New York City circa 2006 was a magical time for music. Despite the closing of Downtime and CBGB’s, the city was fully in swing from both the post-punk and deathrock revival movements, electroclash, and more, all of which were already pointing towards an era of renewed interest in French coldwave, modular gear, and minimal synth music.
During this time, one of the tightest bands in the local underground scene was Blacklist. The band had initially been introduced to me by artist Pieter Schoolwerth, the founder of Wierd Records and its infamous club night in the lower east side of Manhattan.
Pieter’s endorsement of Blacklist was well earned, as when I saw them play live the very first time, it was teenage rock n’ roll love at first sight—a dissociative experience where temporal and spatial elements melted away, and ultimately I knew I had been experiencing something very special.
In 2009, Blacklist would release their critically acclaimed debut album Midnight of the Century, which is set for 10-year anniversary double vinyl reissue, due out on September 13th (and available for pre-order now). The record is a sonic barrage of anthemic vocals, driving bass lines, shimmering guitars, and bombastic drums whose cohesion was bolstered the genius lyrics of songs inspired by Orwell (“Shock in the Hotel Falcon”), and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek before he became a meme, among others. Even the album’s liner notes opened with the phrase “Fiat justitia ruat caelum”, and featured quotes from Jacques Lacan, Don DeLillo, Rumi, and Salman Rushdie.
The LP reissue also collects a handful of songs never-before released on vinyl, including galloping b-side and fan-favorite “Daybreak,” rare compilation track “Interiors,” and two unreleased tracks dating back to the record’s release. Listen to the scathing, icy, hook-ridden “Nashira Rising” below:
As for the original album, tracks such as the Cult-like “Flight Of The Demoiselles”, and the warm pastoral melancholy of “Odessa” live dual lives as both brilliant dance floor favorites, especially in Europe, but also as deeply intellectual political commentary, warning against the rise of fascism looming on the horizon.
A decade later, with the members of the band now spread across the country, the underground music scene is starting to thrive yet again, and thusly, Blacklist are scheduled to make their return on stage for the fifth annual A Murder of Crows Festival.
Ahead of their gig, we spoke to the members of Blacklist regarding their legacy and reunion.
How did Blacklist initially form? What were the early lineup incarnations, and how did you settle on the core lineup.
Ryan: I had moved to NYC from Tampa in 2001 with the thought that I was done trying to be in bands and would just focus on working a “real” job elsewhere within the music business. I ultimately ended up at SPIN Magazine, and later on Interscope Records. Both jobs required me to spend a lot of time listening to new bands, going to shows, etc. There were a few bands in the NYC scene like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that were interesting to me at the time, but there wasn’t anybody that was really capturing the sort of dark, dirty rock vibe, which I always described as “Depeche Motörhead”, I had been craving. So after a couple of years, I ultimately thought, “Well, if no one else is going to do it…”
After a few failed attempts, I eventually met Josh in 2004 while he was still in Virginia through Zohra Atash (currently of Azar Swan). Similarly to me when I first moved to NYC, he wasn’t convinced that he wanted to be in another band and was mostly focused on his studies at the New School. But after some prodding, we began quietly jamming a bit in my East Village apartment with both of us playing guitar.
Josh: I mainly recall in the beginning lots of wasteoid nights partying at Ryan’s apartment in the East Village blasting Ozzy and Iron Maiden. A bunch of dudes in black leather jackets and eyeliner listening to old metal records while pounding beers, then heading out to the club to spin Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. You could say we’ve stayed true to our origins…
Ryan: My roommate at the time, a fellow by the name of Alex Chow, was a bass player who I had played with in a previous band called Red Red (Eva Aridjis, who directed our “Language of the Living Dead” video, was the singer) and he eventually agreed to play with us if we ever really got things in shape. But we knew it was never really going to go anywhere without a drummer.
I was also running a party with Chow at the time called Visions of the Impending Apocalypse, which was ironically held in a bar called Happy Endings. It was there I was introduced to Glenn, who, surprise, also wasn’t particularly interested in being in another band. More convincing ensued, and the four of us soon found ourselves in a basement rehearsal studio on Ludlow Street where we came up with the seedlings that would become “Language of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Idols” during the first couple of practices.
Chow was in another band at the time that was offered a UK tour and he decided he didn’t have time for both projects so he naturally chose the one that was actually functioning and left us without a bass player. In order to keep things moving along, I bought a bass and took up low end duties as best I could as we continued to write.
