FOR A BLUE GIRL
~interview by Mick Mercer
BLACK TAPE FOR A BLUE GIRL have shown that change can be a welcome thing, and a surprising one. With a reputation in left-field Goth circles for a stark, moody take on the emotional island prison that lurks at the very centre of the more traditional dark ethereal waters, where heart and mind do battle, they were somewhat predictable. Musical textures were decorated by shifting, emotional vocal overlays that saved the music from drifting into an ambient abyss.
Then came The Scavenger Bride, a quite extraordinary album which revolved around a smeared historical tale about lovers and their decisions, in a historical construct, and played with ye olde approach to modern music, if you get me? This was faded shades and brittle scenarios, which created a stunning mystery which almost absorbed your presence as its drama played out, and ranks as one of the great records this decade, with ease.
Following that was going to be like following a constipated elephant, blindfold. Sam Rosenthal, the man behind both Black Tape and the mighty Projekt records – a label unafraid to use the word Goth! - wisely decided to come out with something entirely different, and once again Black Tape shape-shifted, languidly. He released a semi-concept album, Halo Star: Halo a tattered rock icon, seemingly doomed. In truth he seems less of a tragic figure and mainly listless. If tormented, it seems to be through self-abandonment, although this shadowy figure is mainly viewed through the eyes of others. Nothing is clear, or becomes so.
The concept seemed vague, at best but the music is stirring and, once again, emotionally compelling because the music has opened up and now comes in colour. ‘Scavenger’ was autumnal shades intruding into sepia, but ‘Halo’ is a wide array of damp pastels, and the monochrome of old is definitely gone. This is music which is engagingly open, simpler and highly involving. Rhythm bounces along ad humour is far from rare. The usual quality cast completes the ensemble lineup and, having established themselves on this level, we should be assured of some dazzling records yet to come, so it is important to discuss these current waters, as Rosenthal splashes happily around.
And we do that now.
HALO STAR has got excellent reviews. Were you relieved, because you’d stepped into some different waters there, playing against expectations? Just how confident are you generally around the time of an album?
“I’m a confident and optimistic guy, regardless of what you might glean from the album! I made the music I wanted to hear, and basically don’t give too big of a damn about the reviews. Which I guess is an easy thing to say, ‘cause I generally get pretty good reviews. If everyone hated it, maybe I’d be of a different mind. But that wouldn’t change the fact that I really love this album, and love the songs I wrote, and love the contributions of my band!”
Have any diehard fans died hard? Were there people praying for a Scavenger Bride Part 2?
“I haven’t heard from them, if they’re out there. I remember back 'in the old days' when fanmail still came in the mailbox, I’d occasionally get a letter telling me how let down somebody was by something. 'Oh, you really sold out on this lush garden within' or whatever. But with the internet, people seem to have stopped writing. Or maybe they just don’t think they’ll get a response, so why bother? I dunno. I still like fanmail, it just doesn’t seem to come in those big bags anymore! (ha!)”
I’d imagine Scavenger Bride was quite an exhausting project, although you might very well have compiled it slowly and happily for all I know. Was Halo Star more immediate and less draining?
“Halo Star was created faster, it is true. And it was easier to record because I am better at using the software on the computer. But as far as emotionally draining or exhausting, I don’t think either of them was particularly hard on me. Like I said, I’m a pretty confident guy, these days. The Sam of the first decade was a bigger wreck (and a pain in the neck, as Marc Almond would sing). He had a lot more emotional issues with creation. Age and wisdom will fix that for ya! I enjoyed the process on Halo Star immensely.”
Musically it’s certainly freer, Gothier and less introspective, but it’s hardly a clear tale is it? With Halo only actually noticeable here and there it’s fairly mysterious. How and why did you decide to have tantalising glimpses of a main character without a clearly defined narrative thread?
“Because people such as yourself told me that the narrative of The Scavenger Bride was half-baked. (ha!).
