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20 July 2011

Interview : Jack Sobel of Black Swan Lane.

This interview is a bit close to my heart, since I have personally been a fan Black Swan Lane or some incarnation of the band since the 90's and then got to see them open up for The Chameleons in 2003. Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck are class guys with an incredible sense of lyric and music writing that has keep me coming back to them for many years and I see no sign of that stopping. Every time I hear something new from them, they are forever growing and changing... : Rob Turner


How and when was the band formed (past bands or incarnations)?

I formed a band called The Messengers back in 1990 with Lauren Fay. James Fairey and John Kolbeck joined the group soon after Lauren’s departure and I took over lead vocals. I’ve since learned to actually hum a tune. We had a nice following in the southern states of the US and had some limited radio play and it was revolutionary for the South at the time, which was stuck in southern rock mode. We quit music for four years in early2000 out of sheer frustration until 2004, when I met my idols, The Chameleons UK, which sparked a renewed sense of longing to play music again. Mark Burgess joined us on the last Messengers album, Abundant Sunshine in 2005, which had some amazing songs, but we rushed it and had limitations on time and money, so the production quality did not shine.

We invited Yves Altana (who played with Mark on Invincible), Kwasi Asante (from the last Chameleons Tour) and Mark’s Drummer from Germany, Achim Farber out in late 2005 to record some new stuff and play a show (of Chameleons songs) in Atlanta. During this process it seemed crazy to continue with the name The Messengers. I drove north of Atlanta looking for a change of scenery and stumbled upon a beautiful road named Black Swan Lane. The next area I discovered was named the Aviary. I Googled the name Aviary and the first thing that appeared on my screen was a black swan. Black Swan Lane seemed like a wise choice to go with to name the new project.

The Messengers. Still.

Kind of a personal question, as I am a fan of The Chameleons and Mark Burgess has been an idol of mine since 1983 as a man, a musician and songwriter. What was it like opening for The Chameleons the first time and then befriending Mark Burgess when he agreed to work with Black Swan Lane?

It’s a funny story actually. After I ate dinner with and saw the Chameleons play two nights in Atlanta, I never thought I would see them again. My only goal at the time was to sit next to Mark and chat a bit which was a fantasy already fulfilled. The Chams broke up again right after the US tour and Mark started a solo tour. I got a call out of the blue to ask if we could do an opening slot for him as The Messengers. At the time, I had given up on music and decided I was going to chase the American dream instead. Although I had no band, I answered the call with a resounding yes. After hanging the telephone up, I do believe I freaked out a little bit. Long story short…

John attempted to copy my vocals, I played the drums and we found a familiar face to play bass and we pulled it off. Mark asked me on stage after our set to perform the track, Happy New Life, with him and James Oaks, who coincidentally lent a hand on our second album, The Sun and The Moon Sessions. To this day, it is still surreal to be in the same room with Mark, much less record with him. I have to say it was just as satisfying hanging out, playing and recording with Andy Whitaker and Andy Clegg of The Sun and The Moon. All are wonderful, genuine people.

Can you tell us what the band has been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (new releases, tour, etc)?

We have been working on our fourth release, Staring Down The Path Of Sound, for the last year. The only break we took from it all year was when John jumped on a cruise ship for a week. We have spent more time on this one than any other. Lauren Fay has returned after almost two decades gone and we lost the help of our brothers in Manchester who have all been tied up with other projects at the moment. Chameleons Vox seems to be a hit by the way. I’m hoping to reunite with Mark and the gang soon for additional recordings. I’m also working on re-mixing / mastering the 19 tracks that were cut off the latest album that comes out this August. They were great tracks; they just didn’t flow well with the rest of the new record. We spent weeks at the end of the process lining each of the new 15 tracks up, so they all make sense in the form of an hour long story. After the August 2011 release, we are going to seriously think about doing larger live shows again and hope we can get another whole album out sooner than later.

Where can we buy the new CD available August 2011?

Black Swan Lane Store.
Black Swan Lane on iTunes.

Do you consider Black Swan Lane's music to be part of the current shoegaze & dream pop scene, or any scene? Defining one's sound by genre can be tiresome, but do you feel that the band identifies closely with any genre? How do you feel about genres in music, in a general sense?

I suppose you have to label and classify bands to keep some order in all the chaos, however, it is always a tough question to answer considering our approach to every record we make. Our attempt is to keep the listener engaged in each track until the very end of the song and also to make the entire album interesting and approachable for everyone, not just a select few. Our songs definitely have some shoegaze influences, but also have many different styles. I typically call our music Manchester Alternative Rock. It all started in Manchester, right?

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dreampop/psychedelia artists, any

The modern stuff I’m hearing definitely has feeling and emotion, but it seems to lack focus and direction. There is a sameness to a lot of it and I purposely ensure that we don’t pigeonhole ourselves into that. I think the best stuff I’ve heard lately is Exit Calm.

