For more than fifteen years, New York residents Black Dice have been re-inventing and mutating punk music into wild new sonic shapes. The trio of Eric Copeland, Bjorn Copeland, and Aaron Warren have released countless albums, singles and EPs (and a book) varying from brutal hardcore, to shimmering out-of-focus drone-scapes, to discordant throbbing funk.
Having recently concluded a spell signed to Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label, Black Dice's latest album sees them strip down their sound (and equipment) to a primitive No Wave groove, as developed by the electronic punk pioneers of their adopted home city. As influenced by punk as much as they are by disco, and by their previous labels DFA and Troubleman, the band are now signed to Ribbon Music for the forthcoming release of their new album 'Mr. Impossible'. I spoke to founding member Aaron Warren about his past, present and future...
Who are Ribbon Music? How did you get hooked up with them?Morgan's like this dude who we've known for ten years or something. We've known him for a long time, just through friends of friends and stuff. It just kinda happened organically. We've been working on this record for a long time and when we started working on it, Bjorn (Copeland, Aaron's brother and band-mate) was doing some artwork for Domino, and I think he designed the Ribbon logo, so Morgan knew we were working on new stuff. We'd been talking for the last couple of years about how we wanted to do the record and stuff, so it just came about that way.
So this guy had known your music for a while?
Yeah, yeah, totally. He's from Louisville, Kentucky, I think, but he's been in New York for around the same amount of time as we have. We've been in the same circle for at least ten years.
The new record's a lot less chilled than the last one (2009's 'Repo', released on Paw Tracks) - and it sounds much more like older Black Dice stuff - was that by design? Anything to do with the label change?
Definitely nothing to do with the label change, but something we've been talking about a lot is the music that you grow up on, and what gets you psyched when you're a teenager, and for me that was punk music, and hardcore music. I've been trying to do that music in a way that makes sense with my life now, where I'm a grown man. I can't just be playing a style of music that's like, thirty years old now. It's incorporating some of those ideas, with the progressive ideals of the band. Just trying to do something somewhat innovative, but with real limited instrumentation. That's sort of the way we work. Seeing what we can do with these really crude tools. In that way it's really similar to hardcore music. It's simple, it's easy. You know?
Yeah. It sounds like a much more informed Black Dice - the Black Dice of 2012 - playing the music you were doing at the beginning.
Yeah, yeah. It's just a response to ourselves. To the last record and to the one before that. We're always trying to do something a little different to what we just did. It also has a lot to do with the kind of shows we're doing, and the kind of shows we want to be doing. The kind of shows where people get psyched, and pumped up - and don't just stand there scratching their head. Which has happened for us.
So do you write with a mind to what you think people should do? Like, is this album made for people to throw themselves around, in the way that the last album possibly wasn't?
I think that's always been the goal for us, even as far back as Creature Comforts (2004). I think Beaches & Canyons (2002) was the last record we made without an audience in mind. We're always talking about creating this celebratory party vibe and stuff like that, and I think we're just a little more effective at translating that to the music right now, than we have been in the past, 'cause like something that's upbeat and aggro sounding to us can sound like it's just a fun party tune, but when it comes out on the record and when we're playing it out - especially in another country or something like that - sometimes it just doesn't translate to audiences. We always have an idea of the ideal audience, this fantasy version of what we want, but we don't really go to shows any more. We don't really know what's going on. When we were writing these tunes we were totally in a vacuum. We have an idea of what this fantasy show would be like, but until we're out there we have no idea of what shows are like these days.
Black Dice. Photograph by Barbara Soto
But I'm guessing when you formed the band you were aware of a lot of what other people were doing. Are you not any more?
Yeah, I mean... I still make an effort to try to keep up, and read about music, and find out what's going on. I listen to stuff online and what not. I don't buy a lot of records, either new or used, just because of the position I'm in with my life just now. I'm older, and I have a kid, so I don't have the disposable income for that like I did when I was in college, y'know? My life has just changed. The actual music is as important to me as it's ever been, it's just a lot more diverse. What I'm listening to now is like 50s rock, doo-wop, free jazz and hip-hop. And that's not the music I was listening to when I was starting a band. Fifteen years ago I was only interested in seven inches, and albums coming out on independent labels. Indie rock and hardcore was pretty much all I was into. I think it's just about being honest with yourself, and the stuff you're interested in. If I was more interested in digging up the new stuff I could do it. Everyone has access to that. There's a lot of good new stuff out there. I like this band Hype Williams. They're from the UK, they're pretty cool.
