Interview with Sam Rosenthal of Black Tape for a Blue Girl

Sam Rosenthanal is the person behind Black Tape for a Blue Girl and the Projekt label which includes artists such as Love Spirals Downwards, Lycia, and Thanatos. Here are the results of an in-depth question and answer session with him.

Reading the lyrics of your latest release, Remnants of a Deeper Purity, the message about rebirth and rejuvenation is what immediately strikes me. In what way do you think the music itself reflects this lyrical message?

um? I think that the music is not so much reflective of the idea of rebirth . . . for that to be done, I would suspect that some sort of Hosiantic-Religious-build-up of sound would be needed, and that's just not where I am at. There is certainly some element of hope in the sound. To me, it might come across in the final violin lines that Vicki plays right near the closing of the album.

Could you explain your songwriting and recording process?

Sure. They are actually pretty much one and the same. When I find the time, I go into the studio and begin playing with my electronics. If the mood is right, some interesting combinations come about, and I record that into the sequencer on my ESQ1. I rarely replace the notes that I play in this initial sound-collage. As "songwriting" it's really just me improvising and collaborating with the electronics. Later, I collage together the lyrics, and flesh out the ideas for the string parts. It's usually about a year after I first start working on the music, that I bring in the vocalists and instrumentalists, to fully realize the songs.

What is your equipment set-up, for both composing and recording?

I am sort of a caveman, because I never buy new keyboards. The set-up is the ESQ1 for sequencing, and string sounds. The Emax1 (i just got a hard drive, this year) for samples, horn sounds and pianos. And my old Poly-61 for the warm analog sounds. This has been the set-up since A Chaos of Desire. I record onto an old 1/2 inch 8-track, using the ESQ sequencer for up to eight additional tracks. Lately, I have been toning down the number of tracks . . . it makes the music simpler, and mixing a lot easier (laughs!). I have some outboard gear, but I cannot remember what it is at the moment (laughs!).

How did the current lineup all end up working together?

Oscar has been my vocalist, since I began the band. He was the singer for a band that I admired, when I lived in Florida (The Sleep of Reason). So when I began making my music, I invited him to sing for me. Lucian joined in 1992 . . . she was a friend of an ex. Vicki played Violin for SLAP, another Florida musician who I admired. And I met Mera, my cello player, at a Lycia concert here in Chicago.

One of the things that impressed me about your album, besides the music itself, is the quality of the packaging. There's clearly a lot of thought and effort put into it. Some people like to present sophisticated packaging wherein it appears as if there's gift-like quality to it. Were you making a similar statement?

I don't think that "gift-like" was my idea. I wanted to make some textural, that reflected the complexity -- yet also minimal simplicity -- of the music. And this was the idea I came up with. For me, I had to top the design on my last CD, This Lush Garden Within. And instead of getting more colorful, or more shocking; I wanted to go the other way. Into something simple and beautiful.

I notice an extensive use of electronics in the music, and there's an emotive quality to the pieces, which I think, given the particular issues you're dealing with, are complemented by the use of electronics. Do you have any comments about that?

People like to think that if something is Electronic based, it has to be cold and heartless (like Kraftwerk, perhaps). But I like to prove the opposite. I think it's not really just the sounds that I use, but also that I use them in a very flowing/drifty way -- versus the choppy nature that is inherent in electronics. I think that the electronics create a very effective dream reality for the words and other instruments.

From one perspective, your music has some resemblance to early progressive artists who used extensive analog synthesizers and made dark and brooding music, and from another, your music is reminscent of more contemporary artists who use electronics heavily in their music and attempt to mix classical and ethnic influences. Who would you say are your musical influences? Who're your favourite musicians currently?

When I started a href="/music/reviews/black_tape_blue_girl.html">Black Tape for a Blue Girl back in 1986 some of my favorites were Eno, Tangerine Dream, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. So if you could ball all those together, you can see where I came from. But I was also very into Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich... and I think those subtle minimalist influences have been coming out in the newer music. One of my favorite releases of the last few years is Gavin Bryar's Sinking of the Titanic. I was doing an interview for a guy in Italy, and I mentioned that lately I have been listening to John Cale's Words For The Dying and the early Nico albums that he produced... and I think there is some similarity to that mood in my work as well.

