Vancouver’s enigmatic Black Mountain reinvents progressive rock for the Facebook generation
Because rock ’n’ roll fans love to mythologize their heroes, dubious details about Black Mountain abound. The Vancouver quintet hasn’t quite achieved iconic status yet, but it has stirred up sufficient buzz to ensure that erroneous ideas have made the rounds.
Singer-guitarist Stephen McBean must shoulder some of the responsibility for that, given his proclivity for writing grandiosely apocalyptic lyrics and his utter refusal to interpret them for inquiring journalists. But that doesn’t explain the popular misconception that he and fellow Black Mountain vocalist Amber Webber are siblings, or the suggestion by one Wikipedia editor that the band’s name “could be a reference to a large pile of hashish”.
That last one seems to amuse drummer Joshua Wells and bassist Matthew Camirand, who, along with Webber, have met with the Georgia Straight at Mount Pleasant’s Our Town Café. “When I first found the Wikipedia entry, I found that on it,” Wells notes. “And there was tons of other shit that people had made up or thought about us, and I sort of corrected some of the facts, but I left that one.”
“A journalist asked me that in Europe on this last tour,” says Camirand, whose heavily inked arms are a Technicolor reminder of his days with local punk upstarts the Black Halos. “And I had never heard that, but I was like, ”˜Whoa—that’s so good.’ I mean, it’s a great metaphor or whatever. I had never even thought of that.”
So, let’s set the record straight: the members of Black Mountain do not have day jobs at an insane asylum, nor do they all bunk together in the same house. The latter notion stems from the first bio that the group’s U.S. label, Jagjaguwar, sent out, which lent the impression that the band was a front for some sort of revolutionary commune—a collective of musicians, artists, and all-around shit-disturbers called the Black Mountain Army.
Says Camirand: “I think somebody at the label wrote it, and we kind of naively approved it, and didn’t really realize the repercussions of it. It’s partly our own fault for that, and we swore we’d never make that mistake again, but I’m sure you can’t really help it. My old band went through the exact same thing.”
“Whatever you write in your bio is going to come back to haunt you,” Wells points out.
“Those fucking lazy journalists are just going to go right in there and dig it out,” Camirand adds with a wry smile.
Here’s what we know for sure: Black Mountain emerged on the local music scene roughly four years ago as a renamed and reinvigorated version of McBean and Wells’s previous project, the wonderfully named Jerk With a Bomb. The new outfit’s debut EP, Druganaut, and subsequent eponymous album, both released in 2005, earned slavering reviews from the likes of Pitchfork, made a confirmed fan of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, and scored Black Mountain an opening slot on a Coldplay tour.
We also know that the band has a new album coming out on Tuesday (January 22). The expansive In the Future (released domestically by Vancouver’s own Scratch Records) finds the band at its most ambitious, welding ferocious hand-of-doom guitar riffs to passages of interstellar-overdrive ambiance.
The disc sounds a great deal slicker than its predecessors, largely because the group could afford to lavish attention on the smallest details. Over a late breakfast at South Granville’s Caffe Barney, McBean and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt reveal that Black Mountain had a starting budget of approximately $1,000 for its first full record—a figure it quickly exceeded. By contrast, In the Future cost about $20,000 to make. Part of that princely sum went toward hiring John Congleton to mix the record.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on in some of the mixes, and he was really able to animate it, in a way,” Schmidt says of the Grammy-nominated engineer, whose CV includes work with the Polyphonic Spree, Modest Mouse, and Explosions in the Sky. “He didn’t fidget too much with various sounds, he just had a way of kind of corroborating all of these tracks into something that made sense, and that had dynamics built into it in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have stumbled across with our very rudimentary sense of mixing. He brought things to life, and added a bit of polish that might not have been there otherwise.”
