Dan Black has spent the last two years burrowed away in his Parisian recording studio. The U.K. native and former frontman of the Servant has been busy, not only working on his own upcoming solo album but also on penning songs with and for artists including Kelis and Kid Cudi, and even one for Absolut Vodka.
Black’s largest commercial success so far came with his song “Symphonies,” the opening cut on his debut solo album from 2009, UN. The track began as “HYPNTZ” and contained samples from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and a recording of the City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Copyright issues, arising from the B.I.G. sample, forced Black to recreate the track into “Symphonies,” and a version of the song featuring Cudi was featured as a bonus on UN‘s 2010 release in the States.
Now living in Paris with his wife, Black has been anxious to get back on stage after a long absence in the U.S. “I feel a bit nervous,” he admitted in December before his first New York City show since 2010. His nerves didn’t show though; he was all smiles as he chatted with me about his new album, working with Kelis and why this time around, he looked into sample approval a little bit earlier.
Let’s just start at the beginning: How did you get started in music?
There’s was never a point where I was like, “Ah, music…I should do that.” I remember once I said to my mom, “All my friends have hobbies, I have no hobby or passion.” And she said to me, “Well you’ve got music.” And I remember saying, “That’s like saying you’ve got food.” I didn’t see it as a thing to do.
A lot of it came from my dad, though. He’s a big music fan and had a huge record collection. Also, it was just the way he talked about music, in an incredibly passionate way, almost a religious way, so I kind of just thought, “OK, that’s how music is.” I just always had an instrument around; I thought it was fun to see what it would do. And then I tried to write songs from a very young age and just slowly snowballed.
Did you ever take music lessons?
I took trumpet lessons when I was in school, and I stopped. I was kinda the worst. The group I was in was the worst group, and I just quit after about two months. After that, no more lessons.
And now you work mostly with computers?
Yeah, I mean I have instruments, and I do stuff with them, but my main instrument now is the computer.
How did that transition from traditional instruments to computer happen?
When I was in the band the Servant is where it began. It was literally just the right time. Computers could suddenly record audio into them, and it was just the moment that the home computer could do that, and I was just like, “Oh, brilliant!” I saved up money, bought the parts and built a PC, which sounds more clever than it actually was and retrospectively was pathetically not very powerful. I remember being sort of overwhelmed with the possibilities. It was like, “I can do anything with this.” And it was almost frightening.
Do you remember the first thing that you recorded after you built your computer?
I think it was [the Servant’s] first song. There were stomps on steps and like, an animal growling, and then there was some piano from a jazz record and some stuff from a hip-hop record, and it was just like, “Finally I don’t need humans or anything other than my imagination.”
Is there ever an issue when you take samples from people?
Massively. Like obviously in “Symphonies” but on my new record too. The first single, when I first recorded it, had a sample that was massively mangled, and you would probably never know who it was from. At the last second, because of the nightmare with the first album, I was like, “Let’s just get approval.” It was some band in the U.K. who haven’t been in the public for a long time, and I’m like, “They won’t care, they’ll say yes.” And they said no! So I had to go through the whole process.
So when that happens, do you just do a rewrite?
I had to recreate the whole thing.
How similar can it be though? Is there some formula for what is and is not too similar?
I had to consult with a legal musicologist, who is an expert.
That’s a real job?
Yes! And I have to sit there and say, “At what point is this not copyright infringement?” It’s the weirdest thing. And that’s what songwriting is, really: You’re taking previous ideas and mangling them through your own internal prism, and they become a new thing. But from a legal standpoint, I get it. All the parts are laid out on the table, and I say, “Is this still too close?” And, at one point he’ll say, “OK, now it’s not.” It’s quite arbitrary really, but it was fascinating; the nerd in me did enjoy it.
Apart from the sample issues, what was the writing process like for the new album?
It’s a very long process for me, but paradoxically when the key bits come together, it’s super fast. Because I do everything, I almost have to sort of wait for myself to be another person. So one day I could be in the state of mind and come up with a great, great lyric, but if I try to get the melody to go, or the production, or drum programming, I’m not as inspired, so I have to wait until I almost become a new person who turns up fresh and suddenly gets an equal amount of inspiration for that part of the song.
What was your experience working with the band as opposed to being on your own?
Would I want other people in a band with me again? No. I’ve done that, I’ve paid my dues. Having said that, as I’ve said, I’ve started doing a lot of writing with other people, and I really relish that now because I spent so much time trying to be inspired, which is hard, with my own stuff. Part of me is super selfish, and part of me really loves collaborating and compromising, but the dynamic and politics, and even just the idea of “bands” is just boring now.
Solo with a collaborator is much different than being locked into a band.
Yeah, both in dynamic and feel. I mean a great band is an amazing thing; there’s something mythic about it. But for me personally, I had a pretty unpleasant experience, so maybe I’m just scarred.
So you would never go back to a band after being solo?
Maybe in a very unserious way, like you know some stupid thing when I’m 60. I like playing with people, I have a band who I play with. I like the process of standing in a room and making music with other people, but for my serious daily job, career, expression of me, I don’t want anyone else messing with my shit [laughs].
Does your second solo album have a title or a release date yet?
The album’s working title, and probably actual title, will be Do Not Revenge, and it should be out in spring. The first single is a song called “Hearts,” which is a collaboration with Kelis.
What’s it like working with Kelis?
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. When people work together, they tend to be kind of gushy, like, “Oh yeah, they’re great!” But, genuinely, it was a massive pleasure. She had a place in the south of Spain, and I got a call that was like, “Do you wanna go and write with Kelis?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah!” So I flew there, and we just sat looking out at the sea. She’d lay on a sofa, and I had a laptop, and we wrote about 10 songs really fast, and she’s crazy talented.
How did you end up working so closely with her?
I think it’s ’cause she had seen me play, and when she was starting to work on her new stuff, she said to her manager, “Get that guy.” I mean, she asked for something, and I sent her a beat, and she really liked it and was like, “Just come out. Let’s write.”
And there’s a music video with Kelis coming out for the first single, “Hearts”?
There’s a phenomenal video. It was shot in 24-hours, nonstop, on a roof in Paris looking out on the whole of the city, and it was using stop-motion. But it was me performing a song, so we had to film the song first of all, then I would see each frame, and I had to reproduce each frame, and I would do that every 16 seconds. Every 16 seconds for 24 hours. And there was a crew with a camera set up with a loudspeaker going “16-15-14-…3-2-1-shoot!” And I had to be in position. “16-15-14,” 24 hours, nonstop. It looks amazing.
Are there any other people that you’re collaborating with on this album?
There are quite a few, but I’m not gonna say who. I don’t want to leak the pleasure out of it too soon.
Anything else you want to add?
I’ve already said too much.