- Photo by Mandy-Lyn Antoniou
Stephen McBean doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd let a lack of rehearsal get in the way of making music.
The hirsute rock 'n' roll savant plays in a whole bunch of bands, from thrash powerhouse Obliterations to psychedelic slow-burners Black Mountain to his doom-folk collaboration with guitarist Imaad Wasif, Grim Towers. Making music is what McBean does, going all the way back to his 2000s cult-fave oddball band, Jerk with a Bomb.
But Get Back, the fourth album by McBean's experimental pop-rock project Pink Mountaintops, was pushed back for years while McBean—now in Los Angeles after years of living in Vancouver, Canada—tried to find the right players and environment to not only make it, but to actually be properly prepared to make it.
"Before making a record, you're, like, 'Oh, it's not rehearsed. We're not prepared,'" McBean says in a phone interview from the road. "It's, like, 'Let's just start.'"
McBean didn't get to that devil-may-care place on his own, mind you. He was helped along by Joe Cardamone, frontman of Los Angeles post-hardcore band The Icarus Line and a producer with a vested interest in the creation of a new Pink Mountaintops album.
"I think he wanted to do the record, so he kinda pushed me to just start," McBean says. "I was, like, 'I dunno. What?' And he was, like, 'Pick who you wanna play with, and let's start."
"When I met Joe... we got along good, talking music and stuff. And his studio was cool," he continues. "And he was good as far as saying, 'Oh, that's a cool take' and keeping things loose. It was also cool making a record with him, knowing The Icarus Line's trail of destruction and all that. He would hear me doing vocals and say, 'Just sing it, man. Don't worry about it.' So, it probably turned out a bit more aggressive and rock 'n' roll, as well, working with him."
Since 2004, Pink Mountaintops has existed on a shimmering parallel plane alongside Black Mountain, though the former's path has been more crooked and subterranean. Get Back—produced by psych / doom knob twiddler Randall Dunn (Sunn0))), Earth)—could change that. After the lush, spiritual visions of 2006's Axis of Evol and the expansive, hazy pop of 2009's Outside Love, the new album—Pink Mountaintops' first in five years—is packed end-to-end with shaggy, endearing rock jams rooted in McBean's weathered record collection and aimed squarely at the nostalgia of Everyman.
"I think it's a bit of a love letter to youth and teenage romance and all that, hopefully not in a sappy, sentimental way," he says. "Joe was good with—on certain songs—keeping things a little heart-on-sleeve."
That motif is front-and-center on the album's second track, "The Second Summer of Love," a thumping rocker that finds McBean revisiting 1987: boys and girls, making out, smoking, skateboards and roaming the streets of his hometown at night. On "Sixteen," a punk number colored with Hold Steady-style keys and E Street Band saxophone, McBean sings about smashing glass ("just for kicks") and "the underground" before admitting that all his youthful protagonist wants "is to fall in love 'neath the midnight sky."
Elsewhere, "New Teenage Mutilation" is a beautiful roots-pop tune that laments our current state of "computerized segregation," while "Wheels" sounds like dusky, Smiths-inspired new wave dipped in an acid bath. And the first song on Get Back is arguably its best: a buzzy jam called "Ambulance City" that moves along at a motorik pace and occasionally ascends into a snarling chorus. The lyrics are nonsensical (outside of McBean's head, at least), but the groove is entrancing.
Pink Mountaintops play Thursday, May 29 at The Casbah
And right in the middle of the album is a song called "North Hollywood Microwaves," an eye-popping garage-rock-meets-free-jazz hodgepodge that features Giant Drag's Annie Hardy rapping a squeaky, explicit verse about, among other things, bear semen. It's bizarre and disjointed and out of place. And that was the point.
"I love it," McBean says of the song, noting that he and his record label, Jagjaguwar, decided to put it out ahead of the album, "maybe to fuck with people a bit."
But "North Hollywood Microwaves" also embodies the album's loose, unencumbered charm, a quality McBean attributes to the cast of characters who "wanted to play on it and were available to play on it." That cast includes members of Darker My Love, Dead Meadow, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Clawhammer and Cat Power, plus modern guitar hero J. Mascis, whose contributions to Get Back are "a little bit of a surreal dream," McBean says.
"Loose is a good word. We kinda just learned the songs as we recorded them, which gave new life to some of 'em," he says. "You want people just on the spot, playing, and playing from the gut and not thinking about it too much.
"At least for rock 'n' roll, that's the best way to go."