McBean’s musical journey dates way back to his first gig with a punk band in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1983. He’s fronted several bands since, including Black Mountain, Pink Mountaintops, and Obliterations. Photo by Amdo Photo
When you play live, do these songs take on a life of their own?
We always go through phases of improv jams versus just putting on a good rock show. Usually by the time you finish a record, there’s a point where you love it so much, and then there’s a point where you hate it. But then there’s that fun thing where you get to reinterpret it all live—you get to deal with different things like playing to the audience, their interaction, their energy that you feed off of—and you also have the sheer volume of it. Volume is a part of our live show. I mean, we’re not as loud as, say, Sunn O))), but we’re pretty fucking loud. It’s quite a big wall of sound.
But you don’t play that loud in the studio?
We’re pretty loud in there. At certain times you have to, sadly, baffle things off—it always has to do with cymbals or something a little weird.
All recording shit is so far beyond its peak. The peak was in the ’60s and ’70s. But people now—with Pro Tools—are, like, “I need 48 tracks.” No, you fucking don’t. Black Sabbath didn’t need it. Jimi Hendrix didn’t need it. The Beatles didn’t need it. Just get better at your shit [laughs].
Keith Richards’ says his favorite way to record is just 8-track to tape.
Yeah, there is something about committing to tape. We recorded the beds to tape. Unfortunately, tape is really expensive now. The chemistry of making tapes and the people that calibrated the machines at all the studios—it’s a bit of a lost art. Now you have “Pro Tools Edit Guy” who comps everything up really quick—and that’s cool, too—but the people who ran the tape machines and kept them in order, I don’t think there’s as many of them anymore. I mean, if you’re recording on a shitty, broken-down tape machine it’s like … I don’t know [laughs], a song is there or it’s not.
But you went to tape for basics?
Yeah, we did the drums, bass, guitar, and one or two of the keyboards—like, maybe the Hammond or something that sounds really nice burnt all gritty to tape. You go for the vocal, too, and if you get it, same thing. Awesome. Because the vibe’s just there and there is no second guessing. It’s just trying to keep that commitment. Like, when I used to use my 4-track, maybe I’d have it filled up and then I would have a guitar solo or a vocal on there and I’d think, “I can do that just a little bit better.” But it also means that to record that take I have to record over what’s there—there’s no Pro Tools Playlist. There’s a commitment. And it’s exciting, it gives you butterflies in your stomach and it’s going to make you play or sing a certain way and not fuck around.
What guitars did you use on the album?
There was a ’50s Les Paul Special with P-90s that I used a fair bit. I have a ’77 Les Paul Standard that I used a bit. I used a Squier Jazzmaster—the J Mascis model—and I threw some of those Seymour Duncan Antiquitys in there. I actually used that a lot. It’s a cool, cheap guitar. I mean, guitars are weird—they just feel good. Sometimes it’s just the look of them, but they either write riffs or they don’t. I’ve got some really crappy Teisco Del Ray guitars that sound amazing and have little boost buttons on them. Gear is weird. There are so many germanium fuzz pedals, which I really love—like Colorsound stuff and Tone Benders—and, of course, Echoplexes, but sometimes tone is just in the hands. You can have as many fuzz pedals as you want, but don’t let your pedals control you.
Is the main Les Paul you use live the one from the ’70s?
Yeah, the Les Paul Standard. I bought it because it was essentially the same finish as the wine finish of the Les Paul copy I had when I was a kid. I put in PAF clones called [Sheptone] Heartbreakers that are based on Jimmy Page’s tone. The guitar had the Gibson original humbuckers in there before that, which were okay, but I didn’t totally love them. I also really like those old P-90s, they just bite. They sound so good through an early ’70s Marshall or Hiwatt. We had a couple of Hiwatts and either a ’69 or a ’71 plexi Super Lead in the studio. There were a couple of little Fender Champs, which are great for putting up to 10 even though they’re only 5 watts—put a mic in front of them, and they sound huge. I also have a really weird, broken-down ’70s Fender Twin that’s got a whole bunch of ghosts in it—like, all these weird pops and crackles, and the reverb has a really good spaghetti western, Ennio Morricone vibe. I guess there is something about the old gear. It’s kind of romantic to think about who could’ve played all these guitars, pedals, and amps, and what songs may have been written on them.
Do prefer to get distortion from your amps?
Sometimes. I’ve tried every boutique overdrive or distortion pedal that I could find, but I just settled back in on the Boss Super OverDrive. I was like, “45 bucks? Sounds great.” But I just got a pedal from Union Tube & Transistor in Vancouver, which is known for a collaboration they did with Jack White on some crazy oscillating fuzz pedal [the Bumble Buzz]. It’s this distortion pedal—the Swindle—that is loosely based on Steve Jones’ guitar sound on [Sex Pistols’] Never Mind the Bollocks, which is kind of perfect. It’s good for a little bit of riffage, but it’s also good for rock ’n’ roll. It’s kind of got that Neve bite.
How were the acoustic guitars on the album recorded?
We usually mic it and run it through an amp in the other room, usually a Fender with a bit of reverb. Usually I just put a pencil condenser pointed at where the neck meets the body.
In addition to Black Mountain, you’re involved in a few disparate projects, like Pink Mountaintops and Obliterations. How do you keep them separate?
It just kind of happens that way. Obliterations is almost a return to my young teenage self, but knowing some of the tricks of how to play that way. It’s kind of strange to play really primitive music—we don’t do it all the time—but it’s a blast and it feels really good to just go.
This recent performance in Madrid, Spain, exemplifies how Stephen McBean and Black Mountain weave a massive tapestry of sound.
When I was a kid learning to play guitar and listening to bands like Black Flag—or even when I heard Metallica, like the palm-muting thing—I was, like, “How are they doing that?” Or, “How does Greg Ginn get that insane guitar sound?” But then you learn what kind of gear they used or how they did things. For example, Greg Ginn was playing through solid-state Peavey heads. Coming back to that at this point in my life, it’s like, “This is how they got there,” as opposed to wondering. That and keeping it primitive and simple as fuck.