20 Questions with Sam Rosenthal of
black tape for a blue girl
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Sam Rosenthal about brides and bachelors, Kafka and Duchamp, a self-improvising keyboard, medieval torture devices, AND, oh yes, the new black tape for a blue girl album, the scavenger bride. Sam’s the leading creative force behind black tape, writing all their music and lyrics, crafting their beautiful CD booklet art, and more. He’s also the owner/manager of Projekt Records, on whose label this new album appears.
In addition to Sam’s exquisite ambient/neoclassical keyboard work, the new album also features sensuous, soaring vocals from Elysabeth Grant; a string section with violin, viola, and cello; lovely flute from Lisa Feuer, also the model for the CD booklet; dulcimer, mandolin, drums, and various percussions from Michael Laird of Unto Ashes; guest vocals and guitar from Bret Helm of Audra; and guest vocals from Athan Maroulis of Spahn Ranch. The result is a brooding, gripping, deeply passionate concept album about a bride, her past lovers, and the many ways relationships can twist us, but also make us grow. Now for more, let’s hear from Sam.
You released your first black tape for a blue girl album, the rope, in 1986, and since then have recorded a total of eight albums under that name. How do you see the scavenger bride fitting in to the black tape corpus? Does it feel like the culmination of a certain phase of black tape’s development, or just a new chapter unfolding?
I think of it more as a new phase than a culmination. For me, the first “period” in my work comprised the first four albums, which came out in 1986, 1987, 1989, and 1991. As you can see, they were all very close together; they came pretty directly from my emotional experiences which were the core of their content. The next three were released in 1993, 1996, and 1999. There was more time between them, although they were basically each recorded in a period of six months, not too long before their release date. With those three, I worked to have a more developed theme. Rather than being solely about me, they were about me in relation to a theme I was working on. By the time of the ‘99 album, as one aflame laid bare by desire, the theme had taken over the personal content. I mean, there’s still a lot of me in there, but you have to know where to look in order to find it.
Which brings us another three years forward, to the scavenger bride. This album was written from July to December of 2001. A rather short period of time. While there are elements of me in there, I feel that they are very submerged to the theme. I was reading Zappa’s testimony before the U.S. Senate for the PMRC [Parents Music Resource Center]-instigated hearing on “porn rock,” and one of the things he was trying to get across is that it’s a false assumption to suggest that rock n’ roll music has to be all about the singer of the song. There’s no reason why it can’t be like a novel or a play, where you are speaking from a perspective that’s not necessarily your own.
In the past, reviewers have compared black tape’s sound to bands like The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, or This Mortal Coil. Do you think those are fair comparisons? Anything they miss?
It’s extremely generous when my band is compared to those artists, since they are definitely some of my favorites and some of the most unique and interesting acts that have existed in the last decade. I feel the most similarity to This Mortal Coil, since it’s a band with one person at the helm, bringing in other artists to fulfill his vision. If there’s anything the comparison misses, though, I think it has to do with the concept or the underlying connectivity within my songs.
I think you’re right, because one of the things I like best about black tape is the way you seamlessly blend word, image, and music. Many bands can successfully meld two of these three, but very few can do all three at once. Is this careful blend one of your goals for black tape? How do you do it?
For me, an album is a complete art piece which should excite as many of your senses as possible. As the album progressed – and the characters began to take form in my head – I began to visualize ways to represent them both in images and in words. The mysterious Schavager, the traps of “the scavenger’s daughter,” etc. Early on, I knew I wanted to write additional stories to flesh out the experiences of these characters, like a short story told in brief passages. By shooting the cover and designing the booklet myself, I’m given another way to delve deeper into the themes of the album. I want to create an overall experience that forwards the characters I have created.
You just mentioned several “characters” to be found in the scavenger bride. Who are the characters of your play? Was this theatrical aspect something you consciously strove for, or did it just emerge naturally as you worked on the album?
There are three main characters: the bride, the Schavager, and the livery of bachelors (who are really a bunch of different, unidentified males). The theatrical aspect became a part of the theme about two-thirds of the way into the album.
Way back when, even before I moved to New York City in 1999, I had the idea that my next album would be called the scavenger bride. At that time, I had no idea what the album was gonna be about, or who this bride was. I began to really think too much about this character, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere. It was actually keeping me from working, because I felt I needed to know her story before I could start. Then I just gave up on having the theme mapped out and started working on music; the theme began to reveal itself and fall into place.
