Eric Copeland: Interview
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong for enjoying something because it’s so terrible, because it breaks all the rules of taste.”
Eric Copeland is a man with much to think about and much to do. The proud New Yorker by way of Maine keeps himself occupied with several projects, bringing out some of the most interesting aspects of sampling in the experimental scene. As a member of the seminal Black Dice, he has been known to exhibit strong variations on noise, even creating a dancy vibe. Earlier this year, they released Mr. Impossible, their first on Ribbon Music.
More importantly, though, Copeland maintains a solo project, for which he pools his resources on occasion, as well to take a different, more reactionary approach to sound. This process recently resulted in the Underwater Peoples release of Limbo, his first album since 2009’s Alien In A Garbage Dump, coming on the heels of a string of 7-inch releases. Talking over the phone in New York, we talked the recent projects, what separates his solo work from Black Dice’s, time and money, and the nature of living in New York City.
What is the mindset that brings you into working on a solo record, and what makes that different from working with Bjorn [Copeland] and Aaron [Warren]?
It’s a little bit more leisurely on my time, just because it doesn’t require as much scheduling, I guess. So, it’s a little precious, the time. I guess it’s also mostly just recordings that I do, and then I try to adapt it to something modest, whereas with Black Dice, it’s kind of the opposite. We write songs to play and then we adapt them to record. Um, there’s also overlap in terms of sounds and the way things are processed. They may be similar in the way they’re put together, too. Just like… I don’t make my Black Dice ideas exclusive just to Black Dice. And I feel free to take whatever that needs work and apply them to myself, and then vice-versa: Take stuff from myself and apply it there. I think I’ll extend that to the band in that, for they put a lot into it, but they can take whatever they want from it.
So I guess, if you create something with Black Dice, and it doesn’t fit, you can just use it elsewhere?
No, it’s not like I take leftovers from Black Dice or cherry-pick clips. I work a lot on music: I spend a couple hours a day. So I’m never really short of things to work on. Because Black Dice is live, there are certain things I prefer to do with that, especially when it comes to recorded sounds because it’s a pain in the ass to plan. But the stuff I do on my own, sometimes I know it couldn’t be worked on in a certain way. There’s a lot of reasons why I’ll keep something for myself. Sometimes, it’s just because I spent a lot of time with it, and made a lot of progress on it, and it doesn’t make sense to bring in something as complete as that to work on with other people.
You’re very hesitant around exploring lower frequencies throughout Limbo, making the overall sound very balanced. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
No, I think my tools didn’t really permit me to work on bass frequencies that well. There’s maybe two ways, three ways I could do it. But a lot of times, it muddies up, what I like about something. Also, kind of strangely, what I practice out of — maybe it’s not strange — but what I practice out of are bass cabinets. So I think I interpret it as there being more bass sometimes than there really is. Depending on where I finish the recording, I can hear something’s really heavy on bass frequencies, and then when I hear it on maybe a computer or a home stereo, I just realize that my setup is just different. But I like the way the bass sounds. I’ve kind of been working fast, and it’s less important than it has been to spend the time and money making every sound kind of BPT or really perfect. To me, cleaning up a sound kind of does the opposite.
Well, in that case, do you think it’s really a necessity to clean up your work in that respect?
I think there are time where that’s really important, and there are times where it matters less. And I guess that’s all I’m saying: That it matters less to me than it did in the past year in this one way. I’m pretty accepting of where I get with my work. In some ways, the matter-of-fact realities about not having money, time, and resources doesn’t really stop me, I guess. That’s not a reason to wait or anything. Sometimes, some things are just done because you have to move on.
Did you have any particular sources for your samples that stood out in Limbo? Something you enjoyed working with?
No, not in particular. But I did use… a friend of mine’s girlfriend gave us, just, I dunno, some keyboard… It’s not the first time, but it’s the first time I feel like I used something like that pretty heavily, got what I want[ed], and made it sound pretty good, and it’s really fast. I didn’t, you know, it’s not 50% of the sounds or anything, but I feel it enabled me to make things fit a little easier. Sometimes, the way I sample musical things stops making sense, like the way things connect. And certain pieces can sometimes just be lucky, and with that I feel like that was first time I was thinking, “This one note actually sounds good, and within that note, there’s a scale that works.” I know it’s real simple, but for the first time, I had to think about it really directly.
I don’t feel that what I want to do to my stuff is over-represented and popular in the world. I don’t think I’m the only person doing it. But most stuff that I hear doesn’t satisfy that in me.
Well, working on a single note and just stretching it out, it’s not something most people think about doing. So it’s well within the realm of reason.
Yeah, I guess it’s how it works. I think most people probably work within those ideas they want in their music. I was thinking that I don’t think you need that. But for me, it was a new chapter to start working with. I mean, I like it.
