Stephen McBean is not an old man, but he's also not at an age when people typically learn how to drive a car. He is a teenager at heart, but the rest of his body is closer to 50, or somewhere thereabouts.
Nonetheless, McBean — native British Columbian and longtime leader of psych-rock heavies Black Mountain — decided at some point over the past three years it was finally time to dive into adulthood and get behind the wheel, for a couple of reasons.
"I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 but spent years not driving, just riding my bike around. And then I got a kick in the ass from a very close friend and I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do this,'" McBean says in a telephone interview from the sundrenched front porch of his home. "It was kind of a matter of checking as many things off the bucket list while you still have time. And then as soon as I did it, it was like, 'Oh, it's not that hard. And it's fun!'"
McBean's other reason for learning to drive was artistically motivated. After writing, recording and releasing four Black Mountain albums in 11 years — not to mention four albums with his other band Pink Mountaintops, plus various other projects — McBean found himself in search of some new inspiration.
"A little bit of it is that I wanted to perhaps utilize driving as a muse for songwriting. Like, 'What's something I can do that's new in life (and) that's going to be exciting and challenging? Well, I haven't driven yet, and I haven't robbed a bank,'" he says. "So I started with driving. At least now if I rob a bank I can drive the getaway car."
He got more than that. Black Mountain's new album Destroyer, which comes out in May, sounds like the feeling that courses through your body when you're racing toward the horizon with a bunch of friends: windows rolled down, cares tossed aside and fists pumping into the starry night sky. Also, you're hurtling through the cosmos in a UFO, not a car, because Black Mountain's synth-draped riff-rock rips a hole in the space-time continuum and will somehow both transport you back to the shaggy '70s and jet you forward into a shimmering future at the same time.
Marrying heavy psych-rock, stylish synths and stony wisdom has long been Black Mountain's approach. But McBean and his primary collaborator in the band, Jeremy Schmidt, weren't even sure if they should continue with the name after former members Amber Webber and Joshua Wells left (amicably) a couple years ago. But they decided to write and record some songs and see if they felt right.
"We figured it was better to try and fail than not to try and wonder," McBean says. "When it started, there was no name. There was no decision as to if we were continuing. But as we went along, we were like, 'This still falls under the spirit of Black Mountain, at least in our eyes and ears and hearts.'"
The songs on Destroyer are influenced not only by McBean's recent car time ("I spent a lot of the last two and a half years rediscovering records, driving around and listening to Judas Priest or Hawkwind or whatever"), but also the new blood that helped record the album after Webber and Wells' departure. That includes Rachel Fannan of the band Sleepy Sun, who contributes ethereal vocals (among other parts), as well as heavy hitting drummers like Adam Bulgasem (Dommengang, Soft Kill), Kliph Scurlock (Flaming Lips) and Kid Millions (Oneida), whose thundering rhythms give the album a particularly punchy feel.
"I guess it sounds cheesy to say, but if it sounds epic, that's a good indicator" that it's in the spirit of Black Mountain, McBean says. "Even though this is a concise album — it's a single record, not as sprawling as the last one — there are a lot of little mini epics on it."
And right now, we could all use a few more mini epics to take our minds off the current state of humanity, McBean says.
"Based around the anxiety of making this record and the anxiety of the world nowadays, perhaps [there's a] need for things to get a little heavy again," he says. "The world's always been heavy, but everyone's much more aware of its constant daily heaviness, unfortunately. Sometimes there's nothing better than being washed over by a killer riff." ♦
Deafheaven, Baroness, Black Mountain and Zeal & Ardor • Sun, March 24 at 7:30 pm • $22 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279
NOT HEAVY ENOUGH FOR YOU?
Sunday night's show at the Knitting Factory features what might end up being the best bill of heavy bands to tour in 2019. Here's a quick overview of those not named Black Mountain.
Bay Area band blends the howls, growls and blast beats of black metal with the blinding fuzz of shoegaze into something harshly beautiful, building significant buzz along the way.
Led by champion scowler (and sweetheart) John Baizley, this East Coast outfit has spent the past 15 years shedding a layer of sludge and surfacing its considerable melodic gifts.
Zeal & Ardor
A Swiss-American visionary brings together the soulful chants of black spiritual songs and the aggression of extreme metal. It's every bit as distinctive as it sounds.