“No, that’s not the real reason. I didn’t really want to repeat The Scavenger Bride, and make another full-blown concept album. Originally, Halo Star was going to have no interconnection or a main character. In the early days of Black Tape, the main character was me, I guess. It was about my life, even if twisted and hidden so only I knew who I was talking about. And, in a sense, that’s true again on Halo Star. There’s a lot of my life in there, though it sometimes takes me a while to understand just what a line is about. That’s ok, too.”
Halo seems confused. He’s certainly no anti-hero in a typical fashion. I’m not sure I even felt for his decision. Do you like him?
“Did Halo make a decision? I think that he’s much more 'acted upon' throughout the album, actually. I think he does the things he does, and the woman around him do the things they do. But it seems the women are the ones who change. You ask if I like him? Sure, I like what I know about him. Maybe he’s a bit high on himself, thinks of himself a bit too much like a godhead. But that’s his role in life, and he plays it like a king!
Did you feel there was any risk attached to making an album which moved away from the intensity and into the calm, and fun?
“Huh? Did I make an album that moves away from intensity? For me, this album is much more immediate that The Scavenger Bride.... please clarify....”
Immediacy equals less intensity! Does it lead the way open for live performances being more relaxed? I’d imagine your performances usually being ultra-precise affairs?
“The shows now are much more alive and therefore spontaneous and intense and unique. We use a lot less backing tracks on the shows for Halo Star, so there’s more opportunity for liveliness and screwing up. Or just screwing around. I think it’s a lot more fun on stage, these days. Even if nobody in the crowd seems to pay much attention to me. Damn! I’ve got too many attractive people in my band....”
Has anyone made comments along the lines of, ‘thank fuck you lightened up!’?
“Um, no. But really! you’re telling me that 'Dagger' and 'Tarnished' are light? Or a song about Gravediggers coming to take the protaganist before his time? You must live in a dark dark place!”
It is actually easy while listening to the album to forget Halo of course, and just enjoy the sumptuous vocal performances. It is weird, on an album called Halo Star, to actually ignore him!
“Well, I don’t guarantee that 'Halo Star' is actually the same thing as Halo. I kinda feel 'Halo Star' might be the women who orbit him. But that’s just my interpretation. I don’t know that I’m correct....”
The Halo story is so slender, was there anything specific you wanted us to grasp about him?
“You’re interpretation is as good as mine.
What do you see?”
“I really didn’t worry. I just made songs that I enjoyed. I can’t see the point in worrying. Art is the place where I get to do whatever I want, right?”
‘Knock Three Times’ is amusing, yet a little snapshot which leaves you wanting to know more. Will there be more?
“You mean the sequel where I let you know if she’s really dead in that coffin, or just sleeping off too much absinthe? Hm? I haven’t thought about it....”
‘The Gravediggers’ could have been something on Scavenger Bride. Was that written at the same time?
“No, it’s a new one. But I disagree with you. I think 'Indefinable, Yet,' 'Already Forgotten' or even 'Halo Star' could musically have fit The Scavenger Bride. But 'Gravediggers' is way too sparse for that album.”
Obviously many Ethereal artists do music along the lines of ‘Already Forgotten’ but do you think something like that still exists firmly outside the mainstream and is a wholly new thing? (It’s songs like that you can play to people as examples of where Modern Goth is that makes them go, ‘Ah, I had no idea!’)
"Well, urm? The only mainstream things that come close are Enya, Lisa Gerrard, and Liz Frasier on The Lord of the Rings. But still, they all are pretty frightened of words, aren’t they? So it’s hard to say. I’ve got melodies *and* lyrics. Somebody get me some film work!”
Do you think mainly of BTFABG as a thing on its own, or within the Projekt world?
“Hm? I think of Black tape as a much more important thing to me, than Projekt. So, I place it first. But I guess I put on the record label hat and then I am realistic too, and see it as part of the “front line” of Projekt’s artists. Oh hell, that’s a wishy-washy answer...”
