Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Belt Karate

Ryan Hanifl, Ryan Brown, Jason Achilles Mezilis and Harry Anthony Ostrem of Black Belt Karate at the Iliad Bookshop


At The Iliad Bookshop
5400 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood (818) 509-2665

There’s something magical about used bookstores. Every time you visit, there are new treasures to be found on its shelves. The same could be said for a good song. You can take away different meanings from a single lyric or discover a section of the melody that excites you with each listen.

The four musicians of Los Angeles-based Black Belt Karate share my love of used bookstores and take me on an adventure at their favorite in North Hollywood, the Iliad Bookshop.

“New bookstores have no soul. Old, used bookstores are awesome,” says guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis. “I love this place because you can find all kinds of rare and out-of-print books here.”

Originally located next to Odyssey Video, the Iliad took its name as a literary joke and sustains the Greek mythology tradition with its two kitten mascots, Apollo and Zeus, who are often found playing near the register.

While Jason, vocalist Ryan Hanifl and drummer Ryan Brown all reside nearby in the Valley, bassist Harry Anthony Ostrem lives in Westchester, so Jason shares that when the band members do get together it’s to work in the studio or hang out on his front porch.

“What are you talking about, we always hang out here,” jokes Ryan B. “We’re a very well-read band.”

His statement isn’t that far off, though. Ryan B. is an avid fan of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom series, and Ryan H. reads everything that Richard Russo puts out. Jason loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and science fiction.

“If I’m going to read fiction, it’s going to be sci-fi. The two best sci-fi books are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dune. They’re ridiculous. I like the MythAdventures fantasy series by Robert Lynn Asprin and James Blish’s adaptation of the original ’Star Trek’ series,” he reveals. “They were based off the scripts, but some things would be a little different from what happened on the show. People give the original ‘Star Trek’ a hard time because it was campy, but if you read the stories they’re really great. I have a book that I found here about the making-of the TV series with all the memos that the different departments would send each other and stories of Roddenberry freaking out about somebody putting the wrong color rock in a scene.”

Harry actually studied English and history in college; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of his favorites.

“I’m reading a book right now called Shantaram, which is amazing. It’s [reportedly] a true-life story about a guy who escaped prison in New Zealand and ended up in Mumbai. It’s about his experiences there, falling in love with the country and being forced back into a life of crime,” he shares. “Whenever I see a store like the Iliad, it gives me hope that at least there are still books out there. I’m not against e-books, but the environment, the vibe, the whole experience of going through a used bookstore is like exploring mom’s attic. When I was a kid I would go to places like this to find vinyl or old Creem and Rolling Stone magazines.”

Music is indeed the first love of the Black Belt Karate quartet, especially Jason, who is from the Midwest but was primarily raised in Northern California.

“Relatives and family friends that knew me before I had cognitive memories say that they would put on music and I would sit in front of the speakers and not move for hours, and it’s not very often that I don’t move. The first thing I remember was always watching ‘The Muppet Show’ on this little black-and-white TV we had,” he recalls, as Ryan H. chimes in with, “Ha! He always reminds me of a Muppet.”

“There was a classical pianist I saw when I was 5, Vladimir Horowitz. His hands were hitting the piano so hard; the sound was huge. I had never ever seen a piano in person, but when I heard what was happening I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do,’” Jason continues. “When we moved to California my parents told me I had to learn an instrument, so I picked the piano and started lessons when I was 8. My father is a musician. He played classical guitar so well that it just looked impossible and that actually steered me away from guitar for years. I didn’t pick up guitar until my nuts dropped and I hit puberty.”

“We’re sitting in the children’s section and Jason just used the ‘F’ word three times and just said ‘nuts dropped’ while little kids are walking by with their parents,” notes Harry.

Ryan B. also started playing instruments at an early age in Denver, Colo.

“I got a drum for my first Christmas when I was 6 months old because my mom’s brother got it just to piss her off as a joke. Then, I got a little Sears drum kit when I was 3. My mom plays ragtime piano, so I would play along on the drums to her. I started playing piano when I was 6, trumpet when I was 9 and then I got braces and couldn’t play anymore. The bandleader brought in a snare drum and I said, ‘Oh, I have to play that.’” he remembers. “A big moment for me was in January 1989 when I saw Gregg Bissonette give a drum clinic. I sat there watching the whole thing thinking, ‘I want to be that guy.’”

Ryan B. has played with the likes of Zappa Plays Zappa and Sex Tapes, and is also a teacher at Musicians Institute where he has the opportunity to touch the lives of many other aspiring drummers, just as Bissonette did his. Harry is also a teacher, but he came a bit late to the music game.

“I didn’t start playing bass until eighth grade, then I quit and eventually started playing again. All three of the other guys are schooled in music, know music theory and went to school for music. I went to school for history and english, but I always used music as an outlet. I played in some cover bands and realized I don’t want to live in small town,” says the Montana native, who spent time in Spokane, Wash. before moving to Los Angeles to play music in 2005. “I substitute teach and tutor now, and it’s fun working with kids. You really don’t know how you shape their future, as cheesy as that sounds, you can’t measure it by a paycheck.”

Harry goes on to mention a former student who is now a professional bass player and huge Rush fan, triggering Ryan B. to leap from his seat and grab a copy of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night – also the title of Rush’s 1975 album, their first with the legendary Neil Peart – from a shelf behind me. 

