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It’s been nearly 8 years since Black Lab released their Geffen Records debut, “Your Body Above Me”, a lot can happen in 8 years, and for Black Lab, a lot has. They went from signed, to unsigned, to signed, to unsigned all the while only giving us a taste here and there of what they had been saving up. Now, in 2005, they give us everything, a full twelve track album of music that lead singer Paul Durham has been writing and recording for nearly a decade. Often, things that you spend this long waiting for don’t live up to the expectations, but in this rare case they exceed them.

Chad from Alternative Addiction had a chance to sit down with Paul Durham and ask some burning questions that fans had requested be asked on the Alternative Addiction Message Board.

AA: Congratulations on an amazing new record.  I've gotta ask you, your first album (Your Body Above Me) seemed to be a lot more guitar solo driven, where as See the Sun lacks these driving solos....why the change in style?

Paul: A bunch of reasons. The first is guitarists. One of the first things Andy and I talked about is how much we both hate guitar solos. I personally can't think of more than a dozen or so solos in all of the songs I've ever heard that make the song stronger and not just more of a wankfest. And many of the solos I do like don't even qualify as solos, particularly The Edge's, but are simply complimenting instrumental melodic lines in place of where a guitar solo would be.

I once told Andy that his keyboard programming and sound was the warmest, most human I've ever heard and that his guitar playing was cold and pristine -- like a machine. He said it was one of the best compliments he ever got. Andy's guitar playing lends itself to parts which serve a larger purpose. It’s not that Andy couldn't play circles around Michael, in terms of a technically shredding guitar solo, but his style has been completely subsumed into the arrangement and support of songs. This is one of the reasons we get along so well.
Michael, on the other hand, is a pure artist with his hands. They just do what they do and you can't ask them to do much of anything else. Which is fantastic, as it lends a deep well of unique character to everything he does. It’s also limiting, though we were always able to work with those limits by having me or Geoff play certain parts. Part of what he does is play these insane acid-drenched guitar solos, which always made sense in the context of his playing.

I think it's interesting that the one guitar solo on See the Sun ("wide open") was in fact played by Belfer. I chopped a couple bars of something he played on an early demo and used it. The feel and tone is so classically Michael, so intense and melancholy, that it makes for one of my favorite solos. Yet even this solo is still primarily a melodic line that just goes around and around.

The second reason is the way the albums were written and arranged. Your Body Above Me was brought into a band on acoustic guitar and worked out live over months and months, with me combing through hundreds of hours of rehearsal tapes to find the three seconds when Michael played the perfect part for a verse, etc. in this setting, given who Michael is, solos made all the sense in the world: we were a live band, and bands take solos live. it gives the singer a break and gives the band a chance to step out of the confines of song structure.
See the Sun, in contrast, was arranged on a computer, starting with an acoustic performance, then a demo, then real drums, then guitar and synth and vocal overdubs. in this mode we were all about the melody and our tastes and less about the moment of performance. I had more of a chance to craft things into exactly what I want to hear. ideally, a record would start with the first process (live arrangement) and end with the second process (computerized tweaking), but I haven't gotten to make that record yet.


AA: How many roads must a man walk down? And Also, how do you feel the sound of Black Lab has evolved over time? Is it still changing?

Paul: The thing is -- a lot of roads. more roads than he can walk in one lifetime. this is what we in our twisted pseudo-Christian nightmare of a metaphysical culture often forget.

As far as the Black Lab sound, the more music I make the more I realize that I've gone about "the sound of Black Lab" ass backwards. most (savvy) bands sit down and figure out what they do well early on and that's their "sound," and they do that over and over and over until they die. thus, even if they suck, they attract the people who like that sound and they never change so the people never go away and their career arcs upwards at a steady rate.

I never thought about "a sound," but spent all my energy thinking about songs. each song seemed to have its own sound, and I have always pursued the sound of songs often to the detriment of the cohesiveness of the "Black Lab sound." even on the first record there are three or four distinct "sounds" going on: the big pop rock of "wash" and "time," the angry acid rock of "rain" and "x-ray," the dark balladry of "ten million," the punk-tinged madness of "bring it on" and "big machine." hell, "gates" doesn't even maintain a sound for one whole song -- it's basically a nice folk song with a massive, screaming metal solo running right through the middle.

My buddy in the biz used to tell me "if you had just written ten 'wash it away's' you'd be rich." maybe so. but I just never thought that way. even when we were making 'See the Sun' and my goal was to make the sharpest, tightest pop record of all time, I wasn't in it for the money. it wasn't designed for the charts. even when my publisher warned me that if we didn't make it more rock it wouldn't come out, I didn't care. I just heard the sound of these songs in the context of these fat 80's synths and massive harmonies.

