It has been noted with great regularity that millennials will be the last generation to remember life before the internet. Josh Kolenik, a millennial who has spent the past decade and then some fronting the New York-based synth pop band Small Black, is one of the many in his generation who share a restlessness fueled by the disconnect between virtual life and reality.
“I kind of spent my whole life trying to get out of Long Island, and then, I made it like 20 miles away to Brooklyn and live in the neighborhood where my grandma grew up,” Kolenik says. “It’s not what I would have expected — I always thought that I would go to California or Europe or something. I grew up with these stories of my dad hitchhiking everywhere from the ages of 16 to 23 and living in these cave communes. I guess I kind of expected that same life for myself and that’s not how it’s worked out.”
The idea of travelling the world in between blue collar jobs is a deeply nostalgic one for many Americans. It may also be naive. As the best paying jobs continue to pool in high-priced urban centers, and the monetary and environmental costs of travel grow more expensive, it’s easy to feel stuck — especially when you’re sheltering in place and scrolling through the perfectly curated lives of celebrity influencers.
Kolenik eloquently captures the dislocation and discontentment of this liminality in his band’s latest release, Cheap Dreams, an album that masterfully combines ambient soundscapes with narratives of longing and reflection.
While Kolenik is rooted in Brooklyn, his oeuvre is anything but rootbound. Small Black was a pioneering force in the early 2010’s chillwave movement. Along with Neon Indian, Washed Up, and Toro Y Moi, Kolenik and Co. merged hazy electronica vibes and lo-fi recording tactics to create a sound that is now synonymous with the indie music “blogosphere.”
With streaming services omnipresent and poptimist music outlets championing major recording stars at the expense of smaller acts, Small Black can lay claim to being of the few remaining groups that rose to prominence with the help of human music critics, as opposed to computerized algorithms.
Over their career, Kolenik and Small Black have outstripped the confining labels of the chillwave genre, evolving to become full-on indie pop masters. Cheap Dreams, the band’s first album in six years, is a testament to that growth.
Containing an array of whooshing synths and gleaming guitars, the songs on Cheap Dreams feel both dystopian and inspirational — evoking images of sprawling cityscapes lit up by skyscrapers at night and of vast preserves of sun-washed natural vistas.
Each song on Cheap Dreams acts as a vignette of sorts — a singular narrative that also fits into the general thematic arc of the record. Tracks like “Postcard” and “Cheap Dreams” tell their own story, but they also feel like different stages of a longer passage into regret and ruefulness. “Postcard” in particular captures the yearning for a larger life, encapsulated by Kolenik’s doleful observation that “This is where we live/nothing we can do about it.”
The album is full of melancholy, but it never slips into bitterness. Even a line like “Keep on your cheap dreams” is spoken more with defiance than self loathing. It is the sound of a band with a restive sense of place — one that formed in an insular world filled with outsized hype and that has emerged as a dependable, stable outfit.
In many respects, the longevity of Small Black comes as a surprise. Started as a bedroom recording project, the band has maintained the same lineup — Kolenik, guitarist/keyboardist Ryan Heyner, bassist/keyboardist Juan Pieczanski, and drummer Jeff Curtin — for more than a decade, which is no small feat for any group, let alone one that essentially started as the brainchild of one person. Although Kolenik writes all the lyrics, the music is composed in democratic fashion, a setup made easy by the simple fact that, after all these years, the guys still like each other.
“I mean, these are my best friends in the world, and we’ve experienced so much together — weddings, babies, traveling — everything,” Kolenik says. “At this point, it’s so hard for me to even think of collaborating with anyone else. A band is not a band unless everyone is contributing, and I think that’s what has helped keep this together for so long.”
That kind of stability is probably what kept Kolenik in one place for so long. Brooklyn may not be the exotic locale that Kolenik dreamed about, but it’s an absolutely hallowed place in the realm of indie rock (seriously, you could not list the influential bands to emerge from that breeding ground on 10 sheets of paper), and he’s grown into something of an elder statesman in a place where so many others have left (not to California or Europe, but often just down the road to Philly.)
“So many DIY spots have dried up here and all the places where kids used to play house shows are gone, so Brooklyn has definitely changed,” Kolenik says. “But I’m a bit older now, so I’m not living with three other roommates and going to those shows all the time anyway. And I know everybody here — I walk around, say hi to tons of people and I love that about Brooklyn. I guess I do feel like a real New Yorker now. That imposter syndrome isn’t there anymore.”
Kolenik still has thoughts about moving — his sister lives in Southern California and he might try to live closer to her — but nothing seems imminent. That might be for the best. It has been expounded upon many times before that the ubiquity of the internet — where music can be zipped across the globe seamlessly — has made the impact of local scenes obsolete, so Small Black still being deeply associated with Brooklyn feels like a real good thing.
In “Tampa,” the stirring opening track of Cheap Dreams, Kolenik grapples with the idea of settling permanently in one spot, posing a candid inquiry to himself — “Maybe it’s enough to be here?”
That question could be applied to a relationship, a place, a state of mind — really anything. But by sticking together and staying around, Small Black has answered that being “here” is good for them, and we are all the better because of that.
Small Black, with Korine, 8 p.m. Tuesday, the Independent. $20; theindependentsf.com.