Black Mountain: Let’s Get Lost

Making high art that seems to imitate the down and druggy neighborhoods of their native Vancouver, the members of Black Mountain are not your typical stoners. By Michael Barclay

When Stephen McBean looks In The Future—the title of the second album by his band, Black Mountain—he sees a world ruled by tyrants and bastards, spilling blood and conjuring devils and demons. Yet McBean insists he’s an upbeat guy.

“Everyone wants to have a good life and happiness despite all the depressing elements of the world and the stuff that weighs you down,” muses the Black Mountain singer/guitarist. “There’s a lot of great things to celebrate: friends, your community.”

This makes sense coming from someone whose band’s 2005 self-titled debut boasted an anthem with the refrain, “Don’t run our hearts around.” But In The Future (Jagjaguwar) features the hounds of hell and Lucifer himself joining in the blood orgy. McBean denies browsing John Milton or the Book of Revelation. He did, however, read something about Mayan culture that inspired the song “Wucan.”

“There is this ceremonial dance that [Mayan] children would do at the funerals of their grandparents, as the bodies were being cremated,” he says. “They would dance around to protect the spirit from the devils who would try and drag it down to purgatory.”

Of course, McBean could be bullshitting.

“In a way, ‘Wucan’ is the flakiest song on the album,” laughs drummer Josh Wells. “Lyrically, it’s the most stoned.”

It’s hard to talk about Black Mountain without mentioning drugs. Indeed, it’s hard to talk about the band’s hometown of Vancouver without mentioning drugs. Contrary to popular perception, pot is, in fact, still illegal in Canada, though that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the largest industries in the province of British Columbia. As any toker knows, B.C. bud is renowned for its potency. Listening to McBean’s slack answers and stoner giggle—never mind his band’s bong-heavy grooves—it’s hard to believe assertions that drugs don’t play a role in the group’s music.

Most of the members of Black Mountain have first-hand experience with the dark side of addiction via day jobs in Vancouver’s East Side, where heroin abuse has left the needle-strewn landscape populated by walking ghosts. Four members have worked at Insite, North America’s only safe injection site. But most stoners don’t boast the kind of prolific productivity that’s emerged from the Black Mountain camp. Each member has a worthy side project, and Wells plays with most of them, including McBean’s Pink Mountaintops.

McBean and Wells met in the early ’90s when they were both in hardcore bands. They became roommates, collected welfare, nursed broken hearts and spent a lot of time making music together, first in a post-punk band called Ex Dead Teenager, then as the stripped-down duo Jerk With A Bomb. The latter put out three CDs and one cassette, each one increasingly dark and paranoid, rife with the kind of dystopian ennui that inspired Vancouver writers William Gibson and Douglas Coupland. “This town is full of haunted lost souls,” sang McBean on Jerk With A Bomb’s 2001 album The Old Noise, “lined up and loveless against the wall.”

Vancouver’s juxtaposition of glass buildings and natural splendor—bordered by mountains and ocean, with an old growth forest in the middle of the city—is paralleled in McBean’s lyrics, where he’s often searching for sanctuary from structural oppression. He finds refuge in the arms of friends, lovers and hydroponic helpers.

One obvious solace for McBean is his record collection. As he gets older, the 38-year-old McBean is much less self-conscious about letting his influences show. When Black Mountain came out in 2005, it was impossible to read anything about it that didn’t make references to Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones or the Velvet Underground. And it wasn’t a case of music journalists avoiding their own original descriptors: The sound of each of those artists was immediately apparent.

Black Mountain’s detractors argue that McBean is a petty thief mining some of the most obvious clichés in the rock ’n’ roll textbook. It’s hard to argue—even the modest McBean himself would agree—but it requires a rare gift to turn that sonic scavenger hunt into something captivating in its own right. As the old academic aphorism goes: If you steal from one, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.

“You realize that you put self-important rules on yourself, like, ‘Oh, that sounds like so-and-so,’” says McBean. “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.”

A Vancouver-based recording engineer, Colin Stewart has known McBean and Wells for more than 10 years, since their Ex Dead Teenager days. (That band’s one unreleased album is available for download at the website for Stewart’s studio, The Hive.) Since then, he’s worked in some capacity on every album by Jerk With A Bomb, Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops. Stewart says he doesn’t see Black Mountain’s revivalism as a step backward at all.

“[McBean] is really inspired by taking all these classic songs and rewriting them,” says Stewart. “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; he’s really open about that. But it works. It’s rewriting these great themes, making those songs modern again.”

Both McBean and Wells believe that embracing their influences was simply about getting older.

