October 2011 (e-mail)
San Francisco's Black Cobra, featuring drummer Rafa Martinez & guitarist-vocalist Jason Landrian, debuted in 2001 with an attractive style of punk-influenced sludge metal. They were immediately brought into the At A Loss Recordings family where they'd stay for two albums. In 2009, having built up a legion of fans with regular touring, they were signed with the respected & much larger Southern Lord Recordings.
I'll confess to finding something very attractive & mysterious about the sludge music movement. Some people criticize it's lack of cohesion & arrangements but I've always believed its about training the ears for the bigger picture ... or maybe it's the smaller picture with all the little nuances that happen under the shadow of the distorted drone. But, then, I'll also confess to enjoying Indian music & drone fan Lou Reed. I was offered the chance to ask them some questions via e-mail about their new fourth release "Invernal" & couldn't resist this first opportunity to talk to a sludge metal band & drummer Rafa Martinez was willing to reply.
Special thanks to Dave Brenner of Earsplit PR for making this interview possible.
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AJ: For the uninitiated, how does you describe BLACK COBRA to a potential listener?
RAFA: Absolute brutality.
AJ: I've seen in some write-ups BLACK COBRA described as sludge metal with punk/hardcore elements. I'm a sludge fan but will confess not being much into the punk world of any era. How do you see the fusion between those 2 musical styles ... & is this even an accurate picture of BLACK COBRA?
RAFA: Well, in the 80's that's how thrash came about. It was a melding of both styles. I was too young to see the early thrash shows but from what I understand there was always a certain territorial tension between punk fans & metal heads which resulted in a lot altercations at thrash shows. It's much more diversified nowadays but all those bands were taking leaps into the unknown exploring new ground. I grew up listening to metal & then I discovered punk. Punk was also had a DIY ethic since most big labels didn't care much for punk whereas metal titans like IRON MAIDEN & JUDAS PRIEST were on major labels, & so punk bands had to release their own music & start their own labels like Greg Ginn from BLACK FLAG with SST, Jello Biafra from the DEAD KENNEDYS with Alternative Tentacles, & Ian McKaye from MINOR THREAT with Dischord. Jason & I both played in hardcore bands before we started BLACK COBRA (Cavity & -16- respectively) but we were still into metal. I feel that with BLACK COBRA we are doing a similar thing but not just with metal & punk. We incorporate psych, prog, fusion, or whatever we feel inspired by at the moment. Be it a movie, a sculpture, an actor, a scientist, it could be anything. I've never limited my sources of inspiration, I don't understand why anybody would. The human brain is getting feedback from the world around us at every waking moment, it is up to us what we do with the input we are receiving. We've been called sludge, hardcore, stoner metal, etc, but we don't really care for labels. We just play the way we do, you can call it whatever you like.
AJ: Do you have any thoughts on the current sludge scene, now going on 20+ years if one starts at the MELVINS & EYEHATEGOD.
RAFA: There are a lot more bands playing this 'style' nowadays so it's a lot safer. Can you imagine what people thought when they first saw the first shows of EYEHATEGOD, SLEEP or the MELVINS? It took a while for people to understand & appreciate what they were doing. Labels like Southern Lord & Relapse didn't exist back then so all these diverse metal labels that were taking on these bands had their tails between their legs trying to figure out how to pitch these bands to the mass media. There were a few small labels like Rise Above that were more in tune with the doom scene & that was a tremendous help for the underground. SLEEP signed with Earache who was mainly a hardcore/grind label who screwed them over pretty hard. EYEHATEGOD signed with Century Media who also screwed them over pretty hard. Metal kids wanted fast paced music, but amongst the metal legion there were the few thousand that bought all the first slow paced bands & helped spread the word. Some labels just didn't know what they had in their hands or how to handle it. I don't think anyone did. As we all know, the scene is a lot bigger now & it's easier for smaller bands to get a show or get onto a proper label that is going to work & help the band.
AJ: What's your writing process? Do you two work together or is there one person bringing a demo or fairly completed song to another to then add to?
RAFA: It's always the two of us. We'll both bring in ideas of riffs, rhythm patterns, vocal lines, concepts, etc. but ultimately it's the both us working on the final product.
AJ: Besides being a larger label has the move to Southern Lord had any effect your music making process, now that you've struck a career balance with 2 albums with At A Loss & 2 albums with Southern Lord.
RAFA: Not at all. We still write & play the same way.
AJ: How do you see BLACK COBRA's musical growth over the years/recordings?
RAFA: I like to think that we have grown & evolved in many ways. From the proficiency with our instruments, our songwriting, our live shows. I definitely feel more confident now playing drums than I did 5 years ago. I guess it's just the natural path of progress in any repeated cyclical pattern. Consciousness seeking to know itself, if you will.
