Monday, March 03, 2008

Black Mountain: Steve McBean

There's a popular theory that says the music you love for the rest of your life is the music you fall in love with between the ages of 16 and 25. That's the age when music means everything, when everything sounds new, when you're willing to defend your musical choices to the death and choose most of your social relations along these segregated lines.

While this is true of music fans, one likes to believe that musicians themselves evolve and grow and discover new frontiers to challenge them--sadly, this is not often the case. But every so often a band like Black Mountain comes along with an album like their 2005 debut, which gloriously ripped off so many obvious 70s touchstones--Black Sabbath, the Velvet Underground, Krautrock, the Rolling Stones and glam without the ham--yet did it with such exhilaration and authenticity that its lack of originality hardly mattered; even less so if you grew up on classic rock. Especially when you have a drummer like Josh Wells steering the ship, and the haunting vibrato vocals of Amber Webber acting as a counterpoint to Steve McBean's impish manchild celebrating "no hits!" and taking a phrase like "we can't stand your modern music! we feel afflicted" and turning it into a taunt rather than a resignation.

Black Mountain rose from the ashes of a criminally undercelebrated Vancouver band with the unfortunate name of Jerk With a Bomb (I wrote an essay for CBC Radio 3 about them for the now-defunct magazine, now no longer anywhere on the web), whose third album Pyrokinesis I had this to say about in a recent issue of Magnet devoted to forgotten treasures:

Pyrokinesis (Scratch, 2002)
Before they scaled mountaintops and coloured them pink and black with
newfound comrades in arms, East Vancouver's Steve McBean and Josh
Wells were still a duo dodging men in uniform, running with thieves,
and committing acts of corporate sabotage in the streets of their
crooked city. They searched for signs of love and hope underneath "the
bloody weight of history," and found some by letting others into their
strictly stuckist guitar and drums universe, including some dirty
keyboards they dragged from the dumpster. This is the wasted landscape
and deconstruction that was necessary for their rebirth as Black
Mountain, where they discovered optimism amidst increasingly sludgy

I have a long feature on Black Mountain in the new issue of Magnet, which I wrote before I had many good things at all to say about their new album In the Future. After being quite smitten with the side projects Blood Meridian and Lightning Dust (McBean's Pink Mountaintops project less so--it just sounds lazy to me), I was sadly unimpressed with their live show back in the fall (reviewed here for Eye Weekly). And though I've warmed a bit to the new material--though the 17-minute "Bright Lights" is still atrocious--it still doesn't hold a candle to the burst of energy heard on the debut.

No matter--they're on tour right now and you can make up your own mind. (Lee's Palace in Toronto tomorrow night, more dates here.)

Part one of this three-part series starts with vocalist/guitarist Steve McBean, who has a long and storied history in Vancouver/Victoria punk rock. This conversation was conducted over the course of two days on a shitty cell phone signal; it has been severely edited, pasted together, and my questions are almost entirely reconstructed.

Steve McBean
October 26-27, 2007
locale: cell phone from the tour van

I’m curious about the lyrical evolution on your albums since Jerk With a Bomb, which started out being very personal and dark. By the time of Pink Mountaintops and Black Mountain, there was this sense of celebration and embracing life despite the darkness at the door; while this new album seems to dwell on tyrants, witches, blood, demons…

On the first two JWAB records, there was some stuff lyrically where when you play it live and sing it again, it was hard to deal with. It’s hard to go back to that stuff when you’re in a good mood. On the third one it became separated from the self, lyrically.

When JWAB started, I was sick of yelling all the time in punk bands. When it got to Black Mountain, it was still going to be dark, but not the weight of “everything sucks.” Traveling more and meeting lots of people, it’s a bit more of a celebration, even though it has a dark tone. At the end of the day, everyone wants to have a good life and happiness despite all the depressing elements of the world and the stuff that weigh you down. There’s lot of great things to celebrate: friends, your community.

Were you reading Milton while writing this album?

No, but I was listening to a lot of Venom. That and the West Side Story soundtrack. Both of those spawned “Evil Ways.” I was watching a documentary on Leonard Bernstein and listening to the first Venom album, and so I tried to force them together a bit.

Tell me about your teenage metal band, Mission of Christ. When was that exactly?

Mission of Christ was when I was 16-18. We put out two tapes and a seven-inch. We got signed to Metal Blade, and we were signed to Alchemy, which put out the Melvins and Poison Ivy. We were really young. We never released an album, because, uh, we lived a little fast, maybe. Plus, it was 1987 and none of us had a job or a van and we didn’t know how the hell we could tour. The rest of them were in school. I was kicked out of school in grade nine because I was a bad kid.

Running with the devil?

