Hometown: Portland, Ore.
Member: John Black
Album: Fort Atlantic
For Fans Of: Dawes, Wilco, Josh Ritter
Until a month ago, John Black had lived in the Southeast all his life. Raised in Atlanta, he left for Charleston, S.C., after college, got married and followed his wife to Birmingham, Ala. But with his wife done with schooling, the couple decided it was time for change and moved out to Portland, Ore.
“Fortunately, it’s not a bad music scene out here,” he says with a bit of understatement. “But we’re still unpacking boxes. I really don’t know a soul here in the music community. I can’t hide my accent as much as I want to try. I get a lot of funny looks, like ‘You’re out of place here, aren’t you?’ Which is great as an artist. I love being out of place and challenged like that.”
If Black gets excited by a new challenge, he’s living right. In addition to a new city, after years playing the singer/songwriter circuit as John Black, he’s begun experimenting with sounds well outside that genre. And to avoid getting pegged as a coffee-shop troubadour, he’s adopted a new name—Fort Atlantic—for his music.
“When I was exploring different sounds and different ways to use computers,” he says, “I felt like when I’d play shows and sing songs that didn’t necessarily have a chorus or weren’t exactly singer/songwriter or weren’t what was expected, it could be disappointing to the some of the audience. I didn’t want to be misleading and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. And if I wanted to go under a band name, I’m hoping it’ll open more doors and more creative freedom to really explored different sounds than just a guy with a guitar.”
Recreating those sounds live, though, was more of a challenge. Unless he wanted to tour with a six-piece band, he needed to find a way to bring the album to life on stage. Once again, the challenge became his favorite part. “We have it down to a duo—me and a drummer,” he says, “and then we also have a computer we interact with. It’s not something we just hit play and play along with the tracks. It’s actually an interactive thing up there on stage with us. It’s making us better musicians. We have to communicate where we’re going with the songs. That’s given me the most excitement. We were kind of nervous about it at first—using a computer—because we thought that would limit us. But we found that with just a little foresight we can recreate the songs and they can be the same songs, but they can be better.”
Black found another new way to incorporate technology into the packaging for Fort Atlantic’s debut album, which came out on Dualtone earlier this year. A lifelong fan of videogames, he offered the new songs on flash drives made out of old NES cartridges.
“The CD is a dying medium,” he says. “With digital music, if we’re going to sell it, I’d love to see more creativity. With USB drives being small and easy to do things, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential for how we sell music digitally. I want to see recycled records—taking things you wouldn’t think to put a record on and making a record out of it. I still play videogames as a 32-year-old. I love games, and I thought it was a good fit for my personality. I didn’t know how it would happen, but I pitched it to Dualtone, and they ran with it and figured it all out for me, so it was really fun to watch it develop.”
With his drummer following him up to Portland, Black hopes to tour again in the fall. And then it’s time to head back into the studio—because by then, Black will be ready for another challenge. “I have no idea what it’s going to sound like,” he says. “That might scare some people, but for some reason that excites me.”