By Brock ThiessenStephen McBean is a man of the past; he likes his records black, his sounds vintage and his art to come on 12-inch squares. He embraces the rock’n’roll of old, its sentiments, attitudes and designs. And really, McBean’s the type of guy who shouldn’t fit into a modern context, yet strangely enough, he does.For the last three years, the 38-year-old Jesus-like figure has fronted one of the most exciting acts on the landscape: Black Mountain. In the group’s brief history, they’ve become the outlet for his retro-rock fantasies and, in the process, garnered him a reputation for being quite the rock revivalist. Yet Black Mountain do not simply engage in regurgitating idol worship, but rather transform the past into something very much their own, and perhaps more importantly, very much of the present.
First on the agenda of their anachronistic ambitions is reviving a traditional idea in how music is presented. "We wanted to get back to the album-album thing,” says McBean, the Vancouver group’s vocalist, guitar player and principal songwriter, of their sophomore effort, In the Future. "With today’s culture of music listening — with computers, iPods and even phones now — if you go download an album, you just don’t get the whole vibe and the beauty of it all. Music has saved me more than once, just sitting down with a record and looking at the cover, trying to figure out what it means, reading the lyrics and all that stuff.
"I just want some kid to have the same experience that I had with a record at some point. And I’m sure there will probably be a kid who will get baked, start trippin’ out on the album cover and be like, ‘Ah, dude’ — just having that experience with music where it hits you in the heart, in the right place at the right time.”Black Mountain’s new long-player certainly is an experience. With ten tracks, a 60-minute running time and album art that rivals any Pink Floyd jacket, In the Future is downright overwhelming, demanding you listen, listen and then listen again to absorb it all. It shows the group’s members — McBean, Joshua Wells (drums), Amber Webber (vocals), Matt Camirand (bass) and Jeremy Schmidt (keyboards) — stretching far beyond their previous work and doing much more than just resurrecting the ghosts of rock’n’roll past.
In the Future arrives three years after Black Mountain’s self-titled debut launched the West coast five-piece into a whirlwind of acclaim, press and international recognition. Their debut’s adventurous reconfiguration of ’70s-styled rock hit that sought-after spot where universal appeal meets cult fascination. Garnering one rave review after another, it earned a spot on many critics’ best-of lists and caught the eye of the British press, who quickly picked up on the band’s hippie-like image and twisted it into fabricated stories of drug-fuelled communes and blissed-out Black Mountain disciples.
In the three years since its release, Black Mountain landed a coveted opening spot on Coldplay’s world tour, got "Stay Free” (included on In the Future) onto the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack, and joined Aphex Twin and Julian Cope at the Portishead-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK last December.
"You know how everyone has their own rock’n’roll dreams?” McBean asks. "I guess maybe it’s because I was a punk kid, but my rock’n’roll dream was to put out a seven-inch and go on tour, and that was it. Now we’re long past that.”
Getting "long past that” has been a lengthy and often less than glamorous journey for Black Mountain; the group is neither McBean’s nor his band-mates’ first musical effort by a long shot. McBean’s previous project, Jerk With a Bomb, struggled on the Canadian indie scene for years before trekking up to the greener pastures of Black Mountain.
Jerk With a Bomb — a band that at different times housed all of Black Mountain’s members except Schmidt, who joined later — first took root in the mid-’90s as a duo composed of McBean and Joshua Wells. At the time, McBean says the folksy rock/country project was a way to escape the angst-driven bands he played in as a teenager, punk-metal outfits like Mission of Christ and Gus, and later on, the short-lived, post-punk leaning Ex-Dead Teenager (whose only release was released last year on the now-defunct CD-R label, 1777rex).