A Conversation with The Black Queen's Steven Alexander

Kevin Keating
The Black Queen (Photo: Stephen Odom)
The Black Queen (Photo: Stephen Odom)
The Black Queen, an '80's R&B-infused synthwave 3-piece comprised of Greg Puciato (The Dillinger Escape Plan), Steven Alexander (Nine Inch Nails / Dillinger Escape Plan tech), and Joshua Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv / Nine Inch Nails / Puscifer) hit the road a few weeks ago in support of their second full-length album, Infinite Games (iTunes) and will come through the Bay Area with a stop at Slim's on March 25th (tix). We had a chance to speak with Steven Alexander earlier this week to find out more about the band, their influences and writing process. Check out our full interview below and we'll see you at the show at Slim's on the 25th!

SFBayAreaConcerts: Thanks for making the time to speak with us today Steven. I'm wondering if you could start out by telling us a bit about yourself?

Steven Alexander: Yeah. So basically I started as a backline technician, a guitar tech, whatever you want to call it, with The Dillinger Escape Plan, and I also worked on their record Ire Works (iTunes) as an assistant engineer. I helped with a lot of that so they ended up taking me on tour. I toured with them for quite a bit... a couple of years or so. And then I moved on to just doing more tech gigs over the years. I did some tech work for Miley Cyrus and Kesha and a lot of pop artists. And then I moved back into metal and tech'd for Anthrax, Nine Inch Nails and then a Perfect Circle. So that's kind of where I've been before this, just kind of just doing tech work and studio stuff.

SFBAC: And how did you get started in the industry?

Steven Alexander: I don't know, I just was around a lot. I mean, I would go to shows all the time and I guess people are comfortable with me being around, so they're like, 'hey, why don't you come on tour with us?' kind of thing... and that's pretty much how it happened.

SFBAC: When did you learn to play music?

Steven Alexander: I actually played alto sax first when I was a kid, and then moved on to the piano. I played piano for a long time. And then from there, I wanted to play guitar because I like effects and things like that. I like spatial kinds of sounds more than just acoustic sounds. A piano was kind of... it wasn't as pleasing to me; a guitar's like being able to just turn on a bunch of effects and play around with sound and texture, as opposed to just sitting down at a piano and just playing a Mozart piece or something.

SFBAC: You know, on paper, when I initially saw that you guys are coming together from The Dillinger Escape Plan and Nine Inch Nails, you'd expect The Black Queen to have an aggressive metal industrial sound, but that can be further from the truth. First of all, how did the three of you come together and how would you describe your sound?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, it's weird, we have a lot of different influences. I think a lot of people don't pick up on it necessarily. Where there's that, obviously, synthwave resurgence kind of thing that's been happening, which I don't feel like we're a part of, but we've gotten stuck in it a bit... But we're more; At least on the first record, there's a lot of '80s R&B influence from especially Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who produced most of the Janet Jackson stuff throughout the '80s and '90s, as well as some of the Human League stuff.

I think we're really beat oriented and focused, so, I don't know... we're not like EDM-ish. I mean, like people always say electronic music and you think Deadmau5 or you think about a big field filled with people and a DJ or something... But I think we try to craft songs that are more timeless and not just like, 'oh, it's just an 80s synth wave kind of thing.' It's more, there's more depth to it; if you listen, you can unlock it if you hear it enough.

Also, the aggression thing... Live, I think we're a lot more aggressive than on the record. The records have been tame and kind of psychedelic.

SFBAC: So in terms of your influences, did all three of you have the same sort of musical influences? Who drove the '80s R&B sound on the first album?

Steven Alexander: We're pretty much a Venn diagram when it comes to that kind of stuff. I mean, we all love that stuff. There are certain things that I gravitate towards more than let's say, Greg obviously. He came from a different background and he grew up with a lot of R&B and hip-hop which I did too. It's just strange to think that a lot of metal guys, or people that are in metal bands, I tend to find they end up kind of listening to just one genre or... like anything that doesn't have a guitar in it, is scary to them. Which I think is a shame. I wish people would listen to more, but my influences come, not so much from music but mostly from movies and things like that... and sounds.

I don't know, I just love how things sound in movies; like sound design and things like that in video games. I got a lot of influence from older Super Nintendo and PlayStation video games. Just a lot of my melodic tendencies tend to be from that world, and trying to make something more cinematic.

SFBAC: And so when the three of you guys started talking, how did that come about?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, Greg and I had known each other forever; we've known each other since I was probably like 15, and then basically I hadn't talked to him in a few years. He was out with Dillinger, I was working for other bands and things, and we're both on tour. We ran into each other at a show, one of our friends was playing, I believe it was our friend Troy [Van Leeuwen] from Queens of the Stone Age; him and his wife's other band, Sweethead, and we just both happened to be there because we're friends of Troy.

