Eight years ago, Sam Rosenthal started his As Lonely As Dave Bowman project with the wonderful "POD". The ethereal-gothic headmaster created a new soundworld in which he could develop two passions: science fiction and atmospheric music. Nowadays, a lot of changes have happened in Sam's activity. His Projekt Records has moved towards a new status as mostly electronic/ambent label, and represents a base for ambient's masters Steve Roach, Dirk Serries, Erik Wøllo and Alio Die. His main band - Black Tape For A Blue Girl - has not had a record since 2009's controversial "10 Neurotics", that showed a moving from their trademark sound towards dark-cabaret. Several rumours have spreaded regarding a possible new album, some of them confirmed by Rosenthal too. During these years, Rosenthal has found time to publish a splendid ambient-oriented solo suite ("The Passage") and dedicated his time to fight against music's digital piracy, with the foundation of PETm association (People for the Ethical Treatment of musicians).
Surprisingly, Sam has announced the birth of a new As Lonely As Dave Bowman album uploading it on Bandcamp, where it is available for free download. In the same time, he has launched a crowfunding campaign on Kickstarter which runs until May 19, to finance a 300-copies limited edition on CD. We had the chance to talk directly with him about these topics. Sam doesn't do interviews too often, but when he does, he has something interesting to say. This interview is no exception.
I guess you're a great fan of Arthur C. Clarke, aren't you? Where does your love for science-fiction come from?
I've only read 6 or 7 of his books. The 4 in the "2001"-series plus "The Lost Worlds of 2001", "Rendezvous With Rama", and probably "Earthlight". I tried some of his later "Rama" books, but they were a bit too earthbound for me, too many characters and soap-opera-like drama, and not enough Sci-Fi. I've watched a lot of "Star Trek" with my son, and I have always been a big "Planet Of The Apes" fan. I think this comes from when I was a boy: thinking about somewhere else, something else. Something different from where I was. Escaping from a boring life as a kid.
People who has followed Black Tape For A Blue Girl's path should know that you've always being interested in ambient music's expressions. In my opinion Black Tape's music has always been deeply linked with atmospheres... And lots of your albums with that project were full of "purely-ambient" passages... Where has your interest in ambient music been born?
It's definitely the atmospherics within Black Tape For A Blue Girl that sets it apart from other darkwave bands that might be similar. Dead Can Dance never went there. This Mortal Coil might have done a few minutes in that style. I came to ambient by way of Eno, Tangerine Dream and the ambient/electronic Bowie Berlin-trilogy albums. A very 1970's European perspective. I released 7 or 8 cassettes of electronic music in the 80s before the first Black Tape For A Blue Girl album. When I started writing lyrics for The Rope, I hadn't completely gotten out of that ambient/electronic phase. The sequencer tracks went on Before the buildings fell, and the ambient tracks went on side two of "The Rope". I suspect the idea of a side of songs and a side of (almost all) instrumentals was influenced by Bowie, as Eno was mixing his two styles on an album like "Another Green World". Mixing it up came later for Black Tape For A Blue Girl. On "A Chaos Of Desire", for example, there's a long extended textural section in the middle of the album, where Vicki Richard was featured on violin.
This new work with the As Lonely... moniker comes eight year after "Pod"... Why did you wait such a long time to give it a follow-up?
Yeah, I don't know why it took so long.
Well, I do really. I think dissapointment with the way the music industry has gone in the last ten years made it hard for me to get up much enthusiasm for going into the studio to work on any music. A definite feeling of ennui about it: "Ah, man! Nobody will hear the music anyway. Why bother?" A few years ago, I wrote a novel when I could have worked on music; then two years ago I moved across the country. Each was a good distraction.
I decided I needed to reconnect. Not just with the studio, or with why I wanted to make music, but with the people who wanted to hear my music. First I did a Kickstarter for the vinyl reissue of Black Tape For A Blue Girl's "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity". This year I started a Patreon crowdfunding campaign for my music. Each one put me in touch with people who are thrilled by what I create; people who want me to make more of it. That was very inspiring.
Getting in touch with people who like what I do definitely motivated me to get back to creating.
And then, while working on new Blacktape material, a burst of Dave Bowman music came through. Within two weeks, I said, "Wow, I have more than enough here for a new album!"
