Paul Balazs Draws Connection Between Comics, Music in New Project | Phoenix New Times

Artist-Musician Paul Balazs Marries Comics and Jazz in Hazel

This Phoenix artists pushes creative boundaries with a new project.
Artist-writer-musician Paul Balazs poses with his book Hazel.
Artist-writer-musician Paul Balazs poses with his book Hazel. Paul Balazs
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As a member of local psych-pop band The Psychedelephants, Paul "Danger Paul" Balazs is used to pushing creative boundaries. But with his latest project, Hazel, Balazs has blurred the line between comic books, film, and music into a truly compelling multimedia experience.

Hazel is both a comic book and album that are paired together. (Think of it like watching The Wizard of Oz while playing The Dark Side of the Moon.) The whole idea came around, Balazs says, so he could do something markedly different from past projects.

"Instead of writing an album itself, I wanted to write an album with certain third parties that had some real drama, betrayal, and murder," he says.

The resulting story has all that, but it's also about how far we'd go for our loved ones.

"This is the story of Hazel, who is an ex-LAPD officer," Balazs says. "He gets injured and decides to become a private detective. And he's also an alcoholic at this point. He gets a call from Iris, an old flame. She's got into some deep water with a loan shark, and she needs Hazel's help to get out of it."

It's an interesting choice of mediums for someone with only a passing interest in comics. 

"I did collect some comics; I had some weird mutant comics and whatever," he says. "But I always appreciated the form."

Balazs did, however, grow up making art alongside music.

"I did everything from charcoal to painting to watercolors to sketching," he says. "Even some pottery. I actually majored in graphic and web design for about a year." But, Balazs adds, it wasn't until he "came up with the idea of doing an album and having imagery with it that I thought a comic story would work."
Given his lack of experience with comics, Balazs initially attempted some research. He quickly found, however, that most online resources were only good for "maybe outlining steps in the process." Luckily, he found direction elsewhere, drawing inspiration from similarly themed albums and comics.

Sonically, the biggest inspiration is likely Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack.

"I bought the vinyl," Balazs says. "It has extra tracks where they're talking about [the film] in rehearsals. They watched the movie, and he [Ellington] said, 'I'm going to start with this girl. She's very sassy and flirtatious.' And I thought that was so genius [the song 'Flirtibird'], and I needed a song for Iris. But hers is going to introduce [her ongoing] gambling issue as a kind of metaphor for getting into trouble in her life."

As for comics, there were two books that stood out as Balazs "deciphered" a compelling visual story: Parker, from Donald E. Westlake and Darwyn Cooke, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' iconic Watchmen.

"[Parker] is the film noir story, and the monochromatic thing," Balazs said of his direct inspiration. "I [had] to do that, too, but make it look like my own." As for Watchmen, he says it was "more about how they use the dialogue if they'd jump scenes. But also paying attention to the writing style and which parts of the story they chose to actually put on a panel. And they also did it a lot like a movie, which I felt comfortable about."

And, of course, there was Balazs' own cast of collaborators. On the visual front, he enlisted artist David Marhen. Not only did Marhen help motivate Balazs to reconfigure his film script into a comics-appropriate panel script, but he drew the bulk of the work in a spellbinding four months. (Balazs handled the shading and coloring on top of the script.)
As for the music, Balazs says his bandmates in The Psychedelephants were on board to help achieve his dream.

"I asked the guys if they wanted to stretch out and make a jazzy lounge album for it," he says. "As a chance for us to [expand] our musical abilities into other genres. But I said, 'I'm going to have rules. And I'm going to write, like, 85 percent of it.'"

The band readily accepted those terms, and set about contributing some essential elements and tidbits to the record.

"Spencer [Ferrarin] did all the extra percussion," Balazs says. "Miles [Tippett] made a lot of great production choices, like adding upright bass or nylon-string guitar. For the horn section, I had help with it being arranged by a newer friend of mine, Garrett Jones." Aside from all of the lead guitar, Calin Gross played baritone and slide guitar parts all through a vintage 1964 Airline amp across the album.

Surely there's no taking away from the help afforded Balazs, but a bulk of the record came together through his own inspired efforts. More specifically, he found the project progressed when he was thinking about the visuals and sound as one cohesive element.

"I wrote 'Femme Fatale' and 'The Doors' right away," he says. "And 'The Doors' helped me come up with some style things for the comic, like putting in matchbooks. And 'Femme Fatale' helped with the ending, because I knew what I wanted to happen with the twist."

He adds, "The lyrics are the subconscious of Hazel thinking to himself. Or, Iris talking about herself, or thinking. While the dialogue is what they're actually saying. If you line up the album and comic just right, the lyrics will mostly foreshadow, which is kind of nice."
But Balazs wasn't just excited to push himself creatively. He also sees Hazel as a reaction to how artists release projects nowadays, and their relationship (or lack thereof) with audiences.

"How nice would it be if I could give someone pictures that they could look at while they listen to the music and which is also about the music and vice versa," he says. "Maybe you can lose yourself in the project. Maybe it won't get tossed aside and it might actually be paid attention to."

As an extension of that, Balazs says that while the comic and LP should go together, he's not holding anyone's hand in how they consume either.

"The album, I think, is great on its own," he says. "And the comic's great on its own, too. It's definitely an optional thing — I didn't even include any instructions on timing. I liked the idea that the audience should be able to cue into that logically. And they might have to go back and revisit things and then maybe realize how good it is."

While the book comes from a need for continued artistic development, there are some more personal elements into why it ultimately hit shelves. For instance, a couple of tracks — "Honey" and "Liar and a Thief" — were "written when I was, like, 19 and 23," Balazs says, adding, "They were songs that were living under my belt that I never had a home for."

Or, there's the project's larger connection with family.

"What really pushed me to finish was when my mom passed away," Balazs said. "She helped me edit [the comic]. It was close to done and I'd been sitting on it. I really wanted her to see it the last time."
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Art from Hazel by Paul Balazs, who has blurred the line between comic books, film, and music into a multimedia experience.
Paul Balazs
Regardless of the whys, though, the project has been available since late 2022 — and Balazs isn't quite done with it yet. He'd like to eventually put on a stage show, but admits it has to be a rather specific venue for everything to work seamlessly. Plus, he's got a "video movie of the entire thing that's in perfect time. But I'm sitting on that until I hit my first sales quota to get my money back."

But in the long-term, more ongoing sense of things, Balazs believes he's got a future in exploring some exciting new musical realms and ideas.

"Jazz is definitely a big thing in my future," he says, adding he's even started a new band, What If We're Robots, in that same vein. "Even anything with The Psychedelephants is going to be more jazzy, probably. Even if it'll be more like prog-rock jazz."

He'd even like to bring the band in on another project, adding that he's "trying to get them to write more ... because Hazel was just so much of me."

But if absolutely nothing else, Balazs hopes that the project, which took several years and loads of writing and recording time, will speak to anyone else with a similar love of boundless creative exploration.

"It's a type of magic ... something that you can't really grasp until you see it because it really hasn't been done like this before," he says of Hazel. "If anything, it'll inspire you as an audience member and artists to do something incredible and mash up different pieces of art yourself."
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