The thing that makes Small Black underappreciated is the same thing that keeps their music consistently enjoyable. The band has a knack for writing catchy pop songs, but their execution is just leftfield enough to keep them from approaching the level of uniformity that begets major radio play.
A song like “No One Wants It to Happen to You” has all the pieces of a radio hit and then some. The sonic flourishes — that detuned synth blowing through the backdrop, a teleportation sound effect continually rising and falling in the right speaker, the sheer number of instruments vying for space in the recording — add a tension that makes the track more interesting. The canvas is a touch cluttered, which makes for a busier listen. As is the case in many of their songs, the dissonant moments help counter-balance the sour/sweet ratio, keeping the track from going stale after a few listens. That deepens the listening experience but pushes the song a little further from radio-play accessibility.
A similar example from the new record is “Service Merchandise“. The song could be a big booming anthem, but there’s no rhythm section. That allows for subtle tonal details, like brushes of wind chimes and hints of pitch-bent synth, to spritz into the foreground. Occasionally a reverb-drenched snare booms in the background, resounding like a distant crack of thunder. It’s not used as rhythm, but tone color, a reminder of the ghost of a rhythm section somewhere off in the distance. The recording is a meticulous aggregate of soft suggestions, and Kolenik’s auto-tuned vocal delivery is affecting enough to bring it all together into an affecting pop song when it could have veered closer to an ambient interlude.
This isn’t to assume anything about whether Small Black care about writing hits. It’s only worth mentioning because they flirt with at least a few arbitrary lines separating artful indie pop from stadium anthems that a lot of people will casually hear. In an alternate universe, Small Black have at least one song as popular as M83’s “Midnight City”.
When viewed from this perspective, Cheap Dreams might be Small Black’s Brighten the Corners. The album’s lush soundscape seems tailored for a bigger audience than they’ve aimed for in the past. If you want to skip the meat of the band’s career narrative, play “Pleasant Experience” from 2009 alongside the glimmering skies of “Tampa”, the lead song on the new album.
The constant is the songwriting. Cheap Dreams puts this into sharper focus than ever before. To help mark the occasion, PopMatters talked with frontman Josh Kolenik about the new record, the best song tempos for running, and how he’s always in a New York state of mind.
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It’s been about five years since the release of your last full-length record, Best Blues. Why the long wait? Was this record gestating for a long time? Or did you guys just take some time off recording?
After [Best Blues], we spent a year on the road touring that record. When that’s happening, it’s kind of hard to be working on new stuff in a meaningful way. We had [Cheap Dreams] mostly done at the end of 2019. Then, when COVID hit, we took a while to get it done. I feel like, after Best Blues, we just wanted to take a second. Everybody was building out their studios, trying to get a better workspace and better gear. Jeff, our drummer, had a couple of babies. Just life.
The other day, I read an interview you did in 2010. You said the band’s mission statement was always to trust your first instinct and how you guys liked to use first takes and stick to the original recording. You said that the first album was deliberate in terms of the instrumentation but that you thought many of the songs happened by accident. After reading that and then listening to this new record, I was curious about how the band’s recording and songwriting process has changed since the first EP. Does that mission statement still inform your process in some way?
There’s an initial incarnation of the band, which is that first EP up to New Chain and then Moon Killer, which I think is very much following the ethos of that interview. We had no rules. We were a little bit younger and just a little bit more punk rock in our thinking about songwriting.
I wouldn’t say we’ve lost that lesson completely. I do feel like that first instinct should always be trusted. We go back to that all the time. Like in the song “The Bridge”. We tried to pre-record the chorus vocal 30 times, and then we realized that the crappy one I did as a demo was the best one. We just couldn’t beat the emotion of it.
We trust those moments, and there’s always a battle internally in the band on not wanting to stray too far from the initial concept. I also think you’ve got to be pretty savage about your own stuff and not get too attached to things. I think we’ve gotten better over the years at just letting things go. Sometimes you can just chase some stupid baseline down a rabbit hole for three days.
What are some themes you guys wanted to put across on Cheap Dreams?
The record is really about New York. It’s really about my experience and Ryan’s experience growing up on Long Island and living in the shadow of the city and never feeling completely a part of it but being very much created from this place’s history. My mom grew up in Levittown, which is the first suburb in America. It was the first GI housing town where they just built these prefab homes for soldiers coming home from World War II. My grandmother grew up in Greenpoint, which is where I live in Brooklyn. I don’t really have a New York accent, and I feel like I was always a little bit ashamed of it because of the way it’s portrayed in TV and movies.
I think a lot of these songs are about embracing the fact that I am a creation of this place. As a kid, I kind of always thought I would get out of here. I didn’t want to live in the city. I wanted to live in California or Colorado. Somewhere out west. That was kind of my obsession. Now I’ve been here for a decade and a half, and it’s my home. It just seeps into everything I do and everything the band does.
Are there any particular bands or records that influenced Cheap Dreams? Anything you were listening to at the time that sort of bled into the album?
Around the Limits of Desire record, we made a conscious choice to go for more of this classic 1980s sound. The sophisto-pop era. Bands that we generally are looking at as direct inspiration are the Blue Nile, Talk Talk, Prefab Sprout. There are so many. Our concept for “The Bridge” was to make our version of “The Rat” by the Walkmen. It doesn’t really end up there, but it’s a fast song for us. I love the drum part on [“The Rat”] so much. It’s definitely on my running mix.
Do you usually listen to uptempo stuff while running?
Yeah, 120 bpm is the sweet spot. Sometimes I’ll start at like 115. I have all these tempos mapped out for my running mixes.
Yeah, I get pretty obsessed with it. I was obsessed with Run the Jewels this year for running. Their tempos are so good.
Honestly, running became an obsession for myself and Juan during quarantine. It was kind of the way I stayed sane. We’re kind of obsessed with Hoka [shoes] and running gear. It’s become my meditation. I feel like I stopped meditating, and now I just use my running time as much for my mental health as it is for my physical health. New York musicians and writers and artists use our walks to get a little space and take advantage of New York’s canvas and all the stimulus that exists right out here. I always find that it’s really helpful for my mental state. Especially in the era we live in now, with our phones constantly in our hands, an hour of just strolling around has been priceless.
As someone who creates music that goes on streaming services and gets thrown into this massive heap of music available online, what does it feel like to put your stuff out there and know that you’re one of the millions of recordings people can choose from?
I think it goes back to when you were asking why it took us five years to make the record. We just don’t want to put something out there that we’re not a hundred million percent behind because there’s such a sea of stuff. I feel really lucky that anyone cares at all. I try to be very grateful that I’m able to work with Ryan and Juan, and Jeff and just make things that we’re proud of.
Circling back to the first instinct and the kind of “just do it” mentality, maybe the sheer vastness of streaming and what’s out there makes me a little more hesitant to put out anything that I don’t think is very well thought-out and well-constructed.
One of the major issues for all art, whether it be visual or a song or anything, is that your song becomes an Instagram post, and you’re up against somebody’s fart joke, side-by-side next to it. Or, you know, their gift unboxing. So it’s immediately cheapening the whole experience. I don’t know what to do to stop that or to counter it. I wish there were a platform that was a little bit classier and a little bit less capitalist that was more about the craft itself. And maybe that’ll happen. I’m sure somebody’s thinking about it. I hope they’re just not, you know, some Silicon Valley billionaire, but someone who actually gives a shit about music and art.