Interview: The Black Dog
By, Jan 1 2009
UK techno pioneers The Black Dog have returned to the fray with Radio Scarecrow, their first album since 2005’s Silenced.
The trio – comprising founder member Ken Downie and Richard and Martin Dust of Dust Science Recordings (who joined prior to the last album) – have spent two years in their Sheffield studio working on the new LP, which is designed to be listened to as a continuous 69-minute whole.
“We come from an age group where we like the album to be an experience from start to finish,” explains Martin Dust. “Of course you’ve got a new culture coming up that just buys what they want, just cherry picks. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that, but we’re rather selfish, we please ourselves first and then see what happens.”
Dust still has 67 CD-Rs sitting in his car with variations on the running order of the tracks on the album – a sign of how much thought went into its execution.
“We think [the sequenced album] still works as an idea and it’s still relevant because some tracks aren’t meant to be eight or nine minutes long, some are meant to be one-and-a-half, you can’t actually do any more with them,” he says. For The Black Dog, a one-minute piece is “just as valid as a seven-minute experience with a thudding kick under it.”
That’s not to say the album is short on thudding kicks. Tracks such as ‘UV Sine’, ‘Beep’ and ‘Set to Receive’ are as suitable for dancefloor consumption as home listening. Compared with Silenced, Radio Scarecrow’s “beats are faster and the bass is much heavier – so much so that it was making us ill working with the low frequencies for hours on end, we could only do three hours at a time on some parts,” says the band.
“Silenced was about finding a way of working together. [On Radio Scarecrow] we wanted to move away from breaks and Eastern influences and make [The Black Dog sound] more cinematic. Radio Scarecrow has more of a Sheffield feel.”
By Sheffield, Dust of course doesn’t mean the currently fashionable bassline house sound that evolved out of the club Niche. “Nothing could be further away,” says Dust. Think instead of Cabaret Voltaire and the subsequent work of Richard H. Kirk (the bleeps‘n’bass of Sweet Exorcist or the ambient techno of his Virtual State album). “Cabaret Voltaire were the first band I’d seen that I didn’t know how they were making that sound,” says Dust. “I still think ‘Nag Nag Nag’’s the best record ever made.”
For Dust, making hard, electronic music seems entirely appropriate in the post-industrial environs of Sheffield: “This city’s pretty fucking rubbish, very much in the way that Detroit is. It’s got the same kind of economical problems, i.e. it put all its industrial eggs in two baskets – mining and steel – that are both in decline. So I think there’s always that sound. In our studio you can still hear the steam drop hammers on a Sunday when it’s quiet.”
Radio Scarecrow is also a reflection of “The big fucking base world we live in where nobody does anything. We’re just wondering what it’ll take to cause another riot because it seems they can do anything they want as a government – ID cards, CCTV, smoking licenses – they just get away with it: nobody does anything,” laments Dust. “It’s just sickening really.”
This sense of conspiracy and impotent rage feeds into the feel of the new album which, says Dust, is “Quite claustrophobic in some ways. For example on ‘Floods’ we took Prozac for a week and sat in silence trying to work out what a fucking strange drug that is. Me and Rich don’t suffer from depression, but Ken does. And to have your emotions messed with at that level is rather a strange thing – well it was for me. Very strange and very disturbing.”
One of the highlights of the album is the two-part ‘Train by the Autobahn’, an explicit nod to the influence of Kraftwerk. But whereas the German quartet tend to celebrate technology as a force for good (if ironically at times) – think ‘Computer Love’, ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Pocket Calculator’ – The Black Dog are more interested in technology as a channel for paranoia and the paranormal.
“There are some things you can’t express with language and words that we’ve always tried to get into our music – it’s a case of having to make music to get it out your system,” says Dust.
Radio Scarecrow incorporates themes such as number stations (the mysterious shortwave stations that broadcast coded messages to spies), electronic voice phenomena (EVP), magick and the mythology of scarecrows. The band even went so far as to embed coded messages and curses into some of the tracks.
Such “mischievousness” is a key element of The Black Dog’s modus operandi, says Dust. “That and a lot of influences coming together just messing around in the studio. ‘Ghost Vexations’ came from a piece that we’d written about [Erik] Satie,” he recalls by way of example. “The idea was we were going to put that on a loop, but we couldn’t find a way to do it to loop it for like 200 times, because he used to write pieces that would take 24 hours to play.”
Rather than building sequences by blocks, the trio often prefer “to jam like a live band and record that,” says Dust. “Sometimes me and Ken will play things deliberately slightly off key or slightly out of time, just because there’s a more human aspect to that – It’s that human element with machines as well.”