So we ended up talking again, reconnected, and I had a bunch of demos, and so did Greg, and then we kept passing ideas back and forth, and it just blossomed into being more than just like, 'oh, well, maybe we can turn this into a full album?' and not just like a little side project, EP thing. We needed someone else to kind of just flush it out, maybe help produce and mix and things like that and that's where Josh came into play. We had mutual friends so that's how we met him and then basically just continuing forward with that, and just kept writing and recording.

SFBAC: And correct me if I'm wrong but Josh is not on tour? It's Justin McGrath filling in for Josh?

Steven Alexander: Yes, Justin; I've known Justin for a very long time. I toured with him on Nine Inch Nails where I was tech'ing for Trent, he was tech'ing for Alessandro, so we became really, really close because that's a very, very difficult band to work for. It was really, really labor intensive and very... there's so much cerebral involvement, as well as just aggression. And so it's really hard to, I don't know... you need someone there to kind of balance you out, so he was a good person; like him and I became really close because of that, and then we also worked on A Perfect Circle together too.

He did playback and I was Billy's [Howerdel's] guitar tech for the last, whatever you want to call it? A year-and-a-half or whatever it was? And then yeah, Josh is out, he's working on a Telefon record and had to finish up by a certain time, so he suggested Justin and I said great, that would be perfect, good timing.

SFBAC: I think you touched on this, but in terms of the songwriting process; it sounds like at least for the initial album, you and Greg passed demos back and forth. And then Josh added a bit of polish?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, I would say he added more polish. We're more... here's the basis for the song... here's the conceptual idea... how do we execute? You know what I mean?

SFBAC: And did that process continue into the second album?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, basically I had a bunch of stuff already written; Greg and I just kept going, going, going and going until we had enough songs that fit together. That's really the hardest part, it's finding the ones that fit together.

So once we got that, then we brought Josh back into the fold, and then he'd say, 'okay, how do we link these together sonically? Do we need to change?' Let's say, you know things like kick drums and snare drums and things like that need to be in the same world. You can't just have it, so different per song... It'll make the thing not one piece. So yeah, that's kind of what we did on Infinite Games.

We tried to make that as one piece, as opposed to Fever Daydream (iTunes) which took a lot longer, so there is a little bit of, A.D.D., if you will, on it, so that's how that came about.

SFBAC: In terms of the actual writing, the day-to-day writing, were you guys in the same room ever or just passing demos back and forth?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, it depends; sometimes I was just by myself, on a laptop or whatever or I'll go, we have a studio, I'll go to the studio sometimes alone and work on stuff, or sometimes Greg and I will just sit in a room and, I'll just be working on something while he's on his phone or reading or whatever and then he'll go, oh that's really good or that's really good, let's use that, and then we develop a song from there. But it's just kind of like passing ideas back and forth, and kind of just believing in each other's instincts to create all the stuff.

SFBAC: So this might be more of a theoretical question, but with all the bigger bands you've worked with, what have you been able to take away from those experiences to apply to The Black Queen?

Steven Alexander: Oh, yeah, of course; Obviously, the technician work, I have a lot of pretty substantial knowledge on how to fix things, or, okay, well, if you build cables this way, then they won't break, things like that. There's also being around people that are like, let's say Trent, or Maynard or even Billy Howerdel; they're good teachers because they've been around everything and they've also achieved a high level of success.

So I would take the things that they would say, or the things they would need help with, as very important and then learn from that. Even designing sounds and things like that with Trent, Trent's very good at that. and you know learning like oh, why does this sound better than this sound, in a conceptual sense? I remember one time Trent said something about the reverb... 'the reverb on this sounds cheap; I need it to sound more like Blade Runner' and then I could interpret that and go, 'okay, I know what he wants; he probably wants more of a Lexicon, expensive older, maybe '80s kind of reverb as opposed to just some new digital emulation and things that maybe doesn't sound as good.

But yeah, you know things like that; like just kind of being able to put things in your toolbox from learning from different artists that you've been around.

SFBAC: And so you mentioned some gear there, I'm going to jump ahead to one of my other questions related to your studio or touring gear; is there one particular piece of gear that you can't live without?

Steven Alexander: I'd probably say the Axe FX; actually Billy was the one that got me on it. He used to have a rack filled with everything you could think of; Eventides and all kinds of different, really expensive processors to create his guitar sounds, and now he only relies on just the Axe FX.

He let me borrow one for a while, he had a bunch of them. He's sponsored and so he goes, 'hey, borrow it and learn it and then, let me know if you need any help.' So I've been using that the whole time I've been in the band, and it's evolved over time. I changed my patches, change guitars and things like that, try to make new sounds, or figure out solutions to, 'how do I get from this down to this?' And I like it a lot; it's a lot of work though and it's not for everybody. Some people just like a pedal board with a couple of pedals and that's great too, that's a different thing. I don't think I would be able to make the sounds that I do without it, I think that's really important. It's fun and I have fun actually using it. To a lot of people, it looks daunting because you can basically do anything with it; You could sit there forever if you wanted, but at some point, you've got to commit.

