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Interview: Leigh Celent of Castle Black

Castle Black’s dense riff sequences and contrasting harmonic structures prove a competent force to take in. Based out of Brooklyn, New York, the alt rock trio comprises vocalist/guitarist Leigh Celent, bassist Lisa Low and drummer Matthew Bronner. In a relatively short span, they have already received critical acclaim from such publications as New York Music Daily, Indie Rock Café, and Indiemunity. Their exposure has thus far been accentuated with an AXS feature for their latest EP, Trapped Under All You Know, released back in August.

I caught up with Leigh to discuss her creative process, the band’s chemistry, as well as what she reflects about the time they’ve been together.

ME: What was it that initially drew you to the sound of grunge, or heavy alternative music in general?

Leigh: I know that people describe our music like that. It’s interesting because I don’t think we’d set out to have a grunge sound, or really any kind of descriptor that people use. But I did listen to a lot of different 90s bands at one point in time. It just kind of went that way; not like it was a planned thing.

ME: By the time you developed your sound, did you know you wanted to pursue music right away?

Leigh: Well, I actually got into music in kind of a non-standard way. I’ve wanted to play drums since I was six, but my parents were like, “No drums,” you know? I discovered it through dance. I was pretty much born to dance until I was in college. I think dance, as well as music through dance, is what helped my love of music in general, and just wanting to be around it.

When I became an adult, I lived in Europe at the time and didn’t go back to study drums at that point. I started on guitar, since that was easy in terms of apartment living, practice, and stuff like that. Then I studied that instrument as part of my training. So, my music had developed from a love of dance, and from writing a lot of poetry in high school. Once I started writing music, and using it as a performing piece, it all started to make sense.

ME: So, you ended up choosing guitar out of sheer convenience. Were you formally trained in guitar as well, or was it mostly a self-taught approach?

Leigh: Nope, I love instruction (laughs). I’ve had guitar lessons with my instructor, and I still go, you know? I love theory and that whole thing! But I do love the guitar. I mean, I like the sound of it, and string instruments. But yeah, that was from just deciding where I could practice, and what I could do besides drums. I did get back into drums a few years ago though, and I know more than I did then.

ME: In Castle Black, you not only lead the band, but manage it also. Is that right?

Leigh: Yeah. I prefer not to (laughs)! It’s just that I happen to be very good at organizational stuff, which is a curse in some ways, but you know, things have to be done. At the end of the day, I’d rather be writing music.

ME: It hasn’t been easy balancing both?

Leigh: No, not at all (laughs)!

ME: Aww, man! One over the other.

Leigh: Yeah, I mean, I do manage it. But right now, my dog has been sick the last couple weeks. Up until that point, it had already been stressful, because we’ve had the album coming out and there was just a lot to do, but then my dog got sick. With that added to everything, it gave me complete insight as to what was going on, but I felt really off-balance. The minute something in the chain goes awry, it can feel very heavy.

ME: On top of that, you also do photography. In some ways, do you perceive the colors the patterns in that medium similarly to how you would in music?

Leigh: Yeah, I think I do from a very visual sense as well – not just in photography, but as a lover of film, seeing the movies and having that matching song behind it. So, from a visual standpoint, it’s the same whether you’re watching a film and appreciating it, or framing a photograph. With music, I also see that visually – not so much color-wise, but when there’s a story, I see images in the words I create. It’s really important that all aspects of art blend together.

ME: Let’s talk about your new EP, Trapped Under All You Know, which had its release party at The Well. How was the response, and the party?

Leigh: It was fun! We practice right next to The Well, so we know the bartender and sound people. The management is also really nice and great to work with. We had played with Giftshop, Crowd the Airwaves, and The Litterbugs. Giftshop and Crowd the Airwaves were two bands we were on the same playlist with; they’re awesome. And The Litterbugs, we met at a festival back in July. All the bands were great, and it was just a really fun show to play.

ME: The EP was also featured on AXS! How was that experience?

Leigh: This was the first time we’d worked with a publicity company, Behind the Curtains Media, and AXS was one of their contacts. They’ve done so much for us. For me, that was actually super helpful, because I’d usually feel stressed with getting on smaller blogs and radio. But there was a huge pressure taken off of me since they were hired. Everything worked perfectly, and they did an amazing job.

