Feature – Black Mountain September 1, 2010

This originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine as a Vancouver cover feature. This was the second one I did for the magazine and it was a blast to do. Matt Camirand is a pretty cool dude, and the record is awesome. I couldn’t write “Let Spirits Ride is the best Iron Maiden song Iron Maiden wasn’t talented enough to write”, but I think the sentiment punches through.

It’s always roots versus ambition. Staying in one spot offers comfort and clarity, but can keep you mired, stuck. Ruts form. Ambition is the other side of the same coin, a scarier prospect where the risks and rewards are greater, if harder to attain. Black Mountain knows the ebb and flow of roots and ambition. The Vancouver rock outfit pays obvious homage to their roots, their sound anchored with a solid base coat of their rock god idols. But they, like fellow West Coast rockers Comets On Fire, similarly figured out what bands like Wolfmother and Jet can’t seem to grasp: that the base coat is just that; a little ambition is needed for the details. It’s appropriate then that bassist Matt Camirand and Black Mountain left home and roots behind and took the recording of their latest, Wilderness Heart, deep into Axl Rose’s “jungle.”


“In L.A., it was pretty heavy because we were recording at Sunset Sound Studios, and we had recorded there just to do one song previously. Doing a whole record there was pretty inspiring because the studio has been home to countless numbers of artists that all of us totally admire and worship,” Camirand says. The studio that would give shelter in part to the fugitive Rolling Stones for Exile on Main Street played host to Black Mountain, a band with deep roots in the lower mainland. Famous for members’ work in the downtown east side and the much overblown “Black Mountain Army,” their group of associated artists and acts, the trip down the coast to record was a significant venture. “Neil Young has recorded there and Fleetwood Mac recorded there. Innumerable artists have been there. The thing about it is that they haven’t changed the place very much since those days in the ‘70s and ‘60s.” The same wood paneling and equipment that gave birth to the sound Black Mountain makes sport out of improving upon was a good fit for the band. “The album was almost like recording at home.”

After the quiet roar induced by their eponymous debut and the tidal waves created by breakout LP In The Future, Camirand and bandmates Stephen McBean, Jeremy Schmidt, Amber Webber and Joshua Wells had more than a few big names interested in working with them. In part, they traveled to Los Angeles because “Dave Sardy had expressed pretty strong interest in producing the album.” D.Sardy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) and Randall Dunn (Kinski, Sun O)))) both took up production duties on the album. “Dave prefers to work at his home studio in L.A. and Sunset. He also has access to a shit-ton of old vintage equipment that are in miraculous condition.” The band has said in the past that they see production as another step in the creative process, but Camirand believes that learning to let go is a calculated risk. “That was stressful and it’s scary, but it’s exciting and we knew it would be like that.” Wilderness Heart represented a shift in philosophy with the recruiting of Sardy. “It was like, okay, let’s bring somebody in and shake shit up from the beginning. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, work with a producer, but never was able to afford to do it. It was a pretty big change but it was the only way to get good results half the time, is to take risks.” The result was a record that is unmistakably the product of strict creative control on the part of the band, but with the guidance of differently able hands. If In The Future was a hulking tool of heavy industry, Wilderness Heart is surely a precision timepiece; no less complicated, but cleaner and exacting.


The pressures of success can cause friction even in a group as practiced as Black Mountain. This pressure built ahead of the first attempt at recording In The Future, and caused a much-publicized hiatus that saw much of the original material scrapped in favour of new tracks. It’s a situation Camirand thinks they’ve overcome. “We planned ahead a little better, because we knew what was gonna happen. We knew we were gonna take a break just like last time. We kinda just set aside two months before. We went our separate ways to do a bunch of writing. Then we went to a rehearsal space every single day five days a week and spent the afternoon just kinda jamming and getting ideas.” The system they’ve created for themselves is one that Camirand believes has eliminated any expiratory date for the band. “I think it might have expired a while ago if we hadn’t figured out so quickly the routine we have for ourselves. I really like it. You can’t be stuck in a van and then a hotel room, then an airplane, then a green room at a venue with the same people over and over again, you know, for a year or two years on end without some kind of fighting. It just can’t happen.” He adds, “There’s five people in the van and it’s like I have four girlfriends.”

With competing side-projects creating the dynamic at work on Wilderness Heart – Blood Meridian, Lightning Dust and Pink Mountaintops to name a few – it would be no stretch to assume that creative competition causes a similar strain. Camirand is adamant they’re past such squabbling. “I think we’re all old enough now we’ve done this for a while that we realize that a great song, most great songs that you write, don’t include everybody equally, you know? There’s always someone taking the lead. There’s a give and take, like, we’re gonna write this song and maybe there will be no bass. You’re old enough to go, ‘Okay well that’s the best thing for the song’ and it’s not like a personal dig or whatever. You know on some other song you will be prominently displayed.” Despite a fierce inventiveness evident on a spin, the critical discourse on the band has been one of base lumping into genres, a chorus of “stoner rock” and “psych-rock” qualifications that fall painfully short. Camirand is unfazed, saying his “first instinct is to consider the people a little narrow minded.” He recognizes the nature of the beast, however. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me. It’s not meant for me, those kind of comments.” As much as it is not tailored for him, Camirand cannot ignore the press. The deluge began far before the release of In The Future, but reached a critical mass after a track was included on the soundtrack for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Ahead of Wilderness Heart, he’s started reading the band’s mounting press all over again. “I’m as excited as anyone to see if people like it.”