Can you chart the musical changes in Black Dice based on what you've been listening to?
No, I think there's more to it than that. To do a band for more than two or three years, I think it's hard to make that band fit with all these different phases of your life. We've become adults during the course of this band, we're totally different dudes. As such, we are listening to totally different stuff from era to era, but I think more than anything it's trying to figure out how to get a song to do what you want it to. But before, some of the songs were experimental to the point where it was like "Well, we were trying to do this, but we ended up doing this. And that's cool". Now it's more about what we want it to do.
How much does New York have to do with your music? You moved there to do the band. Could the band exist anywhere else?
I think it has a lot to do with it. It's tough to live here. There's a lot of distractions - a lot of weird stuff that messes with your head here. There's so many different paths to success here, and different kinds of success you can have here. You'll constantly have friends and peers who are like, all of a sudden, doing really well at something. It can mess with your head. And it's expensive to live here, which provides a certain challenge. To be able to work within that challenge. I think that's an environment that comes out in the music. But on the flipside to all that, there's the people. Access to so many brilliant people, all these really cool people who are turning you on to all these brilliant ideas. There's access to every kind of culture. There's all this cool shit going on. It's the best and the worst place for a lot of reasons, and all those things definitely come out in the music.
Can you give give me a rundown of what gear you're using live just now?
Sure, it's really the most basic set-up we've ever had, that we have right now. I just have a MPC sampler, and a microphone, and a mixer, and some effects. Eric has a Mini Disc player, a mixer and a microphone, and some effects. Bjorn plays guitar and he has a Boss sampler, and some effects. It's the least gear we've ever used. By far.
You use technology, but you're quite anti-technology at the same time. Do you think it's good now how anybody can make an album, and get it out there? Or publish a book? Is it good or is it an avalanche of sub-standard stuff?
I think you've always been able to do that. Within the lifetime of our band, anyway. You've always been able to record your own band, and put out your own record. You might not have been using a computer to do it, but I think that the computer makes it easier - and makes it more instantaneous - is just really exciting. I think it's awesome.
Don't you think it dilutes anything? You used to walk into a record shop, and all the stuff you liked would be there. Now you go on Soundcloud or YouTube, and there's just millions of things to hear.
Well yeah, sure. But it's just like you're in a bigger record store. I guess. It just depends how you want to come across it. Like, if you're on someone's blog, and it only has a dozen things on it that month, then it's pretty easy to come across stuff. But if you're on Pitchfork or iTunes, then that shit's changing by the hour, and you might not come across something so easily. When I was growing up, I think some of the most rewarding music things were the things I did come across on my own, or came about through a weird connection. Like somebody who wasn't even a friend, turning me onto some weird music. It still happens, but it just happens in a more modern way.
Did you ever skate?
No, and it's probably my biggest regret in life - that I never learned to skateboard well. I always had friends who skated, and Bjorn and Eric did. In the last couple of years I've become really obsessed with the Epicly Later'd show. It really makes me yearn to have known how to do that, and to have lived that life. If there's anything I could do to have learned to have done that from when I was ten years old, I would do that!
Not everyone on Epicly Later'd has been somebody to aspire to though...
It's interesting, I see so many similarities between that world and the sort of world that we're in. Some people are just exploring the artistic side to it, and have absolutely no head for business, and no idea of how to live any kind of other life, apart from the act of doing it. You know what I'm saying? I relate to that aspect of it so well, because in a lot of ways that's how we've been as a band sometimes. But then there's people who've just persevered through so many different movements of skating, and I look at that, and I'm kinda like "Well, that's kinda like us too" sometimes. I think the full spectrum of it, from the people who just flame out to the people who can go on and on, it's fascinating to me. It's really cool.
What are the band's plans for 2012? Are you coming to the UK?
Yeah, we're doing a US tour in May, then we're gonna just chill during the summer months - maybe play some festivals - and then we're gonna play some shows in Europe and in the UK in September.