It Was No Slam Dunk for Black Marble to Go Coast to Coast
Chris Stewart has had a hell of a couple years between records with Black Marble. Known primarily as a fixture of the current darkwave scene in Brooklyn via 2012 debut EP Weight Against the Door and the acclaimed A Different Arrangement, Black Marble have just released a new full-length, It’s Immaterial (Ghostly International), that at first seems like a celebration of change, as Stewart recently made the jump from Brooklyn to L.A. Upon first listen, there seems to be more warmth and sunlight creeping into the songs — something that was only hinted at on previous efforts.
However, the deeper you delve into Black Marble’s latest offering, the clearer it becomes that It’s Immaterial isn’t so much about the excitement of a new start, but rather that incessant, empty feeling of needing something different, knowing that you need to change, but stumbling at that final step before taking the leap of faith. It’s Immaterial offers glimpses of hope and rays of that warm California sun, which makes you think this is going to be the “happy” Black Marble record — until you learn that the vast majority was written in Brooklyn, where Stewart was struggling to move past the gut feeling that told him to come to New York in the first place.
I recently ducked out of my shitty warehouse job (I still live where I grew up) to speak to Stewart about It’s Immaterial, how you know when it’s time to move on and the value of a sense of humor in the darkwave scene.
New lineup, new label, new coast: Care to comment on any of that?
Well, so, I think what is relevant is the fact that I’ve lived in New York for, like, many years, you know? I don’t know how long you’ve lived there, if you’re from New York — and everyone has a different perspective on it depending on how long they’ve been there, where they came from, if they’re born there — but for me, I liked New York the most when I was 21 and didn't mind living with a house with, like, 14 other people in order to pay $400 a month and work one day a week at a coffee shop and just, like, hang out, basically. And, you know, New York is a lot of things, but for me, I just really appreciated the variety of people you could meet and the variety of experiences you can have, the variety of paths you could take in this humungoid city — especially coming from kind of a shitty suburb of D.C. where I grew up. That was what was most appealing to me.
So, a lot of people are like, “I want to move to New York and become a fucking millionaire,” or “I want to move to New York and do this or do that,” and I was just like, “I want to move to New York and meet as many people as I can and hang out.” I sort of took the man-of-leisure approach to the city, and after living there for so long, you get to a point where you’re just like, “Well, I’ve been to every party, I’ve been offered crack cocaine by Natasha Lyonne like six times already, or whatever,” and you sort of reach an end. It's kind of natural for people to be like, “What’s up, man? Why have all these things changed?” And really, what it boils down to for me, moving coasts — obviously, I’m not with my old bandmate [Ty Kube] anymore and people are like, “What's up, dude? Is there a rift?” And I always made all of Black Marble’s music, so I was always going to find a friend wherever I was to help. If Ty felt like moving to Los Angeles just to be in my stupid band, he could, but he’s got more shit going on, hopefully, than that. I was just sick of New York, and there isn't really a better answer than that.
I think anyone who’s spent an extended period of time in New York knows what you mean when you say you were sick of it.
Also, I mean, the place changes so much around you. The reasons why you go there — if you have a great time when you first get there, the first two, three, four, five years, fast forward another five years, and you're not going to recognize anything that you had come to hold dear. A lot of your friends will have been priced out, and they’ll go back to where they came from. Or, a lot of your favorite places to get coffee now charge, like, $19 for an orange juice and everything changes, and you reach a point where you’re like, “Is this the same place?” And there’s people that will go there now and are going there now, and they're having all those experiences that I had when I first moved there, and good for them. Over time, I think they’ll probably have the same [experience] where things start to change.
What brought on the move to the West Coast? You and Black Marble were so established within Brooklyn and this neo-cold / darkwave scene, and I know you said it was a conscious move away from New York. Was it a conscious move away from that scene as well?
