With apologies to Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel, there’s “none more black,” and then there’s Blackest Ever Black. In popular music’s long search for unremitting bleakness, there are few outfits more upfront about their fetish for the exquisitely sepulchral than London’s Blackest Ever Black label, founded in 2010 by Kiran Sande. Beginning with a pair of EPs by the young British duo Raime, who sourced their penumbral, slo-mo techno entirely from samples of vintage goth and post-punk records, Blackest Ever Black has rather quickly grown to encompass a vast range of dark-side miscreants: Regis, of the industrial-leaning techno label Downwards; noise nihilist turned apocalyptic raver Prurient (aka Vatican Shadow); dark-ambient legend and soundtrack composer Lustmord; New York no-wave veteran Stuart Yard and his projects Ike Yard and Black Rain; and Los Angeles new-school goths Tropic of Cancer, among others.
Sande runs the label, but it was Raime who inspired Blackest Ever Black. Before launching the label, Sande had worked as a music journalist for the British publication FACT. “It’s the natural thing,” he says of getting his start in the industry by writing about music. “You do what you can to get closer to the music you’re interested in, and I suppose writing was the ability I had that could bring me into that world.” He knew he wanted to start a label, and had even begun socking away savings to fund its eventual launch. “But I didn’t really get anywhere creatively because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to put out,” he says, “and I didn’t have anything to put out. I was hitting up a few producer friends, but I didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic about it. It was good music, but if I had gone and released any of that, it would have been fitting into someone else’s narrative.”
Raime’s demo changed that. It found its way into Sande’s hands in a roundabout fashion, via his friend Chris Farrell, who runs Bristol’s Idle Hands shop and record label, and with whom Sande used to put on nights in Bristol. “He had been sent Raime’s music through a mutual friend,” recalls Sande. “I think they were just sending stuff around, not necessarily to sign it, but they’d come out of their bunker and had no idea what anyone’s reaction would be. Chris, in a typically selfless act, for which I’m eternally grateful, forwarded it on to me. I’m glad I listened to it, because a lot of times people send stuff like that, and you mean to listen to it, but you forget. I listened to it, and it’s a cliché, but I was genuinely blown away. I kind of had to make myself listen to it 100 times just to make sure I wasn’t imagining how much I was enjoying it. It’s like, am I just getting carried away because this sounds good right now? After a week of caning it and caning it, that caution quickly turned to an urgent need to get in contact them and selfishly make them my own, before anyone else heard it.”
To accompany their debut release, Raime recorded a limited-edition mix CD that laid bare their influences: AC Marias, the Danse Society, Cabaret Voltaire, Ike Yard, Rema-Rema. Doing the CD was a “symbolic gesture,” says Sande. “The idea grew out of our mutual interests, and not just turning each other on to new music, but being jealous of each other’s records, basically. They’re intense diggers — across genres, across eras. When I met them, I’d stopped doing that. You forget that there’s still stuff to be explored and discovered, and they completely blew the roof off for me. Soon after we first met, they sent me that mix they’d done almost as a bit of background for where their own music came from, and we really bonded over that. We didn’t know each other well; they were reticent and worried that I would wonder why they’ve got, like, a Danse Society track on a CD. They didn’t know me well enough to know that, far from being perturbed at their maudlin goth tracks, I would fall head over heels for it!”
He hadn’t just found his first signing; he had found kindred spirits. “I met them,” he says, “and to be honest, the identity of the label was really forged out of that. I was listening to similar stuff” — the goth and post-punk and industrial records that Raime plundered for their samples and charcoal atmospheres — “but it was the realization that two people you’d not met were listening to the same strange, unfashionable stuff that no one else gave a fuck about at that time. Talking to them, it kind of goaded me into creating something that was more robust and had an identity and some kind of purpose — just wanting to honor their music as fully as possible. In a weird way, it’s like Raime were the first signing to the label and also the first audience for the label. They’re still my ideal listeners. When I’m thinking about putting a record out, the first thing that comes into my mind is, ‘Would Joe and Tom like this?’”
