INTERVIEW: The Black Queen (09/10/2018)

Credit: J Whitaker

Back at the tail-end of 2017, mathcore giants The Dillinger Escape Plan played their final shows, choosing to bring an end to the band whilst it’s on a high and a fitting time to end than to continue on and risk fizzling out and affecting their legacy.

Their disbanding allowed the members to focus on other projects within music, including frontman Greg Puciato now having more free-time in his busy schedule to put more focus on his synthwave/dark electro and now main outlet, The Black Queen.

Just a few weeks ago, the trio – completed by Josh Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv, ex-Nine Inch Nails) and Steve Alexander (ex-tech for The Dillinger Escape Plan, Nine Inch Nails, and Kesha) – released their sophomore full-length record, ‘Infinite Games’, to rave reviews, and also did so through their own freshly established label, Federal Prisoner.

We caught up with Greg and Steve in the midst of their UK tour to talk about the new album, the meaning behind its title, why they have such a relentless work ethic and desire to control all of their content, the idea and plans behind their label, why Kickstarter campaigns are a creative crutch, and more.

DP!: You’re a few days now into this UK tour. How’ve the first few shows been for you?
G: Fucking sick, man. Bristol was sick, and we had a little bit of a technical problem in Glasgow that wasn’t our fault which kept shorting the PA out, but you get through it. Last night was also fucking incredible. I’d say that Bristol and Leeds were both two of our favourite shows that we’ve ever played, so that’s pretty good. We’re just getting some momentum now. It feels good to play a few in a row, because we had Bristol and then a day off, so it was like we were still trying to get out of the gates, you know? But now the train is off the tracks.

DP!: Did you have to face any jet lag coming over this time?
G: Yes! This time it’s been really bad. Usually I don’t have too much of a problem with it, going to Europe at least, and I tried to budget for any of it by getting here a day earlier. We were here about two days before the first show to factor that in, and I’m still fucked up kind of until about yesterday. I just couldn’t get synced up right, man. I just get tired at really strange times, wake up at weird times, and just having these odd nap cycles, but today I’m feeling alright.

DP!: You’re over here now promoting your new record, ‘Infinite Games’. How do you feel the fans and the critics have been taking to it?
G: I try to not pay too much attention to that kind of stuff, but I’m kind of overwhelmed with just how well it has been received, just because it’s a more difficult record than ‘Fever Daydream’. It’s a little bit more abstract. I’ve continually underestimated audiences, which, I don’t know- I feel like when we put out ‘Fever Daydream’ people were going to be like “What the fuck is this?” because I’m coming from a project like The Dillinger Escape Plan, but they weren’t, and I was blown away by that. Then with this one I was like that again. Every time you release something, you think people are going to be like that. The last The Dillinger Escape Plan album was like that too; ‘Dissociation’ was a little abstract compared to ‘One Of Us Is The Killer’, so I feel surprised – and pleasantly surprised too – when people are, and I hate to even say this, more intelligent or more able to digest more difficult things than I anticipated them to.

DP!: After releasing your debut ‘Fever Daydream’, did you feel like going into this second outing on ‘Infinite Games’ that you all had a more stable focus on what you wanted to do as a band and your desired sound?
G: Yeah. Oh, yeah. We had a lot more confidence in our work and also in our relationships. Our band was born out of being friends, so when working together we had to learn what our- so if you look at a venn diagram you have to learn what your intersections are, and then you end up following some roads that are dead ends, you know? That took us a couple of years to figure out what the things are that we can put together that actually work, so that was a lot of the ‘Fever Daydream’ process, just trial and error of how to work together. With ‘Infinite Games’ we got that out of the way, and also it was really interesting for me to not be writing during another band happening at the same time. Literally the day that I woke up from the final The Dillinger Escape Plan show it was just like bam, and we just stayed in it until around May. For just five straight months we were writing and recording it, and not having something else to fall back on or think about enabled me at least to zoom in a lot more than I was able to the last time.

