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Big Black Delta

The Great Unknown

Jan 16, 2012 Big Black Delta Bookmark and Share

Former Mellowdrone frontman Jonathan Bates has stepped out on his own as Big Black Delta. While his debut full-length—the appropriately named Bbdlp1—defies categorization (Ambient? Danceable? Loud?)—it’s difficult to deny its potent blend of heavy beats, scream-along choruses, and eerie electronics. Sandwiched somewhere between otherworldly aspirations and childhood memories, Big Black Delta makes a strong case for looking ahead while continuing to learn from the past.

Under the Radar joined Bates in Echo Park, CA for a cup of tea and a conversation that wound from making music alone, to the effects of color and shape on music, to the tricky business of enlightenment, to just about everywhere in between.

Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): Most important question first: Who would win in a fight, you or Anthony Gonzalez from M83?

Jonathan Bates: Anthony! He’s a lot more athletic than I am. I remember when I went on tour with him; there was a ping-pong table backstage. I had all this vibrato, and I said, “Let’s do this.” He was like, “Okay.” And then he just killed me. I was like, ‘All right, from now on I won’t challenge him to any physical thing.’

Have a lot of people found out about Big Black Delta through the M83/Big Black Delta Daft Punk remix?

Absolutely, yeah. Also just friends that I’ve met. I worked with [White Sea’s Morgan Kibby] on her stuff. I’ve met a lot of different people through Anthony. The Daft Punk thing, you can see on Google alerts or whatever. It just pops up all the time. So I would have never had that otherwise.

And you used to perform as Mellowdrone. How do you draw a line between that project and your current music?

Mellowdrone became a band after awhile. I loved it. It was great. We ended up on several different labels. This was the early 2000s, when labels were trying to figure out that there was no use for them any more. There was a lot of painful times that we went through towards the end of that. When we finally left Columbia, we made a record afterwards, and I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I want to do this shit anymore. Should I just make music, or should I hang drywall?’ It was a lot of fun, but it was also not what I wanted.

I took time off making music, just doing other people’s music, playing in M83, stuff like that that wasn’t the creative side; it was just other people’s stuff. It wasn’t until I got home after the last tour with them. I was working with my buddy Alessandro, who used to be in Nine Inch Nails. I had been making music the really really old fashioned way. He was like, “Here, do you want to borrow my laptop and see what that’s like?” I ended up buying it off of him. To be able to make music without having a manager, label, or structure or anything other thing—that’s what it initially started as.

Why it’s called Big Black Delta, my favorite past time is Ufology. I found this one video where it’s just Dan Aykroyd foaming at the mouth talking about these things. I’m like, ‘That’s fucking awesome, I’ll just use that.’ That was it. Musically there’s a huge difference. Everything’s on the laptop. It’s just me making sounds.

It sounds like you were dealing with a lot of burnout on your last band. Is there a way you’re protecting yourself against that now?

I think I’m stronger. When you’re 24, 25, 26, you’re lucky enough, you’re blessed enough to be making money off of music, you can’t help but be serious and take shit personally. I think I’m tougher now and I’ve seen some crazy shit. From violence to where life can lead you. Now it’s okay, shit’s cool, man. As long as I keep that attitude I think I’m going to be fine, regardless.

Big Black Delta is a solo project, yet you have collaborators like Morgan Kibby on a track, or your two drummers. How easy is it to let other people into the process?

It’s hard. With [drummers] Mahsa [Zargaran] and Amy [Wood]—who again I’m very blessed to have— they’re playing parts that I designed. I played those, I played everything. So far, everyone who has ever done anything for me—except for Alessandro—has done what I’ve asked them to do. Morgan came in and it was, “Here, can you sing it like this, and do that?” But that’s a learning process. It’s like being in love with somebody. To be truly in love with them you’ve got to trust them and be like, “Whatever you’re going to do you’re going to do.” You can’t always be sitting there. If I find somebody I can do that with, I would love to do that. I just haven’t found that person yet. I’m open to anything, because all I care about is something cool. I want to make something cool or be part of something cool. If that requires 30 people, I’d love to be number 27.

You could turn Big Black Delta into The Polyphonic Spree.

I know, right? Can you imagine the rider for that band? It’s not even socks or liquor, it’s like, ‘We need six hundred square feet, please.’

How much thought do you put into performing?

