Brooklyn’ art noise ensemble Black Dice have been delighting and terrifying audiences for over 15 years now with their strange and beautiful music. They began as noisy, often violent experimentalists, though quickly took on a more exploratory approach to their instrumentation, leaving traditional sounds and structures behind and focusing more on stringing guitar pedals together and bizarre combinations of electronic devices. The results have been positively hypnotic, referencing everything from afrobeat to the repetitive rhythms of krautrock.
Yet they’re a band that doesn’ like to sit still, their sound and approach continuously evolving. Their last album, Repo, came across like a scattered form of mutant funk, yet that was two long years ago, and these days anything is possible.
“We’re just finishing recording our new one,” offers Eric Copeland from his home in Brooklyn, “we’re finishing it tomorrow.”
Copeland states that they’d been working on the tunes, testing them live and tweaking them before they went into the studio. As a result the trip to the studio was relatively pain-free and mostly about capturing a performance. â€œThis set we’ve been working on for about a year,â€ he explains slowly, â€œand then we play it out and test it and kind of change it. So about 90 per cent of it was complete and we just had to do a performance and there’ about ten per cent that required more studio attention I guess.â€œ
â€œIt was fast and it sounds good so I’m really stoked,â€ he continues. â€œIt just seemed to go faster this process, I don’ know why. I’m glad it wasn’ the other way, I’m glad it wasn’ a pain in the ass.” Of course it wouldn’ be Black Dice if it wasn’ a departure from their previous work, their approach dramatically affecting the outcome.
â€œTo me it’s a little bit simplified,” he suggests. “It’s more like a punk band in some way. I’m sure it’s a very different vocabulary, but I think it’s been played a little more like that. I think it’s a little bit more hands on, less programmed, even though there’ a lot of programmed stuff. More handmade.”
“I feel all the ideas are really direct,” he elaborates. “I’m sick of hearing delay, and I’m sick of hearing reverb and I’m sick of hearing moaning, and drones. I love all of that stuff but I don’ want to spend my time making that music now. I guess it’s kind of a reaction to make something that’s more punk and direct.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Black Dice is the humanity inherent in their sound. Aesthetically it rings true like electronic music, yet it’s approached without the coldness or precision of most electronic artists. There’ a human element that prevents the perfection; in fact often it feels like the sounds are careering out of control and the members are doing their utmost to reign them in.
“I feel like we just play the instruments,” explains Copeland. “I think we’re gradually becoming more like an electronic band. Each person had their own progression so we’re not really linked in a way. We’re all somewhat independent for the most part. But I think we’ve approached it with a band approach where someone would play a rhythm or someone would play a guitar or melody line.”
Yet it’s not that simple, the reality is that their approach to music making has developed over the years to the extent that they aren’ even entirely sure what each other is actually doing.
“I think everyone has their own relationship to it [their instrument]. For instance I don’t really understand what they do and they don’ really understand what I do either. It’s a subjective thing.”
“We all know the nuts and bolts of it,” he continues, “the connections, the wiring, but I think mostly it’s just stuff we like, that makes sense to each of us. Again it’s not like a master brain where we have to have a relationship to each other that way.”
Their relationship is almost telepathic, though given the bizarre structures and approach to music, at times you have no idea which of them is making the sounds and how they’re actually enmeshing. Surely this structural looseness would raise some difficulties from time to time.
“I don’t think it’s any different from more traditional play,” Copeland suggests sounding perplexed. “I mean I don’t necessarily know how to play a trumpet but I don’t have to, to play with someone who can. It’s like an isolated instrument that they’re playing. That’s cool to me. I know what their abilities are, how low they can go or how high.”
Then there’ the notion of improvisation. Live performances have traditionally been joyous feats of noisy abandon, where it’s near impossible to tell who’ doing what and where the songs begin and end. For the audience it can be strange and disconcerting, never entirely sure where the music is going. Copeland suggests that to some extent the band experience this too, however they do set some vague parameters around their set that provides space for improvisation.
“You know how to go from the beginning of the set to the end of the set, you know what’s going to happen pretty much but there’ a lot of looseness you know. It’s not James Brown or something,” he laughs.
In 2004 the band parted company with their long-time drummer Hisham Bharoocha reducing Black Dice to a trio, and they have remained that way ever since. On subsequent albums Broken Ear (recorded in Byron Bay), and 2007′ Load Blown the band picked up the slack using electronic beats and pulses to create percussion. It’s an approach they’ve ultimately embraced, not looking back.
“Sometimes we think that it would be a nice thing [having a drummer]but it’s also there are complications with drummers too, like having a drums set,” Copeland laughs. “For instance we couldn’ travel in the US with a drummer right now because we couldn’ fit everything in the car. But if there was somebody who made a lot of sense I don’ think would be opposed to it.”
Then of course there’ the impact upon the music, with Copeland finding that the absence of beats opened up space for creativity. “To be honest it’s really exciting to play beats,” he offers enthusiastically. “It’s another sort of vocabulary in the sound. I think with a drummer you’re less likely to take that on, but when he left it was kind’ve the next step, it was what was missing. Now anyone can do what they want, to bring in beats, it’s really nice to have that option.”
“But it’s been Bjorn, Aaron and myself for so long that it doesn’ feel like we need anybody,â€ he continues. â€œWe’re also travelling with a projectionist that we used to use forever but we haven’ been busy so we haven’ used him for a long time, this guy Danny Perez. He travelled with us for almost 10 years and he’ really familiar with what we do and how we do it, and what our shows are like. It’s another perspective on what’s going on.”
Perez is probably best know for his work with Animal Collective on their audio visual ODDSAC album in which sound and vision are hopelessly entwined. His projections are the latest in a long line of techniques designed to push the boundaries and continue to keep both the music and the process interesting.
“Everybody is doing what we want. Nobody is making anyone do anything. In some ways I feel if one person changes everyone has to respond to it. Right now it’s a pleasant place to be because it’s been fast and it’s been fun. I’m enjoying it a lot.”
It is a testament to the band’ continuing artistic vision that after 15 years they’re still discovering new avenues and feeling invigorated by the music, yet it isn’ just the music that is keeping them together.
“One of them is my brother so it’s kind of a given,” Copeland laughs, “and the other one is basically my brother. To be honest the older I get the more special our time together becomes. Because everyone has a real life and families, so to me it’s a real pleasant relationship for the most part that involves making music and travelling. But it also involves us hanging out and talking as friends, because I don’ know how much everyone would have that steady relationship otherwise. Like I don’t have many friends that I call everyday to hang out.”
Black Dice’ Mr. Impossible will be available in April 2012, released through Ribbon Music.
Photos by BÃ¡rbara Soto, art by Black Dice