Unusually, the band take the same methodical approach to remixes as to their own material, as Dust explains: “It takes us about six weeks to do a remix. A lot of bands and DJs and artists have a set formula or template that they work to – we don’t, so it takes us a long time to do them.” Acts ‘Bitten by the Black Dog’ in the past range from Dandy Warhols to David Byrne, Lalo Schifrin to Laurent Garnier, Moody Boyz to Marilyn Manson. For 2008 though, the group is concentrating on its own material and on playing live. Around 40 dates are planned, including sets at Fabric and Glastonbury, various European festivals and possibly US and Japanese tours too.
“We’ve found that the best [live] reactions are usually in really heavily working class places like Sheffield and Cardiff where people come on a Friday night and they wanna fucking forget everything and just really, really have a good time,” says Dust. “I much prefer that to people standing there stroking their chins and just chatting. [With] IDM and electronica, people should be going mad, because it’s great, great stuff: it’s really loud, it’s on a really good PA, but they choose to be really reserved and hold back – I never really like that. I’ve never really understood it either. We’ve always liked dancefloor energy…Clubs are great: there’s a lot to be said for the human spirit and 300 people getting away from everything and having a really good time.”
Although often bracketed alongside the likes of Autechre and Richard ‘Aphex Twin’ James (all three were featured on Warp’s seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation in 1992, which galvanised the nascent ‘intelligent techno’ movement that in turn spawned so-called IDM), The Black Dog’s roots go back further, to the first wave of homegrown UK techno in the late ‘80s. At the time Ken Downie was running a London-based bulletin board service (BBS) – the precursor to the online forum/message board – called Black Dog Towers and hanging out with the KLF’s Jimmy Cauty. Downie hooked up with kindred spirits Ed Handley and Andy Turner to form The Black Dog, the trio dropping debut release, ‘The Virtual EP’, in April 1989 on their own Black Dog Productions label.
“I used to speak to Ken when all that was happening right at the beginning via BBS and I loved it,” recalls Martin Dust. “Virtual’’s a great, great track.”
Certainly, listening now it still sounds fresh, living up to its reputation as one of the first British-made records to offer a convincing variant on the classic Detroit techno sound of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (others, such as the recordings of Rhythmatic and Nexus 21, could be heard on the Biorhythm compilations put out by Neil Rushton’s Network records).
‘Virtual’ and a host of other early Black Dog works have been made available again by the group’s current label, the Glasgow-based Soma. Last year’s Book of Dogma compilation gathers together tracks from six EPs originally released between 1989 and 1992. Two of those six – ‘The Virtual EP’ and ‘Techno Playtime’ – have been put out again separately too, along with ‘The Cost’. The latter EP features four of the best tracks from the 1993 album, The Temple of Transparent Balls, now reissued on Soma as well, but originally released on the long defunct General Production Recordings – one month after debut LP Bytes appeared on Warp (!!). Temple was recorded at The Techno Island Studio in Ghent, where many of the legendary Belgian hardcore tracks from R&S records were laid down. “We produced some of our most poignant sounds there,” believes Ken Downie.
Dust, who was responsible for Soma’s reissue programme, says, “The thinking behind it was that there’s a lot of good work there and it just needed to be in one place and made available again, and it needed to be remastered with a lot more care than the original…. There’s a lot of great stuff there – I think it’s stood the test of time. A lot of it captured the optimism, the kind of naivety of [the era].”
While some of the material inevitably sounds a little dated, at its best – the likes of ‘Cost II’, ‘Sharp Shooting on Saturn’ and ‘Parallel’, as well as the more contemplative ‘The Crete that Crete Made’ – it’s hard to disagree with Dust’s assessment.
After another strong set in Spanners (Warp, 1995), Handley and Turner parted ways with Downie to pursue a career as Plaid. Operating solo but still under the guise of The Black Dog, Downie returned with the underrated Music for Adverts (and Short Films) in 1999, his last release for Warp. ‘Babylon’, a collaboration with Ofra Haza, appeared the same year.
Three years on and Downie was back with new cohorts Steve ‘Hotdog’ Ash and Ross Knight, who together with French performance artist/poet The Black Sifichi released the William S. Burroughs-inspired Unsavoury Products, and an album of remixes of the material, called Genetically Modified (both on Hydrogen Dukebox).
When Downie recruited the Dust boys for Silenced, in some ways it was like the wheel had turned full circle for The Black Dog. Musically, the trio have established a sound that is both ‘typically Black Dog’ and (typically for The Black Dog) very fresh sounding.
With the changes brought about by the growth of digital downloads things have gone also full circle on the business side. “It’s gone back to being a cottage industry,” says Dust. “We really like that, although it means as little guys we lose out on sales that would help us pay for the studio…. We certainly haven’t got the answer to what’s happening in the industry but I wish people would buy the full LP and listen to it, rather than one track.”