Q&A with Black Hills

photo courtesy of Black Hills

We Love DC Music Editor Alexia Kauffman had the chance to chat with DC-based musical mastermind Aaron Estes recently. Estes previously fronted the indie band Bellman Barker, but is now focusing on going solo with his dreamy-synth-pop project Black Hills. 

Alexia Kauffman: So I never got to see Bellman Barker, but I became aware of you as a performer when I saw you at Run for Cover*, as part of my favorite acts, two years in a row.

Aaron Estes: Oh cool, which acts?

AK: In 2010 it was the C&C Music Factory cover group, and then in 2011 it was the Daft Punk group.

AE: Yeah, those were pretty fun shows. (laughing)

AK: They were so above and beyond awesome, not just the theatrics and visuals that went into them (which were both hilarious and spectacular) but really the music- it was so well done. Plus I’m a fan of anything that glows in the dark. So once I found out who you were I filed it in my mind that I needed to see what music you were doing. And time passed, and I just saw your picture up on the Black Cat website recently, that you’re performing as Black Hills, and I knew I had to check it out. I really dig the tracks you have up on Bandcamp.

AE: Oh awesome, thank you!

AK: Is that all you have recorded right now?

AE: Those are the only things that are mastered and officially released.It’s like still kind of a new project, so I kind of… it was a side project to Bellman Barker for a while, and then when that band broke up I just kind of decided to make it my main thing. And so I’ve been sort of slowly working on those for a while, and just decided oh, I’ll just put out this EP, and just see what happens. So there’s a handful of more songs, some of them are recorded, some of them are halfway recorded.

AK: So the Black Hills stuff- do you produce that on your own, or do you collaborate with anyone?

AE: Um, it’s all just me, and I do pretty much just make everything at my house, and then my friend mixes and does some additional production. Like I bring in a song, basically a finished song, and we just mix it and maybe redo the vocals at his place.

AK: Was it challenging translating the music you wrote/produced into a live show with a full band?

AE:  So live I really wanted to like not do backing tracks, and not have a computer onstage, so right now it’s a five-piece band live. Some of the guys, like the drummer and the other keyboard player were in Bellman Barker, and then the other two guys are just people I knew from around.

It didn’t really end up being that difficult. All the guys who are in the live version of the band are super-talented at what they’re doing, their instruments. I would basically come in and say “Alright, here’s these eight synth parts, we need to figure out how to play all these things on these other instruments”, and make it sound cohesive, you know, make it into an exciting live show rather than be with a couple samplers and a laptop. I mean it was definitely kind of weird at first trying to figure out how to do it, but we’ve kind of settled into a method of how we play now.

AK: You mentioned that you are in another band now too?

AE: I am playing keyboards in a band called Bone Fur and Feathers. And that’s a really new band, I’m not one of the main people, that’s a six-piece band.

AK: So are you a native of the DC area?

AE: No, I moved here after college, I’m from South Dakota originally. I lived in Alexandria for a year, back in, like, ’03, and then I moved into DC in I guess ’04. I’ve been in lots of bands, and I kind of decided it’s more fun for me to do it solo. You know bands, I’ve been in so many bands that have broken up, and then you just, like, lost all of that creative effort that you put in, and you have to start over, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore. So that’s why I decided to do the solo thing.  

AK: How did you start playing music?

AE: Well I played classical piano for several years, I started when I was six, and I did, like, the piano competitions, and things like that. And then I played jazz saxaphone for a while, which was pretty fun. And then you know, you get into high school, and stop playing those things, and play guitar and play in bands, and that’s it.

AK: Is there one album or artist that you can remember that first made you really excited about music?

AE: You know, there isn’t really anyone that I can say just for music in general. I mean, for the stuff that I’m doing now the biggest inspiration was Air. Just ’cause I really liked how they would use sounds and styles that a lot of people would consider cheesy. And they definitely can get more into the cheesy territory with some of their stuff, but that’s something that I always really admired. So I started with a similar idea, and a lot of the earlier stuff that I worked on for Black Hills sounded just horrible! (laughs) Really cheesy stuff, and then I eventually was like “Alright, I gotta find a way to make this sound cool” while using, y’know, vocal patches and synth strings sounds that don’t sound cool, and try to come up with something.

AK: Well I love Air too, and I can definitely hear some of the influence, and I think you definitely pulled off whatever you were going for!

AE: (laughs) Thanks!

AK: What’s coming up in the near future for Black Hills?

AE: Well, after this show we don’t have any shows planned, except I think we might be doing something with Alliance Francaise, like maybe doing something for Bastille day. I did a collaboration with this German producer named Kris Menace, so we did a couple songs that are coming out on his album. I don’t think that comes out ’til like October though. It was pretty cool, though, I’d never done anything like that before, so it’s like this super-German club-techno music. Really cool.

See Black Hills live, Wednesday night at Black Cat.

Black Hills

w/Raindeer, The Fire Tapes

Wednesday, May 23

$8/backstage/Doors at 8pm


*Run for Cover was a yearly benefit show held at the Black Cat that featured one-off cover bands or mash-up bands made up of people from DC bands.

Alexia Kauffman

Alexia was born and raised in Arlington, VA. She has been a cellist since age four, and a lover of rock & roll soon after. The first tape she owned was “Make It Big” by Wham, and the first tape she bought was Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and she still loves both. She was a member of local synth-rock outfit Soft Complex for several years, and has recorded with bands including Engine Down and Two if By Sea. By day she works for a non-profit distributing royalties to musicians and labels. She currently plays cello, lap-steel guitar and tambourine in the DC post-folk/Americana band The Torches.

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