Published Apr 24, 2010Ever since a band's MySpace page became a go-to source for determining influences, the word "influential" has been stripped of its meaning. To call a band like Black Tambourine influential is an understatement. Sure, the name probably isn't recognizable to most, but look how long it took the Velvet Underground to get some credit. If you've heard anything by Vivian Girls, Best Coast, Brilliant Colors, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Manhattan Love Suicides, Crocodiles, the Pains of Being Pure At Heart or Dum Dum Girls, then you've at least heard the Black Tambourine influence. What's funny though is how influenced the band members were themselves.
Founded in 1989 by Pam Berry, Brian Nelson, Archie Moore and Slumberland Records boss Mike Schulman, Black Tambourine rose up from the indie ranks with a sound that borrowed heavily from the Velvets' droning rock, the Jesus & Mary Chain's ear-splitting buzz, the indie jangle of Shop Assistants and the harmonies of Phil Spector's girl groups. Although the band lasted only two years and recorded only a handful of songs, it was enough time for them to write their place in history.
Originally released in 1999, Complete Recordings collects everything Black Tambourine ever recorded. Although the album only received a modest following upon its release, Slumberland has now reissued the comp with six unreleased tracks recently recorded by the band. Black Tambourine's four original members each took on some questions via email to share on their brief time together in the band, the notion that they're "influential," and whether they will get back together to do the expected reunion thing.
What have all of the band members been up to since Black Tambourine split in 1991?
Mike: I've been running Slumberland, working at full-time jobs, playing in a few bands (Crabapples, Manatee), being a dad.
Brian: After my other band Velocity Girl broke up in 1996. I've just been working. I got married and have a couple of kids.
Archie: After VG broke up, I played in a couple of bands (Heartworms, the Saturday People). I've worked as an audio engineer since 1997, got married in 2007, and became a dad in 2008. I got to mix the Pains of Being Pure at Heart album and EP recently, I've recorded a bunch of songs on my own, and released a few under the name Bye!
Pam: I played in a few other bands (Glo-worm, Castaway Stones, the Shapiros) and put out Chickfactor zine with my friend Gail. In 1998 I moved to London, got married, started playing in the Pines and started working as an English hard-of-hearing subtitler. I had two girls in 2005/2006 and since then I've been freelancing from home and not finding much time to play music, though I've just started singing with the Gregory Webster Trio. When I'm not working I'm crafting ― letterpress and gocco printing, sewing, stitching, woodworking.
Why did the band last for such a short time? What happened?
Mike: Archie, Brian and I were all in other bands that were kind of our main projects, so BT was more of a side project situation. I don't think any of us necessarily had the ambitions to make it more of a serious venture.
The band came together as such a fruitful time in indie music. Did it seem like you were involved in any sort of burgeoning scene at the time?
Mike: For me, not really. There were a lot of bands and labels around at the time, but there weren't a lot in the U.S. that we were aware of that were making the kind of music we were, so I felt like we were out there on our own.
Brian: Whatever scene existed for the kind of indie music we cared about then was scattered geographically across the country and most of the bands we really liked were from England. Things feel much more connected now with the interweb.
Archie: Nope. It felt like we were playing for three or so of our closest friends.
Pam: And my parents, let's not forget the family! But while it didn't feel like there was a local scene that we had much in common with musically, I don't recall ever bemoaning the fact. I was just excited that we were playing together and making records at all. Through response to the records I did end up meeting like-minded people writing zines and making music. But the majority of bands I loved at the time were across the Atlantic.
The last few years especially has seen Black Tambourine's name come up as a big influence on a number of bands. How aware were you of your band's influence?
Mike: Well, doing Slumberland I'm pretty aware of all the comparisons but I think in a lot of instances it's more of a situation where the band that gets compared to us is just drawing from the same influences: Jesus & Mary Chain, Wall of Sound, Galaxie 500, VU, etc.
Brian: I remember reading Amy Linton referencing us in an Aisler's Set interview and thinking, "wow somebody's still listening to those songs."
Pam: I remember doing a Chickfactor interview with a band once and the singer later wrote me a letter that said something like, "You didn't tell us you were the singer in Black Tambourine!" I am always very flattered when someone's heard of us, but I'm not so sure that most of the bands that get compared to us would name us as an influence.
Have you heard Dum Dum Girls' cover of "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge"? What did you think?
