There are, admittedly, automobiles that would better fit the story that has been spun for Black Mountain’s hard-charging and triumphant new full-length, Destroyer.
Think, for example, a Vanishing Point white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a pistol-grip shifter. Or a Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry citron-yellow 1969 Dodge Charger with a black racing stripe down the side and a 440-cubic-inch Magnum engine under the hood. Instead, when tracked down on his cell in Los Angeles, Black Mountain’s Stephen McBean confesses he opted for something a little more sensible when, after finally getting his driver’s licence in his late 40s, he bought his first set of wheels.
“I got a Jeep Cherokee,” the singer-guitarist says. “I needed something for camping that you can also put a Marshall stack, or at least half-stack, in. So it’s good for gear and other things. It was kind of a last-minute decision.”
The official story for Destroyer is that McBean spent a decent amount of time behind the wheel when he was working on the record—Black Mountain’s fifth full-length and first since the departure of long-time drummer Joshua Wells and singer Amber Webber. If a song sounded good when road-tested on the car stereo, the singer figured he was onto something.
Whether 100 percent real or embellished for dramatic effect, that narrative hints at what McBean was after with the album.
All tsunami-size riffs and mega-fuzz distortion, Destroyer is a towering throwback rock record—the kind that makes you want to blow the bank on a vintage El Camino, or Charger, or Challenger, or shag-carpeted Chevy van with an airbrushed Viking on the side and then crank things while driving through the desert at night, preferably with the windows rolled down and a pack of Marlboro Reds on the dash. Think of it as an artifact from the days when black-light posters were the height of rec-room fashion, orange-bead curtains hung in every doorway, and bumper stickers read “Gas, grass, or ass—no one rides for free.”
Destroyer kicks off in hypnotic fashion with the menacing “Future Shade”, where McBean sings of white hall servants and silver drone machines over bong-water guitar majesty and space-hazed synths. From there, Black Mountain proves again why it’s one of the greatest acts ever to spring from these parts. “Horns Arising” morphs from sci-fi sludge rocker to break-of-dawn acoustic meditation, “Boogie Lover” drips messy and druggy sex, and “FD 72” dresses up John Carpenter as the Thin White Duke for a gothic Halloween.
What makes the album doubly triumphant is that, after Wells and Webber left, McBean had a brief period when he wondered if Black Mountain was done. Addressing the departure of the two, whom he’d played with since the early 2000s, when Black Mountain was known as Jerk With a Bomb, he’s nothing but diplomatic, noting that he’s grateful to have shared time with them both as bandmates and friends. But he also understands why they moved on.
“You take people who are in bands together for a long time, or who have collaborative relationships, and then you add the rigours of touring for years,” McBean says, clearly not interested in delving into specifics. “Different people’s needs—creatively and personalitywise—change. And in the heat of certain moments, temperatures rise when they wouldn’t on a regular day—especially on touring days where there would be a bunch of Jameson’s. I guess it comes down to people wondering what’s right for them in their life, what’s right for them creatively, and what they want to do next.”
McBean, on the other hand, realized that he had not only something left to say, but also something to prove. The same went, he says, for keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, who’s played with Black Mountain since the band’s now-classic 2005 eponymous debut.
“I’ll admit,” McBean reveals, “whether you want to call it ego or whatnot, I’m the kind of person who would rather put out another record as Black Mountain and have the world hate it than to not try. Jeremy and I were very much in sync on that.”
Helping him move forward was Black Mountain’s long-time U.S. label, the indie heavyweight Jagjaguwar. Label reps asked for a lunch meeting with McBean, which made him think the band was about to be dropped. Instead, he was gently pushed to keep at it. So, backed by a rotating cast of friends that he’s played with over the years—including drummers Adam Bulgasem (Dommengang), Kliph Scurlock (ex Flaming Lips), and Kid Millions (Oneida)—McBean began writing and demoing songs. At first the singer—whose projects also include the bands Pink Mountaintops and Obliterations—wasn’t sure where he’d end up using them.
“I ended up recording, I think, 22 songs, with the three different drummers and a bunch of different bass players,” he says. “Once I sent the bed tracks up to Jeremy, and he sent back his synth wizardry, it was like, ‘This could be something else—something like a new band.’ It sounded different because there’s obviously different people playing. But the spirit of Black Mountain was, in our eyes, shining through the songs gloriously.’ So we decided ‘Let’s go for it.’ ”
That McBean’s still having fun with Black Mountain is reflected by the decision to call the new album Destroyer. He notes that Josh Wells now both plays drums in and has acted as a producer for Dan Bejar’s long-running Vancouver indie group Destroyer. Destroyer was also the title of the 1976 album that finally broke Kiss in the mainstream.
“To be honest I’ve been surprised—and maybe it’s a sign of age—how many people haven’t referenced that it’s pretty much the most famous Kiss record,” McBean says with a laugh. “But then again, some people haven’t picked up on the whole Bejar thing and Josh joining Destroyer. There’s definitely a playfulness and a bit of sly humour.”
And then there’s also the official party line that Black Mountain’s Destroyer was named after a Dodge muscle car that was discontinued in 1985. After being stated as fact in the band’s bio, it’s been brought up in practically every article written about the record.
That no such car, according to Google, seems to have ever existed makes one wonder about the entire elaborate—and faithfully repeated—back story that’s been spun for Destroyer. For all anyone knows, McBean road-tested the songs in the back seat of an Uber.
And that’s fine, because it doesn’t change one bit the reality that Destroyer is a record that, brilliantly, sounds like it was meant to be blared on 8-track while ripping through Death Valley in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback, preferably in Bullitt green, with a V8 engine. Whatever the true story is behind the creation of Destroyer, McBean has no doubt that he did the right thing with Black Mountain.
“I try to keep challenging myself and to not be afraid of trying new things,” he says. “I can say that I really like the new record a lot, and I’m really proud of it. We made it in the jam space, kind of like our first one, so we weren’t taking money from the label to record in a fancy studio. That meant we weren’t being tied to calling what we were doing Black Mountain. And that really kept us free.”
Black Mountain headlines the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (September 14) as part of the Westward Music Festival.