Sam Rosenthal

Sam Rosenthal

interview by Alessandro Mattedi e Matteo Meda

So, here we are talking about a new Black Tape For A Blue Girl album after seven years. That's quite a lot of time, isn't that? Surely it is the longest period ever that separated two Black Tape albums. Why has the new album taken such a long time to be completed? And what have you been working on during those years?
I can make all kinds of excuses (work, fatherhood, not having a studio space, decline of the music industry) but the biggest reason is procrastination. That was fueled by unhappiness with the way the music industry had changed over the last decade. I was really dragged down by the shift away from people purchasing music to mostly obtaining music for free. It led to a feeling of “what’s the point of even making music?” I had the ability to make music, I could have figured out the studio situation, but mentally I was just not motivated.

What changed your mind to begin again, then?
As an artist, I had to evolve with the landscape and figure out what would work to allow me to keep making art. All artists saw a decade of declining sales, which I translated to people not caring about what I was creating. Finally, after a lot of thinking and reading what other artists were doing, I decided that maybe I was using the wrong measurement of success. Measuring success by income & sales units, isn’t accurate anymore. I think more people hear my music than ever before, they just don’t pay for it. This is a bit absurd, of course, because this is a business. So changing the metrics of success sounds weird. And I know that for all artists, the money that has left the industry makes it very hard to create art. I began crowdfunding at Kickstarter, and that connected me with people who cared about my music. Their enthusiasm and dedication created personal connection to people, and showed me there was a desire for me to create more music. Three years ago I settled here in Portland, Oregon. I had room for a home studio for the first time in six years, I started working on music. I met Nick (Nick Shadow, ed.), a great violist here in town. We worked together on songs which ended up on the album. I was able to conjure up some of those strings plus electronics soundscapes like on "A Chaos Of Desire" or "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity". That spurred me along to work more in this direction.

On one side, "These Fleeting Moments" sounds really like a comeback to the almost 'classic' Black Tape sound. A track like "The Vastness Of Time", for example, easily reminds of the "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity" soulful and pagan dark symphonies. Why did you feel the need to deal again with this sound?
Honestly, it’s the sound that the fans like the most. Give the people what they want! It’s a sound I also enjoy; I think "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity" - "As One Aflame Laid Bare By Desire" - "The Scavenger Bride" all fit into this mold. But after this last one in 2002, I felt the need to mix it up and try something different; the next two albums went in a rock direction. So this is continuing to explore music that’s more languid, melancholy, spacious. Though there are also a number of shorter more acoustic tracks, to give the album balance.

What about the return of Oscar Herrera? His voice surely marked Black Tape's classic sound that returns to live properly in some of the new tracks. How much his comeback influenced your choice of recovering so much from your past, and how much was the project that convinced him to get back singing after 17 years of silence?
I asked him if he wanted to be involved pretty early on. I had written perhaps half the album, and there was a song or two that I thought would be great for his voice; I asked if he wanted to take part. When he said ‘yes,’ I wrote additional songs that fit his style. I think what convinced him to get involved in singing was, “The time was right.” He had a sense of, “Why not do it again?” You know, a lot of the album is about looking at life, seeing where we are, seeing what unfinished business we might have. For me, having Oscar sing on my recordings again was something I had hoped for, for a long time. So for me, it definitely was about getting back to something that had ended too soon. I think life provides choices, and you cannot really dwell for too long on what was lost when something new begins. You have to make new choices and keep on living every day. When Oscar left in 1999, it presented new opportunities. Moving across the country from Brooklyn to Portland, recently, also felt like a chance to begin again. To do something unexpected.

An important change that the album revealed regards the lyrics and their poetics. While "10 Neurotics" mainly touched upon perversion with a raw and direct style, many of the new tracks approaches much more existential topics with a particularly delicate attitude. And this is again very different from the allegoric and metaphorical style of "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity" or "As One Aflame Laid Bare By Desire" albums. Has it been a proper choice from you or just the consequence of your inspiration during those years? What are the main topics you've been narrating in the album?
I’d say many of the themes are about questioning our commitment to living our life to the fullest; to stop hiding ourselves from ourselves. Sometimes that’s expressed existentially, and sometimes it’s a broken- hearted relationship song that also questions whether we are living up to our potential. "10 Neurotics" was an album that intentionally documented characters and their particular lifestyle choices. It was a pretty external album, as far as it was not about me, most of the time (even though I wrote the songs in first person). This album feels more intimate, because I am - or have been – at the place where these characters are. For example, I dated somebody who ran a "Bike Shop". Though the story of what happened is mostly fictional, in the “Absolute Zero” section, there’s the idea that I’d keep looking for the smallest flicker of hope to keep me going. That’s certainly true. I dated Holly, who I write about in “One Promised Love.” I was imagining what she felt in past relationships. And when we talked after the lyrics were written, it turned out I was pretty accurate about how she felt she betrayed herself, to retain love.

