Interview: Sam Rosenthal (Black Tape For A Blue Girl/Projekt Records)

The names Black Tape For a Blue Girl and Projekt Records are synonymous

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Sam Rosenthal

with “cornerstones” in the foundation of darkwave music.  Stretching boundaries into the realms of gothic and ambient are consistently part of their trajectories.  To Touch The Milky Way is the new release from Black Tape for a Blue Girl.  We’d like to thank the band’s founder and owner of Projekt Records, Sam Rosenthal for his time in answering our interview today.

The new album is To Touch The Milky Way. Could you tell us, from a creative perspective about the development from initial ideas to what it is in its final form?

Sam: I don’t really start an album with an idea of what it will be, I just start making music and it evolves from there. Over time, some of the pieces sound good together, some of them don’t fit but might relate to another project later, and some of them are just crap and I throw them out (laughs). I have certain criteria for what makes a BlackTape song, the texture or mood of the piece. And the album quite naturally begins to form, I can sense where the missing pieces are, what sound or mood or tempo I’d like to hear at this point or that point. And even though they’re separate songs, it’s about the piece as a whole, the flow, the continuity.

Like many other musicians, I think in the structure of albums, even though we’re more in a singles world these days with streaming. Anyway, I come up with characters with stories to tell. There’s a similarity in the concepts, even though the experiences of the characters are different. A creative through-line came to the album over time, the idea of fighting our own restrictions and self-imposed limitations, as well as asking if there is something more out there, aside from the smallness of so many of our lives.

Does the new album revolve around a central theme or are the tracks stories in and of themselves?

Sam: I think there’s some amount of inter-relatedness in the themes, but only the first and last track seem to me to be part of the same story. I see “I close my eyes…” and “To touch…” as being from the point of view of the same character, who’s reflected in ‘the shipwrecked alien traveler’ on the cover.

But otherwise, the theme is much more about questioning the dead ends we find ourselves in, asking if there’s more we want in our lives, wanting to feel more, be more, experience more. I think this a question that everyone asks themselves at time, or perhaps avoids asking. I’m at a point where I ask myself these questions more regularly, and it comes out in the different characters I’ve created.

The titles of the songs almost seem to suggest an alteration between self/introspection and the galaxy or universe. Do you feel satisfied that, from your perspective, you successfully described your feelings of our place in the universe or the dynamics between personal and existential or the universe?

Sam: oh, no, I don’t think I successfully described my feelings on that, because I think it would come across as too blunt if I did that! (laughs). I think poetry and lyrics requires a lot of vagueness and open-to-interpretation-ness, to keep it interesting. I like the pictures I’ve painted in the lyrics, but the ones that deal with the existential aspects of the universe have to be open-ended. A song like “In my memories,” thinking about the past and wanting to go back in time and get lost there, that can be more direct. It’s a less big picture idea. That character is sad, and he remembers that time when he was 23 when the world seemed perfect. And boy, wouldn’t it be nice to be that young man again, and have that lover, and everything would just be wonderful!

But as far as the songs that talk about samsara, the suffering in the universe, or the bigger picture. Well, I don’t want to describe that in a fully successful way. It’s so abstract, and it’s ultimately a big question mark. I told a small story that is just one little part of the whole. It can be representative of the whole existential question. And it’s open-ended that way, which I like.

You’ve always managed to change your marketing along with the changing landscape that is the music business. You’ve embraced crowdfunding and patronage or subscriptions via Bandcamp. Has anything changed regarding your process of creating a song over the years?

Sam: I think the change in my process is that I now feel free to make the music I want to make. I think, in the end, all BlackTape albums were/are exactly what I wanted to make at the time, in that I never ended up making something crappy that I thought would sell. But I did beat myself up at times, wondering if I should have made something crappy that would sell (laughs). But these days I have a team of people out there cheering me on and saying, “Go for it! Get as obscure and deep into it as you want, because we love that!” That feels good. I think each artist has to consider all the options and find the one that feels best, and works best for them. For me crowdfunding has been a very good fit.

What can fans receive by taking advantage of the Patronage option on Bandcamp?

Sam: The patronage at Bandcamp is a way for people to make small monthly payments ($3 and up) that help support me and my work. I record at home, I have my own studio, so I don’t pay thousands and thousands of dollars for studio time. What costs me is the time I am spending NOT working at Projekt, when I dedicate my time to making my art. These small payments help cover that. What you get is 12 or so free downloads (and you can streams, and everything new that I add to Bandcamp. Rally a great deal.

What dictates whether a track is going to be a solo work or on a Black Tape for a Blue Girl album? Also, what dictates whom you ask to participate in the project?

Sam: I have my ideas about what constitutes BlackTape music. While it’s not required that a song have vocals, it’s important to me that the album has enough vocals that it feels like a BlackTape album. The Rope (our 1986 debut) was almost half instrumental while 10 Neurotics (2009) was 100% vocal songs. There’s been a range, but I try to have enough instrumental passages to satisfy that side of myself. The As Lonely As Dave Bowman side project is electronic, instrumental, and primarily uses an Eventide harmonizer to create the sort of gritty space-sound.

The other thing with Dave Bowman is those two albums were created very fast. I wrote/recorded the majority of each in a one week period. They are much more concentrated, going for a specific thing. BlackTape can take a year or two from start to finish. There’s the Journey to Aktehi side-project, which was conceptualized around working with Mark Seelig. And there’s a new instrumental album, The Gesture of History, which is conceptualized around the viola parts played by Shadow. That’s the new thing I am working on, which I expect to crowdfund early in 2019.