Sometimes, I feel like you wanted to emphasize something to dance to while creating some sense of space (especially in the case of “Tarzan and the Dizzy Devils”). Am I wrong in feeling this?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really feel like I’m working with… I don’t know, I don’t think it really matters to me that much. I think making something like a tool for dance music, I think back to the earlier question where I think you really do have to work on the sound a lot, which kind of has its own set of rules which I don’t know how to do. I mean, I’m interested in it: I like the way that stuff can move and change and develop while remaining really simple. But I’m not familiar with that language myself. I’m just a spectator when I hear it out somewhere.
Well, in that sense, is structure something you work for, or is that something that is just happenstance when it does occur?
I think that, especially if there’s a certain point in, maybe not editing but putting everything together, where I feel like there’s certain emphasis on tolerance, and a lot of emphasis on movement and satisfaction. And that movement, that satisfaction, that tolerance, in that way, you sort of work with what you have: Whatever you started with, whatever you’re contributing, it will lend itself to making those decisions. To me, again, I guess a lot of music that has a place or purpose also has a lot of those decisions made for it. A 12” will be 8-15 minutes or something, and that’s long, considering most stuff is half that or less.
So, I think working on, especially this record, it was a lot of those ideas, and a kind of balancing of the numbers that are going on within, like, each sound sort of has a couple beats or something, and I guess that sometimes you’re working with an 11 or 7, or a 2 or 3, and those meet in satisfactory ways at certain points. Usually, that’s suggestive of what should be happening. That’s the moment when all these things happen to work together again. Or like, the whole sequence resets, and I think that there’s kind of an inherent demand for something to happen in there. In some ways, a lot of the decisions are made just by the ingredients being used. Those ingredients are usually pretty simple, and are things that I just respond to, just to, for whatever reason, be able to work as an independent musical thought. But then, when going with six others of them, it contributes something really different.
I like it because I feel like I pick and choose what I want to follow, and when those moments do come where something does reset again, or does an important moment where it’s the same. Those moments I think are really satisfying, because maybe you get there, and it’s a surprise. There’s a bit of, “I wasn’t paying attention to that, but all of a sudden, it makes sense again.” That’s where I find my favorite stuff works like that. And a lot of Limbo has that going on, I think. It’s more people making stuff that I like, that it means you can hear it a couple different times in different ways before you get it.
In that respect, to what degree is Limbo or even Mr. Impossible a reaction to what you bear witness to on a regular basis?
I love music, I love popular radio, I love it all. I mean, there are certain things that I respond negatively to, but I don’t feel like I have a list of demands in what I want something to do, except just to occupy my time for a little, and not drive me nuts. But at the same time, I don’t feel that what I want to do to my stuff is over-represented and popular in the world. I don’t think I’m the only person doing it. But most stuff that I hear doesn’t satisfy that in me. I feel like there’s still this kind of falling in line, whether it’s a beat or a riff or something like that. Most music to me falls in line with that. The band and the ideas are slaves to that. And to me, it makes things, I don’t know, a little more expected or predictable or something, and I get a little less lost in it. But I think someone like Prince or something doesn’t do what I’m talking about, and I love his shit. I love how predictable it is and how great every sound is.
At the same time, being unpredictable is what draws people’s attention, especially when it’s not what they’re going into. A lot of people genrify music these days, and when you give them something where they can’t do that, it creates an interesting result.
It totally can be. It’s kind of weird, it all gets down to personal taste at some point, and that’s all that anyone really responds to. But sometimes, knowing that there’s that much, that there’s such a variety of things being made is, to me, really exciting. I don’t even know if I have to like it all, or even like it for the right reasons. I don’t think there’s anything wrong [with] enjoying something because it’s so terrible, because it breaks all the rules of taste. I think that that can provide its own sort of enjoyment and come from a different headspace. Even just humor, it’s really interesting when someone involves humor with what they make. It’s such a bold decision in its own way, and taken for granted, too. It totally makes something not serious. There’s various ways to put your shit in.
And when you think about it, with so much variety, something like, say, a “guilty pleasure” as some would say you’re describing right now, seems kind of trivial, since at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What you feel good about with this music is what’s important.
Yeah, and there’s so much politics into listening. Everybody does it, but it’s hard to like something that you know costs more than you make in 25 years. Like some hit singles, it sounds like a computer made it. It’s hard to say that you’re getting the enjoyment out of that, that they have invested all their money in. I feel like part of you just wants to resist it out of spite. But sometimes, it’s like, “Well, fuck it, man.” That kind of music sounds great, it totally achieves what it set out for, like some sort of operation. It’s incredible.
You were discussing earlier the matter of time and money, and I was wondering if you were familiar with the recent spat between NPR’s Emily White and Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery.
No, but I love Camper. What did it say?
There was this thing about how Ms. White, this intern at NPR, wrote how she didn’t own any music per se, despite having 11,000 songs on her computer. David Lowery wrote a response and made a valid point about talking about the moral implications of file-sharing, but he just went about it the wrong way…
Was he upset?