What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?

Ironically, a lot of the guitar effects on the last three albums were done with a Rock tron Chameleon rack mount processor. I love making my own signature effects for vocals and guitars but try not to overdue it too much. We have an amazing mixer, Jeff Tomei, who worked on the first Smashing Pumpkins record, who also does an amazing job with the overall sound for the songs. I would feel naked, however, without my lexicon reverb& delay mounts while recording in the studio...

How do you feel about the state of the music industry today? There is no doubt a massive change underway; how do you see it and do you feel it’s positive at all?

The only positive I see is the fact that it is easy to cross oceans these days. The immediate gratification is cool when you see the response of your music from around the globe and fans can reach you quickly to let you know how they felt when they listened to you. The obvious negative is the fact that the Internet is out of control and we have seen our stuff hijacked many times over. The music industry as a whole is still terrible. The majority of popular music that continues to be highlighted by the media makes me want to take a bat to my stereo at times. The few great bands with any talent that sneak through with a major label, typically wind up with nothing or more often than not, owe the record company money by the end. We own the rights to our entire catalogue and have our own publishing company, Wanderland, and we will most likely keep it that way.

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?

I still have an extensive vinyl collection and fond memories of buying them and from time to time, I’ll throw a copy of the Beatles on or some Lucy Show, Bauhaus or Dead Can Dance. I love the deep sound and depth of vinyl. I first heard Swamp Thing by the Chameleons on vinyl and almost fell apart. I would love to hear what BSL would sound like on vinyl, but we have never done it. The shipping wouldn’t be practical or ideal. I like cds and hope they stay around for a while, but I think music will be going to usb drives shortly, which will be unfortunate.

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?

I first learned to play the drums when I was six years old to the Beatles records at home, so I would have to include them. I started writing my own songs shortly after hearing the Chameleons UK for the first time and attempted to teach myself the guitar and piano. I’m still learning. The bands that influenced Black Swan Lane the most are: The Sun and The Moon, Kitchens of Distinction, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins and Joy Division.

Can you tell us a little about what you are currently into (books, films, art, bands, etc)?

I’ve gotten into boating lately. Well, not really. I simply enjoy sitting on the boat, at the dock, writing music. I even tried setting up a secondary studio out there, but it didn’t work out very well. I’m down to a guitar and a small Olympus digital recorder to put ideas down into. A lot of the songs on the last two records were written in the middle of winter on the lake in Georgia, watching the steam rise off the water. I’ve also just purchased my first Mac, so I’m learning the ins and outs right now, especially the video production side of it. I’ve been listening to Black Swan Lane tracks over and over for the last year to ensure they are album worthy. The only other bands I’ve listened to in the car lately are the Doves, Boxer Rebellion, Elbow and some classical pieces by Chopin.

If you had to choose one Black Swan Lane track that was the ultimate definition of your sound, which would it be and why?

Way too hard to do. . . The track that seemed to have the most impact and that has meant a lot to people is "Only I Will Miss" off the album, Things You Know and Love. It is a slower track, but it has a lot of simple beauty and was one of those perfect tracks that came together quickly. "In The Ether" was the easiest and most basic track we ever did and that’s the one that winds up in a major motion picture(Adventure land). My favorite tracks that exemplify BSL are "Leave Me Helpless", "Things You Know and Love", "Adeus" and "Low". "Low" is on the newest album, Staring Down The Path Of Sound.

Black Swan Lane. Only I Will Miss.

Can you tell us a little about the band’s songwriting process?

John came by the studio last year to listen to a demo I did and said, “It’s a good thing you don’t know what you are doing.” He did actually enjoy that track and I’m still not sure if he was kidding or not. John and I try to find guitar chords, different tuning methods and patterns that are not typical or haven’t been done before. I’m the main writer, but each album is complex. I incorporate other band members into the songs based on their strengths. John has an amazing ear for things, so he has come into a completed song and made things a hundred times better. Other times, we simply add harmonies and guitar parts to existing demos. Some of the best songs we have created, however, have been together in a room on the floor with two acoustics, a piece of paper and a pen. Mark has a completely different process when writing together; we typically have to watch an English soccer match first.. Some of the best times of my life were recording in the same room with Mark Burgess, Andy Clegg & Andy Whitaker. The first two BSL albums were definitely more experimental in nature and were done while completely under the influence. Our newest record coming out this August will be the first record done completely sober and level headed. At the very least, it will all be in tune.

What is the band’s goal for 2011?

Invent a time machine. Travel back 20 years and record the previous albums properly. Seriously…Obviously, John and I have always been the main fixtures in Black Swan Lane, and there have been 11 other incredible musicians involved in the recording process. I would love to put a solid, talented backing band together and do a US tour and then make it to the UK.

What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?

Surround yourself with happiness and try not to have a fucking heart attack.