November 4, 2009
photo by Katie Ford
LOCAL SPOTLIGHT NYC
Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner grew up on Long Island, playing in separate musical projects, from a hardcore band to a country music dalliance. Now they’ve teamed up and struck a chord with glow-fi bedroom pop experiment Small Black. Their song “Despicable Dogs” recently garnered a spot on Pitchfork’s Best New Music, and they just wrapped up a busy week at CMJ. We were psyched to find out that the guys will release a full length LP in the spring and that they really love Josh’s weight-liftin’, surf-board makin’ uncle. JM.com’s Tricia Patterson met up with Josh to talk song writing, DIY production and space heaters.
JM.com: Ok, so I was reading that you [and Ryan] grew up on Long Island. Do you still live there?
Josh: No, I live in Greenpoint and Ryan lives off the Dekalb stop now. We recorded the whole album like a block from here. We mixed it here and recorded it on Long Island. It was sort of a long process so we recorded it a bunch of places but the main crux of the recording we did at my uncle Matt’s place in Long Island.
JM.com: Does he have recording equipment or a studio up there?
Josh: No, we just wanted to be somewhere where we didn’t have our friends around. No distractions. It’s crazy. It’s kind of like this workout facility with free weights and contraptions that my uncle built. I think we set up the microphone on his weight bench at one point, and the ceiling was really low so we were hunched over and there was no heat. It was pretty fun.
JM.com: No heat even in the winter?
Josh: Well we had a space heater up there, so when Ryan was working on something and I didn’t have anything to do I would just sort of scrounge for heat right up next to it.
JM.com: So it was just you two and then when you perform live you have [Juan Pieczanski] on drums and [Jeff Curtin] on the bass? How did you meet them?
Josh: Well, they’re our old friends now. They played in our old band, and I used to live with them as well. In general, we just all kind of work on music together; we have a lot of various projects we’re working on.
JM.com: Any other projects right now?
Josh: Yea, I have another band with Juan, who plays bass, that’s called Cool Weed, and Juan’s got his own project that I do stuff on sometimes. It’s with a couple of other friends too.I t’s just a lot of fun.
JM.com: Do you perform ever?
Josh: No, it’s really just a recording project now. We kind of wanted to do them both at the same time, but it’s just too much work. Juan and Jeff are really great and so intrinsic to the project, though. They are amazing resources and amazing players.When Ryan and I started out we knew we wanted them to play with us live. We knew we didn’t want to be a duo, just playing with laptops. They’re just incredible and I feel lucky to get to play with them. They learn the songs in a week! With them it’s just a totally different animal, just more live and energetic.
JM.com: Did you study music at all?
Josh: At school I was a history major at Colgate in upstate New York, and I did a lot of film production. So did Ryan. Ryan was a film major. We kind of thought we wanted to that, both of us, but after school decided that we really would rather do music. I applied for MFA programs for film, and then got in and decided I didn’t want to do it. I think I was turned off by it and more attracted to music because I felt like I had more authorship with music, whereas with film I felt like I was just part of a big engine.
JM.com: So when did you officially begin Small Black?
Josh: About a year ago. We just did about twenty songs, and then we finished ten and put out five on the EP. We had the EP done in March or April, but it just took a while to send it out because we didn’t want to release it until we were ready to play. We just didn’t know what was going to happen.We started playing shows in June. The end of June was our first show. We played six or seven shows and then at CMJ we played like eight shows. (Laughs). I think we played more at CMJ than we played total before.
JM.com: Oh yeah, how was CMJ? Any good stories?
Josh: Well we had seven shows booked and then we had been asked to do this show at Monster Island, it was a Todd P./Group Tightener show with Ducktails and a couple of other bands that we really like. At like eight that evening I was like, “lets just play this show.” So I just called them up and they threw us on the show at 2 AM. It ended up being the most fun show. It was a dance party until 5 AM on a Wednesday. Yeah, it was great, that venue is really fun. People were just wilding out ‘til really late.
JM.com: You guys played last?
Josh: Yeah. I mean, our first couple shows we had done warehouse parties where we would DJ afterward and have a dance party. So this was kind of like a CMJ version of that. We really have a good time when we set it up like that.
photo by Elizabeth Weinberg
JM.com: When you were recording the album, who did what?