What does As Lonely As Dave Bowman actually represent for you? What is the difference, f.e., between this project and an album like "The Passage"?
For me, Dave Bowman is a bit harsher than the ambient/electronic music I released under my own name as "The Passage". Maybe the distinction isn't apparent to most people, but it feels right to me to keep them as their own entities. Steve Roach has around five different styles that he works in, and all the albums come out under his name. There's a good logic to that. "MONOLITH", for sure, couldn't be called Black Tape For A Blue Girl, even though it would sell more copies that way. Each artist name has a specific sound that it tries to stick within. Same reason my band with Nicki Jaine was "Revue Noir," instead of Black Tape.
What about "MONOLITH" in particular? How and when (in what period) has it born? What kind of images, experiences, moods and sensations did you put inside those tracks?
The first track was recorded back in 2010. And so was the first six and a half minutes of "Moon-skimmer". Those pieces already existed for some time. I was waiting to create other tracks that would go along with them to become a new album. Most of the rest of the album was created in a two week period. "POD" was all written in a one week period, so it's common for Dave Bowman to happen fast. I like creating that way. It gives the album a very cohesive feeling. And also, I think electronic music doesn't need to be overworked. If it sounds good, and the piece is flowing, then it's pretty much done! Especially with recording digitally, where you can set the mix and keep it (as opposed to pre-2002 albums, when I was recording on analog 8-track, and everything had to be mixed by hand).
As far as images, experiences, mood... There is a lot of loneliness and isolation in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Being so far from home, and the prospect of never returning. I tried to capture the sounds of space, the sounds of the machines, the sounds of the asteroids flying by. And then put in a human element. To touch upon Dave Bowman's emotional flow in that vastness, hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Bowman is pretty reasonable, focussed, and calm. He doesn't put a lot of emotional content into his life. So the pieces don't get too dramatic, in an emotional sense. They are more about drama in a vast and epic sense.
In my opinion, the mood is quite different from "POD"'s one, even if some sounds are probably similar in matrixes. "POD" evoked a very nocturnal/cosmic soundscape with a slow evolution based on a few elements and on their shades... Instead, here I found lots and lots of climaxes, changes of scene, contrasts, much more similar to a stream of consciousness technique... Do you agree? What do you feel on both these works?
I agree. "POD" is definitely just a few elements. In fact, the entire album was recorded with just one synth sound that I processed a lot. While "MONOLITH" has perhaps 7 sounds (laughs). I "played" more on "MONOLITH", not too much but a bit more; buried in the textures is a bit more musicality.
One of the things I'm really enjoying lately is that I don't have to play anything, to make music. I can just get a sound going, hit some keys and then begin processing the sound. And it keeps on changing and evolving, so it's nothing like the thing I played. There's no notion of musical notation, or chords, or song structure. That's freeing; because in Black Tape For A Blue Girl it's often about, "Ok, what notes am I playing? Do they sound good together? Where's the chorus and verse? Is there room for a vocal line or a viola over this." Bowman gets rid of all that, which is great for me as an artist. It becomes sound paintings.
And yeah, there are climaxes and changes of scenery, because the pieces are more complex than on "POD". It's different. It's an evolution on using the tools and expressing myself.
By the way, what kind of synthesizers and electronic instruments did you use in this project? I felt also a more organic touch, so did you?
Well, it's all the same stuff as "POD". I never buy new gear (laughs) I just get my old stuff repaired. The most important piece is the Eventide / H3000 - D/SX Ultra Harmonizer. It's a digital audio signal processor meant for guitarists, I believe. I use it everywhere on the Dave Bowman albums. In fact, that's probably what makes me think of a piece I'm recording specifically as a Dave Bowman track, because of the tell-tale signs of the Eventide. I do use it in Black Tape For A Blue Girl, but much more subtle such as a wash on an instrument (it made the creepy sounds in "I strike you down" on 10 Neurotics). Wherein on Dave Bowman, I play a track and then throw it into the Eventide, and feedback it into itself, and record that. Then build up from one track of it to the next. And maybe there's 5 different tracks with Eventide going on. And that gives it a lot of the spaciousness. I fade out to one little trailing sparkle, before something new comes plowing in, like the sound of something flying by you in space.
