Black Mountain's "Riff-Hungry" Psych Rock Epic 'In the Future' Turns 15
Stephen McBean on how the "Black Mountain Army" became the Wu-Tang Clan of Vancouver's booming indie scene
Published Jan 20, 2023In the mid-aughts, Vancouver was home to some buzzing indie bands like the New Pornographers and Destroyer, and respected metal bands like Three Inches of Blood and Bison B.C. And then somewhere in the middle, part of both worlds but not really belonging in either, were Black Mountain.
The group were the centre of a cryptic, nebulous scene referred to as the "Black Mountain Army" — a community that included singer-guitarist Stephen McBean's art rock project Pink Mountaintops, singer Amber Webber and drummer Joshua Wells's electropop duo Lightning Dust, keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt's sci-fi synth alias Sinoia Caves, and bassist Matt Camirand's alt-country band Blood Meridian.
All those interests collided in Black Mountain's towering second album, 2008's In the Future. After the surprising success of 2005's self-titled debut, the band entered Burnaby, BC's the Hive studio with a bigger budget, prominent production help (including mixer John Congleton and engineer Colin Stewart), and a more ambitious eye for sprawling prog and maximalist psych rock. "Stormy High" and "Tyrants" lived up to their ominous names with headbanging stoner riffs, the standout "Wucan" is a vibey groove of slithering guitar riffs and futuristic synth trippiness, acoustic numbers "Stay Free" and "Wild Wind" are stripped-down and rustic, and the epic "Bright Lights" encompasses all of those sounds into a sweeping, near-17-minute suite.
At the heart of it all is the interplay between vocalists McBean and Webber — the former of whom has a strangled snarl and a surprisingly tender falsetto, while the latter summons the titular "Angels" with the tortured melodrama of her howling vibrato.
In the Future came out on January 21, 2008, landing the band on the cover of Exclaim!'s February 2008 issue. In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the album, we spoke with Stephen McBean about the modest recording budget that "fucking blew our minds, being Vancouver's indie rock Wu-Tang Clan, and the recent return of Amber Webber to the band's lineup after she sat out on 2019's Destroyer.
What do you remember about the making of In the Future?
That was a really fun record to make. There were a couple of false starts. We recorded a bunch of tracks at, I think it was the Factory, with Colin Stewart from the Hive. We ended up using some of those, but then it really came into its formation when we kind of locked out the Hive for like a week. We brought a bunch of mattresses and our sleeping bags down there, and we basically lived there and partied there, and just made the record. It was a really special time for the band. We were kind of riding off the high of the first record doing quite well and people digging it — we weren't expecting the response we had to the first record. Our relationship with the record label, Jagjaguwar was basically perfect; it was like another friendship, because we were kind of growing at the same pace as them. There was this real camaraderie. And also working with the Hive — me and Josh had worked with Colin from the Hive for years.
Some of the songs on the second record — "Tyrants," Bright Lights," maybe a couple other ones — those were tail-end Jerk with a Bomb songs. It was a really prolific period. It was just easy, which was one of the beauties of it.
We were deeply entrenched in psych and the long songs. It was also our first time working with John Congleton. He was the brother of our friend Angelique, who Matt Camirand, the bass player, was friends with because she was in a band called the Hangmen. We recorded with Colin, and I feel John really took it to the next level. I can't remember what the budget was, but it was probably like eight grand, which, at the time, fucking blew our minds. We were like, "Fuck yeah!" I think "Angels" was one where we were like, "Can you do that thing, like the Plastic Ono Band drums?" We came back in and we were like, "Oh, shit!"
For that all those sessions, I believe we mixed like at least six or so bonus extra [tracks]. We recorded an earlier version of "Mothers of the Sun" that was vastly different than the one on IV, and there was bunch of 7-inch stuff and B-sides. I'd say it's probably a fan favourite, y'know?
The album also has "Wucan," which is the most streamed song you guys have. It seems like the hit.
