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Hills of Bean

February 27, 2007


Our good buddy Steve McBean of Black Mountain et al. just released a new 7" under his Pink Mountaintops moniker on Jagjaguwar, available for purchase here. The A-side, "Single Life" is up on his MySpace and is J.A.M.S. In celebration, we stepped into the temperature-controlled FADER archives and pulled out our feature on Mr. McBean from Issue 39, which you can read after the jump.

The Alchemist

After years of toiling in ever-increasing obscurity, Stephen McBean found the golden formula with a new kind of zooted mind rock

By Charles Homans

This is how a rock record is made: a wide ribbon of analog tape spooling and unspooling in the control room, half a dozen meticulously rolled joints collected in a pile on top of the patch bay, the studio dark except for the glowing coal of Stephen McBean’s cigarette.

McBean and Amber Webber are playing with a new vocal harmony for “Tyrants,” an epic dirge from Black Mountain’s forthcoming sophomore album, in a studio in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. The atmosphere is séance-like, especially when Webber sings a couple lines on her own and her disembodied voice drifts through the control room monitors. Her alto is haunting, with a rasp around the edges and a hint of country. She sings acapella; drummer Joshua Wells, who is doubling as the session’s engineer, backs up the tape, and McBean smokes and rubs his eyes. Wells plays back the instrumental, and the eerie weirdness of the room evaporates because “Tyrants” is the sound of Black Mountain outdoing themselves to an almost absurd degree.

The song is more than eight minutes long. It includes a fanfare of multitracked Prophet V analog synths, black diamond-steep pickslides and a call and response drum breakdown. There is a coda complete with finger-picked nylon-string guitar and medieval Mellotron a la “Stairway to Heaven.” There are plans to overdub harmonized lead guitars, McBean later explains with a big grin and an accompanying air-guitar demonstration. Black Mountain does not do things halfway.

But working up something of this magnitude takes time. The vocals alone will take more than one day at the studio, because tonight McBean, Webber and Wells have to wrap up in time to get to a downtown club called Richard’s on Richards for the show—Ladyhawk, Black Mountain’s new labelmates, are opening for longtime friend Daniel Bejar’s Destroyer. But even in its half-finished state, “Tyrants” makes a persuasive case that, if we lived in a more sensible era, the solvent-sniffing kids in the back of seventh grade industrial tech classrooms would be carving BLACK MOUNTAIN into their desks with ballpoint pens.

It’s tempting to say that Stephen McBean—master of a small Vancouver-based rock universe that has, over the past decade, included his bands Jerk With A Bomb, Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops—doesn’t seem like a good fit for the whole rock-god thing. He’s polite and soft-spoken, more inclined to listen than to talk. At 36, he’s a little long in the tooth for it (though no more so than Vancouver comrades like Bejar and the rest of the New Pornographers). His father is a former political science professor who is now a climate change policy consultant. On the rare occasions when McBean is not on tour—Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops spent two-thirds of last year on the road—he still clocks in at his part-time job up on Vancouver’s troubled Hastings Street, working with the indigent elderly for
a local non-profit organization.

But the thing is that, appearance-wise, McBean fits the part exactly. With his graying beard, slightly craggy features and shoulder-length hair, he could pass for a wizard escaped from a Led Zeppelin black light poster, disguised in the standard-issue cardigan of the Pacific Northwest. At least that is what occurrs to me as I sit opposite him in a nearly deserted steakhouse/Chinese restaurant/bar hybrid in East Vancouver, the night before the Black Mountain session. The radio is playing “Yellow Submarine” and McBean is reminiscing about his early musical discoveries as a child in Toronto in the late ’70s.

“Listening to the FM radio in the back of your parents’ car, hearing songs from The Wall—it seems like that was a good period for public radio, when it wasn’t all two-, three-minute songs,” he says. “There’s a certain spirit to rock & roll from the ’60s and ’70s that really appeals to me. It’s pretty much the pinnacle, the peak. Like the Beatles’ White Album. I know it’s always referred to as the high water mark and everything… but you listen to it, and it’s bloody amazing! Or the Velvet Underground—they fucking nailed it on their first record.”

Wizard resemblances aside, McBean seems less like a guy who wants to be Ozzy than a guy who is endlessly excited about his record collection, who listens to it more closely than most people do their significant others, and who wants to share it with you, badly. In conversation with him, most threads of discussion eventually wind back towards an album or a band that he likes, ranging from The Wall to the Clash records his cousin played for him when he was a kid to the mid-’90s glory days of Dischord Records to the current rock revival, both in Vancouver and elsewhere. “We were playing a show at Richard’s and when I was setting up I looked back and they’d turned the DJ booth into a drum riser,” Mcbean says. “And I was like, ‘It’s about fucking time!’” When I ask him who else might want to talk about him for this story, one of the people he recommends is Keith Parry of the Vancouver-based label Scratch Records—which makes him think of Parry’s old band, Superconductor, which leads to a specific recounting of that band’s instrumentation…. And when I do call Parry, the first thing he says about McBean is that he’d initially met him as a customer, a guy who was hanging out at his record store.

“Steve was a great singer,” Keith Parry says, recalling the early years of his professional relationship with McBean (Scratch has handled the Canadian releases of all of McBean’s projects since the second Jerk With A Bomb record, in 2001; in the US, Jagjaguwar has put out the Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops records). “He’d been in good and bad noisy rock bands before, but he was really coming into his own as a songwriter. [Jerk With A Bomb] didn’t really fit into anything—I thought they were doing something that no one else was doing.”

