Josh Kolenik is damaged goods.
He purports to be just “a little sick,” but with Small Black soon to be spending five weeks cramped in a tour van, his bandmates aren’t taking chances. This illness needs to run its course as an isolated occurrence.
“I’m not going to touch anything,” the singer tells bassist Juan Pieczanski. But his assurances are insufficient. Juan wants him out of his room.
“Everybody is paranoid,” Kolenik says. “I understand. It’s really a nightmare to be sick on tour. It’s impossible to get better. My first tour, I was sick for three weeks. That’s also my fault, because your first tour you definitely want to party all the time. It’s hard to say, ‘No.'”
Kolenik is calling from Small Black’s South Brooklyn basement space, where the band has been rehearsing for a North American trek. They’ve been reconstructing old songs (“You play songs for a couple years and you just start to tire of the way you do it”) and learning the new ones from its forthcoming EP, Real People.
Out April 1, Real People finds the four-piece in a similar place as last spring’s Limits of Desire, conjuring expansive, starry-eyed synthpop with genuine thump. And like the preceding LP, this EP was recorded in the Brooklyn basement where Kolenik currently finds himself quarantined. One advantage of recording on home turf: It allowed to band to recruit neighbor and kindred spirit Frankie Rose for several songs.
We ask Kolenik to walk us through Real People. “This is our first interview on this stuff, so I’m still getting my thoughts together,” he cautions. “It’s always a process, thinking about a record and figuring out how to explain it.”
1. “Real People”
“Real People” is a song that we had a version of when we were making Limits of Desire, but we didn’t like how it ended up, so we cut it. We always really liked the song, though, so we did a whole new revamp of it. We sped it up a little bit.
The lyrics are about this kid who got some notoriety a few years. His name is Colton Harris-Moore, but people called him the Barefoot Bandit. He was this teenager from Washington that stole a bunch of planes. He would sneak into people’s vacation homes and steal stuff. He had this modern outlaw story. It’s interesting, because he’s such a modern kid. He’s obsessed with the internet and checking his status. It’s fun to think about that vis-a-vis someone like Billy the Kid, or any of these historical figures that we learned about growing up.
It all comes back to the title, “Real People”: His story is so shocking and insane that it’s hard to believe that it’s real. I think about, like, “How do you make that choice? How do you go that way?” He’s just a fascinating character. He could use a song about him.
What became of him?
He received a seven year sentence. He’ll won’t be out of prison until he’s twenty-five. I think he should just learn to play bass and join a band, because he’s already cooler than everybody else.
You should send him the 12″.
Yeah, I was going to try to figure out how to get it to him. There are all these stories about this aeronautical engineer who’s really taken an interest in him, because it’s pretty remarkable that the kid was able to fly these planes without any formal training. He just figured it out from the internet.
I don’t know – obviously if it was your stuff that got stolen, then you would feel terrible and hate this kid, and I can’t justify what he did, but I think it’s hard not to be very interested in it. Deep down, I think we all want to do this reckless sort of stuff, but we don’t, because you have to face the consequences of it, which he definitely did.
I was probably somewhere in between. I remember seeing the movie “Kids” in high school and having the exact opposite reaction that you’re supposed to have. I was like “Oh, this is awesome. These guys are so cool.” [Laughs] I’m from Long Island, so we would go into the city, and it’s not like we were ever that bad, but we would drink 40s in the park and see what happened. But I was a pretty good kid. I would mostly sneak into the city for concerts and play in bands and be a dork.
Where in Long Island are you from?
A town called Baldwin – it’s in South Shore, Nassau Country. It’s where Twisted Sister is from. Dee Snider went to my high school. He showed up at our holiday concert one year. They did “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and they were like, “On the seventh day of Christmas…” and Dee Snider just came out of nowhere, like, “I want to rock!!!” It was intense.
2. “Lines of Latitude”
We wrote “Lines of Latitude” with a female vocal in mind. I had known Frankie [Rose] for a while, but we became closer with her over the course of last summer. She just came over and did back-ups, and it really works. It kind of made the song.