Things have changed so much in the past 15, 20 years where, back in the day, there really was like a scene around a given city because you didn't have access to other places, so everyone had no choice but to go on together. That's all been talked about to death, and I don't want to dwell on it, but that isn’t the case anymore, right? So, I didn’t feel like I need to stay a part of my scene, because the people that like my music live all over the world, and the people I play shows with are from all over the world. You can be in New York, and in terms of press, people can say this is a Brooklyn band and I’m not going to dispute it, because it's an honor to be considered that; but at the same time, I knew I could do what I do wherever, and I could live in a bunker in, like, Anchorage, Alaska, and I could make another Black Marble record, and it would literally go to the same websites and be talked about by the same people, and the same people will go to the same shows. Know what I mean?
Absolutely. Did you have any relationship to California before moving? When you decided “fuck New York,” was there anything that brought you to L.A., or was it more throwing a dart at a map?
No, I mean it was the the fact that [Black Marble] had gotten to the point where we were doing a lot of West Coast shows, so I started to use the band as a way to see the world without being a tourist and holding a map upside down. Being in a band is a way to do that sort of traveling, but getting to be with other people that are into the same kind of shit as you. Because of the band, I just started traveling more, and I started seeing more places. I had never been to L.A. before I started the band, and we had toured the West Coast a few times, and I was like, “This is pretty cool.” People from New York have this sort of aversion to L.A., where they think they’re supposed to hate it or that it sucks.
So, when I came out here, I was like, “This is pretty nice.” The first time I came out here was in December, and it was, like, 87 degrees and [there were] people in shorts, and surfing. And it's not just the weather. It just has a totally unique vibe unto itself with the architecture and all these little bungalows everywhere, and it feels like they literally carved this civilization out of a fucking desert cliffside, which they basically did. So, when you’ve lived in a concrete jungle for so long, it's nice to come to a place like this where you feel like you’re in a real jungle. There's constant wildlife and shit you just don’t see in New York. You feel like you’re in a place where there’s a lot more life that isn’t human. In New York, it's basically people and their dogs, and they dress like people. Everything has a human touch. Here, it's like the opposite, where you almost feel like you’re a visitor, kind of.
From Weight Against the Door to A Different Arrangement, the sound got a little bit warmer. The same applies to It's Immaterial. Do you think that is related to L.A., too?
No. I’m sort of fighting that because I think that's a natural conclusion to maybe draw, but for me, the way this record sounds ironically has a lot more to do with New York than L.A. Even though people are like, "It sounds warmer!” But I feel like the change comes from ... you’re more likely to try new shit on the East Coast, because out here it's a much slower pace, and I feel like I would have made five more records in a row that sounded exactly the same from out here. But from there, there's constant sort of churn from people getting pushed out, and new prat kids coming in, and there’s just a constant turnover. The vibe here is very different. New York, you take it for granted after a while, but you do feel like, at first, you’re at the center of the world, and eventually you lose the feeling. But when you go here — and I go back and visit — you do feel like New York is still a benchmark for equality in the arts, you know what I mean? So, you feel a lot of pressure there to continue to kind of evolve.
I think, ironically, people will say. “Did the change in your sound have anything to do with moving to the West Coast?” And I basically wrote the whole record while I was in New York. I wrote it trying to get the fuck out of New York because I wasn’t going to be able to move and continue writing, because I would never get it done. So, it was like, "As soon as I get this done, I can move." I think the evolution of the sound is more me knowing I was going to be somewhere different with this thing done and wanting to sort of try some new things because I was eventually going to be in a new place. Also, New York just making you want to try harder to evolve, instead of resting [on] whatever you’ve done the last time. I think it would have been boring for me to continue making the same record that I’ve made before. People hold the artists they like to the standard of, if you don’t evolve, people shit on you; but if you do, they’re like, "What's up, man?” For me, I just go back to, why did I start doing this? And it was to have fun and experiment. So, I tried to be kind of consistent [with] that on this record, and something different came out because I was trying some different things.
Obviously, the record is about you, but the songs seem to stand alone with characters specific to the song. Now that you say you wrote the record in New York while you knew you wanted to move, but you weren't sure where yet, it seems like everybody in these songs is fully cognizant of what's wrong, what they need to do, but they're stuck and ...