But by 2003, Parry was worried that things weren’t going as well for McBean as they should have been. He felt a little guilty that his small label didn’t have the resources Jerk With A Bomb seemed to need to get beyond the plateau it had reached after seven years in existence: critical praise in Canada, but beyond that, not much. “The third Jerk With A Bomb record [Pyrokinesis] sold fewer copies than the second one,” he says. “I was frustrated that these guys were putting out great records and people were caring less as time went by, not more.”

In the summer of 2003, Parry drove down to the 3B Tavern in Bellingham, Washington, to see the last show on the tour supporting Pyrokinesis, which would be Jerk With A Bomb’s final record. The promoter had screwed up the band’s name—the posters said “Jerk With A Gun”—and the club was virtually empty. (McBean also remembers that, for some reason, the monitors on the stage were covered with sandwich wrap.) “The owner of the club felt so bad that they got the name of the band wrong and that there was no one at the club, he paid them extra,” Parry recalls.

In January of the following year, McBean’s band changed a couple members, its name, its sound and, apparently, its destiny. Black Mountain, the rechristened remains of Jerk With A Bomb, seems to have struck a nerve with its primordial heavy rock that its predecessor’s indie rock digressions missed. Since its January 2005 release, Black Mountain has sold more than 35 thousand copies in the US and Canada (by comparison, Jerk With A Bomb’s records didn’t sell out their first pressings of a thousand copies until last year). It has also earned the band stage time on the European festival circuit and attention from unexpected places—as in the case of Coldplay guitarist Jon Berryman, who hauled Black Mountain into arenas along the East Coast for a month as an improbable opener on Coldplay’s summer 2005 tour.

Pink Mountaintops—McBean’s amorphous solo-project-turned-seven-piece-touring-operation, which began in the last days of Jerk With A Bomb—exists somewhat in the shadow of Black Mountain, but has acquired its own big-shot admirers nonetheless. The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne gave Pink Mountaintops one of his band’s bubble machines after sharing a bill with them at New York’s Webster Hall in March, and the Lips’ friends hosted the band in Oklahoma City when McBean and company passed through town on their spring tour. “Things are happening for [McBean] right now,” Parry says. “Everything he’s touching right now is working.”

Common critical wisdom attributes McBean’s breakthrough, at least in part, to the songwriter’s newfound ability to channel some of the best musical ideas from ’60s and ’70s rock—the opiate spirituals of Lou Reed, the sledgehammer soul of early Black Sabbath, the icy synthesizer sprawl of mid-’70s Pink Floyd, the fragile warble of Neil Young—with uncanny accuracy. McBean himself does not subscribe to this theory. “It’s kind of lazy,” he says. “[Black Mountain] gets lumped in with stoner rock—I don’t even know what that is.”

But this prickliness gave way to a sly smile when I pointed out his penchant for drawing big red arrows to his influences in the titles of Black Mountain songs—borrowing “Bicycle Man” from Queen, and, in a supremely ballsy move, calling his best Mick Jagger impression “No Satisfaction.” “Well, I’m participating
in the great tradition of rock thievery!” he says. “I mean, the Stones stole tons of shit. And if you take something from someone else and use it to make something great, maybe then someone will hear it and borrow it from you. There are only so many chords that work in rock & roll, anyway.”

The main point to be gleaned from this—that the best kind of rock avatar is an honest thief with good taste—is a hard one to dispute. After all, new frontiers in pop music are few and far between. The kind of revelation you expect when you pick up a rock record is more elusive; it has to do with a certain animating spark, an excitement encoded in the music’s familiarities that makes you want to make more of the same. Or, more briefly, rock should be fun.

“You should only play music if you’re a music fan,” he tells me. “And playing music’s only part of it—there’s the traveling and all the good times that come out of it.” On the Coldplay tour, Black Mountain worked hard to counteract the sober maturity of their surroundings, partying with the roadies and anyone else they could drag out to their isolated, arena-centric hotel suites on the outskirts of urban areas on the East Coast. The band routinely hauls drunks from the audience onstage to play tambourines and maracas.

The afternoon after the Destroyer show, Black Mountain is back in the studio. On the stage at Richard’s, Bejar had swilled prodigiously from a bottle of Jameson (by informal consensus, the Vancouver music community’s spirit of choice), and the impressive dent he made in it by the end of the set brought back fond memories for McBean of making the first Pink Mountaintops record in a similar state. Most of The Pink Mountaintops was recorded in Black Mountain’s practice space, in the basement below one of East Vancouver’s single-occupancy hotels, and the circumstances of its creation—a long way from the legitimate studio in which Black Mountain’s new record is being hatched—are especially dear to McBean.

“The whole thing of playing music in your room, and in basements—it’s so pure,” he says. “Some people, they’ll go on tour and afterwards they’ll say, ‘That was fun. I did it once, I’m done.’ I’m kind of envious of those people—I can’t stop. Sometimes it’s like I feel this is all I can do. Sometimes it’s terrifying to think of spending the next two years in a van.” Then McBean changes tack, as if he’s suddenly aware that this line of thinking is out of character for someone whose old band called its first record Death To False Metal. “But sometimes it makes me happy,” he adds, starting to laugh—“You know, like there are little birds flying around my head….”

Posted: February 27, 2007
Hills of Bean