Black Asteroid on Lessons From Prince and Visually Inspired Songwriting

Black Asteroid—the solo project of Bryan Black—was born out of his need to return to his industrial and techno roots. Beginning his music career as a sound designer and keyboard tech for Prince at Paisley Park Studios, he absorbed essential production skills that would later inform his choices in songwriting and sound placement.

After taking some time off from his touring band, MOTOR, Black wrote the track "Engine 1" under the name Black Asteroid and conceived the blueprint for what would become known as his signature sound: industrial techno.

Black Asteroid - Thrust

Through many successful releases on independent labels and major remix work for the likes of Martin Gore of Depeche Mode and Leonard Cohen, his music eventually found its way to fashion designer Rick Owens’ runway shows, ultimately leading to many collaborations between the two artists.

Rick Owens’ visual aesthetic paired with Black Asteroid’s music formed the foundation for the concept behind his first full-length effort, Thrust. Featuring beautifully designed packaging, including a black foam jacket, and spanning a multitude of tempos and moods, Thrust was a statement of artistic intent that went beyond merely the dance floor.

Reverb caught up with Bryan Black recently to discuss his unique approach to creating visually inspired music, and how a less-is-more perspective assists in crafting a distinct story with synthesis. For more information on Black Asteroid, visit his site here.

The name Black Asteroid, where does it come from? What’s the meaning and purpose to you?

I’ve always been fascinated by space, astronomy, and really intrigued by the entirety of what we don’t know about it. I wanted to start a project to touch on those themes, with more of a space theme.

I was in this band called MOTOR before, and, collectively, we decided to take a hiatus. Most of the group explored solo projects, and I did Black Asteroid. I had so much fun, I just never went back to the band. I made Black Asteroid my main project and I haven’t really looked back since.

The style of music that you work on with Black Asteroid, how did that come together?

When I started back in the ‘90s, I was into really raw techno, and I’d always wanted to go back to that sound—working with vintage machines from the ‘70s—making really raw, nasty, analog, heavy synthesis, and four-to-the-floor kick drums. Whatever I’m doing, whatever project I’m on, I always go back to this kind of sound: a raw synth and a kick drum. Revisiting that techno sound and not getting carried away with guitars, vocals, and live instruments—just get back to my musical roots with Black Asteroid.

Black Asteroid - "Engine 1"

What are some of the musical influences, then and now?

When I came up, I was in Minneapolis, but I actually spent a lot of time in Chicago on weekends, because this is where that industrial sound was coming from. This industrial dance sound was samplers, synths, and guitars—groups like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Nitzer Ebb—those kinds of bands inspired me, and they still do now, along with the harder-edge industrial stuff.

I do appreciate vocals and spooky haunting melodies—I like music to be accessible, but also challenging—I’m always trying to find this perfect spot.

I know that you spent some time cutting your teeth at Paisley Park doing sound design with Prince. What are some of the more poignant lessons or techniques you learned during your tenure that have stayed with you throughout the years? Things you continue to employ today?

I think it was Prince’s work ethic that really inspired me the most. He was in it for the love of music. We would be rehearsing the live band, recording in the studios, and making videos in the afternoon. Then, when everyone was tired and wanted to go to bed, he would decide to do a six-hour live show for thirty locals.

His work ethic and his ability to apply himself across all different mediums and spectrums, from doing live shows, rehearsals, and videos, to songwriting for himself and for others. All of this, in the span of a day’s time. It was truly magical being around him.

What inspires you?

I get a lot of inspiration from visual references—architecture, fashion, and art. I will often have a folder of images on my desktop. Sometimes, I’ll watch a movie on mute and then try to create a soundtrack to the image I’m looking at. So, I get a lot of inspiration from visuals, as I was a visual artist up until I started DJing.

I find that visual stimulations are quite intertwined with music—I have a hard time separating the two. I don’t tend to go into the studio unless I know what I want to do. I’ll have an idea in my mind of the song I want to do and I’ll go in the studio. I don’t go in the studio and jam—I rarely do that—I go in the studio, and I kind of know what I want to do, and I’ll do it—that’s how I work.

Black Asteroid - "Black Acid"

That seems to be a more efficient use of time, when you kind of have a conceptual idea walking in. How do you know when to keep an idea, or when to scrap it?

If an idea is really good, it usually comes together quickly, I would say within an hour. So, if I’m struggling with something for more than a half hour, I’ll just scrap it and move on. The best songs I’ve done, they’ve kind of come together within like an hour or two. I also find that the best ideas are the ones using the fewest elements.

