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Getting to Know: Big Black Delta

By Breanna Murphy; photo by James Moriarty on June 20, 2013


Getting to Know: Big Black Delta

Concerning the music of Big Black Delta, Jonathan Bates has an atmosphere for you to imagine.

“Smelling a strange lover’s bedroom for the first time. Or, you’ve just gotten away with something that would have ruined your life…and you just got away by this far; that moment when you drop the books and,” he breathes in deep, exhaling the next beat. “Either of those two things, I wouldn’t mind be associated with.” Becoming quiet again, powering down, as he does whether considering his next answer or waiting for the next query, Bates suddenly comes alive, giggling uncharacteristically, breaking the fourth wall of the interview. “My one weakness is that I take every question very seriously,” he admits, smiling.


Bates, the meticulous one-man machine behind the computerized pop of Big Black Delta, is soft-spoken, hesitant and self-professedly self-conscious, yet polite and articulate in his conversation; in person, he’s a specter of his energetic alter ego, the captivating, dapper figure that glitches and grooves across a digital dance floor in the music video for Big Black Delta’s “Side of the Road.” In that virtual universe, he’s shuffling and shaking his hips, in one moment singing soulfully and suggestively above pulsing rhythms and blitzing beats: “But just one/Is all I ever need/Just can’t give you up,” he laments; in the next, he’s stuttering and skipping in flashes to the opposite corner of the room, like a warped and worn tape stuck in between frames.

“I remember whenever I’d get sick as a kid, I’d lay in my parents’ bed and they’d put the Betamax in. And even then, it was the safest place on earth. It felt so fucking good and warm. So, whether it’s a heavy song or a love song or something in between, that’s what I’m always trying to go for; it’s then that you really behave like who you are, you’re not protecting yourself or doing your public face.”

The specific sounds and setting generated by Big Black Delta, a musical project born out of Bates’ 9-to-5-employment and wine-fueled hiatus from Los Angeles band Mellowdrone, benefits from its creator’s technical past. A Berklee dropout, Bates applies music theory and his love and appreciation for sound engineering and production to tweaking organic sounds into electronic ones. “I’m lucky that I did have musical training and I did study counterpoint,” he explains. “I do understand the registers of most instruments. But then I use that to my favor. I’ll use trombone samples, but I’ll use them four steps below its natural resonance so that they sound alien.”

The results on the forthcoming Big Black Delta debut LP (another incarnation was pressed in 2011 in an out-of-print 250-edition run) are nothing short of epic world-building: the beautiful, beat-laden “Huggin & Kissin” revels in shimmering, ’80s-indebted synths, while the LP’s closer “I Love You This Summer” is a fitting finale, slow and yearning nostalgia underneath a faded static filter.

Despite the broad eclectic spaces Bates creates, his methods for the project remain highly simplified and entirely self-contained.

“All the work that I’ve done in the last two years has been with a first-generation Apogee Duet that I got for free from a friend, a laptop, and…that’s it. I was just working with Susanne Sundfør a couple weeks ago and she was like, ‘This is it?’ I have to tell people ahead of time that it’s like…you’re gonna sit in my living room with my cat, we might smoke some weed and hang out. Because that’s all that’s required at this point. I really like that because as much as I do love engineering, it can get so in the way of a really simple, good idea. I highly recommend it,” he laughs.

Looking toward reflections of the strange, 21st-century digital landscape of our present culture—like the electronic, sci-fi universe of Tron (Bates remixed Daft Punk’s 2009 film soundtrack) or the fantastical, synth-y construction storytelling of M83 (with whom Big Black Delta toured in 2012)—Bates’ relationship with the technology at his fingertips and in his music is as a liberation, an extension of capability rather than a distraction from “real life” as we know it.

“My ultimate goal in life, not even artistically, is objectively to be truly separated from one’s ego and to be able to really look at a situation,” he muses. “Knowing all that stuff, I can back out and realize what’s important, or what’s cliché in the sense of protocol and what people think they need to do in order to make good art. And it’s just cutting out all the fat. I ain’t got the minutes, son, I ain’t got time for that shit. I just want a good idea. That’s the reason for living for me, to try and get there. Not that I’ve reached it yet, but to try. It’s just really cool to try to do cool shit, man, because who wants to be bored?” F



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This article is from FILTER Issue 52