“You realize you’re not shocking anyone, so you should do something fun,” says Wells. “Ex Dead Teenager was angular and post-punk. At some point I thought, ‘I actually want this to be groovy. I want this to feel awesome, not jarring and weird.’”

Jerk With A Bomb’s 1999 debut was titled Death To False Metal, which led to misconceptions about the band being more aggro than it actually was. In the beginning, McBean mostly played acoustic guitar, while Wells played a small drum kit standing up, Violent Femmes style. Even back then, McBean was conscious that original ideas were rare in rock ’n’ roll. The liner notes to False Metal read, “Songs 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,’” says McBean. “After a while, you realize, ‘When I die, I’ll probably be proud of 51 percent of what I did.’ Ninety percent would be better, but that’s a bit of a reach.”

Black Mountain began in 2004 as little more than Jerk With A Bomb with a more palatable name and an expanded lineup, including vocalist Amber Webber and bassist Christoph Hofmeister. Former Black Halos bassist Matt Camirand replaced Hofmeister in the studio while recording the debut, and local synth wizard Jeremy Schmidt contributed to several tracks.

“[Black Mountain] was still very much a Josh and Steve record, and concise in its vision,” says Stewart. “Everyone else was just a musician. On [In The Future], I saw these bigger discussions—certainly not arguments, it was very democratic—about what would happen next in each song. Everyone contributed ideas.” Though he loves the end result, Stewart does pause for a second. “I’m not sure if that was for the best or not.”

In The Future is the first real band album by Black Mountain, made after all of its members spent some time off tending to their own records. As a result, much of In The Future sounds like cast-off material from the often-superior side projects: Webber’s monotonous drone on “Night Walks” doesn’t hold a candle to her spooky songwriting in Lightning Dust; the folky “Stay Free” pales in comparison to the rootsy leanings of Camirand’s Blood Meridian; the ambient synth noodling on “Bright Lights” is child’s play next to Schmidt’s psych explorations as Sinoia Caves. Even the seemingly tossed-off solo recordings from McBean’s Pink Mountaintops albums hold together better than most of these songs. Wells, however, doesn’t see such a big difference between the two Black Mountain releases.

“Even on the first record, there is a lot of [the whole band’s] input on those songs,” he says. “When [McBean] writes, they’re like campfire songs. Collectively, we make it into a rock-band song. The way our albums turn out comes in the way we treat the songs in the studio. And we’re all really opinionated.”

One welcome change on In The Future is the increased role of Webber, whose quavering alto is the cool glacial river running down the side of Black Mountain. McBean first heard her sing in a band called Dream On Dreary and enlisted her for Pyrokinesis, the final Jerk With A Bomb album. Webber provides a foil to the sludgy grooves and sets Black Mountain apart from its more lunkheaded contemporaries.

“Her voice is so strong that it changes the whole spectrum, so that it’s not just four dudes rocking out,” says McBean. “When we started to get heavier, I had this latent paranoia of becoming a rock band. I wanted to keep the folkier elements of what we were doing. It sounds silly to say, but 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. Amber’s voice adds this calm that brings everything back.”

McBean says this from the back of a tour van somewhere between Portland and Seattle, on a pre-release fall tour for In The Future that sent even seasoned stoner-rock audiences scrambling for their earplugs. There’s little room for subtlety at a Black Mountain live show: After opening with Webber’s hushed “Night Walks,” the rest of the set took a scorched-earth approach. Yet McBean says, “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. We’re all restless people, so we like going back and forth. The next record could be a folk record. I don’t know.”

While writing In The Future, McBean was listening to the West Side Story soundtrack and the first album by black-metal band Venom. It’s hard to detect any trace of the former, but his experience with demonic thrash metal goes back to 1987, during his days as a ninth-grade dropout in Victoria, B.C., playing in a band called Mission Of Christ. The group put out two tapes and a seven-inch single, was signed to Metal Blade and broke up because, according to McBean, “we, uh, lived a little fast.” Despite never having learned to drive, McBean has been a touring musician ever since.

But before the first Black Mountain album started landing them accolades and an opening slot for Coldplay (bassist Guy Berryman is a fan), McBean and Wells were ready to pack it in.

“Just before Black Mountain got signed to Jagjag-uwar, it was the first time I’d ever seen Josh look despondent,” says Stewart. “He looked miserable. He was saying, ‘My band’s not going anywhere. Fuck this.’”

“Things got worse as [Jerk With A Bomb] got better,” says McBean. “One of the final straws was in Minne-apolis, where we played with some funk-metal band who did a cover of the Inspector Gadget theme. I remember 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; there were special shows on all those tours. Just when you’re ready to pack it in and lose your mind, there will be something that makes it worthwhile.”

That’s why—despite the devils and demons that inhabit his lyrics—McBean remains an optimist.