Black Rice

If you haven’t heard of Black Rice by now, you will soon. Their live shows are powerfully disarming, their candor honest, and their love for music unmistakable. Black Rice is a band with ballz. I had the chance to sit down with two of the members of Black Rice to find out just what makes this band so unique.

Photo by Lori Kiessling
Photo by Lori Kiessling

Discorder: Introduce yourselves please.

Jeff: I’m Jeff Lee and I play guitar and sometimes sing.

Joel: I’m Joel Tong and I also play the guitar and sometimes sing.

Who’s missing?

Joel: We are missing Juli Steemson, our drummer, who is starting to sing now and we are permanently missing Craig Wallace who was our bass player, but he left the band. We have Morgan, our new bass player.

Joel: He might sing as well.

Photo by Lori Kiessling
Photo by Lori Kiessling

How long have you guys been together?

Joel: About two years. Jeff joined Christmas of last year.

Jeff, had you been in other bands before?

Jeff: When I first met these guys I was in a band called Mercury the Winged Messenger. When that band broke up Craig asked me to join the band that was originally called Bronze—but we changed the name to Black Rice.

Why did Craig leave?

Joel: He got accepted into the Canadian Film Center.

Joel: He is doing a director’s workshop, so he will be in Toronto for at least six months.

Jeff: He is an awesome filmmaker, and that’s his first love, so when he said he was leaving…

Joel: It was a kick in the teeth, but a nice kick in the teeth.

Jeff: Yeah, it was like a sock-foot kick in the teeth by your big brother.

Joel: It was more like a gentle rubbing of toes on your teeth.

Photo by Lori Kiessling
Photo by Lori Kiessling

How did Morgan end up becoming your new bass player?

Joel: We thought it wouldn’t be the same without Craig, but the idea came up to get a stand-in bass player—someone to play with and maybe do a show with when we really needed to, and then when Craig got back in a year or six months then we would pick it up with him again. We were sold on that idea and then we ran into Morgan and he was cool with playing with us. Then Craig started talking about never coming back but by that time we were okay with it.

Jeff: A big difference for me was how into it Juli was. When Craig left I didn’t really think that the band would keep going, but Juli plays with another band, Panurge.

Joel: Local pop sensation Panurge.

Jeff: She plays in the back-up band, but she was really into playing rock and roll and punk rock and hardcore. She seemed so into it that I was like, “Well, you know, if everyone is still into it we might as well keep going.” I like playing guitar and I like hanging out with these people so why not?

Where did the name Black Rice come from?

Joel: We were Bronze for a while and we really liked Bronze, but then it turned out that ex-members of Karp had formed a band called The Bronze in Seattle, and we figured that it would be hard to compete with them so we had to think of a new name.

Jeff: As far as I remember it was like “How about Black Rice?” “ Yeah … okay.”

Joel: Nobody really cared; I think we had already tired ourselves out the first time we had to come up with a name. One night on my way to practice a vision from the black rice god said to me: “Name the band Black Rice.”

Jeff: It seemed Asian in a super kickass way.

Craig and Jeff both came from punk and hardcore backgrounds, and I know the rest of the band has been involved in bands of various styles. How would you describe Black Rice’s sound?

Joel: That is the toughest.

Jeff: You want me to give my theory of what you guys sounded like before I joined the band?

Joel: Are you going to bring up the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shellac again?

Jeff: Yeah. I had seen a lot of their shows as Bronze and I am good friends with Joel, so when I described them to other friends of mine I was like [Joel starts to laugh] “The only way I can describe them is a cross between Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shellac,” and I guess that was partially just to confuse people. How can you sound like that?

Joel: But it was true.

Jeff: There were elements of both, some really interesting guitar work mixed with some very heavy down tune rhythms and hard-hitting drums.

Jeff: When I came into the band, first of all, I wasn’t a huge Shellac fan like the other three people. I think we all listen to all kinds of music and I wanted to bring more of a mixture but make it more of a refined sound. What we have been trying to do recently is make an overall sound where we all have more of a hand in writing the songs and have an overall, recognizable sound, even though we are drawing bits and pieces from all of our different influences. The newer songs are a bit more coherent as being written by a band instead of an individual.

Joel: It is a big mix of all kinds of music. At least to me it doesn’t sound like anything else that other people are doing. It is definitely getting a lot clunkier these days. Strange time signatures; it is a little more mathematical.

Jeff: The band has been not necessarily anti-distortion, but it seems like a lot of bands try to cover up with big amps and super fuzzy distortion. I think that you can still have balls without having your fucking gain cranked up to 11, contrary to what Spinal Tap would have you believe. Turn down the suck. [Laughs]

So what bands would you say have influenced your sound?

Jeff: When I came to the band I knew everybody in the band was into Rocket from the Crypt and to me there is not enough bands out there that sound like that—bands that are rock and roll but that don’t sound like the Strokes or the Sex Pistols; they sound different. Not to say that I want to sound like RFTC but I wanted to do rock in the way that they do it.

Joel: It comes down to balls really.

Jeff: Yeah.

Joel: Balls with a ‘z’.

Jeff: It is still rock but it doesn’t sound like everything else that you hear—whether it’s on the radio or whether it’s at a punk show. I guess I can’t not mention Rye Coalition, because I am always just trying to emulate their ballz.

Tell me about your songwriting process. Where do the ideas come from for the lyrical component to your songs? They seem to me to be very intricate and complex.

Jeff: We have written a couple of songs lately that were based on concepts. Our hit single “Into the Night” is a battle between vampires and vampire hunters, and then recently we wrote a song based on an Asian folk tale that Joel had read.

Joel: It was about this poet who had fallen in love with a poetess that was also a princess. Basically she dies, he gets really upset, and he ends up clinging to her grave, until he dies and all that left is ivy.

Jeff: We turned the poet into an outlaw and the princess into a ghost town and the ivy into a rose. The story is so elaborate that we had to write the song in two parts.

Joel: It’s got two movements.

Jeff: It’s our “Free Bird.”

Any plans to put out an album soon?

Joel: We just recorded a lot of stuff with Jesse Gander over at Rec-Age. We did another recording with Juli’s friend Kreg from Bison. We recorded the songs that had been done without Jeff so we will have a demo at our next show until we get the full-blown album out in the fall. •