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THE BLACK DOG

The story of The Black Dog echoes that of the rise of the electronica movement in the UK. The brainchild of Ken Downie, the project has seen many incarnations, the most recent with Richard and Martin Dust. The Dog recently released a couple of impressive EPs, and with the arrival of a new Black Dog album later this month, we caught up with the band to talk about everything from what’s Downie been up to in the last ten years to recording Silenced, the jubilation of giving a wobble to a vinyl test pressing and car MOTs.

Ken, there has been quite a gap between Music For Adverts… and this new project. Apart from working with Black Sifichi, what have you been up to?
Ken: After Music For Adverts, I moved out of London. Steve ("Hotdog") Ash joined the band. We did a lot of remixes for a lot of bands and artists we liked. Then Ross Knight ("Thek1d") joined on guitar, and we did some more production work. Is there a gap? There was no album during that period, but we were all very busy.

The Black Dog is a highly regarded project on the electronic scene, and you are often considered as one of the most important figures of the British electronica scene of the late eighties / early nineties alongside Richard D. James, Autechre or Mike Paradinas for example. How do you react to this?
Ken: Thank you. It couldn't have been done without a solid crew behind me. How do you compete with somebody who can spend 250,000 dollars on a video? Or gets their corporate posters stuck up in every record store? Many times it's seemed completely pointless, but the Black Dog crew have picked me up, dusted me off, and kept me going.

You have undoubtedly influenced a wide range of electronic musicians over the years. Who were your influences when you started, and do they still influence you today?
Ken: Unlike most of my friends, I’ve managed to keep hold of my vinyl collection. It covers a wall, and is impossible to list here. The records that sounded good to me years ago are still sounding good today. How those artists lived their lives, the passion they put into their art and their music, it's all still inspirational. A good record doesn't stop being a good record because the artist is no longer fashionable, or worse, dead.

The Black Dog is still seen as a seminal Warp act, although you haven’t worked with them for 10 years. How did you get to work with Warp in the early days, and what made you decide to leave?
Ken: No comment.
Martin: Laughs...
Rich: Anyone fancy a pint?

There has been a lot of speculation on the split with Andy and Ed over the years but you have always kept pretty quiet about it. How do you react to fans still reminiscing of The Black Dog of the early days, and do you think it might have affected how your work has been perceived since?
Martin: <sings> Over and over, over and over....
Ken: Laughs. At every interview they get trundled out. Don’t hold your breath for a reunion. They left over a decade ago. Get over it.
Rich: At least me and Martin didn't get called "Ed and Andy" again!
Martin: It’s kinda funny, people slagged us off for putting all the names on the press release and people still got it wrong.

You collaborated with Israeli singer Ofra Haza before she died. How did this collaboration come up, and do you think you would have worked with her again?
Ken: It's still painful to talk about. I would have loved to work with her again. Or at least have talked to her some more. But she died. Out of everything I’ve ever done, I think the Babylon project is the one thing that I’m most proud of.

How did you three meet, and what made you decide to work together?
Martin: I've known Rich for years, the same with Ken. I think working together just came about, nothing was planned - shit just happened and shit does happen in Black Dog world.
Ken: Oh...I’ve known Martin for a number of years. His and Rich's direct speaking, northern honesty, are completely refreshing.
Martin: I don’t think a clear-cut decision was ever made really…

Ken, was it always in your mind to work with other people on TBD again?
Ken: After Steve and Ross left the band, I was resigned to working on my own for a while. But after chatting to Martin about what we could realistically achieve between the three of us, all is going well. It’s nice to have other people to bounce ideas around with. As a solo artist, sometimes you're denied this simple but necessary thing because people are jumping all over you with their "deadlines".
Martin: It seems to be going really well and we know what we want to do next, so all is well in the TBD camp.

What is your background? How did you come to music in the first place, and to setting up a club and a record label?
Martin: Punk and early Northern Soul are really where I come from musically, The Cabs are a big influence and that's where the idea of doing a label came from - it just took 23 years to get around to it.
Ken: Punk. Dub sound systems. Acid house. The DIY ethic. It’s fun creating things.
Rich: Mainstream acts who used elements of the early techno/electro sound (like New Order, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, etc), coupled with the massive explosion of club/rave culture into the mainstream - it all just dragged me in and got me started in production. And like Martin, running a label was always at the back of my mind, it just took longer than expected to do.

Martin and Richard, was it daunting to join an act with such credentials?
Martin: Never really thought about it that much, I knew people would have a lot of expectations but I'm not one for worrying about what other people think or do.
Rich: Not daunting, simply because it was such a natural progression from what we were already doing. Although looking back 10 years and knowing that I always liked The Black Dog's music, I wouldn't have guessed that I'd end up working with Ken.

There is a mention on the album page on the Dust Science website that says ‘While The Black Dog has always been an important entity, it has not always been well served by the industry to which it has been leashed or indeed bitten.’ Is this destined to anyone in particular?
Martin: Well, I'm looking after all the legal shit and believe me it could be aimed directly at a few people but I prefer the legal methods than public slanging matches, I'll just sit and wait until the time is right.
Ken: Clearly, many of the contracts we have signed over the years aren't worth the paper they were written on.
Rich: Next question...

