Approximating A Cyber World: An Interview with Black Rain
, March 7th, 2012 05:33
New York duo Black Rain have just reissued some of their lost soundtrack work from the mid-nineties, music that feels stunningly current despite its age. Joseph Burnett caught up with Stuart Argabright to chat NYC history, no-wave, meat cleavers and science fiction
London-based label Blackest Ever Black dipped into the past for their most recent release, a compilation of brooding, dark electronic soundtracks recorded in 1994 and 1995 by New York duo Black Rain.
Black Rain was made up of Stuart Argabright, formerly of much-lauded New York post-punk/proto-techno outfit Ike Yard, and Japanese musician Shinichi Shimokawa. The pair had already collaborated as part of hip-hop collective Death Comet Crew, and when Argabright was asked to provide musical backing for an audio book of sci-fi author William Gibson's Neuromancer, as well as a soundtrack for a film of Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, he teamed up with Shimokawa to channel the dark cyber visions of those works into musical format. In the end Black Rain's soundtrack was hardly used during Johnny Mnemonic - perhaps just as well, given that it ended up as something of a flop - and although released on a CD some time later, swiftly disappeared from public knowledge.
Blackest Ever Black, whose music over the last eighteen months has drawn heavily from post-punk and early industrial, found in these lost soundtracks perfect predecessors to many of today's darker, harsher electronic sounds. The rattling, near-tribal rhythms of 'Biotechno 1 & 2' are a precursor to the polyrhythmic dance and noise music of Cut Hands, Shackleton and Blackest Ever Black signee Vatican Shadow. And the worn down, sci-fi psychedelia of the 'Lo Tek Bridge' tracks – originally slated for Johnny Mnemonic - sits neatly alongside current music from the likes of Raime and Sandwell District. The seven tracks that make up Now I'm Just A Number: Soundtracks 1994-95 are all traversed by gloomy synths, heavy percussive patterns and a bleak atmosphere of post industrial ennui, and proved to be precocious in their approach to rhythm, texture and mood: despite their age, they sound unnervingly fresh within a modern day context.
The Quietus caught up with Argabright to discuss the music of Now I'm Just a Number, the genesis of the Black Rain project, and his insights into the New York scene that the band emerged from.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Were you interested in music from an early stage?
Stuart Argabright: I was hearing and being exposed to music at a pretty young age. I was lucky enough to have an older sister who was well into The Stones and so forth, so I would catch those early black and white headlines. I would see The Rolling Stones getting off an airplane, coming to America. I remember bringing Jimi Hendrix records to my elementary school to play. But at that time, I wasn't at all thinking that I would ever do music. I moved to New York in the Spring of 1978, from Washington D.C. My father worked at the Pentagon, working on the early Internet, called the Mo-Net - military Internet. We lived in one of those suburbs of D.C. that was all ex-CIA, NSA, Pentagon, Military people.
Must have been intense.
SA: Yeah, it was quite intense. Pulling back the focus, it's a thing that a lot of people and kids in America are exposed to. Those services are so huge that a lot of people are involved in [them], including the kids that are growing up around that. To some extent, I think it gives a bit of room for a reaction against that stuff. By the time I was in high school, it seemed like I was suddenly, in one day, going from Mick Ronson doing a guitar solo on 'Moondage Daydream' on TV to Here Comes The Sex Pistols! It was kind of fertile territory, being in a suburb and being able to have a punk reaction to seeing everything I was seeing.
We made a first group in D.C. called The Rudiments, which was kind of an early punk group. We got banned from the main club in D.C. and created a kind of schism in the early punk-rock days in D.C. But The Rudiments got re-released by Dischord, so we kind of ended up hitting a certain kind of vein that was sort of interesting.
So, what made you move to New York? What was it like in New York in those days?
SA: I moved up in the Spring of '78. The year before was the blackout, the year before that was Son of Sam, so conditions were pretty dark when I got here. I remember getting out of Penn Station, and it was kind of like walking out to a black and white movie. It was so gritty, so dirty - nothing looked new.
I was able to get a job within a couple of weeks of moving to New York, so then was able to start sussing out what was going on around town. It was kind of the end of the no-wave period, so clubs like Max's Kansas City were still open. It was pretty much an every night thing, because I could work during the day, doing landscaping, then go to the clubs. Those early years, there was a bit of a changeover from the New York Dolls [to] us. By “us”, I mean, when I was going to the next big club, which was the Mudd Club, my mates were the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nick Taylor, and we kind of took over the whole thing.
Madonna was one of the people who came up a couple of years later and was in that group also, and it resulted in a huge explosion of cultures. And that takes you up to Ike Yard time. By 1980, you could buy a synthesizer and a drum machine, and you could hear those drum machines on everything from the first Ultravox! album to even Bowie's Low album.
How would you define Ike Yard's sound?
