|Label of the month: Blackest Ever Black
Guilt, envy, revenge: The core values of electronic music's darkest imprint.
Blackest Ever Black would probably be the funniest name for a label in recent memory if they didn't seem so damn serious about it. The London imprint, headed up by FACT editor Kiran Sande, is self-consciously and deliciously po-faced. Their mission? To make you feel something. And through its four releases thus far, it's aim has been true: Raime's disquieting dub-inflected four-four skirts techno, but doesn't sound like much of anything that's been released this decade or last. Tropic of Cancer is black lace, wax candles and 1983. Just recently, they've put out Regis' first solo record in ten years. Coming up, there's a new Raime EP in October and their very first label night in the same month. RA's Todd L. Burns sent a few e-mail questions to Sande last month to find out more about the underpinnings of the imprint.
Why did you start Blackest Ever Black? What was—for lack of a better phrase—the gap in the market that made you feel your label was necessary? How did you find Raime?
For the same reasons that anyone ever started something of personal significance: guilt, envy, revenge. Those aren't the sustaining forces of the label, of course, but they were certainly what brought it into being. There were other factors too: I mean, Blackest Ever Black is nothing if not the sound of one man's struggle to give up smoking. Anyway, the label existed as an idea—with a different name, a pretty stupid name at that, and a less focussed agenda—for several months before I first encountered Raime's music via a much-loved mutual friend. Hearing their tracks naturally galvanised my desire to get things off the ground, but it was actually a couple of days later, meeting them as people, becoming privy to their very specific interests, anxieties and perceptions, and realising how neatly they dovetailed with mine, that ultimately dictated the label's identity and forward course.
We had similar—if not identical—tastes and backgrounds, similarly paranoid and pretentious dispositions, and perhaps most vitally we were all at the same point of disaffection, a point where we were finding more solace and succour in Earth 2 than in the latest internet dance fad. So yeah, doom and drone metal was a part of it. I was a closet industrial nut already, and had a big fetish for all the late '70s and early '80s music that many people quite reasonably associate with Blackest Ever Black, but it was Raime who prompted me to go further and harder into it, and then to connect it all with the contemporary landscape, to use it to interrogate the present moment, and the moment yet to come. At the risk of sounding trite, they reminded me that music—from the underground on up—is all about time travel, and that you can move both ways at the same time.
Goth, industrial, the hard-edged experimental fringe of post-punk: it's hard not to be continually amazed at the cavernous drum sounds, strafing synths and insane reverbs to be found on those sorts of records, if only on an occluded B-side instrumental or on one album track from an otherwise terrible album. But the sonic is only part of it—probably the biggest draw to that kind of music, as with the doom stuff, is the presence, sometimes a surfeit, of content, of story. I'm talking about records rich with verbal and visual allusions, a suggestion and maybe even a promise of meaning. Of course there can be presence, and weight, in absence—on first encounter the blank, wordless presentation of, say, an SND record is every bit as seductive and absorbing as a Christian Death lyric sheet—but I suppose I'd become a little bit jaded with that less-is-more approach, with minimalism as a way of life, and I wanted a return to filigree and shadow.
What, I wondered, had happened to overreaching? I suddenly felt nauseated by the dance culture I hitherto considered myself a part of, one whose sense of its own forward-thinking masks a top-to-bottom conservatism and a fear of the mildest idiosyncrasy, let alone unabashed personal expression. There's no risk or transgression, not right now, in calling your track "B15587" or, you know, "Wad," however good the music might be. Nobody grills a house or dubstep producer on what their music is actually about, because we know from the outset it's not about anything, and nor do we expect it to be. But after a while you begin to crave content, don't you? At this point in my life I want to be provoked, I want to be romanced, I want to be made to feel stupid and confused all over again.
"I want to be provoked,
I want to be romanced,
I want to be made to feel stupid
and confused all over again."
I think—no, I know—it was Greil Marcus, in one of his frightfully earnest essays about punk, who wrote of music that could change the way a person performs his or her commute, and connect that act to every other, thereby calling the person's entire way of life into question. I'm not yet immodest enough to suggest that Blackest records do that, not by a long stretch, but that's the aim, the ambition and it's the only one that really matters. When I listen to so much contemporary music, not least house and techno, I feel it couldn't be further from that—it's cosy, it's ordered, it's unsurprising, and it seeks to reassure the listener rather than unsettle or disconcert them. Too many engineers and not enough artists are making music today, as I never tire of complaining.
But all that said, dance music—better to call it body music, lest the wallflowers and armchair enthusiasts feel excluded—remains of the utmost importance to me. My interest in virtually everything else is refracted through that. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to hear a new club record that has something novel to say, or at least says something familiar in a novel-seeming way—but that happens once, at best two or three times a year. 4/4 techno as a functional party music is timeless and inexhaustible—it quite simply works—but seems rare that it's actually challenging or dangerous. I mean, does it tell us anything of the way we live or the way we ought to live?
