With a new album, tour, and appearances at all three ColdWaves events in 2018, The Black Queen continues its reign of independent coldwave artistry as Greg Puciato and Steven Alexander speak with ReGen about the band’s current activity.
An InterView with Greg Puciato and Steven Alexander of The Black Queen
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Since the band’s first appearance in 2015, the Los Angeles trio known as The Black Queen has risen to the heights of independent electronic music. With a sound that bridges elements of classic ‘80s synthpop, dark industrial textures, intricate programming akin to the experimental forms of IDM, and with vocals and melodies with an R&B flavor, the band stands as a unique entity in today’s underground music scene. This is no surprise given the diverse range of influences and styles explored by the three band members – vocalist Greg Puciato, best known as the front man for recently dissolved experimental metal band The Dillinger Escape Plan; Joshua Eustis of electronic act Telefon Tel Aviv, a former member of Nine Inch Nails, and a regular collaborator and touring member of rock/hybrid collective Puscifer; and Steven Alexander, a former tech for The Dillinger Escape Plan and Nine Inch Nails. Without the need or want of a traditional record label, The Black Queen has sold out numerous limited pressings of vinyl and CD singles and the 2016 debut Fever Daydream record, while also touring around the world and performing at ColdWaves V in Chicago. As the September 28, 2018 release date of the group’s sophomore album Infinite Games approaches, history repeats itself with all limited physical copies sold out, with a tour of the U.K. and Europe in October with fellow L.A. electronic artist KANGA to follow; as well, in September, The Black Queen is a headlining act at this year’s ColdWaves, performing in all three cities of N.Y.C, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Taking time out of their busy schedules, Greg Puciato and Steven Alexander spoke with ReGen Magazine about the evolution of the band’s creative and collaborative process to culminated in Infinite Games, along with some discussion about The Black Queen’s unique visual accompaniments and partnership with artist Jesse Draxler, their thoughts on the industrial music scene and their participation in ColdWaves, and a few hints of what is yet to come.
2017 was a relatively quiet year for The Black Queen, and understandably so as it seems the band had been rather busy since its formation until the ‘Secret Scream’ single release in Summer of 2016. Greg, you’ve obviously been busy with the final tour with The Dillinger Escape Plan; now, we have the second album from The Black Queen, Infinite Games. What can you tell us about the band’s working process and how it evolved since Fever Daydream?
Puciato: It wasn’t really quiet behind the scenes; we spent a lot of time writing and doing preliminary demoing, starting as early as April 2017. ‘Lies About You’ and ‘One Edge of Two’ were in their earliest forms around that time, and obviously, ‘Porcelain Veins’ has been in a constant state of revision since before Fever Daydream and actually still was until the very last minute of Infinite Games. But yeah, we really didn’t hit a higher gear until November/December of 2017, and then hit full speed in January 2018, and have been at that speed pretty much nonstop since then.
You nailed it really, I had to do the final Dillinger record and touring cycle, but the other guys were busy too; people weren’t sitting around waiting. Everyone does stuff. We probably would’ve needed that time to recharge creatively anyway, just because of the amount that went into Fever Daydream. I always say you’ve got to inhale to exhale. Plus, I grew a lot from doing the Dillinger record, just as I grew a lot from Fever… and from Infinite Games. You grow every time you work on something, every time you tour on something, you grow from going through nonmusical things in life, from your continued understanding of yourself, all of that, if you’re trying to at least, and then you bring that growth to the next thing that you do.
Alexander: All three of us were touring in 2017 – Greg with Dillinger, Josh with Telefon Tel Aviv and Second Woman, myself with NIN and A Perfect Circle. The starting points for some of the key songs started in our bedrooms or hotel rooms on tour. We could go months without seeing one another, so everything was done in isolation. There was a small window of time around September into October 2017 where I had some time home. I decided to rent out an actual studio where we could be loud and not be disturbed. The owners were there from 10am-6pm most days. We took over the night shift, experimenting until sunrise. ‘Even Still I Want To,’ was a track that formed from jamming with Greg in the studio. That was something new for us. Most always the skeletons for our songs come from one of us first, then we all contribute later. Early next year, we moved into our own studio space. We had enough songs for a short EP, but being in a new environment I think made all of us have a burst of new creativity. We ended up doing a full-length instead.
