A Link in the Chain – A Conversation With Small Black
I always find it so interesting when musical genres arrive on the world stage. I like to think about how those trends will play out, where they’ll end up in 10 years or so. In the 80s, we had our share of new wave bands. In the 90s, grunge exploded onto the main stream. In the twilight of the 90s and on into the dawn of the new millennium we bore witness to waves of… I don’t know, rap rock? Boy bands? Fast forward another 10 years or so, and we arrive at what is steadily on its way to becoming a four-letter word, chillwave, a blend of 80s pop sensibility, hip-hop, dance, and flat out nostalgia.
I suppose the point being that music seems to reach a cyclical place in the stream of things. We’re creatures of history, constantly returning to the past in an attempt to fuel and drive us on into tomorrow. In the case of chillwave, the history of the 80s weighs in heavily. But with this progression and shift in change, re-invention becomes, and should become inevitable.
Among those spearheading this reinvention is Small Black, a band based in Brooklyn New York. If you happened to catch SXSW last year, you may have seen this band backing the chillwave wunderkind, Washed Out. Having been around for several years now, Small Black has used their time to further refine their sound of catchy pop hooks and synthetic beats. I talked with Small Black’s Josh Kolenik about their humble beginning, their take on cassette tape culture, and their newest split release with Washed Out.
I understand that your band is from Brooklyn, NY. Coming from such a hotbed of musical and artistic activity, what sort of impact, if any, does the culture there have on Small Black as a band? Do you feel like you have a nurturing home write your music in Brooklyn?
It’s hard to imagine being anywhere else. There is a great balance between total anonymity and tight community that doesn’t really exist anywhere else I’ve found. You can disappear and decide when you might like to be found. We’re also very lucky to be surrounded by so many of the bands around town like Oneohtrix Point Never, Beach Fossils, Real Estate, Babies, etc… I grew up in the suburbs too, so I just go hang out with my dad when I need to disconnect from the city for a minute.
I notice a slightly gradual shift towards heavier reliance on 80s-esque pop hooks on New Chain versus what you hear on your first EP. Can you talk a little bit about your beginnings as a band and what elements led to you crafting what your sound is today?
We started off working on songs in my Uncle’s attic on Long Island with no real plan, just experimenting and ended up falling in love with the sound of 80s drum machines. Over the first year of the band, we learned a lot more about production and sequencing and on New Chain used that knowledge to widen the range of the sonic palette we use. The EP is more gritty, but I think the songwriting style is pretty consistent on both releases.
“Tapes are a great way to get music out there in a very limited & special way, that cds can’t really match…”
I read that when Ernest Greene first went on tour as Washed Out your band served as his “backing band” for his live sets. Can you talk about how that relationship formed and how your band ended up working with him?
Ernest is a great friend that we met through exchanging remixes on the internet. He didn’t have a band at the moment, so we just offered to do it because it seemed like fun. The whole tour was hugely collaborative and along with Pictureplane, mutated into a pretty wild party on most nights. At the last show at Music Hall in Brooklyn in May, there were 50 people on stage with us just flipping out.. Just got lucky to meet somebody that we really get along with musically & personally.
Last year, a split 7” featuring remixes by you and Washed Out was released on Lovepump Records. Can you talk a little bit about that split release? How did that idea to remix a song from each other formulate?
We’d become friends over a mutual admiration of each others music. So it just seemed like a fun idea to remix each others tracks and Jake & Mookie from Lovepump offered to put it out right away., We got the cover art from this dude Swampy, who does amazing photo/collage stuff you can check out on his flickr.
Is there anyone else on your radar that you’d be interested in remixing or vice versa?
We just finished up Nicki Minaj & Ducktails remixes. So many people we’d love to work with down the road! Would love to do one for the Odd Future dudes or Emeralds or Waka Flocka or Kenny Loggins.
Tape music seems to be making a bit of an oddly-timed comeback, with digital releases being what they are nowadays. There’s a strange warmth and rawness to cassette tapes that’s similar to vinyl in a way that a digital format can’t seem to capture completely. How do you feel about bands releasing albums on cassette tape versus a CD?
Cassettes are great and have this physicality that make them unique. They often start to sound better the more times you’ve played them and worn them down. Your listening experience is also very different when you have to wait for a tape to rewind to hear a song again. There’s some magic in that anticipation. Tapes are a great way to get music out there in a very limited & special way, that cds can’t really match. But they are never going to be a match to the portability of digital formats.
You recently embarked on a European tour. Can you talk a little bit about those shows? How did it compare to performing here in the states? Was this your first European tour and do you plan on heading out anywhere else overseas?
This was our 2nd time headed over to Europe after a short run with Washed Out in the spring. In general, the crowds were great, particularly in Scandinavia! Was pretty blown away by that part of the world. The culture really mirrors America in a bizarre way. We’re going to be stateside for awhile, but hopefully we’ll head back over ther and other parts of the world in the summer.
What’s next for Small Black?
Thankfully we’re home for a good stretch after 2 months straight on the road. Will be headed down to SxSw with Cults & Sun Airway and playing some random shows here and there. The video for Photojournalist will be out really soon too. But our main focus at the moment is working on new material There’s no release plan right now.. Just want to get back to step 1 and experiment to see what might happen.
Small Black’s latest 7″ split release with Washed Out release features a song from each band, remixed by each other. Pick up a hot copy from Lovepump’s online store for only $5!