Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dan Black Interview: The Sample Master Returns with an Epic New Record

Dan Black is the world's current sampling genius.  Originally the singer and guitarist for the group The Servant, Black broke off on his own and released his first hit "HYPNTZ" in 2008, which sampled Rihanna's Umbrella and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.  While the original lyrics were that of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize", Black changed the lyrics when he released his album Un in 2009 and the track became "Symphonies".  Despite losing the unique gangster rap lyrics, "Symphonies" went on to be globally popular and was licensed everywhere, sometimes with the added rapping of Kid Cudi.  In 2010, Black released his mixtape Weird Science, which, again, sampled various classic pop songs and had Black singing other's lyrics with new melodies.  It was this mixtape that inspired Bag Raiders to call Dan Black for guest vocals on their track "Sunlight".

Since Weird Science, things have been quiet from the Black camp as he works on his newest record.  I tracked the singer/keyboardist/producer down via the net for his first interview in over a year where we chatted about sampling, his new record, and his favorite plugins.

The Synth Symp: Well first, I wanted to congratulate you on how well Symphonies is still doing, even after a couple years. I hear it when I'm out getting burritos, or even as a licensed track on my friend's basketball game. Did you think it would have such a lasting impact?
Dan Black: Thanks! Completely the opposite. When I first made it was more an experiment - one I wasn't even planning on "releasing". But it had a well documented, labyrinthine journey/story... and ended up kind of just doing it's own thing. A very clear example of what all songs end up doing. Starting off as this private, selfish thing - but going off into the world and leaving the writer far, far behind... Sometimes becoming their own "thing".

TSS: Yeah, it seems to definitely have left the mark. Is that song's success part of the inspiration for "Weird Science"?
DB: Yeah. I wanted to explore that process a bit more. I guess Girl Talk song mashups - but used to create a song I could sing... in many ways that is what songwriting is anyway. It's just more clear on that mixtape.

TSS: Yours are a way different beast than GT though... you've mostly written the melody and have consistant sampling through the sounds... he's more of a shotgun blast of old hits strewn together.
DB: Oh sure - our intentions are totally different. But we were using the same basic tool or gag.. his paint brush painted a portrait and mine a scribble on a wall... ha.

TSS: So can I ask a bit about your studio and song development?
DB: Of course!

TSS: Obviously the site is called "The Synthesizer Sympathizer" for a reason. What kind of synths are you using in your studio?
DB: Sadly they are all "in the box"... or maybe not sadly... I think it's pretty awesome to be able to have pretty much any synth at the touch of a button..

TSS: I wouldn't say "sadly"; you've got some convincing analog tones in some of your tracks.
DB: Ha - well there are some pretty phenomenal soft synths now... plus I'm not in any sense a purist - I just care about the song...

TSS: What are your favorites?
DB: Pretty obvious stuff... NI Massive, Razor - The Arturia Vintage stuff... I really like alot of the Logic native synths - ES2, you just need to be a bit rough with it.

TSS: So you're not really a man of secret weapons, it's all pretty out there it seems.
DB: I guess my secret weapon is what I do with them! You know many people have fender telecasters, but not many sound like Jonny Greenwood. I also make a lot of "synths" out of samples. I use a LOT of samples.

TSS: So taking a record, taking a synth and pitching it with the logic sampler?
DB: Yeah - I do a lot time-stretching - bit rate messing - I don't often put them in the sampler - I have them on the screen. Using flextime kind of like a paintbrush - layering stuff up, bouncing that, fucking with that, stretching that, rebouncing.

TSS: So does this take you a while or do you have a good workflow for it now? Normally when someone does your type of sample manipulation they're Ableton users.
DB: To get the core - "wow that's exciting" - bit down tends to take about 30 mins - literally. But to get it sounding as good as I think it can get 6 months, literally! The "wow its exciting bit" is - the basic sound/song I wish it was quicker!!

TSS: Yeah, alot of your songs seem to have that immediate groove, so i think I can tell what you're saying the "exciting bit" is.
DB: Ha yeah. Its a bit of a paradox... I want it to feel to the listener like this immediate, exciting thing - a moment. But to get it to feel like that takes forever! I want it to feel natural and effortless... but to get that takes a process that is totally unnatural and effortful!

TSS: So patience is a big part of your work?
DB: It's a fucking bore really - but what can you do. Either I put something out that I think is OK, or something that I at least feel as is as good as I can get it. I prefer the latter. Plus I do love the slog of it at times. The epicness of it, despite my moaning!