One particular aspect to Infinite Games I particularly enjoyed was that every song is allowed the space and time to breathe and build its own ambience; not that Fever Daydream didn’t, but it seems more so on this record – songs feel both relaxed and urgent, allowed to last six minutes or longer if they will. Was this intentional?
Puciato: I really think we just completely broke away from the line of thinking of ‘This is a single, this is an album track, this is an interlude,’ etc. We were getting away from that on Fever… but I think yeah, we got much further away from those thought limitations on this one. Each track is a piece of the whole. If the song feels right to end after two minutes, end it. If it feels it needs to go to almost seven, go there. There’s so much you have to unlearn. When you’re a kid creating, you don’t think like that. As you go, you just hear rules and see them put into practice. It’s reinforced to you that there’s all this delineation for marketing reasons or some other reason. It just gets beaten into you, the categorization and tailoring of your output. Continuing to resist that and untrain any part of your brain that might feel that, and feeling more and more free, is always something to strive for creatively, or in any way for that matter.
Alexander: This record is more cohesive to me and every song feels like a chapter in a book. If you skip one chapter or don’t pay attention to what you’re looking at, it will impair your overall reaction. The track listing took us a while to get. We played with all kinds of different orders and once we hit upon this one, it allowed certain characteristics of each track to pop out more. We took that into consideration in the mix and track transitions. There is always a gross amount of detail in everything that we do, as well as trying to convey multiple emotions. If something is sweet, we like to put something scary in there as well. Bittersweet is always more interesting to me than saccharine.
In what ways would you say the time away from the heavy touring/promotion of The Black Queen affected your outlook and approach on the new album – both individually and collectively as a band?
Alexander: After making the first record, we learned things to do and not do – the biggest is not taking so long to create. Waiting forever to finish something is death. You keep retooling until your delicious meal is just a pool of ooze.
When last I spoke with Greg about the lyrics and how they change from band to band, he’d touched on the thematic connection between the last Dillinger album, One of Us Is the Killer, and The Black Queen’s Fever Daydream – how OoUItK was as you put it ‘a supernova of negativity,’ with Fever Daydream being the introspective wasteland that grew out of it. Having toured for both bands and albums, and especially with Dillinger now having called it a day, what do you feel you’ve learned from the emotional experience, and do you feel it informed the lyrics and ideas presented on Infinite Games?
From a vocal standpoint, I’ve already complimented you on your range and abilities, and you’d stated that The Black Queen’s vocal styling is rather nuanced. Listening to the new album, how would you say the new music gave you an opportunity to explore other aspects to the vocal performance – maybe not in the same way that Dillinger did, but in ways that expand on the palette of the last album?
Puciato: Nuance is definitely the word on this album. I would have never called Fever Daydream a blunt force hammer because I was coming from Dillinger, but Fever… is a blunt force hammer compared to this one. There’s just more space; the album flows more like an album than a collection of songs to me. It seems like a singular thought. Not that Fever… wasn’t; it was just done over a much longer time from starting points that were a lot further apart, and I was really in my infancy as far as expanding my dynamic range as a singer. Because for me, I was always approaching range in the context of what I could do in Dillinger. Obviously, I can do things in that band I can’t do in this, but I can do a lot of things in this band I can’t do in that as well. This record to me on the technical end was about fully exploring those areas – intimacy and nuance. Fever Daydream explored those themes relative to what I had done in Dillinger; this to me explores them relative to Fever Daydream, which was a substantially different starting point.
The Black Queen’s sound is certainly expansive in atmosphere and song progressions, and your voice plays as much as an instrumental component as lyrical; how much of this is conscious on your part, and how much is part of the production process? In other words, when you’re singing those ambient accompaniments, do you – mentally or vocally – approach singing those parts differently than in the regular verses?
