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.
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?
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!!!’
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)?
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.?
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?
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?
Photography by Sam Rosenthal – courtesy of Black Tape for a Blue Girl