Do you accept you’re all contributing to an artistic genre – no matter how broad - of great substance?
“Yes. I think there are some very important artists in this genre. Artists that speak to me, emotionally. That’s more of a priority, than how close the music is.”
The song ‘The Fourth Footstep’ could be about absolutely anything. Was it written to be part of something? It could easily be fitted into any ‘story’.
“The words are from the novel I am working on. I gave Bret about three pages, and he snipped it down to the words he sung. Which, honestly, is the way the words for 'Tarnished,' 'The Gravediggers,' 'Halo Star' and a few others came about: but i was the one doing the chopping. For me, it’s about something specific. Yet I don’t mind that it can be universal.”
‘Dagger’ gets all stern, stormy and dramatic, without necessarily clearing anything up towards the end. Why so?
“Because I think that I like to feel sure of myself, and shout into the wind. But at the end of the day, I’m still weak and unable to live up to my own ideals. The song 'The Hypocrite is Me' from 1990’s A chaos of desire had the line: 'The biggest risk: to be myself.' So, I still have the same demons dogging me...”
Will Halo be back? I felt maybe there’d be a suicide but if there was I didn’t notice.
“Halo loves himself way too much to kill himself. He’s coming back in a sitcom. Halo sits by the pool on a beach chair, and instructs the kids who live in the apartment complex about the best way to pick up girls. Isn’t that what aging rockers do? ”
You have an amazing array of people to work with. Can you remember when you first saw the following, or heard of them, and identify why you found them special?
LISA FEUER - “We met for a brief moment at a new years eve party at the start of 1996. We started dating six weeks later. She’s beautiful, talented, compassionate, intelligent and sexy! And now she’s a fantastic mommy to our son Sasha....”
VICKI RICHARDS - “She played on an album from my friend Slap. She’s so incredibly talented. I asked her to be in black tape in 1989, for A Chaos Of Desire. She’s been a good friend. The day she got to Chicago in 1996 to record on Remnants, was the day Lisa and I became 'a couple.' So she is the person who first witnessed us together! How is THAT for nostalgia?”
ELYSABETH GRANT - “She was in a band we knew in Chicago. It was around 1997 or 98 when we met. She was hanging out at my house while I was recording Nick on Aflame; I could immediately tell that we were in sync about what was and wasn’t working. That made me want to work with her, and she joined the band for the Aflame tours in 1999.”
MICHAEL LAIRD - “Michael reminded me recently that we met in 1998 when I saw Unto Ashes and Mors Syphilitica play at The Pyramid in the East Village. Michael is so talented on so many instruments. He’s a great songwriter and a really nice guy!”
BRET HELM - “Audra opened for Black Tape on a show in Austin, TX in 1999. I was stressed as usual, and don’t really remember seeing them. But Elysabeth kept in touch with Bret and introduced us by email later. Over the years, Bret has become one of my best eFriends. When I needed to find a new vocalist (after Oscar decided to quit making music), I asked Bret. He’s the most prepared and professional musician I know. And a Vegan. Very nice chap!”
NICKI JAINE - “I met Nicki at the Middle Pillar Xmas party in 2003, so she’s a very recent addition to the band / my friends. She’s just a baby, but so damn talented! I really enjoyed her music, we started talking, and have become great friends. But still, it’s only been a year since we met. Hard to believe it’s been that long and also that short of a time.”
How do people find out you want them
involved, and what happens? Do you explain what’s required, field opinions
and then re-shape something, or bring them the definite musical ideas and
then record various versions, consulting along the way until happy?
Is it infuriating at times? In what seems like a polite world, is there blood drawn over creative matters, and fistfights galore?
“There aren’t fistfights, no. But there is stress. there is tension. Part of my job as director is to understand the mood of my actors. And sometimes, the mood isn’t right for recording. So either you soldier along and keep saying 'are you pissed at me? did i do something to piss you off?' Or you just move on and come back later.”
