“You can have as many fuzz pedals as you want,” says Black Mountain frontman Stephen McBean, shown here with his’77 Les Paul Standard, “but don’t let your pedals control you.” Photo by Amdo Photo
Black Mountain’s fourth LP, IV, may be chock-full of eight-minute psychedelic outings, but it’s no rambling noodlefest. Packed with careful arrangements and thoughtful orchestration, the Vancouver, B.C., quintet led by guitarist and founder Stephen McBean creates a textured, brooding, sophisticated mood that captures and holds your attention—an unexpected perk from a band critics tend to mislabel.
McBean started playing acoustic guitar when he was 8, later got a paper route to save up for an electric, and then began performing in the early ’80s with bands playing a mishmash of thrash, hardcore, noise, and Northwestern Pacific weirdo music. His other projects—which he still tours and records with—include indie outfit Pink Mountaintops, and a hardcore band called Obliterations.
We recently spoke with McBean about remembering riffs, playing loud, the ghosts lurking in his arsenal of beat-up gear—some of it classic, some of it cheap—and the merits (or lack thereof) of recording to tape.
When did you first start gigging and playing in bands?
The first show was in ’83. We were like 12 and 13, and we actually opened for Scream from Washington, D.C. They were the band that the now-famous Dave Grohl played drums for—although he wasn’t with them yet. It was at OAP Hall in Victoria. We were so young and we had these weird ideas. Like, we tuned the third fret of the bass to open E so that me and the bass player would be on different frets but still be in tune—we figured that if it was just tuned lower it would be more bass-y. So we really had no clue, which was kind of the beauty of it—the whole beauty of that era of punk, hardcore, and American and Canadian weirdo music.
You were playing punk and hardcore?
We did that. There were three of us, and we all just started playing. Then we morphed into more crossover metal stuff—kind of thrashy stuff—as that scene happened. We were the right age for that. I think some of the older punks were into Gang of Four and stuff like that, and we were like, “Fuck that. We’re playing fast.”
What was the genesis of Black Mountain?
That was me and Josh [Wells, drums]. I got a 4-track and while learning how to use it, I made these demos of this band called Jerk with a Bomb. It would be everything from folk to noise to whatever. We did it for shits and giggles—you know, like, once a year or something. It grew out of me wanting to just strip everything down to this minimal songwriting—after being a punk/metalhead for a while, I just wanted to write riffs again, turn up the Marshall or the Hiwatt, and kick on a fuzz pedal. Then Amber [Webber, vocals] joined and we started combining the folk with stuff like the Velvet Underground or whatever. Slowly, the sound morphed as the band expanded. We got a bass player and eventually most of the first record was written before we became Black Mountain. We recorded the record and then Jeremy [Schmidt, keyboards] joined.
How do you keep track of the riffs you come up with?
Phones, computer, or sometimes if they’re good enough, they’ll just stick with you.
You don’t ever forget them?
I do more now. When I was a teenager and we were playing the thrash stuff—when you’re learning your instrument and you get excited about learning, you go through certain periods where you’re into being really technical—we’d have these songs that would be four or five minutes long with, like, 15 parts.
The band's fourth album—simply titled IV—is their first since 2010's Wildnerness Heart.
Can you talk a bit about arranging and orchestration? The new album has a number of fairly long songs, but they aren’t boring and they don’t aimlessly wander.
On the first record, there were more songs where we tried to find a vibe and maybe ride it out more. On this one, things keep moving. Most of the time there is a rough song—it can just be the chords and the lyrics—and we’ll just jam on it. There is a certain layering process. Usually we do a lot of the drums, bass, and guitar live, and Jeremy usually has a few first parts for each song. As we start overdubbing, we start throwing lots of things on here and there—almost to the point where it’s like, “This song sounds gross. There is way too much now.” We strip it back in mixing through trial and error and people agreeing or arguing. But it also has to do with Randall Dunn’s production and the way he mixes. We mixed on a really cool API Legacy console that had the Neve Flying Faders. Every pass that we’d go through when we were mixing, he’d be doing little automation bumps here and there. He’s got a really good ear for adding orchestration or whatever to rock music. Guitars come up, guitars come down, the Mellotron comes in—pushing different perspectives and different focal points of the song throughout.
Was Randall involved in the creative process—like, did he write songs with you in the studio or did you go in prepared?
We had most of them already. A few of them were just jams, but he came up to a couple of rehearsals and we went through everything. When it got down to doing the overdubs, he was basically our trusted ears for when we had,“The Take.” There were a few songs, like “Space to Bakersfield,” that were the second take. We just played it twice and the guitar solo is live. We started recording that and my friend Phil—who’s a really good guitar player—showed up, so I was all, “I’m going for the solo live.” When you get live takes, you’re on the seat of your pants because you don’t want to fuck up or everyone’s going to be, like, “Ahhh—we gotta do it again.” Also it’s all happening in the moment more, as opposed to layering things later when you’re playing along in your head to what you think might be there. If I just bust into a fuzz wah solo it’s going to affect the way Jonn [Ollsin, aka Arjan Miranda, bassist for the IV studio sessions] and Josh are interacting on the bass and the drums, the energy, and the push and the pull of the pocket.