Infamously prolific, Blank Dogs has released dozens of records in the last few years (he’s confessed in the past that he often forgets he’s made records until finished copies arrive at his door), many of which were limited edition releases that now trade hands for silly money. A large talking point with Blank Dogs revolved around his identity; he initially remained anonymous, posing with sheets over his head and gauze coating on his face until eventually revealing himself as Mike, a bassist from various low key bands including New York’s DC Snipers.
Phrases, the aforementioned new EP finds Mike’s mask slipping further still; his past work was notable for its washes of tape fuzz and often unintelligible vocals, but on Phrases’ second track, ‘Blurred Tonight’, he gives one of his cleanest, most naked vocal performances to date in amongst tracks of ice-cold synth-pop.
One of the last decade’s most intriguing music figures, interviews with Blank Dogs are rare (though this one, from The Fader is recommended), but we were granted one this year. We spoke to Mike about Phrases, lo-fi, him “coming out” and more.
“Now things are called “Lo-Fi” because of what label it’s on or who that band tours with, despite the fact it’s recorded professionally on 2-inch tape or even a clean digital recording. Lazy journalism, I think.”
What’s new in the world of Blank Dogs this week / month / decade?
“I just put a new live lineup together, so we’ve been playing a bit locally, just trying to get the kinks out. It’s now a lot more wimpier, less rock-sounding. Then we do a full North American tour in April, hopefully Europe soon after. Other than that, I’ve been recording for the new LP for months. That and working on Captured Tracks business/pleasure/pressure.”
The last album, Under and Under was great. To my ears it was the most fully realized thing I’ve heard from you. Could you tell us a bit about the record?
“It was pretty exhausting and I think it sounds like it. I intended it to be cut up into four sides, five songs each, and ingested like that. I failed to realize that most people download it and listen to it through headphone pods. Which I think could make the whole thing seem like a gauzey mess with little distinction. That’s not to say there aren’t songs on there that I’m proud of. I need some distance from it first, I suppose, before I can have a different opinion.”
To get into the Blank Dogs story up until that point – I guess people know about DC Snipers, but what were your other forays into music before then?
“I was in bands since basically my 1st year of high school. While in high school, my tastes were constantly shifting, so I was in a punk band, a band where we put contact mics on metallic objects like Einstuerzende Neubauten did (because we were basically trying to rip them off), Jesus and Mary Chain/Velvet Underground type bands. I tried all of it out, including some stuff that I would say kind of sounds like Blank Dogs. After high school I went to college, afterwards I continued to start a ton of bands that went nowhere in places like Ann Arbor, Providence, Chicago, LA…
“DC Snipers was pretty much a dare. It was a fun time, we made some OK songs. Never expected that it would be the first thing I would do musically to get any bit of attention, not that it was much.”
I’d be really interested to know what music you grew up loving. In the few interviews I’ve read, the only older artist I think I’ve seen you mention is Prince. And even though you get compared to other modern “lo-fi” artists, when I listen to your music it brings to mind The Cure and Joy Division before it does say, Wavves. What are your early reference points?
“Yeah, I really see no correlation whatsoever with Wavves. The term “lo-fi” at first was kind of understood, because it was a fact, a lot of it was low fidelity, but now things are called “Lo-Fi” because of what label it’s on or who that band tours with, despite the fact it’s recorded professionally on 2-inch tape or even a clean digital recording. Lazy journalism, I think. Yeah, I love Joy Division and The Cure. I was an avid tape trader in grade school and my older sister and cousins had a lot of Heavy Metal tapes they would hand down to me which I would promptly trade with this guy Gary Post, who’s older brother was into stuff like The Cure. I bought The Top when I was nine and it scared me to death, but it was one of 8 or 9 tapes I had, so I had no choice but to listen to it. I was also into all the bad stuff, pop radio at the time. But, slowly I’d find things on cassette or LP or dreading to have to spend $27.00 on an Import CD. There was a cutout bin at the local mall while I was in middle school, I found a ton that way. Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey, Fad Gadget, Gang of Four, all in the $1.00 cut-out bin (tapes, not records, sadly.) Yeah, I like Prince ok, I don’t own any records because it’s just around everywhere. But, as far as 80’s megastars go, I’d say he’s the best.”
You started home recording when you were sixteen, which I think I’m correct in saying was the mid-nineties. Were you aware of bands like Eric’s Trip and Guided by Voices doing the whole lo-fi thing during that period? And what sort of music inspired those early recordings?
“Yeah, it was about ’93 or ’94? I really liked Guided By Voices, Eric’s Trip I hadn’t been aware of yet at the time. I think around that time I was into a lot of the UK stuff, good and bad. Teenage Fanclub, Lush, Slowdive, that kind of thing. As well as Sonic Youth, Pavement, and lots and lots of New Wave and Post-Punk, couldn’t get enough of that.”
The vocals on ‘Blurred Tonight’, from your new EP Phrases are quite clean – it’s easier to make out the intonation and the lyrics. Is that a case of you becoming more confident as a singer, or just wanting to move away from heavily treated vocals?
“I think it was a natural progression. There’s a ton of stuff I recorded in between Under and Under and the stuff on Phrases but it might seem abrupt to outsiders. I think I just wanted to create a more sophisticated mix, I wanted to make space and separate the sounds more, not so glue-like.”
When was the material for Phrases written?
“They were recorded over the past 8 or 9 months, I recorded a large cluster of material and over the process of determining what was on the next LP, I decided these were good enough to release but didn’t fit on the LP itself.”
