🎙Interview: Blake Pfeil
Blake Pfeil is an award-winning multidisciplinary audiomaker, musician, writer, & performance artist. He cofounded folk-fusion band Macabre Americana and hosts "The Pfeil File" on Radio Kingston/WKNY (107.9 FM/1490 AM in the Hudson Valley, NY).
In his “day job,” he steps into the role of Operations & Programs Manager at Hudson Valley-based nonprofit storytelling organization TMI Project. Outside of that beautiful space, Blake's work appears on stages, concert halls, or clubs; through your headphones, speakers, radio, Diskman, or TV screens; or in magazines, books, or journals.
Blake holds an MA in Arts Entrepreneurship from Purchase College, a BFA in Musical Theatre from Emerson College, and is an alumni of the Audio Podcast Fellowship at Stony Brook University.
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*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you could describe or summarize abandoned: The All-American Ruins Podcast in one sentence, what would you say?
It is an immersive sonic fantasy that recounts my expeditions exploring abandoned spaces across the United States, which I transform into these audio fantasies that both guide folks through the history and the physical space and also takes them into my imagination as I'm wandering through the spaces as a practice of mental wellness and spiritual connection.
How did the idea for this show come about?
Well, it has its origins in my childhood. I was born and raised in Colorado in the foothills of the Rockies. And right down the hill from my house was this giant, abandoned dairy farm. As a kid, it was sort of the impetus for my discovery of my imagination and the genesis of my realizing that the human imagination is not just the–as my friend Dylan calls it–the totality of human existence, but also the greatest spiritual practice that I have at my beck and call.
The farm was built as part of a huge tuberculosis sanatorium operation because back in the late 1800s when tuberculosis was becoming a huge problem into the early 1900s, Colorado was like the place that they decided per the science at that time that tuberculosis sanatoriums should be located where there is good air quality.
As I was exploring this abandoned dairy farm, it was filled with everything that had been there at the time that it was still an active farm. During this time, I was also becoming very interested in radio drama. I was raised in a Presbyterian church, and there was a Christian radio station in my hometown. And while I am as far away from the church as possible at this point, a huge part of my upbringing was this radio station because they broadcast this original drama series called Adventures in Odyssey.
And I was fascinated by the idea that you could close your eyes and be whisked away into this colorful story that was episodic. I also listened to old time radio shows, old classics like It's a Wonderful Life, and hearing things like Foley art only enhancing the experience of audio storytelling in a really visceral way that, combined with this idea of learning how to use my imagination to talk to ghosts in this dairy farm, became a way for me to really transport myself and become a full time lifelong lover of audio storytelling. So that's kind of where the beginnings of the project were.
And then if we fast forward like 25 years, a pandemic happened to the planet. And I was living by myself at the time and realized that my fear of the COVID-19 virus, especially in the early days, was very debilitating and it caused a massive amount of stress. I was very fortunate to be living where I live with all of the open space, and yet, the way that the media was portraying the destruction of this virus was so palpable, and really impacted my mental health in a way that is still something I think that I am repairing from.
But one day, I woke up after having a dream about that abandoned dairy farm, maybe three months into the pandemic and started wondering if there were any abandoned spaces in the area where I live and sure as shit, there's, they're everywhere. So I ventured out to my first one, which was an abandoned air force base in Saratoga Springs, about two and a half hours north of where I live.
And the second I rolled under that fence, that same feeling that I had when I was a kid came alive for me again. It was as if I had been there before, and I couldn't quite name what that feeling was. It was like a nostalgia that was a vicarious nostalgia, but it was even more than that. It felt recognizable to me.
And I came to realize that there was this word, Anemoia, which describes the feeling of a longing for a time and place one has never known. And that was the best word that could accurately describe that feeling. From there, I started writing about it because friends were really curious about my experiences, but they didn't feel safe going with me to these spaces because there is a lot of rule bending that goes on.
