“At the time, it felt like everyone we knew there was doing really different stuff, there were a lot of creative people,” Jeff Curtin, Small Black drummer and CC ’04, said, reflecting on his experience with the music scene at the University.
The four-piece group has a distinct sound, with earlier albums more reminiscent of chillwave, moving toward low-fidelity sound with an emphasis on synth beats and soft, dreamy vocals that can be traced back to their 2013 album “Limits of Desire.”
The band’s third studio album, “Best Blues,” released in October of this year, shows experimentation with stronger synths and high fidelity, producing a more electronic-heavy sound while maintaining a mellow ambience and poetic lyrics.
This organic approach to creating music has been a signature of Small Black since the band’s early days, when the members would play together after hours in a post-production studio at The Brill Building.
Curtin and bassist/guitarist Juan Pieczanski, CC ’05, met a Phish concert in 2001 when they were both Columbia students. Both turned out to be from Washington, D.C. They later met lead vocalist/guitarist Josh Kolenik and guitar/keyboard player Ryan Heyner through a mutual friend of Curtin’s.
“We started recording together immediately—it was something we were always interested in,” Curtin said. “I was studying music and also computer music at Columbia, so we had access to the studios in Prentis Hall. … It seemed like a developing program, but it was really good at the time, and they gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted.”
Curtin and Pieczanski described a thriving music scene at Columbia in the early 2000s, with plenty of interactions between bands through playing at social functions or having to fight for a limited amount of practice space.
“We played in a party band together, we would play different parties—it was us and a rotating group of other musicians,” Pieczanski said.
“We played at frat parties, keggers, and it was kind of a dance jam band,” added Curtin. “We were called just ‘The Party Band,’ no real name. We did play a few official functions in Low Library and other places, but mostly, we were just playing parties.”
Both Curtin and Pieczanski also played in other bands.
“I had a band in college called ‘Oxytocin,’ like the chemical, and we played shows,” said Curtin. “The other bands at the time, just to give you an idea of what they were called, Zach’s [Zachary Mexico, CC ’02] band was called ‘Super Lucky Cat.’ … There was another band … where the singer would blow fire using Bacardi 151.”
Many of the Columbia bands, Curtin and Pieczanski’s included, would also throw concerts in the Lerner Hall Party Space or the basement of West End Lounge, and also played at various venues in Brooklyn.
Other notable alumni musicians from this era include the band Vampire Weekend and Tristan Perich, CC ’04, a visual and keep one-bit electronic sound artist who went on to enjoy considerable success after graduating.
Curtin was also a sound engineer for Vampire Weekend’s second album, “Contra,” and provided some of the African drum beats for the song “Cape Cod Kwasa Kwasa.”
To wrap up their most recent tour, Small Black will be playing at Brooklyn bar and music venue Baby’s All Right, owned by Billy Jones and Columbia alum Zachary Mexico.
As a further testament to the interconnectedness of Columbia’s musical scene, even post-graduation, Curtin keeps in touch with Vampire Weekend and has played with the band on a couple of occasions.
“It’s pretty amazing how many people from our classes during that time at Columbia are involved in music and arts right now,” he said.
Small Black will be performing at Baby’s All Right on November 20-21.