Pink Mountaintops’ Stephen McBean goes primitive
If Stephen McBean seems in a reflective mood on the new Pink Mountaintops album, Get Back, it’s for good reason.
“In the last three years, if I look at my friends from Victoria—people that I grew up with—there’s been a lot of loss,” the formerly Vancouver-based singer-songwriter says, on the line from his adopted home of Los Angeles.
“Crazy amounts of great people, leaving planet Earth, to the point where I was, ‘Aaaghhh—what the fuck is going on?’ I don’t know if the record was meant as a response to that, but that is obviously going to come out, because it affects me, and it affects people I love. It’s really weird getting older. Even though I still feel really young, there’s that thing of life where, when you are young, you’re kind of immortal. Even though things may happen to people like your grandparents, death doesn’t really affect you in a way that puts you in a position of kind of staring your own mortality in the face.”
Heavy as this conversation topic is, the 45-year-old musician is in a good place on the day the Straight tracks him down in Tinseltown. He’s walking along Sunset Boulevard in the warm California sunshine, happy to have made the move from Lotusland almost a half-decade ago.
“When I was living in Vancouver the timing was right,” he explains. “I didn’t have a day job at the time. And being from Victoria and Vancouver, California to me was kind of like the dream for skateboarding and stuff, even though I don’t do that down here much. I came down here for a girl, and it was amazing. But then there was love lost, as happens.”
At first, there was some acclimatizing to be done.
“L.A. seemed really weird,” McBean says. “Before I moved here, I wouldn’t really know what to do. I’d just walk around Hollywood Boulevard and stuff. Then I started to get to know all the little neighbourhoods and places and, you know, become really good friends with Slash and Axl Rose and go to all their penthouse parties.”
McBean has ended up with a tight network of friends in Los Angeles, his connections coming from playing the city countless times with both Pink Mountaintops and his other full-time project, Black Mountain. Chief among them is Joe Cardamone of the Icarus Line.
That friendship would also spur McBean to get serious about Pink Mountaintops, with Cardamone playing a big role in the recording of Get Back. By bouncing ideas off the Icarus Line singer, who owns his own studio, McBean gradually realized that he wanted to get back to basics.
So where Pink Mountaintops’ previous record, Outside Love, was a somewhat mellow affair, recorded largely as a two-piece, Get Back is a raucous full-band effort, the songs fleshed out by an army of backing musicians including the likes of Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Annie Hardy of Giant Drag, and members of Dead Meadow, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Clawhammer.
The result is one of the brilliant records of 2014. Things get off to a driving start with the metronomic rocker “Ambulance City”, where McBean starts out singing and then decides he’d rather scream himself silly. “Through All the Worry” is the Jesus and Mary Chain dialled down for the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, while “New Teenage Mutilation” loads up the boogie-blown ’70s riffage, complete with more cowbell.
“On this record, and it was partly from working with Joe Cardamone, I really tried to take an almost primitive approach,” McBean says. “It was almost like an unlearning of things. The goal was to keep it from the gut and from the heart. And sometimes that’s hard, because, as you go along, you get better at your instrument, to the point where you go, ‘Fuck—I might be too good.’ ”
Elaborating on that, McBean says the goal was to recapture, on some abstract level, the spirit of his younger years.
“With rock ’n’ roll, especially in this day and age, where there is so much of it, it’s nice when you hear a really good song, and it takes you back,” he says. “When it doesn’t really sound like another song, but still stops time, and transports you to a place where you remember love, hate, or whatever insanity was a big part of your life.”
McBean’s love of that time is nowhere more evident than on “The Second Summer of Love”. A slash-and-burn guitar rocker, the set-in-Victoria-circa-1987 love letter has him paying tribute to, among other things, dropout girls smoking Export “A”s, H-bomb scares, skateboards, and crimped black hair. That sense of reflection also colours numbers like “Sixteen” (“Sixteen was the sound of smashing glass just for kicks”). While there’s a sense of sentimentality to Get Back, there’s nothing about the record that seems what McBean laughingly describes as “soft”.
“With the Icarus Line, Joe has done a lot of crazy, fucked-up shit,” he says. “At the time we started hanging out, I was listening to a lot of stuff like the Flying Nun [Records label] bands. Maybe because I was a hardcore kid, I didn’t pay attention to stuff like that, or Radio Birdman and the Saints and the Clean. I was like, at the time, ‘Well, it’s okay, but it’s slow.’ Now that I’m older and have gone soft, I can appreciate that stuff. So I had a group of songs that kind of fit together, and what Joe gravitated to was the heartfelt ones. At first I was, ‘He’s going to like the hard songs, because the other ones are all schmaltzy.’ But he was like, ‘Whatever—all that matters is that you’re singing from your heart.’ ”
So if Get Back sounds rooted in McBean’s past, that’s not by accident. Even if some of his friends from back in the day are now gone, the singer remains grateful for his younger-years memories of being obsessed with music and everything about it.
“When you wake up in the morning, and you’re on tour in Prague or whatever, it’s insane,” McBean says. “When I was in [Black Mountain precursor] Jerk With a Bomb, or any of my punk bands, if someone had said that would happen, I would have been, ‘Oh my God—shut up.’ It’s that kind of thing that puts perspective on everything.”
Pink Mountaintops plays the Fox Cabaret on Friday (May 23).