The strain of body music that means the most to Blackest is, I think, jungle. I can't really overstate how much of an influence '93-'94 jungle is, especially on Raime—it's their deepest and most enduring love, really. I came to it all retrospectively, but for them it's their bread and butter, they're steeped in it, it's what they came of age to, it's where their soul is—everything they produce, everything they want to produce, they will measure against '93-94 jungle. They can talk for hours about the break on a Dilinja record, or argue at length with me about whether Source Direct's music is visceral and unselfconscious enough to be counted among the very best (for me it is, absolutely; they're less sure about it). The world Raime operate in, sonically, is the space opened up by the future rush of jungle. Music can't get harder, faster, more complex, more visceral, more dystopian or more alien than that stuff: it represents a vanguard we've never quite caught up with, and most music made 17 or 18 years later exists in its shadow whether it knows it or not. The challenge facing any self-respecting artist today is to make music that's even half as engrossing and insurrectionary as the finest jungle records.
I continue to follow avidly every conceivable mutation—mutation is a more accurate word to use here than advancement—of club music that occurs, but as you grow older it does become increasingly depressing to see each successive flourish dulled, co-opted or subsumed into something larger and more boring. If you want to feel anything in this undistinguished age then you have to hunt, as the Raime ditty goes, under the wreckage of many systems—to search hard for the sounds and words and images and signifiers that still stimulate you, still intrigue you, still give you that strange feeling in your gut and bring you closer to the mesmerised suburban daydreams of your youth, and, if you're lucky, closer to your base human instincts.
Can you tell me a little bit about your musical upbringing? Was it techno from the off? Does your father own an underground '80s goth selection?
My earliest musical memories are of my older sister's rather sinister Richard Clayderman tapes (seriously, check out the cover art for Rondo Pour Un Tout Petit Enfant), my Mum getting weepy in the kitchen to the Michael Crawford-led cast recording of The Phantom Of The Opera and my Dad caning Glen Campbell's 20 Golden Greats on the school run: those looking to trace the roots of my weakness for orchestral bombast, sentimental chord changes and morbid romanticism need look no further. I was born in '83, so for most of my teenage years I didn't have the internet and had to find out about the good stuff by reading the music press meticulously, pooling knowledge with friends, letter and cassette-swapping with strangers and so on. Of course, when we did finally get the internet, I just used it to look at pornography.
My musical development from there on in is almost exactly as you'd expect, and I wouldn't want to bore anyone with the details. I will, say, however, that electroclash left a lasting impression on me, more so than you might think and certainly more than any sensible man would admit.
Thus far, the label seems to be very Sandwell-heavy in its focus outside of Raime. Why does what they're doing appeal to you so much?
I can't say I feel much allegiance with Sandwell District, though I appreciate what they do and am friendly with all involved. If there's a label that Blackest has an obvious kinship with then it's Downwards, a different beast altogether. What appeals to me about it? Purity of intent and good track titles. Morrissey, back when he used to talk some sense, referred to those he admired as "the kind of people you just can't brush aside." Regis just can't be brushed aside, so thank christ he was the first person, myself excepted, to get excited about Raime's music. Not only did he appreciate it, he also instinctively saw, without being prompted, where it was coming from in terms of texture and character: immediately making comparisons to AC Marias and Death In June ("if Douglas P still had the balls") rather than simply, you know, Shackleton and Demdike Stare.
When I heard Tropic of Cancer's The Dull Age/Victims 10-inch in 2009, I thought: this is the kind of music I want to release. Once I had Raime's EP out and heard that Juan [Mendez] and Camella [Lobo] were fans, I didn't need any further encouragement to get in touch and invite them to record something for me.
I've put out four records so far, all nicely aligned with each other, but I'm not yet finished establishing the parameters of what Blackest music is. The next 12-inch is Raime's Hennail, then after that an EP of lavishly arranged existential fire from a young Scottish duo called Young Hunting, some incredible SM electronics from Dominick "Prurient" Fernow's Vatican Shadow project, and a few other things that I don't wish to name right now, including a terrifying modern recording of a traditional East Anglian folk song and the first ever vinyl edition of one of my all-time favourite albums—think dourly mystical British pop, a beautiful jumble of tape loops, primitive synths and sighing, sagging chamber instrumentation.
"Are there any moments more exciting
than those that exist between you
learning of an interesting record
and you actually hearing it?"
Is there room for humor in the world of Blackest Ever Black?
Any vision of the world that doesn't admit humour is an incomplete vision, and I think anyone who follows the label closely will have discerned the occasional muffled peel of laughter in the dark. But that's about the extent of it. For the most part Blackest is serious and po-faced to a fault, and I'm proud of this, because that's the way it has to be—for it to mean anything, and for that meaning to penetrate. We don't want to be your friends.
What music press did you read growing up?
