When they first emerged back at the start of the nineties, The Black Dog were rapidly tagged as pioneers in the then rising first wave of ‘intelligent dance music’ coming out of the UK, alongside peers such as Autechre, B12 and LFO. After releasing the seminal Temple Of Transparent Balls and Spanners albums as well as a steady stream of tracks under aliases including Discordian Popes and Balil the original trio split in 1995, with Ed Handley and Andy Turner going on to form Plaid, leaving Ken Downie as the lone proprietor of The Black Dog.
In 2001 Downie joined forces with Martin and Richard Dust, owners of the Dust Science Recordings label and the last fifteen years have seen the trio more prolific than ever, with a swelling discography of album and EP releases. In more recent years it’s been the social and political themes that have become increasingly more apparent in The Black Dog’s music, with 2009’s Further Vexations album centring around personal surveillance, while 2010’s Music For Real Airports offered a sobering look at how a space once soundtracked by Brian Eno as utopian has now become a more stressful and oppressive experience. The trio’s latest album Neither / Neither sees that trend continuing, with even its very title hinting at confusion amidst an onrush of disinformation. Chris Downton chatted to Martin and Richard Dust via Skype.
CD: I’m curious to find out more about why you choose the title Neither / Neither for this record. It sounds like it could refer to ambiguity or negation?
Martin: We were really interested in an artist called Austin Osman Spare. He described a state of consciousness where you just manage to stay really quiet, so there are no thoughts, no intrusions at all, and he used to use this method for doing automatic drawings, so that his art could kinda, flow through him. So, we’re big fans of his artwork and it kind of struck us that the political and corporate systems have managed to put everybody in a very similar state, where they just flow through individuals and the individuals don’t do anything, regardless of what’s done to them.
CD: Like a learned passive condition?
Martin: Yeah. If you look at all political and corporate systems and the way they work now, you’d be pretty hard pushed to tell me what Labor and Tory now stand for. And equally the propaganda units stand there, so people like Putin, he’s got situations where he’s supporting right wing parties like the BNP and the National Party, and then supporting gay rights parties, while outlawing homosexuality. It makes no political sense whatsoever, but they’re managing to do is to confuse everybody so that you don’t know where they are and what they stand for. And it seems to work, it’s such a ridiculous thing that happens.
But it’s kind of like, if you go back to newspapers, nobody believes what newspapers say, but you know, people use them as a measure, and a reason, and a rallying point, and it’s equally as ridiculous. So that’s kind of where we were coming from. If you look at Adam Curtis’ work, you watch those six documentaries back to back, it’s difficult to believe at the end of it, how wars get started. If you were to write it down, clearly anybody with any intelligence would say, this can’t have happened.
CD: To me, it seems that a lot of the political and social themes started to become more explicit from your Silenced album onwards, was this territory you were always interested in?
Martin: I first met Ken in 1989 before the internet existed, on a thing called Wildcat BBS. So, we’ve always been interested in electronic communities and using electronics and technology to advance communities. But we could kind of see what was gonna happen when you get that classic 80/20 split where 20 percent of people do all the work, and 80 percent of people just take stuff. So, I don’t think myself, Ken and Rich all share the same politics, but I think we all share great concerns for individual freedoms. It’s become more prevalent in track titles and track feel, simply because you know, you look at things like Wikileaks and stuff like that, and things that have happened, and there’s not been a civil war. It’s kind of like, what does it take to get people angry these days?
CD: With your preceding albums, I’ve usually been immediately able to pick what the conceptual theme was, whether it was Electronic Voice Phenomena, personal surveillance or the increasing paranoia of airports. Is there a overarching theme to the new record in that sense?
Martin: A lot of it started from looking at what we’d done previously and looking at the works of Adam Curtis, Scientologists, Alex Jones, ridiculous Truther videos on Youtube, and just looking at how the whole process of information and truth works. And that’s kind of what it’s all built around. I guess it deals in a lot of ways with how fear has become the new faith, and how that has really become the new church of everybody. I mean, some of the stuff is just crazy, from our governments, to David Icke, Alex Jones to Scientology, 9/11, the Illuminati. It’s fucking crazy what people spend their time doing.
CD: I seem to remember that around the time you were playing with Electronic Voice Phenomena that you said something about it being an example of something where if people believe in it enough, they can create an entire belief system around it.
Martin: Yeah. It’s self-perpetuating and it’s kind of something that we wanted to experiment with. I saw a really crazy, really low-rent TV programme where they used an FM radio, and what this FM radio was doing was flitting across all the bands from one end to the other, and they could control the amount of time that it would stay on each station. And it just looked like a fantastic musical instrument that had never been used. And these people were going around visiting serial killer sites and asking the serial killer questions.
CD: Like a séance?
Martin: Yeah. It was just fucking mental. And you know, the synchronicity and the chance. Of course when you’re flitting all the way across talk radio, the chances of getting a coherent sentence are incredibly high. You’re nearly at 90 percent. But these people read so much into it, and it just kind of like just really interested us that people do that, and it’s like EVP where they use the worst voice recorders ever, so you don’t hear anything, you just get like a solid sheet of white noise and they kind of pick things up in that. It’s amazing Barnum-like psychology where they fool themselves into it, and the further and further they get, the worse it seems to get. If you hold up anything as a belief system, well then all belief systems are pretty crazy really.
CD: I understand that you’re based a fair way outside the city in Sheffield?
Martin: Yeah, we just moved out of the city centre to a place that’s probably about fifty foot by forty foot. So we basically moved so that we could have room for a permanent live set-up, and we moved to an industrial estate, of all things, so that we could play music as loud as possible, at all times. We’ve got a sandwich shop next door, and that’s it.
CD: That sounds like the dream.
Martin: It couldn’t have got more perfect. The only way it could have been more perfect is if there’d been a pub downstairs.
Rich: There is a certain peace and lack of distraction here. Before, we used to be in what was a shared building, companies and offices, so we had to be careful and you could always hear people now and again walking by outside. This new place is far quieter. It’s scary how eerily it gets at about 5 o’clock in the evening. There’s nothing around here.
Martin: I think it allowed us to play the music a lot louder, which allowed us to get not so much the dark side, but the intensity of some of the tracks spot on, because you could feel it, rather than trying to guess at low volume what it actually felt like. So it’s kind of like having a club. I mean, one of the things we always do when we go to Berghain is we always go early, so we can play on that system for four hours, so we can try things. Because hearing things loud in that environment, it helps you to be more subtle.
CD: So you still play live regularly?
Martin: Yeah, we still play live and DJ. Ken occasionally comes out, but he hates it. So we don’t force it on him, and when he wants to do it he comes along. He tends to do a lot of the art installations that we work on. But he lives a really nomad life now. He lives on a boat.
Martin: Yeah, he just fucked off out of society. He just sold everything, packed in, bought a boat and now answers to nobody whatsoever. And half the time, we don’t know where he is, we just see files appear on the server of drum patterns and things that he’s done. Sometimes, we don’t talk for four months because we can’t fucking ring him! (laughs). We’ve known each other for the best part of 25 years, where you don’t need to be in each others’ pockets anymore, so you just send stuff, send ideas along, ideas appear, and it works great. It’s right back to where we started with the BBS, an interesting forum with ideas.
The Black Dog’s new album Neither / Neither is out August 17 on Dust Science Recordings.
Photos by Shaun Bloodworth.