Black Mountain Write Better Songs When They Drink

Ten years after their first album, the Vancouver band talks about their stamina in the industry and how they keep from killing each other.

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May 21 2015, 2:02pm

After close to five years of intense touring, Black Mountain needed a break. “We were on the road a lot—it seemed like we were touring more months out of the year than not,” says Jeremy Schmidt, keyboardist for the band. “We just needed a pause from it and wanted to work on other things.”

We’re sitting in the Lido Bar, having happy-hour drinks on East Broadway in Vancouver, not too far from where Schmidt and co-vocalist Amber Webber reside. The two musicians are looking relaxed on this cloudy evening, like the five-year break they took since the release of Black Mountain’s last proper album, Wilderness Heart, actually paid off.

“It definitely didn’t feel like that long of a break,” says Webber, looking down at her beer. “We were busy working on other projects which made it go by fast. But we definitely needed a break from touring. It was good.” Between Vancouver and Seattle, since Christmas, Black Mountain has been working hard on their fourth album, which Webber says, will be released in the new year. In the meantime, they are reissuing their first album in June (it’s the 10 year anniversary) and getting back on the road to play shows, including Levitation Vancouver at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park on June 6.

“The Malkin Bowl is nice because it’s outside and it’s an old band shell, with those arches, an old wooden construction that sounds really good,” Schmidt says. “It just sounds better—the acoustics are awesome. And yeah, it’s always nice to play outside.” He looks outside at the grey clouds. “The only time it’s not fun is when it’s gusting wind with rain, which sometimes happens in Vancouver,” he adds laughing. When asked if they’ve come up with any potential titles for the new album yet, Schmidt says they might take a simple route to solving that issue.

“We’ve been knocking around the idea of just calling it volume four,” he says with a sly smile. “There are so many records I like that are some permutation of four or volume four, like roman numerals—like Toto’s IV or Black Sabbath’s Volume 4, great albums.” Webber laughs. “But we might ditch that entire idea entirely, who knows,” he continues. “There is something attractive about that though.” Known for their psychedelic, retro-rock flourishes and heavy riffs, Schmidt and Webber say they won’t be straying too far from that signature Black Mountain sound on the new album.

“With this record, we’re setting out to experiment a little more with form,” Schmidt explains. “We trying to like… make some lateral moves in our music. Things are taking an odd direction that we’ve come up with spur of the moment.” When I ask him if he’s talking about sonic changes, he nods. “Yeah and arrangement-wise,” he says. “The logic of the songs are maybe a bit more odd or oblique than on the last record. They’re a little less concise and we’re allowing a little more sprawl.” Webber nods her head. “But it definitely still sounds like us,” she says. “It still sounds like Black Mountain.”

“It’s hard to quantify influences at any given time,” Schmidt says looking pensive. “It’s just everything we’re exposed to and what we like and what we still continue to enjoy doing. And I think, to a certain degree, all of our other records inform what we do and create. There’s sort of a chemistry in the band that naturally chooses its own path and has its own wild logic. We have never thought things out too much.”

Noisey: So is making a Black Mountain record a pretty democratic process?
Amber Webber:
Every song is kind of different. I’d say a good chunk of it is Stephen (McMean: lead singer, guitarist) coming up with the base for a song. And then we jam it out and write different parts and whatnot. Schmidt has written a song for this album, which he’s never done and I brought one song to the table. But we’re a band and we arrange together and make it happen.
Jeremy Schmidt: It’s pretty elastic. Sometimes it’s starts off with a jam and turns into a song and sometimes with a song already written.

Is it ever the result of just getting pissed and letting it all out?
Schmidt: [laughs] Yeah, for sure. Or playing and getting drunk in the process. If you’re at the practice space and you start drinking a bottle of wine or two and the ideas start flowing in a different way.
[Webber laughs]

Why did you start laughing?
Webber: It’s just so true. Lots of memories like that.

Has the making of the new album required the help from substances?
Webber: No…
Schmidt: I’d say, for the most part, we weren’t aided too much by substances in the creative process on this one.

What about on previous albums?
Schmidt: It’s hard to say. According to some of our demos, they probably came out of a stoned moment of inspiration. But usually it’s just a great prosaic moment where something came out of catching a bus somewhere and thinking of an idea. [laughs] There’s more jamminess on this record compared to the last one. There’s more things that move sideways and go off on a tangent. It’s a little more tangential, I’d say.

With you two in Vancouver and everyone else out in L.A. and Portland, is it tough getting together to record?
Schmidt: Yeah. It’s five people in three different cities, all actively doing different projects.
Webber: When we are able to get together to practise, we make the most of it, six days out of the week and four or five hours a night. We really dive into it.
Schmidt: It’s like binge jamming.

What are the secrets to band harmony on the road?
Webber: I just try not to drink a ton—that’s never good. And exercise a lot and eat well. Pretty simple.
Schmidt: All of the things you usually fail at doing when on the road.
Webber: Yeah, it lasts about a week.

Over the past decade, was there ever any doubt about the future of band or has it been pretty smooth sailing?
Schmidt: There have been struggles, but it always seems worth pursuing for us, you know?
Webber: Yeah, there was some shitty times but no serious drama. We’re a pretty chill bunch. And we have a lot of fun playing in Black Mountain and it’s important to us. It can be exhausting but it’s really fun to be on stage and we get to play to a big, full house every night. We’re lucky.

You’re reissuing your first record this June.
Webber: Yeah, we’re reissuing it in June and it’s going to be two records with demos, b-sides and shit like that. I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be on silvery, grey vinyl and look really cool. And the original songs will all be remastered.

Why revisit that album?
Schmidt: Well, it’s our first album and it was recently the 10 year anniversary of when it came out. We felt it could use a better vinyl-pressing release—I’d say the old press wasn’t the most top-notch pedigree.
Webber: It’s just really cool to be in a band that does a 10 year reissue. And there was a lot of extra material to go through which was fun.
Schmidt: Yeah, lots of b-sides, some sessions we did. We just tried to pick the stuff that we thought was representative of the genesis of the band. It was tricky and a very subjective thing to do, but it was cool—fun to go back to that record.

Gen Handley is a writer living in British Columbia - @Gen_and_Tonic