DP!: Totally. Roughly what was the timeframe of you putting together things for this album? Were you all continuously writing bits here and there since you released ‘Fever Daydream’, or did it all begin after The Dillinger Escape Plan was put to bed last year?
G: We all write, so the songs can start from any three of us. We had a bunch of starting points here and there from as early as March 2017, and I would say that ‘Lies About You’, ‘One Edge Of Two’, and ‘Even Still I Want To’ were all in some shape at that point. They were all pretty close to done musically. I had to go back and re-track my vocals on them ’cause my voice was all beat up from doing The Dillinger Escape Plan last year, and getting some time off from that allowed me to sound better. Every other song was written from December to May except for ‘Porcelain Veins’. That song was written years and years ago and was just re-worked a bunch, and then the final version of that was written about two days before we finished the record.

DP!: That’s crazy. So, in essence ‘Porcelain Veins’ is one of the oldest The Black Queen songs to date?
G: Yeah. It’s old as shit, dude. That was one of the first songs that we had for ‘Fever Daydream’ that we were really excited about, and we just let it sit for too long. When we went back and listened to it, it wasn’t right. Something was wrong with it, and we just kept fucking with it and fucking with it until we were just like “We don’t know what we’re even listening to anymore.” We honestly probably finished somewhere between 50 and 70 versions of that song over the last six or so years. It’s been a real exercise in insanity to be honest with you. We had the chord progression and the motif of the song, you know? Just kind of the music element that happens a couple of times. We just couldn’t figure out what way to dress it up, and then two days before we were done with the record I was like “Fuck this”, grabbed an acoustic guitar, and just played it straight through and sang it and with that we went “That’s it. That’s going to be it.” Then Josh and Steve worked some more sounds into it so it sounded better than just me playing an acoustic guitar in my room. That song ended up being the opposite approach to where it started. It started out as a giant bombastic song with drums all over it and all kinds of things. It sounded really upbeat, and it just felt like the approach was to go in the opposite direction with it. It turned out that was the key. We spent years trying to make the other way work, and it just wasn’t happening.

DP!: I suppose then that there isn’t a typical or set in stone way of you guys putting together a The Black Queen song then?
G: No. I mean, now we’ve got a few avenues of how we go about it. The two main ways we start now are that either Steve and I have a starting point separately, or us creating a starting point together, and then they go to Josh. He will then either embellish or gut it completely and then rebuild them from there. Those two are more or less the routes we go down at this point. If we get all of those going and firing at the same time, it’s a lot to work on. What we did this time around that was different from last time was that we did a lot more writing together.
S: Yeah, we did a lot more writing, and we also had a studio which helped too. A lot of the gear we needed was there, and I think that the record is a lot more cohesive ’cause we used a lot more of the same types of things rather than spending a year on it, taking a break, and then working on another song, and you have completely different tonal palettes ’cause you waited a year and have different stuff.
G: Being able to zoom in on a really isolated time period definitely gave the record a real sonic identity because, like you said, we didn’t have to figure out how to make some song that was recorded two years ago sound like it sonically belongs in the same universe as the new song that you’ve just finished.
S: That is really difficult.
G: When you’re moving locations too, that changes the way that things sound.
S: The first record was a lot of remote recording all over the place. I recorded the solo in ‘The End Where We Start’ in a hotel room in Mexico during the summer, which is really weird because that song is very cold sounding, so there’s a lot of that. Josh worked on some songs in New Orleans and there’s a lot of that on the first record. This one was more together in the same spot. We stuck to a schedule as opposed to having it so open ended. Last time was very “Oh yeah, we’ll work on it when we have a chance,” and it just took forever to finish. It’s good that with this second one we know that we have a process now that we can get it done in a good amount of time.
G: I think that when you work like that too you can go down smaller avenues. Like I said earlier, this record has a lot more abstract, and there’s a lot more things, a lot more detail, and a lot more nuance. When you’re working over spans of time you have a tenancy to just get together to try and hit the home run, and then everything starts to sound like a single. This time it was more like “Let’s see and let’s explore all of the nooks and crannies,” and that’s because we don’t have to leave the studio. We’re all together and no one is going on tour, The Dillinger Escape Plan aren’t getting ready to tour, and Nine Inch Nails isn’t getting ready to tour.
S: Yeah, we had a lot more together time for once instead of all working on a song for a week and then everyone just disappears. Then we’re all like “Where were we?” or we try to open the session and it doesn’t work in the same way, the vocal effects are wrong, or something. It ends up taking a lot of band-aiding and trying to fix things and that takes forever, and it’s not fun or creative.

