Big Black Delta Is Learning to Walk Away

Big Black Delta
© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Content Pool

The amazing thing about Jonathan Bates's wonderful music project is that he ever let it go.

On the final date of his recent US tour, Jonathan Bates, who performs as Big Black Delta, an electronic artist driven by pounding synth textures, lumbered into Glasslands, a club that’s one abandoned warehouse away from the East River in Brooklyn.

Big Black Delta, touring in support of his powerful and promising self-titled album, had just come from Philadelphia, by way of Boston, Washington, D.C., and a dozen other cities over 18 days.

“You caught me at the end of this run,” he said, sitting on a bench in the shadow of the club’s balcony, “so we’re all like completely zombified cause none of us has slept.”

Nevertheless, Bates still had the energy to compose. Pulling out an OP-1, a Japan-made synth that's a little bigger than a letter envelope, he explained he was working out the basics of a new song.

“I want to base it off that song ‘Orinoco Flow’,” he said, referring to the 1980s song by Enya.

For Bates, it was a long and winding road to electronic music. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study guitar. “I was one of those shredder kids,” he said. “I had the Yngvie Malmsteen video from Cherry Lane. Dream Theater was my favorite band growing up. Obviously Pantera. Zakk Wylde. Tony MacAlpine. Jason Becker.”

I found that my virtuosity on the neckboard didn’t transfer to ease of rocking out and having a good time. The better I got technically didn’t lend itself to me getting a band together and having a good time.

Anyone familiar with those ax gods will understand the sort of personal journey that must have taken place to segue into the kind of music Bates makes now, which is no less intricate than a Malmsteen outro solo but quite a bit more engaging.

Bates attributes that transformation to striking out on his own in his 20s, (“All of a sudden I had to listen to every piece of music ever, again”), the period in music of the time (“That was when ‘OK Computer’ came out”) and an appraisal of what he wanted out of music.

“Trying to put bands together,” he explained, “I found that my virtuosity on the neckboard didn’t transfer to ease of rocking out and having a good time. The better I got technically didn’t lend itself to me getting a band together and having a good time, which is what I always wanted, more than being the guy that teaches in a room and that’s the fastest guy in the world.”

Every song I have I go through such peaks and valleys and it’s usually an outside source that goes, ‘Let it go, dude.’ You know what I mean?

With his guitar on the shelf – temporarily, as he hints at some “swirling” in his upcoming project -- there’s another sound that Bates has become obsessed with: drums. Or, more specifically, the snare.

“I thought about it one day,” he said. “What is the sound that you hear in every Western popular song ever? It’s the snare. It happens every half second. The kick is too low to register. But the snare sits in the same register as the human voice in a lot of ways, between the two-and-four K [2,000-4,000 Hz] snap kind of thing. So I thought about it one day, and instead of having it like popping '90s style, you slide it down to more of the human register between 500 and [2,000 Hz] and all of a sudden it speaks to you. It’s saying a word instead of just a slap.”

He had more to say on the matter. “The snare is to me probably the most important tonal aspect of a song,” he said. “People call my shit ’80s. There’s nothing ’80s about it except the snare is pitched down. And that’s how powerful it is. You take a song that sounds like anything, but if you take a snare and put a little bit of reverb on it, then all of a sudden it causes an emotion. You can’t deny it. I don’t deny it. I’m not saying it’s wrong. But that’s the only little element.”

Bates’s attention to detail goes beyond songwriting. In addition to playing the instruments – on stage, he employs two drummers – Bates also mastered the album, yet another stage in which a song may sit and simmer. “I think I went through 17 mixes of it in different BPMs as well,” he said about one of the standout tracks on ‘Big Black Delta,’ called, ‘Betamax.’ The song started at 124 BPM. “It ended up being at 150,” he said.

“Every song I have I go through such peaks and valleys and it’s usually an outside source that goes, ‘Let it go, dude.’ You know what I mean? I’m getting better at it on my own now – to just walk away from something. But as we’ve been discussing, there’s just so much under the hood. It’s easy to get lost in it.”

Follow Richard S. Chang and Red Bull on Twitter for more updates.