Pop Star for a Digital Universe
While the buzz surrounding the song scored Black a major label deal, “HYPNTZ,” at least in its original form, would never see an official release. After a dispute with the Biggie Smalls estate, Black was denied permission to use the deceased rapper’s verses. Undaunted, and with his original beat and melody for “HYPNTZ” in figurative hand, Black channeled his frustration into the wistfully transcendental lyrics for the re-christened “Symphonies”.
Now, “Symphonies” is the lead single for Black’s debut album Un, which finally arrived stateside in March. An eclectic, thoroughly contemporary blend of digital breakbeats, synth-pop grandeur and enough leftfield glitchtronica to satisfy the novelty-craving ears of a generation inundated with mash-ups, remixes, and the participatory overload of all things Web 2.0, Un has the timely Black poised for inevitable commercial success. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you will.
I got a chance to talk with Dan on his way out to Los Angeles for the MTV Video Music Awards, where the video for “Symphonies” has been nominated in the Breakthrough Video and Best Special Effects categories.
So you’re heading out to Los Angeles for the VMAs pretty soon. Is it a little surreal to be nominated in the same category as someone like, say, Lady Gaga [in the Best Special Effects category]?
A bit. I mean, I don’t know if I feel like I’ve quote, unquote, made it. It’s more as if I was in the plains and now I’m in the foothills. Just happy to be here, really.
You’ve come pretty far in the past couple of years. And this all started after you left the Servant in 2007. What was your experience like with the Servant and why did you eventually decide to go your own way?
When I met the guys in the Servant, they were into stuff like the Kinks and Led Zeppelin – bands I love, you know, but very macho music. So I was like, okay, I can do this – I’d end up sitting around strumming chords for hours, coming up with melodies. It’s odd, I haven’t even picked up a guitar in the 3 years since.
And what led you all to eventually part ways?
I was listening to a lot of hip-hop, a lot of early Prince, some house music. They thought that was all complete rubbish. Again, they had these very macho tastes and weren’t exactly open to taking things in a different direction.
The proverbial creative differences.
Fast-forward to 2009 and “HYPNTZ” has become a mini-sensation. Musically, the chorus is this gorgeous, Sigur Ros-like affair with big swooning strings and yet you’re throwing down these hardcore East Coast gangsta rap lyrics over it. How did you reconcile the stylistic clash there? Is it just a superficial conflict to you?
I’ve always had an omnivorous kind of taste. There’s so much that I love in hip-hop. It would almost be disingenuous for me to keep those elements out of my music. Just as it would be disingenuous for me to discount the influence of a band like Sigur Ros. It goes back to the situation I was in with the Servant. I didn’t want to limit myself to this one very narrow genre of music. Also, when you’re making music on the computer with Reason or Logic or Live [music production software], you have so many tools at your disposal that it naturally leads you to try things musically that you wouldn’t otherwise. It encourages you to take more risks.
How would you describe your compositional process then? Do you start with a sample and sort of flesh it out from there, or do you start with a melody…how does it work usually?
One of the nice things about composing on the computer is that, whatever program I’m working with, there’s an incredible amount of tools and effects and presets that you can dig into. So part of it is just trying things out. Sometimes I’ll take a sample and just tweak it beyond recognition and start there.
Going back to “HYPNTZ.” Biggie’s estate refused you permission to use his lyrics, so you just kept the beat and wrote the lyrics for what became “Symphonies.” And as we discussed earlier, the video for “Symphonies” has now been nominated for two VMAs.
Seemed to all work out fairly well, in the end.
How did the concept for that video develop?
A couple friends of mine, Corinne Bance and Axel d’Harcourt, they’ve got a production company called Chic & Artistic. I collaborate with them on all the visual aspects of my work. They do everything – videos, graphic design, photography, everything. They approached me with the idea of mocking up end credits to some of our favorite films and running these fake credits throughout the video. So we could make all these references, some of them were to old Westerns, there were a few Kurosawa bits in there. Also, this Japanese cartoon Ulysses that I grew up with in England. In fact, I was initially dubious about the idea, but obviously it ended up being terrific.
Did I notice a Blade Runner reference in there?
Yes, that’s definitely in there.
So you and the folks at Chic & Artistic have developed a pretty distinct visual style for the Dan Black brand, if you will. That applies not only to the video for “Symphonies,” but to the cover of your first LP Un, as well. How does that collaboration work?
We’re all good friends, so it’s a very open exchange – a lot of back and forth. Sometimes I’ll come to them with an idea and we’ll work together to execute it or they’ll just bring something to me. For the cover of Un, I had this idea of me floating and parts of my body kind of breaking off. In retrospect, it’s an almost religious image, though I’m certainly not a religious person. Very far from it.
So they took that idea and ran with it basically?
Yeah. And the album art inside the jacket was all their work. I was just a prop for that stuff. It’s all terrific, of course. They’re just amazing, creative people.
You said the cover image has a religious quality to it. But that wasn’t your conscious intent, was it?
Yes and no. I’ve actually been asked about the cover a lot lately and I’ve had to come up with a rationale kind of on the fly. At the time, it was just an image that had stuck with me. I wasn’t thinking about the symbolic significance of it or anything. Thinking about it now, I do see this religious quality to it, which makes sense for me because music is my way of experiencing the sublime, or accessing God, or whatever. If I can help someone else, a listener, experience that, well, that’s all I can ask for.