The Many Faces of Black Mountain’s Stephen McBean
The seasoned psych-rocker/punk/thrasher waxes nostalgic about the glory days of recording, the ghosts of gear’s past, and how some guitars just write the riffs.
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.
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.