It was a song that was kicking around for a while in lots of different forms. It started with this weird sample that we found – this guy who sang at resorts in Florida. For some reason, Juan bought the CD for a quarter at a thrift store in Spokane. It had this magical guitar loop, which we sampled and built on top of it. The sample didn’t make the end song, but that where the inspiration came from. There are lots of version of the song that are heavily reliant on that loop.
How often do you find yourselves in thrift stores?
It’s the kind of thing we do when we’re touring and we realize that we’re going to be an hour early for a show. If we don’t know anyone in the city and we don’t know what to do, we’ll find a Goodwill and hunt for records or gear.
Do you do a lot of sampling?
Not really. Sometimes we’ll use a sample for inspiration and then ditch it from the final mix. It’s fun sometimes to have a drum loop or something that you didn’t make – something that’s an unusual choice, that then forces you into other choices that you wouldn’t normally make. I like that approach as a starting point for a song if there’s not a melody to begin with. There are so many drum ideas, and I’m interested in all of them, but I don’t they necessarily come to me right away.
This is a song that Ryan [Heyner] brought to the band. When he brings a song in, he’s already thought it through and it’s got a lot of structure. When we work on stuff together, it can flow like an amoeba, just going in all different directions, until we bring it into some sort of centerpiece. It’s definitely a darker song for us.
As a singer and lyricist, how is it different when a bandmate brings you a piece of near finished music?
I like both approaches. It’s fun to start from a lyric – that will often lead you to a strong chorus. It tends to keep the intent consistent. Sometimes Ryan will bring a song and nothing comes melodically or topically, so it just never makes it, but this one was very easy. The chorus came to me in a second, and once I had that, I kind of knew what the song was about and could write the rest of it in a second.
It’s a lot of improv – just doing takes and singing gibberish. I’ll write a bunch of lyrics that feel like they sound like the song and then I’ll try to fit them in. It’s always a jig-saw. I work in a very collage way in terms of lyric writing and how the song ends up forming.
We wrote a song on the first EP called “Pleasant Experience”, which was about reflections on a relationship and thinking about what the good and bad parts of it were, and considering your own memory, whether those things were actually true. I’m always interested in that topic, because I think that’s how we live: To move on from things, you need to concoct a story that works with your own personal experience. “Reconstruction” was about how it’s ok to doctor the past in your own mind – to tell the story a little better than how it actually was. Sometimes we really look down on that, but I think it’s what most of us do everyday, and that’s ok.
It’s got a big beat behind it.
It’s pretty dancey, but there’s a minute before the beat comes in. Maybe we tried to thwart that with the intro.
Most of the time, we just make a piece of music and try not to think about it too much. It’s just like, “This is good. We want to make this a song.” Sometimes if you get too deliberate, you end up making stuff that’s deliberate and boring and doesn’t have that magic that a great song usually has.
5. “The Downtown Lights”
This is a cover of a band by The Blue Nile – a Scottish band from Glasgow in the 80s. I’ve been really obsessed with this band for the last three years. Its albums Hats and A Walk Across the Rooftops were a huge influence on Limits of Desire. The band is kind of largely forgotten, even though Paul Buchanan – its singer – still puts out records that are pretty damn good.
Their whole story is very interesting to me. I feel like a kindred spirit to them. Do you know the famous drum machine the LinnDrum? It’s one of the original drum machines, and Linn was looking for a band to make a song using this new drum machine that they were putting out. They ended up loving the song so much that they put the whole record out. So, they’re, like, the only the band ever on Linn Records. And they took six years between all of their albums.
It’s just very tender and vulnerable music. I love that. I don’t really hear as many sad songs as I did as a kid. Everything feels like a guilty pleasure or it has some crazy beat. I love melancholy music. It’s kind of my favorite – it’s what I typically listen to, and it’s what I was raised listening to. I also just think that The Blue Nile is forgotten and I want people to listen to them, because it’s just such good music and so touching. It gets me every time.
Have you reached out to Paul?
No – I need to. I tweeted a them last year, but I don’t think he runs their Twitter. We need to find a direct contact for the label. I want to send them the vinyl.
Thumbnail photo by Autumn Northcraft