Sam Rosenthal - black tape for a blue girl

March 7, 2002

Give me some background on yourself.

I've been doing black tape for a blue girl since 1986. That's when the first album came out and I was in college at the time. It was sort of a just for fun kind of thing. I didn't think I'd still be doing a label this much in the future from that. Nowadays I'm 36.

Who are some of your musical influences and what started you on this quest?

Way back when, when I was first doing music I think the people who I was into musically were Brian Eno, Mark Almond who was the singer from Soft Cell, and maybe Kraftwerk or something like that. For the most part it was more of an electronic kind of thing but I I don't really have the skill to emulate what I heard. I just did what I wanted to do. I think there's some of maybe the feeling from Mark Almond. Some of the textures from Eno might be in there somewhere. Not that I guess Mark Almond's a name that most people talk about these days.

It depends on if they were into those bands as well or not.

Yeah, his solo stuff was a lot more acoustic instrument based, less poppy back then. This wasn't recently. I think it was somewhere like 1980...1982.

You're mostly into keyboards and electronic kind of music?

No, the thing is that because keyboard is the instrument that I play, it's based on that. I think when the songs get done, it doesn't really come across as electronic or at least what people would think of as electronic music because of all the natural instruments. The violins or the mandolins. The acoustic drums. I don't really think of it in that way when it's finished. It's just that's the tool I write on. If a song ends up not really having much electronics, that's fine by me. That's where the basis comes from.

You started black tape for a blue girl back in 1986. Where did you get your inspiration for this project and what direction did you want it to go in?

I guess I knew when I started making music that it wasn't commercial music and I didn't really want to be involved in the commercial structure of things so I was just really looking to do whatever it was that I felt like hearing. Generally it sort of has stuck to a linear path that makes sense. Not like there's something that's really out of the blue from it but it was never really about doing something that was commercial or pop music. I think that over the years I've gotten better for writing melodies and things like that so it has more melodic elements but still I try to keep away from worrying about what would be popular. What's happening in that field of things.

Nobody could ever sit there and say "oh so-in-so sold out."

I don't think so. I really don't like drums very much for example. The rock and roll drum sound. It takes away from the ability to write what people would consider normal pop music if you don't use a drummer and I've really never had an electric guitar. I have acoustic guitars but just the things that are in pop music aren't really what I'm that interested in.

You've sold over 80,000 CDs. That's pretty impressive for being on the sidelines.

Yeah, there's people who appreciate what I do. I am sticking to a certain direction that doesn't really worry about commerciality. There's people who like that. It's nice.

With your 1996 release, remnants of a deeper purity, you introduced a neoclassical turn whereby you integrated a string section into the keyboards and vocals. Were you intent on exploring this direction more?

Yeah, I had been I guess always a fan of for example Philip Glass or Gavin Bryers which are these minimalist composers but they create music that has emotion and I liked that idea. When I finally met up with the string players who were good enough to play the parts and come across right, I definitely wanted to incorporate that into what I was doing. It adds a more natural human element when the strings are played by players instead of the electronic strings. I definitely like what it's added to the music.

Especially when you put on a stage show. People like to see people up there.

Yeah, sure. Elysabeth, on the record only plays viola I think on one song, but live she plays more tracks.

You were inspired by the writings of Franz Kafka and the paintings of Marcel DuChamp. How did these two gentlemen inspire you?

With Kafka there's a certain mood to his writing. There's a certain world that he creates which navigates further in the past. It lets you see the metaphors of his work better because it's not distracted by what we would be used to in our everyday life. I was influenced by the era that he's from which was the early 19-teens in Prague and I liked the idea of setting what I was writing in a different era so it would point more towards the metaphors I guess and not towards the environment. The environment that we have today. With DuChamp, his work generally dealt with eroticism and he maybe veiled that behind what he was doing. If you looked at the deeper meaning, it had to do with the interplay between male and female and desire that was sort of always beneath the surface. That's something that when I first hit upon his work, I went "ah hey, that's something that I've been dealing with in certain ways." It was kind of finding other people doing something similar that you can bounce your ideas off of as well like getting comparison to.

Have you delved any deeper into existentialism which is basically what Kafka wrote?