So, to offer folks in my community an opportunity to explore with me, I thought to myself, well, you know what I'll do? Without any training whatsoever, I'm going to build immersive audio fantasies and take them through these spaces. I had made little audio dramas that were basically rip offs of that Christian radio show Adventures in Odyssey when I was a kid, just on a tape recorder in my bedroom with my brother and sister, and so that felt like a good training ground. And then, of course, I realized audio is far more complicated than that.
"All-American Ruins asks critical questions about American history/culture, community, capitalism/economics, the environment, and mental health while encouraging folks to activate their imaginations as a tool for healing."'
When you say you want listeners to “activate their imaginations as a tool for healing”, what do you mean by that? Or put another way, what might listeners be healing from?
When I first entered this abandoned dairy farm as a kid, I was then, you know, I was a very intuitive kid who saw the underlying cracks in the foundation of the portrait that my family had painted for me, and that we were painting for the public. There were things happening behind closed doors that did not match what was happening in the public eye and the story we were telling everybody.
And as a person with four planets in Scorpio and feels basically every other word that I say with either tears or laughter, I feel like being able to go into a space and completely turn off the world for a moment by turning on my imagination and creating my own reality inside a place where nobody else could go, is like a sanctuary for me. This practice has became extremely important for managing my mental wellness, especially after that first year of the pandemic.
I will say as a side note, I am not a firm, pragmatic believer in astrology, but I do like the story that astrology offers all of us to find a little bit of grace for ourselves…
So as someone who also has four planets in Sagittarius, it is important to my spiritual wellness in addition to my mental and emotional wellness that I have access to exploration. There is no better way to explore than exploring the unknown, the unseen, the untapped. I spent years traveling and working all over the world. I think this is in part to this lifelong inherent quality that I have for wanderlust and how it, for me, fuels my soul to be able to extend myself outside of what I know as comfortable. After all, we only get a certain number of years on this planet, and after that it's anybody's guess.
And so as my responsibility to staying centered and grounded and being a person of the planet and really fighting for an equitable society where everybody feels seen and everybody feels spoken for, I need these kinds of practices to be able to ground myself and then step out into the world and fight for things like equality and justice.
I don't know if that answers the question, but that's, that's how it is for me at this moment.
Why is it important for you to include your personal stories or anecdotes in these episodes about different abandoned destinations? For instance, when you visited a former Jewish summer camp, you spoke about your experience and feelings tied to a similar institutions—Christian summer camps, which you had to navigate as a closed youth. It’s quite intimate.
I think that we have reached a point in society, at least for me, where unless storytelling is founded on vulnerability of subject and personal experience, I'm not interested in it. We have been forced as a culture to devour stock, stereotypical white-centered stories. And I say this as a white body in the world, but those stories are not interesting to me.
What's interesting to me–I just noticed right at the beginning of our conversation, the poster that you have behind you for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. I mean, those are the kinds of stories that I'm interested. Talk about a powerful, brave way to get on a stage, to go on the radio, to get on a TV screen, and really share the truth of what's going on with each of us.
That, to me, is where the power of human connection lies, and that is what actually could possibly create a great equalizer. If you look almost any social movement across time and space, it is rooted in true storytelling–people getting up on a stage and saying, here's my experience, and unless you can really feel of that experience, you're never going to understand what it means to feel less than, to feel othered. And therefore, we're never going to be able to make the change that we want to see in the world.
So I think that when it comes to telling my own story, the only way that this was going to really make a difference to people was for me to tell the truth about certain things. And so I do talk about white privilege as a huge example. In episode four, I reflect on the fact that Me as a white bodied person breaking into an abandoned structure like a remote county resort is a very different experience than a person of color or anybody who stands out from a white body to be able to do that; it is just a fact. Also, it was not lost on me that the day after I started this project, George Floyd was murdered.
