Melbourne’s own critically acclaimed drone and electronica outfit Black Cab have followed up 2014’s much-lauded and expansive record Games of the XXI Olympiad with an equally ambitious new release.
明 (Akira), the trio’s fifth studio album, was released on August 4. It’s their most polished release to date – a brooding mix of dark, atmospheric sounds and pulsating, punishing beats, capturing the essence of a soundtrack to a Japanese sci-fi classic.
Catalyst’s Stephen Smit spoke to Black Cab’s lead vocalist and keyboardist Andrew Coates about the origins of the new album, the evolution of the group’s sound, and their future plans.
Stephen: How did the idea for an album influenced by classic Japanese sci-fi anime come about?
Andrew: So, we had been commissioned to do a live soundtrack for the original anime movie Akira, and that was sort of a one-time thing at the Astor Theatre back in January. That meant turning the original soundtrack down and putting something else in its place – which was us. Part of the opportunity was to work with a Japanese taiko drummer, or taiko master, called Toshi Sakamoto. That basically set the context for working with Japanese percussion. Once we’d done that, we we’re like “okay, it’s going to be a soundtrack, and it’s going to have Japanese percussion – lets add some ‘cabness’ over the top of that.” That really set the boundaries for what we were going to do as a project.
So, what inspired you to release Akira as a standalone album?
Once the movie was done, we had all this music. I thought the music stood alone quite well. I felt like it belonged together, and there was enough variation to make for an album. So, we thought, “let’s put it out!” We went from being asked to perform it to having it ready for release in a pretty short time. Normally, we take years for these kinds of things.
What were the main influences on Akira?
Other than the Japanese dramas which were kind of affixed – it’s mostly all the great movie soundtracks that we loved in our youth – stuff like Blade Runner, the music from Apocalypse Now, and all the synth driven, mysterious type soundtracks. John Carpenter, those sorts of things, simple electronic riffs. We didn’t set out to emulate that style, it’s the style difference that we loved. As soon as we had those Japanese drums going, we thought we just needed some minimal icy electronic sounds over the top, and we felt that worked really well. We didn’t want to link it specifically to the original Akira movie, so we sort of said really what it is – a tribute to all sci-fi anime. We thought, “let’s just make a soundtrack for movie that doesn’t exist.”
A consistent theme of Black Cab’s work so far is the exploration of cultural concepts. What attracts you to exploring concepts and linking songs together?
Importance of the album has kind of died with digital, so you don’t really need to do twelve songs. You’re not limited by a format anymore – you could do one song, you could do a thousand, it doesn’t really matter. In terms of a listening experience, it’s important to have a narrative that hems it together – one that makes you want to listen to ten or twelve songs that all kind of go together. For us, we’ve always found it more interesting with our projects to link it around the narrative – it just makes it easier to complete the writing process, to do artwork, and to keep it interesting lyrically. It’s just the way we’ve done things, not necessarily for all our albums, but the ones that I think have turned out well have had that. People just cherry pick when they listen to the singles – a song here, a song there. But to get someone to actually sit down for the next 30-40 mins and say “I’m going to listen to all this music together,” that’s an experience.
I find that I experience soundtracks as a full listening experience – one of my most listened to soundtracks is the Blade Runner soundtrack. It evokes the movie, which is fantastic – it takes me on a little journey, and I like that. I felt we ended up achieving that with this album.
How did you find the process of recording Akira compared to your previous records?
This one was a lot easier, because we worked really quickly around specific scenes or moments in the Akira movie. There’s opening titles, there’s closing titles, there’s an action scene, there’s a doomy nightmare, there’s reflective spooky minimal bits. That set the tone for pieces we wrote. It wasn’t a blank slate, it was “we need some music here that invokes the following things.” Once we had that, we worked very quickly – most of the music was written in January, and we just refined it to be a bit more longform for the album. A lot of the original pieces were 30 seconds here or 50 seconds there, so we made them a little bit longer – but not much longer. There’s no need to have a soundtrack piece to be 4 minutes – it can be 90 seconds. It doesn’t need to be long, and it can still take you somewhere. If you listen to it as part of a full album experience, it should work really well.
Has your move to electronic sounds been received positively? Do you think it’s allowed new listeners to connect with your music, and have you enjoyed the change?