As a seeming result of stepping out of their comfort zone, Wilderness Heart is an evolution in the sound Black Mountain has harvested from their predecessors and cultivated into something unique. “It’s certainly the biggest leap we’ve taken in terms of songwriting and production and stuff,” says Camirand. Opening with the southern folk licks of “The Hair Song” and falling into a compelling groove with the brooding “Rollercoaster” and the insistent and powerful title track “Wilderness Heart,” the record sounds more vital and punchy than previous output. Its focused delivery omits any analog to the problematic (if unduly maligned) In The Future epic “Bright Lights.” Mid-album standout “Let Spirits Ride” is a dynamite piece of prog metal that should have Iron Maiden nervous. “That one almost didn’t make the record,” Camirand says. “It grew on me. It wasn’t my favourite track when we were recording but when we were mixing, it kinda jumped out and took on a new level.”

With the formula for band success working in his favour and time spent working with residents of the downtown east side, Matt Camirand is striking the proper balance between roots and ambition, and it shows on Wilderness Heart. “It’s really important for me, aside from the other bands, to step back from Black Mountain and go back to work in the mental health care industry. I like going back to the residents I’m working with who are all acid casualties from the ‘60s and are super stoked on Black Mountain. And you know that gets exhausting and irritating too and then it’s time to go back on the road again.

“I’m really lucky to have that opportunity to keep refreshing myself.”

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Feature – Hard Drugs June 10, 2010

The following was originally published in Beatroute Magazine. It is my first time being on the cover of anything, so I’m pretty excited about it. I like how it turned out. Be sure to grab a copy on stands in June if you are in Vancouver.

My Photos | Hard Drugs

If Hard Drugs, the band, were a hard drug (a substance), which would it be? Based on the stellar alt-country rock opera by the same name, it would likely be a cocktail – the addictiveness of heroin with a touch of the lower lip-burn associated with some less than optimal ecstasy. It’s a burn that stays with you for a few days, something the album has no problem doing and that listeners will have no problem dealing with, scabs and all. The band bailed on Vancouver and are returning home by circumstance. They’re traveling back by way of concert tour, finishing up with a homecoming show at the Biltmore Cabaret. As a rock band going by the name of Hard Drugs, surely their road trip is peppered with cheap barbiturates and expensive misdemeanors, leaving a trail of empty liquor bottles and chaos across the American southwest, right?

“We’re actually just stopped right now. My wife likes to stop at every thrift store along the way she can find. We just walked in the door”. Jeffry Lee is of course talking about his better half and the current second half of Hard Drugs, Jenni. Currently a husband and wife duo until being reunited with their full band in Vancouver. Having for a long time called East Van home, the band created a rock opera about lovers on the Downtown East Side before relocating temporarily to Brooklyn. “Jenni was transferred by her company, and I followed not long after that”, says Jeffry from a store in New Mexico. It’s an innocuous enough reason to uproot from a place so clearly ingrained in two people. “I knew we wouldn’t be moving to New York forever, or at least that was my mindset. For me it was like an extended holiday. It was hard for me to get by that”.

The two are a couple of many talents, Jenni a fashion designer by trade and Jeffry a graphic designer and illustrator in addition to their musical endeavors. “I moved there with a plan to do more graphics and less music. New York was and is a good place to do that”. It didn’t take long for music to come back to the fore for Lee, as an acquaintance took an interest in the work Hard Drugs had done and pulled him back into the fold. “I ended up still concentrating more on music than I’d planned. I still do both, though”.

You would never guess that the musical aspect of their lives at times took a back seat to other ambitions. A wonderfully cohesive and emotionally raw rock opera was created by the band before their pilgrimage. A valentine to the city they left, the self-titled epic follows the trials and tribulations of Lloyd and Aline, two black tar-crossed lovers trying to make it work surrounded by poverty, drugs and prostitution. From a rousing and hooky introduction to the protagonists, through violence and strife and joy, Jenni and Jeffry take listeners down to the wrong side of Pigeon Park and into the lives of a couple you just can’t help but root for.