After nailing the arrangements down, the next step was making a demo and playing shows. We ended up recording “Language of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Idols” and “Exit” with Steve DePalo, a friend of Glenn’s who worked in a recording studio on one of the top floors of a building overlooking Union Square. We were extremely pleased with the results, but knew we would never live up to the recordings at gigs without another guitar player to fill out the sound. We tried out a few people but no one ever really clicked until Glenn suggested James, who had played in bands like National Skyline and Mahogany.
In the fall of 2005, we played our first show in the basement of a bar called Scenic (formerly the legendary Save the Robots and currently a Mexican restaurant) with this wild-ass electro dude named Diako Diakoff, who also eventually appeared on Wierd Records and was naked for most of the show, and another band that consisted of–if you can believe it–a short-haired, beardless Andrew WK. And some other guy from a mildly famous group that I can’t recall wearing death cult robes and playing doom metal. It was quite the evening.
After that, we were off to the races.
Blacklist was championed by Pieter Schoolwerth, and was a band integral to the Wierd scene in NYC. What can you tell us about the club night at Home Sweet Home, and the record label, and this band that was part of a movement that reshaped the music industry worldwide and still does?
Glenn: Well, I had known Pieter for quite some time before Blacklist started and was helping him run the Wierd party when it was still at a tiny dive bar called Southside Lounge. He and I, along with a small group of others that hung around were really digging deep for vinyl on eBay and scouring record shops for all of this stuff that wasn’t being played in other clubs at the time. The discovery of new records actually got really obsessive for a while. This was before the days of Youtube and Discogs, so it was really quite a bit of detective work. This was how we discovered a lot of the French coldwave/post-punk stuff, which really struck a chord with me. It was around this time, probably late ’04 or early ’05 that I met Ryan and Josh and talked about starting a band. We were all coming from the same place musically and I was excited to share this new stuff with them and that amalgam essentially became the blueprint for the early Blacklist songs. I’d brought “Pure Joy in my Heart” by Asylum Party to one of our early practices as sort of a “this is what we need to go for” idea and we actually ended up recording a cover of that and played it pretty consistently throughout our time as a band.
Josh: And right around then I’d just stumbled across a bootleg of The Comsat Angels ‘It’s History” box set and blew my whole world open and got me wanting to make music again as I hadn’t played for several years. I ordered a few albums after that, The Sound, The Chameleons, Wire, and those became my head(phone)space. When Glenn started throwing Lively Art bands my way, and Modern Eon, The Lucy Show, Mecano and Flue, I was hooked.
Glenn: Once Wierd moved to Home Sweet Home in Manhattan, we began putting on bands, mainly people who’d been hanging out and started collecting synths and whatnot and that sort of developed its own scene which is what inspired Pieter to start the label. It’s funny though, I think the synth fetishism really took off which lead us to be, I believe, the most guitar-oriented band on the label. There was no real outlet for this music and someone needed to step up and capture this moment in time. After that, once the internet began to sink its teeth into things and dilute the waters it seemed that it was time to just draw a line under it and step away. So in 2013 without any fanfare we ended the Wierd night after 10 years and Pieter packed up the label and the rest is history as they say.
It’s kind of wild to see how far and wide all of this has spread, I think it really hit me when Trisomie 21 played in Brooklyn last year and 400 or so people turned up, 15 years ago we were playing those records to 10 people in a bar. It’s kind of bittersweet to me, but I guess it’s the world we live in now. Nevertheless, I’m glad these bands are seeing some love 30 years later.
Josh: I’m frankly fascinated by how influential Wierd has been and how little you see or hear about it. I mean I’ll be watching some TV show or movie and hear tracks that Glenn and Pieter were discovering that nobody had heard in decades, creating a party that was replicated dozens of times all over the world, and I wonder when the history is going to be told or if maybe people don’t even do that anymore. Sadly I suspect that the c&p memeverse has lent itself to a pretty prevalent sense that everything is raw material and giving due credit is passe. But those guys deserve tons of credit for creating something really special, something that frankly gave tons of new goth and minimal wave and post-punk bands a foundation to build a career on. And of course I’m not so naive as to think the greatness of the original bands didn’t matter, nor that the greatness of new bands hasn’t been in part what propelled them. But Pieter and Glenn created a community, and Pieter as a visual artist really carved out this identity and as that started to get copied, dark post-punk and minimal synth found itself accepted as legitimate, hip indie music which was absolutely new. When we started all this it was associated with spooky doll babies.