Delicacy is a word that has come to my mind very often while listening to this album, and it is a very new element that I had never associate to your music in the past. Actually I would describe it as the "most delicate Black Tape album to date", maybe choosing "She Ran So Far Away That She No Longer Can Be Found" as the emblem of this mood. I guess this sensation is mainly linked to the arrangements, that are a very distinctive element of the album. Do you agree? Where is this new stylistic trait coming from?
I would say, “I’ve become a better musician in the last 10 years.” I don’t know a thing about music, still. But I think I am better able to capture my ideas. "10 Neurotics" was the first time I noticed this: when I am writing and recording the music, I felt I could get the song I wanted. In the past I was often limited to, “Well, this is the best I’m able to do, so there ya go, I’ll add some reverb and call it done.” (laughs). On “She Ran So Far Away,” I recorded the piano part first. And then I added elements. I knew I wanted drums and bigger guitars, so I got Brian’s (Brian Viglione, ed.) parts, and newcomer Chase fleshed out the song. And he brought in that ending repeat section. Then I wrote some lyrics to go over the very end. That was the last thing I wrote for the album: those words that Dani (Danielle Herrera, ed.) sings. It seemed like the song needed resolution. The song also serves to lead into the final track. It is kind of uplifting, bringing you to the finale. Yet with the uplifting emotion, there’s still sadness and confusion. Us humans can have those very complex emotions mixed together. I’d say “delicacy” in that it’s not just one obvious feeling. Such as anger, or resolve. It’s a lot of conflicting emotions all together.

What about the instrumentation? I guess you've maintained many of the synthesizers you've been using for years, didn't you? But there are also a lot of acoustic instruments sometimes being the main protagonists...
Oh yes, I am still using the same synths. Though I did get a new module, on Steve Roach’s recommendation. It has a sort of 70s sound, which mixes nicely with the Moog I’ve owned since the early-80s. On a track like “Affinity” I went back to a patch on the Poly-61 that I used on the “Ashes In The Brittle Air” album. It was very intentional to get that late-80s Black Tape sound. However, one of the things with this album is I to let the instruments be heard. The early albums were awash in effects, which kind of blurred things together. But on "These Fleeting Moments", you can hear the different parts, which I like. At times they get drifty and float together; and at others, they stand out. One of the hard things for me as a musician has been to do “sparse.” To not fill every space up. I like how “Affinity” and “Bike Shop” allow the instruments and vocals to be naked. Not perfect, not over-processed. I think there’s a lot of diversity and dynamics that I enjoy.

Black Tape For A Blue Girl has always had a very autobiographical nature in many aspects, particularly lyrics and moods. In some ways, each album and each track reflected something from your ego: traces of life, feelings, emotions, passions, perversions. I'm pretty convinced that "These Fleeting Moments" has an incredible variety of those elements, I would say it is the most various Black Tape effort to date concerning moods and styles. Maybe it is just because those tracks spans the longest period a Black Tape album has ever narrate. Trying to make a summary, what period has it been for you?
I don’t see it as a summary of that seven year period, as all of the songs were written in the last two years, except for the guitar on “She’s Gone” which is about five years old. It might look like it’s a summary from the outside, because of all my procrastinating! (laughs). But of course, yeah, almost every line on here is something that’s been in my thoughts. Just like every character in a novel is in some way a reflection of the author.
Let me just go grab a random line from the booklet: "maybe the universe favored the desert rat-kangaroo or the passenger pigeon, javan tiger, seems unlikely it would favor me and you". I think it’s absurd that people think ‘god’ is out there, pointing his finger at mankind and smiling and saying, “Yes, you are the chosen ones”. Humanity is just a random fluke, and our species is just as likely to go extinct as any other. People really screw up the world, because they have this egotistical belief in their own worth and purpose. But maybe god was really a fan of the javan tiger?
Another line: "we think because we’re intelligent, that the universe favors intelligence but that’s just vanity". Maybe intelligence is over-rated. Just like people’s faith is over-rated when they think there is something more special about their religion, their country, their idea of sexuality. All of our beliefs are just a human construct, and have no basis in reality. Which we’re not even able to fathom, anyway.
"who would love me and just drop me unless i didn’t deserve love unless i didn’t deserve love. i guess it shows i was unloveable. you left because i was unloveable". I don’t go through every day with that feeling of unworthiness, but I think most of us have at least a reflective twinge of that, when a relationship ends. We question everything, including ourselves.
"it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone... love’s gone away. love’s a lot like insanity, anyway". The whole idea of one person being special and more important than any other is a bit crazy, really. Love is a kind of positive insanity: somebody suddenly has more worth than all other humans. A lot of it is ego stroking. And we have to get through that initial insanity, to see if it actually can be a love that’s ongoing. In a way, that relates back to the desert rat-kangaroo. The idea that we are special and we deserve something special. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of love. Of being in love. Of loving people. I try my best, and I try to accept people as they are, and know I’m flawed and they’re flawed. But just the idea that somebody who you didn’t even know a year ago is suddenly the most important person on earth? Seems a bit absurd.

