May 2018 21

With a Kickstarter campaign for the group’s twelfth album now underway, Sam Rosenthal speaks with ReGen about his artistic and musical process in Black Tape for a Blue Girl.
 
Black Tape for a Blue Girl - To Touch the Milky Way

 

An InterView with Sam Rosenthal of Black Tape for a Blue Girl

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Since the mid ’80s, the musical collective known as Black Tape for a Blue Girl has been one of the premier acts in darkwave music. Led by the singular artistic vision of Projekt Records impresario Sam Rosenthal and featuring some of modern music’s most celebrated talents, the sound of BlackTape has transcended the trappings of genre as it bridges elements of ambient and ethereal textures with the grim melodies of goth, the rhythmic whimsy of cabaret, and the nuances intrinsic to the human voice. With Rosenthal’s move to Portland, OR in 2013, Black Tape for a Blue Girl began a new chapter of productivity, beginning with the reissue of the group’s 1996 album Remnants of a Deeper Purity, successfully funded via Kickstarter. Since then, BlackTape has utilized the crowdfunding platform on subsequent releases, with 2016’s These Fleeting Moments being released in cooperation with Metropolis Records. Now, Rosenthal speaks with ReGen Magazine with a Kickstarter campaign now underway for the twelfth album from Black Tape for a Blue Girl, To Touch the Milky Way. Here, he invites us into his artistic and musical vision, the relationship between the audio and the visual, the numerous collaborators taking part in the album’s creation, the presentation of the vinyl format, and more.

 

Let’s begin with the new album, To Touch the Milky Way. You’ve stated that the album’s themes are about confronting self-created boundaries and first-person narratives; to what extent do these themes relate to your own artistic and personal development? Is this an autobiographical album, or are the characters fictional?

Rosenthal: It’s true that writers put part of themselves into characters, yet I’d say that for the most part, the characters are fictional. They are discussing ideas and concepts that resonate with me, and there are lines here or there that I could identify as 100% about me. But for the most part, I create a character to express the idea. For example, ‘In My Memories,’ Michael is singing the words of a person thinking about the past and how it would be nice to be able to live back there. I write the music to my songs first. The piano track I created made me think about the past, and I had a polaroid of my partner Mercy taken at a pool party we attended, and that quickly inspired the story – imagining being 23 again, watching your partner swimming in a pool. But that didn’t happen the way the story describes it. The idea of going back and living in your memories is something I was randomly discussing with my son. I believe he was the one who said that if it were possible to go back, people would never return to the present.

Black Tape for a Blue Girl has always presented a blend of ethereal and classically inspired styles; as the group’s twelfth full-length album, in what ways do you feel the group approached these styles differently on To Touch the Milky Way than how you might have on past releases? How much of this depends on the various guest performers that are involved on this new album?

Rosenthal: I’ve written about 95% of the songs that appear on BlackTape’s albums, so stylistically, I find them to all be in a way similar, with albums having somewhat different moods evolving into different directions. I think on an album like A Chaos of Desire, much of the darker mood existed before I recorded with Vicki. However, her violins definitely added the very specific flavor to the middle portion of that album. I experience it like a listener – I think, ‘Wow, listen to that amazing violinist!!!’

On the new album, I think I’ve created sparser textural ambient sections, which flow out of the ethereal vocal sections, rather than trying to make the two styles into separate songs as I might’ve done on The Rope or A Chaos of Desire. I feel like there’s a bit of an integration of styles on this album; I see it is as a slightly different approach, but then I think for the listener, it might seem a natural progression and not such a noticeable change.
I think the vocalist affect the songs in so far as I try to write melodies and styles that would fit their style. I might do things differently depending on who is singing.

Returning on this album are Brian Viglione, Dani Herrera, Michael Plaster, Nick Shadow, and Chase Dobson. Tell us about your association with them, what the collaborative dynamic is like? What sort of challenges in writing or performances style do you encounter, if any?

Rosenthal: I think that this album has the most of my own performance and the least of the band’s performance in a while. It’s just sort of the way it evolved – I was looking for a sparse sound on many tracks. While I could’ve added more layers, for example, Shadow could’ve added more viola melody to certain songs, it just seemed I wanted to hear the instruments and the spaciousness of the tracks. I do really love what everyone contributed, and how Michael and Danielle gave life to the words I’ve written.
I think one of the challenges of working with other performers is that I have a pretty specific idea of what I’m looking for when we go in to record and they might do something that’s really amazing, but it’s not what I’m imagining. And it’s pretty hard when you’re working with talented musicians to say, ‘Yeah, that was great, but I wanted something more like….’ Sometimes they might wonder why I make the choices I make. It’s being a director, and having a vision of the overall piece.