Josh: Every song was really a different process. Nobody in our band in the recording process has a specific role. Like, Ryan is the more the tech guy. I’ll run it too, but it’s usually more his side. I don’t know. Every song was totally different, how they came about, so it’s hard to say.
JM.com: Can you describe your songwriting process?
Josh: I guess the biggest change from our older projects was that we wouldn’t bring finished songs in any way to the process. We were writing everything as we went. Usually we would start with a tone, whether it be a sample that we really liked or a beat that we really liked, and we’d start with that. We just always wanted the skeleton and the original impulse to be something we were very excited about. When we recorded in the past we would have a song and we’d like it and we’d bring it to the studio and be trying to recreate this moment that we’d already made and it was really hard to do that. So our realization was that when we have an idea that we like, we just stick with it and start with that, and that’s the crux or the backbone of any song we’re going to do. And a lot of the songs started with the keyboard, just with a couple melody lines, and then they took months to evolve and change and grow and get words.
JM.com: Were there elements that were significant in a song at the beginning that you ended up taking out by the end because the process was so lengthy?
Josh: Yeah. We went through a real evolution with the song writing. Originally we set out to do a second record of our previous a band, a band called Slowlands. It was more guitars and traditional song writing, and then half way through the process we discovered two songs that we really loved and we were like “Ok, this is what we want this record to be.” And I had the name “Small Black” in my head for a while. I knew I wanted to have a project called that, but I just didn’t know what it was, and it kind of fit then.
JM.com: What did you like about the name “Small Black”?
Josh: I lived in Portland for a while and I really had a good time. The kids I hung out with out there were really fun, and they kind of came up with that name when we were hanging out one night.It was simple and clear and open to a lot of variation. It was a name I could grow with and change with.I didn’t want to get painted into a corner with the name. And it just sort of fit the music. I don’t know why. I kind of just knew that it did once we had found those first couple of songs.
JM.com: I’ve read some critics describe your music as summer-y, and others say melancholy. What do you think? What were you aiming for?
Josh: I think the summer-y thing just comes from the EP coming out in the summer. We did the whole thing in the winter when we were freezing, so, I don’t really think we had that in mind. It’s definitely pop, you know. I guess if you consider summer music to be poppy and catchy then, yeah. As far as melancholic is concerned, I don’t know. I never set out for songs to be like that, it’s just kind of what happens. Maybe my singing and songwriting approach just goes that way? But I think we tried consciously not to make them sound melancholic. We don’t want to be sad. (Laughs).
JM.com: What are you most proud of on the EP?
Josh: I really love all the songs that are on the EP. We’re very excited about all of them. There’s not one track that we were hesitant about. The last song, “Lady in the Wires,” to me was the direction we want to go production and rhythm wise. And then I think “Despicable Dogs” was the crux point of the sound for us. We really felt like we hit it. We knew our production style and tonally what we wanted. It’s funny how all the songs came about. They’re all so drastically different. “Despicable Dogs” took a really long time. We labored over it, and kind of nailed it right at the end, I thought. But then “Weird Machines” and “Bad Lover” we literally wrote in an hour before going to a party— the skeleton of them at least.
JM.com: How did you and Ryan originally meet?
Josh: I knew Ryan’s hardcore band from when we were kids, and thought they were awesome, and I knew he was a really awesome guitar player. He played on my friend Mikey’s album that was sort of a country thing. His guitar playing was amazing on it. They never really did anything with it, and I knew he wasn’t in a band, so I just got his number from Mikey and called him out of the blue. It was just lucky; He was my immediate best friend. The first time we talked on the phone we talked for four hours. (Laughs). It’s embarrassing. But no, he’s like my brother. I completely get along with him and I can spend hours and hours with him.
JM.com: That’s great when you guys are up in that cold attic mixing and recording for hours…
Josh: Oh yeah, there’s no one I’d rather spend time with.
JM.com: What is Small Black thinking about for the future?