If someone’s ideas for interpretation differs hugely from yours do you lock them in a cupboard until they calm down? Are you very clear about what you need?
“I usually lock them in the basement, honestly.... It’s rare that their interpretation is hugely different. It’s that I haven’t yet communicated my idea succinctly enough. With Elysabeth, she really likes understanding the character. Understanding where she’s coming from, so she can get into the part. Oscar never cared for that. Bret seems to not need it, because he can give it to me pretty accurate from the start. I think the thing about that is that the parts I write for Elysabeth have more possible interpretations of the mood. Ya know, does the girl in 'Damn Swan!' feel powerful or used? That influences how it is performed, right?”
With Projekt do you look at what you have achieved and the volume of releases and gets amazed by it?
“No. I just don’t see it that way. I’m too close to it to be amazed.”
You’re not afraid to use the word Gothic!
“Nope. Projekt’s fanbase is primarily goths!”
Have you ever, as it built up, felt it had become a beast that required feeding, or have you always nurtured it cautiously?
“It’s a fuckin’ beast! And when you chop off one of the heads, another one sprouts right back up. I am pretty realistic about that!”
Do you go with your own ideas as they develop naturally, including happy accidents, or do you notice what other labels do and think, ‘Bugger! I wanted to do that!’? In other words, do you consider how the label does things as much as how your band does?
“I don’t really think there are any labels like Projekt that I’d rip ideas from. I don’t have the cashflow of Metropolis or Cleopatra to swipe their ideas.... so I just muddle along. But I talk with people at many other labels (Metropolis, Soleilmoon, Kalinkaland, Trisol) and we all commiserate about things....”
The easiest comparison in the world has to be to say that 1980’s saw 4AD become the label most naturally recognised for its artistic flair, which it eventually lost by the early 90’s. Projekt is now the label with the reputation for a harmonious aspect between the artists, the music, the artwork, the feel. Or do you prefer other comparisons?
“That one works for me. The only difference is that Projekt has been at it for longer than 4AD, without losing our integrity!”
Along with the change marked by Halo Star, you have had some more modern signings of late, and there’s always the unruly Voltaire. What happens in your head and heart when you sign someone unlike the majority of your bands?
“I just don’t see it that way, Mick. I look at Projekt in the early 90s... Attrition and Lycia and Love Spirals Downwards and O Yuki Conugate were all different from Black tape. The label has always been diverse. Today, the biggies are Black Tape, Voltaire, Android Lust and Steve Roach. Still a diverse selection. So I don’t see it as being any different! I think it was Android Lust that surprised people the most, and that’s fine. I wanted to shake things up.... and I really like Shikhee and her music. So why not?!”
How do you see Projekt musically, overall? It looks like a parallel dimension to me, working like many art-based labels, but hoovering up past centuries of music and mixing it with the new.
“Projekt is a darkwave label, by my definition of darkwave, which is pretty diverse. It’s art-based, but I must be a good enough capitalist that I’m still around, 21 years after the first cassette was released.”
How much do you care about how Projekt is perceived? Does criticism aimed at how it all operates sting you, or do you ignore it all?
“It bugs me when people say stuff that is obviously uninformed, such as 'Projekt should book it’s bands at bigger venues.' Well, come on! I have nothing to do with booking the bands! or 'Projekt should get the CDs into more stores,' Which is not the way it works, because we do the best we can, considering how conservative stores are on ordering fringe material. It’s easy to gripe, when people don’t know how it all works. But.... ya know, I got more important things to do, than get into pissing matches with people who ultimately aren’t knowledgeable, or particularly relevant. There are better ways to spend my time....”
The future - well that’s wide open, isn’t it? Three options are clear – opulent stories, lighter themes that seem conventional by comparison with earlier work, abrasive emotional shipwrecks. Any other surprises planned?
“Yes. Hopefully I’ll have one for you in