Steve McBean is the bearded front man for Black Mountain. His music has helped put Vancouver on the radar of independent music critics everywhere. He has been releasing albums as a side-project under the name Pink Mountaintops since 2004. It’s a little bit more experimental, and as McBean said in this interview, it’s a little more personal. McBean chatted with Discorder via phone from Switzerland about his newest album Outside Love, which is described in the press release as “ten songs of love and hate that read like a Danielle Steele romance novel.”
Discorder: How’s it going?
SM: It’s going pretty good.
D: Are you in Switzerland right now?
SM: We’re in Switzerland, yeah. We’re in like some big cement building that’s leaking sewage. It smells awesome.
D: What are you doing there?
SM: I’m just going to play a show.
D: Awesome. So I wanted to talk about your new album Outside Love. Are you a big Danielle Steele fan?
SM: [chuckles] I am in—I’ve never read any of it, but if I picture what I think, I’d say I am a fan, but just a fan in sorta my imagination. I always really liked the covers. The Fabio covers and stuff in the ‘80s and ‘90s in like London Drugs and all that stuff.
D: So how do you imagine Danielle Steele then to be if you’ve never read any?
SM: Very politic, very romantic, very—just you know—perfect love stories where everything happens in the right way and everything comes true. I don’t know.
D: So did you make a conscious effort to make an album based on your idea of Danielle Steele novels or is it something that came to be after you’d written some songs?
SM: That was kinda later. The first thing was based on—you know the LL Cool J [song] “I Need Love”?
SM: Remember that song? It was kinda based on if LL Cool J wrote that song now and if he were never a rapper or an actor what he would write. I dunno something like that.
D: So which song on the album is based on that?
SM: I’d say most of them.
D: So how did LL Cool J have that influence?
SM: Well that’s the thing, it’s one of those songs that you think in your head. You know how things have kind of a grace period? After 15 or 20 years, like a fine wine or something, they age. They become better. It was kind of in the theory that that song throughout time became way more epic and beyond itself. As opposed to the original version which wasn’t all that good but it had it’s merit.
D: I’m just looking at the lyrics right now [reading off a lyrics website] “When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall / And in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call.”
SM: Yeah [chuckles] That’s some deep shit. Especially for the time. LL Cool J, he’s very masculine. He’s a very big attractive man. But for him to go out on a limb after “Momma Gonna Knock You Out” and “Going Back To Cali” to pull that out of his hat was pretty brave for the time, I think. He coulda just stuck with what he was doing, but he decided to try a different thing. He decided to put his heart on his sleeve or on his Kangol [ed. The hat LL Cool J wore in the ‘80s was a Kangol.] Right out there.
D: On this album … you’ve got “Axis: Throne of Love.” Is that a throwback to [your previous album] Axis of Evol.
SM: Well the original plan was Axis of Evol was supposed to be an EP and this album Outside Love was supposed to be called Axis: Thrones of Love, and the EP was supposed to come out and then six months later put out the album. But we never finished recording. Like a couple of the [songs] “And I Thank You” was recorded I guess three years ago. We did a bunch of stuff and never finished it. The Evol record just kinda became a short LP.
It was my friend Steve Balogh. When we were working on Axis: Thrones of Love. He somehow came up with the term Axis of Evol. …
With this record there wasn’t really a plan to do a record, and then my friends Cory and Fiona, they got married and I was the best man and Sophie Trudeau from Montreal was the maid of honour. They were like, “You’ve gotta play a song together at the ceremony” and we were like, “OK.” We actually played “Closer to Heaven” [ed. The closing track on Outside Love.] at the wedding as soon as they did their vows. And then we got really drunk and were like, “Hey, that’s fun! We should make a record.” [Sophie] came out to Vancouver, so it was a lot different than the other ones. It wasn’t just “write the songs and record.” A lot of the songs were lying around for a bunch of years. Me and Sophie collaborated on the arrangements. I guess while Black Mountain was touring, whenever I’d get home I’d record bits there. Like Jesse Sykes, I ran into her [on tour]. I was really into that Sunn O))) record that she sings on. So I was like “Do you want to record?”