Mike: I dig it. I think Dee Dee's stuff is great.
Brian: Sounds great and very flattering to be covered.
Archie: I love it. Dee Dee's vocal performance on it reminds me of Debbie Harry or the Shangri-Las.
Pam: Another pro-Dee Dee vote here, it's fab.
How was the release of the original version of Complete Recordings different from this reissue? Were you actively promoting it, etc?
Mike: When we put out the last comp in 1999 it was mainly to make the music easily and economically available. We did promote it in that we sent out press and radio copies and got some nice reviews, but there's definitely a little more of a buzz this time around.
Where did the idea for the reissue come from?
Mike: I'd been wanting to repress Complete Recordings on vinyl for a while, so as we were having our 20th anniversary (of band and label) last year, I brought up the idea of doing an LP repress. As it started to come together, with the extra material, it seemed like it would make sense to do it properly and make new art, get new liner notes, etc. Realistically, this will probably be the last physical reissue of our stuff, so I wanted to make it as nice as possible.
Were did the concept for the new album cover come from? It's subtle but really encapsulates the band and the scene you were and still are involved in.
Mike: That was a last-minute brainstorm from Brian. I love how it turned out, it reminds me of a Teenage Fanclub cover or something.
Brian: Originally we were just going to reuse the Complete Recordings cover, but got cold feet at the last minute. I suggested using the badge on a plain background, then I think Archie or Pam proposed putting it on the denim. My wife volunteered her jean jacket and I snapped the photo on our kitchen counter. Definitely happier with it than just reusing the old cover. It has a sense of nostalgia to it that I like.
Archie: I think it's really beautiful, especially the vinyl version.
Pam: I'm loving having a new cover that still uses the original image.
The press release for the album drops the words "essential" and "seminal." How does it feel to see those words used to describe your music?
Mike: It feels pretty weird, of course. When the band was active we were just having fun and making music that we hoped would fit in with the records we loved; the idea that 20 years later people would still be listening to it or be influenced by it is just crazy.
Brian: In the words of Wayne's World: "We're not worthy, we're not worthy."
Archie: It's very flattering, but sorta hard to take seriously.
Pam: It makes me think, "Essential? Really?" If the house is burning down, maybe I don't lunge for the BT first. But yes, it is extremely flattering.
You recorded some newer songs to go on the reissue of Complete Recordings. Where did the idea to go back into studio come from?
Mike: When we were still active we had a bunch of songs that we played but never had a chance to record. As we started to put together the new comp, we listened to some radio sessions, demos and live tapes to see if any of it might be usable, but unfortunately most of it didn't sound all that great. Archie works in a recording studio, and I had a trip planned to the east coast to visit family, so he suggested that we try to record some of those songs.
Were the two originals you included from back in the day or are they more recent songs?
Mike: All four are songs we played back in the day.
Brian: Mike made the convincing point that those two old original's showed a bit of the more punk rock side of the band, which people might not have known about us from the previous releases. Plus those songs were very easy to play and didn't really require any real rehearsal.
How did getting back together and recording those songs feel?
Mike: I thought it was a blast. We didn't have any rehearsals at all, so I was surprised and excited by how quickly and easily we fell into our old roles and got it done. I'm really happy with how they came out; I think they're very true to how they would have sounded if we had been able to record them back then.
Brian: It was a lot of fun, both in recording them and just hanging out together, which doesn't happen very frequently with us all in different cities. Biggest problem for me was remembering who played which instrument on which song. My memory is fried.
Archie: It was a definitely a lot of fun, though I was very worried the whole time that nothing usable was going to come out of it. It wasn't until we got some vocal tracks back from Pam that I started to feel really good about the recordings.
Pam: I was very jealous of the east coast recording and hanging out going on, but I couldn't leave London to meet up and record with everybody else. I was really thrilled when I got the rough mixes of what the fellas had done, they sounded great and not a world away from what the songs had sounded like 20 years previously. My husband Mike dusted off the portastudio and recorded me singing in the kitchen. It felt great to get these songs recorded. "Heartbeat" especially had always been one of my favourite ones to play together back in the day.
Can we expect anything more from the band in the future? Reunion shows? More recordings?
Mike: Nothing planned at present.
Brian: Seems unlikely given our families and living in separate cities.
Archie: Probably not.
Pam: Until we all live on the same continent again, it would be difficult.