DP!: I suppose the strengthened confidence that you mentioned earlier certainly helps as well as being all together and focused on the same thing at the same time.
S: Yeah. Once we had a couple of songs done we were like “Okay, we’ve got this. We’re good.” It just took a second to get a feel of what it’s going to be.
G: You’re also in a different place too. Your initial thing in your brain is like “The last time we did this was for ‘Fever Daydream’,” but that was five years ago. It’s been a while. We started working on that record in like 2010-2011. ‘Maybe We Should’ was done in 2012, and that’s six years ago. You’re in a different place, you’re in a different time, and you’re trying to connect back to where you left off. You go through a little bit of that before you realise you don’t have to do that, you can pick up from where you are right now.

DP!: There’s a very much cinematic vibe to your work. Do film scores and soundtracks play any influence in terms of the sound and aesthetic of The Black Queen?
S: That’s my kind of thing. I love soundtracks and film, and I feel like the records also reflect that. It’s not like the sounds are very specific to something though. Everything is handmade pretty much, so there’s not a thing of you being able to tell where something comes from, so it becomes its own soundtrack to a movie that’s not there. It’s not like “Oh, I know that band’s using that drum sound and it sounds like a band with some electronic crap over it.”
G: I think that because of that when we were writing we were also talking about a lot of visual terms, even though we were talking about music. We were talking about a lot of things really visually, mainly really because of that.
S: There’s certainly film influence in parts. There’ll be things like “How should this chorus or bridge sound?”, and it can be determined by a film or movie, and like the third act of this movie feels a certain way, and it maybe goes from like black and white to sepia or something like that. So, we’d then be like “Let’s only use these types of synthesisers for this part.” It’s really specific production kind of stuff that we spend a lot of time on, and we’re the only ones doing it too. There are a lot of people that make records and they have all of these people with their hands on it, like engineers, and with us it’s just us three doing everything.
G: It gives it a certain feel to have it very self-contained.

DP!: Were there any specific films that influenced the record?
S: With ‘Impossible Condition’, which was originally called ‘Stalker’ when it was a demo, and that’s the name of some Tarkovsky movie that I really like. It’s very, very slow and weird. They had to film the move twice because the original film got overexposed or something, so they had to redo it and ended up becoming a completely different thing, which is cool. The song basically has two sections, and in the movie there are basically two big sections that change, and if you watch it you may be able to go “Okay, I see some kind of visual companion.” It’s a companion to that.
G: You’re basically scoring an imaginary video kind of. If you can’t see a scene or a colour at least or something when you’re listening it, I don’t think that it’s very good. There has to be some visceral visual element happening in you brain when you’re listening.
S: I know that I do, and Greg does, and Josh does- we’ll make like little ambient pieces here and there. I’ll have a tonne of them and I’ll just leave them playing in the background, and this is a Brian Eno trick where you just leave it playing while you’re doing a mindless activity like doing the dishes or cleaning the house or something, and if you start to feel something, like “Oh man, that feels hot,” and then you mark those ones because they’re good. They’re good because there’s a response and a connection to it. We’ll then keep notes of that and use those kinds of things in our songs for sections. There’s a lot of ambient stuff on the new record if you pay attention. We also have the visuals for the live shows too. The ones created for the tour cycle for the first record were created by Rob Sheridan, who also does Nine Inch Nails visuals, and then Greg and I took liberty to create some for the new songs.
G: Everything you see visual in the set from the start to the end we did.
S: Yeah, so it’s all home-brewed, and that’s another thing that’s really fun to do because I love film, so it’s cool to incorporate that and not also have to worry about someone making something for you.
G: Exactly, because it won’t feel like you. It’ll feel like them. It can still be good, but they’re trying to interpret how you feel and it’s not direct from you. There’s a disconnect.
S: It’s really strange. It’s almost like commissioning someone for a painting and calling it your own or something like that. You’re going to get what they decide. It’s out of your hands.