Puciato: No, I really approach everything the same, regardless of band or part or type of part. I just try to react honestly and openly, creatively, sonically, lyrically. My view on this is that most of the writing is done while you’re living, while you’re listening, while you’re just kind of being a receptive antenna in your life, which if you’re serious about your art, you become. You just make the choice to be responsible to yourself as an artist, which includes being receptive and ‘on’ almost at all times to ideas and influence coming in. That way, when it’s time to write, you’ve got the tools, the ingredients, the growth, the excitement. You’re ready to pop and things just come out.
On the production end, there are things that we take liberty with on this that are different from Dillinger – different microphones, pre-amps, treatments, levels, etc. All of that becomes part of the creative process as well, and Steve and Josh get really involved in that aspect too, the vocal production. We’re just all really primarily concerned with the whole.
One of the most striking aspects of The Black Queen’s live show that I witnessed at ColdWaves was the minimalism – it seemed to complement the music very well, achieving in a color world that monochromatic aesthetic that the band’s visuals in the photography/video and album artwork portrays; the same can be said of your music videos. How did the band conceive of this visual style and what would you say is its significance or its connection to the music/lyrics?
Puciato: I agree, photography and aesthetic presentation have sort of gone hand in hand with the music in terms of feel, feel of the band as a whole. Even the way we operate as a whole publicly is a creative expression. This band has been a creative incubator for me for a lot of nonmusical creative things, photography being a big one of them, and videography.
Infinite Games takes things a step further with the incorporation of color now, and you once again worked with Jesse Draxler. What is the working relationship with Jesse like? To what extent is the band involved in the conception and creation of the visuals?
Puciato: I mean, we’re really good friends. I wrote the foreword to his book last year, we’ve had a big influence on each other in a lot of ways, and we have similar views about a lot of things, have some similar issues. We just get along; simple as that. So, we keep working together. We were adamant about wanting this album to be color, and I think he was at a point in his trajectory where he really needed to do that, to prove ownership to himself and his audience over his output, to keep the walls from closing in. I think both of us, he and the band, still primarily identify with monochromatic imagery, but this record felt like color. I think maybe Fever Daydream felt a bit like the sun was down most of the time, but there’s a little bit more evening and dawn on this record, if that makes sense. Black and white would have been predictable and sticking to a format, not being true to the material and treating it like its own thing. As far as the creation of the visuals, basically every photograph or video that isn’t credited to someone else has come from me so far and will likely stay coming completely from us going forward. Fingerprint is important, scent is important. Steve and I edited and filmed a lot of the music video stuff so far as well. Like I said earlier, the band has been an artistic awakener/incubator/invigorator in a lot of ways for all of us.
Alexander: We see the band is a huge collaboration. Sometimes a band member or Jesse or anyone we work with could have an idea, and that idea could turn into a music video, or photoshoot, or idea for a song. We all own good cameras and will film clips and ideas and score those. So, we are always creating. Rob Sheridan created all our live visual projection content. But, we may throw out a broad idea to him or Jesse and they can run with that, and sometimes it goes in a new direction that’s better than any preliminary idea we had.
You mentioned Stanley Kubrick, and The Black Queen’s music – even more so on Infinite Games, I feel – has a very cinematic ambience to it; it evokes and even instills images in the listener’s head (as good music should). What sorts of images run through the band members’ heads during the creation of these songs, and how much does that translate to the visuals we are presented with in the artwork?
Alexander: I think most of our music has a cinematic quality to it. I’ll have a concept of what the song should feel like. Then I tie that to an experience I’ve had or one that scares me or intrigues me. There are times I leave a movie on in the background with the sound off while listening to what I’m doing. That can help steer things into an alien realm or help with pacing elements. Something starts to sound and feel cold or icy and we that can dictate which types of sounds are used or influence Greg’s lyrics. Mood and vibe are very important and searching for a sound that gives me goosebumps is what I strive for no matter how long it takes.
