Interview: Black Taxi

bill bodkin interviews what he believes will be your new band to listen to in 2012 …

Sometimes a band you never thought you’d dig captivates you. You can’t put your finger on it, you might even have problems putting it into words, but there’s just something about that band that entrances, enthralls and excites you.

Black Taxi, a New York rock ‘n’ roll group who’ll be celebrating the release of their second record, We Don’t Know Any Better, tomorrow at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC, is that kind of band. Their unique style described by some as “grit pop” or “dance punk” is this sweet amalgam of that raw, sweaty swagger of ’70s New York City garage rock with the underrated coolness of the subtly synth bouncy Brit rock of the ’00s (think Franz Ferdinand, The Kaiser Chiefs). It’s a sound that’s familiar yet inherently their own.

And after listening to them, it wouldn’t be a stretch for you, like many other journalists have already done, to put Black Taxi on two very short and prestigious lists — your new favorite musical discovery for 2012 and the next band from the NYC area to break out to the mainstream.

Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin caught up with Black Taxi’s Billy Mayo to talk about the band’s sound, growing up as a band and playing rock ‘n’ roll in New York City.

Photo: Michael Fiske

Pop-Break: A lot of people have tried to put labels and genre titles on Black Taxi’s sound like “grit pop” and “dance punk.” You guys have a very unique sound, but it has these elements and traces from a number of mainstream bands like Franz Ferdinand, Cake and Daft Punk. With that being said, how did you guys develop the concept for your sound? What or who influenced it?

Bill Mayo: It’s an organic process. We don’t sit around and talk about how we want to sound or who we want to emulate or anything like that. We mostly bring our own musical backgrounds and influences to the rehearsals and the writing sessions and just work from there.

We come from pretty different backgrounds, which is why we sound a little bit different. I listened to a lot of heavy stuff as a kid, but I also listened to a lot of technical things like jazz and I also listened to Phish and some far out stuff like Frank Zappa when I was a kid. But as for Ezra [Huleatt], the singer, he was always into more punk-type stuff. I didn’t care for punk until I met him, and he showed me what it was all about. So then we brought all things together. We found a few pieces of common ground — I had no idea he [Ezra] was into Steeley Dan and The Talking Heads and The Clash, and we found these points where we connected musically and it developed from there.

PB: What is it about Black Taxi’s sound that you love> I mean, love it so much that you want to make playing it your life’s work?

BM: It’s hard to say. To get to write music and perform it for people who appreciate it no matter what their background is pretty inspiring. That’s what keeps us going. Something that we’ve created is affecting someone. It’s something people can enjoy — it’s carefree stuff. We take the music really seriously but we mostly want people to enjoy it. That’s why we do it.

PB: To complicate that question a step further — what is it about Black Taxi that makes you love being a part of this band?

BM: A lot of it’s the live show. I get to do things that I wouldn’t get to do otherwise like if I was in my own solo project. Each member brings something to the band that I can’t do myself. When we’re all together, it makes the things that I’ve created sound so much better, and it brings to life the things in my head. To do that and play it on stage is just the best.

PB: This weekend you’re having your record release party at The Bowery Ballroom. Talk about your emotions going into such a big show like this, especially since you guys are a New York City band played a famed New York City venue.

BM: We’ve played The Bowery a couple of times, and each time it’s felt really, really great. It’s a place, when I first moved to New York, I started to see bands play at The Bowery Ballroom. That was a place that I felt if I could play there, then I would feel I was doing something right if I could play a place that reputable.

PB: We Don’t Know Any Better is your second full-length album. Can you talk about how Black Taxi has evolved/matured/grown up in the time between the release of the first and second album?

BM: It’s a hell of a lot tighter. We came out of a school of where we weren’t a party band, but we didn’t mind playing sloppy shows. As long as we were bringing energy to a show, we thought it was good. We’ve matured in a lot of ways, and one of the ways is we wanted the sound to be better, to be tighter, to be more mature, to be bigger. So we’ve focused on, for the past couple of years, making that work.

PB: This record was produced by Aaron Nevezie, who has worked with The Black Keys. What did he bring to the table for the second record as your producer?

BM: He did our first record as well. And when we did the first record it was basically the four of us, in a room, playing through the songs until we got a take that we liked. It was a very old-school approach, sort of a Beatles kind of approach — play your instruments and get a good take and do a few over dubs. It’s pretty raw, and that was great. It represented who we were at the time. We’re still a really raw band, but when we sat down for this record, we said we wanted to make this [new record] really tight and [capture the] danceability of our live show. So we had to take everything more methodically and take advantage of these new methods of digital production.

The last record was recorded on analog tape, and you’re sort of limited by that, but it’s interesting because it has its own sound. This time around, we used the standard ProTools multi-tracking type situation and a lot of effects. We embraced technology a lot more on this record. When we first sitting down to make the record, that Phoenix album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was a big inspiration recording-wise as how we wanted to make this album. We wanted it to be really tight, really thought through and just big=-sounding. After we recorded it, we listened back to it, and it still sounds like Black Taxi. It still sounds raw. It still sounds like a rock ‘n’ roll band, and that’s a good feeling.

PB: Did this new way of recording for you guys hamper or heighten the creative process on this record?

BM: Maybe the other guys would answer this differently, but to me, it heightened it. Actually, when we were writing the songs, we would leave whole sections of the songs blank and said, ‘Let’s just write that in the studio.’ In the studio, you have all these toys, all this technology — that you can mess around with and create something really special. If you go into the studio with something in mind, with a way you think something’s going to sound, you can be disappointed. You need to have an open mind, you need be open to the idea that things can happen on the spot and you’ll be much happier with the product. So we left these sections blank and just filled it in when we were there and created stuff on the spot. [We] used more synthesizers in the studio, more crazy instruments — out-of-tune pianos, crazy dulcimers, but also running those things through crazy effects and just creating something different and we embraced the fact that was going to happen.

PB: There were so many unique little elements, it shouldn’t have worked for me, but it really did. Those things really made the album special.

BM: We did hear the criticism that the songs were all a little bit different. But the people who care about us and care about our music like the fact we have different songs. We push boundaries, and people support us. Maybe we’re not going to be number one on Pitchfork because they’re looking for a certain sound and all the songs to sound one way. But we’re not the band and we’re never going to be that band. We have no interest in being that band.

PB: Since we’re in the iPood, Spotify, Pandora generation, where we live one download at a time, what would you say is the first song people should download of yours to truly get a taste of what Black Taxi is all about?

BM: It would be “Hand.” It showcases not only how important it is to us to be good musicians, it shows a little bit of musicianship, and the energy, vocally, is just outstanding. Ezra’s performance, vocally was just outstanding on that song. It’s the first time on record, to me, what Ezra does live has been recorded and captured the way I feel about how he performs live. It was recorded the way I want that to sound. It showcases the new synthesized elements we’ve brought to the table, it has a raw guitar sound and the bass is straight in. It’s just to me … that’s the one.

PB: Finally, what’s on tap for Black Taxi in 2012?

BM: Touring, touring, touring. As soon as we’ve got the record release, we’ve got Albany, Boston, Portland [Maine] and then we head down south. We’ve got five dates in Florida, New Orleans, dates in Texas, Chicago and Ohio. Everywhere but the west coast. A week after, we’ve got South By Southwest this year. Then it’ll be the west or U.K. after that.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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