That’s one of my favorite bits. I built a lighting rig, this huge LED panel thing. I have dueling drummers. With Mellowdrone it was guitar pedals and playing the instruments. We did everything live and tried to recreate everything. We were concentrating. I was playing three instruments and singing at the same time. With this, I just have a laptop making sounds and a chaos pad that I can control my voice live with. The rest of it is me running around. Like when you’re vacuuming and listening to George Michael. That kinda feeling. I’ll just do that in front of people. I enjoy it; I love it, because being backlit is cool too. No one can tell what’s going on. It’s just like, ‘Wow!’

How easy is it for you to get into an uninhibited headspace?

Now it’s no problem. When I was younger I was more timid. You have that voice in your head that we all have. It’s, ‘You suck’ or ‘You’re going to fail,’ or ‘Don’t do this.’ I realize that’s just self-preservation. If you’re going to make something, and you’re going to go off and perform it, and you want people to give back to you, you can’t be scared. It took time to realize that. It’s a neat thing once you break it.

Was there an external catalyst that helped you come to that realization? Or was it just time passing?

Time. And there was a couple of times, like I said, that I saw some crazy shit violence. Seeing people almost die, that kinda thing. When you see that, and you realize that [snaps], it’s so hokey, I know. Things just go, they happen regardless. That kinda shit opens your eyes up. You’re just, ‘What am I afraid of? I’m not a doctor, if I fuck up, no one’s going to die. Or an engineer, the building won’t collapse. I’m just making songs. Don’t be fucking afraid.’ That might sound reasonably obvious. It wasn’t for me for a long time.

And so UFOS are a hobby for you?

It’s beyond a hobby. Politics is ultimately, to me, is boring. We know how human beings are. Politically you can see how things usually have an arc to them. Science is cool, I enjoy science and astronomy and things like that. I guess that’s my version of religion. You want to believe in something that you don’t have evidence of. So I can see how that would be viewed that way. The reason that I like it so much is the possibility that there’s something out there that’s way evolved beyond us.

Let’s say, for example, that there are things out there that don’t even speak anymore. It’s just too rudimentary. They’re telepathic. Meaning that I could read your mind. Meaning that things like lying are no longer in existence. It’s not something you can even fathom, but if you could live in an existence where you didn’t have to lie or pretend, or all these things that you and I spend so much energy and money on, on a daily basis, just to survive, who would you be then? That kinda shit makes me happy. I don’t know why. Just to think that there’s always more.

Are you an idealist? Do you believe we could evolve to that point?

If we’re given the chance. I believe in evolution, so I believe it’s not even up to us.

Do you feel like the human race is going in a positive direction? Or are we devolving?

Positive is a humanistic term. Are we getting rid of shit that we don’t need? Yes. That will always happen. I think there’s always been church verses state, red verses blue, there’s always going to be a ‘My team is better than your team.’ I’m thinking that once you do away with all these semantics that you and I have to do, how intelligent would you be? You could spend all that energy probably just on self-growth and shit like that. You’d probably be the most amazing human being on earth. I want to believe that that’s possible on some level.

Do you think that’s only possible through an external catalyst, like another race coming in?

No, not an external catalyst. I just like the idea that we’re going to grow. We’re not going to be fucking throwing sticks and stones at each other for fucking forever. There’s things out there. There’s so much shit that you don’t know, that I don’t know. People were convinced the Earth was flat. Convinced! That’s the biggest buzz I get in life, is learning something. Learning a secret, learning how they press this metal [hits the table]. I get nothing but fucking joy from shit like that.

Do you trying to bring some of that into your music?

Absolutely. I think that’s why it’s dirty, it’s really fast. I don’t think it’s hiding behind anything. If you like it, cool, if you don’t, fuck it. That, what we’re talking about, I try to do musically. That’s why the UFO thing comes to play. I use it to remind myself of that kinda shit. It’s like how some people will have a Virgin Mary saint to remind them to be a good person. I’ll think about this shit and be like, ‘Hey there’s more out there.’ Keep going, you might find something. Was that nerdy?

Ha! Not at all. Way more interesting than the traditional line of questioning. “How did you make your album?”

[laughs] Right, right. On a laptop!

It reminds me of the concept of Situationism—where art isn’t separate from your life, it’s an extension of you.

Yeah. You asked what the difference between Mellowdrone and this was. At some point, and I can’t tell you at what, Mellowdrone became a thing I had to do. When you start doing that as an artist, you’ll end up making a lot of shit that you can’t stand behind. I agree with that school of thought, that I’m not smart enough, or I can’t separate the sides of my brain enough. I’ve got to live it, I have to live it. If I try to fake it, there are just so many dudes out there who are doing it way better.