ME: What I like about the music is your rhythm section, especially with the bass and guitar. The bass plays the harmony, rather than simply repeat the main melody. Do you feel that you guys gel particularly well?

Leigh: We do! Lisa’s our bassist, and we’ve played together for three or four years now in another band. Then when we lost our original bassist in Castle Black, I’d asked if she’d play and she ended up staying. It’s really cool because she doesn’t hear what a standard bass player would. I’ll play something on guitar, and she’ll hear it in her head, know what I’m trying to play, and come up with something by ear. She’s a singer as well, so she’ll come up with these harmonies. It’s not just what people are used to; she goes by what she hears, and I think that makes her a very unique bass player. It’s similar with her backing vocals too. Sometimes I’d hear a sound, and want one somewhere, and since we don’t have other instruments, she’ll make it with her voice.

ME: I also like how you begin writing what you believe to be a consistent blueprint, but then, you tend to veer into something completely different. Did you feel that approach took hold around the whole EP?

Leigh: You know, I kind of feel like we don’t veer too far. With the majority of songs that I write, I do the vocal melodies of each song in totality first. Then I ask myself things like, “What am I hearing on guitar?” and “Where can I repeat that?” I won’t really bring the song to the band until I could play it on guitar. I want it to be a song. A lot of times, it depends. I’ll have a song idea in parts, and then we’ll talk about when we get together, or we’ll both take it away, work on our parts and come back.

Sometimes, yeah, the outcome can be completely different at the end. But I think there are also times where I’d hear something so strongly that I’d written initially. And in the end, it comes out being replicated the way I’d heard it. There may be cool additions of course, but when I’d hear it strongly, it ends up going that way.

ME: Let’s talk about live performance. You have a string of shows within the next couple months. Last week you’d played Arlene’s Grocery, which focuses on up-and-coming acts, as well as karaoke. I get a sense that it’s an all-around inclusive place, especially for anyone looking to season their chops. Was that the kind of vibe you’d gotten from it?

Leigh: With that show, we had a really weird night. I was sick, the sound wasn’t great, and I had an issue with my pedal board. There were a lot of things going on. I’ve played Arlene’s before, but not in a few years. It was good otherwise. There are many venues these days that don’t favor the musician. As far as it being inclusive, I don’t know. A place like, for example, The Well, absolutely does, whereas I think Arlene’s focuses more on how many people each band brings. We’re in such a weird place in New York, where there are so many places that aren’t thinking about the musician. I’ve played in places that haven’t, that are only understanding of what you need to be in a band, but don’t actually help the band. So, that’s my whole thing about that.

ME: Is that what you’re particular about when choosing where you gig at?

Leigh: I mean, we’ve played a lot of places and have choices, but it’s really important that the venues care about an artist or band, as well as the other bands. If I’m going to work my ass off to bring our people out, and earn a great following and good money, I’m going to do that for someone who cares about us, and cares about building me. I don’t want to play those shows like we did in the beginning where someone who contacts you puts you on a lineup that makes no sense, doesn’t care about your music, and yells at you if you don’t bring in enough people. Some venues in New York that have been around are closing, but those that are popping up need to support their bands, or the whole scene’s going to die.

ME: You make a really good point. And the artists who were fostered by those venues need to support the venues equally.

Leigh: Yup, exactly!

ME: From the time you’ve been a band, what have you managed to take away from all these experiences?

Leigh: It’s really hard. A lot of the time, you have these thoughts like, “Am I really making progress? Am I doing anything? Who cares about our band?” Like when you do a show, you hope that the audience connects with you and that you make a difference for them. That’s what I tend to focus on, and what we as a band talk about together. We want to be critical of ourselves – I mean, we are super critical, but we also want the most out of those moments that keep you going, you know?

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Leigh: We’re shooting a video this weekend for “Seeing in Blue,” so we’re really excited about that! We’ll also be playing the Mondo Festival in New York, and then the Rock Stalker Festival right after that. A bunch of cool stuff is coming up, so come check us out!

Castle Black Socials:

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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