“The Serpent is eternal,” as Sam Rosenthal explains of the new audiovisual narrative behind his latest offering as the creative force behind longstanding darkwave act Black Tape For a Blue Girl.
An InterView with Sam Rosenthal of Black Tape For a Blue Girl and Projekt Records
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Despite the tumultuous events of the past two years and the many financial burdens they have laid upon many, artists and musicians have struggled hard to maintain creativity and productivity through it all, proving that much of the sanity of the human soul resides in these impulses. As the head of Projekt Records and the founding creative core of ethereal darkwave and neo-classical collective Black Tape For a Blue Girl, Sam Rosenthal explains to ReGen in this new InterView that although he’s not been immune to the difficulties the global crisis has reaped upon us, he has powered forward to deliver a new concept record, which may prove to be the most thematically and musically focused of his career. With Rosenthal joined by vocalist Jon DeRosa, cellist Henrik Meierkord, and illustrator Andy Raybourne, The Cleft Serpent weaves a somber tale of an eternal devil-like figure weary of the pain he inflicts, yet fated to do so. What sparked the inspiration behind such a distinctly narrative approach to this new album? Well, Mr. Rosenthal explains this as well, speaking of the creative drives and partnerships that led to its creation, as well as his laments of the live show experience, and dropping a few hints of what is yet to come from Projekt and Black Tape.
Although you’ve been releasing material rather steadily, The Cleft Serpent is the first new Black Tape album since 2018’s To Touch the Milky Way. With the pandemic still going on, how are you doing?
Rosenthal: I’m doing fine, thanks. Since 2013, I’ve worked at home here in Portland, Oregon. The pandemic has mostly been more of the same – working at home – with added stress about the idiocy of people doing unsafe things in the name of ‘freedom.’ The start of the pandemic was hard, financially; Projekt’s sales were way down because of retail shutting and my distributor in Italy having to go into lockdown. I am fortunate that Projekt has 38 years of history – things bounced back after a few months; the artists have been incredibly prolific, I got really busy with all their releases. I had to work to make time for my own art, yet it still turned into three years between albums. On the other hand, I think time helps make art original. I’d rather have each album be unique than put out Black Tape albums rapid fire.
In what ways do you feel this global crisis affected your lyrical or musical outlook during the creation of this new album, if at all?
Before we move on to the people involved in this album, let’s dive into the concept a bit. You’ve called The Cleft Serpent a ‘torch song to humanity,’ with its concept revolving around a figure grappling with the self-awareness that he is a devil and must play that role, despite being weary of it. Would you tell us about how this concept came to be, what some of the primary inspirations behind it were, and what compelled you to pursue it on this album?
Rosenthal: I thought a lot about the storyline of the album and the backstory of the characters. The Serpent is eternal; unlike a Vampire who never dies, he exists then returns to ‘the Void,’ and then exists again in a new life, with memories of his past, what he has done, what he is about to do. He is torn by this repetition, the destruction he brings, or that his companion The Trickster brings. It’s this conflict that carries the story forward through the eight songs. There’s an accompanying album with 13 instrumentals and three alternate vocal mixes.
The idea for the characters evolved before the music. The first time I see the words ‘The Cleft Serpent‘ in my journal is December 25, 2019. At that point, it was an idea I’d already thought about for a while. Earlier in 2019, before any lyrics were written, I was thinking of creating a longform video with these characters – instrumental music and dialog. When the pandemic ruled out making a video with a crew, the dialog evolved into the lyrics. In November of 2020, I wrote the first lyric – the title track – to capture the Serpent’s story for Jon. Writing these songs, I’d imagine the story as a movie, a story, or a graphic novel. It’s a very visual album in the storytelling.
As far as the inspiration? It started with the concept of ‘Samsara,’ a Sanskrit word related to rebirth and ‘cyclicality of all life, matter, existence.’ It’s the idea that we keep repeating until we become enlightened. This idea is there on the last album in the first and final track. I felt like exploring that more with a character aware that he was riding the loop. I didn’t feel obligated to anyone else’s belief of how Samsara works though. Instead, I asked myself, ‘What if the character knows he’s repeating, is torn by his fate, and wonders how he might get out of that loop?’
As you mentioned, this is the first Black Tape album to feature vocalist Jon DeRosa. Would you tell us how he came to be part of this album, and how you feel his contributions elevated both The Cleft Serpent and your perceptions of Black Tape For a Blue Girl as a whole?
Rosenthal: Jon did a wonderful job on this album, capturing the character I created. We met in passing back in the ’90s; Jon was a fan of the band while in High School. He contributed a track to Projekt’s cat-benefit CD in ’99, and I peripherally kept up with his music as it progressed over the years. In 2020, I heard his Aarktica album Mareación; I loved the track ‘Eating Rose Petals,’ the sound of Jon’s voice, the mood, the spaces he created. I mentioned I’d like to do a remix of the song. In November 2020, we released a three-track EP.
While I wouldn’t say the ‘Rose Petals’ collaboration started intentionally as a ‘trial run’ for working together on The Cleft Serpent, I knew I was looking for a new vocalist while working on it. I saw that Jon and I could collaborate fluidly, which is important. I’ve had this band long enough to know things are the most fun when people are excited, want to make art together, and aren’t difficult to get along with. I’ve had enough drama in the band over the years. For me, these days, it’s got to be fun.
Jon’s work isn’t as… um… ‘sinister’ as how I envisioned the Serpent, so next, we did a test. I wrote lyrics for the title track, recorded my guide vocals to show Jon what I had in mind, and he went into the studio to record. My lyrics on this album are more melodramatic than most songwriters. I was creating a character and wanted to play up his traits. Jon put himself into that mindset and really got it done! As he recorded more songs, Jon kept hitting the mark. We were both pleased.
It really works having Jon sing the whole album, all eight songs. That’s never been the case on a Black Tape record before – one vocalist for the whole album. Plus, not many of the records have lyrics on every song.
You met cellist Henrik Meierkord via his collaboration with Jarguna. Tell me a bit more about his contribution.
And the same question for Andy Raybourne and his graphic novel companion to the album? Also, the visuals for Black Tape albums have always been rather striking, but what prompted the graphic novel direction for this album?
In what ways do you feel it enhances the lyrical or thematic vision for The Cleft Serpent?
Rosenthal: Andy transports us through time by way of his pen.
It was very fortuitous to get him involved in the project. Andy’s been creating since the ’90s, and the medium is perfect for capturing these ideas I couldn’t show via photography. You know… budget. There was no easy way I could stage and shoot photos in the past eras I had in mind. His style compliments the whole concept of the album. I have some of his images in the booklet (along with re-imagined old photos, and public domain art) and I printed a couple of art cards that go in with my mail-order packages, the images here:
Obviously, touring is in a tumultuous state – many tours are being planned, rescheduled, some having gone forward, while others are being canceled/postponed again. What are your thoughts on this and how it pertains to Black Tape? Will Black Tape play live again, and what sort of difficulties do you anticipate?
What’s next for you? Are there any other projects or collaborations that you’re excited about that you can tell us about?
Photography provided courtesy of Sam Rosenthal and Projekt Records