Well it’s been a 7 or 8 year process to do that. We were guitars in the noughties, 2004-2011 we had live guitars, but even our first album was a good combination of synthesizers and guitars. In 2011 we ditched them all, and yeah, a lot of the people who liked the hairy guitar sound kind of faded away. But what we found was a bunch much more people who started coming to our shows, particularly the electronic shows. The shows we put on now still have a rock angle with the live drums, but they are very electronic and they’re pretty good to dance to. So, we found a lot of younger folks coming along to our shows, which was unexpected. We kind of made it up and our audience has changed, but it has grown in different ways. We’re just following the music we like to listen to, basically. We’ve been surprised at how many people have enjoyed what we do.
The change has been an evolution. We’ve been around for a while now – 2004 to 2017 – that’s a long time. As a musician, you need to grow, explore, and evolve. We’ll continue to do that, and I think we’ll stay in the electronic realm – it’s just more interesting. We’ve found a nice combination of electronic and some rock energy and we quite like that in the 3-piece. We’ll probably stay with that for the next couple of records.
Did you use any Japanese instruments, sounds or samples on the record?
There’s a whole bunch of taiko sounds. We didn’t record actual taiko drums, because it was too hard – we used an incredibly high-end sample that had been multi-sampled. There’s also an interesting drum called a ‘hang drum’ – it has a beautiful metallic ring which we’ve used on a lot of tracks. It’s a beautiful sound – very evocative. They’re the main ones, then we used some digital flute emulators and other crazy sounds. It sounds very acoustic, but it’s nearly all electronic. I’m a big fan of samples – we used the typical crow, there’s some Japanese baseball players warming up, there’s some other crazy sounds – the voice that we use is from a woman called Yumi Yukino, a Japanese ASMR artist, where she’s essentially whispering into the microphone then moving around the stereo in a binaural acoustic feel. We really liked her sound, we cleaned her up and cut her up and stuck her on the record and she’s basically doing famous Japanese nursery rhymes in very spooky way! It just felt right. She just added a level of weird menace that completed the project.
What can we expect from the physical copies of the album? Will it have any uniquely Japanese features? And what response do you hope people will have to it?
We’re using some Japanese anime style illustrations that we’ve commissioned for the album. For the physical record, it’s just going to be a flexi CD, but it’s going to have Japanese obi – wrappers you get from Japanese releases. You might have seen them on vinyl, and we’ve always loved them, just think they’re fantastic. Even though it’s pressed in Brunswick, it’s going to look like it’s come from some southern Japanese label! It’s bloody ridiculous, but you know that’s how we roll. There’s no plans to release it on vinyl just yet – a lot of people are asking for it, so we may do vinyl – it really depends on the market for it outside our little Australian neighbourhood. It may well be that if the Akira nuts all over the world get excited, then there could be an opportunity. Collectability, you know to make something feel special. That’s the thing, it’s so hard with the physical release – people just don’t do it anymore, it’s all digital, so we thought if we would do a digital release we should do something that’s a bit special. If someone wants something with the obi, that’s pretty cool – that will feel special.
Black Cab is known as a band that only plays a small number of gigs each year. Why is that?
Well we’re pretty lazy – that’s a key part of the puzzle! It’s more life gets in the way you know, neither of us are professional musicians. We’ve all got jobs, we’ve all got families – doing 50 to 100 hundred shows a year all over the world is what you need to do to even have a shot at making some money from this industry, and that’s just too hard. So, we find because we’re not travelling, we have to limit how many times we play. When we do play, it’s a somewhat special event. If you play every Tuesday, no one’s going to care and fair enough – you get bored. It’s important for us to keep it fresh. It also means, if we’re playing shows, they feel special. We put a lot into them. and we make them reasonably big budget efforts with lights and visuals and the whole deal. We’re not the band that can travel and tour so that means limiting the times you play – there’s other things in life to do, but when we do it, we enjoy it – otherwise we wouldn’t still be doing it.
What’s next on the horizon for Black Cab?
We’ve got about nine songs that are being demoed, so there is an album that’s coming out probably next year! We recorded it with Graham Pogson from GL, and he’s been fantastic to work with. So, that’s been really exciting – they’re really interesting songs. There’s still a lot of work to do, but now that Akira’s out we can focus on that. There’s a remix coming out in September of a track called Empire States from earlier in the year – that track is being remixed by a guy called Richard Norris who’s half of The Grid and a well-known English producer. We might drop an another single later in the year, but definitely an full album next year!