Blank Dogs
New Tricks
by Stephen Slaybaugh

When Blank Dogs emerged a few years ago with a flurry of 7-inch and cassette releases on labels like Hozac, Sacred Bones and Woodsist, no one knew who they, he or she might be. While that air of mystery might have held some allure, the real attraction was the home-recorded post-punk revisions. Eerie, minimalist textures combined with vocals sounding like they were sung from the edge of the world made this music devoid of time or space.

Mike Sniper, former bassist for the DC Snipers, eventually revealed himself to be the man responsible. Putting together a band to play live and releasing last year’s Under and Under double-album, as well as starting up the Captured Tracks label to release his own and other artists’ work, slowed the outpouring of releases. Thus, when he put out the Phrases EP earlier this year, it seemed like ages since we last heard from the Blank Dogs, when in fact it had been less than a year. Still that record hinted at a shift in the Blank Dogs aesthetic, with noisier elements now replaced by a new wave of immaculate synth tones. That emphasis has carried over to Land and Fixed, the new Blank Dogs full-length, on which oscillating synths and brighter vocals penetrate the once cloistered cadence.

Sniper has finally settled on presenting the Blank Dogs as a three-piece live and taken the show on the road. He was in Europe the week of the Land and Fixed’s release, but I caught up with him via email.

How purposeful was being anonymous and what were your reasons behind that? Was it just a matter of not defining who and what Blank Dogs were or were you perhaps just wanting the music to speak for itself?

Mike Sniper: It kind of took on a life of its own. At first I was anonymous because no one cared, so it didn’t matter. I never really tried all that hard to be mysterious. I just wasn’t plastering myself everywhere and taking credit for anything. There’s enough of that going around now. Musicians talking about their new sunglasses on Twitter, who cares?

You’ve said that you're “more of a band now.” Does that refer to the making of Land and Fixed or did you record the album on your own again?

MS: The instrumental, “Elevens,” is pretty much a collaboration with Craig (Mileski), who plays in the live band. Recording with the other two members is something I want to do more of while keeping at least 50% of the recording to myself.

Did you always envision Blank Dogs becoming a “proper” band or was there something specific that necessitated playing live and having a band to do the things bands do?

MS: Well, it kind of evolved from a four-piece with a drum machine to a five-piece with live drums to the new slender three-piece, which I think is the best line-up for what we’re trying to do. I want it to be fragile and weird and not garage-y or too rock-ish, sound a bit different from a typical night out to see a band.

Is the fact that you are touring indicative of being happier about Blank Dogs as a live band?

MS: Yes, definitely. We’re never going to be a powerhouse live band a la Thee Oh Sees or anything—I think that wouldn’t make sense. But I feel like now we’re projecting the music the right way in terms of the recordings and what it should be like.

Has Blank Dogs becoming a live act changed the way you approach recording?

MS: No, not at all. If a song can’t work live it’s still going to go on the record if I think it fits and is up to snuff.

You’ve said in the past that you don’t spend too much time laboring over each song. Is that still the approach?

MS: No, I’ve definitely changed a bit, at least from a mixing perspective and from trying to obtain some clarity. Committing ideas to tape as quickly as possible was the game at the start, but I’ve done that already and it’s time to make more space.

How do you know when a song is done?

MS: Sometimes I don’t. It’s good to walk away for a day or two and listen with new ears before you add too many layers.

Given that you aren’t putting records out with the same frequency, are you more selective about what you are releasing these days?

MS: Yeah, there’s a ton of unfinished songs that aren’t ever going to be finished and some finished songs that will most likely never see the light of day from the recording sessions of Land and Fixed.

Is the improved sound quality indicative of better equipment? What did you use to record Land and Fixed? What about for the older stuff like, say, “The Doorbell Fire” EP?

MA: That was recorded on a Tascam four-track. But Under and Under was recorded on the same equipment. It’s just learning more about mixing and being more open to veer away from distortion and try to create a more sophisticated sound.

The synths seem more prominent and elaborate on the new album, as well on Phrases. Are you more interested in that element of the sound?

MS: There’s been synth from the beginning, but I became more interested in drum machines and sequenced basslines as a way to write. Cymbals kind of went out the door in an effort to make everything tighter and have the sounds not collide as much. There’s very few if any cymbal sounds other than a tight electronic hi-hat.

I think “Out the Door” is perhaps the closest you’ve gotten to recording a traditional pop song. Was that the intention?

MS: No, not really. It became one by accident.

Was there any overarching ideas that you had for Land and Fixed?

MS: The only real idea I had is to make a “headphone album,” mixing it like that.

I talked with Shayde from the Fresh & Onlys recently, and he said that they went into a studio to keep from repeating themselves. Do you foresee eventually utilizing a studio for the same reason or are there things you currently do to keep from being redundant?

MS: Well, that makes sense for the Fresh & Onlys because they’re a proper band. I don’t know what a studio would offer Blank Dogs. Micing amps and having a loud room for drums—it’s not what we’re about. We’re quiet.