Legendary Long Island surfer inspires new Small Black album 'Cheap Dreams'

The New York indie-pop act will kick off its first tour in more than a year at Ace of Cups on Thursday, Aug. 5.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Small Black

Josh Kolenik grew up idolizing Uncle Matt, his father’s youngest brother. "He was this very tall, handsome, jacked surfer guy with long blond hair and a beard. I thought he was just the coolest person alive ever since I was little,” Kolenik said. “He was a legendary surfer and board shaper on Long Island. He made boards for a lot of the legit dudes out there. He knew everybody at the main surf drag, Long Beach.” 

In the late 2000s, Kolenik and Small Black bandmate/co-founder Ryan Heyner didn’t have a place to record their first EP, so Matt let the musicians hole up in his attic, surrounded by surfboards. They drank Crystal Light with vodka, watched “Waterworld” and hung out in the backyard while Matt blasted a 10,000 Maniacs cassette tape. “There's a lightness to that first material we did that I think is very much informed by just goofing around with him,” Kolenik said. "We spent a lot of time with him, Ryan and I. We were very close.” 

In 2015, soon after the release of Small Black’s album Best Blues, Uncle Matt had a stroke while he was surf fishing and didn't survive. The loss hit Kolenik hard, and while writing material for Small Black’s new album, Cheap Dreams, he kept coming back to Uncle Matt.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about his life versus mine. He's somebody who didn't take a practical path. He did whatever he wanted, didn't really ever have a real job. He fixed people's cars for them, made boards, worked at a bar. And as a musician, you're trying to make it by hook or by crook. You’re trying to do your work and do what you love,” said Kolenik, a Long Island native who felt like kindred spirits with his rebellious, Zen-like uncle. "He was very good at being alive and enjoying things, and I always think about him in terms of what's really important in life and doing what you love and chasing that passion as far as you can.” 

On Thursday, Aug. 3, Small Black will launch its first tour in more than a year in Columbus at Ace of Cups, debuting material from Cheap Dreams. During the writing process, album track “The Bridge” came first, setting the tone for the rest of the record. “They're not all from his perspective, but they’re kind of about the world that he's in, in New York and Long Island,” said Kolenik, who considered reaching out to former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant for a guest vocal on the album. “I really should have. I just chickened out.” 

“Thought I left you in the basement, buffing out the dings/You're never getting out there on that thing,” Kolenik sings on “Driftwood Fire,” a dream-pop companion piece to “The Bridge” with waves of effervescent synths that conjure Matt’s carefree days of salt and sand.  

While writing, Kolenik’s warm nostalgia for Matt and his Long Island digs led to a newfound acceptance of Kolenik's own New York upbringing, which he didn’t always remember fondly. "I had a lot of negativity towards Long Island because it's very conservative, and it's a tough-guy world. You grow up fighting … and I'm kind of soft, so it was tough for me, especially in elementary school,” he said. “But that's the place that made me, and I got to think about what that means. And you know, I'm kind of a Long Island asshole when it gets down to it, even if I think I'm not.” 

“This is where we live/Nothing we can do about it,” Kolenik sings on “Postcard,” a truism that comes across breezier than it appears once it's placed in the musical world of Small Black. It's also a statement that sounds like it could have come straight from the mouth of Uncle Matt.  

“You don't want to be beholden to the past, but then you've also got to acknowledge it. Home is always going to be a little bit of both of those things,” Kolenik said. “I don't know if we ever really find out what the hell we're supposed to do or what our path is, but I think I did a good job of maybe finding some peace toward Long Island.”