And as I started to explore these structures more and more, it dawned on me that they represent more than just crumbling ruins of America. They speak to so many different fault lines and failures in this “democracy” [air quotes]. We have all the story of this country that we've been told. And these abandoned places are an underbelly that shows us that there is massive economic, racial and an ever mounting battle of gender inequality in this country…
And, you know–again, I say this all with an immense amount of privilege as somebody who is a white bodied cisgender male in the world–if I'm not talking about these things through a lens that makes sense to me, how can I expect to ever see the change in the world and actually find true equity that I think every single human being on this planet, not just deserves, but should have access to. It is a right that we all be able to exist in the society in a way that feels safe and centered and grounded.
This is the long winded way of saying that if I'm not getting personal, I can't make an impact.
In one of your show posts from June, one thing that you said that stuck out to me, and that’s that you often don’t look up places you explore before you go. What does taking this approach do for your storytelling process?
Well, stories all start with a blank slate in some way, shape, or form. I think that having that clean slate for me is rooted in that access to the imagination, which then just becomes a launchpad into writing something funky and fun. It let’s that story that I create in my head as I wander through these spaces be the foundation and then I get to add on top of it.
It is always the case that we don't know what's going to happen from second to second. And so it's important to me that I model that in the storytelling that I do, for no other reason than to just make sure that the narrative is interesting.
And oftentimes it is not interesting. Oftentimes my imagination does not turn on. And those stories I don't write about because nobody's going to connect to them because there's nothing to connect to.
When I am wandering through these spaces, I do not have any kind of recording device on me. Everything is created after the fact, and that is intentional. Because again, this is all about channeling whatever one's imagination can drum up.
And so, I remember my navigating through these spaces because immediately after I go, the first thing I do when I get home is I sit down and I open my notebook and I, by rote, handwrite the entire experience out from start to finish.
I have photographs to rely on, so those are very helpful, but part of what I'm trying to get at with this project is that. Again, the human imagination is the single most powerful tool I think we have at our disposal. It is what makes the sun come up and have an explanation and what brings the moon up in response.
The process arduous when it comes to production, because we're talking about 55 to 60 hours per episode to really make sure that everything feels as immersive as possible, while also allowing the listener the opportunity, and the hopefully the gift of being able, to close their eyes and really create the paintings in their own mind.
What about your sound design process?
It's part of summoning the magic and elevating the narrative into a place that really allows people to feel the permission to feel.
I'm working on an episode right now that is about an abandoned bakery in Cleveland, Ohio. It is in a neighborhood that historically has been forgotten about by city and state government, and it's reflected in the way that it looks. Physically speaking, it's filled with dilapidated buildings and houses that are still occupied by humans and are absolutely not up to code and is absolutely being neglected by the officials who we are voting to to protect us and to give us a sense of of place and and and meaning and in that space.
This trip was the first time that I took my boyfriend to one of these abandoned spaces. He knew that this was something that I did, but he didn't understand exactly what it meant to me because he had never been. And so the whole episode is about his being from this area of the country–Cleveland area–and how wonderful it was for me to be able to share it with him.
And so as I was writing the script and even the original blog post, it really became about my relationship with him, and that's actually what a lot of the second season is: exploring the relationships in my life that are formative and have shifted and changed me as a person. In season two I really allow other voices to come into the room because it's not interesting otherwise.
And this is all to say that as I was tooling this episode, I started thinking about how in my little fantasy view, my relationship is so Nora Efron, You've Got Mail-esque. And so I started looking for music that reflected that feeling, which is basically like light, jazzy piano.
And so it's been a real joy to figure out all of the beats for these different tracks and these different sound cues that I find to really elevate the story in that way, because when I distill this episode down to its bare bones, it's a love story. It's about my falling in love with a man and feeling confident in that relationship, probably more confident than any relationship I've ever been in.
🎤 Pass the Mic
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
Everytown for Gun Safety, which came about after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; they are a real leader when it comes to talking about the gun violence issue in America.
If this show’s format interests you, you might also want to check out the Sounds Like Impact interview with Pippa Johnstone of Expectant podcast, another show that blurs the lines between nonfiction and theatrical storytelling.