Interview – Black Swan Lane
More project than band, Black Swan Lane was founded in 2007 by Jack Sobel & John Kolbeck, formerly of Atlanta based, The Messengers and Mark Burgess, of The Chameleons. Their music has been variously described as dreampop, shoegaze and ‘manchester scene’ but I would emphasise the strength of songwriting on show. Strong melodies have always been a great peg to hang a pop message onto. BSL have plenty of wonderful tunes. Their previous album clocked in at 75 minutes with nary a duff track. It is like discovering an entire back-catalogue on one disc.
Despite their excellence, the Black Swan Lane collective has flown largely under the radar of the mainstream press. With no major promoter to help spread the word if is left to a loyal, cult following – a lucky few who know of their existence and view it as a precious gift. Believe me, those who know BSL LOVE BSL. A situation that is unlikely to change as the band prepares to release its third album.
To find out more about black swans, life as an ensemble, and the album I spoke to the main, founder axis Jack Sobel & John Kolbeck.
Spaceman: The black swan itself is a powerful image. What does the name Black Swan Lane signify?
Jack : A hurricane graced us with a massive flood in 2004 and destroyed our studio. When I escaped to the suburbs of Atlanta to surround myself with more peaceful surroundings and to rebuild, I originally found a spot on Black Swan Lane. That fell through, and I eventually moved into an area called the Aviary where we subsequently built our new studio. I looked up “Aviary” on the internet and immediately a picture of a Black Swan appeared. It seemed to be fate.
Spaceman: How would you describe your music?
John : Difficult question to answer. I’ve described it lately as Manchester Alternative Rock, but it’s much more than that. It is experimental, lush, guitar-driven, shoegaze, alternative, and geared toward a more intelligent listener.
Spaceman: Some musicians form bands because they’re inspired by something/someone. Others do it to fill a perceived gap or void. Which camp are you in?
John : Everyone in the band has had music flowing through their veins since they were infants. I could not imagine a life without music. I’ve definitely been inspired by bands I’ve listened to and musicians I’ve worked with. It’s continues to be therapy and a sense of release.
Spaceman: Before Black Swan Lane, you were in The Messengers. I’ve heard some stuff and it seems to be every bit the equal of BSL. Why re-brand?
John : The Messengers originated in 1990 and since then many other bands have taken the name. When Mark Burgess of the Chameleons UK became more of a permanent fixture in the project, we decided it was time for new beginning.
Spaceman: Although you have these Chameleons connections, I hear a touch of The Smiths from time to time as well. You just mentioned “Manchester Alternative Rock”. Would you say the Manchester scene overall has been an influence?
Jack : Probably the biggest influence. Bands that formed our tastes in music and shaped my writing style include The Chameleons UK, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Beatles, The Church, Bauhaus, The Stone Roses, Lush, Kitchens of Distinction, Catherine Wheel, Moose, Cocteau Twins, The Doves, The Jam, Dead Can Dance, and Echo and The Bunnymen. Amongst many others.
Spaceman: Both The Messengers and BSL have collaborated with members of The Chameleons and related bands such as the Sun and the Moon. How did the connection come about?
Jack : I was immediately blown away by the Chameleons UK when I first heard their albums for the first time in 1987, and since then have always felt a connection to their music. They reformed in 2002 and I had the opportunity to have dinner with the band and see their show in Atlanta. I gave Mark a copy of our latest recording. A year later Mark was on a solo tour in the states and asked us to open a show for him. A friendship and a mutual musical admiration developed and the rest is history.
Spaceman: Does BSL have an amorphous membership (like Massive Attack)? Who is permanent?
John : Black Swan Lane has definitely been more of a ‘project’ than your typical band. The permanent members and songwriters are ourselves, Jack Sobel, John Kolbeck, and Mark Burgess. Jack : We’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best musicians. They include Andy Whitaker and Andy Clegg of The Sun and The Moon, Kwasi Asante, Achim Faerber, Yves Altana, Anna-Lynne Williams of Trespassers William, Jimmy Oakes and many others who have contributed bits and pieces to our ongoing projects.
Spaceman: But your next album won’t have 9 different singers, right?
John : Correct. But you can never tell. Our new album, THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE, features three singers. The two of us and Mark.
Spaceman: Working with Mark Burgess must present some logistical problems, since he’s located in Europe. How do you write? Do you send each other mp3s? Or just jam whenever he’s over?
Jack : Mark has been jumping across the pond a lot more often these days. We definitely send each other ideas via mp3’s here and there; however, most of the magic happens when we are all together in the studio. It is a logistical nightmare with half of the band residing in the UK, but we have been able to manage quite well with getting a lot of the recording done in a short period of time. The mixing and overdubs, which can be very time consuming, is done mainly by myself and John.
Spaceman: When I first listened to A Long Way From Home, I thought I was clear in my head who’d written what. Then I ended up over thinking it. Is it too simple to assume if someone sings the lead part, that they were the writer?
John : Great question. It really depends on what the song calls for. Who is better suited to sing the part and carry the tune? For instance, Jack could have written the lyrics and melody, but then decide Mark should sing it because vocally his voice was a better match for the song. It’s not a power play or an ego thing. It’s all about creating the best possible music that we can.
