Q&A: Small Black shares loss reflected in latest album

Elizabeth Hlavinka

When Small Black’s lead singer Josh Kolenik started writing music, he performed a song about hating his elementary school teachers with his then band, Crayola Crew. Since then, Kolenik has released four albums with Small Black, and their most recent, Best Blues, tackles feelings of loss and remembrance. The Daily Texan spoke with Kolenik about the new album before his performance at Sound on Sound Music Festival Nov. 5.

The Daily Texan: The album cover of Best Blues was an image you found yourself. Can you walk me through the process of selecting this photo?

Josh Kolenik: Right toward the tail end [of Hurrican Sandy,] my family’s house in Long Island got slammed. I ended up having to go through a lot of stuff I hadn’t ever seen because it was wrapped away in boxes: a lot of old photos my parents took. I spent a couple of weeks salvaging everything and drying stuff with hair driers and putting them by our fireplace. 

I discovered that one image, and what was interesting about it was we didn’t know who it was. It could be my mom, it could  be my dad’s friend — it could also be his sister. I felt like the anonymity of it kind of made it more of a universal image for me and less personal; it could be anyone’s photo. It set up the remembrances that have informed the record.

DT: How are those ideas of lost identity, or loss in general, reflected throughout Best Blues?

JK: The hurricane brought me back to family stuff. I lost my mom when I was younger and it’s something that always exists somewhere on our records. It kind of changed my whole life and what I ended up doing. I think this was the first time I felt comfortable discussing it, in terms of songs. 

“No One Wants It To Happen To You” is kind of a mantra of what somebody might say to you if something terrible happens to you — something you have to hold onto to get through difficult situations. “Boys Life” is a reflection on what’s to come and accepting the fact that you have to keep moving otherwise there’s nothing left to do.

There’s no fixing anything, you just have to cope and try to learn from it. You have to stay afloat.

DT: How did you want Best Blues to differ from the rest of your discography?

JK: We made a huge jump from New Chain and the first EP to one that’s more hi-fi and widescreen sounds. We wanted to continue with that but bring back more lo-fi elements of the first couple of records. Also the song structures are a lot different on Best Blues. “The Closer I Look” and the last song are written directly from an improvised jam we had. It’s something we did on the spot, which is a nice contrast to more proper songwriting. We wanted to show off some of the band’s chops. We added a couple different elements: guitars, there’s a lot of piano on it. We were just trying to make a more organic record than the previous ones.

DT: How did you and the band meet and start playing music?

JK: I’ve been playing music with Ryan for 12 years. I was in his hardcore band growing up. He’s a little older than me and I’ve always thought he was a really amazing guitar player. I got his phone number one day and called him out of the blue. It was one of those conversations you’d have in high school with your first girlfriend that was like four hours and you don’t even really know what you’re talking about. We’ve been in a band together ever since.

Juan and Jeff are best buds from college, and I met them through a music friend of ours a couple years later. Juan and I had a band called Cool Weed that was experimental, wacko stuff. It’s rare that bands have the same four members for about seven years. We have a lot of mutual respect for each other and I think it shows in the recordings and at the shows.

DT: Who were some of your early influences?

JK: My dad played a lot of Neil Young and The Beach Boys and things I was forced to listen to in the car that I actually liked. I think the first record I ever bought was Bruce Springsteen and a Willie Nelson record. My first favorite song was “On the Road Again,” which is kind of telling for what happened in my life. In high school, I was deep into rap and Nirvana and all the stuff that was good in the ’90s since a lot of it was terrible. I was obsessed with Wu Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest. 

I didn’t have a cool older brother or anything, so I didn’t find out about underground stuff. I had to deal with MTV and what was there and I think my choices were generally decent. I feel like stuff like New Order and Pac Tac and a lot of ’80s stuff, I always heard, but I never delved into it until college. It’s so a part of my bones because of how much it was on everywhere when I was a kid, that it just came really natural to do it when we tried to. 

Small Black will perform at Sound on Sound Music Festival from 5–5:45 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5.