Black Dog String Quartet (BDSQ) recently unveiled their single/music video, “Two,” a track lifted from their upcoming long-player, A Thousand Times Brighter, slated to drop on April 28.
As a group, BDSQ has recorded with 54-40, Marianas Trench, and Bleeding Through, while the group’s individual members have added their gifts to live performances by artists such as Rod Stewart, Kanye West, Sting, Michael Buble, Mariah Carey, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Video Games Live.
Recent performance highlights include opening for Sarah McLachlan at the SPC Global Conference, a concert with soprano Measha Brueggergosman at the Chan Centre, and an appearance at the Shambhala Music Festival.
They’ve been a featured ensemble at the Quartetti Festival of String Quartets, Sonic Boom Festival of New Music, and Classical Revolution Vancouver, and all four members play regularly with multiple symphony orchestras.
Tagged as chamber-pop, art-pop, or classical folk, BDSQ’s sound blends elements of classical music with a smorgasbord of other sonic flavors, resulting in singularly imaginative and deliciously wrought earworms.
Tattoo spoke with Black Dog String Quartet to find out more about the inspiration for A Thousand Times Brighter, how they got started in music and their definition of tone.
What inspired your new album, A Thousand Times Brighter?
John Kastelic: All of the songs on the album are my own compositions. The earliest ones got their start as far back as 2012, and the newest ones were started and finished during the first couple of years of the pandemic. I’ve been writing for my rock and folk bands for a long time, but there were always songs that didn’t quite fit into that format, so they sat in notebooks for a while. They wanted a more lush and intricate expression. I started by arranging two of them, ‘Rain and Shine’ and ‘Summer Song,’ for Black Dog String Quartet, and thought, ‘Hey, maybe this could turn into a whole album someday.’ BDSQ was picking up steam, collaborating with some great artists on some really cool stuff, and we thought it was time to make a record of our own, in collaboration with members of our music community in Vancouver.
Walk us through your mindset as you entered the studio to record the album.
Elyse Jacobson: All of us were excited and ready to get to work. It was a wonderful time.
JK: We really just wanted to make something beautiful, something that showed off the talents of the group. We had a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which gave us the tremendous gift of time. We had time to workshop the songs with all our guest artists, and we had time in the studio to take chances and try some different approaches.
Who is in Black Dog String Quartet and which instruments do they play?
JK: Black Dog String Quartet is Elyse Jacobson and Molly MacKinnon on violin, me on viola, and Doug Gorkoff on cello. We’re all classically trained, but we all bring different musical interests, and that’s a huge strength in our group.
Where and when did Black Dog String Quartet first get together?
JK: It started with a group of like-minded freelance string players in Vancouver in 2007, Elyse and Doug among them. A couple of the original members moved away over the years. I joined in 2010, and Molly joined in 2012. Most of us first met at the University of British Columbia, studying at the School of Music there, but we really got to know each other outside of school, while playing at gigs in Vancouver and across the province.
How does the quartet operate? As a benevolent dictatorship, or as a democracy where everyone has a say and contributes to songwriting?
JK: Our quartet has always been a group of friends, and good communication is one of our superpowers. We don’t always agree, but we try to make decisions by consensus.
EJ: It can depend on what we’re doing – sometimes one person will take the lead a bit more on a particular project, as John did with this album. I’m the manager of the group and that involves making executive decisions occasionally. However, John is right that we operate largely by consensus, both musically and administratively. This project is really the first time we’ve put together a whole program of pieces composed by a member of the ensemble. Usually, we’re playing other people’s music!
How did you get started in music?
JK: We all started playing music in different places, but we all started between the ages of five and seven. I was seven when I started playing. My mom said I needed to learn music and said I could play violin or piano. Both my older sisters played piano, so I definitely didn’t want to do that. I started on violin, but in my teens, I started playing viola. I liked the bigger instrument, I liked the sound of it, and I liked that there weren’t nearly as many people playing it. I auditioned at UBC on violin, but I negotiated a switch to viola when I arrived. Then before I finished my degree I switched again to major in composition and music theory. It was a whole adventure.
EJ: At age four I saw a violinist on ‘Sesame Street’ and was immediately captivated by the instrument. My parents put me in violin lessons the following year when I was five, and I think by the time I was 11 or so I knew I wanted to be a professional violinist. I did my B. Mus. degree at UBC as well, in violin performance. Doug started playing the cello at age five, studying with his grandfather. Molly started playing the violin at seven and is another UBC Music alum.
Did your sound evolve naturally, or did you deliberately push it in a certain direction?
