Filed under: Interview
“The black dog a symbol of depression I guess, something I’ve always battled with. Like Winston Churchill’s black dog.”
Chatting down the line from his Torbay home, Black Dog founder and main-man Ken Downie is the first to admit his choice of band name remains relevant, admitting that his creative juices remain closely tied to his state of mind.
“Making music is just battling with depression and mood really,” he muses, “If you’re down, you don’t really want to do anything.”
Chatting to Skrufff today about his brand new Black Dog album Silenced (co-produced with new band-mates Martin and Richard Dust) he’s both friendly and polite if a little taciturn in his manner, whereas band-mate Martin (speaking afterwards) is more loquacious, not least about Ken’s condition.
“I know quite a few people that suffer from depression, all you’ve got to be is be a friend for them and listen to what they’ve got to say and try and channel it, but if they are depressed, there’s very little you can do and very little you can understand. It must be one of the most misunderstood illnesses in the modern age but I don’t really have a problem with it,” says Martin.
“A lot of people have painted Ken into a corner by saying he’s a miserablist and he’s really difficult to work with, but I’ve not found any of that to be honest, in the two and a half/three years that we’ve been working together and the nine that I’ve known him, I’ve not found that at all,” he says, “I can be more difficult than him at any point I’ve ever worked with him.”
The fruits of their recent labour, Silenced, harks back to Black Dog’s finest moment to date, 1993, Bites, a record that remains a landmark album in electronic music’s development, and something of an albatross, Ken admits.
“You do consider people’s expectations, yes, it’s easy to sit there and think ‘Mmmm’,” he says. “It’s better to just play and get on with it really and do your own thing. People have been asking for ‘Bites II’ for years and years, but if you were to deliver ‘Bites II’ they’d say: Oh, no. It sounds like ‘Bites.’
“We never set off to make it like Bites,” Martin agrees, “My idea was to create something that you could come home to after you’d just been to a club or gig, that would start at the right pace and then just wind down into a great album and just chill out. We took quite a selfish approach but it evolved in that way, with all of us sending parts back and forwards to each other and visiting each other until it all fitted together. It’s odd that a couple of people have mentioned that about ‘Bites’ but the plan wasn’t to revisit that, the plan was to emotionally just draw a line in the sand and have done with all the past and just start again as three people.”
Interview by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff) : When we did an email interview with Black Dog a couple of years ago about the last album ‘Unsavoury Products’ the quote I got said ‘Material of this nature is very demanding, as it requires an emotional contribution from the listener’ whereas your new album seems quite accessible, what’s the story?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : There’s no point in making it inaccessible.
Skrufff : How long have you been working on the album?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : A couple of years to get it all together and discard the bad bits and polish up the good bits.
Skrufff : Do you have an overall vision of how the whole thing is going to be?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Not when we start out. We don’t even know track orders or anything. We see what works next to each other.
Skrufff : Are you doing lots of ideas or track by track?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : It’s been quite fast recently. We’ve written thirty odd tunes in the last few months. We’re kind of brainstorming.
Skrufff : Do you actually physically get together to do it or are you doing it all…?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : We have done, although it’s been a combination because it’s five hours on a train up to Sheffield and they drive, so…
Skrufff : You’re based in London still?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : No, I’m down in Torbay now. I moved there a few years ago.
Skrufff : Where do see ‘Black Dog’ fitting in today?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Independent producers I think, rather than a flavour of the month band or pop act with a dance routine. It’s terrible.
Skrufff : Are you planning to perform the music live at all?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Hopefully next year sometime.
Skrufff : Is Black Dog all you do at the moment or do you do other stuff as well?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : It’s kind of just revolving around Black Dog really. The Black Dog posse. It’s just like a flow of artists really. Graphics artists, coders, musicians, HTML people. We’re kind of online really, because you can meet people all over the globe and it’s fairly inexpensive.
Skrufff : So as well as doing music do you do art projects and stuff?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Yeah…and games and websites.
Skrufff : there’s great symbolism in the term Black Dog, with black dogs being perceived in folklore and portents of doom,were you reading about English folklore when you chose the name?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : In the name? It’s a symbol of depression I guess, something I’ve always battled with. Like Winston Churchill’s black dog.
Skrufff : Are you a believer in magic?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : I’ve studied it, and the world’s religions, I don’t know if I believe it, bit I’ve looked into it.
Skrufff : What do you make of the state of the world at the moment?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : It’s in flux, isn’t it. Things are changing.
Skrufff : Are you optimistic?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : In human spirit, yeah. The bad guys always stomp around on the world stage but then they die and things change. I think the human spirit will keep going.
Skrufff : Are you going to be travelling abroad to promote the album?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Nothing as seedy as that, no, just traveling abroad and having fun, but not to promote anything.
Skrufff : Is DJing something you’ve ever considered doing or dabbled in?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : The ‘Punk Rock Soundsystem’ that’s what we’ll be taking out on the road.
Skrufff : What kind of places are you playing at?
Black Dog (Ken Downie) : Venues, predominantly.
Skrufff : When did you get involved with working with Ken?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : Black Dog (Martin Dust): “I’ve been friends with Ken for probably nine or ten years. The main connection is that we both had an interest in (internet) bulletin board systems and punk. I used to run a bulletin board with an old style modem and communication and information file exchange and hacking and stuff, so right from the beginning I’ve always been talking to Ken, about that, about music, about everything really. We just struck a friendship up like that and swapped music and ideas and continue from there. We’ve always had a policy that if we didn’t like something, we’d say it.