SFBAC: So I was going to ask about your record label... You guys created Federal Prisoner. Are you involved with that or is that more of a Greg project?

Steven Alexander: No, we talked about it, there are things that we have coming up in the future that we would like to do, possible collaborations with people or helping release things that we love; other friends bands, possibly.

Greg has some other stuff he's written in different styles that he wants to release on there. I have some instrumental things I've been working on for years; I just have them in a pile and I just need to put them together and kind of flush it out so it's one piece.

So I think it's just a home for us to be able to put things that we love and care about on it. As opposed to dealing with other people or whatever; it's just us so it's really easy. If a friend needs help we can be like, 'hey, here, you can put it here'.

SFBAC: In terms of the day-to-day, how involved are you guys in the overall management of the band? Managing your Spotify tracks, or your social outreach? I'm assuming you have a manager that takes care of that? Or how involved are you guys, in all of that?

Steven Alexander: Right now it's just basically, Greg and I. Greg does the bulk of it and I have some suggestions here and there. I build the website and I work on the website if it needs to be updated. Greg does a lot of the Social Media stuff so we're busy doing all that and you would love to have someone have the capacity or just the capabilities of doing it, but a lot of times I feel like their taste doesn't align correctly so we prefer to do some of that, to make sure that it's good.

But at some point, you know later on, when the band is bigger, we're going to need help so we're waiting for it to grow, and then we'll talk about hiring somebody to maybe help with some of this stuff.

SFBAC: Sure; so I think you're in Washington DC tonight?

Steven Alexander: Yeah, we're playing DC at the Union Stage.

SFBAC: You're now a couple of weeks into the tour? How's the tour going so far?

Steven Alexander: It's really good. A lot of fun, the shows has been cool. It's cool to do a US tour, we've never done a US tour, so we have a lot of friends and family all over. So even tonight it's like, Greg's from Baltimore so there's a lot of his friends, and then we're playing New York on Friday or Saturday or whenever it is, and that's where I'm from, basically East Coast. So it's really good to have people that haven't seen you, maybe that you've known for a long time. So yeah, the tour has been really great.

SFBAC: Excellent and specific to the Bay Area, do you have any stories that you can share or things that you're looking forward to?

Steven Alexander: Well, hopefully, Dave Smith will show up; he came to our last show and that was a real surprise. We had some tequila and talked about the synthesizers that we're using. We're using one of his. Justin's using one of his onstage, which I don't see a lot of people using necessarily, so hopefully, he can come to see that; that would be cool.

SFBAC: OK, two more questions, how did the logo come together?

Steven Alexander: I had the idea for it actually, but our friend was the one that executed it, he designed it, however you want to say it. I had the idea and I sketched it out from my head and he made it more uniform, together. And he lives in DC and he actually can't make it to the show tonight because he has to design some other logo stuff tonight, so it's pretty funny.

The logo came about because it's three of us, and a triangle made sense, and it's upside down, so make of it what you will with the band name.

SFBAC: And then my last question; would you be able to talk about your involvement with Rob Sheridan's High Level DC/Vertigo comic?

Steven Alexander: Yes. So Rob and I go way back; I've known him for a very long time and he hasn't been working for Nine Inch Nails anymore. So he was figuring out what he wanted to do and he ended up pairing with some guys at DC, and then creating this comic. He sent me an early copy of it and I reached out to him --- actually he helped us with our video, "Ice To Never" and he helped us with a lot of the live visuals, the bulk of the live visuals; I make about half of them and then he makes the other half. And he was like, 'hey, man, can you do me a favor?'

Because he basically paid for the "Ice To Never" video, he didn't ask for any money or anything, so I said, 'Down the line, I'll do you whatever favor you need', I meant whatever it is. So he goes, 'hey, I need some trailer music for this comic' and I've already read the comics, so I already had an idea of where to go with it. So I made him some stuff and he was really happy with it.

I'm currently working on some more things as companion pieces to the other issues. I know it's kind of a weird thing because it's a comic and you're reading it, but maybe just like ambient loops and things like that, that can accompany the comic. And hopefully we can put that fully together by the time all the issues are out and we can release that as maybe a limited vinyl or just put it online for free or whatever. But yeah, that's basically it.

SFBAC: Very cool.

Steven Alexander: I mean, he's a really good friend and I enjoy working on music for things not just music; like if I could score stuff, I would do that. So that's why I was like, oh I'll take this opportunity to do this.

SFBAC: That's great. I just picked up the first issue, so I'll look forward to your ambient score too! Thanks again for making the time and best of luck on the rest of the tour. We'll see you here in San Francisco on March 25th at Slim's!

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