As we've escaped the confines of a label, the sound has fractured even more. some songs simply need an electronic environment, some songs need acoustic guitar. some songs are born from a techno track Andy has put together; some begin as a melody that is so strong I just try to get all the instruments out if its way.
 
It's also evolved as my use of the computer grows. I've never been much of a guitarist, but these days I'm playing guitar, bass, drums, keys -- everything. or to be more exact, I don't play those things, I "edit" them. I consider the Mac to be my main ax now and would give Steve Jobs a nice wet kiss for what he makes it possible for me to do every day.

If anything, I would say that to the extent that there is a "Black Lab sound," that sound is the sound of my voice. it's the one constant, and it's the place where every song begins, at least in its melodic life. before I'm a writer or a musician or a producer, I'm a singer. so I guess this is as it should be.



AA: Where did the soul of popular music go when it died, and how did you contact it?

Paul: This is a flattering question but I don't think it's so accurate. I think lots of people are contacting the soul of popular music. but I think we're all nostalgic for the 90's, when some of the best music being made was also the music that was on the radio. that day has come and gone and will probably never come again, now that the corporations have completely laid waste to the landscape of pop music.
I listen to people like Bright Eyes, M.I.A., Phoenix, Scissor Sisters, American Analog Set, etc. etc. and I hear up-to-the-minute dispatches from the soul of pop music. but these groups will never be on the radio. to create the cultural shift that Nirvana achieved seems impossible now. but you never know...


AA: I was wondering how your relationship is with Michael Belfer these days? Considering he is a large part of the YBAM sound you obviously must have worked closely with him for some time to achieve that cohesiveness. Was the separation amicable and do you see yourself working with Michael again in the future?

Paul: The separation with Michael was not amicable but that was for business reasons, not musical ones. Sometimes fear and bad legal advice intersects in unfortunate ways. I still love Michael's playing, and though we're out of touch I don't feel any bitterness towards him. we each had to go through what we had to go through and maybe we'll do something together again someday.


AA: Black Lab has been on a lot of soundtracks, I'd like to know how the producers (or whoever's in charge in this area) approach the band to perform a song for the movie and if you get to meet a lot of actors.

Paul: I get this question from my nephews all the time. they wanted to know if I got to meet Spider Man. what most people don't understand is that, to the idiots who run the movie biz, music falls somewhere down below catering on their list of priorities. usually I get a memo from my publisher requesting "a ballad about heartbreak," or something similarly detailed, forwarded from the producer in charge of music or the music supervisor. their approach seems to be the less information the musician has the better. then I write some song or send them some song I've already written. then one out of ten or a hundred times they write back saying how perfect it is, as if I had written it just for their scene, and where would I like the money sent.
basically, they think very little about the music and when they do think about it it's very late in the process, right around the same time they're doing the credits and getting ready to finalize the print. so they're panicked and always needing it yesterday and often what they get is crap. But people still go to movies and no one but us musicians seem to mind so... life goes on. I get invitations to the premieres where I can gawk at the stars along with the PA's. but stars usually creep me out, so mostly I just rent the video. (what? surprised that they don't send me a DVD when it comes out? you might also be surprised to know that it's like pulling teeth to get even one complimentary copy of a soundtrack CD that we've contributed to, let alone a DVD, LET ALONE a gold record.)  It's almost as bad as the music biz, but unlike the music biz, it pays the bills.


AA: One of my favorite songs from a soundtrack is "Tell Me What To Say" from the "Can't Hardly Wait" soundtrack. Was that song something that you wrote for the movie, or was that a song that you had written about your personal life and then contributed it to be used on the movie?

Paul: That was a song I had written for the first album but we never got a good arrangement with the original band. it was incredibly important to me and intensely personal, almost too personal, and in a way I was glad that it didn't get used for the record. they wanted a song from us for the CHW soundtrack, any song, and I figured I was ready to put it out there.

Unfortunately, the producer and engineer totally sucked and the recording we got out of it, despite our aggressive interventions, has always been unsatisfying to me. Bryan's drumming sounds particularly bad, which wasn't his fault. I would love to reproduce that song someday and make it as dark and intense as it deserves.
of course, fans love songs that artists hate and vice versa. I think in this case it's such a good song (one of my favorites ever) that it survived its delivery device.



AA:  I know that the band is influenced by a number of events that are found in every individual song, so what influences you the most?

