Small Black singer Josh Kolenik has been a fixture at local shows since long before the genre he's now heavily associated with was even just a pixel in a blogger's eye. In advance of the release of his band's anticipated debut, New Chain, we grabbed a burger and chatted between bites about the new record, changing listening habits, the decline of eclecticism, and the deep and awesome weirdness of Ariel Pink. And, of course, we tried to get to the bottom of this whole "chillwave" thing, once and for all.
One of the most common adjectives used to describe the music you guys are making is "nostalgic." I never got the sense that you are nostalgic for the 80s in the least.
Josh Kolenik: No, not at all. I was a 90s hip-hop kid. When we did the first EP, the main thought of it was: I love this Casio keyboard and I think it sounds really good and I want to make songs with this, because it sounds better than any of these keyboards or this guitar that I've had.
Well, you'd have to admit that, for a new band, getting tagged with some ridiculous made-up genre name is good for business these days.
Yeah, I think we're the only band that is like, "I guess being called chillwave helps."
It has to, right?
Well, there's just so much stuff out there. To be in this little group of bands, someone finds out about this one band, and then they find out about you from that. In the internet era of two zillion bands, any little classification that sets you apart and drives people your way is awesome. All you're asking for is a chance for people to hear it.
Exactly, because you are grandfathered into so many articles, like "chillwave bands: including... and there's a link to your web page.
And I like all those bands. Obviously we toured with Washed Out. And Tori y Moi is great. Memory Tapes is great. So it's cool to be in the same company with them, but I don't exactly feel like we're too similar to them.
But do you, without even knowing it, become a stand-in for this nebulous thing? Do you feel like you have to defend something that someone just made up three seconds ago? I mean, you're in the picture when Jon Pareles is having a rant about it in the New York Times. And it's not like you stayed up late at night typing out the Chillwave Manifesto.
Yeah. It's not like you set out to do it. You see writing about the band, and it's "This is so chill," and I'm like, "What are you talking about?" Listen to the record. It's really not. The worst thing is just the "summer" thing. I mean, that's worse than "chill." I've seen it even psychoanalyzed to the point where people say, "In times of Recession we need to return to a womb-like atmosphere." People just make up some bullshit, man. The summer thing drives me crazy. I don't think it fits at all. I never had that in mind ever, doing anything. The only thing you could ever say is that we used my uncle, who's a surfer, in the video. That was one reason I almost didn't want to do the video because it's so overdone. But that was just his life. The whole seasonal evaluation of music is just absurd. We've done both these records in the dead of winter. There's no "When you hear this at the beach, it's gonna be reeeeally good!
Ariel Pink is supposedly the Iggy Pop figure to chillwave's punk. You a fan?
It's funny, I was never really into Ariel Pink, and then after we did the EP, somebody, I think it was my bandmate Juan, turned me on to House Arrest, and it was like, "This guy is sick." Why didn't I like this before? It's this kind of subtle and weird take on these soft rock AM jams. The songs that you know, but you don't really know who sung them. You heard them in the supermarket when you were a kid.
But it feels like he really loved them.
He does. And that's why you love his music. It's very genuine and sort of kid-funny and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.
It's anti-jokey, sort of, in terms of sincerity.
He really strikes an amazing balance between poking fun and real reverence for the music. It's very charming.
Yeah, it is charming. When you see the band play it's a lot weirder than you even think.
They kill, though. They really kill. They're so good.
I saw them play this year in a little room in Vancouver, and those kids went bananas. It's funny because you know, there were kids full-out moshing to Ariel Pink. So it's like, kids in the 90s moshing to Nirvana, the badge of pride they threw up was, you could never mosh to soft rock. That's the stuff they were killing off!
You can't mosh to Alan Parsons Project.
But apparently you can now.
Maybe you can
I've noticed a lot of records lately, yours included, that clock in at like 30-35 minutes. Do you think modern folk have shitty attention spans? Did we lose them entirely? That was definitely deliberate. I wanted to make it as short as possible. In the writing we really considered, like, at the end of this song, have we indulged too much in this part, and if you only heard this a certain amount of time, will you want to just rewind it and hear it right again? We went for that over, maybe, extending sections longer than they would be usually, because we wanted that replay ability. We wanted the album to kind of really befuddle you the first time you heard it. It's so layered, and it's so full of sounds.
But it's not... I wouldn't call it ADD, exactly. No, the song structures are pretty straight, on purpose, to give you sort of a grounding point. You understand how the song works. But, I think the album is designed to kind of show more colors each time you listen to it. Personally, I've been more into songs, anyway. I think that's what we're thinking with the short record. I've been using a car all summer. I just listen to Hot 97. I listen to Drake all the time. As far as records, I think that Beach Fossils album is really great.
I like them ok, I guess. I saw them live...
They're much better live.
I wondered if the range of it was too small? It was like, songs to not-quite bop around to, as a definition.
I like that consistency to it. You hear their songs and it's like, hey, that's a Beach Fossils song. And now they are going to change for the next record. It's good to give people one idea.
Do you think eclecticism is counter-productive for a band starting out?
I think it's like... we listen to so many records. It's going kind of like Hollywood, where a movie script has to be described in one sentence. I used to intern for Warner Brothers, reading scripts. The most important thing for the script readers is how it can be summed up, in the shortest way possible, so that people get the idea. And maybe in a world where you can listen to any record, at any second, that sort of clarity drives people towards stuff.
I can see that.
I don't know if that's good, but it is something that's happening.
I think maybe it is. I think there's virtue to eclecticism, but it's tough to come out of the gate with it.
Yeah, people have to trust you to let you try a lot of stuff.
As if they need to know you're good at one thing before they're cool with you being good at other things?
Is that sad?
Yeah, it sort of is. I think our EP was very much produced all the same way, and there's a lot more veins in the new one. I think the song writing changes a lot from song to song. I hope that people are ready for that and will take different sorts of material from us, and don't just want one sort of song.