Black Dice: Noise, Chaos, & Sound Warps, Interview

Conversations with Black Dice’s Bjorn Copeland and Aaron Warren

Black Dice is an experimental noise music band, featuring brothers Bjorn and Eric Copeland along with Aaron Warren. Formed in 1997, the band initially drew from hardcore punk and noise rock influences, eventually transitioning to a sound incorporating  signal processing and a variety of effects. The band’s formation took root at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Bjorn Copeland met drummer Hisham Bharoocha and bassist Sebastian Blanck. Their early performances were short, intense, and chaotic. Despite the physical toll, these shows were marked by a high-energy atmosphere that resonated with their audience. As Bjorn Copeland described, “Nobody ever thought it would be funny after six years of doing it, but it just was fun. We were playing music with our best friends, so it worked out.” In 1998, the band relocated to New York City, which proved to be a significant turning point. It was here that Aaron Warren joined the lineup, and the band began to experiment more deeply with their sound, moving away from their hardcore roots towards a more diverse and exploratory musical direction. This transition included the use of various pedals and electronic equipment, gradually shifting their music towards rhythmic, motorik, and dub influences. Their debut album, “Beaches & Canyons” (2002), marked a definitive step in this new direction. The album showcased their expanded sonic palette, emphasizing atmosphere and texture over traditional song structures. The evolution of their music was characterized by a move from structured compositions to more open-ended and improvised soundscapes. Throughout their career, Black Dice has recorded for several influential labels, including DFA, Fat Cat, and Paw Tracks, the latter run by their friends Animal Collective. Their live performances, known for their high volume and broad range of frequencies, evolved to focus more on the sonic experience rather than the physical chaos of their early days. Black Dice’s creative process often involves extensive jam sessions, which have been integral to developing their unique sound. Their 2012 album, “Mr. Impossible,” continued this tradition, incorporating even more electronic instrumentation and innovative soundscapes.Their most recent work, “Mod Prog Sic,” reflects this ongoing evolution, created over several years with band members living in different cities and collaborating remotely.

Black Dice’s Bandcamp

How would you describe the atmosphere of the early noise rock and hardcore punk scenes you were part of?

Bjorn Copeland: I would describe it as high energy. The bands we emerged with from Providence were certainly all really high-energy live performers. Even though the music was dissonant and perhaps a bit ugly, it still had a party-like atmosphere. The shows were chaotic and hectic; things could quickly go south, and people could get hurt, which made it exciting. Nobody was trying to make a career out of it, so anything went.

Aaron Warren: When Black Dice was forming, I was living in California and playing with a different band. We were part of a similar DIY punk scene of the mid-’90s in America. We played at houses, community centers, or VFW halls, not at legitimate rock venues. In Southern California, the punk and hardcore movement had become almost conservative. Bands would play with their backs to the audience, and the audience would be seated, not moving at all. This was very different from the punk music I experienced in high school, where anything could happen, and people were jumping around and moving aggressively. When I moved to New York and saw Black Dice at NYU, it was refreshing. The microphone was being swung around like a weapon, and someone could get hurt. That was exciting. It was clear the band wasn’t looking to harm anyone, just to have a wild, thrilling performance, which appealed to me. I thought it was really fun.

What inspired the transition from your hardcore punk roots to a more experimental and electronic sound?

Bjorn Copeland: Many punk and hardcore scenes became rigid with rules, which didn’t interest us. We were also a sloppy band when we played hardcore, and the accidents often sounded better than the actual tunes. We started making music based on accidents or guitar feedback between songs. We were around adventurous bands like Lightning Bolt, Forcefield, and Six Finger Satellite. When we moved to New York, we found ourselves surrounded by another group of adventurous musicians. Our musical education expanded as we began buying different kinds of records, which influenced us. When Aaron lived with us, we’d jam in the apartment, setting the tone for our future work. We had an old Farfisa organ. Our musical evolution took longer than expected because we could only get shows through hardcore promoters. There weren’t many venues for noise shows, so it took longer than we would have liked.

Aaron Warren: It took years. I joined the band in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2001 that people knew what kind of show to expect. Audiences anticipated hardcore music, but we presented no recognizable tunes—nothing fast or aggressive—which left them unimpressed. At that point, I felt too old for punk music. In New York, we had access to a vast array of music that wasn’t available online. Experiencing live shows was a significant influence.

Bjorn Copeland: We weren’t musically skilled enough to rip anybody off. We couldn’t make a band that sounded like Slayer because we couldn’t play that well. We had to figure out what we could do that gave off the same energy as the records or bands we liked, which influenced our evolution.

What was the creative process like for your debut album “Beaches & Canyons”?

Bjorn Copeland: I had gone away for an artist residency one summer and got some new gear. When I came back to New York, I played it for everyone. It was different because I wasn’t in a city when I made the guitar parts that ended up on “Beaches & Canyons.” It was healthy for us to take a little break. We recorded it with Nicholas Vernhes at Rare Book Room, who was perfect for us. He was very encouraging and open to our ideas, aware of our limitations.