I try to make a good song with eight tracks or less—like a lot of good albums are made on eight tracks, or sixteen track tape machines. There’s no need to have 600 tracks of audio going. I always try to make the most with the fewest amount of sound instruments.

What’s the best creative situation for you?

I like to work in my home studio. I’m not one of these people who writes on airplanes or hotel rooms. I like to be in my environment, in my studio, and I tend to work in the day now. I still write at night, but I work in the day with black coffee and I’ll just work all day. That’s where I’m most comfortable, at the moment.

I know you do collaborations, somewhat often—what are your parameters for accepting these?

I try to work with people who bring something, or provide something, which I’m maybe not able to. I’ll choose vocalists who can really sing, or sing in a style which I can’t. On my album, I collaborated with Zola Jesus—who can sing gospel—she has the most amazing vocal range, and I wanted to see what that would sound like on a techno record. I just try to work with people who inspire me, who have a skill which I don’t.

Black Asteroid feat. Zola Jesus - "Howl"

Give us a little bit of background on how you learned music production.

When I started, I was self taught—I just had a mini keyboard, a sequencer, and a sampler. I was using Cubase as a DAW, and Ensoniq samplers. I would go into the studio, or a friend’s studio, and I would just noodle around on the synths and record it to tape. Then I would sample the tape and I would trigger the samples in my sequencer, and that was how I worked for a long time.

Technology is better now, so I’m doing a lot of inside-the-box with Logic Pro. At the same time, I have some modular synths as well, and I’m still sampling some analog stuff, but I’m able to do a lot more now inside the box than I could ever do before. Plus, now I have control over everything such as automating and total recall. I’m really happy with my Logic setup and a few modular synths.

What’s the biggest production challenge you’ve overcome?

I have to remix for people like Korn or Leonard Cohen and there’s just so many instruments—harmonic and melodic content going on—trying to make that robotic and make sense in my world is really a real challenge. Those are the most challenging things: remixing live bands and pop artists.

Any particular techniques over the years that are go-to utilities for your everyday work?

I pretty much design all my own sounds. The only presets I might use are 808 and 909 drums from Battery—but more or less, I design all my sounds. My favorite synth is the ESX inside of Logic Pro—I will sit on that thing all day and make sounds and that’s like my main sound source—that’s like my secret weapon, the ESX.

During your tenure at Paisley Park, it’s been mentioned that you did sound design for Prince. What does sound design mean to you? What’s your perspective on the general idea of designing sound?

I think it’s such a large range you can do with sound design. Like, as a rock band, you’re limited to four instruments, but with a synthesizer you can mix a wide range of sounds, and I really like to get those alien sounds. I always go for the most alien, original, unique-sounding samples. I like to make a soundtrack within the song—synth songs that really speak, that have something to say.

Black Asteroid feat. Michele Lamy - "Tangiers"

When you say the word "alien," can you describe with a few adjectives, what that means? What does that sound like?

Sounds where they’re a bit dangerous—you don’t know where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do—a bit ominous and they just kind of give a little tension to the song.

What are your must-have instruments?

I guess my favorite instruments right now are Logic Pro, the ESX in Logic, and my favorite analog synth is DPO, my Make Noise modulars. I also really like Reaktor—you can do quite a lot inside there.

The new album, Thrust—tell us about that.

I compiled the songs on Thrust from 2012 til now. A lot of them are new songs, but I also chose some early ideas, and I wanted to present a ten track album that you could listen to at home. I didn’t want to make a club record—some songs I chose were experimental, some ambient, and some more poppy. I wanted to show a range on the album, so that was challenging.

Black Asteroid feat. Cold Cave - "Black Moon"

The design of the album, the 12" LP, is absolutely beautiful—the foam case and everything is just gorgeous. Were you working with a designer, did the label suggest this, or how did that happen?

Thank you. I have done some music for this fashion designer, Rick Owens, so I had been working a lot in that whole world, and through that, I met people who make physical objects and other mixed-media designers, and I gravitated to them.

The foam was made by a jewelry company in Bali, based in Paris, and we came up with the idea to make a foam sleeve for the LP. Then, Rick Owens helped choose and put together some images for the artwork. It just came together and was really a collaboration with people in the fashion world, in regards to the actual physical record.

Being a visually minded and inspired artist, how do you mix these aesthetics through technique and partnerships to create final products?

Well, it’s quite easy, because the type of fashion that I’m following, it goes very well with my musical technique. Rick Owens aesthetic and techno, they kind of go hand and hand, so it’s not so hard for me to make the music and put one of his images on the cover, and it just works.

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