That song was written off of Matt and Josh's groove. We were still jamming a lot then. We would still jam three or four times a week. "Space to Bakersfield" [from IV] came out of a jam, too. As much as I love songwriting, there's something about when everyone comes in with with their coffees, and someone just starts playing a riff, and everyone adds their bit in right away, so there's no preconceived notion of what the song should be in anyone's head. I feel like, a lot of times, those are the most natural things, at least as far as a group performing live. That song has a lot of space, so it sounds good live. It sounds good at a festival; it sounds good in a club; it's got a good stoned, head-nodder bob to it; it's got a riff; it's got the keyboard breakdown. It's kind of got the little neat things that make songs work, or what make songs not work, because it has no chorus. If it's not in the setlist, it seems like a weird show.
Looking back to 2008, what do you remember about the Vancouver music scene at that time, and Black Mountain's place within it?
I'm not involved in the scene in Vancouver the way I used to be, but I was involved before forever. That was a pretty special time. From like 2002. It's not about people selling records, but it [was] a little zeitgeist: the New Pornographers and Neko and Destroyer, Three Inches of Blood, S.T.R.E.E.T.S., Ladyhawk. I know there's many more. Frog Eyes. People were listening, and people were coming out to shows. Scenes like that are really like special because they they work fast and they keep people on their toes. There's a creative competition. You go to the local show and [Destroyer's Dan] Bejar pulls out some brand new diamond of a show you're like, "Oh fuck." I think it was a S.T.R.E.E.T.S. and Three Inches of Blood show that I was at in the middle of Jerk with a Bomb, and I was like, "Ah fuck, I want to play some riffs again." I got riff-hungry.
There was Richard's on Richards — there were a lot of good venues. Pat's Pub. There was this thing going on. Because there was a brief time, in the late '90s, where vinyl was dead, record stores were really dying. There wasn't the whole reissue thing. It was a little bit sad. I'm not trying to sound like a cry baby, but it kind of seemed like things were just dead. But it was really exciting when local bands started packing Richard's on Richards. I think it was going to a New Pornographers show at the Commodore, and, at the time, it was kind of mind-blowing that a local band was headlining the Commodore.
I feel that all pushed people's creative impulses, and their spirit. It feels good. You're always going to play, and you're always going to have fun playing, but when there's a bunch of new young faces in the crowd — you're like, "These are their first shows." When all the Ladyhawk kids moved down from Kelowna, there was a whole scene that came with them. It's special. That was definitely an influence on In the Future.
Something I remember from the time was the quote-unquote "Black Mountain Army." It had this aura around it, where people didn't quite know how to define what that was. Was that an actual art collective, or just branding?
It was a bit of both. There was Blood Meridian, there was Sinoia Caves, Lightning Dust, Pink Mountaintops, and we were all putting stuff out. We would all work with our friends, if need a photo or you need poster art or whatever. It's kind of what the press latched on to, so it's that thing where you're excited at first, and later you don't want to talk about. It was a way to tie it together, kind of like Wu-Tang Clan or something. You're trying to get people to listen to any part of it, and hopefully they listen to Pink Mountaintops, or they'll pick up on Lightning Dust. There were people coming to Black Mountain after Jeremy [Schmidt] did the Beyond the Black Rainbow soundtrack. I used to Airbnb a room when I lived in Silverlake, and this guy from Scotland rented the room, and he was looking through my records, and he was like, "Oh, you got the fuckin' new Lightning Dust, eh? You know them?" It was funny.
What's going on with Black Mountain these days? You had some lineup changes for your 2019 album. What's going on now and moving forward?
Well, the most fabulous bit of news is Amber Webber rejoined the band. So that's great. We signed to ATO Records. When Pink Mountaintops sign ATO last year [for Peacock Pools], or sometime during the pandemic, Jon [Salter] from ATO came back like a month later and was like, "I want both bands. I've been like a fan of Black Mountain since the beginning." We're going to make a record this year and do what we do. We don't have a studio booked or anything, but I assume we'll start rehearsing and go from there.
It was great when Amber came back. It was weird, because Rachel Fannan, who was on the Destroyer record and touring that, she had to step out because she was going to be the drummer for Pussy Riot. She kind of bowed out and Amber rejoined — it was within two days. It was one of those those things: "Ah, this is meant to be. No one's got hurt feelings, everyone's happy." Then the pandemic hit, which changed things. We were planning on making a Black Mountain record, I guess it was in the spring of 2020. But I made the the Pink Mountaintops record instead because, you know, pandemic stuff.