Eight Blackest Ever Black Essentials
They're slow workers, but they're also careful workers. If a record takes them a year to make, it's because they've spent a year making it. The first EP was very much very rooted in samples of early goth and post-punk. That provided the textures, but mostly as a jumping-off point — utilizing a lot of modern technology and technique, but identifying with a slightly more skuzzy, organic sound design which was typical of that late-'70s, early-'80s era. The real change with Raime's successive records is that their technique and their ability as musicians have begun to catch up with their ambitions. Their early records are reliant on samples because they had to be in order to achieve what they wanted to achieve. It was also an implicit tribute to the fact that this was a project borne out of them being record collectors and diggers and fans, first and foremost. Almost as soon as they put that record out, they instantly became dissatisfied with that as a working practice and resolved to put more of themselves into the records, and not rely on samples at all. That first record, it's them that made it, and I can't divulge the sample sources, but if you heard them, you would scarcely recognize them, they've been manipulated and collaged to such an extent. But over the last few years they've put a lot into improving as musicians as well as producers.
When you listen to their debut album, you can hear how much real acoustic sound is in it. There's cello, drums, guitar and they've spent a lot of time learning what they needed to learn to have these moments in sound. Process-wise, it still boils down to hours and hours of post-production and studio finessing, a real 900-channels-open-on-ProTools kind of thing. For me, from a fan's perspective, what's been satisfying is that development hasn't resulted in any abrupt change in the music. It sounds completely of a piece with the older stuff. It's not like when a dance producer gets a vocalist or a guitarist or a drummer on a record and it immediately sounds stuck on top. It's so intimately integrated. That fastidious studio manipulation and arrangement, that's always going to be the end of the process for them.
Raime recently released a 12-inch under a different name, as Moin. Like anyone who is really interested in music, you don't stand still with anything. Those post-punk and goth records were so important to the foundations of the label, but the truth is, we've exhausted all of those records — every record I want from that era I have. There'll still be the odd discovery, but listening habits change and evolve as well. The Moin record was almost a result of them getting into the kind of outer reaches of the grunge, post-hardcore era. They were listening to a lot of Steve Albini, Rapeman, Big Black, that whole Touch & Go era. They buy records, and it's a digger's mentality, but they realized that to do something in that tradition, or to take it and make it new, there was no sample-based way of doing that; they had to record their own drums and guitars. Despite them wanting it to be an off-the-cuff, almost-live recording, Raime, being Raime, proceeded to spend about nine months carefully editing it, making everything sound ridiculously precise. What makes that record sound quite unnerving and discombobulating is that you have that kind of primal rawness of early-'90s punk rock, but you have this ridiculously precise engineering where every drum hit is perfectly weighted and everything is edited incredibly precisely. To me it's quite an energizing and hypnotic combination.
Marco, the singer and principal writer — the man who is Raspberry Bulbs, essentially — started the band as a solo project and released one album on Hospital Productions. There's quite a variety on that label, but it was out of place even there. It was much more rooted in black metal than the new album, but it veered into this kind of bubblegum territory as well; I read someone saying it was like black metal meets the Vaselines. Jim, the drummer in Raspberry Bulbs, is a long-time Blackest fan. He works at a record store; he's a sweetheart and a real obsessive kind of fan of all sorts of things. We got talking, and they wanted to release their album through an outlet that wasn't necessarily in the punk-rock ghetto. I was incredibly surprised and over the moon when they got in touch with me about it. Quite by chance, I'd picked up that first Raspberry Bulbs record and I loved it, and I'd been entertaining this fancy of asking them to do a 7-inch. But at that point I had no idea that Jim was involved in the band, I had no personal connection to them, and I had this image in my mind of having to call up this black metal band and pretend to be something I wasn't.
Sonically, it's very different to the previous Raspberry Bulbs stuff. It was a solo project and sounded like it, and the new album is the work of a ridiculously tight five-piece band. They're so well drilled, it's insane. The reason Marco ended up forming a full band is he wanted something kind of fleshier and perhaps more dynamic than what he'd done before. I don't know the details, but they recorded it in a studio and I think they weren't happy with it. Whether it was too glossy or whatever, I have no idea. So they went into the basement of a record store they know and recorded it in one night. It sounds incredible. It was really well mixed and mastered by this guy Kris Lapke, who does a lot of that kind of stuff. But no amount of mastering or mixing can make a band sound that shit-hot.
I just really love that project. You can see it's kind of rooted in a metal sensibility, but it's willfully perverse. There's a quote from Annie Lennox on the record. The whole pink thing. They are a band that really pisses people off. Marco is in Bone Awl, this very respected and treasured black metal project, and Raspberry Bulbs is one of those things that pisses off his black metal fans, pisses off punk fans, pisses off purists because it's coming out on Blackest, pisses off people because it's pink. It's has this incredible fuck-you confidence, which is very appealing.
