Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Black Mountain: Colin Stewart

You can tell I'm a bit frazzled from full-time 9-5 and family life on top of that, which results in me writing sentences like this one yesterday: "[Black Mountain ripped off their influences] with such exhilaration and authenticity that its lack of originality hardly mattered."

Nothing like some good ol' unoriginal authenticity, eh?

And yet I will stand by that paradox, as daft as it seems, when describing Black Mountain--who get the vintage sounds down to a science (the authentic part) to the point where it actually sounds like you've already heard these songs thousands of times before... in the 70s (the unoriginal part).

Colin Stewart is not just the reason why Black Mountain's records sound so incredible; he's also one of Vancouver's top sonic architects, responsible for much of the best music to emerge from that city in recent years, including Destroyer, Frog Eyes, The Beans, Veda Hille and much more. (His site is here; the site for his studio The Hive, with plenty of rare MP3s--including many by Black Mountain precursors--is here).

For my recent Magnet piece on Black Mountain (in the current issue on stands now), I interviewed singer/guitarist Steve McBean and drummer Josh Wells; Wells was actually more talkative than the somewhat hesitant McBean, though Stewart proved to be more enlightening than either of them--as outsiders often are.

Black Mountain – Colin Stewart
October 30, 2007
Locale: phone from The Hive studio, where he was finishing Veda Hille’s new album

Having worked with Josh and Steve for so long, what do you think of In the Future? And how does it fit into their evolution?

Whenever I record an album with them, I never know if I like it until three or four months later. Then I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s actually genius!’

I have to say that I like about half this record right now.

Oh good. You just have to digest it for a while. They’re always out to challenge you.

I was a huge fan of the first Black Mountain album. And Pyrokinesis [the final Jerk With a Bomb album]. When did you first start working with them?

I think it was in 1997. I was recording Daddy’s Hands, and Christof, who played saxophone in that band, told me about this other band where he played bass. That was Ex Dead Teenager, and that was the first time I met Josh and Steve. Have you heard that?

Just what you’ve put up on your site.

That’s all they have, I believe. They were super awesome. Apparently immediately after they played in Victoria, Hot Hot Heat sprang up. Back when they were more of a screamo band. Ex Dead Teenager were the first of the heavy synth bands around here.

Of which there have been many since.

Yes. Then Josh and Steve said they were in this other two-piece band called Jerk With a Bomb, and I recorded their first album, Death to False Metal. I did a few bands with Josh’s other band, Radio Berlin. They’re interesting guys. I get along really well with them, but I never communicate with them very much between records. We have a working relationship. Especially with Steve, who is very aloof (laughs).

Does he know what he wants?

He demos the record in its entirety before coming in and re-recording the songs. He has very precise ideas. So does Josh. Between those two, they have the record in their heads. This last Black Mountain was more democratic than the last one. Everyone contributed ideas. I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.

I’m curious about that, too. There’s a vision to the other stuff that I don’t hear with this record.

The thing is that everyone else has added so much to the band. The last Jerk With a Bomb album was just a Josh and Steve record, but they asked Amber [Webb] to sing two songs. Immediately after, they started writing these Black Mountain songs and she joined in. A few months before recording that album, [original bassist] Christof quit the band and they taught Matt [Camirand] the songs as they were recording them. Then after we had all these tracks, they asked Jeremy [Schmidt] to play some synths. It was still very much a Josh and Steve record, and concise in its vision. Everyone else were just musicians. On this one, I sat in the control room and saw these bigger discussions—certainly not arguments, it was very democratic—but there were bigger, longer discussions about what would happen next in the song.

I imagine the bond between the two of them is so strong, going back that far. What was their relationship like back then, and how have you seen it change?

I don’t really know if it’s changed. I can’t really speculate too much. Of course things were easier going back then, because no one had any expectations of them. And [the final JWAB album] Pyrokinesis only sold 500 copies, so we all thought, well, no one gives a fuck what we do now. This record was the first time there was a lot of expectation from them. I thought that would cause some strain, but it wasn’t too obvious. Josh likes to jump in there and take control. He’ll leap onto the console and be in charge. And he does a great job of it, so no one stands in his way. Every so often Steve will assert his authority and step up, but it’s more sporadic.