“We had a record finished when we left. We didn’t have any real solid interest and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t have any big plans, but then we found someone interested in it”. From there it just made sense to play some shows around it, Lee says. It’s a history that quickly repeated itself, with new contacts made in New York offering to produce new material. “I had the opportunity to do this recording with Michael Tudor, a producer that was willing to work with us. I was just like, that would be like the ultimate souvenir of living in New York, making a record while we were there”. The new record remains incomplete, another record left in another city. Having a singular recording experience is on their list of goals. “Hopefully that will happen sooner than later. It would be nice to make a record where it got released in the same city that we were living in, but that probably won’t be until the next, next one”.

The album Hard Drugs tells the story of the two lovers trying their best to leave their circumstances behind, fighting addiction and hopelessness and a pimp named Slim over the course of the LP. It sways between country and folk and even flirts with some crooning piano ballads. It all combines into something that is not only intensely listenable, but something that grows with you over time, it’s emotional intensity amplifying over multiple plays. Stand-out tracks like “Happiness” and “Aline & Lloyd (Reprise)” exhibit a seemingly endless font of talent and vision as to make you furious that it found so many obstacles in the way of it’s dissemination. It spits and stomps and finds more moving moments in the span of a track than most albums find in their entire runtimes. It’s a tour de force through the gutters of dilapidated district.

Influenced heavily by Hedwig and the Angry Inch and created by a pair of fairly multi-faceted people, the narrative was designed to be multimedia compatible, which comes in handy when one finds themselves so close to Broadway. “That was part of the original idea. The thing was, I didn’t really have plans to produce it myself, but I did put it out there”. The shopping of the Hard Drugs story as something that could be put onstage acted as the catalyst for contacts instrumental in the creation of their latest, unreleased work, but as of yet Lee says there have been no Broadway producers biting. “It could still happen someday if someone is interested. I don’t really have the direct interest to take it to that next step.”

The idea of being in a rock band with one’s spouse has the historic precedent to be cringe inducing, but Lee is unfaltering optimistic about their musical interactions. “I think that maybe sometimes I have these expectations of her that you would have of someone in your band, which maybe isn’t something you should probably bring into the marriage. But we make it work and we both have a good time doing it. It’s sort of more my thing and I just love having her a part of it”. Compromise and innovation are the keys to success, he says, adding they “have fashioned this new approach to touring. We’re basically, again, on holiday. There’s no pressure for this tour to be anything but a fun time. It’s working out really well”. At this point Jenni pipes in, jokingly telling Jeffry to “get off the fucking phone”. He laughs, saying “It’s good. It’s probably not great for the band, because we don’t put any pressure on ourselves to succeed. It’s just an excuse for us to be together”.

While Hard Drugs remains the brainchild of Jeffry and Jenni, the record is the product of a veritable all-star Vancouver music roster. Jeffry is former member of Vancouver based alt country act Blood Meridian, of which drummer Joshua Wells and vocalist Matt Camirand would go on to blow up with psychedelic rockers Black Mountain. “Black Mountain blows up, they go on tour and the other three of us were just like ‘well, what should we do?'”. Upon deciding to take up the task of making a rock opera, members of Bend Sinister, Fan Death and Lightning Dust were recruited to help out. “It was just gonna be a side project, so I just asked who I wanted to spend time with. Most of my friends have pretty similar musical taste. I just had a lot of friends who played music. Ninety percent of those people made time and we were able to make a pretty epic record”.

Hard Drugs was fashioned as a story-driven epic in the vein of Hedwig, but something that made more sense and was easier to follow than Ziggy Stardust or Tommy. The idea is one with precedent, but is not without it’s disadvantages. “I wanted to do something that had a bit more of a story to follow”. The effect has been varied. “You’re trying to listen to lyrics in a song and some people catch on more than others just based on how they listen to music. Some people are like, I rarely listen to words so it took me about twenty listens before I found out what was going on in the story”. In a live setting, Lee shies away from playing out of order. “I certainly like to play them all together. It was written as this narrative. It’s fun to play it with a full band. There’s a couple songs we have had to play with the instrumentation. I don’t have a nine piece band so we have to work with whoever is available”.

While the album deals with current political and social issues, Lee does not consider it a political album. “I don’t think I’m offering any solution, but I think it’s a lot about raising awareness”. Lee notes the lack of knowledge of the situation in East Van outside of the city, and bemoans some of the opportunistic coverage of the area during the 2010 Winter Olympics. “It was certainly just negative. What I read was not focusing on the good done by volunteers and organizations on the Downtown East Side. Just on how run down it is and how much of a drug problem there is. Basically for me all I wanted to do was say, yes, anyone who has been there knows that there is something going on down there, but there is two sides. There is some light in the darkness”.

On second thought, maybe some arcane cocktail of entirely illeagal substances doesn’t peg Hard Drugs for what it is. More appropriate is love. Love surrounds and seeps out of the band and has found itself pressed squarely into each track they’ve made. The album is a chronicle of tragic love and romance, and the struggle of Lloyd and Aline only serves to endear them to us, to addict us to them. Jenni and Jeffry even state matter of fact that “love’s the hardest drug of all”. If that’s the case, how does Hard Drugs make it look so easy?

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