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Sporting a scraggly beard, greasy hair covering his eyes, Vancouver's Stephen McBean could almost be the last living member of a tribe of garage-rocking, psychedelic-stomping, hippie-prophet nomads who once wandered the woods. As the frontman of four bands, each steeped in different angles of the future and present, but especially the past, McBean's got his plate full.
First, there's Pink Mountaintops, an experimental-pop revolving door that has featured at least 37 members — not a record, but probably close — including players from The Black Angels, The Warlocks, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sleepy Sun, and Cat Power. Then there's Grim Tower, a "strangely detuned" acoustic project with Imaad Wasif (probably best known for his live gigs with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Not to mention Jerk with a Bomb, the stripped-down folk rock outfit that predates all these bands.
Oh, yeah, and Black Mountain, a mixture of grunge sludge, lite metal, and folksy whimsy that also is McBean's most notable act. Not that he gets all the credit; Amber Webber (also of Lightning Dust), the band's other vocalist, makes her presence felt with Grace Slick-like vocals on tracks like "Wucan" and "Radiant Hearts."
McBean is happy to wear his influences on his sleeve, unlike a certain other band with the word Black in its name. "Hopefully, good taste" is his answer to the all-important question of how to avoid cliché.
"I've always loved rock 'n' roll, lots of different kinds," McBean says. When we speak over the phone, he's in Salt Lake City, having just played the first gig on a tour that opened a night earlier in Boise. "I'm not trying to create anything mind-blowingly original or anything. It's a tradition that bands kind of do."
McBean has called it the "great tradition of rock thievery." And it's true. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Nirvana have ripped off, tweaked, altered, destroyed, and re-created the music of their idols. To say Black Mountain does differently isn't entirely accurate — but few musicians these days pay tribute to '70s album-oriented rock with such finesse or, well, good taste.
McBean's eclectic musical library makes up some of the difference — you can't help feeling he's had his finger on every good musician since World War II. Indeed, it seems he's friends with half the talent in Canada. For McBean, a good song, even when heard just once and not recalled for years, still somehow builds a profound relationship with its listener.
"I had that with Father John Misty's 'Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,'" he says. "I don't remember who played it for me. But then I was watching Father John Misty play at some festival and he started playing it. At first, I was like, cool, he's covering that song. But it was actually his song that I had heard once in passing."
The point being Black Mountain aims to create songs with that staying power. But McBean claims that even tracks like "Tyrants," an eight-minute tune that features everything from Led Zeppelin riffs to shattering call-and-response drums, was a song that "just kind of wrote itself really quickly."
"The only thing I really remember is listening to a lot of Flower Travellin' Band at that point in my life," McBean recalls. "It just kind of appeared and I was like, I'll take that."
McBean also is an admirer of Father John Misty for his attempt at re-creating the "classic frontman," an act he hasn't ruled out quite yet for himself.
"For someone to be like a true, classic frontman nowadays, it's like a farce," McBean explains, "because they're people you don't want to know. You want to see them perform, but you don't want to be friends with them on Facebook or read their blogs.
"When Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, or David Bowie used to come out, it was like, that's who they are. They're not like the dude you see at the coffee shop. It kind of takes the mystery out it. That's what I love about music and all that. The Internet and stuff, it's cool in that way. But mystery in music is becoming a bit of a lost art, which is a drag."
According to McBean, the Internet also is threatening independent record labels like Jagjaguwar, the one Bon Iver, Simon Joyner, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and McBean's many bands are all signed to.
"It's cool to be on the same label as Dinosaur Jr., a band that I was a big fan of when I was a kid. Yeah, [Jagjaguwar is] all the things that are right about record labels," McBean says. "It sucks . . . I mean, I don't give a shit about the Internet and downloading and getting music for free. It's, oh, whatever, listen to our music, great. But it's one of those things that's gonna eventually kill off the label. And the good ones, they're the ones that give bands pocket money to make better records in cooler studios than they could normally."
After getting tapped for a tour with Coldplay — McBean describes it as a "nice way to spend an August" — Black Mountain's rise to notoriety was relatively quick.
"It was actually hilarious, because it was only our second tour," McBean recalls. "I think they asked Arcade Fire, and Arcade Fire said no. And I think it was the guitar player, he really liked our first record, and they asked us, so we said sure."
Success followed quickly: 2008's "Stay Free" landed on the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack, and the band retooled some old and new songs for the soundtrack to 2010's Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic surfer film. In the meantime, they earned nominations from the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards.
A follow-up to 2010's Wilderness Heart will have to wait. McBean says he and the band were writing in January, but it won't be until fall that they'll get a chance to record.
But a new Pink Mountaintops album has been circling the rumor mill since 2011, and McBean hopes to have that one wrapped up in June, after this tour. Steve Kille from Dead Meadow will be featured, as well as the band's only other longtime member, Gregg Foreman, formerly of The Delta 72.
"I suppose we stopped [recording] a bunch of times," McBean says. "So far, it's been a lot of fun to make. It's been playing with a bunch of good friends in Los Angeles . . . It's kind of a youthful, fun record so far. I think it's gonna be mostly live. Maybe a little of the funk vibe of the first one. Up-tempo rock 'n' roll, nothing too fancy. Kinda just doing it, having a good time."