Pink Mountaintops :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

At the beginning of the pandemic, Stephen McBean of Pink Mountaintops (and Black Mountain) had just been dropped by his long-time label Jagjaguwar. There were no tours on the calendar and no deadlines to meet. Fortuitously, McBean had moved to the bucolic LA suburb of Arcadia, where peacocks and wild parrots roamed, and it was easy to get outside for a long COVID-inspired walk. He was just setting up his home studio, recording ad hoc to make sure it worked, when he laid down the first tracks for what would become his fifth Pink Mountaintops album, Peacock Pools.

The pandemic stopped the daily grind for all sorts of musicians, not just McBean himself, but Ryley Walker drummer Ryan Jewell, Redd Cross legend Steve McDonald and the Melvins’ Dale Crover.  Through Instagram and text, McBean checked in with locked down friends all over the world, and via Dropbox, he shared the files for his growing collection of songs: a Black Flag cover, a pensive tribute to Nikki Sudden, a cut inspired by free jazz titans like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman.  Musicians sent their contributions back, sometimes following McBean’s direction, but often surprising him in positive ways that might not have happened in a traditional studio. 

The result was an eclectic, ruminative album, that reflects McBean’s long fascination with punk rock, his newer interest in free jazz and the creative ferment that can happen when talented people have time and space to experiment. “I really like this group of songs as far as an album, even though the songs are all over the place. For some reason, in my heart, it feels very cohesive,” he said. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You open the album with a Black Flag cover, and there’s a couple of pretty legendary California punks on it, and I know you’ve got a background in West Coast punk. Can you tell me about how you got into punk rock, what it meant to you then and what it means now?

Stephen McBean: I was a little kid and like many kids I became obsessed with the Bay City Rollers. I was up in Canada. There was an article on the Sex Pistols and the Ramones in the Time magazine equivalent of Canada, Macleans magazine. Teenage Head and the Clash. This was late 1970s. I was living in a small town in Ontario, and I visited my cousins in Vancouver. My cousins were older. My cousin Gordon was going to what would become the early hardcore scene in Vancouver, like D.O.A. 

Then we moved to Vancouver Island when I was 11. I made some best friends in grade six. There was a scene there. There were shows. We started a band and played our first show when we were 13, opening for Scream from Washington DC. I was already playing guitar. It was just the timing, having the right friends. In that era, things moved very quickly. I went from being into the Sex Pistols to discovering Black Flag and the Circle Jerks and Minor Threat and all that first wave of American hardcore and then the British stuff, like Discharge. A year seemed like an eternity.

I just got the DIschord first six-box seven-inch set. The oldest ones are over 40 years old now.

AD: How does that music sound to you now? Do you get different stuff out of it now than you did when you were a pre-teen?

Stephen McBean: Yes, it’s weird because certain stuff ages well, and other stuff doesn’t. The lyrical content. I haven’t listened to all the Dischord seven inches yet, but when I listen to the Teen Idols now, I can hear that 1960s garage rock. They’re not that far from it. It makes sense. They were kids playing in garages. Most of it was pretty primitive but also blues based. It was drenched in “Louie Louie” and the Monkees and all that.

AD: I was listening to the Black Flag version of “Nervous Breakdown” today while I was getting ready for the call, and it’s hard but also melodic. That comes out in your version, it’s tuneful and almost wistful. What does that song mean to you?

Stephen McBean: I don’t know. It’s so ingrained in my DNA now. Because of my age, the first Black Flag single that I bought was “TV Party.” When you’re young and wondering what record to buy, you want the new one. Whereas nowadays everyone wants the seminal release. I heard “Nervous Breakdown” after hearing “TV Party” after hearing “Damage,” but it’s so primitive and from the gut, but it’s still based in rock and roll song tradition.

