Bands With Pans is a series in which we shop for dinner ingredients with a Brooklyn-based band or artist on a $20 budget. Next we tag along for the cooking, chatting and—duh—the eating. This installment, we bug electronic Pop-Tarts Small Black.
My brave photographer and I meet Small Black’s lead singer Josh Kolenik and bassist Juan Pieczanski at a Park Slope C-Town on an afternoon with a rumbling and dark gray sky. Josh told me earlier that the band wanted to grill their meal. No sissy storm threats were gonna stop our backyard cookout—some local UFO sightings, but not a little water.
“We’ll try to grill,” Juan reassured us. “If the grilling doesn’t work then…” he threw his hands up. “But the theme is, this is how we cook on tour—we’re trying to keep the tour alive.”
The dinner game plan for the night includes grilled chicken thighs and various veggies along with a nice, summertime cuke salad.
Juan details the grocery list—counting on fingers, he predicts, “We might go a few bucks over budge.” I remind him how Ava Luna's total bill also went two and a half bones over.
"I know, I saw that," he said with a nod, almost binding the challenge.
"Yeah, we’ve been having a real deep grillwave this summer," Josh said.
While on their U.S. tour promoting Limits of Desire, Small Black carried a modest grill top in the van, plunking it down over makeshift campfires. A welcome break from the typical road dinner involving prepackaged sauces and plasticware, I'm told.
"The steaks we made on a beach—they were the best steaks I ever had," Josh said, almost visibly drooling over the recollection. "We cooked them over driftwood that we pulled from the beach and mesquite coals. We bought this rub from a nice rest stop in Montana. …It was a spot I found out there on a road trip before. …I had just hiked there [before] and it seemed pretty idyllic to cook up some food there."
Back in our current Brooklyn reality, Juan takes the shopping cart—er—reigns for the bulk of our C-Town cameo. He zips around the produce section like a deranged pinball, foaming over details concerning various veggies and their likelihood of charring over the grill.
It only takes about five minutes to grab everything. Juan guessed the total to ring in at $13. He was close—$12.76, since Juan's C-Town card saved us close to six bucks. We got:
2 yellow squash
2 medium-sized tomatoes
3 poblano peppers 1 8-oz. container of solid feta
A tremendous portabella mushroom cap (for non-meat eaters Ryan and myself to share)
Slight drizzle started while we were inside. We jump in the van where drummer Jeff Curtin waits. Juan explains the benefit of shopping for meat at Fleisher's, an all-organic, local butchery that is also our next stop. "It's tough to buy a frozen chicken at C-Town when this chicken is just, so fresh."
The cash register lights up $9.09 for two pounds of thighs. Total meal cost: $21.85. Juan asks again how Ava Luna fared—when I replied, "$2.45 over." He triumphantly announces, "We beat them!"
We find our way to Juan's Park Slope bungalow, which doubles as Small Black's recording studio and apparently, a grilling Shangri-La. Although the sky remains foreboding, the rain stopped.
Juan flops the meat on the counter, carefully unwrapping it with a whisper, "This is a beautiful chicken." He invites me to sniff it—I have close to zero sense of smell so I'm unsurprised when I can't whiff a thing. But apparently that's a good thing.
"Look at these chickens," Juan keeps prodding. "This is fucking beautiful. These smell so good. They smell like nothing. …With good chicken, you don’t want to smell anything. …They’ve never been frozen—they’re tender. As soon as you start freezing meat, it gets more and more tough. ...You just wanna get it as fresh as possible—especially for chicken."
He sprinkled some of his homemade rub into my palm. It was incredibly smoky—like campfire lapping at my tastebuds—with hints of sweetness and a shy, spicy kick. Juan's recipe includes smoked paprika, cayenne, dried thyme, salt, pepper, cumin, dried oregano, brown sugar ("That's my personal twist, 'cuz I like the way the brown sugar caramelizes with everything, with the skin caramelization going on.") and garlic powder ("Gotta have garlic powder").
Next he adds olive oil and lemon juice, returning the thighs to the butcher bag to marinate for 20 minutes.
Save a brief pyro phase circa fourth grade, I don't have much experience manipulating fire. I asked Juan why people love grilling so much and its difference from regular ole stovework.
"So different," he gushed. "You've got a temperature that's hard to control, because you're dealing with fire. You can't set it on medium. You've gotta constantly be updating the temperature and making sure everything is [good]… but it's great because you get that smoky flavor from all the smoke hitting it...”
Josh set to salad construction work nearby. He snacks a cuke hunk. "Cucumber is a heavenly food," he points out. "It's so water-based. It's very refreshing." A winter spent in Greece inspired his simple yet delicious contribution. "I'm pretty partial to some basic ass Greek cooking," Josh said. "I lived in a bookstore on an island… I was there with two friends and we would cook every day so I learned some good cookin' tricks."
Juan rushed in. "Come with me if you wanna catch the moment of ignition." Duh.
