Brooklyn synth duo making reverb-soaked waves with debut album
Droning beneath the layers of the keyboard-based bands that populated the first years of late-’70s/early-’80s new wave was a more moody subset of pasty dudes hunched over their synthesizers. Dark wave, coldwave and synthwave have all been variously attached to the darker synthesizer-centric acts of the time—Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, etc.—and as with all good waves, eventually the undertow catches up and pulls us back for a revival that makes the old feel new again.
One of the latest bands riding this wave is new Brooklyn-based duo Black Marble. With an EP and debut album released in 2012, the young band is just starting to catch the eye of critics and taste makers—from Pitchfork to Mother Jones—and is embarking on its first-ever tour west of the Mississippi (stopping at Chico’s Origami Lounge Tuesday, Feb. 19).
The shortcut to getting at the band’s particular aesthetic is to point the listener to the somber, spooky strains of vocalist Ian Curtis floating over Joy Division’s bleak soundtrack. Even though cold and dark are apt descriptors for the young band’s output, especially on the EP, Weight Against the Door, there is a gauzy warmth that buoys the electronic drums and synthesizers on the more fleshed-out A Different Arrangement, the debut full-length released last October.
In Black Marble’s press materials, founder/front man Chris Stewart explained that “it’s important to carry some residue of the process, especially when working with what [can sometimes] be construed as cold-sounding electronics. It’s humanizing.” The album is still very sparse, but thanks to the simple synth interplay and Stewart’s emotive vocals and hooky bass lines, it’s a warm and intimate (and sometimes even peppy) experience.
“We don’t even use the computer to make music anymore,” Stewart explained by phone from New York as Black Marble prepared to head out West. The art-school grad actually didn’t use anything to make music before forming Black Marble, because he didn’t even play an instrument.
“I started the band kind of just as a personal project. I had really low expectations for it; I’d never been in a band. There was some kind of voice that said, ‘Well, I’ll just kind of keep going.’ My grand scheme seemed to be: I’d make some kind of minimal bedroom tapes and I’d just give them to my friends. The more I did it, the more I wanted to make a band out of it.”
While he made his initial recordings using the synths provided in the GarageBand home-recording program, once those early tracks were completed Stewart quickly realized that “the songs had to get a thousand times better.” So, in addition to teaming up with his friend Ty Kube (of former Brooklyn electro-punk hyper kids Team Robespierre), he started collecting old electronic keyboards.
“If you do like music from the late-’70s, you can’t get that out of a computer,” Stewart said. “It’s fun to collect a bunch of old synthesizers. … It adds to the fun of it—tinkering with all that stuff.”
Even though Stewart admits to having an affinity for the forbears of the genre, he said that Black Marble’s sound is largely the product of the equipment used to record it. “I’m just sort of trying to write, like, pop songs, [and] from using all that stuff, it just kind of sounds [this] way,” he said. And the warmer sound found on A Different Arrangement wasn’t as much of a conscious choice as it was the product of procuring more equipment and his continuing to learn more about the songwriting process.
“I didn’t really know that the record was going to sound like that before we wrote it,” he said.
As the band is starting to spread its music farther from its East Coast base, Stewart is still working his day job as an art director for an advertising company, and is just trying to enjoy traveling to wherever the music takes him.
“Before the band, I spent more time on my career. Now I have to do it half and half,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of been good to meet new people and do new stuff.”