Josh: We’re figuring out recording plans and touring plans right now. We’re going to put out an LP in the spring sometime, May or June probably. We are planning on spending a month over the winter recording wherever we can. We have a ton of new material, ten or fifteen new songs plus the five that we haven’t used yet. We’re just going to scrobble it all together and see what happens. We’ve just been trying to record as much as possible. We’re sort of scared that once we go on tour, if that becomes months out of the year, we’re not going to have enough time to record. So we just want to get as much done as possible. We’re talking about doing a short winter tour and then after SXSW maybe go on a larger, major U.S. tour. We’re still in the planning stages so…And then we’re finishing up a remix for Washed Out’s song “You’ll See It.” He originally did a remix of “Despicable Dogs.” Our remix is coming out in January on this label called Lovepump United. We’re really excited about that. He’s great. And we have a UK 7” coming out in a couple weeks for “Despicable Dogs.”
JM.com: Don’t you have a music video coming out for “Despicable Dogs” soon?
Josh: Yes. I actually saw the first cut of it yesterday. It’ll be done probably be done in a week or two. Its kind of a video essay about my uncle, whose house we recorded the album at.
JM.com: Really? He seems really involved in your process.
Josh: Yeah, he is. Ryan and I spent a lot of time when we needed a break from recording just hanging out with him. He’s this amazing wild guy. He’s 6’2” and has long blond hair. He’s a workout maniac and he makes surfboards and surfs.
JM.com: On Long Island? No way.
Josh: Yeah. He’s kind of one of my life heroes. He’s just really great. The video just seems pretty appropriate based on the record and the song. My uncle had a stroke last year too, and he’s just been getting himself back together and it’s about that. That was in the middle of our recording process, and it was really tough. Once we had the idea to do it about my uncle, there was really no other option
JM.com: Small Black has been described as “lo-fi” or “glow-fi.” How would you describe your sound?
Josh: We definitely use some lo-fi tones on the record, but I think it’s pretty high fidelity. Maybe the original sounds aren’t, but it’s so layered. I mean some of these songs have 20 or 30 tracks. If you spend time with it there’s a lot of detail that you might not hear the first time through. I don’t think we’re a lo-fi band in any way, and especially going forward I think – I mean I still love those tones — but we just have a little bit better equipment now. And some other stuff too, like samplers and drum machines and stuff.We’re starting from a small palette with this, and I think were just going to flesh it out as we go forward.
JM.com: Where are you going with your LP?
Josh: We definitely want to up the ante with the production and the sounds. We’re really into pop. We’re not scared of pop and making catchy songs and going in that direction even more. It’s hard to say where we’re going to go. It’s always just inventing it as we go along.I’m not sure what it will end up sounding like in the end, and I think that’s the best part. Being able to record ourselves just affords us all the liberty in the world. I can’t imagine having ten days in a studio, being limited to that, not being able to take it home and think about it. We’re never going to work that way. This whole project in general was Ryan and I trusting ourselves, and if it wasn’t good we had no one else to blame but ourselves.
JM.com: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far?
Josh: Just that we can do it ourselves. Going forward I want to do everything ourselves.I totally trust us to make records. Also that songwriting doesn’t have to be confined.There are lots of different ways to do it, especially like writing on the computer. One thing that we did that I think was really important was embracing the computer and not trying to make something that sounded live. It was pop music, really structured and thought out and it’s not about us jamming. It’s cut up and it’s embracing the technology we have. I feel like you can use the computer in the wrong way when you’re trying to fake a live performance feeling. We didn’t want to do that.The one thing that’s problematic with the computer, though, is that you can do anything.
JM.com: It’s too wide, too many options?
Josh: Yeah, you can make anything into a song, any sound, and that’s really amazing, but it can really be a handicap. You just look at the screen and its like “I could swim through this forever.”
JM.com: So what has been your favorite experience as a band? Your favorite show maybe?
Josh: The first couple shows we did were really fun because we had access to this warehouse space up on Meserole and Leonard, called Bongoz. It was our venue for a couple shows and they were really fun. It was all our friends and the best vibe, just a straight party. We hope to continue that as we go forward. People come to a show and it’s not being so much about the band and more about having a good time and a good experience. Anytime, we can play a show that’s like that, that’s what we want.
by Tricia Patterson