For a contemporary take on the early 80s British synthpop sound – slightly wobbly mechanical arrangements, melancholy vocals – you won’t find much better than Chris Stewart’s Black Marble, whose new album Fast Idol is released on the same weekend as his Cardiff debut.
You’re coming to the UK to do a pretty long tour, by current standards – launching the album over here I guess – then returning next spring. Do you get bigger or better audiences in the UK?
I’ve really toured in the US more extensively than the UK and Europe. The last tour we did before COVID struck was a European tour though, and we had so much fun that we wanted to go back as soon as possible. This tour is just something we’ve already been trying to do for the last year and a half that we had to keep postponing.
You play live as a trio – how much does this change the sound, for someone who has only heard the records?
It maybe gets a little more postpunk-ish and less lo-fi synth-ish, as the current touring band is a three piece. I play guitar, Jordan plays synths and Max plays bass; a drum machine does the beats. That three piece setup with a drum machine has a certain stripped down but yet dynamic vibe to it. It’s a little different from the records but I think people that like the records will like it.
Is there a correct, or at least preferred, way to react to your songs in a live setting? It feels like it’s on the cusp of being ideal to dance to, but not really having a ‘club’ type production or general aesthetic.
The live show has a bit of a clubbier mix. The beats are a little more forward in the mix, plus I’m always asking the sound person to turn them up! I don’t know if people are dancing like your typical fogged-out DJ night, but more so than on the records, we’re intentionally trying to make the set danceable.
If you’re looking at a crowd and they’re not really moving much, is that a problem or can they still be into it, in your experience?
People do all sorts of things to show that they are into the experience that doesn’t necessarily involve dance. Like standing motionless with their eyes closed just intently listening… to me that’s more flattering than dancing. People think I’m too busy to notice up there but I see what people do!
The biog for Fast Idol namechecks some real obscure synthpop/minimal synth names. Which is cool! But my experience with Black Marble is that it basically codes to people as tuneful 80s style electronic pop music. Is that how you see it too?
I think the circumstances around how I started making music seem very off the cuff, and those old obscure synth bands probably felt the same way – oh, we can buy these synths now that they are cheap, and look, they aren’t that hard to play! Just a mentality that it didn’t matter. You were doing it for fun not doing it to take you somewhere physically, financially or reputationally.
I guess now that this project is better known, that might not be such an obvious thing, but I think the only reason for that is the fact that I’ve been doing it for so long! If I had stopped after the first record never to be heard from again, I think maybe the connection would seem more clear.
You’ve been living in LA for a few years now, I believe, but are still quite closely associated with NYC. Do you feel any particular affinity, loyalty etc to either/both of these places?
I wouldn’t say I have a loyalty to either place, but I had a feeling when I first moved to NYC that it was the place to go if you wanted to test yourself as a creative person. You could be popular but have no cred, or have a ton of respect but not be that well known. LA has a different mentality. People want to partner up with another buzzy artist and do a duet album together to piggybank on each other’s social pull, or whatever.
Would you say you’re someone who kind of needs to live in big cities, on a personal level or for music-making reasons?
I’m definitely a city person, as it’s always been a basis for inspiration as well as a great way to get insight into how other people think. I hated that about where I grew up. If someone thought something different they just kept it to themselves.
Did lockdown in LA change your perspective on living there at all (like, ‘I’m in one of the most sociable places in the world but everywhere is closed, wtf’)?
Lockdown definitely was a weird experience in LA. For a period of time, when things were at their worst, only essential workers were allowed to be out on the road. I didn’t listen really, and would still drive to my studio sometimes, but it was just crazy being in such a busy city and just flying down a 12-lane highway, literally the only person on the road as far as the eye can see. It felt like the end of the world.
Black Marble plays Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, Sun 24 Oct. Tickets: £14. Info: 029 2023 2199 / here
Fast Idol is released on Fri 21 Oct via Sacred Bones.
words NOEL GARDNER
Events are Back!
If you’re running or promoting events in Wales, list them here for FREE.