The Repository #9: Black Forest/Black Sea

Revisiting an interview from 2004 as the duo release a new CD full of rarities from 2003-2008.

I remember first hearing Black Forest/Black Sea nearly 20 years ago and being immediately smitten. The duo of Jeffrey Alexander and Miriam Goldberg made a handful of great albums, toured the world, and generally left a lot of good in their wake. Last week, Alexander released a CD full of rarities so this seemed like an excellent time to share this interview from 2004.

Not many North American independent artists can organize and pull off a four month European tour, but that’s exactly what the duo of Jeffrey Alexander and Miriam Goldberg, AKA Black Forest/Black Sea did earlier this year. The resulting CD on Last Visible Dog, “Radiant Symmetry,” is one of the year’s most enchanting albums. Goldberg and Alexander worked together previous in The Iditarod, but have really come into their own with Black Forest/Black Sea. Earlier in the year, the duo released their second studio album, “Forcefields & Constellations” on the BlueSanct label. Not content with doing one European trek this year, Goldberg and Alexander will head across the Atlantic again this fall. This time, they’ll be touring with Christina Carter and Fursaxa for what promises to be one of the best tours this year. Making such emotive music is no easy task, but one listen to the sounds created by Black Forest/Black Sea will live the listener mesmerized. They make it seem like the most natural of processes. They are simply masterful. This interview was conducted by Brad Rose via email in July and August.

BRAD: I can’t think of another band that tours as extensively as you all. What is it you love about being on the road so much that makes you do it again and again?

MIRIAM: Jeffrey is the tour enthusiast. I like touring and am happy to tour often, but Jeffrey’s the real impetus behind all that. If it were up to me to organize our tours, we’d never leave Olneyville. Personally, I enjoy having a good excuse for showering no more than twice a month and never changing my jeans. It’s also just a nice way to travel and meet people.

JEFFREY: I’m really interested in seeing new places and visiting friends (old and new). Playing music is a great way to do that — a working holiday.

BRAD: What’s the worst experience you’ve had playing live?

MIRIAM: I don’t think we’ve ever had any particularly bad live experiences, which is to say that there aren’t really any shows that I regret having played (well, maybe one), although we’ve definitely had some bad live performances. We certainly have had a few shows that were artistically, physically, or technically difficult to get through — nights that were uninspired, nights where we were feeling ill, nights where Jeffrey’s pedals break. Generally, though, these issues just change the overall feeling of our set rather than completely destroy it. If something is going wrong, or if something is uncomfortable, we just end up incorporating it into our sound.

Our near-four-month European tour was a big challenge in that regard. You know that term “semantic satiation?” It describes the phenomenon where you say a word repeatedly and eventually it loses its perceived meaning. Well, by the end of our European tour I felt pretty sated. It was like, am I making music or am I moving my arm back and forth on a stage with a big wooden box between my legs? That was a pretty awful feeling. Luckily around the same time most of our equipment broke, so we were forced to do things differently. That helped revitalize the performing experience.

And of course, there are the embarrassing, crappy tour stories, like when we played in Paris, Jeffrey got pissed off and threw his distortion pedal across the room only to knock over some poor girl’s drink. Or, in the Hague, when I got my period right before we went on stage and of course I had left all my tampons and ibuprofen in Amsterdam. At the end of our set, I got to have a Kathleen Hanna moment when I asked the audience if anyone had a spare tampon. I’ve since switched to the reusable Diva Cup to avoid any more tampon sagas.

BRAD: What was the most memorable aspect of your recent European tour? And what city/country are you looking forward to returning to most?

MIRIAM: The things I remember best are the times we spent with people. We met so many wonderful people on that trip. We ate, traveled, talked and played music with them. That was really special. Plus, we traded so many CDs. Everyplace we went, someone would say “ooh, ooh, you have to hear this!” and then play a record that was absolutely mind-blowing. Then we could play an amazing CD we traded for, like, four countries ago.