Your words on your Bandcamp page would seem indicative of an interest in existentialist philosophy. How influential have writers like Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Neitzsche or others been to you?

Sam: In the 80s they were influential, but I have since forgotten most of it, it’s now locked deep somewhere in my brain. I was reading those guys in college and then right after college, while working on the first three or four albums. I think Sartre and Nietzsche (the two that I read more) are real bummers. Yes, God is dead, Friedrich, what are we going to do about it? I read Jungian stuff these days. Which is more, “Take the bull by the horns and make your life what you wish it to be.”

You’ve always had some intriguing album art but in the case of To Touch The Milky Way, it is especially interesting. You note that the figure is “non-binary” porn star Mercy West. Could you talk about some of the cover art and why you chose this person to be the main figure?

Sam: Mercy is my partner, a model, and a fun person to shoot photos with. We talk a lot about images, and coming up with ideas for shoots. I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to put on the cover, how I wanted to represent the ideas. I was overstressing, thinking a bit too literally about the photos I wanted to shoot, but Mercy reminded me that a good cover doesn’t have to have to do with the lyrics. Mercy & I are both big fans of early 70s Bowie, Roxy Music, Eno, and we nerded out on the idea of making something striking, that the viewer could try to relate to the lyrics and the music.

I read about the shipwrecked space-ship on the Oregon coast, so I thought that would be a great place to shoot. I imagined Mercy’s character, developed that outfit, imagining a sexy androgynous traveler. I mean, if there’s going to be a spaceman, he should be sexy, right? (Laughs). But you can never say for certain why that character reflects the title track. I provide the skeleton of a story in the images, then the viewer can create their own concept.

This next question concerns the emotional dynamics of your musical career. Going back to The Rope and up to To Touch The Milky Way, what tracks especially stick out for you that exemplify your highest and lowest emotional moments; the most joyous vs. the most sorrow-filled, the most certain vs. the most scattered for example?

Sam: Oh no, that’s tough. I don’t listen to the albums regularly, so it’s sort of like a homework project to dig back into them and see what I remember. I really like the ambient track “Slow Blur” off the Rope, because it was an “Ah ha!” piece I created before the band name was picked. I had done a number of cassettes of electronic music, before that. Then that piece came up and it felt more fluid, natural, something that stood on it’s own as a unique and original piece of music. I was happy with it, in a way that I hadn’t been with tracks before.

I think that the middle-portion of 1990’s A chaos of desire has some very sorrow-filled pieces, “the hypocrite is me” and then the two ambient/electronic tracks with Vicki’s violin. A very dark period. I think “Knock three times” and “Inch worm” have a spirit of fun and lightness, even though they are dark subjects. Reminds me of when The Cure was having fun with “Love Cats” or “Let’s Go to Bed.” And then “the Stars” on the new album is a great dreampop track, in a genre that I’ve never tried before. It’s completely fresh for me, and that’s exciting. And Dani just performed it so perfectly, and the backing vocal harmonies are lovely.

How has your studio equipment evolved over the years?

Sam: Oh, the last major evolution was in 2002 when I stopped using the analog 8-track and moved to digital. Before that, I had to midi all the synths together and run them live during the mix, from the strip of code on the 8th track. It was very limiting using 7 tracks for all the acoustic instruments and vocals. Nowadays, I hardly even use the sequencer or arpeggiator. I prefer to record live stuff “to tape” and then edit it in there. And I have infinite tracks to flesh out bits, and have the mix automated. So much easier than the old days.

On the other hand, all of my synths are dusty from the 80s and 90s, except for a new one I bought about 3 years ago. For my soundscapes new gear isn’t really what makes me inspired to make music. The old stuff works just fine, because I have more stories to tell, and they are just the tools to do it. Tried and trusted tools.

Do you think you’ll ever do another ProjektFest?

Sam: No, I really don’t. It just takes too much money and it’s too much risk. The two we did in the mid-90s were amazing, 1000 people, wonderful venue, great music. While the ones in the 00s were less-well attended. If the WGT wanted to put up the money, and stage it as a night at the Treffen in Germany, I’d be much more excited about it. Here in America? I’d need a partner to work with, who could do a lot of the hard work, because it’s not how I want to invest my time. I sometimes wonder, “Would people come if I did a BlackTape fest?” Two nights, with two different versions of the band. And daytime panels, and maybe the members of the band’s own bands would perform too. That seems like a cool idea. It’s still a time & money issue. But I could get behind that one more.

What further plans do you have going into 2019? And any plans for another book perhaps?

Sam: As mentioned earlier, I’m working on the Gestures of History collaboration, with Shadow’s viola parts. That’s going to be crowdfunded early next year. The tracks re all created, now I’m editing, rearranging and revamping two of them. But I like the mood.

A book? No, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I absolutely love the characters I created in Rye. However, it was a big investment in time, and I’d rather put that energy into the music. I had thoughts about the follow-up pretty soon after Rye was finished, 2013. But instead I moved to Portland Oregon, and then I started working on music, and I’ve gotten a lot of music created in the last four years, and I want to stay with that momentum, rather than getting pulled away by a book. Artistically, there’s the whole question of it being six years after Rye came out. I wanted to pick up the story 3 months after it left off. Does that mean I’m writing historical fiction? It will be in the past, the good ole days before Trump? I don’t want to be like Star Wars, where we meet Han again when he’s an old man (laughs).

Many, many years down the road, a very distant relative locates a box in the attic of an old home. In that box they find a compilation of your work and something to play it on. What do you hope this person learns about your legacy simply from listening to your music?

Sam: “Oh shit, Grandpa was a freak!!!” (laughs)

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