A benefit of the disc’s high-gloss mixes is that they bring Schmidt’s contributions to the fore. Whether he’s adding Jon Lord–style heft to “Stormy High”, with its whirlwind of Hammond organ, or deftly layering reverberating drones to transport “Bright Lights” to the dark side of the moon, the keyboardist is all over In the Future.
“Playing keyboards in kind of heavy rock, it often doesn’t make sense to some people, whereas I think keyboards add a contrast to guitars—a different heaviness, sort of a cosmic heaviness or something,” Schmidt asserts. “I don’t think it softens things up or anything. I think they complement each other well.”
Given the epic scope of some of its songs—the aforementioned “Bright Lights” is almost 17 minutes long, and “Tyrants” veers from sludge-metal to pastoral folk-rock over its eight surround-sound minutes—it’s not much of a stretch to classify In the Future as that most uncool of things: a progressive-rock record. Schmidt admits to a long-standing love of King Crimson and Emerson Lake & Palmer, but he is understandably reticent to put his own band’s efforts on a par with the titans of the much-maligned genre.
“All that music exhibits this kind of crazy musicianship,” he says. “It’s really complex and over the top. There’s none of that in our band. I mean, we can’t play that way and we don’t aspire to be complex in that way, but just the idea of creating arrangements and dynamics within the arrangements”¦”
In any case, an argument could be made that the prog-rock label is a better fit than stoner rock, which is what Black Mountain usually gets called. Stroking his trademark beard, which has grown from Christ-like to Rip Van Winkle–esque, McBean insists he doesn’t even know what stoner rock is. On the other hand, he won’t complain when someone compares his music favourably to that of his heroes.
“There are certain reference points that we always get that, even though some of them seem weird, some of them make sense and most of them are quite complimentary,” the singer says between mouthfuls of egg. “On the first record, we always got Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, and Black Sabbath, and it’s like, ”˜Fuck, we wish.’ In theory, that’s pretty much the ultimate band.”
Schmidt isn’t the only member of Black Mountain whose contributions to the band’s aesthetic are brought into sharper focus on In the Future. Webber’s backing vocals add depth to McBean’s drawl throughout the record, and she takes the lead in a few spots, most notably on “Night Walks”. That number’s sombre, midnight-mass atmosphere closes the album on a contemplative note, with Webber singing lyrics that she herself wrote. She says that her stepping toward centre stage is just a part of Black Mountain’s ongoing evolution.
“I don’t think it was really planned,” she states. “We were touring for so long, and writing these new songs, and you just end up putting more into it when it becomes your life. Black Mountain is the one thing we do that takes up, like, half the year, so you just naturally want to put more into it.”
Webber points out that the band still wasn’t fully formed the first time it entered the studio, whereas In the Future was a more cohesive group effort. Camirand agrees. “The first record was so spontaneous,” he recalls. “We started recording the bass on the album two days after I joined the band. Jeremy wasn’t even in the band, and did his stuff later. So it’s just the natural growth of people playing together. It’s turned into more of a band of five people, as opposed to a vision with people dropping into it. It was more of a recording project when we first started, and then very quickly turned into a band.”
And Black Mountain is a band whose following looks set to expand exponentially when it heads out on a two-month North American tour in February and March, to be followed by European dates in May. Even if these hometown heroes fail to conquer the rock world, well, that’s beside the point.
“We try not to set ourselves up with too great expectations,” Wells says. “I think that’s a little bit dangerous. We just try to have fun. Basically we just push ourselves to make something that’s better than the last thing we did. That’s all that we’re working towards. If you think about what other people are expecting, that kind of poisons things.”
As for McBean, it seems that as long as Black Mountain finds favour with what he calls “the hesher element”, he’ll be happy. “Rockers are the last music lovers who, 100 years from now, will still be going out to shows and buying records, trying to find a new band, and coming up front having a good time while everyone else is cross-arming it in the back, going ”˜Hmm, I think I like this,’” he says. “Rockers don’t fucking care. They love music.”
Now that sounds like a statement you can bank on.