Mar 18, 2011, 06:43AM

Playing With The Rules

An interview with experimental musician Eric Copeland.

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Eric Copeland is utilitarian if nothing else. His music, under his own name and with Black Dice, is strange, but it's no conceit. Copeland isn't self-consciously weird, he's just got a unique approach; his highly original and enthralling music exhibits a distinct pop sensibility buried under muddy sheets of manipulation and distortion. In certain places, that pop sheen shines brighter, but the bulk of Copeland's solo work is the sound of re-energized trash, the bloated and ambulatory hodgepodge corpse of Top 40's past. But Copeland himself is blunt straightforward, and concise—no mad scientist holed up in the sampler laboratory with delusions of grandeur. Copeland is a man of modest means, but his music is powerful for its twisted singularity and hypnotic quality.

SPLICE TODAY: How are you doing these days?

Eric Copeland: So far so good.
ST: How's Brooklyn? Have you played any local solo shows lately?

EC: Brooklyn's Brooklyn. Getting warmer though. But Brooklyn will be the same with or without me. I haven't been playing any shows lately. I haven't really had the time to work out some new material for a live gig. I don't want to keep playing all the same old same old. I don't play shows alone too often unless something really nice comes up, or I just need the show.
ST: You've said your work doesn't deal with "traditional ideas people associate with music," and that to play to those notions "would be in opposition to what [you're] doing." Can you elaborate on what some of those ideas are, and what kind of alternative musical language you're trying to explore?

EC: I'm not sure where this quote comes from, but I think I am just trying to say that I like pop music; and in that I understand the rules. In my mind, I'm playing with those rules, trying to distort them to work for me somehow. I don't feel like I'm trying to make a new language. But I guess I am trying to make something that works without knowing how to justify it “musically”— just trying to stretch some of these popular ideas out of their regular traditional places.

ST: The quote I was thinking of: "The vein I exist in is something more unclear, where I’m dealing with a little invented environment, and many of those ideas about music that people love are not dealt with directly. It’s still a jam for me, but it’s being held together by something else." Can you expand at all on that other place, the "something else," or is it just intuition?

EC: I have no idea what that something else can be. It communicates when something is finished, and that is usually multi-faceted. I'm not playing by traditional musical rules—not that that's unique. But even outside of music theory, there are usually rules, like a “singer-songwriter,” or whatever the trend is. The something else for me is just some level of personal satisfaction I guess, if that makes any sense. 

ST: Ever since the release of Hermaphrodite in 2007, you've been fairly prolific, with a handful of LP's, 7"'s, and new songs every year. What was responsible for this sudden productivity separate from Black Dice, and do you see yourself continuing the same rate of output in the future?

EC: I started working a lot more simply because I had a lot more time to do so. With Black Dice there is often off time and I just kept working. Now I try to spend at least a few hours a day working only on music. It's been my schedule for the last few years. In some ways it was necessary for me to work alone. And I enjoy the power and control that you can't have with groups. But I love Black Dice and still continue to play as often as possible with them. There's something to be learned in working fast...that is what I'm enjoying now, but I don't know if it will last.

ST: Regarding Strange Days—the cover of which reads "POPULAR MUSIC OF URANUS"—the record consists of dozens of brief snippets, cut abruptly from one to the next as if toying with the dial on a radio. When I listen to the record, I imagine the snippets as pop music on Uranus, a collection of hits from another world. Does this mean anything to you, and were you trying to convey something along these lines?

EC: No, the cover is pretty much just a one-line joke. And in some ways, the record is one idea as well—cuts. But I think that the joke can become bigger and more is what I hoped the record would do; not just be cuts. It was trying to balance the ideas of many in one form, one way. But I like that you think they're hits from another world, that works for me too.
ST: After listening to the record enough, I've noticed that certain sounds and motifs reoccur, sometimes altered or attenuated. Are you trying to make a narrative of sounds, or is the idea all in the cuts, one brief idea abruptly segued to the next?

EC: If one hears only cuts, then I must accept that. If you hear a pattern developing, then I feel pretty successful. But I don't really know what a narrative of sounds is. I mean, I'm not always trying to communicate something. It's all a big stew in some respects, so if at one point I want it to sound like a goat drowning or something, that's part of a bigger group of ideas. Maybe it's the one on which you enter into the record and discover some other ideas and sounds too. I don't know. To me, it all just makes some sort of sense. And I hope someone else out there gives it some time to ask some questions and find some things they like as well.
ST: How do you collect sounds?

EC: I do a lot of listening to music. I have a lot of samples that get tweaked a little bit out of character. And I try to use feedbacks as well vocals. It's not the most unique way of doing things, but as I don't use a computer there is a certain amount of drift in my jams that I appreciate—not too locked in.

ST: What are some of the strangest sounds you've repurposed over the years?

EC: I'm sorry, I don't know. I don't go for strangeness as much as usability—probably the more strange the less I go for it. I'm more a cassette man myself.