You’ve made a lot of music independently, and without that pretense. If someone came to you and wanted to use it a car commercial, would you let them?

They did. In Mellowdrone they used it in a car commercial, which was interesting and an experience in itself. I got to see it through. Big Black Delta, if someone wanted to use my music, it would depend on who it was and what for. If Texaco was like, “Here’s half a million, we want to use ‘Ifuckingloveyou’ to help lobby drilling offshore,” I’d be like, “Fuck, that sounds really nice, but no.” Every scenario presents itself. I make money off of other things as well. Luckily Big Black Delta, as long as I can keep it, is just going to be what it’s going to be. I won’t interfere with that shit. I am a capable musician. I can do a lot of other things that no one will ever know about.

I find it funny that your project is so well thought out, and there’s so many themes going on, and yet the title of your LP is so basic.

Oh, right. I get a lot of comments on that. That’s just because if you were to look at my music hard drive, there are just folders of sessions. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of things and ideas. Let’s say if right now I came up with a chord structure and a melody and a little ditty for you, what would I call it? What day is it today? Let’s call it that, that, that at that time. When I see that, the music will come back into my head. It’s just a form of catalogue. It was either that or a number or something, so that if you like the music, you can place your imprint on it. If I told you it was ‘John’s big bang boom boom boom,’ there would be the image for you. Caspar did the artwork exactly how it should have been, and I’m presenting you an image. I feel like it would be overkill to say, ‘and this is called ____’ You probably already have a word for that.

Is that another form of honesty for you? Leaving the title open like that?

It’s not honesty; it’s how I would like to be approached. I think it’s just manners. [laughs] I’m very thankful that anyone would listen to this. If you’re going to listen to this I’m not going to assume you’re an idiot.

There’s the title: Manners. The most well-mannered LP this year.

I’m actually going to rip you off on that one.

Do it!

Then we should start a band called Manners. It’s like, ‘What are you guys about?’ Are you serious? ‘How do you guys sound?’ Polite. [laughs]

There’s a lot of great sounds going on in the album. Is it my imagination or does “Dreary Moon” have a weird romanticism to it?

I love those old string scores, especially from mid-‘70s French films. Even in the first Friday the 13th. They would have these string sections. And when they would dub these string sections onto the movie reel, you’d have these canisters that were rolling it. So you had this inadvertent note that would go, ‘eeeeeee,’ and fluctuate because you had mechanics. There was nothing you could do about it. That brings back a nostalgia to me. That reminds me of being four or five years old, closing your eyes and the sun’s coming through and everything is bursting orange. That kinda, ‘I’m about to fall asleep and it’s five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and I’m five-years-old’ kinda feeling. So it’s making everything purposely out of tune and random moments. Just a nice little song, dressed that way. “Dreary Moon” is just a little ditty on the guitar kinda thing.

Do you find nostalgia to be a driving force?

It’s one. I think of things in colors. Numbers and shapes, your personality—if you were to bring up any number I would tell you what color it is in my head.

Do you have synesthesia?

That’s what it’s called, yes. Smells and things like that I equate with colors and shapes. That’s my master. Whatever happened in 1979 or it happened yesterday, did that moment make me see colors? Can I make music that makes that moment pop up again? It’s really quite simple. Oh that—I’m going to make music that sounds like that.

I read that a lot of musicians have that association. There’s actually a list on Wikipedia.

I’d like to know that.

It’s 100% true if it’s on Wikipedia, right?

That’s what I’m talking about. Evolution, right? Do you remember when you had to go to the library? Now you don’t even call someone up and ask, ‘Hey how do you do this?’ Google it! I don’t fucking know. Twenty years from now it’s not even that any more. You’re already hooked up to it. You just have to think about it, you know what I mean? That’s what I’m taking about, those kind of possibilities. I would be a better person.

I know this is going to sound cheesy, like that show Caprica. But the human brain is only about 100 terabytes of information. Your memories and synapses and stuff like that. I have three terabyte drives in my house right now. It’s 2011. Two hundred years from now that will fit onto here [picks up his keychain]. This is you. Not only that, you don’t need this body any more. It’s like the Matrix, but it’s real though. This shit is happening. As long as we don’t blow each other up. As long as you’re connected in this web of shit are you really you anymore? No, you’re just part of this collective mass. I feel like that is going to bring us back together and make you realize, ‘Shit, I can’t be an asshole.’ I’ll open the door for you’ Know what I mean? ‘I am you; I’m attached to you.’