How do you think the writing has changed, both musically and lyrically? One of the things I really liked about the first JWAB record is that it doesn’t sound like anything else he’s done before or since: very simple instrumentation, very direct songs, very playful. Then things started getting darker…

Yeah, heavier and more retro. In earlier Steve songs I would say it was more his own thing. Now he’s really inspired by taking all these classic songs and rewriting them. In some cases it’s really obvious to me, like on ‘No Satisfaction’ from the last record. He’s clearly taking a line from a Rolling Stones song and reworking it over a Velvet Underground thing. Or the riff from ‘Don’t Run Our Hearts Around’ is obviously lifted from something you’ve heard before. He’s really open about that.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Os Mutantes recently, and they did that. They’d say, ‘We’ll take this Beatles song and play it as our chorus and then throw this Stones riff in the bridge.’ But it works. It’s rewriting these great themes. That seems to be his vision. [off the record talk about the last Pink Mountaintops record]

Steve constantly reinvents. His major thing right now I his solo work seems to be this drone rock, very Spacemen 3 kind of repetitive grinding. It’s funny, because when we were mixing the last Pink Mountaintops, he said to me, ‘Everyone tells me this sounds like Spacemen 3.’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, it does.’ He says, ‘I’ve never heard them.’ I told him, ‘Well, you should listen to them—if you like your own music, you’ll probably like Spacemen 3!’

I know people who don’t like Black Mountain, for obvious reasons: it’s taking from this and that. And usually those people don’t like the source material in the first place. But even those that do, they think it’s just such an obvious rip-off. I think the first album is brilliant, but I often have trouble justifying it or articulating why. McBean is clearly taking all of that and regurgitating it, but it’s very much his voice and his vision.

He makes those songs modern again. There are a lot of people who don’t like Black Mountain. But Josh and Steve are always one step ahead of everyone else. When that record came out, I didn’t know of any other band doing that kind of thing. Then a couple of them came out of the woodwork, like Dead Meadow. But they weren’t doing it as well.

I fell asleep once, standing up, while watching that band.

I don’t like them too much, but I don’t dislike it. I’d rather people make music like that than most other music. But I really think Black Mountain are the best of this retro rock revival thing. They do take these old riffs, but you have these young kids who don’t know what they’re taking from. I record young guys all the time who tell me, ‘I’ve never heard Led Zeppelin. I don’t listen to the Beatles.’ My jaw drops when they tell me that. ‘How can you play music and not listen to the Beatles?’ I have no problem with someone telling me they don’t like the Beatles. I can respect that, because at least they heard them and made a decision that they didn’t like it. But you do have to hear them—you need a musical education! But I’m ranting now. Black Mountain are the best at the heavy rock revival meets Velvet Underground meets Can. They’re a very dynamic band. They’re not like Sunn )))O who are just incredibly heavy all the time.

Black Mountain records have such a vintage sound. Is that you or is it them? Where does it come from?

With the first record, that’s the one that’s got me the most work out of any record I’ve done. I got Ian Astbury of The Cult, who called me up and said, ‘I love your record.’ I’m like, what the fuck is going on here?! He thought the sound was so real and authentic.

Steve and Josh and I are all about the same age. Steve is older. I think Josh is about 32. We all have the same foundation, though in high school Steve listened to more hardcore and thrash metal than I did. But we all love Zeppelin and the Stones, and the older you get the more you realize that the stuff you love the most is the stuff you loved when you were 18. For those guys and for me, it is an attempt to dismiss the idea that modern recording sounds better. We kind of proved it, because people really like the sound of that record. We did the drums and bass on a half-inch reel-to-reel, totally semi-professional, the kind of gear that you would record your demos on at home in the late 70s. Then we would dump that into computers and overdub on top of that.

I have a tendency to make things sound really dull and round on the high end. I don’t like shiny, sparkly, new-sounding stuff. I don’t mind listening to it; I don’t want my recording to sound like that. Those guys are on the same page. They want to sound like their heroes from 30 years ago. For me, a band like Wolfmother fails because they try to make it new, and then it’s not the real thing anymore.

Weird. Then do you only make records that are frozen in time, or do you try to push the form? Wolfmother may or may not be a bad band, but you could argue that they’re trying to bring that stuff into the 21st century. I don’t know; I haven’t actually heard them.

I could totally buy that argument. My ideas change all the time.