Spaceman: Jack when you write, are you writing for an audience, for a specific person or for yourself?
Jack : The biggest mistake I’ve made in the past is trying to create music that I think will become popular. Now I simply express how I truly feel.
Spaceman: Kwasi Asante is a lovely man isn’t he? And a wonderful voice. I really like it when he tones down the toasting and sings ‘straight’, so-to-speak. I really like him in an ‘indie’ setting too. Is it difficult to stop him doing the MC’ing and that giggle?
Jack : Kwasi is one of the nicest and most talented people I have ever met. I’ve never seen anyone perform a vocal off the top of his head quite like he does. One late evening I talked Kwasi into just simply singing a track called Ghana. It took some cajoling to get him outside of his comfort zone. He was hesitant at first but we both agreed it turned out beautifully.
Spaceman: It certainly did. The last album was different in that it featured the two Andys from The Sun and The Moon. You called it The Sun and The Moon sessions, I guess, for that very reason?
John : You got it. It included all of the original members of The Sun and The Moon except for John Lever, who I would have loved to have included but he was involved in other projects at the time. We coincided the recording sessions with the 1st live performance of The Sun and The Moon in America. The original title of the album was “DEAD”. We later changed it because the project had taken on a new life due to the influences of the members of The Sun and The Moon.
Spaceman: Although your stuff is reflective and melancholy, the records still sound quite fun. Especially the last one. Does that make sense? Is that an indication of a relaxed, fun recording process? Don’t you have fights like a normal group?
John : Very true indeed. Your insight is appreciated. The songs due tend to reflect the melancholy, but the listening experience is a journey of harmony and contentment. We also want people to be able to groove to it and feel the flow of the music. You will always come across an interesting surprise here and there. Recording can be tedious but at the end of the day it is extremely fulfilling when you hear the final result. It is our favorite thing to do besides playing live. Because of the freedom of expression that we allow ourselves in Black Swan Lane, there are very few conflicts that arise.
Spaceman: Not to embarrass you but both albums so far have been truly wonderful. You must be pleased with them yourselves, surely?
Jack : One of my problems has been to always second guess myself. I’m a bit of a perfectionist which makes me strive to make every new album even better. There are always things that we could have done better. I do wish that we had mixed the 1st two albums like we mixed the new album, THINGS YOU KNOW AND LOVE, because they would have been mind-blowing. We took our time to ensure this final product was perfect, even eliminating many songs that didn’t make the cut.
Spaceman: Your voice is getting better with age isn’t it Jack?
Jack : When I first switched from playing drums to singing, I was very insecure about my voice, but it’s growing on me. I guess years of smoking have given my voice a bit more character.
Spaceman: Because you can’t tour, I’m making assumptions here, but I guess that’s a frustration? Is it holding you back from a wider audience? You deserve to be known at least, if not household names.
John : We’ve gone from album to album in the studio, played some shows in the states, and are now working on putting together a serious live show for the near future based on all of the requests to see us play out. When we toured years ago it was a fun but gruelling experience and lately we have simply enjoyed putting our music directly in the hands of our listeners.
Spaceman: I’ve heard that Atlanta is an anglophile city, at least in respect of the music scene/tastes. Do you have an opinion on why this is or if you even agree it?
John : In terms of the music scene in America, there is definitely a segment of the population that admires the music and sounds of England, especially Manchester. In a big city like Atlanta, people have a chance to see a wider range of artists. However, I’ve always felt a connection with the Manchester music scene.
Spaceman: Certainly there seems to be a healthy alt-music scene with yourselves, Snowden and Deerhunter. Any other acts around you that might take our interest?
John If you’re referring to local bands, we rarely get a chance to see them perform live due to the fact that we have been pent up in the studio. We’ve mainly been listening to and tweaking the mixes on our own tunes.
Spaceman: You have a new album, Things You Know and Love out now. What can you tell us about that?
Jack : It started directly after the release of The Sun and The Moon Sessions when John and I recorded the idea for the 1st track off the new record which is called LEAVE ME HELPLESS. We were sad it didn’t make it onto the previous project so we decided to start work on the 3rd album. There was a drive and new found passion and direction that were unique for us. In my opinion it has turned out to be our best work to date. It is the most personal and heartfelt album we’ve done.
Spaceman: You have the dubious honor of being the first article ever to be published in [sic] Magazine – (Review of A Long Way From Home). Rock Hall of Fame eat your heart out!
John : We are honored and eternally grateful. (All laugh)
Spaceman: What current music are you into?
Jack : The newest stuff on my iPod includes Exit Calm, Rob Dickinson and Elbow. Lately, I’ve been buying a lot of old rock and soul because the commercial stuff coming out these days is rubbish.
Spaceman: What interests do you have outside music?
Jack : The search for happiness and contentment.
[sic] Magazine thanks Jack and John. The album Things You Know And Love is available now and we will bring it to you as soon as Icelands volcano permits. Photos with kind permission, BSL myspace and official website. All images are subject to copyright.