Also returning on the visual end of things is Mercy West. First of all, can you tell us about how she came to be associated with BlackTape? Secondly, what can you tell us about the album’s visual concept and how it relates to the musical/lyrical themes (without, of course, detracting from the experience of discovering it for ourselves by simply owning and listening to the record)?

Rosenthal: I met Mercy just about three years ago now, for the expressed purpose of shooting photos. I hadn’t shot anything for a while, since moving to Portland, and I wanted to get back into practice. I saw Mercy on a model site, I sent an email to see if they wanted to shoot. I didn’t want to come across as a ‘guy with camera,’ so it was all professional. Then, we shot again about half a year later, and we went to dinner and realized there was a bunch of stuff we agreed on – sex-positive, art, porn, Bowie’s early ’70s albums. We started texting, and started dating.
We were shooting together, so naturally, when I got the idea for the cover of These Fleeting Moments, I worked with Mercy on realizing it; same with To Touch the Milky Way, which has a much more expansive photo shoot plan. For Fleeting…, it was really just one setup in my backyard. For …Milky Way, we’ve already gone to five or six locations around Oregon. I’ve been sharing pieces of those shoots in the Kickstarter Updates, and the NSFW ones are at Twitter.
I got my B.A. in TV/film. My original plan was to go into that field. I’ve always thought about the visuals that go with the music. In the early days, it was just too expensive and tedious to make video. Then in the middle, I got way too caught up with Projekt, and chose to spend my time being a dad. Now I have time to get more into the visuals – think of interesting ideas, and then try to go out and realize them. I want to work in video for some of the tracks on the album. But for now, it’s the photos for the deluxe art cards that I’m working on.
As far as the visual concept. I find that people are getting it without me having to dive into the details. Mercy thinks explaining is not necessary, anyway, that people look at art and create their own storyline. I like that this is true about what I create. It doesn’t have to be just the things I thought of when I created it… which is to say that your interpretation is just as good as mine. My idea is to have Mercy portray multiple characters, which relates to the title song and the song named ‘Samsara,’ about returning to this life, in different incarnations, and going through the pain and longing and suffering of life. Life is a bit of a cycle, until you figure it out and get off the universal wheel. Along with the suffering, there’s also the trickster, who makes life more fun. And there are those moments/lives that actually work pretty well, that have happiness in them.

Much like certain elements of BlackTape’s sound, the visuals have also had a striking ‘classical’ ambience about them – I’ve often been reminded of the likes of Grimshaw, Manet, and Waterhouse. Apart from the music, where would you say your primary visual inspirations come from?
Is there a conscious effort to instill a sense of timelessness akin to classic works of art, or is that incidental to your process?

Rosenthal: I don’t know if I have any visual inspirations from the eras you’re referencing. I had to google to see who these artists were. They are sort of romantic, pre-Raphaelite, right? I think my inspiration is ’70s rock & roll album covers. (Laughter) I’m looking for something striking, memorable, emotional; something that creates a story, starts a story, lets the viewer finish the story. Timelessness is good, but what I envision is not influenced by classic works of art. My favorite artists used to be Duchamp or Cocteau. I have to admit that it’s been many years since I’ve really thought much about them. What I liked about Duchamp was that he pushed out of the styles you reference, into conceptual art, and then non-art. I like that pushing away from the shores, and drifting in the ‘what ifs.’
I cannot say the visuals 100% accurately represent the music, which is more ethereal/ambient/textural. But it represents the mood of longing, hopefulness and sadness.

It’s also stated on the Kickstarter campaign that the album is a throwback to BlackTape’s classic sound, and you did recently issue a remaster of Remnants of a Deeper Purity. What was it about that particular album that you felt demanded the remastering treatment (as opposed to, say, As One Aflame Laid Bare by Desire or This Lush Garden Within)?

Rosenthal: Remnants of a Deeper Purity is the band’s best selling album. It’s from 1996 and it has remained in demand and continues to sell through on the copies that I press. It is the one that made the most sense to rerelease with an added bonus disc and then the vinyl edition. It’s really what the fans demand that leads to which albums get repressed.

Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person at all? Or to put it another way, what motivates such a return to older or ‘classic’ sounds, styles, modes of working, etc.?

