With Black Map, Mark Engels rediscoverd his joy in pure rock – as much is clear on every second of ‚…And We Explode‚: snappy riffs, a tightly fitting groove, and theoretically always in spitting direction of bombast.
Things that weren’t necessarily ecpected after the course correction that was Dredg’s fifth album ‚Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy‚, can be attributed to the three-piece’s chemistry: Drummer Chris Robyn (Far) and bassist Ben Flenegan (The Trophy Fire) succeed in destilling their bands virtues, and chase Black Map’s alternative rock to the stadium on a tightened leash – and hopefully soon to Europe again as well. After talking about their favourite records of the past year on day 10 of the Heavy Pop advent calender 2014, Ben and Mark watch back on their record and tell us about their future in our interview.
Heavy Pop: Mark, I remember in an interview you gave Visions magazine for ‚Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy‚, you said that you are not interested in music made out of the combination of bass/guitar/drums/vocals. That was years ago and things clearly have changed: ‚…And we Explode‘ shows you are interested in exactly this combination. Can you tell us a bit about what lead you to this change of mind?
Mark: Ha… That’s funny. I don’t remember saying that, but it makes sense at the time. We all go through phases and for me I seemed to delve into my past a bit after the Chuckles dredg touring cycle. I started revisitling bands and albums I hadn’t listened to since childhood. It was very refreshing. I always feel that moving forward is important, but every now and then realizing what influences got you to where you are to begin with is important.
‚…And We Explode‚ sounds extremely hungry and fresh, surprisingly straight and catchy – really like a debut album – but also well advised, adult and played by a seasoned band that knows exactly what this music needs; despite its energy and spirit, a record like this could not have been made by less experienced musicians or a “real newcomer band”…does that make sense to you?
Mark: I see what you mean, and that’s what we hoped people would take from it. We wanted to make a big rock record, but did not want to come off as angsty or whiny either. Honesty and thoughtful hard music has always been huge influences on us and we knew we could complete that vision.
Can you tell us a bit about how you guys met, decided to form a band and – and I’m sorry to ask this – what the band name is about?
Mark: We all know each other in some fashion from the Northern California music scene. Dredg and Far played shows together in the late 1990s and I always loved Chris’s drumming. Ben and I met and became good friends in San Francisco around 2007 and by coincidence Ben and Chris started a friendship around the same time. Over the last few years Ben and I kept loosely discussing starting a band together that was more simple and direct than either Dredg or The Trophy Fire. Once Chris showed a similar interest, we started writing. The name Black Map doesn’t have a deep meaning, but it could represent how we started with no or very little outline for style or direction. Mainly I just liked the sound and imagery.
I always have to think about the heydays of 90s Alternative Rock a bit during listening to the record (you guys leave bands like Bush these days in the rearview mirror already) – was it clear from the start, that your songs will take this direction?
Ben: We discussed that this band would be heavy but I don’t think that 90’s Alernative rock was really something that we were striving for at the very beginning nor is something we are active going for as we move forward. That said bands like Failure, Nirvana, Helmet and Jawbox are huge influences for all of us and I’m sure some of that can be heard at times in our music.
Speaking about your other bands: isn’t it annoying for a musician that your recent work is always addressed to those other playgrounds?
Mark: It doesn’t bother me at all. Being in any band or project that you work hard on and put your complete energy into will always be a part of you. I complete understand curiosity between multiple projects and individual gets into.
What are you able to do in the constellation of Black Map, that you aren’t with any of your other bands? Where do you see the biggest differences to them? How does the songwriting process discern itself – basically, can you tell us how a Black Map song is born?
Mark: I definitely missed writing riffs and felt Dredg had moved away from that a bit. There are some riff based tracks on ‚The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion‚ that turned out great, but it wasn’t our main MO. With Black Map I can not over analyze a riff and just see if it moves us.
Ben: Mark or myself always comes up with a riff and a general skeleton for a song. It’s pretty evenly split between us on “…And We Explode”. Once we get to rehearsal we usually just play the parts, lock in and then eventually figure out the structure of the song. I generally sing nonsense over the song while I figure out the melody and then go write lyrics. Chris obviously adds a whole new dimension to the song with his drumming and it’s always fun to feel it take shape when the three of us get together.
Lyrically, ‚…And We Explode‚ deals with the aspect of losing control – despite that, the record is musically focused, detailed and concentrated. Was there ever a thought about letting the music express the words with a more uncontrolled or even cacophonous approach?
Ben: No that wasn’t really discussed. I suppose on one level the music is very focused but on the other hand it is bombastic and kind of reckless at times and I think the lyrics often correlate with that. When the music to one of our song is complete or close to complete I generally sit down and try to feel what the song should be about. The sonic landscape of our songs is always kind of a guide to what the lyrics will convey.
It’s interesting how perfectly the songs from the EP fit in context of the album. Was it always planed that they will be part of the record?
Ben: We knew that with a label backing us and with all of the touring, that our full length would have a lot more reach that the four song EP. We love the songs on the EP and just thought they deserved to be heard more than the couple thousand people that were aware of the ‚Driver‚. We didn’t want those songs to be lost so to speak. We worked with the same engineer/producer Aaron Hellam on both projects and essentially used all the same gear. Since we didn’t change the direction of the band we were pretty certain that there was going to be sonic and thematic compatibility.
I really like the cover photo (perhaps because of the contrast from the calm mood in the picture and the thrilling energy of the record itself). Where was it taken and why was it chosen for the record?
Mark: I took that photo in Pag, Croatia. I also took the ‚Driver‚- EP cover photo in Halong Bay, Vietnam. We felt that the EP and LP shouldn’t contrast stylistically because the songs all came from the same place and time creatively.
When can we expect a vinyl version?
Ben: Vinyl will be available sometime in the spring.
Thinking about the song ‚Chinaski‚: are you guys that big Bukowski fans – or is his alter ego just an ideal symbol for the common theme of the record?
Ben: He is definitely one of my very favorite writers. In “Ham on Rye” and “Factotum” there are constant themes of alienation and of not being a piece of a puzzle that fits comfortably with the other pieces. In „Factotum“ he can’t keep a job and while some could say its because Chinaski was a drunk and inept, I see someone who wants to be able create art and have a nice place in the world but he needs to work these terrible jobs to survive. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
Vis-à-vis to the more straight rock songs, the atmospheric ‚…And We Explode pt. 2‚ in particular expands the stylistic spectrum of the record. Is that a hint at what direction the future might hold for you?
Mark: I wouldn’t say it’s implying any future direction. It’s merely a song we love and felt that it would close the album very well.
So, the future: are there any plans for album number two already? [“More good stuff on the way…” you said these days on facebook]
Mark: We are going to start writing for a new record after the new year. Already have some ideas churning.
What’s the daily business for you guys, now that the record is out?
Mark: Since we are a relatively new band, we’re just trying to lay a lot of ground work at the moment. Doing press, booking shows and solidifying a team of people we want to help us move forward.
Best thing or moment thus far being in Black Map?
Mark: Getting to tour Europe for the first time really felt great. I’ve done it numerous times with Dredg and couldn’t wait to get over there with Black Map. We felt so very welcomed. Seeing people that knew the lyrics and changes was so very satifying. I also thought the Crosses shows we did felt very special. There are so many connections between the two bands and we had a blast.
You did a few shows in Europe already. Are there any plans to come back anytime soon? Especially: when will we see you guys in Austria?
Mark: Yes, we are working on shows for Europe in spring/summer 2015. Really looking forward to it. Hopefully Austria! Prost!