This theatrical element is what distinguished this album from past ones. Yes, they had themes, but I would always disagree when people called them “concept albums.” A concept album – to me – needs to have recurring characters, such as in Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy. I mean, my albums had a “concept,” but it was not reflected via the use of characters, which is territory I entered on the scavenger bride.
Back to your question, though, about who are the main characters of my play. There’s the bride. She’s a woman who (at one time) was poised to become a bride. That changes in the story, not that this event (in itself) is particularly important. The Schavager is the narrator for our story, and the Livery of Bachelors represents a number of different men that the bride at one time was involved with. They don’t act like a chorus, however. They are involved with her in terms of a number of different situations and problems and problematic personalities that the bride has dealt with in her life.
Aside from their shadowy presence as influences on the bride, are there songs specifically about the bachelors or told from their point of view?
Certainly. Songs like “the lie which refuses to die” and “like a dog/letter to brod” take you into the quite scary minds of some of the bachelors who at one time were important to the bride. Through these songs, you get to know a bit about them and why the bride had to ditch them [laughs].
And what about “the doorkeeper?” What’s that all about?
“the doorkeeper” is based on a kernel of an idea I got from Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” which appears as a segment of The Trial. In essence, a man tries to get a doorkeeper to allow him to pass, he waits for years and years, and at some point even tries to bribe the fleas in the doorkeeper’s collar, in an attempt to get through. I used that parable as a jumping-off point. I kinda see this as another example of a bachelor’s problems. Elysabeth sings the song, which is really a commentary on one of these men.
The cover art, with Lisa posed in front of a flat cityscape in Prague, looks very much like a stage backdrop to me, and much of the text in the liner notes would not be out of place in a stage script. Was this intentional?
The cover is a combination of different photos that I intended to have a sort of dreamy, hazy, memory-like sort of quality to them. In the same way, the panels in the booklet could almost be backdrops on a stage, sets for the action to occur in front of. When the concept was well developed, I started working on the booklet with a mind towards it being part of the big picture/big puzzle. It helps demonstrate the story.
The story appeals to me for a number of reasons. First, because it looks at relationships from a female perspective. The Schavager is the narrator and the bachelors are pretty interchangeable characters. The story sticks with the bride and how she makes discoveries through the course of her various relationships. I think it’s a useful lesson, about discovering who you really are. Secondly, I really wanted to create a complete piece–pictures, sound, words – that was coherent and had resolution.
You mention that the scavenger bride is mainly told through the eyes of the bride herself. It’s an old cliche that men can’t write female characters, yet you seem to have broken out of that. Is it hard for you to write from a female perspective? Do you feel you look at relationships in a different way than most men?
I don’t find it hard to write from this perspective; I think it’s what I’ve been doing for years. Basically, I don’t go into situations with the macho male attitude of forcing things to be the way he thinks it should be. I spend a lot of time (maybe too much time?) thinking and analyzing. Reaching conclusions based on intuition or observation. I think that I’ve been in relationships in the past where I was the one who was hurt or put through the wringer, which provided good fodder for lyrics and stories. Of course, with this album I had to stay in that voice for a longer period of time, but it’s not really something I force myself into. I just write what comes naturally to me.
Given the Duchampian references running throughout the scavenger bride (see below), I understand where the characters of the bride and the bachelors come from. But what about the mysterious “Schavager”? What is a schavager, anyway?
Well, that’s an interesting question. When I was struggling with the story of the bride, I did a bit of online research. I went to different dictionary Web sites and looked up the word “scavenger.” Aside from the obvious definitions we know (about animals that eat dead meat or people who pick through refuse), I came to the root of the word. And it’s this:
“Alteration of Middle English scauager, schavager, official charged with street maintenance, from Anglo-Norman scawager, toll collector, from scawage, a tax on the goods of foreign merchants, from Flemish scauwen, to look at, show.”
And I thought, “hmmm, that’s kinda interesting.” Because here is an actual job title, a person who swept streets, and cleaned up refuse, which clicked with my idea of searching through your personality, to find the truer self. That led to the first story in the booklet, about the Schavager cleaning the streets, and believing he could see into people’s hearts. But the resolution of that piece collided with another thread I wanted to weave into the album, which was the European torture device “the scavenger’s daughter.” The text that Martin Bowes speaks in this song is a description of the device, shortened (a bit) from an online report I found at [a Web site]. The daughter is the constriction the bride feels, given form. I liked the metaphor of a person crushing in upon themselves, and how it could represent the way we allow circumstances to beat us down and defeat us.
