Interview

Q&A: Small Black 
Frontman Josh Kolenik On His Band’s New Album, Relationships, And Taming The Chillwave Dragon

The cover art for Small Black’s forthcoming sophomore album is a pretty clever indicator of what kind of subject matter the record has in store. The photo, created by Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland, features a naked man and woman attempting to embrace while perched on top of a ladder. Lurking in the void beneath them is an alligator, presumably waiting to eat them. It’s a fitting visual metaphor for a record that seems primarily concerned with examining the myriad ways that the modern world strives to keep us from properly connecting with each other (or something like that). The record is a bold step forward for the band, not only in subject matter but in style as well. While previous releases (2010’s New Chain and 2009’s self-titled EP) came swathed in the kind of dramatically layered electronics that would pretty much epitomize the gauzy aesthetics of bedroom production — Limits Of Desire seeks to shake off a little of the chill-haze and come out into the light. The band also added live drums and electric guitar to the mix this time around, opting to pare down the arrangements and let the songs breathe a little bit. I spoke to vocalist Josh Kolenik about how album number two came to be.


STEREOGUM: Are you in Brooklyn now?

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, I live in Greenpoint.

STEREOGUM: Oh, I’m in Williamsburg, so not too far away. I’ve been listening to the record a ton over the past few days and it’s really beautiful. What happened with you guys since the last record came out? It sounds like a new band, almost.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, for New Chain we did … I feel like New Chain and the EP were released over a one year period and through that year we did, I think three US tours and two European tours. We hit the road a lot, and kind of got back to New York and started working on stuff. We did the Moonkiller mixtape, which was kind of a bridge between the two releases, and a chance to experiment and do something not so … I don’t know if serious is the right word, but more fun. Like the way rappers do mixtapes, and just screw around. I don’t know, we just thought that was a fun way to do an in between release instead of an EP or some 7 inches or something.

STEREOGUM: Yeah I wondered about if the mixtape was sort of a palette cleansing experience.

JOSH KOLENIK: Oh definitely, I think it really helped … especially with the vocals for this new record. We just tried a lot of stuff and didn’t care if … I feel like we weren’t that self-conscious about it and it made us feel the same way going forward. An official release has a bit more pressure to it, and that was a great experience and definitely something we would do again. And there’s was a lot of rap influence, or hip hop production influence in a lot of the older stuff and it was kind of a chance to explore that more fully and not feel the need to fuse that with everything else.

STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that you mention not being so self-conscious. I mean listening to this record and looking back on the first to it does seem like such a real cosmic leap forward in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s much more naked in terms of the vocals and the lyrical content. Everything seems so much more to the front, whereas in the past it was almost hidden under all these layers of production. Does that have anything to do with having been in this band for so long or touring so much?

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, well it’s all by design. We wanted the songs to hold up by themselves without a ton of ornaments and texture. See, the songs are kind of hidden on New Chain and the EP, but they’re there. They’re just cloaked in haze and a bunch of keyboards and a lot of experimenting and a lot of fun. And with this record we were trying to write songs in a similar vein, but using a fewer amount of tones. Let one tone do the work of five on our previous releases. I think what’s tricky when you hear hyper-layered music you become very attuned to a lot of nuances and things when you listen to it closely. I think a listener, if they don’t spend a ton of time with the record, is not going to find the same stuff, and the same little melody choices we were making. So we wanted to simplify the whole thing.

STEREOGUM: How did you find that process? Was it difficult?

JOSH KOLENIK: Oh yeah. But it’s hard to find one great tone that the whole song can kind of … exist to us and not have to keep throwing stuff on top of it. Some of these songs we re-did over 10 times. And it was hard, but towards the end of the process everything started to really gel and some of the choices we had to make were easier to make on other songs. It took us a while to find the general aesthetic but once we did it went very quickly.

STEREOGUM: It does take a certain clarity of vision to sort of step back and look at the whole album and see the bigger picture. I talk about this with people all the time in regards to production and mixing and the ease of technology — it easy to put on a million layers over things. It’s almost more difficult not too.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, I agree one hundred percent.

STEREOGUM: You need someone there to slap your hand away. That’s what I think is so refreshing about the record — it doesn’t … I mean there’s a place for that kind of stuff too, but when there’s a certain purity to these songs they don’t really need that, it’s kind of cool to just hear the songs and hear the bones of the songs too.

JOSH KOLENIK: Oh thanks. I think that’s what makes songs that hold up and can be translated to other forms. The goal with this record was that we could play through most of the songs on guitar and they would hold up and I think in just kind of hanging out and doing that they really work. We wanted the songwriting to be the main focus and the production to really support and hold up the main vocal, and the hook, and the verse lyrics.

STEREOGUM: I got the record with no press materials or anything, which is kind of how I like to hear records for the first time — so I don’t have any imagined context for it or notes to look at — but when I was listening to it the first time I immediately wondered if you guys had gone away to a studio and hired a producer … but you didn’t do that — you still did everything yourself, right?

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, we did it at home.

STEREOGUM: Well, it’s a testament to the fact that you guys know what you’re doing. It sounds so expensive.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah we tried to make a million dollar record on a very low budget. That was definitely the goal.

STEREOGUM: Was there any temptation to bring in a producer? I’m sure people must have suggested it.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah people have suggested we work with producer, but I think a big goal of this band is to be able to be completely self-sufficient and not have to rely on people … and we’ve been working on the production side of it for a long time and I think this record was us really figuring out exactly how we like to work.

STEREOGUM: That being said, how do you guys tend to work? Has your process for making songs changed drastically over the years? Is there one primary person who comes in with pieces or does everybody contribute equally?