TSS: Well I think you're really on to something... your songs have a nice distinguishment to me in that I don't usually skip them when they come on shuffle, even after a couple of years. One of my favorites is your "Weird Science" track that samples The Cure.
DB: That's the ultimate modern compliment - I don't want to skip your track in my shuffle! Ha, Thanks dude.

TSS: Haha no problem! In regards to those sample-y tracks, are you walking around and thinking "oh that would be a good sample!" or are you sitting down at your computer and looking for what works?
DB: Well you are thinking about the WeirdScience mixtape - where I want you to go - oh thats thats own on to that with THAT sung on top... But for the last year - making this new album - I am using samples more like raw colour to mix up and make no sounds out of. They are more like bits of clay. So I choose the samples very differently.

TSS: So your next record is a mosaic in a sort of samples?
DB: No not really... It's more sonically ambiguous. I hate the phrase wall of sound and am trying to think of a better metaphor. A "noise" is basically making the harmony.

TSS: So are the samples harder to recognize? Is that part of it?
DB: Oh totally.. they are much more like these beds of sound. Very layered - but totally immediate - much more aggressive than the first record, but also more emotional.

TSS: And are you producing the whole record by yourself?
DB: Ha - yeah like a fool yeah. Being the singer/lyricist/engineer/programmer/mixer blah blah is a total conflict of interest really. Its a nightmare... but never boring!

TSS: It seems the direction most new guys are going... many of the guests on my site have been either self produced or working very close with one or two other people.
DB: Sure. I often say "I don't understand how other artists can let someone else have such an influence on their songs" but then I get into my own album and go "Oh yeah, THATS what a producers for"...! Economics and technology and fashion once again going hand in hand (in hand).

TSS: So you mentioned a bit about how the sampling is different on the record... what else is different?
DB: Well I'm so immersed in it it's hard to see the wood for the trees... Its more epic. More focused. Less eclectic. More dance - whatever that really means. Nicer hair.

TSS: Hahaha, the best part of the song is always the hair.
DB: Obviously.

TSS: So when can we expect it? how far is it done?
DB: Actually pretty soon.... Just putting all the pieces on the board...

TSS: You had a bit of an experiment with it I saw in that you're taking some of your fan's vocals and putting it together as a choir-sort of sound for a track... how did that turn out?
DB: Surprisingly well... I have been caught up in other thing - but I want to focus in on that next this week... But having been just me for so long - I thought it would be nice to have a moment that was the total opposite....

TSS: I can picture your Logic file-- hundreds of singers bussed through a reverb and compressor!
DB: HA - you know it!

TSS: Are you working with anyone else on anything besides your record? The Bag Raiders collaboration was such a hit, I thought I'd ask.
DB: Oh loads - thats partly why it has taken SO long... Since my last record I got asked to work on a bunch of stuff… been very eye opening!

TSS: Well that's great to hear. Are you an expert with your synth plugins at this point? Do you know how to get exactly what you want? Or are there happy accidents often?
DB: Hmmm… To a degree... but to be honest one of the joys of music making - if not THE joy is being surprised. Pleasantly surprised. I basically sit at the same chair - with the same computer - with the same brain... but each time I want to create something new... so it is a case of self deception almost... or trickery. But then also you if you have something exciting but you know it would be even better if you could just make X be Y, then knowing how the mechanics of work helps… mechanics of a piece of software. So you want moments of randomness with moments of totally precision. Not always easy to achieve!

TSS: Absolutely. You sound a bit like a case study to why people like being in bands, haha.
DB: I was in bands for years... I SO don't miss that.

TSS: Well I guess my final question is, what are you listening to right now? Besides your own record 1000 times (not in a vain way, to add).
DB: Just looking at my iTunes! Ha - theres always a little vanity at the heart of creating! I have been so deep into production that I have only been "listening", properly a little and then it's stuff that is very still and brain calming - a bit of Satie, early Miles Davis... but I like a few new things - Purity Ring tracks are cool that new Rhye track - Open is a bit special... Andy Stott.

TSS: Haha, great. I'll have to check those out. Well I guess that concludes the interview. Thanks a ton for your time, Dan.
DB: Cool. No problem.

Thanks to Dan for joining me.  Be sure to "like" him on Facebook, follow his SoundCloud, follow him on Twitter, check out his blog, and watch out for his new record coming soon.

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