Paul: I'm pretty much done writing autobiographically. the beginning of a song, or my primary "influence," is a mood and the melodic movement that comes out of that mood. even when a song originates from a lyric or a melody, it's still written from the mood. and even when I write a song that I consider to be about something in my life, it's usually only later that I realize what it is I am drawing upon.
in the same way, I'm pretty far from the influence of the artists I grew up with. once in awhile I'll hear something back that sounds totally Dylan or a vocal phrase that I realize is a Bono rip, but I don't borrow things consciously anymore and I don't hear my borrowings as such either. not that I worry about it -- everyone steals from everyone. but pretty much I just do what I do, try to keep it spontaneous so that something unique gets the chance to arise.


AA: One of my favorite songs has always been "Lonely Boy", I know this song has existed in various forms, can you tell me about the progression of this song, and a little about the inspiration behind it?

Paul: I wrote "lonely boy" with my friend Marti Frederiksen, the same day we wrote "underground." it started out as "You Say" and the demo that Michael leaked comes from that first day's session. we knew it was too saccharin ("take me back if you dare/tell me that you really care" makes me want to puke) but sometimes you just want to get the damn demo done and move on, come back and fix it later with 20/20 vision.
I took some of the lyrics from a notebook of writing I had that included a lot of single lines. they were just ideas I thought were cool but were floating disconnected. somehow, the context of this song brought them all together: "you say you like to sleep alone;" "I get away with murder;" "my broken heart becomes me;" "money doesn't burn so clean;" etc. then I had to tie these lines in with each other and the chorus. this is where years of craft come in handy. sometimes I get a little inspiration and sometimes I get a lot, but I lean on my ability to generate stuff like "I miss the way you breathe," "but you know I've paid for hurting," "I'd sell it cheap to you," and "you say I should wrap all the lies I've told in ten dollar bills and smoke them" in the moment, in order to make the lines I've become attached to work in terms of meaning, rhyme and flow.

Then Marti wrote and produced Aerosmith's "jaded" and he was, to say the least, extremely busy for the next couple of years. so I took a stab at rewriting the end of the chorus, trying to get the personal lyrics of the verses to culminate in something intimate and brokenhearted but not cheesy. when I had it where I wanted it, I turned it over to Andy since I can't play piano and he's a freakin concert master. he reinterpreted the chords in his sweet, twisted way to get the killer shit you hear now. then I thought we needed some bigness at the beginning to set up the bigness of the third chorus, so we cooked up the epic guitar stuff of the intro.  A long journey towards song-dom but well worth taking.



AA:  Do you have any live gigs planned now that the new album is out and the new website is up and running?

Paul: Believe me, if there was any way we could tour, we would.
one of the problems with playing live in L.A. is that it costs a lot of money to rent a rehearsal room and pay a rhythm section (since everyone good enough is working) and then you buy gas to go to various towns outside of L.A. and no one pays you shit. in S.F. (or anywhere else on the planet), rehearsal space is cheap and musicians are free and the clubs pay you for helping them sell beer.

If we go on a regional or national tour, we have to pay musicians and crew and gas and vehicles and since we don't really have the kind of draw it would take to pack 1,000-seat clubs across the nation night after night, we would end up covering a lot of those costs out of our own pockets.

So, basically, until we can either support our tours with CD sales (which may very well become possible if the market for "See the Sun" continues to grow) or get label support (something which would be hard to talk me into at this point), we're a stay-at-home kind of band. I think, though, with the way the internet sales of music is going, that if we continue to work the website and expand our marketing via word of mouth and fan enthusiasm, we'll soon be able to pay for tours by selling CDs on the road and drawing bigger crowds of people who found us online. So here's to the future world tour of Black Lab!


AA: The music business can be a pretty ruthless & cold industry sometimes. A lot of talented musicians have packed it in after the lack of national success. What inspires you to keep at it and never give in or give up?

Paul: Well, for one thing, it's the only thing I know how to do. I try not to give myself any outs, though sometimes the world dangles them in front of me.

It's a pretty good training ground, the music biz. for me, there's only two ways to keep at it, which is to emotionally harden or to stay honest. since it's basically a process of constant rejection, of putting a hundred things out there to get one positive thing back, I either have to be the walled-off, cold-hearted bastard I'm afraid of becoming or else I have to constantly remember that music is music and business is business.
the only way I survive is to make the music I want to make. even if it's a pitch for a movie, it's what I want to make, as personal and as meaningful and as good as I can do. I come in and bleed all over the microphone and if I can't sleep afterwards then I've done my job.
then I get up in the morning (or afternoon, depending) and put my business hat on and spend a couple hours trying to sell the shit. if it doesn't sell, it doesn't mean I'm a crappy artist or a worthless human being. it just means I'll try again tomorrow and, if I keep trying, I'll sell something, orders will come in, people will buy t-shirts, and insurance payments will get made.