OK, so now I had the basic threads of the whole album. It became a task of layering these ideas through songs, and building a dense framework of meaning, much the same way I build dense layers of instrumental tracks and voices in the music.
In almost every song on the scavenger bride there are layers upon layers of meaning to the lyrics, and to the construction of the music itself. How do you compose a song? How do you decide which instruments and ideas to include, and which to leave out?
It’s a long process. The very first step is me alone in the studio. I’m thinking “I don’t feel creative today. Man, what am I going to do!?!” and then I start plunking away at the keyboard and if I’m lucky, an hour or two later I have the electronic parts of the song. Just by playing different chords, or sounds in the sampler, and by layering them up and deleting bits and seeing where it goes. That is recorded into the sequencer of my ancient Ensoniq ESQ1. I come back to it a few days later and see if it’s still any good. If so, I transfer it into the multitrack (Vegas on a PC). It’s relatively rare that I add much else to the electronic part of the songs, after the first day. At some point soon thereafter, I try to come up with the lyrics. Sometimes, they come immediately like “bastille day, 1961,” or sometimes they elude me for month and months like “a livery of bachelors.” I record my guide vocals and send them out on CD-R to the singer. This is a torturous CD of me yowling the melodies in a really painful falsetto. Bret [Helm, of Audra] or Athan [Maroulis, of Spahn Ranch] get it, cringe, scratch their heads, and then knock it down an octave so it can be sung by a male voice. Though she can hit the high notes that I write, Elysabeth [Grant] probably still cringes.
As far as deciding what instruments to use, I look for what feels right to me, based on the structure of the song. It would be hard to define it any more clearly. Sometimes it’s just obvious that a flute or cello is needed; sometimes nothing more is needed. Sometimes I only know that “something is needed here” and I try different things, till it comes out filling the need I felt. Such as in the third part of “like a dog.” I knew I wanted somebody to sing numbers, and some string part in there; then it was a process of trying different ideas till it worked.
One of the key influences on your work in recent years (including your last album, as one aflame laid bare by desire) has been the twentieth-century artist Marcel Duchamp, especially his the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even (also known as the Large Glass). Can you describe this work for us, and explain how it fits into the scavenger bride?
Certainly. It’s funny, actually. I think I have the ailment “Duchamp on the Brain.” When I am working on my words, I don’t think, “mmm, now it’s time to throw in a Duchampian reference.” They just come out that way. I’ve been so immersed in Kafka [see below] and Duchamp that I only see where I referred to them, later. At first, I didn’t really think the Duchamp influence was overwhelming on the album. I kinda felt that I was just borrowing the titles of bride and bachelor from the Large Glass. Now, I guess you just cannot get away from Duchamp. Once you read about fifteen books on the man, he occupies a percentage of your brain. You can take the boy out of Duchamp, but you can’t take the Duchamp out of the boy!
black tape’s last album, as one aflame laid bare by desire, dealt with the bride in a pretty pure Duchampian context; the song “Given” on that album, for example, used Duchamp’s words as source material for the lyrics. On the scavenger bride, I feel that I’ve stepped back from that very pure Duchamp theme of the bride as a motor which is powered by and powered for the bachelors. In a way, maybe, this album is more like Duchamp’s final artwork, Given. Instead of it being so mathematical, I’ve given my bride flesh and bones and a “situation” to work through. Then again, I don’t really think she’s even aware of this matter. I think she goes through life in a somewhat natural manner, experiencing things and growing; it’s the Schavager who is actually documenting it all, realizing it all. So, in that sense, I probably identify more with him than with her. Because I’m the guy sitting there with the notepad, stopping to jot down a thought during the play…
One of the songs on the scavenger bride is called “bastille day, 1961.” What’s the significance of that date?
There’s a couple of ways the date relates. First off, in 1961, my mom was the age I am now, 36. So that’s where I first came up with that date. The song deals with contemplating your life, looking at what you would have done differently had you the opportunity. So I put myself in the shoes of an older person, looking back at life at 36, and what might have been changed. Then you can consider that if the bride were 36 in 1913, she’d be 84 in 1961. If she survived the Holocaust to live to that ripe old age, she’d probably be looking back at her life and sorting out a few things about her experiences. I wouldn’t say that the words Elysabeth sings on this song are the only resolution to the story I present; they’re really just one of the possible outcomes.
You’ve mentioned 1913 a couple of times now. Is that when the scavenger bride is set? Why that year?
