Photo: Alexandra Gavillet

“The Closer I Look”: A Conversation With Small Black

Recovering from a devastating loss from Hurricane Sandy, Small Black's Josh Kolenik crafted not only his best record, but also one inspired by loss, an affinity for Blue Nile records, and '70s American cinema.
Small Black
Best Blues

The inspiration for great art is often found in the most painful of circumstances. During those traumatic moments in life when everything seems to quickly unravel, there is a quiet beauty to be found once the proverbial dust has settled. While it might often take years to fully comprehend the magnitude of that immense loss, there is something undeniably cathartic that occurs when those old, gaping wounds have finally been dressed. Never to truly be sewn shut, they are life’s little brutal souvenirs, and in acknowledging their presence, it becomes a way to make peace with their existence.

In the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Brooklyn’s Small Black were putting the finishing touches on their sophomore album Limits of Desire. Singer Josh Kolenik’s family’s home was devastated by the ravages of the storm, yet in rummaging through the detritus to see what could be salvaged, he and his father unearthed polaroid pictures and letters yellowed with age. From there they sorted through the debris and dried these waterlogged mementos from the past.

While it must have been both sobering and reflective at the time, the tragic event wouldn’t directly thread the core of his lyrics until their latest record Best Blues. Taken from one of the photos he was able to preserve, the album cover features a solitary woman walking in the sand at twilight. A snapshot of loss and innocence, it captures the vulnerable essence of this record, one that locks eyes with and confronts tragedy head-on.

Yet another stellar record from one of America’s finest indie bands, Best Blues builds on the strength of its predecessors and sees Kolenik, Ryan Heyner (guitar, keys, vocals), Juan Pieczanski (bass, guitar) and Jeff Curtin (drums) deliver one of the best albums of 2015. Experimenting with the synth-washed aesthetic they’ve been mining since their debut, the quartet’s latest effort incorporates new textures with horns, acoustic guitars and piano, while officially throwing dirt on the chillwave label, sealing that coffin and lowering it into the ground. Kolenik sat down with PopMatters to discuss his affinity for Blue Nile records and ’70s American cinema, the decline of great bands, and how his own personal adversities have shaped his life and influenced his art.

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How are you doing Josh? Are you in the city at the moment?

I’m great. Yeah, I’m actually in McCarren Park getting some sun before it all goes away.

Nice. I used to run around the track there when I lived in Williamsburg.

Do you and your bandmates live in the same borough, do you live together or just convene at the studio when you’re practicing and recording?

Everybody lives in Brooklyn, but kind of all over. A bunch of us used to all live at our studio house in Gowanus. As of right now only one. Our bass player lives there and our drummer has a studio office there, but, I live in Greenpoint and have been there for seven years.

Speaking of the studio house, the space is nicknamed 222. What’s the origin of that number and how has the convenience of that studio affected the composition and the collaborative process of the band?

Yeah, well it was a number we kind of ended up seeing all over the place and once we thought about it, it seemed the easiest acronym to fit the spot. We’re able to put in super long hours and work into the night. It’s a consistent place where all of our stuff is, and I think for the kind of music we make, it requires a lot of tinkering and time to get the emotion right. It’s not necessarily about having an initial immediacy to it all. I think we like the reflection and having the ability to go back and figure out exactly what we’re getting at later on.

What happened in the life of the band following your sophomore record Limits of Desire and last year’s Real People EP , to influence the sound of the new album, and what does the title of the record mean to you?

I think sonically, we’re trying to bring back some of the elements of our initial releases, the Small Black EP and New Chains. To go back to some of the weirder decisions and tones we had made and inject that into the cleaner sound we’d gone for on Limits, and find a balance on both. With Limits of Desire we were trying to make a very concise sound, veering towards perfection as far as a production pop record, and this one was trying to take a lot of the lessons we learned from that and reflect on what we had initially started with the band in 2009.

As far as the album title, with Best Blues we’re just getting at the idea that sometimes the most important discoveries in life are found at the bottom. When you’re going through hard stuff, you figure out what’s really important to you and move on and move forward in your progression as a human, in terms of being a band and as a musician.

Thank you for “Free at Dawn” and the new opening track on Best Blues, “Personal Best”. They are these stare out at the sea, reflect on your life, emotionally cleansing tracks. Whenever I’m in one of those pensive moods, I’ve found myself coming back to them, and they’ve resonated with me a lot lately, especially as I’ve been preparing to leave the city after a decade.

I feel like a lot of people are having to make that decision to get out of New York after awhile, because of how expensive it is and just the kind of end game here where there doesn’t seem any way to establish a permanent life, as far as trying to buy a house or even buy an apartment. It’s just priced some of the artists and musicians out.

Yeah and it would be nice not to live with crazy ass roommates anymore. [laughs] I always felt that something wasn’t quite right at the beginning when I met them and I didn’t follow my intuition, because I was like, oh this would be an interesting New York experience. At one point, I didn’t even have a door on my room. I had a curtain. I was like, what am I doing? It’s nuts. I don’t need any more fodder for “fiction”. There is a point where enough is enough.