Aaron Warren: I think we got a practice space for the first time when you got back. Before that, we practiced at Bjorn’s house, which was an industrial loft with dozens of people living there. We could only practice for about 15 minutes before someone complained about the noise. The practice space allowed us to jam for hours, creating a real looseness. When we went into the studio, it was super easy because we had spent a lot of time jamming.

Bjorn Copeland: The bands we shared the practice space with were bands we were going to see, like Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, and Panthers. Seeing what other friends did while we played helped too. We were lucky to end up where we did.

How has the use of signal processing and electronic instrumentation transformed your live shows over the years?

Bjorn Copeland: Sometimes you hear new sounds you can make with different gear, and that’s interesting to explore. There was a transitional period where we used bass, guitar, vocals, and drums, mimicking electronic music by processing sounds through pedals, reel-to-reel tape machines, and contact mics. It was a slow evolution. We never used synthesizers much; it was mixer feedback, guitar, percussion, and processed vocals. Even without samplers, it probably would have evolved similarly.

Aaron Warren: Yeah, it was like a golden age when many pedals from the 80s and 90s were not very cool. They were inexpensive, and in New York, especially Brooklyn, there was a lot of stuff out on the street. People had to move out in a hurry and just get rid of things. So, we got a lot of gear from the street, basically from the trash. I had this mixer that Bjorn found on his way home from work, and it was a big piece of my gear for years. We also found tape machines and other equipment like that. After a few years, I started to move away from that approach. I was more interested in making a sound that I could hear in my head and having it be really reliable, instead of having a long process where it needed to go into three pedals with specific settings. Now, after many years, I’m getting back to the point where I just got a signal processing device that I’m loving. I’m having so much fun playing because I have this piece of gear that’s opened up all these possibilities for me. It’s just a fun thing when you can find the gear that works and makes you want to play.

Bjorn Copeland: The gear was cheap too. We got a lot of stuff from the street. Hisham worked at Electro-Harmonix, so we had more access. We weren’t super gear-dependent, but certain things were eye-openers. Friend Raina built me a sequencer and filter box exactly how I wanted. We liked using expressive sounds, and the jams were based around those abstract sounds with straightforward parts behind them. It all evolved organically.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Wolf Eyes and what that experience was like?

Bjorn Copeland: We met them and played a few shows together. They proposed a collaboration record. We got together in New York in a tiny basement studio, smoked a ton of weed, and just did what came naturally. It sounded like Wolf Eyes and Black Dice playing together. It was a blast.

Aaron Warren:  It was really fun. We hung out, let the tape roll, and recorded. It didn’t take many hours. They took the tapes, edited them, and put them together. I may have never heard the record, but I love that they made a dozen different versions.

Bjorn Copeland: I’ve heard the original album but not the other versions. It’s amazing they did it, and I’m excited we were part of it. Those guys are still our friends. We’ve been playing shows and hanging out for so long. All the bands we came up with are still good friends. If nothing else, meeting all these amazing people made it worth it.

How did the creative process for “Mod Prog Sic” differ from your previous albums?

Bjorn Copeland: That record took a long time because we were all living in different cities. I moved to Los Angeles, Eric moved to Mallorca, and Aaron moved to Los Angeles. We had limited time to work together, so we tracked parts and mailed files to each other. It took a long time, from starting in 2016 to the first session in 2019.

Aaron Warren: It was painful at times but became one of my favorite Black Dice records. We were separated, listening to different things, which was a healthy break. It made me appreciate what we had when we did play together. It wasn’t the most fun record to make, but I’m proud of it.

Bjorn Copeland: Eric pushed us to get stuff done. There was a period when it felt like it might not happen again, but he was adamant about moving forward. He was doing solo records and shows, so when he was in California, we’d work on Black Dice stuff. He made that record happen, ensuring it was good enough. The process was different, but it turned out great.

Aaron Warren: Eric was on top of his game, putting out records and working on his art. It took Aaron and me a while to get back into it. We reflected on what we liked and didn’t like about playing live music, which was healthy. We didn’t want songs that were hard to play live or sounds that were impossible to duplicate. Eric’s push made it work, even though it was brutal at times.

Bjorn Copeland: We’d work on something individually, then introduce it to the band, and it evolved organically. We’ve never started a song that turned out exactly as envisioned, which keeps the band exciting.

Can you share any upcoming projects or collaborations?

Bjorn Copeland: Aaron and I have a band called Flaccid Mojo, and we’re playing tonight in Los Angeles at Zebulon. It’s a more caveman version of Black Dice, with electronics and processed vocals. Eric still plays solo shows and occasionally with others. He’s focused more on visual art recently. Aaron and I have found our community in Los Angeles, so it’s easy to get shows. Flaccid Mojo is just to have fun without the pressure of a 20-plus year legacy. The most important part is enjoying the company of the people I’ve been lucky enough to play with for so long.

Photos courtesy of Black Dice
Black Dice’s official site, and Instagram

Last Updated on May 28, 2024 by retrofuturista

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