Is there anything else I want to do for a living? no. would making good, steady money be worth doing something else? no. I'm starting to recognize and surrender to the fact that I'll live and die a musician. it's not about success; it's about making the music that I want to make. in many situations, those two things are often opposed to each other. so I'm grateful for the situation I have.


AA: If you could have you dream pick of artists to work with. Who and why?

Paul: I wouldn't remind replacing Bono. seems like he's had the fun of working with the greatest band on the planet for long enough. he should go run for office.

I'd love to work with Chris Whitley, the brilliant singer/ songwriter/ guitarist. I've always regretted not getting him in on something when I had the major label dollars to do so.

I'd like to make a record with Kruder and Dorfmeister. to me they make the most organic electronic textures imaginable and I'd love to work with them as producers.

recently, I had the chance to spend a year working with one of my heroes on his album. Its very hush hush but when it comes out it will be fun to talk about how great it was.

I guess more and more I like working on my own. Andy feels like an extension of me, and when he builds a track and sends it to me I'm an extension of him. it's still a very cool working relationship. I also appreciate that he's basically a nice guy and not a drug addict, and that he doesn't mind when I let my control freak flag fly.



AA: What are your favorite bands/records?

Paul: I suppose it makes sense to list some of my favorite records: OK Computer and Amnesiac by Radiohead; War and Achtung Baby by U2; Reckoning and Fables by R.E.M.; Porcupine and Ocean Rain by Echo & the Bunnymen; Chris Whitley's first two records; Blood on the Tracks and Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan; Maxinaquay by Tricky; Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen; the Massive Attack records (not including Hundredth Window, of course, which isn't a Massive Attack record). most things by PJ Harvey (especially To Bring You My Love). I love Nirvana, though I agree with Kurt that Nevermind sounds like Def Leppard. In Utero rules. I also love New Order's Get Ready.

what else. early favs: Psychedelic Furs' first three; the first records by The Cure and The Three O'Clock. everything by Minor Threat; The Zombies hits record Time of the Zombies; Stones Hot Rocks (always been more into the Stones than the Beatles). loved The Descendants, The Alarm (Declaration), and The Damned.

it's hard to talk about influences. I don't know what influenced me (mom's opera and folk records as a kid?), only what I like and what I listened to. I listened to Prince obsessively in college (Paisley Park through Sign O the Times), along with the Pixies and Throwing Muses.
Mostly I like English music, whatever that means.



AA: What is your favorite Black Lab song, and what is your least favorite?

Paul: This is a tough one. I have lots of 'least favorites' among unreleased and minor tracks. I'll confine myself to the albums and soundtrack songs. I would have to say "Lifelike" is my least favorite. this is a situation in which the A&R guy loved the song and I broke my back trying to make it into something I could dig and failed. it's part of the record though, no doubt about that, and some people love it, so what the hell.

As far as favorites, I think I have to have some categories. the first category is songs, independent of their recordings. in terms of raw outpouring of energy into something, "Anything" is my favorite song. my craft doesn't match up with my ambition but it works out pretty good anyway. "Circus Lights" is my favorite in terms of craft and imagery and emotion all coming together as a literary whole. if I had to pick a favorite section of a song, it would be the two verses of "Underground" (unreleased), which I think are particularly good, if I do say so myself.

In terms of recordings, I don't think any of these recordings are the best, and what I tend to appreciate about Black Lab songs now is how good of a version we were able to get. much of Your Body Above Me and See the Sun is unlistenable to me, because I just hear the things that I wish were better.

My favorite recording is "Pictures of People," which is an unreleased mp3 floating around out there. the track was done by Michael and Tim Mooney, the excellent drummer of the genius SF group American Music Club (their album Mercury is one of the best ever made and definitely should be included above). they threw it together and I came in for a couple of hours and then it was done. it's never really worked as a Black Lab song and I've wanted to remix it but am almost afraid to. it's so perfect as it is. on the one hand, it makes me sad for what might have been between Michael and me; on the other, we never did anything as good as that before or after so it makes me think it's just us getting lucky.

I also like "Horses" from the Permanent Midnight soundtrack. not the greatest song but a very cool recording (love those Phil Collins tom sounds on Bryan's fills). when we were done the A&R guy said "well, it's no single." this was the first time in my life that the idea even crossed my mind that bands were supposed to make singles. I always thought you just wrote songs and recorded them and let the record company worry about all that nonsense.

 

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