Photo courtesy Bjorn Copeland
A cold rain breaks out as I walk towards the Bushwick studio of Black Dice guitarist/ visual artist Bjorn Copeland. Reaching for an el Diario to deploy as umbrella, I realize it’s a fitting gesture. “I’m making most of the work off of shit I find walking to the studio,” Copeland tells me as we sit in his space, a disarray of papers and things most people would pass by on the street. For Copeland, it’s the raw material he uses to reinvent his world, as at a recent show at Jack Hanley’s San Francisco gallery. “I like the idea that by making all these things out of the neighborhood detritus, it paints an alternative potential portrait of the area.”
As a boombox crackles with a classic rock station, we discuss how the audio terrorism of his long-lived band Black Dice coincides with his visual assaults.
How was the San Francisco show?
It was a little different from previous shows in some respects. We had done a lot of touring this year and financially, I wasn’t in a place to buy new materials. I use a lot of recycled material anyway because I really like making decisions based on decisions someone else has already made and seeing how you can change that. Things like the text, the graphic decision, that stuff would stay. I did some collages that were rebuilt cereal boxes, where all the information was still there, but taking turns with it.
It felt nice to go back to a really basic way of working and remove elements and replace it so that the overall meaning was changed, but it still read like a piece with commercial purpose. I went for more simple gestures rather than relying on super-obsessive-compulsive details, which I’ve tended to rely on. I wanted to something a little bit looser and in some ways, it’s like making Black Dice music.
Photo courtesy Bjorn Copeland
For the album you guys released this year, Repo, it felt like you guys re-positioned how you appropriate material for making your own music. It felt very “sample-heavy,” and in that way it echoed how you work on your own visuals. And the art booklet that came with it really reminded me of old school punk rock art: sloppy, crude photocopy-based collage.
My brother Eric and bandmate Aaron (Warren) did a lot of that work and it was really exciting. I like that they are able to do things that have their own personality and sensibilities in it. There’s a Dice umbrella over whatever we do, be it art or video or music.
In a weird way the record was a throwback to a bygone time period for us musically, trying to remember the things that used to make us excited about playing music to begin with. These days, I don’t use the computer to find out about music. I’m sure it’s great and all, but one of things I liked growing up and discovering music was how you felt that you were putting the pieces together to find out about the underground. Maine was isolated. To find out about stuff was challenging. Those old Sonic Youth records were what kept my interest in visual arts as well. Same thing with the hardcore band Men’s Recovery Project, those records were one “fuck you” after another. It was an insult to humanity rather than to you personally. That sort of shit became inspiring, that the visual component could affect what someone was hearing.
Were there any other bands you thought of from that time period?
The stuff that I would talk about during these sessions was underground music from the eighties and nineties, bands like Butthole Surfers, Camper Van Beethoven, Meat Puppets, Flaming Lips, where you could tell that the main thrust of what they were doing with this band wasn’t to have hits, so there was a lot of playfulness to the way they did things. No one was trying to latch onto some scene. We’ve been doing Black Dice for so long now that we get to do whatever we want. And all of us are old enough to realize that young people can romanticize the scene and movements.
We didn’t want Repo to seem like every little thing was labored over. We liked that we could be pretty crass and not be precious about it. If we showed these little snippets and let them ride, we kept them in there and hoped it would have a cut’n’paste sort of feel, pre-computer. At this point, Black Dice for me is really responsible for me continuing to make stuff; it always gave it a purpose when I didn’t have any other purpose.
Has your art career paralleled the band’s trajectory?
The economy has certainly hurt the art market. It’s been awhile since I was selling as much as I used to. The band is one of the few things that serves as an outlet. They are similar in a lot of respects.
People paid more attention to my visual stuff because it was in a band that had some art world cache (Ed. Note: in the early ’00s, Black Dice collaborated with artists Doug Aitken and Richard Phillips on two notorious shows). It seemed like an easy selling point for people. What I liked about making the Black Dice record covers was that you knew it would take on a bigger life than you could envision, beyond a gallery in Chelsea. It seemed to be your own forum.
For albums like Broken Ear Record and your gallery pieces from that time period in the mid-’00s, I recall how you deployed material from magazines like High Times and Hustler and inverted those telltale visuals in this playful yet perplexing way.
I like getting to that point where you can, in your mind, detach the function of this object and work from that new perspective. And I really like being able to work with anything. When I was working with nudie parts, it had more to do with making music with the same parts that power electronic bands had used, but not subscribing to the brutality of such sexual fare, like bondage and S&M. Classic records of that sort had that and it was fun to do a more “pop” version, but with the potential to remain disturbing, even if it wasn’t based on a sexual subculture.
After doing Black Dice for so many years, to where you now watch bands crib from your early explorations, do you ever feel unappreciated or discouraged by it? What keeps you continuing the project?
Our band is confusing as hell to so many people, but it’s the only thing that keeps me sane in this one way. Unlike the world outside, you feel like you fully understand the logic and the dynamics going on in the room and where everyone is coming from. It makes perfect sense, even when it’s the weirdest, most confusing piece of music. Visually, I look to do the same thing. I like being surprised. I’m not happy if something comes out the way I anticipated it.