Immediately the sky pops pores and rain begins to fall.
Although the dudes say it's nice to be back home after a stretch cramped in the van, they miss some of the quirks of this tour in particular.
Ryan: "There's a couple of hula-hoopers during this tour. At least three hula-hoopers in a row…"
Juan: "Every city's got one, you know?"
Jeff: "Hoopcore is the sorta genre we're creating."
As it turns out, the band's newfound grillwave + hoopcore sub-genre mash-up has found a comfortable corner in the burnout community. I mention all the pot-smoking around me at their homecoming show at Music Hall of Williamsburg. I like weed and I like Small Black, but… what's up with that?
Josh: "We love that."
Juan: "It’s great! Yeah, that’s been happening a lot lately."
Josh: "The best YouTube comments are when someone’s like (strains his voice and squints his eyes), 'I’m so wasted when I’m watching this video, man.'"
Juan: "We just think that they’re really feeling it in that moment…"
Ryan: "It’s a heightened experience."
Juan: "If they think they have left their body when they listen to us, that’s pretty cool. That guy that did—salvia, was it?"
Josh: "Oh yeah…"
Juan: "This one guy did salvia and…"
Josh: "He made a video of him listening to our song while on salvia. He’s some kid from Florida, rolling around in some field to our song. It’s pretty great."
Juan calls me over to check out the fully cooked thighs, particularly the clear liquid now present, indicating it's done. I ask if the liquid is old blood. He says kinda, yeah. "Hate to say it, but that’s kinda hard to beat,” Juan says, beholding his work. “We’re gonna let it sit for about five minutes, which makes the meat relax back into its original shape. If you let it rest and cut it, no juice is gonna flow. [The juice] resettles into [the meat]."
I ask how he knows so much about cooking, grilling, making food in general. "In high school, working in a couple DC restaurants," he says. "[At one place,] they served softshell crab. I had to cut the faces off the softshell crab while they’re still alive.” Come again? “You cut it, and kinda wiggle—it keeps moving. You just cut the face off."
Josh: "That is terrifying."
Ryan: "What if he cuts off my face? Or anybody's face?"
Juan, dancing and making wild arm motions: "It was just the eyes, then the throat, and the mouth-sucking hole—whatever. You just cut the face off!"
Jeff: "Just a little Nick Cage-y."
Juan: "Then right there, when it keeps moving, it gets thrown on the hot—right on the hot griddle. …I don't remember the first face I cut off."
Ryan: "Did they have to train you how to cut off the face?"
All the face removals didn't convince Juan into a permanent kitchen life. "I wanted to be a chef when I was in high school," he says. "Then I was like, “This is not the life for me. It’s a terrible life. Instead I’m just gonna be in a band.” It’s very similar actually. …Yeah, it’s a terrible life in similar ways. Cramped in one place all the time. It’s hot. A lot of work, long hours. …A little more glory in the band."
The dudes brush the peppers and other veggies with a little olive oil (Juan: "Olive oil helps kinda get it hot so it’s not boiling or getting real hot."), sprinkle with leftover chicken rub, salt and pepper and set them to sizzle on the grill top. Before long, the entire meal is ready. We set up a slightly soggy dining area, filling our plates and popping open fresh beers.
The chicken is obviously a home run.
Juan: "This chicken is so fucking good! Mmm mmm mmm. I just can’t stop eating it. The chicken is so fucking good."
Jeff: "Just the right amount of saltiness. When you bite the skin, it bites back."
The poblano, squash and mushroom emerge divine. Just enough smokiness from the grill and Juan's rub unfolds and entwines with the overall savoriness of the combined veggies.
Josh's salad also wows. Like he said, it's a refreshing, simple blend. The feta's tart bite helps balance the mild side dish, the cheese itself morphing into almost a creamy blend with the olive oil, lemon and tomato juices.
Now it’s definitely raining. We head inside to continue shit-shooting and brew-chugging.
Somehow—while I was busy peeing out one of my 17 patio beers—the conversation and YouTube clips shift from the ET-esque (Juan: "The Grays abduct people just for research. …They mutilate cattle and stuff.") to Slipknot. A 2012 performance in Wisconsin plays on the Juan's laptop. One band member in a clown mask starts simulating jerk-off with a Roman candle. On stage The crowd obviously goes batshit.
Josh: "That's scarring, man. I'm scarred."
Juan: "It's like an evening of Saw. Saw-inspired entertainment. …We're doing the wrong shit."
Ryan: "We don't talk about Hell, or 'taking motherfuckers home.'"
Juan: "I wish our audience was a little more like Slipknot's audience."
Ryan: "[We need] a little more pyro… like a waterfall of fire."
I offer the idea of fireflies, what Jeff calls "natural fire demons." And considering Small Black's chimerical synth-pop, the idea of that addition strangely makes perfect sense. Well, when combined with hula hoops, of course.
You can follow Beca on Twitter @becagrimm.