[laughs] Yeah, it’s often the artist and the writer’s dilemma as to how much you’re willing to subject yourself to for the sake of your art, versus having that quiet space in order to make anything. It’s good to go back and forth. Sometimes that can be as seductive as peace and quiet. It kind of just depends on what you’re in the mood for and how intense it’s going to be. [laughs] Sometimes I feel like I’m crazy to be here, just with the expenses. My family is here in Long Island. They’re just a quick hop in the car away, so it’s hard to give that up.

I enjoyed your Blue Nile cover (“Downtown Lights”) on the last EP.

I don’t know if they’re my favorite band, but they’re very close. They’re one of the most forgotten bands and I don’t understand why. I think people are kind of embarrassed to love something so tender.

Yep, I love their records. Paul Buchanan, even his solo album is fantastic: raw and intimate.

Yeah, he’s always going to have one zinger on any release. He’s just a great singer and he can sell a line or an emotional lyric harder than most people. I’ll buy it from him and I wouldn’t buy it from a lot of other people. There’s this one really good track. It’s a deep cut, a song he did with Ricky Lee Jones. It’s called something “Cowboy”, I don’t know. There’s one weird live version of it. I have a super deep compilation that some guy on Blogspot in 2005 made of Blue Nile rarities and it’s really special to me. I want to sample it for some stupid thing we do later on. [laughs]

When you all perform live, do you incorporate other covers, or was that just like a one off, just something you’ve always wanted to sing and put down on record?

Yeah, I felt like with Limits and with the Real People EP I was really thinking about Blue Nile all the time and I thought it was appropriate to add the homage to the mix of stuff we were doing. No one was really mentioning it, so I was just going to tell them the story myself, because no one picked it up on their own. It all depends on how much new stuff we’ve got going on and what we’re in the mood to do, but we just did a Johnny Thunders cover. That song “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”. We did a proper recording of that, and we’re going to put it out pretty soon after the record comes out.

I noticed your vocals are often pushed to the forefront of the mix on this record, more so than on your debut New Chain and Limits. What prompted this aesthetic change, even though you said you were also harkening back to that earlier sound?

I don’t know, I think I’ve gotten a little bit less shy as a performer and as a writer, and I’m happy to put the lyrics out there and let people know what it is we’re talking about. I feel like initially there was a shyness to me and I just don’t feel that way anymore. Sometimes I like a vocal buried and I don’t necessarily want to pick up on all the words, but here I felt it was important that we did.

The record was inspired by loss: loss of lives, memories, and in the track “Boys Life”, one of the lyrics mentions a “loss of wonder!” Since you’re the band’s lyricist and your personal experiences naturally leave fingerprints all over each song, I was curious to hear how the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy personally affected the direction of Best Blues?

Yeah, you know Hurricane Sandy was kind of awhile ago now, and at that point Limits was pretty much finished. We were doing the final master or tweaking it when that happened. The whole thing with the storm was like a reality check. I was focused on trying to make some songs and was at my dad’s house going through all this stuff. Pretty much the first floor of his house was trashed and had five feet of water in it. It’s not the house that my family grew up, but we had this shed in the back that had all of my childhood artifacts and a lot of my dad’s stuff and it was just full of water. Honestly we hadn’t looked at any of it since 2005 when he moved there. We were kinda forced to deal with it, to figure out what was worth keeping and what should go in the dumpster because it was beyond saving.

I found a bunch of photos of my dad’s, one of which became the cover. It was interesting to kind of go back there and look at how he was and how my mom was at that time. I found all their letters and I had laid them all out around the house by a fireplace to dry them out because there was no power for days. I took them to my house in Brooklyn and used a hair dryer to kind of finish the job.

I mean, it was just crazy. My dad was syphoning gas out of the boat in the backyard to fill up my car to drive back and forth to help him, because there was nowhere really to sleep, except the floor. It was intense. I did [relief] stuff in Rockaway. It makes you realize how tenuous things are. It’s cliché to say, but things can change in a moment. I just was reflecting on that, how trauma informs your life and changes it. A lot of great art comes out of it.

Reading the band’s publicity material for Best Blues, the storm seemed to be a huge influence on the lyrical content of the album, but I knew the time frame of the hurricane was much further back. In relation to the lyrics, when you discovered these photos and letters and viewed their contents, did it resurrect all those old memories?

Yeah, you know. I think it takes me a long time to reflect on events in my life and what I’m talking about doesn’t necessarily represent exactly what I’m going through at the time. I’m kind of thinking about the whole picture of whatever my experience as an adult has been. I think I’ve been talking about this on a lot of records and in a lot of songs. To be honest, my mom died when I was 20, which just kind of threw my family for a loop for a long time — me, my sister and my dad.

