Black Mountain puts the pedal to the metal on latest album, Destroyer
Story by Sarah Baranauskas
It takes a certain amount of courage to wait until you’re nearly 50 to get your driver’s license. But that’s the story of Stephen McBean. McBean, guitarist and frontman of psychedelic metal band Black Mountain, spoke with The Marquee on the phone from his Los Angeles home. His relaxed Cali beach bum rocker vibe, sounding like a man as likely to be found packing bowls as banging heads, belies the pedal-to-the-metal journey both he — and his band — have recently undertaken.
“I’ve been trying to be opposite McBean and do things I wouldn’t usually do,” he explained, of the decision to take the wheel. “I didn’t think I would ever drive, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost ten years now. One day, I just decided just to go for it. I loved it! But maybe I was also subliminally looking for some alternative inspiration for making a record as well because driving gave me this profound experience of listening to classic records for the first time while driving down the highway or through the city or in the desert. I was revisiting a lot of records and bands that I loved as a teenager, from Judas Priest to Pink Floyd to early punk and early rock and roll and stuff.”
The act of driving was not only the inspiration-igniting sparkplug for Black Mountain’s latest album, Destroyer (Jagjaguwar, 2019). It was also an integral part of the recording and producing process.
“There is usually something with records that you focus on that becomes a subliminal theme,” he reflected. “You can make records where you picture people listening to them while sitting in the back of a Greyhound bus, traveling across the country. However, in this one, the car was the muse. The songs I was gravitating to seemed to be more car orientated-songs.”
“I started going through demos while driving,” McBean continued. “So, yes, I wanted to get from point A to point B quicker in a car, but I also wanted to see if driving was creating any riff magic. Certain records make you want to speed, others make you want to slow down and take in the scenery. Before, I would always work on songs and then walk around with headphones [to listen to them]. But a car is your own little space, a little traveling apartment. So, I would put rough mixes or vocal takes on my phone and then drive around listening to them. It’s always good when you’re making records if you have something that separates yourself from the process. You can be separated from your attachments and insecurities, or the hang-ups you have for certain musical elements.”
Breaking attachments with the past was a large part of creating Destroyer, which found McBean and keyboardist/synth player Jeremy Schmidt the sole remaining founding members of Black Mountain after the departure of Matt Camirand, Amber Webber and Joshua Wells. McBean and Schmidt wanted to continue to make music together, so they called on various friends to jump on board in the band’s rehearsal space. These friends included: Arjan Miranda (bass), Rachel Fannan (vocals, of Sleepy Sun) and Adam Bulgasem (drums, of Dommengang and Soft Kill), Kliph Scurlock (Flaming Lips) and Kid Millions (Oneida). The approach was completely DIY, as McBean worked closely with Schmidt to whittle down the 22 tracks captured in the sessions.
Recording and producing the album himself, McBean reflected that, “There were times when I was losing it [laughs]and there were other days when the process made me really happy. But it was nice for me and Jeremy to focus on this together. We were pretty much on the same wavelength. There’s always a bit of band democracy to navigate when making a record, especially the more people that are involved. But, with art or music, democracy doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to follow the person who has the strongest vision so it isn’t watered down. Of course, there are a lot of ways it can work, or not work, but this time it felt right.”
Riffing on various one-word names, McBean and Schmidt settled on Destroyer, a word badass to the point of near absurdity. The title also hearkens back to the title of the breakthrough album of one of his childhood musical heroes. “When I was growing up, I just assumed everybody loved Kiss. But a lot of people don’t like Kiss or don’t even know Kiss,” McBean said, laughing. “I was six or seven when I first heard them and they were just the coolest to me. They spat blood and breathed fire! Plus, Ace Frehley has always been one of my favorite guitarists.”
McBean and Schmidt weren’t initially sure if Destroyer was going to be a Black Mountain record. “We wanted to be free of the chains of the band name and see what came out,” McBean explained. “As the recording took shape, it was different but it still had the spirit of Black Mountain. It is just the next phase.” The next phase of Black Mountain also included recruiting McFannan, Miranda and Bulgasem to join the band.
“There’s definitely a new energy,” McBean said. “Once we finished the record, we had to decide and figure out a live band. We’ve only been on one tour with the new lineup, so it’s hard to compare it to 12 or 15 years of a previous lineup. Bands are like marriages, you have baggage. As with anything, it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s the way human relationships go. But, for now, [the new members]are all really excited.”
It’s not hard to see why, as Destroyer is an exciting, ballsy rock and roll record, the type that may risk speeding tickets for listeners who choose it as a road trip soundtrack. But the tight tracks still reflect the varied sonic scenery of Black Mountain territory. “The songs are a little bit shorter on this record than the last one, so they are less sprawling, but there is definitely a lot of movements within those songs,” McBean described. “There is also more ridiculousness and fun, which I always love. Sometimes it’s nice to get deep into songwriting and be serious about it. But sometimes a good riff is all you need.”
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