I wasn’t planning to make a record. I moved to Arcadia March 1st before the city shut down. I set up my little bedroom studio, and I patched all the cables. I just wanted something to record to make sure everything worked. I had been playing that song on an acoustic, so I just laid down an electric guitar and the vocal to make sure everything was working. Then, on the Instagram, I saw that my friend Ryan Jewell, who plays with Ryley Walker, he was now in Columbus, Ohio in lockdown. He was like, I’m living in a barn, and I’ve got a little recording studio. If anyone wants some drums on stuff, let me know. And I was like, hey, what about this? We were doing this thing for shits and giggles. I sent it to him. It was just the guitar and the vocals, the wav files. Right after that, I was texting with Steve McDonald. All the Redd Cross tours had been cancelled, and he was like, if you’re working on anything and need bass, I’ve got endless free time. I said, I have this Black Flag cover. You know, the first Redd Cross and Black Flag shows were at about the same time.

AD: That’s right. He played with them early on, when he was still in middle school, I think.

Stephen McBean: He was 11.

AD: I interviewed him a couple of years ago, and he had some crazy stories.

Stephen McBean: His story is like a movie. Talk about right place, right time. Not only did he get to see the Germs while his parents waited outside, but his brother also took him to the KISS Destroyer tour, all that 1970s stuff. So, I kept sending stuff to Ryan and Steven. With each song, he would add a little more. He was singing on some stuff. And this was all just from sharing files through Dropbox.

AD: Do you like working like that?

Stephen McBean: I’ve never made a record like this before. I’ve always recorded in a room, and then there will be overdubs later that will sometimes come by Dropbox. But it was a weird time. Time was standing still.

I had just been dropped by my label. There were no tours. There was no label. In a way, it was liberating. I was recording stuff, but I was also utilizing the recording to learn about recording techniques. I’d sit on the couch and watch a bunch of essays — Steve Albini talking about Phase relation and all these different things, so I’d go and try that out and lay down a guitar track with this new knowledge of phase relation and guitar amps. I kept working like that for a bit.

Eventually, there were a group of songs where I needed some people playing together in a room. I asked Steven if Dale [Crover, from the Melvins] would be into this? And I hit up Dale and he was like, yes, I’d love to. I’ve got nothing going on. We got all tested. There weren’t any vaccines yet. It was just after testing became available. We did a masked up and tested session at Valentine Studios that Nick was recording. Did four songs there.

AD: At what point did this change from something you were doing during lockdown to keep yourself from going crazy to it sounds like an album? Did you know it was going to be an album from the beginning?

Stephen McBean: I was looking for little things to release on Bandcamp. Little fun things. And then once I had about four or five songs—this was before I did the stuff with Dale and Steven—I started to feel like there might be a record here. I started digging through old demos and old attempts at songs and finding different things.

I had the songs for Dale and Steven in a queue where, like, if we get these two top ones down, which were “Lights of the City” and “The Walk,” that’s good. Then we kind of just blasted through those. And then I was like, I’ve got this one and this one. I had a whole bunch of stuff. And usually once I have an album formed, I make playlists of demos and walk around the neighborhood and think, this might work together. Or this old idea might be something.

AD: It sounds like a pretty place in Arcadia. With the peacocks.

Stephen McBean: Yes. I had some friends who lived out here before when I lived in Silver Lake and then in Lincoln Heights, and it seemed far, but then I realized it wasn’t really far. The place I lived in Silver Lake got sold, so then I had to move. I was looking at Alhambra and some neighborhoods that I like, and then I found this place by accident. But it felt pretty blessed to do the pandemic here. It’s not busy. It’s cul-de-sacs. You can walk around. There’s a lot of space, and there’s the peacocks and the wild parrots and the Arbouretum. There’s a lot of good hiking.

AD: I found that getting outside was crucial during the lockdown. It made me feel better immediately.

Stephen McBean: Yes, and certain places like Silver Lake would have been a lot more hectic. At the time, me and my best friend were living here. We were both trying to stay on the positive. I was lucky that I didn’t have a day job to go to.

