Spend any amount of time with guitarist and singer-songwriter Stephen McBean and you’ll get steeped in the alchemical history of rock & roll: obscurities, drum tuning warlocks, forgotten studios, and hard-luck music biz casualties. They all keep the company of his obsession with the craft of recording and songwriting.
McBean is the creative force behind a number of projects, some dormant, some very alive. While he’s probably best known for the heavy psych warriors Black Mountain — who, we can share here for the first time, are newly signed to ATO — his long-running tribute to eclecticism in popular music, Pink Mountaintops, released a new album, Peacock Pools, on May 6. It’s a record with many faces, from the lead-off declawed and enriched Black Flag cover, to thrash, synth psych, and feints at late period PIL. There is a cassette Walkman-era grain to the production. It’s redolent with peak ‘80s and early ‘90s open tab major-label eclecticism, as if these tunes were recorded with no concern for budget. But each song has a spark that transcends the moribund tendencies of those eras — and anyway, they were mostly recorded in Stephen’s bedroom in Arcadia, California, the setting for the poolside photos on the album’s inner sleeve.
McBean is a youthful 53, which is odd because his visage is framed with a lichenous beard, and long, graying hair. His onstage guitar prowess and vocal confidence hides the fact that McBean is shy and unassuming in person. When telling a story, he sometimes bursts into unnerving giggles, hinting at his wry, expansive and sometimes weird, sense of humor. The end of Peacock Pools’s A side, “Swollen Maps,” is a case in point. For slightly over a minute, McBean voices four characters in just as many registers.
I spoke with Stephen on the phone from his rental in Arcadia — the town where Hunter S. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Stephen McBean: I was looking for rentals through my agent — I put “pool” into the mix, and this house in Arcadia popped up. I moved in there on March 5, 2020, then everything shut down two weeks later.
John Colpitts: Are you dating anyone now?
Stephen: I’m a single guy now. I’m in a pretty good mental space — my health is good. I’m sober.
John: When did you get sober?
Stephen: Officially only a few weeks ago — I did a lot of back and forth. During the last Black Mountain tour, I’d maybe have a beer after the show. But then I was going out again, being single. My ex was sober, so after we split up I was drinking more and more, being sadder. It’s not that I’m a raging alcoholic, but it’s that thing with binge drinking — the depression that comes along with it, and smoking three packs when you’re drinking!
John: What?! Why?
Stephen: Because I’m an idiot! “Wired to self-destruct,” to quote Metallica. It’s funny, the mental health, the physical health, the anxiety from hangovers — any of these things gone is good. I can start drinking again if I ever want to but it’s a great decision to not do now. No harm’s gonna come by not drinking.
John: So you’ve played live since the pandemic?
Stephen: I’ve done two tours so far since COVID. There was a Primus tour with Black Mountain opening in October and November of last year. Then Pink Mountaintops opened for Dinosaur Jr in February. Those were good ways to reenter this new world of touring. You’re locked down backstage with those bands, it’s easier because at the venues they play there’s a distance you can maintain. But when Pink goes out in less than a week it’ll be kind of in the thick of things… There’s no budget error written in for COVID. Obviously I miss hanging out with people, but I like the lockdown backstage. It’s cool and Zen there — there’s no weird hangers on with their eyes all over your rider saying, “I want that hummus!” Or coming back after you play and there’s nothing left and a bunch of randoms in there.
John: Have you gotten COVID?
Stephen: I haven’t gotten it! My ex never got it… Two people from the new Pink Mountaintops band just got it in the last few weeks for the first time. Arcadia is kind of the burbs. I was of the mind that because I don’t have a day job it was my duty to keep myself contained and avoid getting sick.
John: What was the situation with the switch to ATO from Jagjaguwar? I understand that we can say for the first time here that Black Mountain also signed to ATO!
Stephen: That was another emotional thing. I’d just moved into the house in Arcadia and was setting up my gear in one of the bedrooms and fucking around. The first thing I recorded was the Black Flag cover. I just wanted a song, nothing to be precious over. I listened to what I had and thought, This is pretty cool.
I kept texting with Steven McDonald from Redd Kross. We have the same rehearsal space so I used to see him around all the time. He was saying, “All my tours got canceled, if there’s anything you want bass on, I have a studio at home.” So I sent him a few things, and soon I had maybe three or four songs. I’d seen Chris Swanson from Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar a bunch — I was like, “Hey, I wasn’t planning on it, but it seems like the seed for the next Pink Mountaintops album has been planted.” He was like, “We’re not a good fit anymore. . .” I was like, “OK.” [Laughs.] That was another time where some depression hit. It was a bummer and I was thinking, Who’s gonna want me now?