During those seven years you've worked on some side works, like the new one under the As Lonely As Dave Bowman moniker and that wonderful pièce you published under your own name ("The Passage"). How much those instrumental projects has served as laboratories to evolve ideas for the Black Tape project? Is there something that could link "These Fleeting Moments" to those other works?
Those were diversions, let’s say. They were a way to stay involved in music, without having to dive into the hard job of making a new Black Tape For A Blue Girl album. But the link to "These Fleeting Moments" is that I brought more instrumental music back into Black Tape. I realized that I had completely removed it from "10 Neurotics", except for the intro to “The Perfect Pervert.” And I decided to bring that back. Not music like Dave Bowman or "The Passage". But instrumental music that was more BlackTape-y, including the tracks with the great viola from Nick. Or Mark Seelig’s flute on “Meditation On The Skeleton.” I feel Nick & I have more cool stuff to create together. I want to do more of that.

Of course, I guess you spent much of your time also running Projekt Records. We had a great talk about that during our last interview for As Lonely As Dave Bowman, but I noted you concentrated a lot on ambient releases from that time. If I am right, the last "darkwave-related" release from Projekt was Mirabilis' "Here And The Hereafter". Then this year you published a new Mercury's Antennae's album. Is this trend following a precise stylistic choice? Or a "commercial" need, maybe?
Honestly, it’s a business decision. As you know, it’s very hard to sell music anymore. People want to stream and not spend money. Steve Roach releases keep selling. Erik Wøllo releases sell. So I focus the schedule on what people will still spend money on. Now that said, Voltaire’s five Projekt releases still do extremely well. He keeps gaining new fans and they are interested in his older music. And that’s why he has a new one coming out on Projekt (early 2017, I think). But generally speaking, it’s nearly impossible to sell smaller underground goth bands, or for that matter, smaller electronic acts. Projekt has been my livelihood since 1991. So I am not saying, “It’s over!” I still find a way to make it work financially, and support myself and my son. But like many other musicians who started their own record label, I am stripping things back, and taking more time to work on my own art.

By the way, why did you decide to publish "These Fleeting Moments" with Metropolis Records? I guess it's the first Black Tape album in 30 years not coming out on Projekt, isn't it?
It’s the first one in America that is not on Projekt, true. In the past, Trisol (simultaneous with Projekt) released two albums for Europe, a Russian label had one, a Mexican label had one. Those were all a long time ago. But the answer to why? I thought I’d try a US release on Metropolis to see what might be different, on a different label. To get an idea of what the possibilities might be.

Talking about commerce, what's the situation of Projekt nowadays? And have you had any experience with streaming services like Spotify or Deezer, that in my opinion are almost killing any chance for non-commercial music 'business'?
I just got some data on this very question. Projekt has money coming in from Spotify and YouTube. It works best for the biggest name acts, like Voltaire. But it’s definitely adding up to income. And while it would be easy to be a purest and say “No” to streaming, the fact is that choice would mean less money earned for Projekt’s artists. And I don’t think it’s healthy to deny them that income. I don’t know if you saw, but just recently streaming has become over 40% of the entire U.S. Recording Industry! I can be unhappy with the royalty rate YouTube or Spotify pay, but I cannot alter that by complaining or withholding Projekt’s music. I am just one small voice. I do speak up about it.

