the one Johnson played. Deteriorated gear cycled through the trade counter at Skips Music, where Stone worked: a Big Muff fuzz pedal (aka the “Ram’s Head”) and a rare Marshall amp with a serial number that includes “666.” He bought all three instruments and restored them.
Stone summons the Big Muff throughout To Be Kind is Sin, disturbing the quieter parts with its mighty curtain of fuzz. Part blues, folk and heavy rock, the record weeps like Muddy Waters, poeticizes like Bob Dylan and terrorizes like Black Sabbath.
The album is Stone’s coming-of-age memoir put to music. His rasped whispers narrate his struggles making moral choices (“Devil on My Side”), his pessimism about the sacredness of life (“Nicotine”) and death (“Time Signals”). Stone wrote and rewrote the songs over the last decade, between job transitions, ended relationships and bad days. It finishes with his reconciliation: “What’s done is done.”
“I see it as a current record,” Stone, 27, says. “But on a personal level, all of it’s from the past.”
The album also explores traditional ideas of good and evil. So when that evil ventured from old gear and into the recording space, Stone knew why.
In 1968, the Rolling Stones’ studio burned down after they recorded “Sympathy for the Devil.” The ultra-flammable tape somehow survived the wreckage. On its live debut, a concertgoer was stabbed to death in the crowd, and the Stones decided not to perform the song for a while.
Back in 2017, Stone witnessed a strange coincidence during the recording of “Sin Will Find You Out,” a short interlude sung a cappella. After Stone finished his vocal take, drummer Cody Walker, who’d been reading comic books on his tablet, rushed into the room. There, on the current page, they both saw it. The Joker, cryptically warning: “Sin will find you out, Batman!”
But was some cosmic presence really signalling to Stone? Choosing him, just as he believed certain people were predestined to a life of music, to carry the same torch as Johnson and Mick Jagger? Or is he just chasing the devil, trying to join a legacy he admired?
Stone has long dressed like his idols, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, even though his high school classmates taunted him for it. At 17, promoters booked his folk act because it was good—and unusual: He’d sing and strum along to a phonograph playing vinyl.
Today, his Stone Vintage Music Boutique on R Street is a museum of weathered instruments, a space furnished with a 1950s television and retro-futuristic machines. The R Street store will close after opening in May. The temporary lease ends this year, and while he’ll tour the new record for a while, Stone plans to try again with a new shop when he returns.
Some customers who enter the store scoff that it’s pretentious and nostalgic, Stone says. But he sees it as a much-needed homage. He devotes his life to preserving the past, and worries that the younger generation is losing sight of its value.
“Being able to see where things come from, and know how they grew to be the way they are; I want people to understand that,” Stone says. “And I don’t think anyone is growing up [saying that they] don’t want to know about those things. It’s because their parents aren’t teaching them.”
About theramins, for example, which produce those UFO sounds in black-and-white horror films. They’re difficult to play. You wave your hands over two antennas to produce the sound.
You’ll hear the theramin’s eerie flight in the song “Sand and Skin.” Stone’s hands—or some other force—produced a perfect melody in the first take. And the second.
“[The melody] had accents and flows right where it needed to be,” Stone says. “And it was right in key. We just went like, ’OK, that’s the take. Let’s not touch that thing again.’”