This event, the hurricane, having to go through all this stuff that no one had wanted to go through, forced me to look at it. I feel like it’s been a real crux for me, something that has weighed on me forever. It was a chance to get past it as much as you can. It’s lingered for a long time and I think music is the number one thing I used to cope with it after it happened. This was a chance to address it and not hide from it. Honestly, I’ve been shy about talking about it forever, so it feels good to talk about it. I think with grief, in general, the more you find common ground with people who’ve gone through the same thing, the easier it can be.

Definitely. No matter what that may be, whether that’s abuse or any other traumatic thing in life.

Yeah, I think it really helps.

Frankie Rose guested on your last EP, but all the past releases up until now have been self-produced, mixed and recorded entirely by the band. It seems like it’s been a closed set, so to speak. For Best Blues you recruited Nicholas Vemhes again to mix the record, the voice of Kaede Ford (who has her own project called Taupe), and Darby Cicci’s trumpet to flesh out the sound of the record. What made you all open up the fold, and how do you think throwing the three of them into the equation, affected the final product?

Well, Kaede and I used to date a long time ago around the time the first Small Black stuff came out. She’s one of my favorite artists and musicians. The song “Boys Life” was based initially on a sample of her singing. We kind of recreated it with her and then it came out so great, we had her sing on a couple more tracks. I’m really glad you checked out her project. It’s really warm midi music. I listen to it all the time.

Yeah, it’s kind of like a warm bath. It’s really relaxing to me.

That’s a really good description, I’ll have to tell her that. So, yeah it was great to have her involved. Darby, from The Antlers, has a studio off the Graham stop in Williamsburg. He’s just a cool guy that I get along with really well. We wanted some horns on the record and it was a no-brainer to have him come by. I really like his solo project School of Night and he’s a deep history buff and does these sort of historical musical experiments that I like. It was good to have his energy in the room for a couple of tracks.

Nicholas mixed New Chain and we just had such a good experience with him. It’s really nice to get a third party’s opinion towards the end of the process, since we become so attached to the songs. It really helps to finish them off and add a little bit of fresh energy at the end. I think that’s why people like to use mixes in general. Sometimes you’re way too much in your own head, especially on the technical side.

Always good to have a different pair of eyes or rather, ears I suppose. So you had found an old demo of what would become “Boys Life” in a cabin in upstate NY? Had you already composed lyrics and a lead melody for the original version?

Honestly, we were just out of steam one night and doing that session upstate. We were listening to old sessions that we had, and I pulled up this weird one by accident. It was a sample of Kaede singing over this drum loop and we all kind of freaked out, like this is amazing. How did we never use this? This sounds like a great track and we just did it immediately. After that we had Kaede re-sing the part, because the initial sample was a little too lo-fi to use. I felt like when we started to use the photo as the artwork, the process of unearthing that sample mirrored the process of unearthing those photos, so it thematically fit. At the end of “Boys Life”, [with] the sort of sample that comes in, well, I found a couple of cassette tapes I recorded of watching T.V. with parents and my sister and I was just screaming over the television. [laughs]

Where do you feel your band fits in the current musical climate?

Well, I think there are less great bands than ever. Music’s kind of exiting the collaboration stage in a lot of ways. It’s all about producers and people making music in front of their computer screen by themselves. I think that we’re just interested in collaboration and being an unit, and having four people bring different energies to the music, figuring out what we’re best out individually and melding it into one thing. We just want to be a great band and one that keeps evolving and growing and focuses on our different areas of expertise. I love collaboration and I think people bring out the best in one another.

A lot of modern life is looking at screens. It’s sort of engaging with people, but in the end it’s really solitary and you’re on your computer at 2:00 a.m. looking at people, rather than speaking with them. I also just think logistically that it makes much more sense to do things by yourself as far as trying to make any sort of career out of it. It’s really hard when there’s more people who need to figure out how to get by. If you look at the rise of DJ culture, a lot of it is just pure practicality, because you can pay one person a lot less money to perform. If that’s what kids like, then economics is going to drive the music industry in that way. I think it’s sad.

I love bands and maybe I’m old school, but I’ll never get over people playing together and the intersection of ideas. I think it’s the best part of playing music and it’s my favorite thing. I don’t think I’d ever want to not collaborate. I think I would be too much in my own head, and I don’t think it would be interesting.

What particular musician, books or films have inspired or continue to inspire you as an artist?

I’m a huge fan of ’70s American cinema, like Five Easy Pieces, Peter Bogdanovich’s stuff. I love Antonioni. I love film of that era and the director we work with a lot, Nick Bentgen, we’re very much kindred spirits and we collaborate a lot as far as getting ideas for the videos. It’s always some discussion of an Antonioni film like Zabriskie Point or The Passenger. I love that stuff, how slow it can be, how visual it is and how it can tell a story without saying much.

There’s tons of books, movies, and albums. We definitely listened to a lot of Talk Talk as far as some of the aesthetic choices we made, a lot of acoustic guitar and piano and more open arrangements. I’m kind of obsessed with listening to Gene Clark from The Byrds. He’s kind of my hero. I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in the process of making this record, listening to his songs late at night and thinking about how you can get a simple idea across and have so much more complex meaning going on, just through the way you deliver the line.