When Small Black singer Josh Kolenik spoke with BYT two years ago, he was asked a question that turns out to be slightly misguided. The subject of Washed Out’s decision to work with high profile producer Ben Allen had come up, in part because Ernest Greene was a friend with whom the band had toured and performed together, and in part because the two acts had once shared the nebulous “chillwave” tag and were each forging their own paths away from it. If finances were of no concern, then, who would Small Black want to work with? “Brian Eno,” Kolenik answered. “I’d love to show up at his studio with nothing written and just see what happened.”
But talking with Kolenik a few weeks ago, it became clear that while he could certainly pick a dream collaborator when put on the spot, asking him to do so looks past significant components of Small Black’s identity: A creative process defined by self-sufficiency and a desire to have complete creative control from start to finish, to shape its music from behind the boards as well as the microphone. “A big part of this band is hopefully establishing ourselves as producers, as well as a band,” he said when discussing the decision to record Small Black’s most recent LP, Limits of Desire, at its New York home, instead of a proper studio. Plus, finances are not of no concern: “With our budget, we’d rather spend the money on gear for ourselves than give it to a studio.”
Given the progression of sound through your records, at outset of making Free at Dawn, did you sit down and talk about the kind of album that you wanted to make?
We really wanted to make something that was a lot more clear. Something that was based around the songwriting, where the vocals were a lot more up front than they had been on our previous releases. Doing the mixtape – Moon Killer – allowed us to try a lot of different production techniques, and through that we figured out exactly what we wanted to do with the next full-length.
Those are obviously your vocals being moved to the front of the mix. Did you have any apprehension about that? Or was did you consider it a natural extension of the live show?
Yeah, I just think that’s how it was going. Over the past couple of year, there’s been tons of hazy music, and we’ve made some of it. We were just interested in letting the songs do the talking and not hiding behind anything. It was a natural reaction to things we’ve done previously. You always want to be moving forward and changing, and this was the change we wanted to make for this record.
Moon Killer had a direct hip-hop component, but you’ve spoken more generally in the past about looking to rap for production techniques. What sort of things specifically have you picked up from the genre?
For the past decade, radio rap has been some of the most interesting music being made, as far as its ability to pull from all genres – like trance, for example. A sample can come from anywhere. It’s a very punk attitude towards making music. I’ve always wanted to incorporate that into what we would and kind of have no rules.
Also, on the mixtape and our previously releases, the tempos we were working with were closer to rap. This new record, we wanted to get away from that and make things a little faster, because it’s more fun to play live, honestly.
What were some tricks you used to make the record sound as big as it does?
This is the first time we’ve used live drums and guitars, so immediately you have these real organic elements automatically oriented into a bigger space. Also, Jeff [Curtin], our drummer, was a lot more involved with this record than he had been on previous ones. He’s mixed a zillion things and worked on ton of records, so it really helped to have his expertise in trying to take things to another level. To be honest, we did these songs a lot of times and it took a long while to figure out exactly these techniques. It’s just a matter of finding the tones that we love and hold up for a whole song without feeling like they need to be layered or filtered. They’re just inherently good and big sounding. The basis of a lot of the final version of the songs was about just finding the one key element.
Has there been any discussion of doing something with those alternate versions?
There are definitely some other cool versions that we might put out at some point, but we haven’t had the time to complete them. They’re, like, 70% done. In the end, we were very happy with what we finished. There’s no longing for an old version of any of these songs. The last one was the best. On maybe one or two of them, we want back to an older version, when we’d maybe gone a little bit too far. We’d gone past where we should have ended up. But, overall, doing all the versions got us where we wanted to be. We wouldn’t have been happy with the older ones. You know when it’s right: All the elements are fitting together, the vocal included. The more streamlined songs made it. The record sounds vast, but we’re doing it in a much simpler way than we had previously.
The band seems to operate democratically, at least outwardly. Were there things you butted heads on?
There’s discussion and argument, of course, but we’re pretty respectful of each other’s musical taste and talent. We all know what we’re good at and what we’re not. In the end, the decisions are easy. If it’s not unanimous, usually there’s something wrong. We get to the right answers through group talk.
Did you have to make adjustments to your live show accommodate this record?
We had to change the whole thing. We rebuilt it from the ground up. We couldn’t have played it the way we had been performing. We started using a program Ableton, and then we built a light show with it, and we’re touring with a sound engineer for the first time. It’s a little more pro than we had been doing it previously.
Each release has had its own personality sonically. What do you see as the qualities that run through all of them?
I think that’s a nice observation – we appreciate it, because we try to keep the aesthetic very tight, album to album. As far as a through line? I don’t know – I feel like we’ve been trying to make this record that we just made since the beginning. We were trying to get here, but I feel like we were humble enough to know that we didn’t necessarily know how to do it, because we were still learning how to be producers and make something sound huge and vast with the gear that we had. Things have gone forward in a really natural way.
You’re all involved with other projects or outside production work. Does that create difficulties? Or is line with a focus on Small Black?
Yeah, Small Black is what we do. Everything else is just something that people pick up for a day or two. Jeff [Curtin] played drums on the Wild Nothing record. Juan [Pieczanski], Jeff, and Ryan [Heyner] all do commercial work to pay the bills sometimes. The band is definitely the main focus though.
The cover art is striking. Was that something that you found?
Yeah, we didn’t commission that. I was kind of lurking on some internet blogs that I like and found it, and then reached out to the artist and she was more than happy to let us use it. She’s great – Scarlett Hooft Graafland.
It certainly hits the nail on the head in terms of themes of the record.
We actually locked the title in after we found the image. It just fit so well. We had that image for over a year, so thinking about it helped shape the record, for sure.
Yeah, it’s not the way things are typically done. It just kind of went that way.