Sift through the over-enunciated laundry list of art-rock luminaries and cult favorites that James Murphy rattles off at the end of “Losing My Edge”, and there, tucked between house producer Todd Terry and UK ska band the Trojans, you will find “the Black Dice.”
When the LCD Soundsystem single was released in the summer of 2002, the Brooklyn-via-Providence quartet didn’t yet have a full-length record to its name, but a string of 7″s and the spectacle of its pummeling live performances had placed the band at the forefront of a loose but resurging post-hardcore/noise scene, alongside acts like Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes. Then, as now, Black Dice was a band to watch, and certainly a cool one to namedrop or, in Murphy’s case, to have on your label: His fledgling DFA Records would put out the band’s debut LP, Beaches & Canyons, that fall.
Whatever preceded Beaches & Canyons, the title of the its second track was prophetic: “Things Will Never Be the Same”. The album was a game changer; a sprawling, psychedelic landscape where ambient drones and loops danced with violent outbursts, where pastoral field recordings bled into cymbal crashes, where pretty much everything descended into a bewitchingly beautiful chaos. Critics and dorm room dwellers alike fawned over it. But discontent to rest on its laurels, Black Dice continued to push forward, and less than a year later had moved onto the warped dance music of the “Cone Toaster” 12″. This sort of restless experimentation has marked the last ten years for Black Dice – now a trio – and brought them to the trunk-rattling, demented pop of Mr. Impossible, its recently-released sixth LP.
Of course, Black Dice’s willingness to flout expectations – occasionally in an outwardly confrontational way – hasn’t always been received well. Animal Collective’s Dave Portner recalled an early tour with the band in a 2003 interview: “We toured the south with Black Dice. The reaction [in Louisiana] wasn’t good. We would switch off playing first and second. We realized either way people were going to leave, so we wanted one of our bands to be able to play and be heard. People would throw stuff at us, walk out, give us the finger, yell, and just tell people they were going to beat us up.”
Fittingly, when Animal Collective ascended to the bright lights of Merriweather Post Pavilion last summer and needed an opener, it tapped Black Dice, the first band that took it on the road. Eleven months later, Black Dice returns to DC for an early show at U Street Music Hall tonight. In anticipation, BYT gave Aaron Warren – the man responsible for band’s low end – a call to discuss the new album, non-receptive crowds, and what the band does and doesn’t bring to a record label.
BYT: Black Dice is constantly evolving. Where would you say Mr. Impossible finds the band?
Aaron Warren: We wanted to make just kind of a rockin’ record with songs that we could play live. We wrote them in the practice space with the live show in mind, and we tracked them live. It’s a lot more of a rock and roll record for us than maybe our past couple of records have been. I don’t think it ended up sounding quite as much like a rock and roll record, because it’s got drum machines and weird sounds and whatnot, but our approach was a return to the way the band started, where it’s just bass, drums, and guitar, and we’re just banging it out in the rehearsal space. That’s kind of how we approached the new record and you hear it in the spirit of the songs. We wanted to have something really high energy and rockin’, so we could play it live and have fun.
BYT: Has it been getting response you had hoped for on tour?
AW: Yeah, it’s been really good It’s really fun to play these songs. And people seem to know them, which is great and a little unusual for us. A lot of times, I feel like our records find their audience a few years after we release them. This record it seems like people are listening to it and liking it while it’s alive.
BYT: A common response to Mr. Impossible has been to call it your “most accessible” record. Is that a sentiment you would sign on to?
AW: I think that as a band, we’re getting better at writing songs. Our approach has been a little experimental through the years, and it’s involved distilling things down to really basic elements – just a tone or an oscillator or feedback. Something really basic; like, more basic than punk, even. I feel like we’ve done that: We’ve distilled all those ingredients down, and now we’re building back up and learning how to make a song out of these really basic building blocks of rock and roll. And we’re getting better at that than we were a few years ago. That may be where that “accessible” thing comes in: It just sounds more like a song to a normal person. You know, it always sounds like a song to us, but sometimes it’s a little harder for other people to get into it.
BYT: Ten years after Beaches & Canyons, “noise” remains a descriptor affixed to Black Dice. Do you think that label is still relevant to your music?
AW: I don’t know a ton about the real noise scene. As far as I can tell, we don’t have a lot in common with noise purists. But I think people need some kind of adjective to describe things. It’s fine and it works and it’s true that right before Beaches & Canyons, [noise music] was something that was heavily influencing us and making us approach the idea of a band in a way that was a lot different than doing, like, a rock band or a hardcore band, which was sort of what we had been doing. I don’t know – I haven’t checked out any noise music or anything for ten years almost. We pretty much listen to rock music now.
But I feel like I had these experiences in the late 90s, when I was still playing hardcore music, where I saw some noise shows, like Merzbow and Masonna and even the Boredoms – who are also totally not a noise band, but they’re also sort of influenced by this stuff - and we met with the Wolf Eyes in 2000 or whatever: Those experiences opened our minds up to a different way of doing a band. At the same time, when I moved to New York in 1999, I was also starting to see DJ acts and electronic music and other kinds of performance that didn’t involve, like, a drum kit and bass guitar and a Marshall stack. It was both those things that me reevaluate: “Do I have to rock this bass guitar to have an awesome set? It might be possible to make sounds with other stuff.”
BYT: What sort of music do you draw inspiration from now?
