Nishtha Banavalikar | March 11, 2022
Soft, dark and haunting. Kiwi artist Julius Black is back on the alt-pop scene with his latest EP, ‘Together We Go Down In The Dark’, an episodic visage of one’s descent into a toxic love-induced madness. With delicate instrumentals and harmonies backed by dark and confronting lyrics, the EP is a testament to Julius Black’s talent as an artist in his ability to create vivid, moving stories from his music. Black’s fixation on 60s melodies from the likes of the Beatles present familiar, deceptively bright instrumentals to an unarmed listener, allowing the EP’s darker lyrics and themes to take hold.
Farrago was able to interview Julius Black to get his thoughts on this release, understand his creative process, and delve into the themes in play on the EP.
Nishtha: Together We Go Down in The Dark is an incredibly sophisticated EP for a sophomore release. It’s cohesive, with powerful lyrics and delightful composition. What inspired the EP conceptually? What is the story you’re telling through the tracks?
Julius Black: I wanted to create an EP that had an overarching narrative. It brings you from the start of a bad relationship to the end. I love colourful lyrics and storytelling and I wanted there to be different themes and a journey through the songs. I was very inspired by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarentino from a young age, and I wanted this EP to feel conceptual and more like a movie than a musical project.
I became obsessed with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Todd Phillips’s Joker. I loved the idea of a descent into madness because of ego, or relationships, etc. I wanted the visuals and the music to feel that way. I think there’s something really sinister about having Beatles-inspired harmony mixed with dark lyrics.
This new release follows on from Black’s 2021 ‘Dopamine’ and recently released singles ‘Do You Still Dream?’, and ‘Boomerang’. While previous releases have erred on the side of melody-driven love songs, this EP fully gives in to ‘concept’. It’s a promising sign of the development and future of alt-pop – the intersection of artistry with genuinely enjoyable pop-influenced melodies.
N: This release has a different feel to it than previous ones – darker and more sinister as you’ve said. What’s different about this release? What’s changed for you since your last one; creatively, professionally, emotionally? Musically, what is in the future for you and where are you planning to go?
JB: I think creatively I just wanted to experiment. I did a deep dive on the Beatles because I grew up with their records and they are one of the reasons I started in music. I was also inspired by movies like Ocean’s 11 and Martin Scorsese-esque stories where the protagonist turns into a villain after a sequence of events. Professionally I really wanted to achieve more and more after my first EP came out and I had to put my ego and expectations in check because I put so much pressure on myself. Emotionally it was hard. I didn’t see my Dad for a few years because of COVID and that was difficult because I’m very close to him. I also got out of a relationship halfway through making this project. So I think I had all of that to work through and these are songs that I made during this process.
In the future I’d like to keep making the best I can, I guess. I’ve already started on the next project and I’m listening to a lot of Nirvana, David Bowie, Radiohead and UK sounding ambient/garage music. I have a bunch of really exciting concepts I want to try and experiment with.
The EP is largely characterised by its audioscape, with vocals almost rotating around the listener’s brain in certain parts – like the lingering words of a toxic partner. It’s a dizzying, delightful technique that shows the thought put into the production of the EP. The EP begins with track ‘Red Flags’, a simple yet somehow devastating opening to this tale of a toxic relationship. We then move onto ‘Do You Still Dream?’, an upbeat song lamenting over the downwards developments of a relationship. ‘Boomerang’ follows, bringing us down from our tentative high and shoving us hard into the ground through another deceptively simple track about being unable to let go. ‘Together We Go Down In The Dark’ is certainly the standout track from the EP and well-deserving of the title space. It begins with a slow, lull into the story through dangerously sweet vocals and words. Its infuriatingly catchy and memorable with its dynamic and interesting composition. We end with ‘Cellophane’, a beautiful metaphor of a person tired and spent from their toxic lover, illustrating the devastating highs that keep people coming back despite the horrific lows.
N: Tell me about your creative process. You masterfully use darker lyrics alongside brighter melodies to create deceptively simple but impactful songs. There’s a really lovely sincerity to a lot of your lyrics and the music itself. Who are the people you write about and from where are the stories in your music? Are they all yours?
JB: I try to write as introspectively as possible. I think the more specific I make it for myself, then the more honest or impactful it is for the listener. I also really like getting into character while I write songs. On ‘Boomerang’ and ‘ Together We Go Down in the Dark’ I’m playing a protagonist turning into a villain. The reason I am writing from that perspective is because I have a love-hate relationship with my ego. My ego is what gets me out of bed, which is great, but also I feel like I’m never satisfied. A part of me will never be happy with any success I achieve…
With my writing style I try to be as visual as possible. I think about the songs more as a movie scene. I want the listener to see the sequence happen as they listen. I think a lot of people that write books or movies would write themselves into a character and that’s what I aim to do.
N: As someone who’s also grown up in various cultural settings, I’m always fascinated by the way these third culture experiences shape our creative work. How does your own background manifest itself in your artistic life?
JB: I grew up in China, and I had to practice instruments from the age of 4. That’s a cultural thing, doing grade exams and practicing perfect technique. All my Chinese friends either picked up violin or piano. I studied Bach and Beethoven and that became a huge part of my musical DNA. My song ‘A Form of Self Defense’ that came out on my first EP was me messing around with “Ave Maria” by Bach and accidentally going into my own progression.
Moving to NZ was cool. I think the culture in NZ is just way less intense than the culture in China. I had a lot more time to practice and experiment when I moved there as a teenager. School was way less intense and I had the freedom to learn about as much music as I could. I deep dived into gospel music, R&B, jazz and electronic music. I also met my best friend Struan who makes all my music with me in Christchurch and everything I do gets filtered through him one way or another.
This narrative of experimentation and ownership of craft is deftly apparent in the EP. There’s a palpable sense of control and care in the composition; Julius Black has a definitive sound. Even in a saturated genre, the confidence in which he’s constructed the EP makes Black stand out as someone on the path to mastery in his domain.
N: Lastly, it’s always incredibly heart-warming to see artists from Australia & New Zealand grow and succeed. What is something you want to tell our readers; current students (the University of Melbourne) and fellow young aspiring artists? Especially after such a creatively challenging and frightfully turbulent set of years for artists.
JB: I think it’s really important to tell your own story; the things that make you unique are to be embraced. You shouldn’t feel like you need to dim any part of what makes you YOU to make other people feel more comfortable. I think to be able to create is such a wonderful gift. Chase what excites you, don’t judge yourself too hard and always be eager to learn more. It is a very creatively challenging time, obviously with COVID, but I think that’s why artistic endeavours are more important now than ever!