So, given what you are saying now about Spotify and similar programs, we would like to further expand this topic.
Well first, I have to clarify that about 80% of Projekt releases are now up for streaming at Spotify, and 100% are at Apple Music. This concerns the USA, I don’t honestly know what the situation is with Apple in Italy.

If you are just one small voice alone against the royalty rate of Spotify, do you think that there is enough room and awareness among artists to gather together and ask for a better policy? Even with the support of a famous mainstream "big" with a large commercial base, in order to get a stronger voice. What is, in your opinion, the difficulty of a class-action like this?
This battle is lost. Spotify will pay what they pay, because the major labels are in agreement with this rate. Why? I think it’s because the majors have stock in Spotify and plan to profit at the IPO. But on the other hand, Spotify is not a profitable business. So how can they pay more money that they don’t have right now? Maybe if Spotify makes more profit, they can pay artists more. But I am not holding my breath.

Anyway, even with their issues, Spotify and Deezer could be the right key for making the peer-to-peer market decrease. Our opinion is that the choice would be between illegaly downloading music and freely listening via streaming (although with some commercial ads). Do you agree or do you think that illegal downloading won't be touched so much, while CD/vinyl marketing might become less profitable?
Regarding illegal downloads - this has already happened, as far as locker-sites are concerned. These days, I find 5% of the music that used to be shared a few years ago on locker sites. People would rather the easy “free” method of Streaming. And that said, streaming does pay micropenny royalties to artists. So people feel they are doing the right thing. Now about CDs/downloads – streaming is quickly killing those off. In a few years, CDs will be just for collectors, and downloads will be almost gone. So while streaming might be helping kill Piracy, it’s also killing what’s left of income from recorded music. Vinyl is pretty, and makes a bunch of income per unit sold. But it’s not going to save the music industry.

In 2006, when Radiohead released "In Rainbows", Geoff Barrow of Portishead said that those bands who put their music in the internet (i.e. streaming on MySpace, Bandcamp, freely downloadable from their websites or with a pay-what- you-want formula like Radiohead did at first) risk to vanish in a soap bubble (source). This because not all bands can afford to do this: these platforms can give aid only to a certain point and internet word of mouth doesn't have the same extent of the full support from a label. In the end, economical support and sponsorship from labels will remain necessary. If a famous and big band like Radiohead (or Trent Reznor, who later followed) does this, it's a thing, but if a small and relatively unknown indie band does the same, it's a completely different thing. Besides, Radiohead afterwards even returned to normal stores, perhaps a sign that the "pay-whay-you-want" formula didn't go well and they needed to retrace their footsteps. Do you agree with this idea? 
Well, Trent returned to a major label as well. Why? Because (as you say) on their own, these bands don’t have the army or promotional employees that a major can provide. When I was in Prague years ago, I saw posters on telephone poles for John Cale’s Hobosapien. A major label has somebody in Prague putting up posters. Trent Reznor on his own does not. So it’s simple business sense to work with a worldwide company, if a band can get that deal. It’s about scale. Projekt doesn’t have a worldwide staff. So there are times when it makes sense to give some music away at pay-what-you-want; It helps to get the word out, and bringing in some money. I think artists have to use every possible channel to get their music out: experiment to see what works with their audience. Why refuse something that might work for your band?

What are the projects you're going to dedicate yourself to after the release of the new album? Any chance to have Black Tape back on stage for some live gigs?
I’d say there are zero chances of a live show. It is just not economical to do a show, lose money, and not be able to pay my band. I’m not going to ask that of them, or myself. Instead, my plan is to work on new music. I already have four songs started. I’ve been thinking of what the lyrics will be about. Then I will record the singers, and the other musicians. My idea is to try to have them finished by the new year, and release a digital EP. With the new streaming world, bands like mine need to stay active, release a lot of music. I want to put out a few EPs, then take some of those songs and some unreleased songs, and make the next album. Hopefully for the end of 2017.