DP!: In terms of the album title, ‘Infinite Games’, what made you land on that specific choice of title? Were any others in mind and considered?
G: We’ve had ‘Infinite Games’ since almost the same time we had ‘Fever Daydream’ decided for the first one. We’ve had it for a long time. A lot of the songs are in reference to relationships, and the term infinite games is a reference to peoples’ tendency to be an open-ended situation. There’s a concept of infinite games versus finite games. Finite games are games like basketball or chess where there’s a ruleset and that ruleset doesn’t change, and when a person gets a certain amount of points by the end of the game they’re the winner. An infinite game is where you’re playing and the only point of the game is to keep playing, and so you change the rules as you go. That’s what people do in their relationships with each other and in life, and most people are just constantly changing their ruleset so that they can enable themselves to keep playing.
S: Or you’re getting stuck into a mode of something where you’re changing stuff around it to overcome whatever problem that you have.
G: You have people in your life that you end up being in like a game-based relationship with, and that doesn’t mean that it’s toxic or positive. There’s just some relationships in your life that kind of just seem to keep going, even if they’re going inside of you and even if it’s something that you can’t get out of the loop of. It’s more or less a reference to that.

DP!: You also put the record out through your own formed label, Federal Prison. From what I’ve seen online in a previous interview you’ve said it won’t operate like a typical label.
G: Well, yeah. I mean, we don’t have any desire to brand or kind of market it like a label. We’re not aiming to get people to rally and cheer “Federal Prison”, you know?
S: It’s not like we’re going to go out there to sign this really big artist.
G: Yeah, we’re not looking to go out and sign someone to make us a gazillion bucks. Basically when we were putting out ‘Fever Daydream’, in order to put that out properly and not just dump it out onto the internet, we ended up having to build more or less the infrastructure of what would be a small label. Then in between that time and this time we saw the pieces that were missing and we added them, and then we were basically a fully functioning little label. We have distribution over here, distribution in Australia, distribution in the US, we’re able to press all kinds of records, we can make cassettes and CDs, we’ve got publicists and all that kind of stuff. We have this infrastructure, and then once you have that- I’m a big fan of putting doors in. Everything that you do should have a door that leaves you the ability to do something else. Even if you don’t want to do it right now, you might want to do it in the future, and you want to leave yourself that possibility. With this, we were like “Well, let’s make a label umbrella instead of just calling it The Black Queen.” Then, even if not right now we want to something else, as soon as we made that decision we were like “Oh shit, now you can do this other thing you want to do, I can do this thing I want to do,” and all of that, and Josh too, and even Jesse Draxler is involved and he can do what he wants to do. If we do collectively decide that we want to fucking put out a 12″ of something that we like then we can do that, and it more or less to me is about not needing someone else to validate your creativity. There’s this big emphasis on not just numbers in the industry, but also other people validating you. Like “Oh, you’re signed to that label?” – that’s validating you, or the idea that someone else’s money is validating you, or someone else’s cheque is validating you. I just feel like we’re at the point where I don’t need someone else’s validation. I don’t like feeling like I’m chasing it or that I’m wanting it from someone, so with this if we decide to put out something unlistenable and we only want to make 200 copies of it but it sounds like fucking noise then I don’t need to have somebody else like “Oh, I really don’t know about that, man.” Fuck you. I can do whatever I want.
S: Exactly, then the people can decide if they want to buy it or not, so that gives people more of a power to dictate what music does get pressed and what music they can buy and listen to.
G: I just want to have a run in the background that is something that we’re not trying to brand and push down peoples’ throats, and eventually there’s going to be FP006, FP007, maybe FP150, and we’ll just keep a list of them on the internet, and some people will have ’em all and we’ll then be like “Fuck, how did we get all of these things out?” and that’s exciting to me.
S: It was weird because what a lot of people do when they start a new thing nowadays is start up a Kickstarter, and that was something that I was very adamant on not doing because I just feel like it’s weird. It’s just strange. I don’t want to play in some kid’s backyard.
G: It’s creatively weak too, to say that you’re not going to put something out unless someone promises you a certain amount of money. That’s really fucking weak.
S: I mean, we front everything so that we can do everything. Do you know what I mean? We don’t have someone giving us money. We know what we want at the end of the road, and we know that we can achieve that by ourselves and only through ourselves.
G: We know every single thing that is functioning at all times, and, as overwhelming as that is, we can tweak things in real-time and put our own fingerprint on things so that the whole band and the whole thing of our operation feels like us.
S: Yeah, like Greg runs the Instagram, I do the website. It’s really important.
G: Every picture that’s posted is something that we took, and the video we’ve made is ready and out at this point, or if we don’t like a publicist or distributor then we can just cut them right away. It’s not like they’re built into the label that we’re signed to. There’s a freedom and speed of movement that we can achieve now.
S: With artwork and things like that, we don’t have to sit there and try and get things approved by someone. We can just be like “Okay, here it is.”
G: And you don’t have to convince someone that your idea is good. Once you take money from someone they think they have a right. A good producer for a movie, for example, would front the money and then leave the director alone if they trust them, but most people do not do that.
S: They want the claim of like “I did that. I did that.”
G: Then with a single they could be like “Why don’t you try this on the chorus instead?” and I’m like “Motherfucker, don’t you ever tell me what to do with that shit.” But I understand why they do that, because they’ve given you a bunch of fucking money, so they want to make sure that they have something that’s somewhat theirs to sell to people. We don’t have to worry about that which is really freeing. We could put out an ambient drone record and call it The Black Queen, and if you gave that to a label who gave you a bunch of money they’d be like “What the fuck, dude? Where’s the single?”.
S: They’ll think you can’t do it and that it’s a bad idea.

