Black Lab | Strangers No More

A good song is like an enzyme that gets injected into someone, mixes with what’s already there in their emotional body, and catalyzes a reaction—and the song flowers inside them.

I first heard of Black Lab when the song “Wash It Away” hit alt-rock radio back in 1997. The band had just released Your Body Above Me, its debut album on Geffen Records, and all was bright. The Bay Area band—created and led by singer/songwriter Paul Durham—was selected as tour support for Our Lady Peace on their high-profile Clumsy tour.
When Geffen closed shop the band jumped to Sony, but left that label before their second album, See the Sun, was released. Over their 15-year-and-counting career, Black Lab would release three albums and a stunning, two-disc B-sides album, as well as an electronica/remixes album, a collection of Durham’s songs from the 1990s, and a Durham side project called Cake or Death—this on top of the MP3-of-the-month subscription service. On the eve of Black Lab’s fourth proper album, Two Strangers, now seems the perfect time to chat with Paul Durham, singer/writer/musician extraordinaire.
In a world where getting signed is still considered the holy grail, you’ve had not one but two major-label deals. How were your experiences with each, both positive and negative?
My experiences on major labels are different than the experience someone would have today. The time at Geffen was great because they were behind our record right up until when they went out of business. The time at Sony was strangely corporate, not something I would like to do again. I don’t know how labels are today, but I can see why a new band would think they need to sign with a label because they’re starting from scratch. But actually, they’d be foolish to do so. They’ll end up screwed, locked into a contract with a company who probably won’t have the money to even put their record out, let alone promote it—the labels are so far in the hole, any smart bean-counter would shut them down tomorrow morning. Besides, it seems like even the bands on labels are marketing themselves. Look at Imogen Heap or the Blacked Eyed Peas. You think the labels are doing anything for them? So why would you put yourself under that big corporate thumb? Frankly, I would rather just go get a job done myself, than do what some label who is losing money every week wants me to do. It seems crazy, especially when these days you can do everything yourself without having to give them all of the money. The tools are right there; people just have to use them.
You’ve been self-releasing your material now for years. What benefits does that allow you over working with a label?
The benefits of self releasing are enormous, provided you know what you’re doing and that you are actually willing to do it. The benefits of working with the label is that they give you money and basically force you to do it their way. It puts you on schedule and structures your life. Since this is what most artists need, it makes sense that everybody’s shooting to get a record deal. But really, with some time management and discipline, you are able to make a living—with a lot less sleazy interference—by doing it yourself.
Your lyrics are often poetic, heartbreaking and relatable. Do you do any other writing besides songs? What do you want the listener to get out of your songs?
I do a lot of other writing beside songs. I do a lot of journal writing, prose poetry and what I suppose would be called essay writing. Sometimes I draw from this material when I’m writing lyrics, but mostly it just keeps the flow of language running, so when I need to write lyrics I can turn on the tap. I want to create songs that have deep and sometimes hidden meaning for myself. I want to reveal who I am and what I think about life, but I don’t want to reveal too much. I want to say what I have to say without pulling my pants down in public, as that’s not really my thing. I want the listener to get a sense of who I am, but I also want them to write on the blank page of the song. It’s not that I want the song to be blank but I want the song to be open in a way that the listener can enter into and bring their own interpretation to the music and lyrics. If the song is too literal than the listener is just a consumer, like in a country song where you just sit there and listen to the story and then it’s over.
Stories are good, stories are important, but I don’t think the three-minute song is the best format with which to tell a story. I think a song can reach deep into a listener in a way that no other format can and pull out of them a response, whether it’s an emotional response, a memory or a piece of narrative from their own life—and make that response incredibly powerful. So for me a good song is like an enzyme that gets injected into someone, mixes with what’s already there in their emotional body, and catalyzes a reaction—and the song flowers inside them. So what people are buying isn’t just the song; they’re buying the possibility of their own response to the song.
How much touring have you done?
I did a few years of touring and never enjoyed it. I think I could enjoy it now, but given the expense and the fact that I have a family it’s not something I’m willing to sacrifice for the same way I did back then. I play some acoustic shows now and then, and would like to maybe do some acoustic touring, but mostly I’m waiting for some kind of breakthrough with the band so that touring would really make sense, in terms of expanding our audience and not being a huge financial drain.
I’m assuming music isn’t your sole profession. What else do you do?
Actually, music is my sole profession. The other thing that I do is that I market music. This takes the form of online marketing and social media, as well as the visual design of the packaging and websites. It also takes the form of working with music supervisors and people at production houses to find a home for our music in TV, film, trailers and commercials. This not only provides income and keeps us making records, but it’s also the only form of mainstream media we have access to in terms of expanding our audience.
Do you think today’s ease/affordability of recording/releasing CDs—anyone can do it—is a good or bad thing?
I think it’s a great thing that anybody can record and release a CD. I think that it has vastly expanded not only the type of person who can make a record in terms of skill, but also I think it has expanded the audience for music. Because lots of different people can make music, now people are more interested in a much greater variety of music. Instead of just plugging into whatever your local radio station wants you to hear, you can find music anywhere in the world. My friends and I used to drive four hours to the record store in Salt Lake just to find something new to listen to, which is insane when you think about it now.
What’s the best lesson you’ve taken from your long career in music?
The best lesson I’ve taken from my long music career is that the music has got to come first. Everything starts with yourself as an artist, what you make, and the quality of what you make. Everything follows from there, whether it’s the recording process, live shows, marketing, getting a deal, whatever. The more people can focus on the quality of their work, the more opportunities will automatically open up. People getting record deals because they know somebody, because they have some connections or whatever—that’s a dumb myth. There are many, many people who have extremely good connections who don’t get record deals. People find an audience for their work because their work is great (or at least greatly commercial), so that’s where attention should be applied. | Laura Hamlett
For more on Black Lab, visit the band online, including a full discography and store. Whet your appetite for the new album with a free download of “Something You Don’t Know,” then preorder Two Strangers, out October 19.
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