Q&A: Small Black’s frontman Josh Kolenik shares details on their creative process

Breezy and thoughtful electro-indie-pop quartet, Small Black are back on the scene with their 3rd studio album, Best Blues. The Vanderbilt Hustler got a chance to hang out with frontman Josh Kolenik and discuss aliens, his uncle’s house, the creative process, and Vandy basketball. Be sure to check out Small Black at Exit/In on Wednesday, Nov 2nd.

Vanderbilt Hustler: For some of our readers who don’t know everything about Small Black could you give me a little history of how Small Black came to be?

Josh Kolenik: In 2009 we recorded an EP at my uncle’s house. And it was pretty lo-fi and kind of on the spot. Then over the course of 6 or 7 years we built it into real band project, touring America and the rest of the world.

VH: How has your sound progressed as a group since the beginning?

JK: We’ve had the same band since the beginning, it’s just the first release was something that was more of a home recording. We weren’t really considering how to play it live. And now tour is kind of how we get to exist as musicians. So now we consider the material and how we’re going to play it live a lot more than we used to. 

VH: Tell us about the story behind Best Blues? It seemed like Limits of Desire honed in on intimate desires and intimate relationships. Was there a tone you were trying to set or a vibe you were trying to establish with the album?

JK: Yeah, have you seen the cover art? It’s a picture that I found in my house in Long Island. My dad’s house got totally trashed during Hurricane Sandy and I just spent a lot of time out there after, just going through all of our family’s stuff. Discovering a bunch of memories, I didn’t know existed. Once we sort of had that as the cover art, the record just kind of jumped off to a point evaluating memory and loss and how that affects your art and your day-to-day life.

VH: I love that all of that came from a photo.

JK: And the photo, my dad hadn’t seen it since like 1973 when it was taken. So he didn’t know much about it either. It became this memory that like no one had.

VH: What’s different?

JK: I think Limits was like our most clean and pretty big sounding, the song structures are very linear. I think the new record is much more loose and jammy in the arrangements. I think it’s just an evolution of the sound and a better reflection of the live show. It’s more instrumental… We arranged things in just one sitting, not too much planning.

VH: What do you like to do outside of music that contribute to your musicality?

JK: Well all the other guys are into Aliens and that. I like that stuff but I’m like the skeptic, like Fox Mulder in X files. They’ll talk about it in the van over a 7-hour long drive and I just can’t handle it. But I do know a lot of good conspiracy theories [like] angels in Mt. Shasta and rocks in Georgia that contain the secrets of the universe. I mostly obsessed with film and basketball.

VH: Pro or college basketball?

JK: A little of both. Who did Vanderbilt have last year? Wade Baldwin? I really liked that guy. I think he’s going to be good. Yeah I’ve always got an eye on Vanderbilt. Especially because y’all have that crazy home court that’s raised and messes with everybody.

VH: I read in an article before that change in scenery was important to you guys during the creative process. How much does where you are physically in the world influence your musical style or tastes?

JK: It’s more just like being in a new space and having a new pattern for a couple of weeks. It just kind of rewires your brain I think. You feel less stress about the day to day stuff. Like for Best Blues we went to a cabin upstate with no internet or phone service and it was pretty wild. You know? We were in a time warp from like 15 years ago. It makes you realize just how reliant you are on technology. [When] there’s nothing else to do you just get to sort of jam.

VH: What new music are you into?

JK: Moodhut pretty obscure but worth it. jack Jay. The new angel Olsen is really good. I’ve been really into the Chance record, really exciting and fun music. Easy TV from New York have some great tracks.

VH: What about music excites you the most right now?

JK: I think a lot of what excites me also terrifies me. Like just how accessible production is to people. It’s very cool that everyone has a shot at making a record that sounds okay. That makes the process more democratic. Back in the day to be in a studio you had know like a gatekeeper at the door. It’s good that everyone can make their own stuff, but at the same time I think it leads to a glut of very mediocre music.

VH: What to expect at Exit/In on Wednesday?

JK: We’ll be playing a bunch of stuff from Best Blues and from Limits of Desire. But it’s definitely a full band vibe and we try to push the hybrid electronic and rock band thing where we extend songs and jam on stuff. It’s the best of both worlds.

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