Yeah, I would think more like in the late '80s...early '90s I was into reading more of that. I guess I haven't read much lately. I kind of look at his stuff as precursor to existentialism but it's also an absurd element. You can place way too much value on something. In his case, law or in a trial, that then distracts you from just the life that is happening anyway. That's an element that I take from Kafka's work. It's really hard but you need to step back and see what really matters and not let the things that are trying to distract you, distract you.

I read The Metamorphosis in college. You get a lot of meaning out of that story.

I reread that one recently and also The Castle. I guess people kind of think that his stuff is really bleak but if you actually read it and not just hear what people say about it, there's a lot that you can get out of it. Not necessarily belief but I find it useful I guess.

Who's your cast in this production and where did you find them?

I guess I should preface it with unlike a normal "band", black tape for a blue girl has had a variety of members over the years. I think there's been like 35 people involved or something like that. I would stick with a more constant stream of people but I've been moving around a lot and it's kind of meet new people and involve them in the band. Elysabeth, who's the vocalist, was a friend of Lisa and mine in Chicago and at the time we only knew that she played viola for another band. I was going to ask her to play viola for the band but then the vocalist I was touring with didn't really work out so I said "hey, do you want to just try out singing and see what happens?" I was like "oh my God, you can sing too." She came into the band for the tour and that was at the very beginning of '99. We did a number of shows in '99. I think about 60 shows together. It was a good acclimation process where we got to know each other and know what she was strong at and what would work for her so when I came to writing this album I guess I could write pieces that more specifically would work for her. Then Lisa who is the flute player on the cover is also my wife and I met her as well when I was in Chicago. Vicki is the violinist. Actually I've known her the longest, since the early '80s when I was back in Florida. When I was writing stuff I thought I'd really like to involve her in my work. I just invited her to come and record. It's not like your standard process maybe of a band where people work together for years and years and build up to a point. I bring different people in as I think it would work with what I'm recording.

That's an interesting concept. Bringing in different people allows more people to participate and somewhat changes the element.

Yeah, I think of bands like The Rolling Stones for example. It's the same basic organization of instruments for 20 years. I find that that's kind of constricting to trying different ideas. You always need the bass player. You always need the drummer. This way one song might be just Elysabeth and myself or one song might be Bret and myself. It's not locked into a very specific sound that way. With Michael who plays dulcimer, mandolin, and percussion, it's like okay here's a song and I think about what might work on it. What can Michael play on it to add to it so I'm not locked in.

You also don't have the opportunity of getting so sick of each other that you want to kill each other after 10 years.

I don't know. You could be with people in a band for two weeks and want to kill them. There's been some constants in the band for quite a while but then sometimes a person will only be one album. It's also more freedom because you're not locked into that. If someone starts being trouble you don't have to worry about it. You just keep going. Since it's my band that I'm writing the songs, it's me being the only thing that's always been on every record.

the scavenger bride is set in 1914 Prague. Did you actually visit that area when you decided to embark on this album and what were your thoughts of Prague?

Actually Lisa and I went to Prague in October which was after the majority of the album was written but there was still some more to be put together and I really enjoyed the experience both because it was a really nice city but also because, once again like I said with Kafka being an inspiration, you could see the environment where he lived and see things that still would remind you of what he had written. It helped to finalize in my mind things I wanted to do for creating the picture of the album. The different textures that you would want to be set in Prague. I think that being a big fan of Kafka, actually seeing the city and seeing things he would write about, you could now actually picture much better in your mind because it's still quite a bit that way. It was very rewarding to do that.

Definitely helps in researching things.

Yeah, I was reading The Castle. I was there. There'll just be a line that he writes and you can totally picture it because it wasn't just something he made up. It was actually a description of something that fortunately is still there because the city is pretty much in the same shape that it was back in that era. I guess communism was a good thing in a way because they didn't use urban renewal to destroy all the really nice old things that were in Prague.

There's always pros and cons in different political systems. People seem to entrench themselves in one line of thought and think everything else is 100 percent negative. That isn't always the case.

No and especially when people have actually been to the other place to know. Having the experience to base that idea on. It's much better to go there and then make a final decision.

the scavenger bride is your first concept album. Can you describe the storyline?

