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High Hopes: Illustr8ors – "Black Sabbath meets Michael Jackson"?

group photo of the band Illustr8ors

When a band change their name or their musical direction it usually either heralds a line-up change or a desire to erase a less successful past. For Illustr8ors, neither of those is true. All members of the band formerly known as BlackWolf are present, and they’re not trying to bury their previous guise, more wanting to progress from it.

“To cut a really long story short, we outgrew BlackWolf,” says vocalist Scott Sharp. “We started out as five guys making music that was similar to the stuff that inspired us. It came to the point where we wanted to make a new record, and the songs we were writing were completely different to everything we’ve done before. We realised that [we’d become] a completely different band.”

BlackWolf’s intentionally retro, Deep Purple-referencing blues rock certainly served its purpose – the band were nominated for Classic Rock’s Best New Band award in 2014 and scored support slots for the likes of The Temperance Movement and Blues Pills. Illustr8ors haven’t done away with that sound completely: the riffs are still there, but the melodies climb beyond the blues scale, and the grittiness has been updated with slick, almost pop-leaning touches. It’s a concerted effort to keep their sound fresh.

“It’s very easy, especially in rock’n’roll, to slip into a caricature of what you’re trying to do, especially with the kind of blues rock we were writing at the time,” Sharp explains. “As musicians we wanted to step outside of that. The aim for us is to write rock’n’roll as it sounds in 2016.”

Their first EP as Illustr8ors is produced by Toby Jepson (whose previous production credits include Saxon and The Virginmarys), and Sharp credits him with helping the band craft their new identity. “At that point, we were looking for something and didn’t know how to get there,” he says. “Toby really gets under the skin of a band and helps them shake off the bullshit. He was really good at opening us up and finding out what we were about.”

Illustr8ors’ top priority is to keep their sound accessible to those outside the core blues-rock scene. “We don’t want to pocket ourselves into a niche market,” Sharp says. “People like to pigeonhole blues rock, and we weren’t comfortable with that because we always had a modern take on what we were doing.”

When Sharp says ‘modern’, he means contemporary pop as well as rock. “Toby described us as Black Sabbath meets Michael Jackson,” he laughs. “But I’d say it’s somewhere between Rage Against The Machine and Maroon 5.”

While some bands actively avoid pop influences, Sharp embraces them. “People forget what pop music actually is,” he says. “It’s really a concentration of a really good melody and a really good hook, and something that makes you feel good.”

Pop or not, that’s a respectable mission statement for these reinvented rockers.

FOR FANS OF: Rage Against The Machine

“We’re inspired by everything from Rage Against The Machine to Pearl Jam to Nothing But Thieves, and heavy guitars like AC/DC,” says Scott Sharp. “We pick up inspiration from so many different places. That’s one of the reasons why we came down this path – we wanted to swallow up everything we listen to, from Damien Rice to Aretha Franklin.”