Small Black's debut EP definitely harks back to those great synth-pop songs of the early '80s with its vintage sound, but with a kind of lo-fi production more in line with a later era in music.
The strong songwriting and a keen sense of pacing and melody continued into the next phase of the band, when the lineup grew beyond the initial duo of Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner into a four-piece, writing and performing songs using purely synthesizer as a compositional instrument.
The result is the act's latest release, New Chain, an album that induces a sense of calm and well-being while stimulating the imagination. Akin to Brotherhood-era New Order and Orchestra Manoeuvres in the Dark circa Organisation, Small Black's songs clearly draw some sonic inspiration from an older era without ever really sounding like the band is doing a pantomime of its influences.
We spoke with Small Black's founder, the friendly and thoughtful Josh Kolenik, about the evolution of the project, its influences and its unforgettable music videos.
Westword: Your music sounds like it combines acoustic instrumentation with electronic elements. Is that more true of your EP than New Chain, and what do you feel you were able to do with the new album that you weren't able to on the EP?
Josh Kolenik: I would say we really upped the production value on New Chain. We really kept things limited on the EP because we just used Casios, beats and keyboard bass. As far as acoustic instruments, we had a couple of guitars on bonus tracks on the EP, but the main meat of it was synths.
On the LP, it's just synths. We'd been in guitar bands for so long, it was kind of a personal reaction to having done it. It's always nice in the world of ProTools and the unlimited world of digital recording to put some constraints on yourself, so we just made that rule and stuck with it.
Your electronic sounds have a bit of a vintage feel to them. What kinds of gear do you use to attain the sorts of sound you use both while recording and as a live act?
We use tons of stuff. It's a lot of keyboard, so some of the sounds are organic and not preset synths. On the new record, I think there were more classic synths, and on the EP, there were a lot of Casio sounds we relied on to get the tone of the music.
I read somewhere about how you came up with the name "Small Black," but was wondering if it was in any way a reference to Big Black?
No. We thought about that when we were deciding on the name. I was living in Oregon and talking with a few friends, and we were coming up with names and words, and when I heard that name, I knew it sounded like the kind of music I wanted to make. It's pretty simple, and it could be almost anything. Hopefully as our band moves forward and evolves, it isn't tied to some band name that dates the music.
In what way did Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers change your life, as you mentioned in that Spinner interview?
When I was a kid, I was a huge comic book dork, and when I heard that, it blew my mind. It was like nine superheroes in this group, but they were real. I didn't know why I liked it so much, but in years of listening to it, the raw production is fierce and in your face.
How did you first start to make electronic music?
Throughout high school and college, I had a four-track, and I was obsessed with working on it. I think the rest of the guys had a similar experience. Through that, I realized that working with tape was fun, and you realized that the computer was there, and we took advantage of it. For most of my life, I was in rock bands, and then, just over the course of this project, we got really interested in delving into different sounds and taking full advantage of what a computer has to offer, like non-linear recording.
You've cited Roxy Music, Human League and Gary Numan as influences. How did you encounter the music of each, and in what way would you say they influenced you as a musician and songwriter?
I heard Human League's Dare! a few years ago in its entirety. I knew "Don't You Want Me," because it's a staple. I didn't know that they were an amazing pop band. I got Dare! , and I was really taken by it and how good the songwriting was and how much it could be carried by a bass synth and a drumbeat. That was really inspiration.
I think with all that synth-pop stuff, it was something I had heard as a kid and didn't really delve into. I got that Gary Numan record Replicas in a thrift store, and it was so cool-sounding, it helped me to learn more about what was happening in the early '80s.
Roxy Music had a way of making baroque pop that was very weird at the same time. It's just one of those bands that when they come on, you know them immediately because tonally, they have such a unique thing going on.
The video for "Bad Lover" reminds me of an old Grace Jones video, with how it's partly creepy, with music that's a little in your face. Did you provide input on what the video would look like, and do you incorporate a similar level of theater into your live shows?
We worked pretty hands-on on that video. The directors were our friends. Along with the director, we made all the masks and worked on that concept. We just wanted to make something that was pretty wild-looking, that was weird and a little bit dark to fit the theme of the song. We just finished working on a video for the song "Photo Journalist" that should be out soon.
We love to do it as often as possible, but the only thing that stops us is having enough time. Everyone in the band, at some point, still works in film or studied it in school. Live, it's pretty straightforward. I don't know if it would really work or if we have the resources to make it work at this point. We couldn't see out of those masks.
How did you end up touring with Pictureplane and Washed Out earlier this year?
We're friends with Lovepump United, and we did a couple of shows with Travis Egedy last fall. He's awesome, and we love his music, and we really get along. With Washed Out, we became Internet friends and did remixes for each other. We actually became Ernest Greene's band for that tour because he didn't have a band. It was collaborative and fun and made the vibe of the tour really positive.
What are some of the most important things you've learned after people you don't know started paying attention to your band and from going on tour?
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We're a zillion times better as a band from when we started, due to constant repetition and also playing different spaces and different rooms -- just learning how to deal with them sonically. I think technically we're a lot better.
I don't know. I think the dream as a musician is to play for people you don't know who somehow stumble upon your music and really connect with it. I think that's why we wanted to make records -- that personal interaction. We're just flattered that someone in Chattanooga, Tennessee, wants to come see us play. We're still in awe of it and blown away by it.