Progress Report

Progress Report: Small Black

Name: Small Black
Progress Report: Mixing their debut LP with Rare Boom Room’s Nicolas Vernhes. It’s the followup to their self-titled EP.

Small Black kept a Twitter/Facebook log of their first few days of recording, though they rarely mention recording. Instead they listed facts like this:

“Delaware – Day 24 – Pizza Rolls, Mr. Brees, Pete Townsend “Communicate”
“Delaware – Day 13 – FNL the Movie, Robert Wyatt, Almond Butter Cookies”
“Delaware – Day 9 – Lentil Stew, Seals & Croft, Hitting The Outlets.”

It’s boring stuff. Other groups — like Ra Ra Riot or Yeasayer — isolated themselves on peach orchards or inside rustic cabins; Small Black isolated themselves in Delaware, the only state with no national parks and plenty of outlet malls. But Small Black’s Josh Kolenik says the isolation worked well for them. “There’s really no more boring place to be, so all we do is work on music and play football in the backyard and walk to the supermarket,” Kolenik said when I spoke with him during their recording sessions at the house (it belongs to bassist Juan Pieczanski’s parents). “It helps us to be productive very quickly. Something I think would take three months we can get done in a week here.”

So they record during the day and break up their nights by throwing around a football, walking to the supermarket, or biking to the movie theater or T.G.I. Friday’s. It’s not recording in Hawaii, but it works. They began with 25 song ideas from every band member in January, and they’ve worked down to 13 tracks. In February they rehearsed for tour, including some of the songs they liked the most in their practices. In March Small Black toured with Washed Out and listened to mixes, then returned for more recording. The new tracks — like one called “New Chain” were completely redone after tour.

Kolenik used to be an archivist, part of the reason why the band’s unusually organized, and unusually good about saving scraps and pieces. There’s the Twitter documentation. And when I ask about some of the new songs, he calls up an Excel spreadsheet to go over the titles and instrument lists to jog his memory. Kolenik always keeps a tape recorder with him for demos and sounds, which he faithfully uploads and catalogs for potential use. When he works on lyrics, he uses word games, and goes word by word to figure out what’s not working (he lamented that, while there are very few notes to try in a melody, there are thousands of other words to use in lyrics). Many of the songs are even named early on, before the lyrics, or even before they are fully written, almost as if the band need that extra layer of control from the beginning.

As they’ve gotten better at production, they’ve found it harder to keep the the things they liked about the demo in the final recording. They try a few things to combat this, like leaving in pieces of the demo (an older demo — a hip-hop beat they came up with before recording — forms the basis of another of his favorites, “Goons,”), putting constraints on the instruments they use (there are no guitars on the album), because, he says, new recordings are missing what they liked about the demo. “I think, with the EP, and now with the LP we’ve found some kind of way to balance that [home made] feeling with the kind of limitless possibilities there are with the type technology available,” he says.

Kolenik’s working on a related problem for the album’s lyrics, as he finds that his memories of events are idealized or inaccurate as with the songs, sometimes it’s hard to recreate what you had before. “I like to think about that all the time,” he says. “Those unpleasant experiences.” Delaware probably helps there, too.

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