“It’s so self-absorbed when you’re recording, you get really sick of yourself.”
I’d infer from your past email [regarding the picture for Blank Dogs’ FACT mix] about “man wrapped up in gauze” promo shots that you’re pretty tired of the whole “mysterious bedroom musician” thing. What prompted your decision to do Blank Dogs anonymously?
“At first, I think I did it for pretty harmless reasons. I thought that with the internet, it’s so easy to get so much information and all. Referring back to before and finding a Fad Gadget tape in the local mall when I was 14, I mean, I had no idea who that was and I’d have to try to find old periodicals to get any information, there was something kind of great about that which is completely lost today. That whole idea of finding the record first and then working your way back into the information. Where as now, it’s just click on a review, you know everything, and you can hear 11 seconds of a song and make a snap-judgement, perhaps even make a “comment.” I think that’s a dangerous way to listen to music. I’m all for free media, but without the investment, it’s unlikely people will challenge themselves. If you pay $12 for a record, you’re more likely to give it a chance.”
Have you always viewed Blank Dogs as an outlet perhaps, for another side of you, or are him and Mike 100% one and the same?
“I never really thought of that. If anything, it’s made me more social, even. Because it’s so self-absorbed when you’re recording, you get really sick of yourself.”
Is that what provoked the guest appearances on Under and Under, and forming the Mayfair set?
“On that album, it was just friends who happened to be around, it was convenient. Mayfair Set was intentionally to get Dee Dee to do backing vocals on the song ‘Already Warm’ but it seemed to be such an easy thing to work with her, we just kept going.”
When you record with Dee Dee from Dum Dum Girls as The Mayfair Set, how does the process work? Do you sit down and write the songs together? Do you handle production?
“So far I’ve written/recorded all the music. In some cases I send it to her and then I embellish it when I hear what she came up with. The vocal melodies she writes are integral to the songs. I don’t hum out the parts for her, she’s got a knack for really interesting phrasing.”
Was there a specific point where you got tired of the anonymity distracting from – maybe even overshadowing – the music? The straw that broke the camel’s back, if you will.
“Yeah, very much so. I never denied it, I just didn’t promote myself as the person making the music. Someone did a photoshoot with a guy wrapped in gauze and of course, that’s the photo that winds up everywhere once on the internet. I thought it was a good photo, but I didn’t think it would represent what Blank Dogs is as a musical entity or whatever. And of course, the backlash where people assumed that the anonymity was a scam to sell records or whatever. But I never thought I’d sell any records either way. It was purely an aesthetic choice that after a while almost became vanity to try and maintain.”
It’s funny, because the first time I emailed you I expected you to be very blunt, and not want to know. Which you’re not like at all. Is that something you get a lot?
“I can be kind of blunt in person, but try not to be. I think a lot of people mistake contrarian with “cool.” The easiest way to appear “cool” is dismiss everything and basically be a total asshole, because you’re establishing yourself as someone who’s opinion matters because it’s so rare you like something. These kind of people are horrible and should be avoided at all costs. Very rarely do they do anything worthwhile. My reaction to people assuming I’m cold and distant is to be engaging and as amiable as possible.”
“It’s hard, because you want to do limited edition versions of things just because you want to have some different aesthetics on there, but you realize by doing so you’re creating rarity.”
Being in the UK, it’s not easy to keep tracks on a lot of the stuff you do – I’m not sure it’s much easier being in the US. There’s your label Captured Tracks, which has released dozens of records in what, two years? Why did you start the label?
“45 releases in one year. Pretty hectic. I started the label primarily to release my own material, this way I could keep it in print and have it out when I wanted, but also to release music I liked, of course. It snowballed for sure, so here we are.”
You mention keeping them in print – how do you feel about your out of print records going for big fees on Ebay, etc?
“It’s hard, because you want to do limited edition versions of things just because you want to have some different aesthetics on there, but you realize by doing so you’re creating rarity. I mean, I see nothing wrong with that if the music itself isn’t limited to that pressing.”
There’s a certain something about the label: it has a real identity despite putting out music from a lot of different artists. Did you always have a specific aesthetic aim from the start, or was it something that naturally formed? And do you consider its aesthetic an extension of the one you pursue with Blank Dogs, or something else entirely?
‘Yeah, an identity for sure, but an open one. There’s a lot of current labels that I like that you immediately equate with a look and sound. That’s all well and good, but I find that a bit limiting. I let the bands decide on their own art, despite some serious issues I have with formal design, coming from that background. I just have to let it go. When people see a German Measles record, I want them to see a German Measles record, not a Captured Tracks release.”
How do you see the label developing in the future?
“Well, I want it to grow and do all the things the “big indies” do for their bands.”
In Pitchfork’s review of Under and Under they mention the Academy Annex record shop that you “hawk rarities” in, and Radio Heartbeat. Could you tell us about those?
“Yeah, I used to work as a buyer at a record store in Brooklyn. I have way too many records now because of it. Radio Heartbeat was a label I started about four years ago with William Martin. It’s a reissue label, which he currently runs on his own now.”
Last over-inquisitive question, in the interview with The Fader it says you have a reissue label called The Red Archives. I can’t find much info online, could you tell us about that?
“That was a mess-up, it was In The Red Archives. A label I’d started with Larry Hardy who owns In The Red Records. As far as I know, it still exists. We’re supposed to do a 2xLP reissue of early material by The Homosexuals.”