INTERVIEW

Proudly Brooklyn yet making fuzzy, emotional synth music for daydreamers

smallblack

Proudly Brooklyn yet making fuzzy, emotional synth music for daydreamers

Casio Noise Pop. That’s how Small Black choose to describe themselves. Sounds a bit vague, doesn’t it? I mean, Casio is in there, so they obviously use keyboards, but ‘Noise’ and ‘Pop’ could mean anything from an awkward grunt to the object of distaste, Lady Gaga. Small Black do not sound like indigestion or ‘Poker Face’. They don’t sound like Abe ‘Casio noise-lovers’ Vigoda either. They sound far more dulcet and beautiful than that. Nostalgic Casio Daydream Music would be more fitting. Yes, it’s an extra word long, but use that from now on, guys.

“I am really interested in memory,” admits Josh Kolenik “and how things resonate and trail whether accurately or through the subjective filters you interpret them with… Uncertainty and confusion are also recurring themes in our music.”

Okay. Uncertain Confusing Nostalgic Casio Daydream Music, then. This type of thing can of course be neatly summed up as Teen Drama Music – specific to US teen dramas, not our shoddy ‘ol Hollyoaks where OB falls in the duck pond and gets all sad. No, Josh and ambient partner Ryan Heynerband produce the kind of emotional Radio Dept.-esque tones that has us all watching American trash soaps about rich kids, if only for their soundtracks. And by the time the episode finishes with a montage of the evil dad getting arrested and the fittest one looking upset about something, you’re sucked into the whole ridiculous affair, all because of the song that’s playing. That’s how powerful bands like Small Black are. Just listen to recent single ‘Despicable Dogs’ – a perfect balance of cinematic, processed drums and keys, and poignant, comforting vocals. Basking in warm light, it’s both pure escapism and wholly relative – like all the best teen dramas, I guess. The band started in Josh’s uncle’s attic last summer as the pair would spend hours experimenting with samples, keyboards and laptops, and by the end of the year’s warmer months they’d pieced together an EP of hazy, romantic-sounding pop songs with lightly distorted vocals. Next, manic blog love and the staple Pitchfork props awarded to most Brooklyn duos messing about with lo-fi techniques. Not that the attention coming Small Black’s way is unjust – their 8 CMJ shows in 5 days were garnered by their uncanny knack for forlorn melodies and Casio chimes.

“I think a lot of the songs on the EP deal with love in some context,” says Josh “but I think I’m more interested in that moment when you’re not very sure of the person you might be standing with, than any sort of romance. And as for being a Brooklyn band, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We are so lucky to live around the corner from people making amazing records – Real Estate, Javelin, Woods, Vivian Girls, Air Waves, etc.”

Surely though, with the instant attention that having ‘the Brooklyn Factor’ gives you also comes a certain amount of pressure to stand out from the band living next door?

“Well, with the Internet, aren’t we all pretty much part of one big scene when you really get down to it?” questions Josh. “If anything, it makes it easier to get shows and find people that might like your music.”

It’s a nice thought – that we are all one, under not just the same sky but same vast, digital space that is the World Wide Web. And while most of us are way to cynical to agree, it’s this sense of community that has lead Small Black to double in size most recently – “This summer, we added Jeff Curtin and Juan Pieczanski for live shows,” explains Josh “and going forward they’ll be members of the band and involved in the whole process.” And while we may be so sick of every half decent band on the planet coming from New York, Josh, especially, is still besotted with the bright lights.

“New York is really hard to beat,” he grins. “I’m an official lifer. It’s ever-changing. There is more music and art here that you can ever get a handle on. I could only hope to see one tenth of the stuff going on. I love the frantic pace too – it keeps you hungry! Best pizza and bagels in the world.”

Josh once loved Portland, Oregon, in this way (it’s now his second choice, with London a third because he is, “obsessed with this chocolate éclair I got at Exmouth Market last time I was there,” although, he notes: “I don’t know how I could ever afford to live there”) and grew up listening to rap, which quashes any presumption that his band’s name is a slight on or homage to Steve Albini’s industrial noise pioneers Big Black.

“No. Not at all. In fact, I never even heard Big Black until Travis from Pictureplane played it for us in the van a month ago,” he confesses. “I had seen the ‘Songs About Fucking’ LP cover for years and I know Steve Albini was involved, but that was about it. It was pretty rad though! Need to delve deeper in I think. Because I was more of a rap head as a kid, I just missed a lot of this stuff. Small Black was just a name my friends Petey and Shane came up with when I was living with them in Portland.”

Far more ‘no nonsense’ than their Casio Noise Pop description (which is actually growing on me the more I say it), is Small Black’s motto, “STAY FOCUSSED!”. It almost comes as a surprise from a band making the music they make – it all sounds so free-n-easy; hissing tape music that’s comfortable enough in its own sweet melodies and fuzzy walls-of-sound to not be bothered about conscious thought. But, then, Small Black have quite the opportunity in their hands, right now. While the indie world begins to look on, in the pipeline they’ve got a Lovepump United split 7” with Washed Out (another blissful chap worth looking into), a second Mexican Summer 7” and a full LP in the Spring, just in time for them to be the toast of SXSW. Get in there a teen drama montage where the pretty dork walks back into his room and stares at the wall, while, across town, his gal steps into the baddies sports car, and Small Black’s 2010 looks to be as sweet as their Uncertain Confusing Nostalgic Casio Daydream Music.

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Originally published in issue 13 (vol. 3) of Loud And Quiet. December 2009

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