What're your views about incorporating classical and ethnic music into your compositions? Do you feel those musics are underrated by the masses?

Personally, I have a bug against people who say "Hey! Let's plunder this continent and genre for an album, and then move on." That's not the way I work. I have always had a thread of middle-eastern sounds in my music. I cannot really say why, but that has always felt natural ti me. Oscar and I independently discovered Sephardic music (which is the music of the Spanish Jews that sort of mixes muslim and spanish and jewish tonalities). Really, Vicki is the one who brings most of the classical influence to my music, because she has been trained in both western and Indian classical music.

What do you think of the current music scene, and the current status of the music industry? What is your philosophy with regards to music, and the direction it should take, in general?

I think the music "industry" is just that: a factory churning out saleable pulp for the digestation of the masses. I hate that philosophy. Because it's not about art -- it's about making the right noises that will compel the lowest common denominator to consume. That's disgusting! Music is an art form. And I think the state of the scene is that a lot of people are trying to do what's cool, without taking any chances, in order to sell a bunch of albums. A big "yawn". I think that I look at the music business in many of the same ways that Frank Zappa did, actually.

Many people will argue that songwriters and performers need to make a living, and you can't ignore the business side of things. For example, you need to find money somewhere to run your label and press CDs and the like. How do you manage to do that?

At this point, the label is a self-sufficient entity, pretty much. Well, if everyone would pay me the money they owe me, it would be self-sufficient! I think that artistic integrity can win out over profit motive, especially if you keep at it over time. I think it is hard for songwriters and performers to make a "living" at this kind of music, however. Most all of us are realistic and have a "real job" -- it just so happens that mine is running the label.

What were your initial reasons for starting the Projekt label, and what has it become a vehicle for now? What do you hope to accomplish with it?

The label began very humbly as a way for me to release my music. It is now the vehicle for my work, as well as the work of artists that I respect. There is always the dilemma as things grow, because do I still stick to my guns, and enforce the artistic quality control or do I just sign any ole' shit that will sell? naturally, the answer is stick to my guns.

I notice you have a www site up for a while---has it helped in reaching a wider audience?

I think so.

Do you view music as art, entertainment, or a combination of both?

I view my music as art. Art can be entertaining... but the first job is to satisfy my needs as an artist.

What're your views on sampling other people's works, and of bootlegs?

I think that sampling is all right, but i think that too many people use it uncreatively. "Let's throw in this eight second sample and then I don't have to come up with any ideas!" No, that's not for me. A lot of This Lush Garden Within was written around samples, but they were mainly samples of Pat's guitar, or someone elses guitar --- who i won't say!!! I once had a Jethro Tull sample I made, but I just couldn't do anything with it!!! Bootlegs? It's a philosophical dillema. If nobody made any profit off a bootleg (like tape swapping), then it would be ok. But when some smuck is selling a bootleg CD for thirty dollars, than I get upset. Overall -- they bother me!

Suppose someone contacted you with a song which sampled some of your music and wanted to license it from you, and you thought it was very uncreative; would you refuse to license it? I guess the question really is: how much control do you think an artist should have over the music they create?

I suppose that I would have to hear the theoretical song with a sample of mine, before I could say what I would do. Ya know, if it was some sexist piece of crap, then I would probably say no. But if it was just something that I thought was sucky, and badly done, I would probably say "sure, why not!" And if it was Vanilla Ice, and I could make enough money to take a little vacation on the deal I would probably say "Sure, would you like to use another one as well?" Regarding how much control an artist should have over their music, I would say that we must retain control to a large degree. Like when Sam & Dave refused to let Bob Dole keep using I'm a Soul Man. That was good. I don't think you should let your work be used to the ends of something that you totally disagree with. Which is sort of the same thing I was saying, regarding a sample.

Do you plan to tour in support of Remnants of a Deeper Purity?

It would be nice. Maybe in the spring.

What are your future plans?

I'm working on a twenty minute video to go along with a few of the songs on the new album. It is a chance to explore that Art medium some more. I am working out the ideas. It will incorporate a dance/movement aspect -- as my lover lisa is a dancer. And also some sort of concept that doesn't necessaryily explain the album, so much as present it in a visual manner for your interpretation...

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || October 31, 1996