ST: One concept that I always use to describe your music and artwork is the Uncanny Valley—where something looks "almost human," but different or strange enough to provoke revulsion, i.e. a corpse, or a primitive lifelike robot. "Fun Dink Death" and "Puerto Rican" sound like the corpses of hit pop songs. Is there an inherent morbidity or macabre nature to your music?

EC: I like working with familiarity. There are certain things that can only be found in the familiar. But I'm also not trying to reinvent the wheel here. But macabre? I've never really thought of that. There's some cynicism, and some black humor in there. But I feel like I'm re-energizing some trash or something dead more than, I don't know, celebrating the morbid.

ST: The idea of "re-energizing trash" really makes sense to me with regards to your music; "Alien in a Garbage Dump" sounds like a big, lumbering Frankenstein of a song, like an adult man made of garbage. That reanimation, the movement and activity of things that were once dead or decaying, is what struck me as macabre. It's a sound that's run through almost all of your solo work to date. Do you ever see yourself radically readjusting your approach? Like making an album based on different instruments, or Christmas songs, etc.

EC: I don't really feel restricted by what I've done. I've used real instruments, played them myself even :). And I feel like I've radically readjusted things many times over the past 18 years of playing music. I don't think I will ever make a Christmas album, as that's simply not enjoyable music to me, but I hope to keep exploring the unknown territory in my work.
ST: Your live sound is harsh, aggressive, claustrophobic, and loud—your records, meanwhile, exhibit a calmer, clearer approach, albeit shy of the heft of the live set. What is the reason for this?

EC: Live and recording are different for me. I treat them different. That's all.
ST: When you perform, for a crowd that may or may not be familiar with your music, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to get people to jam with you, or is it more of an assaultive, take it or leave it approach? What I'm trying to say is, how much do you think about crowd pleasing, if at all?

EC: It's always a fine line between giving a shit and sticking to your guns. Some people find that balance easily. I don't always know where I stand on that issue. Mostly, I just want to make it through the set with it sounding as good as it can, always moving and pleasing me while I play it. I don't like it when my mind drifts during a set.
ST: You lived in Morocco within the last two years or so. What was the experience like and what did you accomplish there?

EC: My wife and I spent about three months there in 2010—we saved some money and lived cheap. I traveled without any musical equipment, so I started writing while there and ended up with a recording that was released by Fusetron called Aladdin. Not really sure where it all came from. Certainly not for everybody.
ST: How was Aladdin written? How did you get yourself in that cut-up state of mind?

EC: It's not so much the cut ups that attracted me but the strength of words. I don't usually focus much on words in music. I was not able to speak much during my time there so I developed a slightly skewed attitude towards English and Aladdin was the result. 
ST: Black Dice has been around for 15 years now, can you say anything about the path or trajectory the band has taken in that time? What kind of place have you guys ended up in your thinking/approach?

EC: It's been very much a part of my life, so it would be strange to identify exactly where I've been and where it's heading. I thank god that music has taken me where it has and I've learned a great deal from its teachings. But I must admit that I feel less restricted by our past and more like we've arrived at "anything goes" place, which is nice. 

BLACK DICE / 10.03.08 / GRRRND ZERO - LYON from Grrrnd Zero on Vimeo.

ST: Black Dice have been playing a new set of songs lately. Are there plans for a new record this year?

EC: We are trying to record ourselves for the first time ever. So far, so good. Plans to release the record? Hopefully we'll get it all together in the next few months.

ST: How would you describe the new songs? Is there any kind of idea/theme/attitude that runs through them all, or a common approach?

EC: This is the first bunch of songs in a long time where we have all brought in the beginnings, so it's been nice learning how to play a different role in the band throughout the set. I think this is fun music for us to play and less stressful than other groups of songs have been. And for me personally, I am shying away from samples and programmed sounds and trying to concentrate on music/sounds that are immediate. I'm sure it's real different for Bjorn and Aaron though.

ST: Do you have a day job? If so, what do you do?

EC: I have many day jobs—anything to keep it going.

ST: Like what?

EC: I pack boxes, tend bar, unpack boxes, computer work, drive cars—and then there's occasional music and art world work as well. Some more steady than others...whatever comes up.

ST: Do you have any aspirations for wider commercial success at all? Or does the thought not even cross your mind?

EC: I'm not looking for commercial success as much as sustainability. I would love to not have day jobs that are not creative. And I aspire to be able to see a doctor or dentist, eat, and be happy with reasonable calm.

ST: Would you be willing to make a record likely to be commercially successful if it meant being able to sustain yourself with music alone?

EC: It's not like coloring within the lines. There's something very powerful about popularity that is very attractive to me—hearing some songs a million times in a summer is a crazy phenomenon to me. And what it does to the people, I don't really know? But the short answer is no—I wouldn't want to work on something that I wasn't fully behind. And honestly, I probably can't make someone else's idea of "good music" right now based on what I want to hear.

ST: Who are you making music for?

EC: Pretty much myself, but there are a number of close friends who I know I can't fool—always have to bring the a-game. When they like it, I feel like I've done well. I imagine it's that way for everybody though.


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