JOSH KOLENIK: It’s definitely everybody. I mean the band started with Ryan and I we did the EP just by ourselves in my uncle’s little weird house, then we brought Juan in on New Chain as a songwriter. And then on this record everyone’s involved, but it’s really drastically different song to song how it works. I could go back and say this song was this person with this original musical idea, but by the end we kind of forget who did what. I’m very lucky to work with guys who have very little ego and we’re all willing to ditch any idea in a second if it doesn’t feel right. I’d say the only consistent is I write all the lyrics, but definitely melodies are very much collaborated on and figured out together.

STEREOGUM: How long did the process take for this record?

JOSH KOLENIK: I’d say over a year, and we had a couple of really intense sessions. Sometimes we go to a house in Delaware and just disappear for a week or two and that’s usually a good place to just get a lot of ideas going, but sometimes we’re there for too long and start to get a little too crazy. What I think is really nice about the record is we really took our time on it and let ourselves have space from mix to mix.

STEREOGUM: That’s really nice. I was talking to a band yesterday and so much of the conversation was about the sort of struggle of giving themselves time to feel out how the song should be and make the kind of record they wanted to make balanced against the realities of all of them living in New York and trying to pay their rent. It is not easy to do.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah it’s a struggle for sure, because as a band you make money when you’re touring, and when you’re doing a record there’s nothing coming in so everybody’s got to work a bit, which can slow you down. But in the end you just got to make the record you want to make and you can’t compromise for any sort of economic or time constraints, I think in the end … in my experience that’s always going to result something inferior and you end up wishing you’d changed. I mean, you don’t want to go full Kevin Shields but I think it’s better take those couple extra months even if you can barely afford it.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, because it exists forever … you can’t take it back, once it’s done it’s done.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, when I listen to this record — and we’ve probably been done with it for four or five months now — I wouldn’t change anything. When I listen to some of our older stuff there’s a zillion things I would change. I feel really good about it; regardless of how it’s received I’m very proud of it.

STEREOGUM: It’s such a crazily romantic-sounding record. Now that it’s done, and you have a minute to step back and look at it, what was it that was informing these songs as you were writing them? Were you falling in or out of love or something?

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, I wanted them to be romantic, I wanted to be unashamed of that, because I think it’s something that’s lacking in a lot of current music. Hopefully it’s not romantic in anyway that’s sappy, I was trying to find the real thing … whatever my real perspective is on love and how we experience it. But yes thematically it definitely has all kinds of ties back to the title. You know, it’s about getting a little older and having had a lot of experiences and the idea of … I don’t know, choosing one relationship and focusing on it and wondering is that enough and can we, will we ever stop wanting more than what we have in front of us and be OK with that? And how that kind of dissatisfaction can limit you and it can box you in or it can be this very nice box that you want to exist in.

STEREOGUM: That’s interesting. Living in New York and having gone on a million dates, there’s always this idea that,”This person is really great but … maybe there’s someone better for me out there.” You become obsessed with the chase.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yes. New York will mess you up. There’s no place like it.

STEREOGUM: There comes a point in any relationship when you have to decide that you are going to stick with it and try and see it through … or at least see where it goes.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, I think that’s the reality once you’ve had a couple relationships, and it’s not something you necessarily understand when you’re 20 years old. Like you just think, “Oh this very obvious thing is going to pop up and that’s going to be it” but you really have to make it work it’s both of your decisions to see it through and figure out if it’s something you want to define your life and be the context you live in.

STEREOGUM: The cover for Limits of Desire is great.

JOSH KOLENIK: Oh thanks!

STEREOGUM: How did you connect with that artist?

JOSH KOLENIK: I was trying to find the artwork pretty early on. I think I got in touch with Scarlett last June. I had a couple working titles for the record, one of which was Limits of Desire, which ended up being chosen. But when I saw that photo, I thought that’s it — that ties it all together, and it made me think even more about the title and other ways to interpret it. I found her work on a German art blog and I just reached out to her. She’s so friendly. She lives in Amsterdam and all her work is really great. Her imagery and colors are just really beautiful and it really summed up in a picture a lot of things I was feeling about the lyrics on the record.

STEREOGUM: It’s great when that happens … and that doesn’t always happen.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, it takes a lot of faith and a lot of searching to try and find the right thing, that’s why we always try to do it early because you don’t want to get to that point when the record’s done and you don’t have anything that lines up with it. I didn’t want to compromise on the visuals for the record because it really does color the record with people, hopefully in a way that you want it to.

STEREOGUM: So what will the rest of the year be like for you? Are you touring a ton once the record is out?

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah, I hope so. I can’t wait to travel the country and play. I love it. We haven’t been out in like a year and half so I really miss it. So yeah, we’ll be touring, working on some videos, we have a bunch of other songs that are in various states close to completion so we’re figuring out what to do with those. So yeah, doing the things a band does, I guess.

STEREOGUM: Since your first EP came out so much since then has been written about you guys, most of it lumping you in with a bunch of other bands that you necessarily you didn’t have anything to do with. I’m talking about the dreaded “chillwave” moniker, which I’m sure you are sick of talking about. I’m thinking that if nothing else, this record should finally silence that conversation.

JOSH KOLENIK: Tame the chillwave dragon? [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: Yeah.

JOSH KOLENIK: Yeah I think so. I’m not too worried about it, it’s a stupid moniker, but you can’t control how people describe your music. You can choose just not embrace it. I mean we love all those bands — like, Washed Out is our buddy and Toro Y Moi is great. But all these bands have shown that there’s a lot more brains to them than was originally thought. I think it’ll end up being a positive whenever we look back on Small Black’s musical career and seeing that term. I don’t think I’ll mind it.

Small Black’s Limits of Desire is out May 14, 2013 via Jagjaguwar.