What exactly is the water in Vancouver, British Columbia, being dosed with to create its vibrantly multi-tasked music scene?
At one end of the spectrum, there's The New Pornographers and all the stellar Pop bands that spring from its members' attention-deficit side-project mentality. On the other end is the Black Mountain Army, a group of musicians who form, or have formed, a wide variety of bands within the scene, from the sexual congealing Pop of the Pink Mountaintops to the edgy Americana Blues of Blood Meridian to the twisted Post-Punk Roots of Jerk with a Bomb (plus a half-dozen or so more). Although it was not the band that spawned all the others, the rallying point for most of the subsequent offshoots has been the monolithic riffery of Black Mountain.
Black Mountain began in the late '90s with guitarist Stephen McBean and drummer Joshua Wells, who had been gigging as the aforementioned duo Jerk With a Bomb. In 2002, vocalist Amber Webber was added, and shortly thereafter bassist Matthew Camirind and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt joined. The sound had already begun to change drastically and McBean decided to change the name of the band after dreaming one night that they had decided to go with Black Mountain as their new identity.
With three new personalities in the band, the Black Mountain sound soon became defined by a number of divergent musical influences. The band's recently-released eponymous debut has been widely pegged as Stoner Rock, but that's almost too simplistic to apply as Black Mountain alternately exhibits flashes of Black Sabbath's thunderous Metal, Pink Floyd's ephemeral Folk delicacy, Blue Cheer's wild psychedelic abandon and Can's frenetic intricacy. Wells is quick to admit that the band's current sound is more intuitive than deliberate.
"We never intended to make anything, it just happened," says the drummer. "It's more like a particular combination of personalities that made that sound happen."
One reason for that is the fact that the band was still absorbing the input of its new members when they all hit the studio to record their debut as Black Mountain.
"It's interesting because we really came together during the making of the record," says Wells. "Stephen and I had been playing together for six or seven years, but Matt was new and had a lot of ideas which were really interesting. And Amber had been in the band for a year when we started and she brings an incredible new sound to the band. She adds a lot of depth. The lyrical content isn't very individual; there's more of a group sentiment and things are always "we" and "us" instead of "I" and that changes the focus of the band. I learned that we were capable of a lot that I didn't think we could have done, and it was nice to see a transition from a personal viewpoint to a collective viewpoint."
Within the collective there is a wide diversity of musical opinion and it all comes out in Black Mountain's sound in differing degrees.
"It comes from all over the place," says Wells. "One thing we're all on the same page about is that we like a lot of German bands. Matt likes Country and Roots music, Jeremy's into ambient soundscape-y stuff, Amber really likes '60s Folk like Melanie, and I listen to a lot of Can and Faust. I'm a big fan of psychedelic Rock but it isn't our aim to make psychedelic Rock all the time, it's just what interests us for awhile."
With their riff-heavy wall of sound, as evidenced by their sludgy masterpiece "Druganaut," Black Mountain comes by the Stoner Rock tag honestly, as incomplete as that convenient label happens to be. Wells at least partially dispels any myths as regards mind-altering substances having an impact on the band's creative edge.
"Drugs are not a necessary part of any of our lives, but in that way, we celebrate adventurousness," says Wells. "Psychedelic drugs can be a metaphor for expanding your mind in any way possible. The biggest drug for me is making music and it really affects me that way."
One of the most interesting aspects of the band's profile is the fact that four of Black Mountain's five members are social workers in Vancouver. It's a pretty intense day job and it manifests itself in an unexpectedly subtle way in Black Mountain's music.
"I'd say in a lot of ways it just makes us really happy to be able to do music, and the more music we do, the happier we are," says Wells. "We all work in an interesting community but one that takes a toll on your psyche. We're all musicians, first and foremost. Social work is a line of work we all got into because it fit our values, because we can work and think and be creative about things instead of just being a wage slave. We're super thankful that we have an outlet for our frustrations."
In the area of not-so-subtle differences, there's the matter of Black Mountain's current status as Coldplay's opening act. There is a distinct dichotomy between Chris Martin's Indie Rock gentility and Black Mountain's Led Zep/Blue Cheer-drenched sonic humidity.
"It'll be interesting," says Wells with a laugh. "If we scared them, that would be pretty fun. I don't really know what to expect. I'm kind of thinking that maybe there'll be some older people there that will like us, like the dads that accompany their kids might like us. I'm expecting the audiences to be a bit hostile at times. That's all right, though. I'm pretty excited that they're into taking that chance. They could have just gotten some radio Rock band, but they didn't want that, so it's pretty cool."
BLACK MOUNTAIN opens for Coldplay at Riverbend on Tuesday.