Published May 22, 2019A licence to drive is more than just a piece of plastic with your picture on it — it's a passport to adventure, a feeling of power and freedom with a side of anxiety when you wrap your hands tight around the wheel. That's what Black Mountain's fifth album, Destroyer, is all about; in his late 40s, singer/guitarist Stephen McBean finally got his driver's licence, and it changed everything.
"I'd say 75% of this album was influenced by me being like, 'Oh my god, I've never listened to Metallica's Kill 'Em All, or any record, and driven!" muses McBean over the phone from his home in Lincoln Heights, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. "I've listened to them in cars many times, but Deep Purple, Judas Priest and whatever, I'd never actually experienced heading down the highway while driving."
Beyond the outside influence of McBean cruising up and down the West Coast, looking for Arthur Brown and ZZ Top picture discs in independent record stores, he essentially edited Destroyer on the road, too.
"Much like the first Black Mountain record, the people who played on [Destroyer] came in, jammed on the songs, and we recorded them," McBean remembers. "Then, when we had a fair chunk of the album, I would make rough mixes of them, and I would go out and drive around in the car with them, and figure out which things I liked and which I didn't like. I think that why it's a motoring, lean and mean record. We recorded 22 songs, and we just used eight. They stuck together like friends, like a little gang, and they tended to be the harder hitting ones."
Changes hit Black Mountain hard in the aftermath of their 2016 album, IV. Bassist Arjan Miranda played on that album, but left before the band had much of their eccentric gear stolen while on tour in Sweden. Subsequently, drummer and founding member Joshua Wells left the group, albeit on amicable terms, followed by vocalist/percussionist Amber Webber, leaving McBean and synthesist/graphic designer Jeremy Schmidt to decide the future of the project.
"Basically, I set up my recording gear in my little jam space studio down here," McBean recalls. "I had a bunch of demos and stuff. I didn't know if it was going to be a Pink Mountaintops record or something new or Black Mountain or whatever. I first invited some friends that were drummers to come and jam. There are three different drummers on the record. It was fun to just jam with people, everyone with their different take on music. When Jeremy started adding his synths, it started creeping more towards 'Black Mountain 2019.'"
Once they had arrived at the decision to continue the ascension of Black Mountain, they had some other important choices to make.
"The two of us really focussed in on fine-tuning the record, whereas usually all the band members were going at it," McBean says. "That was cool in a way. That was different. Me and Jeremy were pretty in synch with the arrangements, the cover art he was creating. Even when we were trying to come up with the album title, we riffed back and forth via text. We knew what we were going for, but we didn't have it yet. When 'Destroyer' came up, we both heartily guffawed, but then we were just like, 'Oh, damn, it's just too good not to use!' It's so loaded in so many different ways. We gotta use it.
"We were ostensibly looking for a one-word title like ZZ Top's Eliminator. Mutator, Volumator, Decaffeinator, Rockinator: there were a million of them. When that one came up, it seemed so obvious. It sounds ridiculous, and I'd say there's a lot of ridiculousness on the new record."
Indeed, despite all the calamities and craziness, things eventually fell into place for Destroyer. All of the essential gear that was stolen got replaced or upgraded. Miranda came back into the fold, alongside contributors such as Rachel Fannan (Sleep Sun), Adam Bulgasem (Dommengang), Kliph Scurlock (Flaming Lips) and Kid Millions (Oneida), most of whom had either played with or toured alongside McBean at some point.
John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans) returned to the producer's chair after having mixed the majority of 2008's In the Future, so above all, there was a sense of keeping it in the family. With all that considered, it feels right to still call this Black Mountain — and to their credit, Destroyer hits hard as the most consistent and driving album in their catalogue yet.
Destroyer is out May 24 courtesy of Dine Alone/Jagjaguwar.