When I first encountered Tropic of Cancer, they'd put out their debut 10-inch on Downwards, Regis's label. It was a proper cult record. I never saw anything written about it, never heard anyone talking about it at the time, but a year or two later, it would come up in conversation and people would be like, "Shit, that record, it's amazing." After I put out the first two Raime records, I was genuinely in this almost-panic, like, "Fuck, what do I release now?" The Raime stuff had really set the bar high. I needed something of similar stature, otherwise what's the point? I started thinking, what records have stuck with me and blown my mind in recent years? By that point I had become friends with Karl O'Connor, Regis, whose enthusiasm for the label was and remains crucial. I asked his permission to get in touch with Tropic of Cancer, and he was quite happy about it and made that possible.
At that point it was a collaboration, the two principals being Camella Lobo, based in California, and her husband, who is Juan Mendez, aka Silent Servant, a member of Sandwell District. They did a three-track EP for me, which I think was so defining for the label. Having put out two Raime records, there was a real frustration for us that, despite trying to be an antithesis to what we saw as this grey, dubby, techno norm, we found ourselves being championed by that very world. When you're trying to piss people off and they embrace you, it's not the plan. After putting out those two Raime records, to put out this female-fronted vocal record was important, especially in this blokey world of underground music. It was also a very romantic, emotional record, right down to the artwork, which was this über-gothic image of a woman looking in a mirror. It underlined what we felt the trajectory and heritage of the label were.
We had agreed at a very early point that it would be great if they did an album on Blackest. Time passed, and by this point Juan and Camella, being married, realized that it's one thing to share your domestic life, but when you also have to make music together it may not be entirely healthy for your relationship. So I think they quite wisely decided to part ways [on the collaboration]. Spiritually and conceptually, it had always been Camella's project, so it made sense for her to carry on alone. She started getting the album together, but as is often the case with Blackest artists, they seem to take fucking years to do anything, and yet somehow it's always rushed at the end, and they're finishing the tracks the day it goes in for mastering. I don't know how it's possible to be both those things. So that record was one of those things where it was never going to end. Karl essentially said, "I'm going to go to L.A. and I'm going to make Camella finish this record, and I'm not going to leave until she's finished it." It ended up being a bit more protracted, but Karl basically produced it, almost in the old-fashioned sense. She recorded everything, and then he gave it this immaculate mixdown and arrangement. If you're a fan of his stuff, you can really hear his touch, but it's also incredibly delicate. There's nothing in there that is him. Everything is her. He does what a producer is supposed to do, which is present its best possible representation of this artist, captures them as they should be captured.
Regis (Karl O'Connor) and Downwards have been a huge influence on Blackest Ever Black. It's funny to observe how much Downwards has never been more fashionable and talked about than it is now. As recently as four or five years ago, Downwards was well established, but it wasn't the going rate. Most people were only dimly aware of it. They might know Regis or Surgeon, but it hadn't got the recognition it deserved. After the mid '90s, it had kind gone back into the shadows. With Raime, it was quite a novelty to meet two guys my age who were into Regis and Downwards. I recently read The Quietus' interview with Regis, and they asked about Blackest Ever Black and how he came into that orbit. He said he realized there was this generational shift happening: People who had techno and whatnot in our bones, but also an appreciation of earlier eras. Karl came of age in the late post-punk, industrial era. His favorite bands are Cabaret Voltaire and Neubauten. That's his thing. I think he would have been as surprised to meet someone at a techno night, six or seven years ago, who expressed an interest in that stuff, as we would have been to meet a techno fan at a punk gig.
When I was working for FACT, I interviewed Karl. At that point I think there was only one interview on the internet, almost a pisstake, which he'd done over email. He had no real presence online, if you'll forgive that dreadful phrase. I got in touch with him, and it says a lot for his mystique-management that at that point I assumed he was going to be some ultra-badass, unapproachable, imperious guy who would be like, "Who the fuck are you?" I don't want to puncture his image, but the opposite was true.
A mutual friend sent [Black Rain's] Stuart Argbright some of Raime's music, and I immediately got an email from Stuart with a subject line like, "Brothers from another mother," saying, "Shit, I was making stuff like this in '95." He didn't mean it as a criticism — in a refreshingly ego-less way, he was just professing affinity and allegiance even though he didn't know who the fuck we were. At that point, I was dimly aware of Stuart's stuff and Ike Yard, but I didn't know the extent to which Raime worshiped the first Ike Yard record, the one that came out on Factory America in '81 or '81.