It was 1986 when the first Black Tape album saw life. This new one comes in 2016, celebrating the 30th anniversary of this extraordinary saga. Looking back at the whole Black Tape path, what are the things yo're more proud of? And with the wisdom of hindsight, is there something you would have changed or made differently from what you did?
For me, its easier to say what I would have changed, so I’ll take that first. in 1996, when Black Tape For A Blue Girl was the #1 act at Projekt, I would have put more energy into the band. Wrote and recorded more music. That would have entailed putting out fewer releases from the other bands. But it would have been better for my soul to focus on my art, and keep Black Tape moving ahead and at #1. I let other things take my time. Including having a baby in 2002. I don’t regret it. I’m just saying I would have done it differently. As far as what I am proud of? The albums that I still enjoy listening to. I’m not really thrilled by playing live, or listening to old shows. I know they hold a special place for fans, but it’s the recorded music that will live on.

As an ending to this interview, we would ask you to choose the three Black Tape albums you're more satisfied with, and your personal top-five from Projekt's catalogue. We would also like to simply ask which are, in your opinion, the most important "dark" albums (in the broadest meaning) that you would suggest to new listeners.
Ah man, that’s hard. I’ll just do it really quick, and not overthink it. Black Tape: "These Fleeting Moments", "Remnants Of A Deeper Purity", "A Chaos Of Desire". Projekt: Voltaire - "The Devil’s Bris", Steve Roach - "Structures From Silence", O Yuki Conjugate - "Peyote", Mira - "Mira", Android Lust - "The Dividing". So many others, but you said five. It’s hard to pick your favorite from all.
For the second question, I can tell you which albums I enjoy listening to; but I’m not going to say this matters, or indicates the most important album to listen to. I haven’t listened to much of the music that would appear on your average top-10 goth lists. I will have wildly obscure suggestions that might be irrelevant to you. I think Marc Almond’s "Mother Fist" and her five daughters is a must-hear album. Also Spiritual Front’s "Armageddon Gigolo". Voltaire’s "The Devil’s Bris". Nico’s "Desert Shore". The Cure’s "Faith". But that’s me! :)

Thank you Sam!

 CD & LP
 The Rope (Projekt, 1986)
Mesmerized By The Sirens (Projekt, 1987)
 Ashes In The Brittle Air (Projekt, 1989)
A Chaos Of Desire (Projekt, 1991)
 A Teardrop Left Behind (antologia, Hyperium, 1991)
 This Lush Garden Within (Projekt, 1993)
 The First Pain To Linger (antologia, Projekt, 1996)
Remnants Of A Deeper Purity (Projekt, 1996)
 Across A Thousand Blades: A Retrospective (raccolta, Projekt, 1996)
As One Aflame Laid Bare By Desire (Projekt, 1998)
The Scavenger Bride (Projekt, 2002)
With A Million Tear-Stained Memories (raccolta, Trisol / Projekt, 2003)
 Halo Star (Projekt, 2004)
 On Tour - Live Bootleg #1 (live, MP3, Projekt, 2004)
 A Retrospective (antologia, Shadowplay, 2008)
 10 Neurotics (Projekt, 2009)
 Tenderotics (Projekt, 2013)
 The Collection (raccolta, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2014)
These Fleeting Moments (Metropolis/Projekt, 2016)
 Fleeting (raccolta, Projekt, 2016)
 EP, Cassette, Singoli
 Tight In Your Arms Tonight (Cass, Projekt / Night Circle, 1989)
 Remnants (MAXI-Single, Projekt, 1996)
Black Tape For A Blue Girl (Maxi-Single, Projekt, 1998)
 The Scarecrow (EP, Projekt, 2004)
 Tarnished (MAXI-Single, Projekt, 2004)
 The Pleasure Everlasting (EP, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2008)
Archive 01 (EP, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2012)
 Kickstarter Holiday EP (EP, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2013)
 Studio Access June 14 (teaser, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2014)
 The Bike Shop (feat. Michael Plaster, single, FLAC, Bandcamp self-release, 2015)
 Across A Thousand Blades (EP, FLAC, Projekt, 2015)
Limitless (EP, FLAC, Projekt, 2016)
 Blood On The Snow (EP, FLAC, Projekt, 2017)
 Tanzmusik (Autoprodotto, 1985 / Mannequin, 2012)
 Before The Buildings Fell (Projekt, 1986 / Projekt, 2000)
The Passage (Projekt, 2011)

Terrace Of Memories (Projekt, 1992)


POD (Projekt, 2007)

MONOLITH (Projekt, 2015)
 Anthology Archive (Projekt, 2008)
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