Q&A: Black Mountain's Stephen McBean on the Evolution of His "Psychedelic" Band

Far right: Stephen McBean
Far right: Stephen McBean
photo by Steve Gullick

Vancouver's Black Mountain are usually considered two things: 1) a musical collective spearheaded by guitarist/vocalist Stephen McBean; 2) heir apparent to some vague Black Sabbath torch. While the former isn't necessarily true--they've settled down as a five piece--their first two albums did demonstrate a striking fondness for sweet riffs. This September they returned with their third album Wilderness Heart. The metal still flourishes on cuts like "Old Fangs" and "Let Spirits Ride," but overall the devil-horn driven aesthetic has been exchanged a bit for more softer, flick-your-Bic moments.

Since Black Mountain headline the Bowery Ballroom tonight and the Music Hall of Williamsburg tomorrow, November 4, Sound of the City spoke with McBean about why bands don't struggle anymore, soup-kitchen touring, and the relative meaning of the sonic term "heavy."

Has Black Mountain kept a tally of how many times you've been referred to as 'psychedelic'?

[laughs]. Not a tally, but I guess that gets brought up and it maybe makes your spine cringe a bit. But whatever. I mean, it's the same thing like the "the band that's constantly touring with Coldplay." It's the same with the Zeppelin and Sabbath comparisons, but at the same time, that's pretty good company to get lumped in to--we take it as a compliment.

Those descriptors keep following you, but how do you see yourselves these days?

I don't know. All of us are at the point of our lives where we do what we want and gets us off; there's so much music we all love and that's the same too--when we're riff heavy, we get compared to Sabbath. But at the same time, we have a lot of folkie moments. We don't really worry about it, and do what we do, and people make up their own tags for it really.

Black Mountain's been around now for several years; are things easier these days for you all as musicians compared to when you were getting started, back in 2003-2004?

When we tour, we have a pretty wide base of people, as far as age. In Germany, 55-year-old rocker guys with their daughters, and then some indie kids, some punk kids. Certain people like the heavier stuff, for [others] it's all about [vocalist] Amber [Webber's] voice. People will latch onto the lyrics. That's special to us. But after five or six years, some of the songs off the first record are eight-years-old. But that's the thing about playing live--something connects with the audience, some electricity that sparks an emotion. That's kind meaning is special. If there's some feeling, that's pretty much the intent. If it's anger, anything really. When it's flat-lined, that's really the failure.

Do you still find the same joy in rock music as you did in those early days?

Yeah. I mean, when we started out, we had goals or missions that we wanted to achieve, that we've done. The whole thing about "indie" music now...most of us came from punk rock or "the underground" or whatever. Back when I was a kid, you didn't even think about, "This is paying your rent." Even the biggest bands--that just didn't happen. Then it's that weird thing, where it's happening [to us] and that's amazing, but how do we deal with that in an honest fashion. In a way that we can live with and try our best to have it be about the music, where it's fun and the people playing together and not have the [business] side effect you. There are so many underground bands that are making way more of a living than bands like in-their-day Hüsker Dü or all the SST bands, that were creating this blueprint of touring--with no Internet, just leaving calling cards on payphones. Now, it's weird, because you hang out with bands that are maybe struggling, but there's more of a carrot dangling in front of some kids' eyes. You play music and it should be from your heart and if it's not from your heart, fuck it, do something else. But there's no explanation as to why a band get's signed to a cool indie; it's just the way it is.

And it's weird when you hear of a band like Gang of Four asking fans to fund their new record, when you have bands that are well indebted to Gang of Four, and they have all those carrots surrounding them and they go and pick one. When I was a little kid back in Victoria, someone would get a phone number and then those bands would start coming there. It was probably part of what made that era so vital: the struggle.

Desperation is a critical factor.

That's kind of a thing with [Black Mountain] as it goes on. You got to keep in mind which shows are going to be best for your soul and heart. People will tell you which are better for your wallet, but it's that thing, when we first started, we just wanted to go to Europe. And then we got to go to Europe and have been there like 12 times in 5 years. In July, we finally got to go to Finland. I'd never been to Finland and it's a way to keep it exciting. You can't recreate being 18, sleeping in a van and eating a soup kitchens. I'm not 18 anymore and I've done that and it'd be miserable doing that for three months straight. The thing with life, you get older. When you're a kid, you like different foods and as an adult, you need to--

Find some Finnish cuisine.

Yeah.

The new album is called Wilderness Heart--do you have aversions to cities?

I like both. I like camping and swimming in lakes but I also like big, dirty urban places. They both drive me nuts after awhile.

The album seems to have a softer side of the band that I think existed before, but not as much: a song like "Radiant Hearts" sounds a lot like great Nick Drake songs, and "Buried by the Blues" and "Space of Your Mind"--there are these softer moments juxtaposes more against the uptempo moments that have a more thrashy sound.

It's that thing of trying to create moods that flows, even though there's one song like "Let Spirits Ride," where it's one of the heavier songs we've ever done, then there's "Buried by the Blues"--it's kind of a different interpretation of "heavy." Same with the shorter songs. I think when we were working on "Old Fangs," there was an intro and an outro and it was a six minute song, but then we said, "Do we need this?" But our next record could be really long songs.

Looking at the time, it's definitely more contained in terms of space, when looking at the previous two albums. For some musicians, learning to write in a short time frame is much harder.

Some of the songs...like "Set Us Free" is only seven minutes long because it's really slow. When the Ramones came up with their song, they still have the same amount of choruses and verses, they just played them really fast. But I've had that obsession over songwriting about timing.


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