AJ: From what I've read you guys took a week & a half to create Invernal. Do you deliberately aim for an intense short-term recording period or was this the end to a long song-writing session? I find the songs on Invernal have a sound that's both structured but also there's a feeling of looseness, or quasi-improvised like it could go off in any direction at any moment, which gives legitimacy to the old idea that a tight recording schedule gives the music a raw flavor that months or Axl Rose-years of studious work inevitably kills.
RAFA: We wrote the album in about 7-8 months. Everything we wrote was off the floor, we didn't have too much to go into the rehearsal room with so it was a lot of trial & error type shedding. But it's never the same way. Certain songs come about in a couple days, some take weeks. There were beats I would play for Jason & he would take the feel of it in a completely different way than what I had in mind. I don't mean to sound artsy but sometimes songs just sort of write themselves, they take a life of their own. The musicians are just a conduit for it to manifest itself from the non tangible realm into our dimension. It really depends on the moment & the chemistry. Once we had enough to work with, certain ideas would evolve into other parts naturally & so forth. We spent the latter half of the writing process structuring the songs playing different combinations of the ideas within the same song until they flowed the way we felt best. So a lot of the looseness you are talking about was us going in there & just going for it. All our albums have been recorded in 10 days or less. We were in there for 8 days on this one. 6 days recording, 2 days mixing. We've never had the luxury of being in any given studio for more than 10 days so it's just the way we've always recorded. We always have everything prepared when we go record. You hear about people in a studio for a year or so, which is super crazy when you have that kind of budget. I don't know what it would be like to write an album in a recording studio. A lot of bands do & there is no wrong or right way to do it. If the label is willing to throw down the money for a band to go to a fancy studio with swimming pools & jacuzzis for a year, good for them. You never know what can come out of that.
AJ: Besides utilizing his studio & him as a producer was CONVERGE guitarist Kurt Ballou also involved in any of the writing?
RAFA: No, he was only involved in recording & mixing.
AJ: How did you initially connect up with Kurt & what was the reason for honoring him with the producer's chair?
RAFA: Greg Anderson from Southern Lord suggested him to us. We were familiar with his work but never really though about recording with him. I'm glad we did.
AJ: I know I'm not the first to compliment you on the cover art for Invernal. It has a dark metal feel but at the same time recalls the 1970's Roger Dean art of prog-rock bands like YES, URIAH HEEP, ASIA & others. Can you tell me anything about this cover? Was this stark image your (i.e. the band's) idea or did the artist bring you something that you just liked?
RAFA: You nailed it. That's exactly what we were going for. Sam Ford, who did the artwork, also did the last THRONES release. He was still at the working stages when we saw what he was doing for THRONES & we felt he had that fantasy aspect that people like Roger Dean evoked so well. We gave him the basic idea of what we wanted & then he took it to a whole different level. He did a great job.
AJ: With a lack of record stores with shelves to pour through & covers to distract your eyes to hopefully sell an album, do you feel cover art still plays a role in the age of downloads?
RAFA: It depends on who's buying the music. I've always been a very visual person myself so I'm still in the old fashioned mentality of associating an album with some kind of visual. A lot of kids these days just do straight downloads & don't even get the album art. Nothing wrong with that but I like the audio visual experience when listening to music. I think one of the reasons vinyl is selling so well in the underground scene is precisely that. With our society depending more & more on computers every day, some people are wanting something more tangible in response to the virtual world that we seem to be slowly getting sucked into more & more everyday.
AJ: The ideas behind Invernal involve the “exploration of nuclear infested and mutated Antarctica” (quoted from another interview). You (or Jason) have said in another interview that ""Beyond" in particular is vaguely about isolation & the effect it might have on someone in a post-apocalyptic world that is covered in ice." It's hard not to want to see Antarctica as representing the social/environmental changes affecting the rest of the world now (i.e. Egypt, the Wall Street Riots, Al Gore's warnings of global warming, etc). Is this an acceptable point of view of the concept behind Invernal for a listener to take, or, what I'm trying to say, did current events have any play when you guys were writing the lyrics?
RAFA: That's an interesting take on it but that's not what it's about. The idea came straight from historical research. "Beyond" specifically was about a guy that stayed in an small outpost by himself waiting for weeks for the rest of the explorers to come back. He starts a fire to keep himself warm & starts hallucinating from all the chemicals in the smoke that fills up the small cabin he is in.
AJ: Thank you so much for answering my questions. All my best to you with KYUSS LIVES! & SWORD on the road.