AW: Personally, I listen to a lot of radio music when I’m in New York. I listen to the disco station. Well, it’s not disco anymore, it’s Europop or whatever. It’s, like, Carly Rae Jespen. [Laughs] That really weird Europop that’s all synthy and programmed – stuff like that. And Hot 97. In the city, that stuff just works. When you need to get stuff done and you’re driving around, it’s the right pace and it’s really catchy. That kind of music just really works for me. That’s influential to me because when I’m writing music, I just want it to work for the listener. That’s something that I think about a lot.
I also listen to music when I’m going to work and I have about an hour where I’m trying to get my head in a good space, and I’m trying to get in a good mood, and I’m trying to deal with all the challenges of the day. When I’m listening to music then, I’m listening to lot of rock and roll from the 70s, like Cheap Trick or the Ramones or AC/DC – just really well-crafted songs. They just work. They get you to the place that you need to be in. That’s the kind of influences that I’m drawing on. Sometimes it’s new bands as well – like, I think the new Kurt Vile record is really good. I also like, um… [Laughs] I can never think of the new bands in these kind of situations! I do pick up the new stuff. I like when a new Kanye West record comes out or something – I think those are really effective records. I’ll listen to anything. If it’s good and it works, I’m into it.
BYT: What makes a good Black Dice song then?
AW: It has to have surprises in it. It has to start with some really interesting sounds. It has to have really good structure. It has to go places, and it has to have a few twists. That’s what I like in music in general, in all genres, and that’s what I like it our songs when I feel they work well.
BYT: The last time you were in the area, it was opening for Animal Collective at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Black Dice goes way back with the band, and Noah Lennox has cited you guys as role models of sorts. How would you describe your relationship?
AW: We’re good friends with those dudes. Now we live in these different cities. Dave [Portner] just moved out to L.A. and we could stay with him a few weeks ago. We’re friends, but we don’t see each other every day or anything like that. We’re, like, bros from the stage, and we have the deepest respect for their music, and the way they’ve done their band, and how they’ve become really kind of a top band a very graceful way, which is totally admirable. Yeah, those guys are the best.
BYT: Were you surprised that you were asked to open that show?
AW: No. I mean, it’s awesome for us to play a really big show like that, but we’ve done so many shows with them that it’s not that big of a deal for us. We were just psyched to be there. It was a really special night. It was awesome.
BYT: Are there still times when you’re booked on a bill or part of a festival, and you take a look at the crowd and think, “I’m not so sure these people are going to be receptive to what we’re about to do”?
AW: Yeah, I mean, pretty much any time that it’s not a Black Dice headlining bill, that’s the vibe. If we were opening for someone or we’re at a festival, then the people who don’t know we’re about are probably not necessarily going to be into it. Maybe we’ll win a few of them over, but maybe not. That’s been the life of the band since I’ve been it, for, like, twelve years. There’s been a lot of people checking us out, like, “I’ve heard of this band. What are they all about? They’re on this label. They’re friends with this band. Let me check this out – I like this other band, maybe they’ll be like this.” A lot of the time, people are just like, “Fuck this!” That’s something we know pretty well.
One thing that I feel like has been pretty interesting about this tour is that it feels like the first tour where we have a solid crowd of hardcore fans. Sometimes that crowd is only 45 people, depending on the city. If it’s a place like L.A. or San Francisco, it’s a few hundred. If it’s in New York, it’s pretty big, and that’s awesome, but I feel like on other tours there were people just checking it out, whereas now I feel like the people showing up are pretty hardcore fans. That’s taken a long time for us for that to happen.
BYT: On the business side of things, Black Dice has seen its music released by the likes of EMI (via DFA), Domino (via Ribbon Music), and Fat Cat. Did you guys expect so many different labels to understand what you’re doing and put money behind it?
AW: I think we’re one of those bands that later it will be even more weird to look at some of the associations that we’ve had. But I think that the history of rock and pop music is littered with these kind of things where you’re like, “I can’t believe that record came out on this label! How did this ever happen?” Or, “How did that band ever play that bill? It’s so weird!” Look at a band like the Silver Apples. Or just look at the weirdest band of the month – how did that band happen?
All I can say is that for us, it’s been a very organic process where we know the person at the label who really liked the music and thought that there was actually some kind business to be done. I mean, the actual business being done is debatable. [Laughs] I think the kind of currency that Black Dice deals in is actually different than money for a label. That’s not really what we bring to the relationship. But the association with the band has it’s own sort of value. I think that might be part of the answer to your question.
BYT: Where do you see Black Dice taking its sound next?
AW: I don’t know – for me, a lot of my process starts with my gear and the set-up. If anything, after this tour and after this record, I would like to simplify my set-up even more and make it less reliant on technology. I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I really need certain kinds of pieces of gear to work all the time, and when they don’t, it’s a bummer. So right now a bass guitar or a keyboard is looking pretty good to me, just because it’s a simple device – this works and you press a button or pluck a string or something. Whether it’ll happen, I don’t know. That’s part of the process; it’s something that each of the three of us do. We’ll get together a few months after we’ve toured and we’ll be like, “This is what I’m thinking about.” Sometimes it’s a big leap from where we were at before. Sometimes it’s not. I feel like between Repo and Mr. Impossible, it’s not huge. The vocabulary hasn’t really changed that much. It was just that everyone was more thinking about how to make a better tune.