I think Jeffrey and I agree that our favorite countries to visit were Italy, Finland, and Ireland. Paris was also wonderful. I wasn’t really expecting it to be, so that was a great surprise. We are returning to Finland and Italy in September and October with Christina Carter and Fursaxa as well as Will Schaff, who will be showing his art.

JEFFREY: Certainly the people are the best part of any trip. That’s what made most of our travels so exciting. Even so, we also had a really wonderful time in the Baltic countries where we hardly knew anyone. Eastern Europe in general was amazing: Riga and Vilnius…and especially Poland were fantastic visits. But of course, I could go on and on – the friends we met in Finland and the Netherlands and pretty much throughout the entire trip made it all so worthwhile. It’s also so much fun to break out the minidisk and make music with folks whenever possible.

BRAD: How did your experiences with The Iditarod influence the music you’ve done with Black Forest/Black Sea?

JEFFREY: Towards the end of The Iditarod, I was getting more interested in improvisation and different kinds of sounds. I didn’t know quite what direction that would go in, but I like what we’re doing, so that’s cool. In The Iditarod, I was also doing most of the writing, especially near the end, and Miriam is very much involved with BF/BS in that regard. It’s nice to play and improvise with someone with much different ideas. Things go in unexpected places and I like that.

MIRIAM: The Iditarod was the first and only band I ever played with until Black Forest/Black Sea, so I guess it set my expectations for what playing in a band is like. I’m happy to say that doing BF/BS exceeds those expectations.

BRAD: What’s the story behind the name?

MIRIAM: They’re just a couple of places Jeffrey and I would like to visit. Plus, it shortens to BF/BS, which can then be reinterpreted as Black Flag/Black Sabbath (our friend Shauna pointed this out a couple months ago).

JEFFREY: The first time I ever heard that was last night.

BRAD: The list of artists you’ve collaborated with is like a who’s who of all my favorite artists. What was it like working with Jan Anderzén? And also Christina Carter?

MIRIAM: I love playing with Christina. She is a powerfully intuitive musician. She’s also a very generous player — playing with her is such a wonderful experience because she gives so much for you to work with, and it feels like she really listens to what’s going on around her and adapts and interacts.

Playing music with Jan made me feel like the cat who ate the canary. Why? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s his impish grin…or all the bear piss he was drinking.

JEFFREY: The bear piss has got to stop – it was really stinking up his cave.

BRAD: How’d you get involved with the BlueSanct label?

JEFFREY: I first met Michael (Herr BlueSanct) 3 or 4 years ago when I was arranging a caravan tour for The Iditarod, Stone Breath and In Gowan Ring. We hit it off and he offered to release our next Iditarod CD, which did fairly well. We kept in touch and last summer we played a BF/BS show that he arranged for us in Bloomington. That night, we stayed in his basement and watched creepy Nico videos. He’s got a good thing going with BlueSanct and with distribution by Secretly Canadian.

BRAD: The upcoming tour sounds as wonderful as the last. How difficult is it to organize such a massive trek? What are the biggest issues you all face when going out for so long?

JEFFREY: I’ve met quite a lot of people over the years through different bands that I have been involved with, so it’s basically an enormous amount of emailing and sorting out sensible routing. Having a small record label also helps considerably – in addition to bands and other musicians, we have made radio, magazine and distributor contacts all over the place. Financially, touring is a lot easier with only 2 people and we also don’t bring very much gear. The cello is the only large item and we can carry everything on foot, if necessary. (Not fun sometimes, especially with 200 CDs to sell…and in the snow). So, in a sense, it’s like backpacking – we travel by bus, train, ferry and sometimes rental car – whatever is cheapest at the time. That last tour was more of an experiment, I think. We both had plenty of time between school and jobs – and our living expenses here in Providence are quite low, so we decided to just do it. To see if we could do it, I guess. And with new jobs, school and whatever else that will undoubtedly happen to consume our lives, I figured if we have the chance now, why not?

BRAD: Where’s the one place you want to play, but haven’t had the chance?