The songs and videos for Blacklist are phenomenal, starting with “Language of the Living Dead”, and “Shock in the Hotel Falcon”. Can you tell us about the visual language of Blacklist, as well as the lyrical themes, which permeate your work to this day?
Josh: On my end, I always wanted to create something like Manic Street Preachers, but coming from an aesthetic that was more like The Sound and Sisters of Mercy. Many Sisters lyrics, especially some on Vision Thing are brilliantly political but visually they always seemed to be sort of re-inventing the dark rock star for their times, blurring the line between satire and seriousness. We definitely did more seriousness than satire but sort of draped the political ideas and aesthetics in black. You don’t really have to stretch to do this — I’d be reading about the Spanish Civil War and see terms like “shock troopers in the Hotel falcon” and think how fantastic that would sound as a lyric. Some of the lyrics from “Odessa” were lifted from an obscure Soviet propaganda film (while the song itself is by no means pro-Soviet propaganda) Set these against the overwhelming New Dark Age feeling that was growing in the mid 00s, and that’s how it came together.
Midnight of The Century reads almost like a manifesto or a cautionary warning…What were themes and allusions found in the songwriting of the record?
Josh: If I had to boil down the core of Midnight of the Century, it would be the warning that totalitarianism relies on the willingness of people to buy into outrageous falsehoods. That a credulous group of people is the raw material for authoritarianism, and that this problem cuts across ideological divides. The record is deeply anti-nationalism throughout, because nationalisms are almost always full of outrageous falsehoods. Nation-states then literally require them to exist. But again, I wanted to avoid a certain mode of punk rock soapboxing, so the song most thoroughly dedicated to this theme is “Poison For Tomorrow” could be as much about a couple as about the destructive politics of false nostalgia. Again owing kind of simultaneously to a “Motorcycle Emptiness” romantic melancholy sensibility but with a bit of “I tried to tell her about Marx and Engels, God and angels, I don’t really know what for” and “they’re burning witches up on Punishment Hill.”
What made you decide to reform the band for Murder of Crows? Is there any material you are looking forward to dusting off live? Anything you are looking forward to unveiling?
Glenn: I think it began with us talking about doing a vinyl release for the 10-year anniversary of Midnight of the Century since that was one thing we never really got to see through. So we started talking seriously about it and began to realize we are not the same people we were when we split up and maybe we could work together again. We hadn’t really considered playing any shows until Sean (Templar) saw Ryan, Josh and I talking at one of his DJ nights. I don’t think the three of us had been together in the same room since our last show, so that got some people excited and he threw out the idea of us playing MoC and things just went from there.
James: At a very basic level, it’s hard to find people who you have chemistry with musically. And if you are lucky enough to find those people, it’s even more rare to find yourself in a position where the musical conversation you have speaks to and connects with others outside the group. For me, that’s the reason this record is worth celebrating. It’s something we’re all proud of, but I do have to admit, the last few songs we wrote but never recorded are my favorite Blacklist songs. “Crucible” (one of the LP bonus tracks) is a hint of the direction things were heading.
Is there a future for Blacklist, or for that matter, the world?
Josh: All futures are uncertain right now. I think like every human on Earth, Blacklist is taking it one day at a time. We’re not closed off to possibilities but we’re not sure what tomorrow holds, either. Sadly this is probably the thing that’s changed most in the decade since the record came out. On “Still Changes” we rejected the apocalyptic fantasies of evangelicals, and of those skeptical about humanity’s ability to do better.
I think most of the record has held up all too well over time, but those lyrics sadly seem to ring a bit hollow after seeing the sky turn black in Sao Paulo yesterday. If there ends up being new Blacklist material it will definitely address the imminent reality of the evangelicals’ apocalyptic fantasies and the baby totalitarians that are setting the world on fire with the help of gullible nationalists trying to build their tiny iron curtains everywhere. I still live to tell these people to fuck off.
For those in NYC this weekend, find all four original members—Ryan, James, Glenn, and Josh—joined by Frank Deserto on keys, and Chad Dziewior on additional guitars for Blacklist’s reunion performance this Saturday, August 31st at A Murder of Crows.