AD: Did the way you made the album force some artistic choices? I think I’m hearing more drum machines and synths than usual? Like on “Blazing Eye.”

Stephen McBean: “Blazing Eye” was a song that we tried to record for Black Mountain’s Destroyer record. It was more acoustic, and also going for a Pretty Things type vibe. When I was looking for songs that I wanted to record, and I was listening to Gary Numan’s I, Assassin, and there was this one song that really stood out. I had this new Moog synthesizer, and I was like, for a fun project, I’m going to try to translate this song into a Gary Numan or John Carpenter apocalypse. That was just having a new toy and messing around. Same with “Muscles.” I was playing with the drum machine and the synth. I think with that one, the lyrics were on a playlist of ideas and at the last minute I threw some vocals on it. I was like, yeah, this might be something.

AD: I really like “Nikki Go Sudden,” which is a really heartbreaking song about addiction and specifically about the Swell Maps. Can you talk about that song and your connection with the Swell Maps?

Stephen McBean: I’ve always loved the Swell Maps and the Jacobites and all that stuff, that weird angular post-punk stuff and also the Stones/Heartbreakers thing, the troubadour that he later became.

That song was a different song where I had the chords and the melody. I had it for a long time. But I didn’t like the lyrics. Every once in a while, I’d sit down and try to change it. It’s usually pretty hard, once something is stuck with lyrics, it’s hard to replace them. But I was playing it and the line “Nikki go sudden” came up, and it wrote itself.

I wasn’t intending to write a tribute to Nikki Sudden, but I was like “huh,” and I tailored the lyrics a bit. A lot of times, you’re just kind of throwing stuff out there and whatever happens, happens. I didn’t even realize that I had referenced a nursery rhyme in there. I was like, huh, I guess I did. That was definitely one of the early nuclei of the record. One of the songs that would dictate other songs. That song kept growing, too. Josh [Wells] did the drums on that one. Where he came in and where the bass came in was totally the opposite of what I would have thought. But then it sounded so cool. I was like, I wonder why they decided to wait for the drums to come, but it’s nice. It lets the story build.

AD: Do you have any favorite bits on this album?

Stephen McBean: I really love the strings Laena [Myers-Ionita of Death Valley Girls] did on “The Walk.” Emily Rose [Epstein] came in and sang on a bunch of stuff at the end. I was feeling that there were not enough female elements on this record. It seems odd on a Pink Mountaintops record. But then they just added things and there it is.

There was a lot of really nice surprises, where Steven would text me and be like, “I just put some vocals and bass in the Dropbox.” I’d download it. In “You Still There,” the mellow one with all the bells, all the vocals he did were really nice surprises. Once in a while I would give direction. Like for “Nervous Breakdown,” there were a few things, like when Josh was playing the piano, I was like, okay, when the song finishes, keep playing and pretend that you’re leaving the jam room and you’re walking down the hallway and Thelonious Monk is playing in another room. Which he did his interpretation of. That was the intent of the piano outro.

AD: Do you think that making this record during the lockdown the way you did, and having this really different experience, are there things you’re going to carry with you about that that will shape what you do going forward. Or is it just a one-off thing and eventually everything’s going to go back to normal.

Stephen McBean: I don’t know. There were so many things going on. Sometimes I feel like crying talking about it. I don’t think humans will ever go back to normal after this. Because there was the pandemic, one of the first things this wide where you experience it by watching your phone. You know, watching numbers go up. It wasn’t like the Spanish flu, where two weeks later, you might get news of what’s going on somewhere else. There was Donald Trump. There was George Floyd. There was the election. There was the stolen election.