The new album is rather darker and quite a departure from the eclectic sound of previous releases. How did you split the work for Silenced, and did you have any particular mood in mind when you began working on the project?
Martin: Darker? Mmmm I don't think so but I guess that's something you can't control. The work is split between all three of us, I don't think there's one track on there that only one person has worked on is there Rich?
Rich: True, there's a bit of each of us in every track. I wouldn't have said it was particularly dark though, but everyone's reference points are different and it's not the first time I've heard that comment. Just our natural output during this time period rather than an intentional style.
Ken: I see it as more of a continuation than a departure.
Martin: "Your Plane is now leaving Terminal 23...."

Ken, back in 2003, you released Unsavoury Products with Scottish poet Black Sifichi. How did the project come up?
Ken: Everybody was making the same things, and putting them into the same bags. Something to do with money. We’d sent tapes to William Burroughs, and were waiting for him to deliver some spoken word back to us, but he fell ill, and died. Mr Sifichi sent us a pair of blue underpants he'd found in Paris, so he was the natural person to help us finish off the album. We got on very well, and had a lot of fun making it.
Martin: I liked that album more than Spanners or Bytes, it had a real fifties feel to it for me and it was very different, not the expected follow-up.

This album was rather different from anything you had done before, and it was said that you didn’t consider it as the follow up to Music For Short Films. Was that the reason?
Ken: I don't recall saying that? I like everything about it. It’s funny, and direct from the heart. Nobody told me how anything should sound, and I was free to be as experimental as I wanted. No strings attached.

Martin and Richard, is this something that affects you?
Martin: Not really, I like both of the albums and Ken took a lot of shit for doing something different, I salute him for that - but you could see the lazy journalism coming when he split with Ed and Andy a mile off. People say he's difficult to work with and dictatorial, well I don't know who they are talking about because Ken's a really chilled, easy going guy.
Rich: Martin's right, it doesn't affect us in the slightest. In fact, it fits perfectly with the way we work. Ken has never dictated what we produce or how and of course, because we're also involved in the label, there's no way that Ken's creativity will be dictated to. Mutual respect for what we all do.

Ken, are you involved in the running of Dust Science, or is this very much the project of Martin and Richard?
Ken: I’d prefer not to discuss the inner workings of the band or label.

Electronic music has become extremely accessible these days. How do you think this has affected the quality of the music in general? What do you think of the current electronic scene?
Ken: In some respects it's become toothpaste product. You can hear it slipped under everything from cookery programs, to the news. But there are also people out there in their garages and bedrooms producing blinding tunes that aren't getting heard. If it's allowed people to express some creativity, and make at least one tune of their own, that has to be a good thing. The industry has decided that guitar bands are selling more units these days, and shifted their focus away, declaring electronic music dead. But I don't think so.
Martin: In a way though adverts have become the only place electronic music can get airplay, so I don’t think it’s that bad of a tool, not sure if it’s down with the underground though…
Rich: And for every advert or TV program that gives exposure to an obscure track, somewhere there could be a kid in a bedroom excitedly saying "What the fuck was that? I need more of it!". A little mainstream exposure isn't always bad...

There is a Black Dog remix project announced on the Dust Science website for October. Can you tell us more?
Martin: We got a couple of our favourite artists in to select which tracks they'd like to remix.
Rich: And it gave us chance to revisit a track that deserved more.
Martin: That and a different viewpoint I feel.

The majority of the EPs that have been released on Dust Science so far have been quite dance floor orientated, which contrasts greatly with the mood of the album. Do you have a different release philosophy for EPs and albums?
Martin: Never thought about it, we always try and give the DJ at least one track but nothing is really that calculated at Dust or tBd Towers, if we like something we put it out.
Ken: The Bite Thee Back EP was a chance to revisit everything that made us feel good about making our own records in the first place (to get a vinyl test pressing in your hands, give it a wobble, and go "YES!!"). A lot of the magic disappeared with the mass production and distribution of CD units. Cutting engineers can turn a tune you think is middy and dull into something that’s punchy, and really shines. I enjoy working with them, and appreciate their skill.

Are you planning to play live following the release of Silenced, and if yes, what can people expect?
Martin: The Black Dog Punk Rock Sound System!
Ken: No pretence.
Rich: And we'll be enjoying it.

If you had to create your ideal playlist for a long journey, what would be on it?
Martin: The sound of no fucker trying to talk to me on the train sounds ideal.
Ken: A little bit of everything.
Rich: Whatever I pick, I'll have changed my mind by the time I actually get on that train/plane/car...

What is next for The Black Dog, and how do you see the project evolve in the next few years?
Ken: Black Dog Online? I’ve been wanting to set up our own multiplayer space for ages. I’ve been running a couple of standalone game servers, but it's only been small scale so far (maximum was 50 simultaneous people). It’s been a lot of fun learning how to code my own stuff, create 3D models, FX, soundtrack, etc.. And getting it to slot together. You also get to communicate with people from around the world, who you wouldn't normally meet. It's good to talk across the globe.
Martin: A few gigs, more tracks, more of what we like to do...
Rich: Back into the studio, not had much creative time since completing the album. Just more music, more DJing, more live stuff.

What is next in your diary?
Ken: MOT test for Vespa.
Martin: Shit, my car needs an MOT as well...
Rich: My car should have an MOT but it'll probably fail. Time to endure a car salesman...

Email interview August 2005
Thank you to Martin Dust, Ken Downie and Richard Dust

FURTHER READINGS
BBC Collective: FOUR TET Everything Ecstatic

Discuss this in the forum

Reviews
09'05
Silenced
04'03
Genetically Modified
07'02
Unsavoury Products

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Dust Science
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Warp Records

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