But I got up and brushed it off my shoulders and it felt liberating. There’s no label, and no deadline so I’m just gonna continue recording. Josh Wells, the drummer from Black Mountain, came into the picture with his studios in Chicago and Vancouver. I asked Steven McDonald and Dale Crover because there were a couple songs I wanted to record with humans in a room. They played together with Melvins and Redd Kross. Then my friend Nic Jodoin unlocked this time capsule studio called Valentine in North Hollywood. It had been dormant for close to 25 years. There were all these RCAs ribbon mics, recording mags from the ‘60s on the tables — it’s like walking into a Mad Men set. They have a Bill Putnam Universal Audio board, the kind you see in photos with Phil Spector, huge knobs and tubes. So I just kept working on the album. I sent it to a few labels — just some works in progress, rough mixes — and the guy who got back to me right away was Jon [Salter] from ATO. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone to put it out but I was hopeful. I wasn’t expecting a label that big to be that easy going about everything.
John: You leveled up.
Stephen: They kind of remind me of the way the majors were in the ‘70s when they weren’t as corporate. Like Asylum — their artists are all over the map. There’s stuff that could be considered hip and some that’s not hip. It was cool. Just the fact that it was that easy — he came back after a month after we signed Pink Mountaintops and he wanted to sign Black Mountain too. I hit up Jagjaguwar and they gave their blessing.
John: Each tune is a new world on the new Pink Mountaintops album.
Stephen: That was partially because of the liberation of not being tied to a label and just doing whatever. For a lot of the record, I was learning to become a better recording engineer. I was reading a lot – about phase, side chaining compression, reverb to an acoustic track. The song “Muscles” was me playing with the LinnDrum and a new Moog keyboard. It was just me trying to write for fun. Everything I recorded would go into a little playlist on my phone and I’d walk around with it. “All This Death” happened when we were at the studio with Dale Crover and Steven McDonald — we recorded all the songs I had in the queue, then we had more time and I told the guys, “I have this thrash song.” I’ve got to record this with Dale Crover from Melvins!
A lot of [working on the album] was sitting there with time on my hands and listening. On this record, I tried to push my guitar playing in a different direction. The stuff before has been mostly blues-based or the solos are me winging it. But this time there was more composition, digging into the solos and searching for that one note that separates it and elevates it. I also got an online DVD singing lesson box set. That was fun. There’s an instructor. It was a zip file of a bunch of DVDs. I never thought about projecting vowels — I never knew about all this shit.
John: There’s obviously lots of craft here.
Stephen: Yeah – I was learning about recording techniques, songwriting, watching guitar tutorials on YouTube and also working with other musicians through Dropbox. You send someone your finished stuff and then they send you back their finished stuff. I would sometimes say what I might be going for, but usually not. It was very exciting to get back the finished tracks without having any idea what would be on it.
John: How do you approach songwriting?
Stephen: It shifts around a lot — I used to mainly turn riffs into songs, and wasn’t so interested in the craft. I remember when I was a teenager and I heard, “Everybody must get stoned!” [“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”] and I thought, I hate this guy Dylan! But then I got into that, then Townes Van Zandt, The Birthday Party, Nick Cave, Tom Waits. They are these weird portals into higher taste music. You get into Lee Hazlewood through that.
You work on these songs and you realize they just float by and you grab them in the moment. It’s that moment when you’re listening for something and it hits you. I’d have demos, little things on my phone. There’s a lot of listening involved in the process. Especially at the beginning — Steven McDonald would send me his bass tracks and his melodic sensibilities were so different from Pink Mountaintops. I never heard his works in progress or his first try. I wasn’t there to say, “That sounds pretty cool, why don’t you try this?”
It’s nice to have the luxury of ProTools or GarageBand with things set up in your bedroom. You can have a decent mic and a decent reverb and you can capture the initial spark of a song and get the take with the fidelity you want. A lot of times there’s the problem of “demo-itis” [when you fall in love with the demo recording, but the recording quality sucks and you can’t release it] — especially with vocals. You can’t recreate these little quirks. It’s nice to have that feature with a good home set up.
It’s also important to listen to as much stuff outside of the realm of the band you know? Listen to enough Thelonius Monk and his weird-ass piano melodies might find their way into a vocal melody. Sometimes you’re watching a Seinfeld and fucking around with guitar and there’s a song! Someone says something in a conversation and it’s a song.
