The First State’s most notable moment in the pop cultural sun was being called out by Wayne and Garth, two dudes from Aurora, Illinois, for being boring. Brooklyn, home of don’t-call-it-a-chillwave act Small Black, is certainly not lacking for cultural activity. And it’s for that very reason that the band decided to record its first full-length at bassist Juan Pieczanski’s parents’ house in Rehobeth, Del.: no distractions.
The concentrated effort shows. New Chain is layered, densely packed, and sure to consolidate Small Black’s position at the front of the chillwave pack — regardless of whether or not the band members (or anyone else) buy into the designation. Their first, self-titled EP gained them national recognition, a record deal with Jagjaguwar, and the clout to play shows all over the country, which they’ve done pretty consistently since releasing the thing online in the summer of ’09. Those shows led the band — initially just the bedroom project of Josh Kolenik and Ryan Heyner — to expand their line-up to include Pieczanski and Jeff Curtin. Here, Kolenik talks with Prefix about growing up as a hip-hop-loving suburbanite, recording in Delaware, and, inevitably, that whole chillwave thing.
You guys managed to gain a pretty sizable audience off the strength of a five-song EP. Did you feel any pressure going into the studio to record New Chain?
I guess we knew that people were going to listen to it, whereas [when] we did the EP we had no idea if anyone was going to pay attention to it in any way. But that said, I think we did pretty much the same thing we did for the EP, which is just trust our first instincts and go with them.
How did taking those few songs on the road with Jeff and Juan over the last two years shape both those songs and the direction the band has taken since you first recorded the EP?
I don’t think we were thinking much about how to do the songs live when we were recording them. It was just a project in a bedroom. We always had a vision of trying to do it in a live environment, but we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to do it. So we were definitely, with this new record, thinking about how it would play in a live context. Having taken our crappy Casio beats on the road — we love them, but in a big club they don’t hit as hard as they do on your headphones. So I think in terms of the beats, we tried to up the ante, because we knew that it would pop more live.
So if you had to give a mission statement for this album, if you could try to articulate anything that was going through your head when you guys were making this album, what would that be?
I think our mission statement always is to trust our first instinct. We like to use first takes, and we like to stick with the original recording of anything. So with this we were trying to take that and make that a little bit more grand than the smaller gestures we were making on the first record. I like accidents and chance. The way we write is always that way. The album is deliberate in terms of what instrumentation we’re limiting ourselves to, and what we use, but I think a lot of the songs happen just by accident.
How did the writing process differ on the full-length than it did on the EP?
Well, Juan and Jeff were totally involved. We were all kind of camping out in Delaware. There’s more heads and ideas, and I thought that was really helpful. But it was similar in that we really do like isolation and quiet and only working on the music. I love Brooklyn; it’s amazing living here. It’s really easy for us to generate ideas here and have a lot of stuff going. But to get in there, and edit it, and make it coherent, we need to get out. [Laughs] I need to focus, like, 12 hours a day on it, and I’m always getting distracted here. That’s why I like living here, but it’s not good for finishing things.
As a Delaware resident, I know that the state is a sort of cultural wasteland. As far as I can tell, you guys are in the thick of the Brooklyn music scene. What was the experience of getting away from all of that and putting the album together?
It was very lonely, and we were going crazy for part of it — we hadn’t seen anyone except each other for weeks and weeks. But that quiet is something I really valued, and I miss it. We were in Rehobeth Beach in the winter. There’s nothing to do. We didn’t have a car for a lot of it, so we just had to walk to the shopping center, ride bikes to T.G.I. Friday’s. [Laughs] It was super-suburban and weird, and I liked it. I felt like a ghost.
Early on in the band’s career, you guys were saddled with the “chillwave” designation. What were the pros and cons of that?
The only con is going to be if people think that’s the kind of music that we make, because I don’t know if our stuff is really that “chillwave.” Obviously we love Washed Out, and Memory Tapes, and those bands are awesome, and it’s nice to be mentioned in the same breath as them, just ’cause they’re good. I think there’s a big difference with our songwriting approach and the sounds we use. We use samples, but not record samples. The samples are usually just things we recorded that we loop. It’s opened up our music to a wider audience, and it was kind of lucky in a way. I think a lot of people’s reactions to the record are going to be “it’s not chillwave,” ’cause I don’t think it is. I don’t think it ever was.
If Small Black was starting up in 1995, what do you think your career trajectory would have been?
That’s really tough. Whenever I meet people that were in bands in 1995, I notice a real jerk vibe to them. It was harder to do weird stuff. If you couldn’t play your video on MTV, or on 120 Minutes, then I don’t know if people would have heard it, you know? In the ’90s, I just listened to rap, ’cause that’s the stuff that was accessible to me as a suburban kid.
You’ve stated, in past interviews, an affinity for mainstream pop and rap. Yet I can’t necessarily imagine any of New Chain‘s songs on conventional radio. Where do you think that sort of music comes out in what you guys do, if at all?
We’re cribbing from it all the time. I drive around in the car a lot in New York listening to Hot 97, like, non-stop. Even New Chain, it’s kind of a loose hip-hop reference. Turning up vocals — we do that on purpose, ’cause we like those gestures and they’re fun.
Is Small Black your full-time job right now?
Mostly. I do other stuff on the side, when I can. We’re poor, but we’re figuring out a way to get by.
What influence did growing up on Long Island have on the music you’d eventually make with Small Black?
It definitely shaped me as a person. I feel like a pretty legitimate New Yorker, just because I’ve lived in New York City for a while now and I’m from there. You have that sort of everyone’s-trying-to-bullshit-me attitude that my friends that aren’t from here don’t have as much. They’ve developed it, but it’s still not innate. As a Long Island kid in the late ’90s, I just listened to a lot of rap music — that’s what was super-cool. That’s what I really grew up loving, and I think that even though we don’t make music that’s necessarily like that, I love the process. I grew up in Baldwin, and I’d think about Public Enemy and De La Soul all the time. Those were the kids who were from where I was from. We tried to really take, with the Small Black EP, a more hip-hop and dance approach to songwriting than we’d taken in our previous projects. Maybe ’cause we were just so excited about that way of making music, which is just taking any sound and trying to make a song out of it.
Did you see shows in the city when you were growing up in suburban Long Island?
Yeah, I would definitely sneak in on the weekends, and get in trouble when my mom found out. Take the two o’clock drunk train home.
How does it feel now, then, to be headlining shows in New York City?
It blows me away. It’s something I’ve dreamed of. I was always that kid at the show in the front row, looking at the pedals and the drum set, trying to figure out what they were doing. I feel honored that somebody might be doing the same thing to me. It comes full circle, in a way.
How accurate a reflection of your personality do you think the music that you make is?
I feel pretty honest when I’m doing vocal takes, and when I’m writing lyrics. I’m pretty laid-back, and I guess that does come across in the music, but you do always assume some sort of character when you sing. It is, in some ways, outside your persona. I think it’s freeing, in a way, and I like that.
What kind of character do you think you become, when you go and write your lyrics and record?
That’s pretty deep. [Laughs.] I’m just trying to get more knowledge of myself, and of what emotionally stimulates me and what, mentally, I’m interested in. What comes across in making music — in any art — is a journey toward discovery. That’s why I wanted to do music — to express myself, in a way.