Rosenthal: You ask if I’m nostalgic, and I would say that I am much more about living today and having new experiences and loving who I’m with at the moment. True, like I said, there’s a song – “In My Memories’ – about nostalgia and re-experiencing feelings from when you were in your early 20’s… but generally, I like the present. I love what I’m doing now. I also think that my memory stores things pretty fuzzily. I cannot really picture exactly what it was like, and NOW just seems so much more exciting.
As far as working in classic sounds… I talk with a lot of the fans of the band through crowdfunding, patronage at Bandcamp, and Kickstarter; the classic style is the sound of the band that they must enjoy. Rather than doing a nostalgic recreation of a ’90s album, I am moving forward with new music that has reference to that sound. Also, except for one synth, I use the same gear as I had in the ’90s, the only difference is I record digitally now versus on an analog 8-track. It’s pretty easy to call up sounds that are similar to what I used to use.

To Touch the Milky Way is going to be available in vinyl, which has been – along with cassettes – enjoying a resurgence of sorts. Obviously, vinyl releases offer larger artwork and liner notes, and a more tangible sense of the physical product as a work of art. Bur for your part, to what would you attribute this renewed interest in the format? As well, what benefits of vinyl do you personally enjoy as it relates to BlackTape?

Rosenthal: Yes, I agree about vinyl being more tangible and feeling more like a work of art. I think the renewed interest in vinyl has to do with getting away from the digital world and more specifically, the way that we interact with digital. Vinyl requires that you get up, go over, and do something physical with a piece of machinery. It also asks that you slow down for 45 minutes and listen to music in a linear flow, the way the artist designed it, rather than being able to easily fast forward whenever boredom sets in. It is a different experience of time that you don’t get with a digital format. I really think people are flooded with digital information and vinyl provides a release.
As someone who listened to vinyl originally in the ’80s I think the length of an LP is a wonderful format for music. I like 45 minutes of music and that’s what I went with on this album. I think the issue has been BlackTape CDs are usually 68 minutes or 72 minutes long and that means they’re 2-LP sets, which get expensive to manufacture and are a longer chunk of time for people to invest in the listening experience. A single LP creates a restriction as an artist; I have to focus on what 45 minutes of music I want to present. I do like having certain boundaries. It’s kind of like a game to create within a restriction – how will I make art with this new set of rules?
What I enjoy most about vinyl is how it looks. I love the color vinyl. I love the large format artwork. I don’t necessarily love the surface noise of records, but I do love the presentation of vinyl.

It is said that David Lynch and Sasha Grey are among your most well known fans, and both are experimental musicians in their own right. Has there ever been a consideration to collaborate with either of them in any capacity? Or perhaps I should first ask if you are a fan of either of their music?
Who have you not had the opportunity to work with that you would like to?

Rosenthal: There has never been discussion of collaborating with either of them. It would be an interesting idea. I send LPs to David Lynch’s assistant, and I know he gets the records. I haven’t heard from Sasha in a while. If either of them read this, sure, let’s talk about a collaboration!
Two of my favorite vocalists (who aren’t in my band) are Simone from Spiritual Front, and Marc Almond. I would really enjoy hearing either of them singing in one of my songs.

Are there any plans for BlackTape to perform live again and take the songs on To Touch the Milky Way to the stage?

Rosenthal: Honestly, no, very little chance. It’s just too expensive to get the band together with people living all over the country and promoters not offering enough to make it worth losing what it would cost to do it. I have to stay realistic and focus on making music and art.

You’ve had some success with the Kickstarter/crowdfunding model; what are your thoughts on the way artists and musicians have utilized the various platforms that exist? What do you foresee as the future of this model, at least with regards to you and your artistic pursuits?

Rosenthal: Crowdfunding has been working really well for Black Tape for a Blue Girl. There is a supportive group of people who have donated to one or many of the nine Kickstarters over the last few years and it’s how I fund my art. Each band has a different strategy of what works for them, of course. Some bands make money from playing live or some bands make most of their income from royalties. I’m fortunate that I have an audience who pledge at Kickstarter, and that allows me to make an album that’s more deluxe then the standard CD that you would find at Amazon. This time, the LP and CD will come with a 12×12 set of cards with my photography, held in an LP jacket. I find that people are still very enthusiastic about the crowdfunding model, and I enjoy it because I am directly in touch with the people who love what I do. It’s a nice relationship where I am in touch with my supporters.
Knowing people are out there supporting my music, waiting for my music, pushes me to stay busy and make more art. Since I moved to Portland (almost five years ago), and since I got into crowdfunding, I’ve been much more inspired to create. I like the interaction I have these days with the people who care for music.

 

Black Tape for a Blue Girl
Website, Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube
To Touch the Milky Way Kickstarter Campaign
Projekt Records
Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

 

Photography by Sam Rosenthal – courtesy of Black Tape for a Blue Girl

 

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