The center section of “like a dog/letter to brod” is taken from a letter that Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod, combined with some of the emotions that led him to write The Trial. That letter is from March 14, 1913, which is why I used that date as the setting for the story. Kafka and Duchamp were both active at that time, so it’s an era that appeals to me.
You’ve mentioned Franz Kafka as an influence on several songs from the scavenger bride, and you even dedicated the album to him (as well as to Lisa). The character of the lonely, often bewildered schavager also reminds me at times of K., the main character of The Trial. How have Kafka’s life and work affected your vision for the scavenger bride?
The only person I have more books on than Duchamp is Franz Kafka. He’s definitely my favorite artist. I can really imagine him sitting alone in his room at three a.m., thinking he was an awful writer, yet churning out this great work. In that sense, he reminds me quite a bit of Michael Plaster from Soulwhirlingsomewhere.
Well hm? You see the Schavager as “bewildered”? I never thought of it that way. I thought of him more as curious, and diligent. Uncertain why this woman was impenetrable and puts himself on the case to find the answer.
As you point out, “the doorkeeper” and “the whipper” directly draw from The Trial. We’ve talked about “the doorkeeper” above. I also knew the album needed a second short absurd piece, which grew into “the whipper” (actually a slowed down part of “all my lovers”).
The only time I really take Kafka’s personality into the album is on “like a dog / letter to brod,” where I use his words as a reflection of the thoughts of one of the bachelors. The words play very well with ideas I’ve expressed on earlier songs, where I’ve felt like a doormat in a relationship that has quite possibly been within my imagination. When you read about Kafka’s life, you see his failed engagements, where he spent most of his time trying to get out of the situation, while also wishing he could be the person who would be able to make it work.
Of course, “like a dog” are the final words uttered by K. in The Trial.
I understand that a trip you and Lisa took to Prague was part of the development of the scavenger bride. What inspired you there?
For me, the trip to Prague was a fact checking mission. We went at the end of October, after much of the music for the album was already written. It was an opportunity to soak in the environment, walk the streets that Kafka walked and add a bit of color to the album. It’s really nice how much of the city still feels like 1913! Athan rightly pointed out that thanks to communism, they didn’t have the money to tear the place down and put up modern buildings, as has happened in much of Europe. So Prague retains a very special quality.
The last piece in the booklet (and the one about the monkeys) were written in Prague. I went out early one morning to shoot photos for the cover, and was pleasantly surprised to discover men out sweeping the streets, not unlike the Schavager of my play. Using brooms!!! They had little carts – kinda like a red wagon you’d have as a kid–and they rolled those along, to throw the butts and bits of trash in. It was very lovely!
Another song on the album is named “kinski,” after the actor Klaus Kinski. Are you a fan of his work? What influence did he have on the album?
Oh yes, I am a big fan of Kinski’s work; my favorite of his films is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I got Lisa hooked, too. Once the music was written for that song, I knew I wanted to write something for/about Klaus. I had words written but wasn’t very pleased with them; so I asked Lisa to try writing something. She wrote a long poem/story, which I edited down to the lyrics (some of mine actually remain in the song). It works on different levels. It’s about Kinski, but it’s also about the bride’s dreams of a perfect lover named Klaus, who disappears into smoke. His influence on the album is in the realm of “passion.” I put the erotic photos on the page in the booklet with “kinski” in tribute to his desire. The title “your jealousy is slavery” comes from a section in his book Kinski: Uncut.
What or who is “das liselottenbett”?
It’s a German word I had a friend create. Lisa’s full name is Liselotte, and das liselottenbett would be “Lisa’s Bed.”
What do the words “neve
That’s a Czech translation of “the scavenger bride.” I went over the many different meanings with a fellow Martin – in the Czech Republic – to come up with this phrase which (I hope) best reflects the meaning I wanted to get across.
Has the presence of Lisa’s lovely flute playing on the last two black tape albums affected the way you compose your music? Has it had anything to do with the more melodic sound of recent black tape that can be heard on aflame and the scavenger bride?