He and I were talking about drum sounds or something nerdy, and he sent me a YouTube link to one of his own tracks. Someone had uploaded this track by Black Rain, and I was like, "Jesus." It spoke to me even more than Ike Yard. Although Ike Yard were obscure, I think people had begun to hear the record; Soul Jazz had included a track on one of their New York Noise comps. I knew where Ike Yard sat, whereas the Black Rain stuff, even though it's more recent, in a way it sounds more radical for its era and more crucially relevant now. Suddenly, I realized what he meant by saying Raime were like brothers from another mother, right down to the way the drums were arranged. Again, it was one of those situations where I thought I'd buy the album off Discogs for like one pound, and inevitably it would all be rubbish and there'd just be one good track. But it was actually all really good. There were three tracks I think even Stuart turns his nose up at these days — quite thrashy, electro-punk tracks which haven't aged well. But the bulk of them were these moody instrumentals.
Stuart and his then musical partner, Shin (Shinichi Shimokawa), had been commissioned to do the original score for Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic film, which was an adaptation of the William Gibson short story. Stuart was and still is good friends with Gibson, and around that time he'd made some original music with Shin for the audiobook edition of Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson really liked it, so he proposed Stuart to do the soundtrack for Johnny Mnemonic, but it ended up turning into a Hollywood clusterfuck where the distributor wanted to have a band-oriented soundtrack. It ended up being dreadful. It's a good thing, because who the hell would want to be on the soundtrack for Johnny Mnemonic? The music ended up being forgotten. So that record we put out on Blackest compiled the best of that soundtrack material for the audiobook and for Johnny Mnemonic. And it's led to releasing a new album by Black Rain next year. It's funny, after I'd reissued the first Black Rain record, I remember Stuart saying, "Kiran, I'm working on a new record," and being like, "Oh, God, this is the really awkward bit where I have to say, 'Well, your new stuff sucks, to be honest.'" But, in fact, it doesn't. He's been playing shows as Black Rain since the release of that archival thing last year. Most of the sets have been new stuff, and it's incredible. It sounds wholly contemporary and, more to the point, good.
Now known as Dalhous, Young Hunting are two sweet, young guys from Edinburgh. Coming from a world where everyone I know is a record collector and quite obsessive about music in that demented-librarian way, they were really interesting because it was like a throwback to the '80s or '90s where they were in this hermetically sealed environment. They didn't know what industrial music was. All these bands people might have mentioned or referenced when talking about their music, they were like "What is Coil?" That kind of naivety, in the best sense, was quite attractive. They're coming at things in their own time and their own way, and it means that their music is made in this incredible vacuum. They just make what they want to make. I suggested doing a vinyl edition of their first album, which I still think is amazing and I'm going to try to convince them we have to reissue one day, but they wanted to make something new. So they made an EP for me which is so utterly over the top. I was listening again recently, and I was like, "Jesus, did I actually put that out?" I don't say that as any reflection on its quality, which is unimpeachable, but just in terms of its drama. I feel very proud that I put that record out and people weren't just like, "What the fuck?"
What makes sense now is that it was like the last gasp of their adolescence, their final purging of this grand, bordering on grandiose, almost operatic intensity. Once they made that record, they were like, "This isn't us, we want to start again." I think they had taken that as far as they could go, and they wanted to make themselves new again. At the time it was a bit of a difficult conversation. You've put out this insane record and people have liked it and bought it. It's potentially alienating to them to say, "We're called something else now and we're going to do something different." But the moment I heard what they were making as Dalhous, it was like, I get it. I completely get it. It was radically different from the Young Hunting stuff but it had that character. It was more mature.
Everything that was explicit in Young Hunting was implicit in Dalhous. Being more subtle made the music much more menacing and tense and gripping. We did a 10-inch and then we did an album this year. They're very strange guys. Mark, who's one of the two, is obsessed with R.D. Laing and the back pages of psychiatry magazines. The album was a weird sort of — I hesitate to say concept album, but what else can you call it — a tribute to R.D. Laing and his strange practices, right down to the artwork, which is a pastiche of an edition of a Laing book. They're working on a new album which will come out next year, which continues the same kind of themes — self help and psychiatry, approached not in the new-age sense, but more an inquisitive, perhaps troubled sense.
I almost don't have much to say because I can't exert any influence on them, even if I tried. I just have to let them go their way, and occasionally I'll subtly exert my influence, helping with titles or deciding artwork. But, fundamentally, like most Blackest artists, the only reason the relationship works in the first place is that I trust them not to make stupid decisions. I know that I won't need to argue with them. I like to think I have exerted a subtle influence on everything I've released, but I don't take any pleasure in telling someone to do things differently. I want it to be mutual pleasure. Mutual gratification. That sounds dirty, doesn't it?