“I’ve been staring at it the whole time,” he admits.

While many songwriters become interested in words through books or poems, Ryan H.’s creativity was sparked by a musical genre.

“Fascination with wordplay came with rap for me. When I was in high school I listened strictly to gangsta rap. I didn’t really take an interest in it until – as cliche as it may sound – I heard Bob Dylan. Country music, too, because where I’m from [Minnesota], everyone either listened to country or rap. Garth Brooks was huge, and I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Yoakam,” he confesses. “I didn’t get into being a musician until I was 19; before that I really didn’t pay attention to music. My dad always had the oldies channel on so there was a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ I was a into grunge and late-‘80s Seattle bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Some of my favorite bands of the last 10 years are Sigur Rós and Radiohead.”

“There’s basically a period of time between 1989 and 1991 where my music appreciation stops and his begins,” interrupts Jason.

“The reason why I respect Harry is he knows The Bends by Radiohead, which is the be-all, end-all of modern rock guitar songs from a songwriting point of view. He thinks it’s one of the best albums of that decade, and I agree. The other two [Jason and Ryan B.], I’m very suspect of,” laughs Ryan H. “I was also big into the Doors in high school because that movie came out and I started fooling around with alcohol and weed. Pink Floyd, too. My favorite music to listen to is classical music. I have it on all of the time, call me pretentious.”

“Well, those are two separate issues,” grins Jason.

Everyone in Black Belt Karate likes to make playful gibes at one another, particularly Ryan H. and Jason since they’ve known each other for over a decade. They were both part of Your Horrible Smile until that band parted ways in 2006.

“We didn’t talk for a few years. We had some unfinished music, and I had been pulling his ear saying we should finish some of the old demos just purely for licensing. We did some stuff at my house and then went to see his friend play with Sabrosa Purr around that time. It was exciting, we had fun and I sort of missed doing the rock thing because I had primarily been the Rufus Wainwright thing for a few years,” says Ryan H., who also composes music for television shows and commercials. “Then we ran into Ryan Brown that fall.”

“The night was Oct. 17, 2011,” begins Ryan B., and everyone starts laughing thinking he’s joking about the exact date. “The reason I know the date is because my daughter was born three days later. I went to see Jason play with a band I was in called Owl at the Viper Room, and Ryan and I hung out.”

“At one point I saw those two talking to each other and was thought, ‘yeah, that looks right,” recalls Jason.

“I actually was working at the Viper Room as a custodian that night,” Harry jokingly interjects to everyone’s amusement. “They didn’t know me then, but our worlds would merge later.”

“So we moved forward making music, but it didn’t cement since Ryan B. obviously had his hands full for a little while. We started working on the initial material for the band and shot a video. If you see our first video, Ryan B. and Harry aren’t in it, there’s actually not a bass player in it. Then we met Harry in then middle of the next year.”

“When I first got the call ,I knew Jason had a house that was in the Hills-esque, above the low level where all the common people live. I heard the first couple of songs, which sounded really good. They weren’t amateur, crappy demos like with most bands you audition for, so I thought he was loaded with a lot of money, which hasn’t been the case, but it’s been loaded with many other things as equally as valuable as money. The music, in my humble estimation, is what it’s all about anyway. That’s what drew me in because I’ve auditioned for bands with a big budget, but the music was awful,” admits Harry. “This band is a blessing. My old band was together for a long time, so I was devastated when it broke up. Then this band came along, and it’s been really healthy and good.”

“I love that we describe this band as ‘healthy.’ That makes me happy,” chuckles Jason.

“It’s just like a romantic relationship. We can disagree and have arguments, but we respect each other as people. That’s the key,” says Harry.

Black Belt Karate released their first EP, Volume 1, last year, and plan to put out another EP next year. They began 2014 by unveiling a new single each month and just released a video for the latest one, “Transformer.” Although, they hail from distinctly different cities across the nation, it seems they were always fated to come together as BBK in Los Angeles.

“I moved here with $30, and while nothing has transpired the way I wanted it to, a lot of really cool stuff has transpired. I’ve played with some really famous people, I get to make music with these guys that I’m really proud of and I’m a way better player than I used to be. That wouldn’t have happened playing covers in Spokane, Wash.,” Harry says.

“There are so many opportunities in Los Angeles. Things can and will happen here that would no way happen in Denver, Montana, Minnesota, Chicago, Michigan or Northern California,” adds Ryan B. “There are a million things that will happen, but you have to be here for them to happen.

“The other day, I was telling one of the artists I produce how happy I was to be home after a trip I went on, and he said, ’Ninety-five percent of the people that come to Los Angeles get really upset and leave. You’re one of the five percent, one of the people who comes here with their dreams, who has made it work,’” Jason tells. “L.A. is amazing, I absolutely love it here. Anything we need for what we do for a living is here, whether it’s on the business side (managers, labels, lawyers), resources (recording studios) or musicians. Los Angeles is like a big toolbox. Nobody moves here because it’s an aesthetically beautiful city, but the fact that everything’s available here for me to be able to realize my dreams makes it a beautiful place.”

Black Belt Karate performs Oct. 21 at the Satellite, Oct. 26 at Lucky Strike Hollywood and Dec. 11 at the Satellite. For more information, visit


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