I guess when you describe it in an interview, you kind of nail it down and put the nails in the coffin. It gets really linear and I think the story is more diverse than anything that I'm going to say now. Of course when you explain it you give the basic narrative. In my mind there's three kind of characters to the story. There's the scavenger bride, there's the schavager who's the street cleaner but also the narrator, and then there's a bunch of people who are basically the bachelors or people she had been involved with at one time. Through the course of the album I think that she goes through the album not really knowing what course she's on. She just exists but the narrator is sort of watching her and discovering things about her. The process that she's going through is kind of a self-analysis or a self-realization that she isn't going to constrict herself in order to continue being who she really wants to be. It's sort of like a metaphor back to our life that if you try to fit yourself into their roles, you might exist fine in society but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a rewarding life from that. That sweeping away of the stuff that isn't relevant to uncover what is really relevant is I guess one of the two main processes of the album. Even describing it that way, I don't know if that tells you what the story is.

I found it to be sensual and erotic. Musical erotica.

I think life has as many different layers and the interaction between the male and the female involves that as well as everything else.

I always look through the CD booklets and the one you put together for this is very well done and impressive.

Thank you. I look at it all as a complete piece of art. The music and what you read and what you look at. I guess because it's my label I can go to the extravagant extent of a 24-page booklet but I think it's really a part of the whole thing so it makes sense for me.

Do you feel that owning your own label gives you a lot more room to be creative?

I think it does and it doesn't. It does in that I can put out the CD exactly the way I want it to be. As far as my time goes it doesn't because I end up spending a lot of time on other people's art. I'm distracted from my own art by working for the other artists on the label. But as far as actually being able to put out the CD I want to do, that's definitely the case.

When you sit down to write a black tape for a blue girl album, what goes through your mind?

At first it's like "oh no, what am I going to do? I don't have any ideas." Then I struggle with that for a while. Then I just start making music without thinking about what it's going to be about. There's usually a point into the album where it starts to generally click and I get an idea of what the theme is and what I'm looking to put together. It's not like there's an outline of the story when I start. A third of the way in I have an idea. Two-thirds of the way in I know what I need to finish it. It's not like before I start I know where I'm going with it.

People always try to label bands. I bet they have a rather difficult time trying to label you.

Yeah.

You appear to be compared with the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance. Do you feel this is a reasonable comparison or do you feel that you are more in a league of your own?

No, I think that all music has other things that can be in the same part of the pie I guess and I think that people who like these bands generally like my music so it's a good place to compare it. I don't think it's that easy to say still what kind of music that is though. It's generally, you said Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and This Mortal Coil, they're all on the 4AD label and so therefore that sound is where my music often gets compared. People who like them do like black tape.

You've been referred to as goth and there definitely is a lot of gothic but not that gloom doom Marilyn Manson stuff. It's not depressing or weird.

Thank you. Some people would disagree with you. They'd think it's pretty much both. I classify it as serial goth as opposed to the more band based which Marilyn Manson or Bauhaus are. It's not a full band sound. It has more of an ethereal element. Those terms are sometimes too specific for most people to know what you're talking about.

How do you feel about being admired by Penthouse?

That's good. Both in the sense that a lot of people read that magazine and also that it does relate back to the eroticism of the music.

The lady on the cover is your wife and also poses nude in the booklet. She felt comfortable with that?

Yeah, she's a dancer. The body and the shape of the body is definitely part of dancing. Part of art.

There will be an appearance at Projektfest '02 on May 25th in Philadelphia. What kind of stage show can people expect?

I haven't quite worked that out yet. I believe we're going to have video behind us. Not music video necessarily. More like textural video to set the stage as it were for it. I think we'll be doing four or five songs off the new album and then some of the older material as well.

What direction do you see black tape for a blue girl going in? Are you going to continue exploring the direction you're going in or embark a new direction?

It will continue in the direction. Because of obligations to Projekt it's been about three years between albums. I'm hoping that I'll be able to cut that in half in the future and get more music out just because it's satisfying for me and also for the people who are into the band.

Any other thoughts or comments?

I always appreciate when people get in touch to do interviews. I like explaining what's going on with the music.

black tape for a blue girl