Here in Arcadia, we had this really beautiful place to walk around. It was so serene to get out there. We felt really blessed. But then the hill near us ignited. There was a little puff of smoke, and then, the back yard and the cars were covered with ash, and you couldn’t go outside. I remember going to the store to get the filters for the air conditioner to try to clean the air. I remember driving to Costco just after Gavin Newsom shut things down. There were no cars on the street or the freeway. There were so many different elements. Then it got politicized. Everything became so black and white. I try to have empathy for everybody or like what’s the point? And it got so where, you’re a snowflake or a Nazi.

I didn’t have to go to a day job. I didn’t have kids in elementary school that were now home.

AD: You didn’t get sick, did you?

Stephen McBean: I never got it. I thought I had it a few times.

AD: Me, too, but probably not. It was a weird time. It’s amazing that people were able to be creative to the extent that there were. There’s a whole bunch of albums coming out now that came out of the pandemic period, and it’s interesting to hear people work through this stuff.

Stephen McBean: And you’ve got that added on top of normal people’s lives and what they’re going through. It was exhausting. At the beginning, everyone was like, we’re going to buckle down and learn crafts and do online parties.

AD: Was there any music that you found especially meaningful or comforting?

Stephen McBean: I listened to a lot of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. Certain songs like “Shake the Dust,” I wanted to do some stuff with the guitar that I’ve never done before.

AD: That’s the one with the Sun Ra reference, isn’t it?

Stephen McBean: Yes, I was watching Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman or free jazz things on Youtube and noodling along, and then just came in here and did a bunch of things and left it for a week and then came back and said, that’s cool, that’s garbage. I really like this group of songs as far as an album, even though the songs are all over the place. For some reason, in my heart, it feels very cohesive. A kind of freedom came out of being dropped by the label and having no deadline or shows. I said, I’ll do a thrash song with the drummer from the Melvins, perfect.

AD: Are you going to tour with this stuff?

SStephen McBean: Yes, we already did a February tour opening for Dinosaur Jr. and we start touring in April through June across the states, a little bit of Canada, with some different people than on the record. Now that everything’s back, Steven and Dale said they’d love to do it, but they’ve got so many things to make up. But Emily Rose is singing and playing guitar in the band. Kliph Scurlock who used to play in the Flaming Lips is playing drums, and my friend Tygh Runyan is playing bass.

AD: How does it feel going out again after two years off?   

Stephen McBean: It feels really good. Both the tours that I’ve done, one was opening for Dinosaur Jr. and the other was Black Mountain opening for Primus, that was at the height of Delta. Both of those tours were big enough that they could be locked down in a way. We were doing testing. You kind of just chill in the room, go out and play and hope that no one gets sick. Which did happen. Nothing too bad.

AD: This was after vaccination, right?

Stephen McBean: Yes. So, it was people testing positive and not getting sick, but the shows still having to be cancelled.

AD: It’s been a very strange couple of years. Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about you or what you do with Pink Mountaintops? Anything that people always get wrong about you?

Stephen McBean: I don’t pay much attention to that. If I do read something and they get something wrong, that’s good. There should be some air of not knowing what’s going on.

AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Stephen McBean: It makes you want to press rewind on your Walkman. You never want it to be over. They kind of just suspend time. There’s really…there are so many different elements. It can be the voice, it can be the lyrics, it can be the whole band or the guitar solo. I have certain songs that I get really obsessed with them. I press repeat over and over.

AD: What was the last song that that happened with?

Stephen McBean: There’s a song by the Las. What was it called? This was very recently. “Timeless Melody.” I guess they had done an interview on Much Music, which is like the MTV of Canada, where they were all talking and being their British yob selves, but then, with just two guitars, they did this jaw-dropping performance. Obviously, I knew about “There She Goes” and all the rest, but there was something about the song. And I was listening to the album version or the BBC version.

Karen Dalton. There was this Live at the Five Spot, 1950s jazz. Angel Olson has a new single out which is pretty heart wrenching. I actually had to stop it. It was triggering a lot of personal stuff. I’ve loved her music for a long time. She has one of those voices like Karen Dalton that just stop time.

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