[laughs] Sorry. Should have brought weed and patchouli. Let’s start a new Occupy Echo Park!

We demand unity for all!

Sponsored by Ani DiFranco. [laughs] Hope I haven’t taken you too far off.

No I like it. You learn stuff.

Learning stuff is the coolest interaction there is.

Did you grow up listening to a lot of heavy synth-driven music?

No that’s the thing with Big Black Delta. If I could be in any band I’d be in Pantera. I grew up listening to a lot of metal and heavy, heavy bands. I graduated high school and learned about songwriting. Things like that. The only things I listened to like that, was The Lost Boys soundtrack. It’s never a conscience thing. I just like [that] with the synth, on a laptop, I can do any fucking thing I want. Like I was talking to you about going in and out of tune. I can do that way easier with a synth than I can do with an analogue instrument. It’s easier to become imperfect and fast with electronic equipment. And it’s cheaper too.

It’s like you were talking about with the storage space. It’s so easy to listen to your project and assume your influences—when there’s so much available; the truth is that we’re no longer the aggregate of your music collection. We’re like the aggregate of all music.

Right. And I love that, because when I was in high school, if you were a metal head, that’s it. You better not be caught listening to something else. Now you go to high school, and you see kids that have Madonna, next to Mastodon, next to Suga, next to Billy Ray Cyrus. There’s no shame in it. It’s like, ‘Fuck yes! Finally!’ Granted, they don’t realize how cool that is. I’m like that, and I think you’re like that. You don’t listen to one kind of music. So I’m going to make music like that as well. I’m not going to have any inhibitions. Today I’m going to listen to Ray Conniff. Tomorrow I might want to listen to Death.

Do you feel like with all that availability we’ve demolished the idea of the guilty pleasure?

No, there’s always going to be shame.

Until we reach unity.

Right. There’s always going to be shame. For example, did you hear about Nickelback that was going to play some game in Detroit? A million people signed a petition to get them off. That’s such a joke now, that if I bought a t-shirt you’d laugh. I’d get in the car and be like, ‘hey check out this song,’ and you’d be like ‘ahahhaha’ and then after awhile you’d be like, ‘Oh fuck, this guy really likes this shit.’ That will always be there. You know what I find? People are now attacking the way music is made as well. It’s not so much, ‘I like that guy,’ it’s ‘I don’t like his fucking shirt.’ That kinda thing. Maybe it’s always been that way.

With the experimental nature of your own project, do you see a clear line to the future and what you want to try next?

No. That’s the thing. I just put out this record and now I want to do another one. Two days ago I sat down to go over those little ideas I was telling you about. Holy shit, what do I want to hear right now? That’s where I have to start from. That’s quite a long process to get your mind quiet. All good songs come to you. You don’t write them. You have to put yourself in the right mind frame for it. But I don’t know what the next thing is going to be. Or if there’s going to be a next thing.

I don’t know, drywall could be calling.

If you’ve ever worked in drywall, you’ll know the powder builds up, and by the end of the day, the inside of your nose is completely caked. When you say that, I taste it in the back of my throat. I’m not knocking drywall hangers. You guys are tougher than I am. That’s not a bad thing. I’m coming across as elitist. No, I’m broke. That’s the thing. Every guy I know that hangs drywall for a living has a house and pays his bills on time, shit like that. So who’s the idiot?

I love the assumption that people who work in the music industry are instantly cool.

Right. That was my favorite thing, going to parties when Mellowdrone was doing really well, and people being like, “You drive a Honda Fit?” and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s all I could fucking afford dude.” I appreciate that you think things are going well. It took me six years to pay it off! [laughs]

There’s tradeoffs. I feel like I’ve got to see some amazing shit. Dude. I have seen parts of the human psyche that I would never give back. I would never give it back for a stable nine to five. Everyone’s got their purpose in life. Some people want that flat screen. They want to sit and enjoy their flat screen because they’ve been working for some other asshole all day. Mine is that buzz of, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t know that!’ That’s how you change your oil! You know what I mean? As long as I get a steady diet of those, I will always figure out how to pay rent.

Check out our exclusive Big Black Delta mixtape.



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