It’s a paradox that urbanites have faced forever: feeling alone despite living among teeming throngs of people. For Josh Kolenik, that concept became even more vivid during the COVID-19 lockdown and partly inspired “Cheap Dreams,” the latest album from his Brooklyn chillwave group Small Black.
“It can be really off-putting to be in a city of 9 million people and feel like you don’t really know anybody or you’re not really connecting,” Kolenick says in advance of Small Black’s tour-ending show at Elsewhere in Brooklyn this Saturday. “You’ve got to figure out how to keep yourself sane among so many people. There are actually so many people that you have to deal with on a daily basis, you kind of learn how to prioritize who’s worth your time. People try to talk to you on the street, and I have that New York mentality of ‘I don’t have time for people talking to me out of the blue.’ But that can be very isolating.”
Small Black — Kolenik (synths, vocals), Ryan Heyner (synths, guitar, vocals), Juan Pieczanski (synths, bass, guitar) and Jeff Curtin (drums) — recorded “Cheap Dreams” at its home studio, like it has done with all of its recordings.
“To be honest with you, we just didn’t have access to [traditional studios],” says Kolenik. “I feel like earlier if you don’t have the gear you can’t really make good records. Then in the mid-2000s, that all changed and all the biggest records were laptop records. We were following that whole indie thing that was happening. The mid-2000s indie thing is purely home studios. Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, even the first Arcade Fire record is very practice space, non-studio vibes.
“It was kind of by necessity. I’m never going to be able to afford $700 a day. … Ryan and I, we don’t know how to make a record that sounds really good, but we can make one that sounds shitty that has some character to it.”
“Cheap Dreams,” released in April, pays tribute to Kolenik’s Uncle Matt, who died of a stroke in 2015 and provided an early home base for Small Black.
“The band started with Ryan and I recording at his house on Long Island, which was ind of like his house and his surfboard workshop,” he says of Uncle Matt, an avid surfer. “He was a pretty notable surfboard shaver on Long Island. We’d just go there for the weekend and kind of came out with him. He was there for all of the initial sessions of our first record even if he wasn’t personally there. We’d have a few beers and watch some Kevin Costner movies (laughs). I feel like his spirit and all of the people around then was part of the initial incarnation of Small Black. It was a magical time with some interesting characters. It got me a little closer to my family and Long Island in general.”
Growing up in Baldwin, Nassau County, Kolenik says “all my friends became famous,” and he’s not exaggerating.
“I went to high school with the Taking Back Sunday Guys and Brand New, and Ryan was in a pretty famous emo band called Silent Majority. … I was definitely in a ska band, I’m not gonna like,” he shares.
Kolenik described the writing process for “Cheap Dreams” — the band’s fourth full -length and first on new label 100% Electronica after releasing the first three on the venerable indie Jagjaguwar — as a collaborative endeavor.
“I can’t say there’s one specific method, because we have three writers in the band and we generally write together. We take it to the end until it has a good hook and lyrics,” he says. “We probably made 30 demos for this record, at least, if not more. We can make cool music all day, but one, is it cool enough to pursue as a song, and two, is the concept of the emotion and the lyrics good enough that we’re willing to stand in front of people 100 nights a year and play it? The bar is pretty high for us, but there’s not much ego in the band.”
Speaking before leaving for tour, Kolenik says, “Other than like a little bit of worry about the COVID stuff, I’m very excited. I can’t wait to play these shows, and to end in New York is kind of the best. We used to start tours in New York, like idiots. I hated to tell people at the beginning of the tour, but you get better as the tour goes on. [The Elsewhere show] is kind of like the release party for the record for me, being that we didn’t get to do one.”
Small Black, Korine, FM Skyline, Saturday, Sept. 11, Elsewhere (599 Johnson Ave #1, Brooklyn, N.Y.)