“Nikki Goes Sudden” for example — I had that song with different lyrics and it was called something else. I didn’t like the lyrics and I figured the song was dead. Then I was playing it and I just said, “Nikki Go Sudden” instead of what I usually said there. I wasn’t planning on it. He must have been on my mind. I might have been listening to some Jacobites or Swell Maps. Jagjaguwar sent me a box when they reissued all those titles. So it was a happy accident. I probably fine tuned some lyrics subliminally to pay more tribute.
I like having comedy in the songs, inside jokes, little lines — “What did he just say?” I’m still on that journey of chasing songs. I’m still obsessed with the song. Whatever the song is can flip around all over the place but it’s just chasing that magical thing. Sometimes you’ll pick up someone’s guitar somewhere and it’ll feel a little different and play a little different – but a couple chords that sound mundane in your living room just come to life. I’m not very good at covers but every once in a while I’ll learn a cover for fun. Some of my favorite songs are just so simple. Or they don’t make sense. I remember learning “Candy Says” and thinking, how did he get such a beautiful vocal melody on top of such a weird chord progression? That’s genius. I’d like to make a really sonically concise record one day, but I also like to jump all over the place and see where it lands — because I do really love Discharge, and I do really love Karen Dalton.
John: Are you trying to present an aesthetic that includes all that?
Stephen: I don’t know if I’m trying to, but sometimes I’ll appreciate it if someone notices. You can also get into the mental psychosis of being an Aries and wanting everyone to like you. I haven’t been close to a lot of Aries — Emily Rose from the Pink band is an Aries. There are weird things to do with my youth and my parents — my parents really not liking me being artist versus academic and it being a big struggle. There’s a bit of a chip on the shoulder, “I’ll show them!” There’s this weird revenge element. There’s the, jock from high school coming to my shows — “Hey McBean!” [Slyly,] “Hey buddy how’s it going?”
John: Are your folks still around?
Stephen: My folks are still together, they’re in London, Ontario. They’re very supporting and loving parents but it was very difficult during the younger years.
I sometimes wish that my obsession with music was less intense, because sometimes it drives me insane. But when it all comes together it makes me very happy.
John: Why do you wish it was less intense?
Stephen: Life is what it is… I remember when Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops first partnered up with Jagjaguwar [in 2005] and people were listening — well, right before that, I was in a long term relationship with a woman with a fabulous child. I had this thing where I’m gonna do this touring, rock thing. If it doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll think about being a dad. Selfish, immature things, but also the way it is. As life goes on, she finds someone who is truly interested in starting a family in their early 30s regardless of whether they want a career or not. I’m like, “I can go on tour now.”
You have your friends with families saying, “Wow it must be crazy to be on tour!” Well it’s boring, there’s a lot of waiting, a lot of driving — but the food’s better now all over America. It’s a bit of, why am I still doing this? Sometimes I’ll think about it and if I make it to an old ripe age and I’m sitting on my deathbed, my kids could be there saying, “Pops, it’s cool, you had a good life,” or there’s a box of unsold merch sitting in the corner and I ask the nurse, “Do your kids want these records? I got no use for them where I’m going.” You can do things that can influence the good of your own health and the health of the people around you. You can’t change it and life is just gonna steamroll on with you or without you. You can do things to influence or make the journey more positive. That’s a good deed — but the big picture, it’s kind of out of your control.
For me, making music is making the things that are positive. Everyone is really good at something. Everyone has their thing — they could be really good at doing bad things but they’re still really good at it. I want to try to get really good at writing songs. Maybe if I get to a point when I think I’m really good at it, maybe I should try to stop. Can you imagine being 17 and seeing a 53 year old up there? You’d be like, “NO WAY.” I remember when I was a teenager seeing dudes who were 27 and thinking, What’s up with grandpa up there! I feel like All Tomorrow’s Parties, the fest, was kind of responsible for the positive spin on the reunion. Like Dinosaur — a band would come back and play a seminal record. It seemed less distasteful. But when Dinosaur did those festivals they were probably in their late 30s maybe. The tour we were on with Dinosaur, I [was] always like, Maybe I’ll go sleep, but I always end up watching their whole set. They’re on the top of their game. They play a song and you realize it’s from their second reunion record, and now those are classics. Everyone is like, What are we going to do? Let’s do it until we die.
(Photo Credit: right, Lisa Corson)