There has been a ‘retro’ wave going on for some time, not just musically with synthwave and ’80s power rock, but even in movies/TV and technology with the resurgence of vinyl and even cassette; we’d spoken about The Black Queen’s stylistic influences before, but what are your thoughts on these retro trends and how they are being approached and expanded on by the newer generation (assuming you’ve had the time or the interest, of course)?
Alexander: It’s a bit oversaturated right now for my liking. I think when the movie Drive came out, it hit its peak and now, it can feel a bit silly if you base your whole image entirely on 30-year-old motifs. There’s nothing wrong with gathering some influence from different periods as it spawns new art. If the inspiration is true without being kitschy, then a timeless quality can exist. Otherwise, the majority of the retro thing is underwhelming to me. I don’t get why anyone would want to sound exactly like something your parents listened to without expanding upon it.
When I last spoke with Greg, the band was about to perform at ColdWaves V; now you’re performing in all three cities – New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – this year. What can you tell us about your experience performing the first time?
Alexander: It was interesting because I believe it was our first and only show so far where we didn’t headline. I think we were definitely the outlier in that group of performers. We were probably the least ‘industrial’ or part of that scene, which made it fun for us to perform to new people other than just our fans.
I know this might be a bit of a loaded question since musicians tend to be focused on making music rather than ‘scenes,’ and you’re no stranger to the industrial scene, but in what ways did your perceptions of it change after ColdWaves V, if at all?
Alexander: I don’t really care too much about scenes. I guess it’s because we are sort of hard to categorize. Growing up, I never dressed like any group or never hung with just the metal kids or goth kids or hip-hop kids. I was into my own thing. So, when I hear people say scene, it makes it sound like it’s just a group of people that want to fit into their town instead of breaking out and doing something new. There is a safety net when you stick to a scene, but you can also help your peers. Most of the modern scenes I’ve witnessed sound very similar within themselves. Grunge was an exception because each band had very distinct personalities, and that caused competition, which helped each band write and perform at a high level. I’m just interested in what’s good or interesting to me.
What artists that you may not have heard of prior to performing at ColdWaves struck you from your first go?
Are there any sharing the bill with you on this year’s lineup that you’re especially excited to see?
Puciato: Fuck, I actually didn’t see much of anything the first time we did it. We were just stressed and dotting I’s and crossing T’s pretty much until showtime. I don’t see a lot, honestly, when I play shows/tour because it takes a lot to get to the point where I’m hitting the stage in a really particular stride, both vocally/physically and mindset, and then afterwards, I’m just trying to either calmly or aggressively unwind from that focus point.
Alexander: As Greg said, we were so swamped with getting everything up and running, we didn’t have much time to see anything. I did get a peek at Polyfuse – that’s my good friend Justin McGrath’s project. That was exciting to see the crazy visual content on a big screen and hear his stuff through a bigger P.A. I’m not sure we will have much time this year to see anything as these are our first shows back and the L.A. hometown show being our record release.
After ColdWaves, The Black Queen is touring the U.K. and Europe (with KANGA, I believe). From your observations, how would you say that American audiences’ perceptions or reactions to The Black Queen differ from those of the rest of the world?
Alexander: We’ve had good luck almost everywhere that we’ve performed thus far. Many of the overseas fans have traveled to different places all over the world to see us, so that’s great seeing familiar faces. I wouldn’t say American or international is vastly different. I’ve seen our logo tattooed in many different places, so the dedication is the same.
Will we see a U.S. tour in 2019?
Puciato: Most likely. Nothing is booked, and we could very well change our minds, but signs are pointing that way. It’s definitely something we’re excited about doing and we know that people want us to, and we’re grateful for that. We’re just trying to follow our bliss here and not get caught up in tradition and traditional ways of operating if we’d rather be writing and recording more. So, we’ll see.
Alexander: I can’t wait.
Photography by Jen Whitaker & Corine Schiavone – courtesy of The Black Queen