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Escape Velocity

"Chillwave Is Ridiculously Fun": Small Black Interviewed
Ross Pounds , May 27th, 2010 07:27

Ross Pounds talks to glo-fi troupe Small Black, and ponders whether impeccable taste is the foundation of any band's success

Do impeccable influences always make for great music? On a recent mix tape for Self-Titled magazine, Small Black laid out an aural map of the constituent parts of their sound, ranging from new wave pioneers Talk Talk’s 'I Believe in You' to modern day Prince and all round lothario The-Dream’s typically lush 'Right Side of Your Brain'. Next to those were tracks by the likes of Toro Y Moi, Julian Lynch and lo-fi Godhead Ariel Pink. So far, so eclectic. But that’s the thing about Small Black: where other bands might drop similar names with ludicrous abandon, one really gets the sense that they have a genuine love for the myriad of artists they allude to. Perhaps more so than just about any band around at the moment, the genres the Brooklyn-based foursome constantly reference positively permeate their music: the kick-drum punch of modern hip-hop, the straight-up, hand-on-heart melodies of radio pop, the frazzled, sun-drenched bliss of glo-fi and the syncopated rhythms and guitar squalls of new wave and post-punk are all there, hung up high for all to hear.

Josh Kolenik, who, along with longtime friend Ryan Helner started the band at the end of 2008, confirms as much: "I love 90s hip-hop. I was much more of a rap kid than a rock fan after grunge sort of petered out. I was obsessed with Wu Tang, Mobb Deep, Nas, mostly NY jams," he notes. It’s a sound that’s all over the group’s debut, eponymous EP, and no more so than in the drums: "I was definitely thinking a lot about the beats from stuff like Ultramagnetic, Eric B & Rakim and so on," Kolenik continues, without forgetting to pay his dues to who he terms "the real song masters": "I always go back to stuff like Brian Eno, Bowie, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Human League. I’ve been through so many listening phases in my life." It’s that’s magpie sensibility which gives Small Black its freshness. It’s top-to-tail full of pop gems, FM radio tracks beamed down from the clouds on a golden ray of light, the soundtrack to some rites-of-passage teen movie that Hype Williams never made.

But, somewhat inevitably, they’ve been pushed to the forefront of the once nascent, now simmering glo-fi/chillwave scene, a symptom of both the blissed-out soundclouds they’ve built and the friendships (with Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Real Estate and so on) that they’ve made. Kolenik, though, is taking it as it comes: "Chillwave is ridiculously fun to say and take cracks at. It fuelled a hundred jokes on the Washed Out tour. Luckily, all the bands that are seemingly lumped under that umbrella are quite good! I mean I don’t think we have that much in common with Ducktails, Best Coast, Memory Tapes and everyone else but it never hurts to be in good company." Nicely put. He’s similarly non-partisan and humble when discussing the speed at which the band have ascended the hype ladder: "We’ve been so lucky, and thankful that people are getting turned on to our band and a label like Jagjaguwar even got a chance to hear about us. As far as the pace, I think it just kind of goes this way with internet culture. Nothing seems to stay hidden for very long."

Small Black: Despicable Dogs from Yoonha Park on Vimeo.

Haste, though, is no bad thing. As a result of their ascendancy, Kolenik and Helner took on two touring members in Jeff Curtin and Juan Pieczanski, who subsequently became fully-fledged members of the band. The foursome are now in the midst of recording their debut full-length for Jagjaguwar ("I’m so excited to be working with such an incredible label," says Kolenik). "Jeff and Juan are heavily involved with the full length," he confirms. "It [the album] won’t be the exact same as our live show, but we’ve been incorporating a lot of the ideas and parts they’ve brought to the music. We’ve added Juan as a full writer. As far as the progress we’ve made on it, the majority of the music is done, we’re just finishing the vocals. Hopefully it’ll be out in the fall. It’s a big step forward production wise. The EP was the first thing we’d ever done on Pro Tools!"