If you listen back to the album remnants of a deeper purity you will hear a pretty “minimalist” sound, in the sense of the ’60s modern minimalists like Glass or Bryars or Reich. With that album, I wanted to strip away a lot of the “colors” in my music and paint with a rather muted palette. The booklet reflects that color scheme, as well. Certainly, the singing has always been melodic, but with aflame I brought in more melody in the music. Yes, Lisa’s flute playing was a part of that. It’s really very Cageian. I never planned to have a flautist, yet I was presented with the opportunity to have a flute in my band, since that was the instrument Lisa plays. It would be pretty tough to have an ambient flute, so it encouraged (challenged?) me to write for the flute. Naturally, the instrument lends itself to melody and cutting through the clutter, so on a song like “floats in the updrafts” you have the vocal melodies as well as the two flute melodies.
Much of the scavenger bride also has a more rhythmic feel than previous albums, thanks in part to some excellent guest percussion contributed by Michael Laird of Unto Ashes. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Michael’s contribution is essential. I knew there were songs that “needed something.” Something that couldn’t be added by playing a sampler or a keyboard. I asked Michael to contribute; the first session yielded the dulcimer on “kinski” and the next one the mandolin on “all my lovers.” Both rhythmic and melodic parts. It was very natural and fluid working with Michael. I might say “this needs some drums here” and he would start playing great things. I’d push him into the booth and start recording. The same is true with Bret. We weren’t originally planning to record guitar when he was out. I said “You know, at this point the song needs to pick up” and he came up with a few guitar parts. That’s the pleasure of working with live musicians (rather than electronics), they come up with great ideas that augment my arrangements. It’s pretty rare when your keyboards improvise (which isn’t to say it’s never happened).
Wait a minute, you’re saying your keyboards have improvised without you? Are you serious? How in the world did that happen?
It was back in approximately 1993-94, when I was working on remnants of a deeper purity. I was loading a sound into my Emax I. When it was done loading I hit a key and the thing freaked out! It started playing the new sound and the old sound and some other stuff. One of the sounds was a vocal sample, one was a cello. I was thinking “wow, this is pretty neat…” and I scrambled to get a DAT tape into the recorder. Of course, it stopped before I had time to start recording. So I spent the next few hours trying to recreate the song the Emax wrote. That’s the song “Fitful,” and you’ll note that I gave the keyboard co-songwriting credit on that one.
How has your music been changing in recent years? Any idea where you’re heading, or what you’d like to explore with future albums?
Well, from a conceptual point of view I think my albums are moving away from being veiled stories about my relationships and more towards self-contained concepts. I’m really not interested in writing a story about myself living in New York City at the turn of the millennium, ya know. Musically, I really cannot state where I think it’s going or even where it’s at. To me, it’s still black tape for a blue girl. It’s still me making this music. Sure, maybe it has shorter songs and more melody then in the past. It’s still the same band, just the year 2002 version.
In addition to being the main creative force behind black tape, you’re also the head honcho of Projekt Records. Has working with so many other artists on their music over the years changed the way you approach your own music?
I wouldn’t say “no,” just because there are always lessons in life that we have, even if we don’t realize it at the time. So, I’ve probably taken some subtle instruction here and there. Usually more in the “what not to do” category. Though I have to admit that Steve Roach has given me helpful recording advice regarding the digital Vegas system I am now using.
How do you strike the delicate balance that black tape maintains so well between getting across your own vision for an album, while at the same time allowing the listener to experience their own individual visions based on your work?
Well, I think the more of your vision you put in, to a great degree, the more it can be left open for individual interpretation. I guess so long as you don’t close all the doors, you can have the room pretty full of furniture [laughs].
Taking “vision” a little more literally, do you see “scenes” in your head when you listen to music (your own and that of others)? Or is it more the other way around, do you create music that evokes the things you see? Or both?
Neither, really. I kinda see them separately. The music isn’t visuals in motion, but more stills. I think a slide show might be an appropriate way to reflect the album!
Black tape toured in support of aflame when it came out. Any live shows in the works for the scavenger bride?
Yes. I think we will play live a bit. We played over 100 shows in 1998-99, and it will be impossible to do that, this time. I just can’t get away from the office for that period of time. I am looking at a few key shows, including an appearance at this year’s Projektfest in Philadelphia in late May.
I really like the story with which you close the liner notes, the schavager’s answer to the question of why she is “the scavenger bride” and not “the scavenger’s bride.” Your idea that we all “scavenge a further element of truth” from each experience and relationship, no matter how painful, rings very true to me. Is this something you’ve learned from your own experience?
Certainly, yes. Lisa has always said that if it wasn’t for this or that experience, she wouldn’t be the person she is today. I feel there’s no reason to regret anything dumb or painful you have done, so long as you have learned from the experience.
Projekt Records: http://www.projekt.com