The Blacks are definitely one band where seeing them perform and listening to them in the comfort of your home are two completely different sides of a coin. Their debut release, Dolly Horrorshow (Bloodshot Records), is wonderfully, professionally-wrought country punk that is as easily at home on a biker-dive jukebox as it is on the few radio stations that play independent music. The songs run the gamut of odes to religion and oral sex, deadbeat fathers, and Bill Monroe covers. This is the kind of country that can depress you out of the happiest happy jag, all the while being so engaging you can’t turn the music off to slit your own wrist; Hank Williams Sr. with all the grit and anger of a William Gibson novel.
On the other hand, their live shows are pure cabaret, the band members decked out in everything from evening gowns and suits to French maid uniforms, Colonel Sanders Sunday-best ensembles, and loungewear. Co-frontwoman Gina Black stands at six-feet-even behind her upright bass, while Danny Black alternately plays guitar and trumpet and parades around the stage and into the audience with all the charm and schmooze of the best lounge acts. Nora O’Conner almost looks out of place with her squeaky-clean charm–until she brings out her vibrator to coax some truly strange sounds out of her Silvertone electric. Drummer James Emmenegger is often referred to by his bandmates as Animal, after the Muppets character that has to be chained behind his kit to keep him from attacking everyone. They’ve been matched on the tour circuit with bands as varied as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Electric Frankenstein, and Split Lip Rayfield, performing all over the country for audiences totally unprepared for their brand of decadent country.
Where did you three meet and when did you start playing music together?
Gina Black : Danny and I met about four and a half years ago at a club in Chicago called Lounge Axe. We were both there to see the same show, and we just kind of started talking and Danny mentioned that he’d been looking for an upright bass player. We started playing together, [and] probably about a week after that, Dan had a bunch of songs he’d written and recorded by himself on a four-track player in his, just fiddling around with different styles of music, so he had a whole slew of songs ready for me to add bass lines to. About a year after that, we formed Black Family–we had to change the name to the Blacks last year because another band was already recording under the Black Family name.
Did you get any support from your family when you first started pursuing music as a career?
When I first started getting into orchestra music, it was something that my parents considered as a last-ditch effort to get a scholarship. They didn’t really realize that I was serious and that I enjoyed playing music, they just figured I was doing that because I didn’t have good enough grades to go to veterinary school. So I think they never really fully understood my intentions. They were upset when I moved out of the house and I joined a band and then dropped school altogether. They were pretty pissed off, actually. They actually sent the scholarship money back to De Paul because they felt that it would be much better spent on someone who actually wanted to be there. Actually, though, we played the Metro here in Chicago a few months ago for the first time, and my parents and my sister came down to see us play, and it ended up being one of our best shows ever. So now, after seeing that, my parents are actually proud of what I’m doing and know I’m serious about it. My mom went around to Borders and Tower Records and a bunch of other stores around Chicago and bought our CD just so she could save the different receipts for her scrap book.
Are you happy being on an independent label, or are you shopping for a major label any time soon?
Personally, from all the horror stories I’ve heard from other bands, pretty much anyone I know who’s gotten signed to a major label has been dropped in the last year, or is hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I like the idea of being able to hang out with the label owners of Bloodshot Records — like we did last night. We played a graduation party for some friends of ours, and afterwards we all got to just sit around and casually discuss setting up some studio time for the new record in between beers. It’s really nice to have that kind of contact with the people handling your project. Plus, they don’t exert any control over the music, which is precious, in a way. We have complete artistic freedom from Bloodshot, and I hear that a lot of bands don’t get that kind of freedom from their labels. You don’t even need to be on a major label, from what I can see, unless it’s really going to work to your advantage right off the bat. Plus, it’s so much better to have a grass-roots following that’s going to be loyal to you and come out to see you play than a bunch of people who are going to hear you on the radio once and then forget about you ten minutes later.
What do you do when you’re not touring?
I’m a freelance Claymation artist. It’s a lot of fun. I get to sit around all day and make little clay dolls. Earlier today I was making a bunch of tiny clay kittens.
Do you do commercials or films?
It’s kind of a fledgling enterprise. It’s only been around for about a year and half. But so far we’ve done a bit spot for the Disney Channel that’s still being used in their commercials, this 90-second mini cartoon, and then some TV show pilots. Right now, we’re trying to animate this children’s book — we’ve kind of bitten off more than we can chew with this one. It’s taking forever to come together.