SA: I would say always future-forward. We kind of moved from being a band with drums, bass, guitar and synthesizer to being an electronic unit that had a central controller module that all of our four synthesizers would run through. That was between our EP on Les Disques du Crepuscule and the album on Factory. Kraftwerk did that to some extent, but I think we integrated it even deeper and a bit harder in our own way because were we not hanging out in the industrial belt in Germany, but we were in the industrial states of the US and New York City, and it was pretty rusty and decrepit.
At the same time, we had this new technology and so looking back we were really forging our own version of techno, but we never wanted to use those straight beats. It became our hallmark, our rhythms, it's been said, were always off-kilter. We were just doing our own beats, and we were never going to do anything like what we'd heard - for example disco music, which I had a big emotional reaction to. I could enjoy disco music as party music, but as culture, either moving forwards into the future or even in the present, I couldn't really get with it. So we were very careful to try to just do our own thing.
We were [also] well exposed to Kraftwerk on this side of the pond. By 1982, all you had to do was walk down the street and you had boom boxes pumping out 'Trans Europe Express', soon morphed into 'Planet Rock' by Afrika Bambaataa.
I think we were always a bit after no-wave, but I think artistic- and social-wise, there was a connection, because we lived in the same neighbourhoods. Michael Diekmann from Ike Yard used to live in a building on 12th street that had Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Russell and Richard Hell living there. So whenever we would have a group meeting in the building, we'd invariably meet Arthur Russell in the foyer with these oversized headphones on, who might be followed by Allen Ginsberg. You were around it at all times. Something in the air, and something in the people.
You've mentioned performing with [Australian industrial/noise group] SPK and having them stay with you. Did they have much impact on the New York scene?
SA: They were touring Leichenschrei and a friend mentioned to me that they needed a place to stay. I happened to be living in a building that had been abandoned by the landlord, and so the tenants had to fend for themselves. I had a pretty big one-bedroom apartment, and could stay with my girlfriend. They stayed at my place two weeks and I think they actually split up at the end of that tour!
I'll tell you a story. When SPK played at CBGB's, Graeme Revell, a pretty big guy, would wear a sleeveless meat butcher's apron-type thing and a leather S&M mask on his head. He pushed a pig's head on one of the tables in front of the audience and pulled out a giant meat cleaver bayonet. At that point, I started moving towards the back of the crowd, because I had an idea of what was gonna happen next! I looked around the crowd and saw all the regular Downtowners, and also Mike Gira, who was in what was going to be Swans. And yep - the meat did fly! It was an onslaught: the sound was very loud, very crushing, it was a whole other level of mayhem. New York had already seen Boyd Rice and NON, but this was pretty hard to take, pretty hard to stay very close too. And I'd just say that all those adjectives I just used, you could pretty much apply them to Swans too.
How did Ike Yard evolve into Black Rain? Wasn't Black Rain a sort of metal outfit to start out with?
SA: Yes. But to pull back the lens completely for a moment, what I've tried to do - from The Rudiments, to The Futons, to Ike Yard, to Dominatrix, to Death Comet Crew to The Voodooists and then to Black Rain - was two things. I had in mind to make more successful club songs, but I also really wanted to keep doing edgy, street-y music, whether that involves guitars or involves synthesizers. So, I've kind of kept that thread, and in a way Black Rain was just another turning of that wheel.
By '86, the Cyber thing is what prefaced The Voodooists and then Black Rain. A friend of mine from the clubs and I embarked on a whole series of what I call our Cyber projects, the first one being The Voodooists - started after reading Count Zero by William Gibson, where he has these kind of voodoo spirits inhabiting cyberspace. At the same time, I was starting Black Rain, because I wanted to do another hard-edged, post-punk, industrial-type group. So when we first got together, my concept was Misfits meets Einsturzende Neubauten. I wanted to have song forms, like three-and-a-half or four-minute song forms, with recognisable verses and choruses, but I also was banging metal and oil drums, and wanted to see if we could make a hybridized version of music from that moment.
That four-piece ran its gamut, playing at squats and edgy clubs with hardcore bands, opening for G.G Allin at his last gig. He came on after us, took his earnings and shot them up and was gone the next day. The scene was totally hardcore kids, squatty kids, and anarchist types. We were into that on a street level, but once the group ended as a four-piece, within probably a couple of weeks we got a phone call to soundtrack an audiobook of Gibson's Neuromancer. To sum it up, there were a few threads that had been running and in 1993, '94, '95, things changed very quickly. Suddenly we were doing those soundtracks for Gibson. I had called him up way back in '84, and said that I'd read Neuromancer and that I should do the music for his book!
How did you come to work with Shinichi Shimokawa?
SA: My main man Shin! I was in Berlin in '83 for a few months, working with people there, and when I came back people were presenting me with demos and things to do with me, and one was a group that he was in. The group was ok, the tracks came out fine, but I thought that he was very talented and so tapped him into joining Death Comet Crew.
How did you guys work together? Was it just electronics?