As far as organic. Well, my voice is in it at one point in "Moon-Skimmer" and my breathing is in the last section, "A Bright Room With Air." I used a piano in the "A Memory" section; I had that idea years ago, actually, and it was in my thoughts for years until I could explore it here. In one of the 2001 books, Dave Bowman reflects to when he was a bow and his brother drowned in a river. I was thinking that Dave would flashback to that time and maybe there was a piano in the house. He'd have that memory of the melancholy piano sound, which would give this very organic and human moment in the middle of all the outer-space. Space and a river are both such lonely places to die; Dave has months and months to think on his way to Jupiter, he'd probably recall that. Maybe fixate on it a bit... That's why there's a piano melody going on about fifty-five minutes into the album.
An interesting aspect regarding "MONOLITH" is linked with its distribution... Why did you decide to give it for free as a digital album as a first step?
I was curious if the idea would work: "Can I give the album away while I'm also crowdfunding it on Kickstarter?"
Will people support me or will they just download it for free? And the answer is that... it works! People will do both. See, the problem these days is most Projekt artists can only sell a 300 limited edition. And as an artist who used to sell 16,000 copies on a Black Tape For A Blue Girl album, it feels very, um, I guess "pointless" to make music that maybe only 300 or 500 people will hear. I want the bigger communication than that. Artists are limiting themsleves by imprisoning their music in little bits that live on CDs, or behind the wall of "pay for this."
Giving it away seems like a solution, because then there's no barrier to entry. No toll at the gate. However, giving it away at Spotify is so impersonal. I get no connection to the people listening to the music on a streaming site. Giving it away at Bandcamp gives me a connection, and I can also say, "Hey, why don't you chip in a little bit to help support me making this art. A few bucks! Or get the limited edition version at Kickstarter." Instead of the music being given away at Spotify and 1000 plays equalling a dollar, I have a connection and a way to try to support my art. People are generous when you ask. And there are very amazing people who have contributed a hundred or two-hundred dollars at Kickstarter, when they only needed to give fifty for the limited Plexibox edition! These are people who value art and music. And strangely, giving it away for free introduces me to those people.
The economics of "free" are very counter-intuitive.
This choice follows a particular thread you've been evolving with the Projekt Digital Store. In the last years you've been publishing a lot of Eps, old album's remastering, compilations, etc allowing their download for free. How did you get to this method?
For years I've been grumbling, saying, "For most people, free is their prefered price point." And I was saying it with with that down-trodden, "Time has passed us by" attitude a lot of artists have. Then I started thinking deeper about it. You can't fight progress. As you can tell, I've gotten over fighting against free. It's reality. Now artists need to find ways to make free work. I am dating somebody who works in technology, and we talked a lot about all of the many aspects of change and the future. I started realizing you have find a way to make it work, rather than complain about it not working. You cannot hold back time. You don't want to be the last steam engine on the line. This is quite a change, Sam.
I've followed for such a long time your "battle" against music's piracy and bootlegging. There's an interesting fact: you've been one of the first promoters of digital's possibilities... when the web wasn't the better place to steal music yet. Then you started promoting some campaings to have musicians struggling together against this enemy (f.e. PETm)... What's the situation nowadays, after years and years of "resistance", from your point of view?
As the Borg say: "Resistance is Futile" (laughs).
I think that ethically artists should be properly compensated for their work. But Google already won that war. The battle is over. The tech companies have demolished the little guys, and the majority of 'customers' will pay hundreds for their iphone and hundreds a year for their internet connection; but won't pay for the music.
I can keep fighting like some lost soldier out on an island in the Pacific, or I can decide what is possible with the new overlords in place. While 90% of the audience have moved on or moved to free, the other 10% feel a connection to their favorite artists and to supporting their art. And that's great. But us artists need to do the work to reconnect and be part of the change. Some of the darkwave artists I worked with - while great people - have their heads buried deep in the sand! They think that if they keep wishing, it will be 1996 again, and they'll sell thousands of CDs again. But reality says that ain't happening. So you have to be realistic about today.
You know, thinking about this, reading Thich Nhat Han helped my thinking alot: suffering is failure to see reality as it is. You can't fight reality. Reality is an illusion. The idea about being "fairly paid" is an illusion that we created that once worked. But now we have to see the new reality, in order to get away from our suffering.