Small Black are a band for all seasons. Now, on the cusp of summer, the EP feels like a perfect stepping stone towards those blue-sky months but, no doubt, when the album appears in the autumn it’ll most likely be the perfect soundtrack for watching the falling conkers and strolling across auburn, leaf-littered parks, the detritus cast off from the trees crunching satisfyingly under foot. Satisfying, too, is the band’s genuine enthusiasm for music, and their happiness at the success of their peers. One gets the sense that the recent pilgrimage to SXSW was made as much as fans as it was to tout their musical wares: "We ended up playing fourteen shows in four days," reminisces Kolenik. "I was quite sick the entire time, so pretty much I would play all the shows and then immediately take some Nyquil and pass out on an air mattress. Next year, we’re going to take it a lot easier." It wasn’t all unhappy memories, though: "We saw some amazing bands too. Delorean, Best Coast, Tanlines, Lemonade." For the band, it was as much about everyone else as it was about them.

Their MySpace lists Gucci Mane and Cam’Ron next to Fluffy Lumbers and Psychobuildings, whilst Curtin has been quick to espouse his love for Lil Wayne’s Young Money roster in the press. Talking to Kolenik, one quickly gets a picture of how their disparate influences mould into one cohesive sound with such apparent ease: "Pop/Rap radio right now is so forward-thinking production wise. We’re just loving all the hits. Drake’s dominance of the radio right now might be unparalleled, even more dominant than Lil

Wayne in ‘08. He’s on every other song. I’m the big Gucci Mane fan in the band. He’s got the perfect blend of street & pop sensibility for me. I can’t wait until he gets out of the slammer. Juan actually is in Psychobuildings too. I love all the singles so much. So weird and catchy. Ryan loves dreamy/psych stuff. Jeff is a real fan of perfect pop songwriting. I think it all comes together into a nice mix of ideas and voices." And it’s really true. Whilst they might differ on other subjects ("I’m the only one in the band who cares at all about sports," Kolenik says. "I try to talk about Kevin Durant to empty ears all the time in the van.") their genuine affection for radio ready hits is clear, and it’s that love which makes listening to them such a rewarding experience.

It’s a good time to be in Small Black right now. Kolenik and Helner’s bedroom project is becoming a flesh-and-bones pop colossus but they’re not ones to leave their roots behind. It’s safe to say they won’t be recording at any $2000-dollar-a-pop studios in the near future: "I do love intimate recording sessions in small isolated places," Kolenik notes. "I really can’t imagine working in a studio, being on the clock. It’s completely the opposite of our working process, which is very slow and full of time to screw around and experiment." They’re fiercely protective, too, of their beloved borough, despite the scorn sometimes poured upon it: "Brooklyn is the only place I can imagine being right now. It’s so exciting all the time,” he says, smitten. But it’s clear that the sense of fraternity they’ve exhibited throughout the interview comes from there: “I used to be roommates with Katy from Vivian Girls. They’re great buds of ours. Cassie’s new band with Kevin from Woods, The Babies, is awesome too. Love the Real Estate dudes…that crew is making some of my favourite music right now with Ducktails, [Alex] Bleeker, and the rest. Bear in Heaven are also some of the nicest dudes around, and their full length from last year is incredible.” It’s extremely refreshing to speak to a band who are more than willing to deflect the considerable attention they’re getting towards their friends, to lend a helping hand to those who’ve helped them on their way. If everything’s right with the world, they’ll go far.

Trying to describe the Small Black sound is futile. It’s something like a cross between the “minimal Casio noise pop” that Kolenik has spoken of and Wreckless Eric joining forces with the Raincoats and performing the Hot 97 Playlist from top to bottom. But such categorisation isn’t important. What Small Black create, above all else, are magnetic songs that stick in your brain, rolling around and spilling out of your mouth in a hum when you least expect it. It’s pop music. And long may it continue.