Or someone like the Flaming Lips, which is very informed by the 70s but very clearly 21st century music.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan, but I can’t deny that their sound is absolutely brilliant. They’ve clearly defined this space between vintage and modern sounds. I thought it was amazing that they loved the first Black Mountain record. When I listened to the last Flaming Lips album, I thought, oh my god, that’s a Black Mountain riff.

But is it really just a Black Mountain riff?

That’s the thing. Steve even pointed it out to me: ‘You know that Flaming Lips song? That’s my riff, but I don’t mind because I actually stole it from this other song.’

And they [the Lips] have been caught before, by Cat Stevens.


I’m curious about Jeremy’s role in the band, and what he brings to the new record.

He really shines on the new record. He really is a genius. He’s the best synth player in Vancouver. [Jeremy's band] Sinoia Caves is such perfect prog synth stuff.

I know he was in several other bands before this one.

Jeremy used to be a part of an ambient prog scene, which was pretty small in Vancouver about ten years ago. He was in a band called Pipedream, which was one of the bigger local bands who did that kind of thing. They would play these 15-minute meandering songs, and he would sing through vocoders.

This was very synth-driven, or were there guitars as well?

Incredibly synth-driven. He was on the fringe of the Vancouver scene. Those in the know knew about him, but not a lot of people were really into these long, meandering prog rock bands.

To say the least!

(chuckles) Exactly. I’ve also known him for about ten years now. I always thought he was amazing. I didn’t record Sinoia Caves, but my studio partner did.

What else should I know?

I’ve recorded hundreds of people, and I’ve only recorded one or two other bands who have the same concise vision that Josh and Steve do. I would say that most of my career, I’ve been trying to play catch-up to those two. I find them so inspiring, their ideas so amazing, that I wish I could think like they did. When they asked me to work on their last record, I thought they could go work with anybody now, so I was very thankful. They know what’s up.

Knowing all of this, it must have been frustrating for Jerk With a Bomb to never have found an audience. Especially for guys who were then on the other side of 30, at an age when most people give up.

Totally. They would do month-long tours for every Jerk With a Bomb record, and no one would go to their shows. Just before Black Mountain got signed to Jagjaguwar, it was the first time I’d ever seen Josh look despondent. He looked miserable. He was saying, ‘My band’s not going anywhere. Fuck this.’ Luckily everything changed within a couple of months. Steve was always very modest, and he is more modest now than he ever was. Which is nice. I haven’t had many experiences watching people move from one level to the next, but I knew the Hot Hot Heat guys before they got signed, and they were decent dudes... [off the record] I want people to be successful, regardless of what I think of their music. It’s weird how a person becomes an asshole when they think they’re so awesome all of the sudden. Steve has proved that you don’t have to be that way. Quite the contrary. He’s taken his success and he’s more modest and more grateful than anyone else I know.

I’m sure that has everything to do with age, too. If you’re as young as Hot Hot Heat were when they got signed and everyone’s licking your ass…

Yes, age has a lot to do with that.

Finally, I’m just curious what other work you got directly as a result of Black Mountain. Did Pretty Girls Make Graves come there because of that?

Yes, and that then led to the Cave Singers. Then there’s this band from Toronto called the Ten Kens who got signed to Fat Cat. Then Fat Cat called me because they loved the Black Mountain record. So they sent me to Montreal to record at the Besnard Lakes’ studio, and that’s the best record I’ve done all year. They’d never played live. They sent a demo to Fat Cat and got signed based purely on the demo. They are like if Nirvana were playing the Unicorns, if that makes any sense. They’re older guys, very grunge influenced but they do a modern micro-prog thing where every song is a couple of songs pasted together. They are so rad, man. I wish I could see them live.

So you’ve never even seen them live!

No! Well, I recorded them, so I guess I’ve seen them play. I think since then they’ve played a couple of shows. They had a song that we didn’t record that WAS a Nirvana song. It wasn’t Bush or any of those other post-grunge bands trying to be Nirvana. They actually WERE Nirvana for that song. That’s the best gig I got out of the Black Mountain record, was this completely unknown band.

When does that come out?

I think in the spring. Fat Cat works very slowly. It hasn’t been mastered yet.


Note: the Ten Kens are profiled in this week's Eye Weekly, and open up for Deerhoof tomorrow (Wednesday March 5) at the Phoenix.

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