... haven’t done it yet. Yeah, and it's funny, because when I was writing it, I did not think about that. It was just sort of coming from an instinctive place — the lyrical content and what the stories were and what the people were about. The way that I was feeling myself, I sort of imbued these people with the same kind of feeling of being stuck, and that sort of corny analogy of [a] cat on a tin roof sort of vibe — of feeling uncomfortable and knowing you’re not in the right place. It had been a really long time since I felt that way. I grew up in a really shitty suburb where I felt like I was not in the right place and everybody else in my family felt like they were in the right place, and so I was the one who had to go off and do the whole New York thing.
Going back to this being your “lighter record,” now that we’ve established that it's not because of moving to L.A., there's something that I really liked about it: There are these moments of warmth that creep in, and whenever you think it's going to cross that border and be your happy record, it seems to bite back into total downer territory, and I actually really liked that. I think that adds to what we were discussing about the characters — how these things creep up on you where it feels more real with knowing what they need to do, and then crushing doubt right after.
I definitely do that on purpose. Even from the first song ["Interdiction"] being this crazy noise song where your ears are bleeding, where there's a synth that sounds literally like screaming, [going] straight from that to one of the catchier songs I’ve written. All of that is on purpose. I think that is something that going all the way back to art school, your first semester of fuckin’ art school, where your professors are like, "The denial of access — hold things back and don’t be overt." I think that's something I’ve always kind of kept with me and my work, not even music-related. Anything I create, I want to have that tension between a song that's happy and the next one that's kind of muffled, and you can't quite make out what's being said. That stuff is definitely not accidental. I do hope that gives you this sort of feeling where you want to ... I hope I’m taking people for a ride, to a certain extent. When I was a little kid, I used to sit in my room and listen to records from front to back; nobody does that anymore, but I grew up doing that. I really tried to think of something where you’re supposed to listen to the whole thing. And so, therefore, each song is considered in that way.
You already answered my next question about the first song. I love that intro. I think it's an awesome move, and anybody that's reading any press about, “This is his happy record; he moved to L.A.” — to have that be the first thing you hear, where it's like, “Fuck you, you’re either in or you’re out; this is your chance to get out,” I thought was a killer move.
Yeah, I think if you try to make stuff with people's expectations in mind, it's just going to come out fucked up. I think that maybe part of me throwing that noise song in there is me almost signaling subconsciously [that] I'm doing what I’m doing because I want to do it, and you’re along for the ride or you’re not. It's almost like a palate cleanser. The people that are gonna bounce after that, it's fine — we didn’t need these people anyway. You have to be a little more invested.
Something else I noticed: There's a little bit more of a morbid sense of humor to some of these songs, a more human quality to them. Like, "Self Guided Tours" has that Yes reference, which I thought was awesome. Do you think that more of your actual emotion has crept into these songs?
I’m a pretty sarcastic person, and I think that humor is a big part of my personality. On previous records, because I was sticking to this well-worn territory I felt a little constrained to have that jaundiced point of view in the songwriting, and you couldn't really hear what I was talking about anyway, half the time. I definitely want to explore more of that in this record, and records moving forward. I really appreciate that in songwriting, when there is sort of a dark humor.
You have this sarcastic, self-aware sense of humor. Do people expect you to be Mr. Dour Darkwave all the time?
That's a good question, actually. I wonder that myself. Because, in the live shows, we’re not at all, “Oh! Misery!” We almost act more like — I’m trying to think of what style of music is more akin to our attitude, but I definitely don’t feel … because its synth and drum machines and all that, it has sort of a dark quality to it, and I do play that up because I like that mood, but I don't feel like a down-in-the-dumps, sad sack sort of person. That's a side of some kinds of music [that] I actually find to be pretty corny. I don't know — our fans are not really a bunch of people wearing dark robes that are swaying back and forth. It's sort of like a mix of people, so I don’t think they're necessarily expecting me to have this stage persona where I’m pretending to be super sad. Its not the Cure up there; it's more me playing around with the crowd in between songs, and I feel like people like that. I'm usually consciously trying to steer the band away from a gothy thing and more [towards], like, old synth punk bands, the way they would be sarcastic and stuff — like art school bands. I feel more akin to that sensibility than I do a goth vibe.
Yeah, you watch old Suicide videos and they’re fucking with people. They're having fun, which I feel like people forget to do sometimes.
I feel like I take my influence from more that vibe than, you know, the sadness.