Well, one wasn't exactly spoilt for choice in the mid-'90s. The British music press was definitely well past its best. I picked up NME, Melody Maker, Mojo and, if ever I found myself in London where import titles were easy to come by, then the occasional American rag like Spin and Magnet too. All very mainstream stuff—anything more specialist was beyond me back then; if WH Smith in the Prospect Centre didn't stock it then as far as I was concerned it didn't exist. Being a child of the Britpop era, I had the de rigeur subscription to Select, whose student-y editorial and hilariously hit-and-miss cover CDs and cassettes, like those of NME and Mojo, seemed awfully impressive to me then, and actually introduced me to all sorts. If you were hardy enough to endure, or canny enough to skip through, the inevitable Bentley Rhythm Ace and Cast tracks, then you might discover something genuinely remarkable.
Much of what I got out of these magazines, though, was more a matter of me making inferences and using my imagination: I still remember poring over a page in Select advertising 10+ Gong reissues, staring at the titles and cover images, trying to imagine what Gong might sound like (and getting it horribly wrong). Not to be too hammy about it, but you couldn't just go online and check out what an artist sounded like, so of course the words meant so much more; sometimes everything. Are there any moments more exciting in life than those that exist between you learning of an interesting record and you actually hearing it?
By the time I was 16 or 17 years old, the most important magazine to me was The Face, the premature death of which I never quite understood. Its lurid evocation of a London of musical innovation, clubs, drugs, fashion and sexual difference was something I felt with full force. Their monthly music reviews were just two columns—one for singles, one for albums—and the glib, clipped prose within (again, pretty embarrassing in hindsight) got me unbelievably excited about a huge range of releases, many of which I wouldn't actually hear until years later. The example that sticks in my mind is Wookie's "Battle"—a rare instance of a record that sounded as good in reality as it did on paper. R.I.P. delayed gratification.
Does Blackest Ever Black have an end?
Yes, of course, though I've yet to set a date. As a friend sagely pointed out to me recently, it's important not to outstay your welcome, and equally important not to leave before your business is complete. Still, when to pull the plug is always going to be a source of constant anxiety, as is the question of how often to release records. Most labels dwindle into irrelevance after ten or so 12-inches but insist on sticking around for years after, releasing stuff of less and less value. To be honest, I can't imagine Blackest will be any different. And anyway, pissing all over one's own modest legacy is a natural, perhaps even crucial part of the life cycle. As Somerset Maugham said of the novelist: it's no good his thinking that it's enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of 40 or 50 works of no particular consequence.
How do you navigate the possible perceived conflict of interest that you might have with your day job as an editor at FACT?
The same way that Jon The Postman handled being a postman.
How does BEB avoid being dulled, co-opted, subsumed into something larger and boring?
Oh, I don't know if it can be avoided. I'll do my best—misdirection, sleight-of-hand, you know. Already I can see that more and more halfwits and knuckle-draggers are being drawn to Blackest Ever Black, but alas you can't choose who buys your records and hey, it's meat in the room. The fate of the label will probably have a lot to do with how much I want to, and am able, to alienate these people as time goes on. Hopefully my haughty tone in this interview has helped repel a few of 'em.
What were the last three books you read?
Really? You actually want to know? Right now I'm reading a book called, hilariously, Dark Spectre—by the late Michael Dibdin. He made his name writing decidedly Mum-friendly detective novels set in Italy, but this one's a complete one-off, something to do with a William Blake-worshipping death cult in America, ultraviolent and almost suffocatingly tense. But I'm barely 200 pages through so it still has the potential to go tits-up, and probably will. Before that, I think it was George Melly's Revolt Into Style, or maybe Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women, a classic feminist polemic that made me feel very, very bad about myself.
I'm more of a bibliophile than a reader, which is a pompous way of saying I'm an incorrigible dabbler with little or no focus: I've begun many more books than I've ever completed, and for better or worse I always have about five things on the go. The subject that's most interesting me at the moment is undoubtedly the English preoccupation with the well-mannered murder mystery, hence fitful pecking at Colin Watson's Snobbery With Violence and Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. I'm going to be "in conversation" with William Bennett (Cut Hands, Whitehouse) at Unsound next month, so I really ought to get boning up on vaudou and transparent concession. Fuck.
Blackest Ever Black Mix
This month's label showcase is from Kiran Sande, the mind behind Blackest Ever Black. Opting to solely showcase the label's music, he guides you through the dark catacombs that Raime, Tropic of Cancer, Young Hunting and more all inhabit.
Download: RA Label of the Month 1109 Mix: Blackest Ever Black
(right click + save target as)
Filesize: 91.9 MB
01. Raime - This Foundry (Regis Version)
02. Young Hunting - Spiritual Abandonment (Demo Excerpt)
03. Tropic of Cancer - Temporal Vessels
04. Raime - We Must Hunt Under the Wreckage of Many Systems
05. Raime - If Anywhere Was Here He Would Know Where We Are
06. Young Hunting - Separation
07. Vatican Shadow - Cairo Sword Unsheathed
08. Regis - Blood Witness (M.J. Harris / Karl O'Connor live version, 8.2.11)
Published / Friday, 09 September 2011