JK: Classical music is our foundation. It’s what we play most often. We’ve been doing it for most of our lives, so it’s our musical home base. But we’re four unique players with our own unique interests. Between us, we’ve covered a lot of ground, from folk to jazz, to metal, to hip-hop, to fiddle, to different kinds of world music. Being eclectic keeps things interesting for us. A string quartet will probably always have a classical element to its sound, but in my songs, I think you can find elements of all those other genres and styles.
EJ: Absolutely, we are firmly rooted in the classical chamber music tradition. However, we’re an open-minded bunch, and over the years we’ve become known in Vancouver as a string quartet that is willing and able to branch out into other genres. I do feel it was kind of a natural evolution.
Are there any special recording techniques you use in the studio?
JK: We recorded the song ‘Thompson’ live off the floor with five string players (my brother Tony adding extra viola richness) and Naomi Kavka singing lead vocals at the same time. We also switched around the string quartet setup for a few of the songs. Usually, the two violins sit next to each other in a string quartet, but for some of the songs we wanted to highlight the dialogue between them, so we put them on opposite sides of the studio. You’ll hear that especially if you listen to the album with headphones.
What is your definition of tone? And has your tone changed over time?
JK: Tone is such a hard thing to describe in words! It’s so much easier to demonstrate. I think of tone as the ‘color’ I get from my instrument, and there are countless ways to vary it depending on how you use your bow or how you pluck a string. The next level up from that is combining different tones in the group to create new colors or textures. And then the tone of the lyrics can either reinforce those colors or stand in dissonance to them. Instrumentally, we tried to keep the tone on this album pretty natural, rich, warm, and lush – something that acoustic strings do well. I don’t think our basic tone has changed much over time, but I think our palette has gotten broader as we collaborate with different artists and different styles of music.
How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
EJ: Being prepared and adequately rehearsed, mostly! Consistency in performance is heavily emphasized in classical music training and practice, so it’s really built into how we work and always has been.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
JK: For all these songs, I was really driven to write for the individual players in the quartet. We all have different strengths, and I try to play to those. Doug holds down a mean rhythm. I let the violins duel out the lead lines a lot of the time. I give myself the oddball parts that I don’t want to bother explaining to anyone else. I also don’t like those roles to be absolute, so I try to mix things up and give everyone a chance to play directly with everyone else. The lyrics pull from all kinds of poetry, novels, life experiences, and my mental state at whatever time a song idea presents itself.
What can you share about your writing process?
JK: I hear some composers keep regular hours, writing for set amounts of time each day. I’ve never written like that, though it might be easier on me if I did. I write in fits and starts, often late at night. I chase ideas when they show up. All the music for the quartet is written out note by note over many, many, many hours. Some of these songs took 10 years to finish. This recording was a new experience because for a few of the songs we added drums, upright bass, and a brass trio, as well as guest singers. For the drums and bass especially, I brought ideas, but I gave the musicians lots of free rein. Dan Gaucher (drums) and James Meger (bass) are both monsters on their instruments, and I didn’t want to dictate what they played. I was also excited for Chelsea Rose and Naomi Kavka to bring their own spin to the vocal lines. All those musicians came up with their own twists that I never would have thought of, but which served the songs so well.
Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?
EJ: Oh boy, there are too many to name! My friend Jodi Proznick, the Canadian jazz bassist, is one who comes to mind. I’ve been listening to her ‘Jasmine Jazz’ album, which fuses jazz with classical Chinese music. Very cool and kinda right up my alley. Another project of hers was nominated for a Juno Award this year. We’re lucky to work with a lot of supremely talented people, so I really could go on and on.
JK: I listen to so many kinds of music, and a lot of it has been older music lately, so I feel a bit out of the loop just now! To pick a couple of things: lately, we’ve been listening to lots of Taylor Swift’s latest album at my house, and I’ve also really been digging Feist’s new release – can’t wait for the next full-length! In our own scene in Vancouver, Only A Visitor and Gentle Party have both released very cool albums recently.
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
JK: We shot a music video in the studio for our single, “Two,” and that has just been released earlier this week. We’ll be releasing the album on April 28th with a live show at The Ironworks in Vancouver. I’m hoping we can also organize a release show in Powell River, up the Sunshine Coast where I live. That might turn into a bit of a West Coast BC tour if everything works out. We’re all busy with our individual freelance schedules, so it’s hard to put a bunch of time aside for touring. But it’s always fun to take this group on the road. I’m already working on new songs, so maybe we’ll chase ‘A Thousand Times Brighter’ with some new singles.
Follow Black Dog String Quartet Website | Instagram | Facebook | YouTube