SMALL BLACK carved out a following in 2009 when they release their debut EP on Jagjaguwar. Then came New Chain, their full-length album in late 2010. Filled with dreamy, noise tinged synth pop dubbed chillwave, this Brooklyn based band joined TORO Y MOI as new movement: with clear eighties sensibilities, SMALL BLACK is more than just derivative: they have a more layered sound that reveals itself with multiple listens. With distorted, slightly cryptic lyrics, SMALL BLACK went from a two-man bedroom project (Ryan Heyner and Josh Kolenik) to a four-man band (including Juan Pieczanski and Jeff Curtin). Earlier this year they released The Limits of Desire. SMALL BLACK was recently in Berlin to play at Berghain Kantine. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION talked to Josh Kolenik about important topics like being robbed in Barcelona and why chillwave appeals to stoners. Read on for the best explanation of a band name ever, involving a chicken that survives a raccoon attack.
How is the tour going?
We kind of started off very stressed. We had three flights in first four days, and we have so much stuff. It’s really stressful getting to and from the airport. They broke all our electronics on the first flight. They lost the front of our road case.
And it’s gone?
Yeah, it’s gone. Everything ended up working, and then I got my phone stolen in Barcelona. So it was a rough start.
Oh no, you got pickpocketed?
Yeah, I was just out late and wasn’t paying attention. I like to consider myself a savvy New Yorker but I was as dumb as everybody else.
I was hanging out with some New Yorkers this summer and they were talking about the “New Yorker check” that you do every thirty minutes: keys, wallet, cell phone.
It’s true. I usually keep everything. Normally I keep everything in the front pockets of my jacket. I just wasn’t paying attention. I just different have that association of Barcelona as a place where I could be pickpocketed. Then I posted it on Facebook and had like twenty friends tell me similar stories. One friend had her shoes stolen there while she was asleep. She was hanging out on the beach and woke up and her shoes were stolen.
It’s hard when a trip or a tour starts like that, you think “Is this a bad omen?” In setting up this interview I noticed you are the tour manager. How is that?
We have a driver, so we can get by doing that. It’s fine. We’re pretty responsible.
How did you all meet and where are you all from?
I’m from Long Island and so is Ryan. Jeff and Juan are both from Washington, DC.
How would you describe your music/genre? Do you like the term chillwave?
Whatever, we’ve been grouped in which a bunch of bands that are pretty good. We make pop music, and hopefully it isn’t stupid or vapid.
Pop music that doesn’t suck.
I love classic pop jams and hits.
From what era?
People always pull the eighties reference out for us. I love stuff like TEARS FOR FEARS, TALK TALK. Just across there I just like good simple pop songwriting. That’s the general focus of the band as we go forward that’s the genre we try to stick to.
SMALL BLACK: We are getting better as producers, we know how to make a real record that can be played on big speakers. When did the EP, we kind of didn’t know what we were doing.
Because I notice a pretty big change and that’s why I wanted to interview you. The “Small Black EP”, when that came out, I found it my first winter in Berlin and I found it really powerful. Then “The Limits of Desire” has gotten a lot happier, the tone. Can you address that change?
I think we’ve been writing similar kinds of songs on purpose but we’ve changed our production aesthetic. I think we’ve just gotten better. We are getting better as producers we know how to make a real record that can be played on big speakers. When did the EP we kind of didn’t know what we were doing.
Was that kind of a bedroom project?
Yeah it was just Ryan and I hanging out in my uncle’s attic on Long Island.
This is the surfer uncle, from the video?
Yeah, that’s like, not bullshit, we were just sitting up there, clinging to space heater freezing. I don’t know why we did it, we were being crazy. It was just a moment, this intimate and little thing. As you start touring it’s more fun…it’s easier to translate the stuff to live and it’s a better experience for us and for the audience.
Do you feel like playing live it just naturally makes you want to be more expansive because you’re playing in a bigger space and reaching more people?
Yeah, and we are all guitar players, that’s how we learned to play music. We’ve been able to work that back into the band. It’s always more fun to play guitar live that it is to play keyboards. Maybe we are just indulging ourselves. (laughs)
What have been some key obstacles/time periods for the band? Like any moment where you thought “Can we keep doing this?”
Yeah, I don’t know, this record took a long time I wish we had gotten it done a little faster but maybe that was just the amount of time I needed to take. I think going forward, we are all about doing things a little more quickly and a little more off the cuff. This record was a lot about finding that. We did so many versions of these songs. The song Sophie has 12 versions.
Was it because you could finally access certain things?
I think we were just deciding what we wanted to make. We got some new gear and started to get more comfortable with it. And we get one piece of gear and you it’s like “Oh we have to have this on every song because it’s so much better than what we had.”
Like a new toy?
I like some of the old versions but I think where we ended up was the right ones, they’re good and consistent.
Where does the name come from?
I was living in Portland, Oregon, just for a little while. And my friend had a chicken coop. And we named all the chickens, and then one day a raccoon, (that we would always hear because it was living in the attic) at all the chickens except one. Small Black was the name of the chicken that survived. I thought he was a very tough and resourceful guy. I also thought it was a cool name.
This brings me to the appeal of chillwave to stoners and the fairly hilarious YouTube comments on your videos.
There are some crazy ones. Yeah, stoners they love our stuff.
What do you think the attraction is?
I don’t know, it’s chill whatever that means. Especially on New Chain there’s a lot of really trippy synth stuff, sort of bubbling underneath the surface that shows up after a couple listens and I think that sort of layering really appeals to people on weed.
I’ve talked to several people about that, how after a couple listens to Small Black songs, your relation to the music changes.
Yeah, definitely, our EP especially is a grower, we wanted to make it really dense.
What can fans expect from a live show?
It will be a full band; we all grew up playing in rock bands so we bring that to the live show. Energetic, and as dance as our music gets. Not a laptop band.
Best part and worst part of touring?
Food is really good.
Even in Germany huh?
Germany is a little tough. In the States we are really good at eating. We use Yelp and we are so good at spots. It’s definitely what we look forward to.
The worst part?
It’s just the lack of comfort and being in cramped quarters for a long time. We have a fights but we are good about working it out quickly and apologizing. Ryan is kind of our band Buddha, he doesn’t fight with anyone. He’s very relaxed person. You look at him and you realize you should stop acting like an asshole.
Is there anyone in the band who is a real control freak?
I think me and Jeff are the control freaks; the other two are more like let it go types.
What do hope and passion mean to you?
That’s a heavy question. It’s why you do stuff. Why we do music, because you’re passionate about it. It’s what I think about when I wake up and before I go to asleep. I wouldn’t do it; I wouldn’t make songs like this if wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. It’s my reason for getting through the day.