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Q&A: Eric Copeland of Black Dice

June 10, 2009
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NYC trio Black Dice doesn’t so much make music as it dumpster-dives for sonic refuse, smashes together its findings, and shapes the shards and fragments into disarmingly odd, wobbly sculptures.

Listening to albums like Creature Comforts, Beaches and Canyons, or recent dispatch Repo (Paw Tracks) isn’t rock-out-with-your-cock-out gratifying or cathartic; it’s intriguingly puzzling, mysteriously mesmerizing, perhaps kind of frightening. Impossible questions materialize. Was that an altered human voice I just heard, ground to chum in a slouching mist of dragging, rough textures? And what were those textures, anyway? Found sounds processed beyond recognition? Electronically simulated gears a-grindin’? Surf guitars? Only Black Dice—Eric Copeland, Bjorn Copeland, and Aaron Warren—know for certain, and they’re not saying. Unlike Atlas Sound’s Bradford Cox, who includes track-by-track recipes in his liner notes, these boys hold their cards close to the vest.

In a mid-May e-mail interview, Eric Copeland was predictably vague on compositional specifics, but shared a bit of insight into the Black Dice cover-art division of labor, his personal work ethic, and the genesis of Repo.

City Paper: Listening through your catalog, I constantly find myself wondering: just how are Black Dice tracks created? Goings-on are so chopped, warped, and stickily woven that origins are difficult to discern, for laymen.

Eric Copeland: Nowadays, we make jams any way that we want. Usually, the material suggests or demands a working method. The main thing is to get every piece of the song, all the sounds, to a place where we all like it. Sometimes that means that one element will be addressed for a long time, but often, lately, we’ve been working faster. I guess we try to figure out just where the song needs to be and leave our “musicianship” out of the picture—work on it more as a bunch of ideas rather than someone playing and writing music.

CP: From where do you draw sound sources, instruments aside? On Repo some samples leap out as clearly appropriated and transmorgified, but generally, I get the sense that zillions of other samples are distressed then sewn into the ebb and flow that listeners couldn’t even begin to identify.

EC: Yeah; with Repo, anything went. We could work with anything and warp it into something else. Definitely some appropriated sounds, but quite a lot of the record is the result of our own sound designing.

CP: Black Dice has been at it for about 12 years now, with seismic stylistic shifts. How has the recording/release/touring cycle changed for you with the passage of time?

EC: Personally, Black Dice has become a full-time thing—more a way for me to approach making anything creatively. So in that way, it’s become much more serious and complete for me. But we still make our own schedules and do what we want. Nobody’s ever given us permission to be this band.

CP: What bands or artists do you find yourselves listening to for pleasure lately, contemporary or otherwise?

EC: It doesn’t matter to me. I enjoy listening to the radio, an iPod Shuffle, silence, any new music people throw our way. For pleasure, though, I find popular music—especially music television programs—to be the easiest on the ears; that’s what it was designed for, I guess.

CP: To my mind, cover and sleeve art is one of Black Dice’s most distinctive trademarks—I know you put out an art book sometime back (Gore, with photographer Jason Frank Rothenburg). There’s a sort of graffiti-meets-cut’n'paste-meets-pop art feel to it that complements the accompanying sounds perfectly. Do you develop your cover concepts together? Do any of you come from a visual art background, and is that something you pursue outside of the band?

EC: Bjorn has made all of our record covers. He started it, and it feels like an ongoing project for him. We all love his work, and maintain the final “veto” if needed, but usually he brings in his ideas and they seem to resonate well. Lately, we’ve all been doing more visual work for the band and elsewhere, but only Bjorn has a formal visual arts background, though Aaron studied and works with video, too.

CP: I know that you and Bjorn are brothers, but do all three of you spend much time together when not recording or touring or strategizing?

EC: Yes and no. We have a little family between all of us, so I can go to Aaron’s place for Thanksgiving, for instance. But when not working on stuff, we tend to live quite separately. I think we all need some space to be able to work the way we do.

CP: With Repo, what did you aim to achieve? This record feels slightly more conducive to live performances in the traditional “band” sense—maybe a but less wedded to racks of gear and triggered loops.

EC: We were just going for a good attitude, high bar of quality, a lot of ideas, songs played by a band again—lots of direction on this one.

CP: I know you have a new solo album coming out in late summer. Can you tell me a bit about what we can expect from that record? Last year’s Alien in a Garbage Dump EP stuck me as slightly more accessible than’ 07s Hermaphodite LP.

EC: The Alien in a Garbage Dump EP was just one half of an album by the same name, so I finished the second half (the Al Anon EP) and Catsup Plate will do the vinyl. Not sure when, but soonish, I guess—and Paw Tracks will put it all together for a proper album (also titled Alien in a Garbage Dump and due out August 18). Maybe it’s more accessible? I have no idea. There always seems to be an attraction/repulsion scene at play.

CP: Eric, how do you decide which ideas or compositions to use for solo recordings, and which to develop with Black Dice?

EC: I just work and work. When nobody else is around, then I tend to finish ideas by myself. But when Dice are active and writing, then I give it all to the band. I can’t get too precious with these ideas; I can’t feel like some “riff” is “the one” and treat it all crazy. It’s good for me to work a lot, but also to finish a lot—not to get backed up.

CP: After this tour, what’s next for you guys, collectively and separately?

EC: Home for a week, tour for a month, home for a bit, out again, more jams, bigger ideas—just keepin’ at it, I guess!

CP: Do you see the “noise” tag some label you with as a boon, a crutch, or something else entirely? How would you define the music Black Dice makes, or do you consider such classifications arbitrary and meaningless?

EC: We’ve never really identified with the term noise. The only time I think about it is when someone else asks about it. I’d rather just make jams than think about what type of music I’m making.

Black Dice play June 13 at Sonar. For more information visit sonarbaltimore.com

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