SA: The four-piece group was doing stuff that was a bit '1-2-3-4!', and that ended in 1993, after that show with GG Allin. Me and Shin got together to do the soundtracks, and he had been a guitar player and a bass player, so knew music pretty well. I was coming from being a drummer and then a drum machine programmer, as well as a lyric-writer, conceptualist, vocalist and sometimes playing a little bass. So, between the two of us, we could pretty much do whatever was needed. We'd already been working on the soundtrack for Johnny Mnemonic as a four-piece, so when I got the call from Gibson to do Neuromancer, I had to look around and see who could work with me on that. Shin was the logical fit. By 1994, it was already ten years that we'd been working together. We'd done videos together - we'd already tried to make a movie.
When I first heard Now I'm Just A Number, it felt that Black Rain was one of the few nineties groups to successfully perpetuate the legacy of early Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and Throbbing Gristle. Do you look at Black Rain as being part of the Industrial music canon?
SA: In America, there was an issue of Research magazine about 'industrial culture'. I think, at the time, over here, the whole North-East of America - all the way to the Midwest - had been going through this 'Rust Belt' phenomenon, and that was the very definition of industrial. You're talking about rusted-out big cities, sagging infrastructures, so as people we were looking at industrial that way as well.
When I was in Ike Yard I never thought of us as being industrial, I always thought of us as being next generation something. We were too busy doing it, even when we ended up on Factory Records and were touring with New Order. I think we felt some connection to SPK, with their industrial beats, but I don't think we ever felt any connection to the whole wave that came from England, including Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. And in America, industrial took another turn with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Spin Magazine had this issue about him that said 'The Father of Industrial' and I was, like, “The father of Industrial?” That had me wondering who the hell was the grandfather of industrial.
That was enough for me to want to tag Black Rain as a post-industrial unit, and by the time we started doing the soundtracks, we had tracks like 'Biotechno'. I was already so far into getting behind the scenes of what the military was doing with stealth, radar and sound weaponry. In the same way that we were knee-deep in industrial and rusty cities one wave before, by 1994 and Neuromancer, we were thinking about something else, quite post-Industrial.
Industrial was another tag that you saw from a distance, that you saw in your face, saw in the rear view mirror, and then saw it come back again.
Do you think the Gibson influence is what lends the compilation its dark atmosphere, or was that as much a reflection on your state of mind at the time?
SA: I would say that, in terms of our state of mind, it wasn't hard for us to get here. But as a sound and music director, I was totally going on Gibson's cues, and Gibson's writing.
What drew you to his writing, initially?
SA: As a kid growing up, you're looking for signposts. William Burroughs and JG Ballard had already been huge signposts and to me, Burroughs plus Ballard equals Gibson, to some extent. Gibson wouldn't put it that way himself, maybe, but there's not a far leap at all from Ballard to Gibson. That alienation, that whole style of sci-fi feeling. The Three-Mile Island accident had happened in 1980, so there started to be a future dread feeling at that time. And then Blade Runner came out and blew everyone's minds, and I think Gibson took all of that and turned it into Neuromancer. It was a signpost of the time.
What was it like revisiting the music for the reissue?
SA: I look back on it now and I'm really damn glad that we did it! What you hear on the album is completely unedited from what we did and I'm chuffed that me and Shin made some decisions at the time that still stand up. It stands the test of time. 'Now I'm Just a Number' for me was a distillation of Plastikman's type of techno: really stripped-down, minimal, with just a pulse of the kick-drum. Me and Shin were well into club music, so after we'd done the soundtrack work, we were entirely happy doing stuff like that. I'm always happy doing techno, so long as no-one calls it house or disco [laughs].
What are your plans for the future? Would you consider touring in support of the reissue?
SA: I would say that is very likely. I'm sure that Blackest Ever Black will have a show in support of Black Rain. I was already planning to come over in September or October, so hopefully around then. Many things are going on. I'm reforming Death Comet Crew and we're planning a world tour and a new album and EP. Ike Yard reformed after we were re-released in 2006, and did a handful of shows. Our new album Nord came out in 2010 and we're now mid-way through another record, which I must say is probably our best.
Then it comes to Black Rain. We never had an idea that we would ever play together again, and Shin has been in Tokyo since 1998, doing music over there. But he still has the same drum machine, so we still have the beats from Now I'm Just a Number, so now I'm trying to coordinate between the shows I was going to do myself in the [autumn] and what we can do as Black Rain.
As I said before, I didn't really relate to those industrial bands you mentioned earlier when doing Now I'm Just a Number, but I did relate to, as I mentioned, the very minimal Plastikman. And one thing I was chuffed about was listening to Regis. You could play 'Now I'm Just a Number' right in the middle of one of his sets! Is it synchronicity, like minds doing great things? I think it's a combination of all those things: it's a combination of zeitgeist, of people using the same sounds, but also something that all my groups have always done - and that I've always done - which is keep my head to the ground, feel what's there, feel the rhythms. People used to talk about rock & roll of the seventies being an attempt by groups to approximate the roar of a jet engine. Well, what about approximating a cyber world, where you've got the Lo Tek on the street, and all these other threads going together? That's the zeitgeist.