I think he was definitely upset. One thing he did do, though, was imply that Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous’ suicides was due to the fact that they weren’t earning enough in record sales, which is a very far-fetched claim to make, especially in the case of Vic Chesnutt. I mean, it was just the way he did it that was wrong. But I was just wondering if you had anything to say about it.
No, I mean, it’s kind of weird to have an opinion on that. It’s like, it’s happening, it’s gonna happen. I’ve never made money off of disc sales, so I can’t say someone’s taking money out of my mouth or something. But, you would hope that people would just support the things they like in any way that’s possible. I feel like that’s what makes something like Kickstarter pretty amazing: That, you know, someone can be sick and need money, and then word gets out to people, and maybe they get better because of that.
I think what you’re saying gets to the heart of it. I mean, support doesn’t have to just come from record sales. It could mean something like supporting a Kickstarter, or going to a show or buying merch. It’s all part of that.
It seems like we just have to adapt, to accept what’s happening more, and less to vilify… like, there was something on NPR a while ago about teenagers, and how they’re looking at copyright laws now because every teenager now seems like a full copyright criminal. They said that we need to just accept this. We can’t go after all these kids, we can’t put them in jail. It’s not a problem, it’s just what it is. And maybe that’s how we have to view internet music now, as what it is now.
Moving on, you reference your hometown of Brunswick in the closing track of Mr. Impossible, “Brunswick Sludge (Meets Front Range Tripper).” How much did being raised in the environment you were in with Bjorn affect your music?
Probably as much as everybody’s childhood. I don’t think it’s anything more or less, and I guess it’s specific to things other than location, too. But, I feel like moving to New York had much more of an impact in terms of me noticeably changing how I thought and behaved. Spending the last 15 or more years here, I think there’s just a lot of growth that you notice from your late teenage years to your mid-30s. To me, I feel more the connection to New York now in terms of what I make than I do with Brunswick. Brunswick has a much more limited palette that I don’t think I would have known how to investigate at that age or time, and in New York, it was all here. It was just like, you had to go outside and deal with it.
I’m pretty accepting of where I get with my work. In some ways, the matter-of-fact realities about not having money, time, and resources doesn’t really stop me.
That’s a good point to make. That said, while you definitely have that aspect of New York in you, and your early days in Black Dice was limited to the periphery, there is much in your combined work that, even now, reminds us of your roots in Providence. But I guess, in that same respect, New York allowed you to be who you are.
But that was what’s happening, too. I was young, I was only 16, seeing all that stuff for the first time for me, and getting comfortable in those situations and stuff. It was formidable. It seems like second nature now to play at a warehouse show or play with a bunch of bands en masse, with a lot of loud guitars. But it was really cool to play in those environments and feel constant in that case. It was really good.
So I guess Providence meant something to you, in that it was linked to your development in a live setting, among other things.
Yeah, but I was living in New York the whole time. I only lived in Providence for a couple of months. And I was there all the time, almost every weekend for a long time, but also, living in Brooklyn and having my life here. They’re really different, and in some ways, once I moved to New York, Providence felt like a small college town to me, especially against something so massive and limitless. Which is also kind of cool to realize. It’s like going on tour for the first time: You realize that the potential in a small town, and in a city, as well as the drawbacks for both.
On a related note, do you still talk to Hisham [Bharoocha]?
Yeah. He’s getting married this weekend, I think. We talk all the time. He’s really busy, he’s got a total professional life. Honestly, I don’t see him often, but we keep in touch.
In relation to New York, do you feel like having this experience in New York, having this different sort of mentality has really shaped you? And with that, do you think that’s the reason people move out there? Do you think that’s what people are seeking?
I have no idea why people move here anymore. It seems so expensive. I don’t know where there’s cheap living in New York anymore. Yet, there’s a bounty of shit going on, and there’s a real appreciation going on right now for DIY arts and music and movies. It seems like it’s everywhere: It’s on the street, it’s in everybody’s apartment or loft or whatever. But I just don’t know how people live here cheap anymore. To my certain credit, I have no idea how I do it every month. But it doesn’t seem like there are cheap options available here without kind of living a really far distance from what would bring you here. Maybe I’m totally closed off to something that’s going on, but when I look around, it seems like rent is so expensive and everything is so expensive right now.
I’m kind of in agreement. I mean, I live in Oakland, and I moved out here basically because, like every other artist or creative type, we’re being pushed out of San Francisco. Believe it or not, the rent is more expensive in SF than in New York, and it’s amazing when you start to wonder how people are able to even live when it is so expensive.
Yeah, I mean, being a part of a community seems important, because it can give you a line on cheap rent, so you can get what you want. I look around, and I do not know how it’s done, I don’t know how they have so much going on. All the cheap jobs have been swallowed up in the past couple years. It’s just crazy.