MIRIAM: I’d really like to play in Japan and Ukraine – particularly in Odessa.

JEFFREY: Yeah, Japan would be wonderful. And, of course, New Zealand and Australia too! Hmm, plotting.…

BRAD: Listening to “Radiant Symmetry,” there is this profound sense of freedom on those recordings. They’re absolutely beautiful. What made you all decide to put together the collection? And how much stuff was left over?

MIRIAM: Thanks, I’m glad you like it. Personally, it’s my favorite of our releases. We recorded maybe half the shows we played on the last Europe tour. We came home with dozens of minidisks. The original idea was to make a book filled with 3″ CD-R’s — one for each country. We were going to send them to our hosts as a thank you gift.

JEFFREY: That would have been a great project, but after sorting through the recordings, we realized that it would have been an enormous book. All of those CD-Rs would have taken more time and money than we could afford. It was Chris Moon’s idea to simply take some of the stuff and mix it together for a regular CD release. So we did, and he released it on Last Visible Dog. Chris came over and together we listened to the discs, made notes and decided the best approach. I think there are over 25 hours of recordings.

BRAD: You all collaborated with a number of brilliant artists on “Radiant Symmetry.” Is there anyone you are hoping to play with on the upcoming tour? Or in general?

JEFFREY: Some of the most exciting improv moments on that last tour were with Stefano Pilia in Italy and all of the crazy Finns! Small bits from each are featured on the LVD release, actually. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that we are returning to those countries, in particular. Finland, especially, was amazing — folks from Kiila, KYY, Avarus, etc., etc. are spread out in different cities. In each place, they have a room or a practice space filled with unusual instruments, electronics and, of course, some sort of recording device. On every stop of our visit, there would be a session with whoever was available. So much fun! There are hours of those collective improv tapes that we still haven’t even heard yet. I’m also really excited to do more stuff with Christina Carter! I can’t even begin to imagine what September in Finland will be like (since Fursaxa will also be with us for that part) – Christina, Tara, us and the fabulous Finns – wow!

MIRIAM: People I’d really like to collaborate [with] (or even just have a long conversation with) include Ellen Fullman, the mastermind behind the long string instrument; Pauline Oliveros, the brilliant women of Chicago band Spires That In The Sunset Rise; my three sisters (one has already contributed her poems to our songs); and Erin Rosenberg of the Providence band Urdog. Wow. I just realized they’re all women. Ok, I’d also really like to play with Jandek. I’m pretty sure he’s a dude, but you never know…

BRAD: What role does tension play in your music?

MIRIAM: A huge one. Jeffrey and I have very different approaches when it comes to making music. The tension that these differences beget can aid and hinder our music depending on how patient either of us feel on a given day. On a good day, it’s exhilarating, but on a bad day it can get pretty ugly.

BRAD: I’ve always been interested in how a person’s environment impacts their creativity and expression. What is your relationship with the city in which you live and how would you say it’s influenced your music?

MIRIAM: Providence is a great place to play music. Most of the artists here are here because they really love what they do. Almost all of the big egos and the fierce competitors eventually move to New York, where they belong. So it’s really inspiring to be surrounded by these musicians who work completely on their own terms and who are excited by creativity and collaboration. Providence is also a pretty inexpensive place to live, so it means that I can get away with working a job for 15-20 hours a week and devote the rest of my time to things I really love. I think that this is a big factor for a lot of folks here. It’s amazing to see what people can accomplish when they’re not spending all their time trying to make rent.

BRAD: How’d you get involved with the Pasture Music Fest and what was the experience like?

MIRIAM: Pasture Fest was a blast. It was so good to get out of the city for awhile. Plus I got to hear some bands I’d never heard before who totally blew my mind.

JEFFREY: A big camping party filled with some of my favorite musicians! My personal highlights were the Jack Rose set in the barn and, especially, Spires – really great.

BRAD: What inspires you?

MIRIAM: My family and the paradox of existence.