Pretty much. It was kind of a choice, too. Grade school was fine, but high school was just fucked. I couldn’t deal with the social circles and the teachers. If you were different in any way you were basically screwed. It’s funny, I run into the preps now and everyone’s older and it’s all fine. Even though it sucked at the time, in the end it makes you come into your own more. It’s one of the reasons I still love playing music with friends and driving around in a van, because when I was young it was a real struggle with my parents. I’d have to hide my punk records from my parents and sneak off to punk shows, so it meant that much more to me. I’m 38, I don’t have my driver’s license, and I spend all my time in vans. We’d still do it, even it was more financially difficult.

What were you into as a teenager?

Slayer, Venom, Celtic Frost, COC, DRI. I got Pink Floyd’s The Wall for my birthday when I was eight. When you’re a teenager, all teenagers want their own thing. There’s the band that you love and you can actually see them live and there’s the excitement and thrill of all that. It seems funny, because when I was into Zeppelin and all that shit, it was only maybe five years gone. But to me at that time, listening to Zeppelin was like listening to your grandpa’s records.

What is listening to Black Mountain like for kids today?

Like listening to a dead corpse!

...When you’re a kid and you expand on [your first loves], you wander through life and discover stuff along the way. There’s a lot music available now that was too obscure back then, too, or it was just a collector’s record. Like the more obscure 60s and 70s psych, the German stuff—not Kraftwerk, but the other stuff. Unless you had an older brother who was totally in the know about Amon Duul and all that stuff, you wouldn't know. There’s also a lot of stuff from back then that might be rare but it isn’t that good. I’ve also heard lots of great 60s R&B and soul singers that I’ve never heard of before, just from reading some blog.

Why did you invite Amber Webber into Jerk With a Bomb? How did you first hear of her?

Jerk With a Bomb played a couple of shows with her band Dream on Dreary. I first heard them in [merch man] Warren Hill’s car… Her voice is so strong that it changes the whole spectrum so that it’s not just four dudes rocking out. For the longest time when we started to get heavier, I had this latent paranoia of becoming a rock band. I didn’t want that; I wanted to keep the folkier elements of what we were doing. It sounds silly to say, but I was like, ‘I don’t want to totally rock; I want to partially rock.’ When I say ‘rock’ I mean that male testosterone thing where it’s indiscriminately aggressive for no reason. With Amber’s voice it adds this calm to it that brings everything back…

I didn’t want the rock to take over. I really like the more lush, pretty and beautiful points of our music, like Jeremy’s stuff and Amber’s voice. I think we’re all restless people, so we like going back and forth. The next record could be a folk record, I don’t know.

When did you know that Jerk With a Bomb would morph into something different?

On the last Jerk With a Bomb tour, things were pretty low key—to put it mildly. I remember wondering, do I want to do this anymore? There was a slight desperation there. That band had run its course. It was fun, but we wanted to move on to something that was a bit more us. Sometimes that little panic helps and makes you refocus.

Sometimes when either listening or playing music, people get lazy and listen to the same things over and over. Or you can be like you were when you were a kid and search out new stuff. You have to love listening to music if you’re playing it. If you’re jaded and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I fucking hate music’—then why the hell are you playing it? Why not do something else? And if you hate touring, then don’t do it.

With JWAB, we had three records out. It wasn’t a question of whether or not we were going to throw all that away, because it was done and it wasn’t feasible to tour anymore. It was depressing and things got worse as the band got better. We played in Minneapolis, which was one of the final straws. We played with some funk metal band who did a cover of the Inspector Gadget theme, and I remember just thinking, ‘This fucking blows. I’d much rather be lying face down in a bag of puke in the middle of a cornfield.’ I don’t mean to sound like a whiner—on all those tours there were special shows. Just when you’re ready to pack it in and lose your mind there will be something that makes it worthwhile.

How did the shift to becoming Black Mountain go over in Vancouver?

When Black Mountain started there were all sorts of new bands, all these new kids who were excited about live music. There were a few years there where every show had the same 30 people at them. Then these kids came and started waving their fists around. When there’s an audience reacting in a certain way, it helps. For a lot of bands in Vancouver, it felt like good times again. People started taking off their backpacks and started dancing again…

When we were talking about the shift from JWAB to the Pink and Black shit, it’s almost like you realize that you put so many self-important rules on yourself, like, ‘Oh, that sounds like so-and-so.’ Then you become less uptight about making each song sound totally original, or using the same line as something else. Rock’n’roll should be fun.

On the first JWAB CD, the liner notes tell us that the “songs are property of those we stole them from.”

That probably stemmed from that twentysomething punk rock attitude of saying, ‘Oh no, we’re not really proud of this.’ Then after a while, you realize that, yeah, when I die I’ll probably be proud of 51 per cent of what I did. Ninety per cent would be better, but that’s a bit of a reach.


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