DP!: Well, if you can do whatever you want, you could theoretically just drop a new song completely out of nowhere tomorrow if you wanted to.
S: Yeah, we could totally do that.
G: We can do it, and we don’t have anyone telling us that it’s a bad idea, or why that it doesn’t fit into the marketing plan that they have.
S: Even just the website. I just changed the colour and rehaul that for the record, and I can do that in a day. That’s more fun to me and more creative.
G: It makes the whole project feel like a creative expression, not just sending someone some files, you know? When I see the record, it’s not just like you sent files and uploaded them, and then another day it just came out and have no idea what really happened between those two points. I knew when it was going to the plant, I knew that there was a problem with the bleed on the edge of the artwork and we had to re-do it, you know what I mean? When you see it, it’s like “Holy shit. We had our hands on every part of this.”

DP!: It certainly sounds like you’re all really busy and constantly have something going on that has to be addressed. Would you describe yourselves as workaholics?
G: Yes, absolutely, haha. We’re super busy. But I don’t think that it’s a problem. Everyone has got their thing, and Steve and I both just go super hard in general, and there’s worse things to be addicted to. I wouldn’t even say that I’m addicted to work, I’m addicted to getting the best out of myself and getting the most out of myself that I can. I feel like Steve is the same.
S: You have a limited amount of time, and you can’t get more time.
G: It’s the most valuable resource in the world. It’s the only thing that runs out and doesn’t ever come back.
S: It’s very important to do your best with that, with that being said, and I feel like a lot of people just don’t.
G: I don’t have a wife or kids. Art is the love of my life. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to not only with The Dillinger Escape Plan but to find other people again that I have this creative relationship with. It’s very rare for it to happen once, much less twice, and to feel more and more zoned in on what I do and don’t want to do artistically approach wise and feeling more and more like- even just having a label and having the ability to do things like that, I can just see a wide open field and I just want to sprint at all times.

DP!: What else do you guys have planned for the rest of 2018 and also in 2019 so far?
S: We’re finishing this tour, getting ready for Australia, and booking a US tour.
G: Yeah, we’re going to do a North America tour in Spring, and an Australia tour in January. We get back from this run and it’s basically mid-November, and we have a month and a half before we start rehearsing for January. It’s looking like February and March will be North America which will take us a while, so we don’t have to think about much else for the moment.
S: We have some time to enjoy the Christmas holidays too. I might go to Hawaii for a week.
G: We’ve been working non-stop for a really long time, so I think we might try to take a couple of weeks off in that time period, but it doesn’t tend to last very long. We get done from the studio and go home, and then like an hour later we start texting each other about things to do in the songs.
S: Probably play some video games too.

DP!: Do you have any final words?
G: Thanks to anyone who gives a shit about us, whether they are new and didn’t know about The Dillinger Escape Plan or like that band, or even whether they came to us from that world. That’s obviously really important to me, especially that anyone could make that transition because it’s such a different style of music. It really shows to me that people are not just fans of something sonically, they’re fans of something that’s honest, and they’re fans of an approach. That means the fucking world to me. Whoever is reading this and has at least been paying attention to anything that I’ve done for a long time, I really appreciate you guys.

The band’s second studio album, ‘Infinite Games’, is out now through their own label, Federal Prisoner.

You can purchase the album online now from the band’s official webstore (here), BandCamp (here), iTunes (here), Amazon (here), and Google Play (here).