D: Speaking of Black Mountain, how do you divide your time between Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops. Does one take priority over the other?
SM: I don’t think that anything takes priority over the other in a heart way. … Touring with Black Mountain is quite easy. Over the last couple years we’ve been offered some cool stuff. It just takes up most of our time. That’s “the band” you know? It’s the same five people and everyone else’s other bands kind of have a revolving cast. … It’s always hard to tell. I mean, when the first record came out a lot of stuff happened that we didn’t think would happen. We were just basically being like, “I hope we can get through a thousand CDs.”
D: Just for people who have only heard Black Mountain, how would you say Pink Mountaintops is different than Black Mountain?
SM: It’s different, especially more nowadays. Lyrically it’s kinda different. With Black Mountain we’re writing stuff for me and Amber [Webber] to sing either separately or together and that’s just a different element. And maybe it’s a bit more theatrical. And with the Pink stuff it can be more personal. They are farther apart now, it makes things easier. There’s still some stuff that we’ll try with both bands. If it’s a riff, it’s definitely Black Mountain. If it’s like “Oh that’s a killer riff” than that’s just kinda a given. For some reason Pink Mountaintops makes my feet move differently on stage. I always wear Vans when I play in Black Mountain, but for some reason Pink Mountaintops is more of a dress shoes kinda thing where you can flip your feet around and stuff, whereas Black Mountain is more solid ground.
D: That’s interesting because when you look at the first Pink Mountaintops album, which is all about sex, lyrically at least, it seems that Pink Mountaintops has grown closer to Black Mountain than it was back then. …
SM: With that record, it was just kinda “I’m gonna do this.” No one was listening to us.
I just turned 40. We still play some of those songs, but I played an instore the other day somewhere in the UK and I was going to play “I (Fuck) Mountains.” But then these kids showed up and they were like seven. I can’t—I’m not going to play that song in front of kids, I’m a responsible adult! Well maybe not responsible, but a caring man. After awhile that would get pretty stupid pretty quick, unless you’re like Christina [Martinez] from Boss Hog. She could do it forever.
D: So what are you doing right now? Are you just touring in promotion of this album?
SM: Yeah we’re just touring … I think the plan is this summer to actually be home. None of us have actually spent a whole summer in Vancouver in like five years. That’s when you really fall in love with Vancouver, the city. I’m always there in November or January, February and it’s all grey and I’m like, “I fucking hate this place.” We’re going to try and write a whole bunch of Black Mountain stuff. … We’ll be home in … June, July, August so we’ll get to go to the beach, ride our bikes, do all that fun stuff.
D: I also wanted to talk about “Holiday” … I think it’s the happiest song you’ve ever written.
SM: I think it is.
D: What’s that song about?
SM: I dunno. That’s a pretty old song. I think the initial vocal take and the bongos and acoustic guitars—there was like seven of us at the Hive [Studios], this was maybe four years ago. It was me, Josh [Stevenson], Amber, Lindsay [Sung], Cory [Gangnes], Keith Parry, kinda a campfire thing. I think it was just a couple mics. It was probably written in like two minutes. It’s just more a celebration of friends. You always have one or two friends who are going through heartache or anything, financial crisis or their pet’s died. … Whenever [you have] something bad happen in [your] life you suddenly realize how many great friends you have that sometimes you take for granted. … You end up going out for beers and you end up being like “Hey, do you like this band?”, “Do you like that band?”, “Oh, cool skate board,” as opposed to really talking like real humans, just communicating. It pretty much sums it up with “Everyone I love deserves a holiday in the sun” on the beach in Mexico or wherever. If they’re into snow it could be the Antarctic or the Arctic. Everyone deserves happiness, even people I don’t know.
D: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before I let you go?
SM: I dunno. I’m not good with final words. It’s like saying goodbye. It’s always hard. I usually like to gypsy fade into the night.