I wanted to centre this talk on As Lonely but I cannot end without asking at least one question about your "other sides": what about Projekt nowadays? What has become the label for you and where do you think you're going to bring it?
I have purposefully been downsizing the amount of time I spend on Projekt and the number of albums the label releases. Like I said, most artists have a very hard time selling 300 units these days. This sounds horrible, and most artists won't admit this fact because it sounds embarassing. But I'm being transparent and describing the reality of being a musician in 2015. And running a label in 2015. What's the poing of putting out a band that can't even sell 100 cds, after I put my time and effort (and money) into the release? There's no point to that. That time could be better spent working on my music. Or growing tomatoes in the garden, for that matter.
And... what about Black Tape? I read about new stuff coming soon, but I finally missed it. And 6 years have already passed from "10 Neurotics"! Are you really working on something new to be published soon?
Ha yes, of course! I just sent out a download of 14 songs to the patrons on Patreon https://www.patreon.com/blacktapeforabluegirl . Every month they get music, and they got demos of new songs; none have vocals, three have viola. I don't expect all of them will make it to the album, they're work in progress. I have an idea for the new album, part of it the concept is a double-lp (as well as a CD). It will be conceived around the idea of 4-sides. Ideally it will be out in the fall of 2015, but I don't know if I will have the lyrics written and recorded in time for that. We'll see what happens. But yes, I'm really working on new music. And the tomatoes.
What other musical projects and non-musical interests are you spending your time on? I admit, I'm more curious about non-musical ones at all...
Well.... raising my son is probably the thing I spend the most time on. And dating. I enjoy meeting people that I am attracted to, entertained by, have good conversations with. Life isn't about work, though we're all forced into that paradigm by the society we live in. I moved to Portland, Oregon, eighteen months ago. It's incredibly cheap to live here compared to Brooklyn. I feel like I can relax and work less. In fact, living in Portland feels like the 90s when I lived in Los Angeles. I don't have any sense that I need to work 40 or 60 hours a week to get by. I work far less than that on Projekt. And that gives me more time for music. Or just to hang out. Or read books. I've read a lot, since moving to Portland. I re-read "2001: A Space Odyssey" a couple weeks ago, to get back up to speed. Now I have to start on "2010".
My last one is: do you think we are going to wait 8 years more before having As Lonely working again?
Ha, no. I don't think it'll be that long.
My hopes is to have a new Black Tape For A Blue Girl album every 18 months, and two instrumental electronic albums in that same time period. Basically: keep working on music all the time. One of the biggest problem has been distractions. Whether it's Projekt, or touring, or promoting, or raising my son. Getting out of the groove of making music is a drawback. I get rusty, and feel like I have to start from scratch. But there's one difference: I've gotten good at making music. I don't say that egotistically. I just mean that it's not a struggle, like it was fifteen or twenty years ago. Last weekend, I wanted to work on the transition in a song for the new Black Tape For A Blue Girl album. I have this idea to make the first side of the LP, the first track, a 17-minute piece with four movements. I needed the transition from part 3 to part 4. I thought "sound effects. "Ok, good. Now I have a prompt to begin with". I went into the studio, got out the same sound effects CDs I have used since the 90s, grabbed a few sounds (frogs and grasshoppers and wind), and started processing them. I added some electronics on top from my Korg Poly-61.... and there ya go! I had a 3 minute transition that was perfectly Black Tape For A Blue Girl-sounding.
I think maybe what's different these days is two fold: one, I don't think about what I'm doing. Two, I believe that I can do it, so I do it. I think both of those things come from being positive, having intention, and available energy. These are definitely traits that were missing in the old days of making Black Tape For A Blue Girl music. I had so much angst in the first 10 years of Blacktape. I mean, my songs are still about relationship angst, don't worry there. But I'm way more functional as a person. And a musician.
So, that's a long way of saying, I can imagine another Dave Bowman album within 18 months. That said, I have a 90 minute track right now that has a Bowman feeling to it! It's not an album like "MONOLITH" with climaxes and moods. It's just one mood, one long piece. I might make that a Bowman download in a while. I have to think of a name for it, I already have the cover.
Too many options. I can't complain!