Talk Show Host: 033: Black Line

Some artists never sit still, and continue to innovate, moving their sound forward by involvement in new projects and new concepts.

Douglas J. McCarthy is one of those artists, having moved on from his origins in the enormously influential Nitzer Ebb, with solo work and collaborations with Terence Fixmer, not to mention a whole list of guest appearances elsewhere.

Much of his recent work has been in collaboration with Cyrus Rex (who has some cool synth work going on of his own), initially under the DJM/REX name, and now, for their first full album, Black Line.

I talked with both of them over e-mail to discuss their work and the new album, Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities. The image is courtesy of Black Line. Although Black Line is a new name, you’ve been working together for a while. How did the collaboration come about?

Black Line: We were introduced through a mutual friend about 10 years ago. We actually were neighbors in Downtown LA but for whatever reason it took a little while to get it together to meet. Music started to happen via the Douglas J McCarthy solo album, KILL YOUR FRIENDS, and we soon started working as DJM/REX releasing two of three EPs. The third and unreleased (as of yet) EP was a gateway to working as Black Line… You’ve got quite the list of LA-based musicians on the credits, too. Was this borne of simply friends dropping in on the studio, or did you have certain people in mind to lend a hand in specific songs?

Black Line: As mentioned, we were finishing the trio of DJM/REX EPs but still felt compelled and inspired to carry on writing, Christian Eigner (Depeche Mode) was spending some time in LA and suggested we do a session together. So, in a fairly haphazard and relaxed manner we wrote and recorded a number of tracks together – some were based on initial ideas or sketches, others completely out of the blue. It got us thinking about the merits of that kind of creative interaction. As we progressed with other ideas, friends would drop by and make additions or have completely new ideas and we just rolled with them. That all probably sounds very “LA” but it was more like being a teenager and making noise whilst nobody else was home. It was very relaxed, chaotic and fun. What’s the writing process for this – is it both of you collaborating on the music and lyrics?

Black Line: We work as much as possible at the same time on music and lyrical/melodic content. We seem to have the required patience to draw inspiration from one an other as each of us work. Even if there is complete silence from one of us, there is something ticking over ready to interject and contribute or just annoy the other person. There are some pretty cool photos of the equipment Cyrus Rex uses on the internet. Is all of the music here built on modular synths? And how does that work with touring/live dates?

Black Line: Those shots of Cyrus’ studio are basically where everything happens with the exception of recording drums that one time with Christian. The majority of the music is indeed built on modular synths but there is a variety of older and newer hardware here and there. The Korg MS20 and Roland SH101 get their fair share of attention as well as a couple of more recent bits of kit like the DevilFish 303, Abstrakt Instruments Avalon with various filter cartridges, Macbeth M5… as for outboard most API and UA, and lots of Malekko stuff. There has been a marked increase in just about anyone releasing techno/electronics at the moment claiming that they have an “EBM/industrial” influence. This album, to my ears, is moving away from that crossover at points, despite your direct connections to those influence?

Black Line: Independently and collaboratively we have always strived to make music first and foremost. The idea that there is a category to maintain or set boundaries seems ludicrous and counterintuitive to the whole reason for being creative in the first place. Our feeling is that you may as well make a fucking pop song if you want barriers. Indeed, what were your influences for this album? There seems to be a more laid-back, even soulful feel to some of this album.

Black Line: As banal and idiotic as it may sound, we were influenced by whatever took our fancy at any particular moment of any particular day. The one exception would have been ‘Shut It Down’ where we specifically pursued a Talking Heads ‘Remain In Light’ kind of vibe, but that was already inherent in the track before we drew attention to it. We just got Jon Bates (BIG BLACK DELTA) to do a bit of funk guitar. Douglas, you been in LA for a while now, as I understand it. Did you find that living there has changed your outlook on your music, at all? And now you have some distance from it, how do you see your work in Nitzer Ebb? So many artists name you as an influence nowadays that it suggests you were rather ahead of your time.

Douglas J. McCarthy: Ha! Lil’ celeb story… skateboarding legend, Tony Hawk is an old friend and his older brother once said to me, in reference to Tony being so successful in relation to “real” legends (i.e. older) like Jay Adams: “the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land”. Werd. The LA electronic music scene seems amazingly fertile at the moment. Do you feel part of that?

Black Line: Very much so. It’s hilarious, how dark and moody we all are, bathed in endlessly sunny days. Funny old world.

Black Line’s debut album Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities is out now, and their first live show is at the Teragram Ballroom in LA on 07-July.

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