Pink Mountaintops

Photography by Lenard Smith

You would never peg Stephen McBean as the sensitive type. While he may be better known as the songwriter behind the theatrical psychedelic revival of Black Mountain, his personality better mirrors the folksy nostalgia of his more personal project, Pink Mountaintops. Outside Love, the latest from the Canadian-based outfit, oozes heartache, pain and hate nearly to the point of being disingenuous.

McBean appears shy and pleasant as we stand in line at trendy coffee stand in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Rickshaw Stop where Black Mountain will play to a sold out crowd in a few hours. Every so often, McBean strokes his gray beard and lets a laugh slip out after answering questions about Outside Love.

It’s kind of a breakup record; romantic record, and celebration of friends,” he says. “They’re songs about how your life changes as you leave one thing and move on to the next.”

If that reduction sounds sentimental, consider the context: Outside Love was composed and recorded during McBean’s brief periods at home in Vancouver in a year jammed with Black Mountain tours. He relished the time to himself. He recounts the story of each song like a vignette in a fractured narrative. Friends enter McBean’s world full of old blues, gospel, and country songs to collaborate on the record’s impressionistic arrangements, only to exit the stage and leave him alone to complete his bedroom project. It’s a dramatization, of course, but it works and sounds seamless.

Whether it be Pink Mountaintops or Black Mountain, Mc-Bean’s music has always been a recapitulation of the ‘60s, combined with embellishments informed by the advent of punk and everything after. He admits that, despite his propensity for the elaborate use of effects, he wishes he could work like an unassuming musician in a bluegrass band—full of talent, and short on pretensions. He adds, “It always blows me away and makes me feel like a bad musician. It’s absolute freedom if you don’t need to stand behind a microphone or a Marshall stack or Protools.”

There’s no satire in McBean’s pastiche; the songs on Outside Love are carried by the strength of their unique offerings rather than on the backs of their musical references. Ashley Webber, the searing co-vocalist in Black Mountain, delivers an excellent vocal performance on the ballad “While We Were Dreaming,” and McBean delivers his own powerful vocals on “And I Thank You” and “Vampires.”

McBean also makes good use of the possibilities of digital production to work in flourishes of piano, and peddle steel throughout the record—not to mention some impressively layered synthesizer, violin, and guitar on songs like “Closer to Heaven.” Whereas tracks like “Axis: Thrones of Love” and “Execution” are familiar melodies coated in a hazy atmospheric fuzz and driven by heavy-handed, lo-fi drum recordings.

That McBean so often resorts to classic structures and the poetic Miltonian symbolism of good and evil stems from a sort of resignation to the lifestyle he’s chosen. “The whole thing with god and the devil is so vague. It can be yourself and your friend or your girlfriend or the president or whoever,” he says.

It’s five o’clock in the afternoon and McBean is finally having his first jolt of caffeine. He takes a sip of his overwrought cappuccino from the coffee stand and says, “I’m on sort of a health kick these days. I try to have just one good cup of coffee a day instead of ten cups of truck stop stuff.”

He’s enjoying his coffee, and our conversation. It’s clear that the yearning on Outside Love is authentic. It’s about loving music and loving life, and how you might as well indulge in loving both while you can. “It’s a fearful thing to me,” he says. “At some point, no one on the earth knows who you are. Everyone you know or have touched is gone.”

– Mario Aguilar