Skrufff : Where did that morph into you joining Black Dog?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : I’d been wanting to do a label for such a long time. It morphed when we got involved with doing a club night up here in Sheffield, and a couple of designers joined, we got some DJs involved, and it became like a collective of fifteen people. I was talking to Ken at the time and he was ready to give up after getting fucked around by record labels and we just said ‘Why don’t we just work on some stuff in the background and then see what happens. From there we found a distributor who understood our vision, which involved everything from designing flyers to designing sleeves, to thinking about our music policy and that whole process took two years. At the end of that process, we decided that our first release should be with Black Dog. It’s really weird because it’s such a clich?, but the whole process was organic, we fucked around for so long that we ended up with 500 gigs’ worth of music that we never used, just from playing around with ideas.
Skrufff : How much is five hundred gigs worth, in minutes?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : We’ve got four or five hours worth of stuff (completed music). I always spoke to Ken about going back out on the road with lap tops but he hated them then I showed him some Kraftwerk videos from their latest tour. We just spoke about the freedom of doing music, rather than looking like someone checking their e-mail. It’s kind of evolved from that and it’s just happened, but because we’ve known each other for so long, it doesn’t seem that abnormal that it’s happened.
Skrufff : The new album definitely reminds me of Bites in places?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : We never set off to make it that way, one of mine and Richard’s plans was to get Ken faster than 90bpm. My idea was to create something that you could come home to after you’d just been to a club or gig, that would start at the right pace and then just wind down into a great album and just chill out. We took quite a selfish approach but it evolved in that way, with all of us sending parts back and forwards to each other and visiting each other until it all fitted together.It’s odd that a couple of people have mentioned that about ‘Bites’ and ‘Spanners’ but the plan wasn’t to revisit that, the plan was to emotionally just draw a line in the sand and have done with all the past and just start again as three people.
Skrufff : You’ve got quite a techno kind of background, haven’t you?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : I’ve always been involved with bands, starting with punk bands and I’ve been heavily influenced by early American thrash, like Bad Brains and Germs and Circle Jerks, but I don’t get up in the morning and think ‘Right, that’s what I’m going to listen to. I’m quite happy enough listening to Floyd too; the whole spectrum. I don’t believe in this blinkered narrow mindedness vision that people have got about people who listen to techno. It’s just not so. I’m quite happy listening to Danzig, Misfits, that kind of stuff as much as I am listening to Derrick May.
Skrufff : I interviewed Phil Oakey a few times, and he talked about at one point going to Gatecrasher for a while. Did you ever set foot there?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : I’ve never stepped inside Gatecrasher ever, it’s a fucking awful place. It’s just so consumer driven, It’s 35 quid to get in, three quid for a bottle of water and two quid to hang your coat up, so it’s forty quid before you’ve even gone anywhere. In Sheffield, it was always despised by the underground simply because it took over everything and it didn’t support the local scene. It actually did exactly what punk did and learnt nothing from what happened to punk; It invented itself into a little corner, invented a uniform and then got trapped. Nobody could be happier than me that it’s fucked. I think it serves itself right, really.
Skrufff : Is there an active underground music scene still in Sheffield?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : There is, yeah. We’re playing upstairs rooms in working men’s clubs, in small pubs and practice rooms, but obviously we can’t flyer it or advertise it, or we’d get shut down. The last one we did publicly, we put Andy Weatherall on in a pub with a load of Dust DJs and about 5 o clock the police came and told us to turn the bass down, and were quite impressed that we had Andy Weatherall on. By six in the morning they just came and shut us down anyway, because we were taking the piss. That’s what we exist on. Sheffield’s never really had anything for anybody that cares about music deeply. If you want pop fodder then it’s fine. That’s why we’ve always drawn parallels with Detroit, because industry wise, both cities had their eggs in one basket and there is nothing else, so you have to invent it and you have to be more creative. That’s why I’d never move to London or anything like that, because you have to be really on the ball. I’d rather play to 200 people that really enjoy the music, than 5000 who are just consuming it.
Skrufff : How does that translate to the music you spin?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : We always just play what we want. History up here is like I saw Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in 1979. Everybody understood how you made punk music but that was like: Fuck me, where has that sound come from and how do you make that sound? That was the catalyst for me. I think Richard H. Kirk who we talk to on a regular basis and are trying to get him to work with the label, doesn’t get a lot of credit for starting it up here, because it used to be his sound system and his barbeques that triggered all electronic music kicking off in Sheffield, because no-one had really heard Kraftwerk or electronic music really loud, and it was him that started it all.
Skrufff : Is he still making music up there?
Black Dog (Martin Dust) : He’s making some brilliant music. He’s still doing on average a couple of albums a year, but he’s like us – he’s got that proper Northern work ethic where you get up at eight and you sit at your stuff and you do it till you’re finished. He’s still hard at it, he’s still keeps up on the ball, still buys loads of reggae and stuff, he’s still kicking some great stuff out. That’s what we were saying to Ken – you can’t give up when music’s in you, you’ve got no choice, you’ve got to do it, got to get it out of your system. That’s why we do it.
End of the interview
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