Black Mountain don’t surf

Canadian psych-rock band lands on an unlikely soundtrack

Photo by Steve Gullick

Soundtrack albums are usually little more than cheerfully anachronistic artifacts of the unholy alliance between Big Film and Big Music — the major labels used to use them as a roll-of-the-dice jet pack for their prospect acts, hoping that a box-office smash would help launch their prospect band’s fortunes, and for the bands it was usually a safe bet. If a film went big, you just got a ton of low-effort exposure; if it tanked, who’d notice?

But sometimes soundtracks serve up surprises.

For fans of the Vancouver-based psych-rockers Black Mountain, a more or less standard interval of quiescence was broken last year when their name appeared tagged on the soundtrack to Joe Guglielmino’s 2011 surfing film Year Zero, released on Jagjaguwar Records about a year ago. Guglielmino’s work is well-known in skate and surf circles, and Year Zero, lusciously captured in Western Australia and Spain in 16 mm, quickly came to be regarded as the filmmaker’s Citizen Kane; a genre-bending surfer’s stokefest overlaid with Mad Max resonances, tribal and sublime and savagely beautiful.

An odd vehicle for the Vancouver rockers?

“Yeah, it’s kind of a strange map, at least on paper,” keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt told us last weekend. “Surf movie-slash-Black Mountain is pretty funny flipside, at first glance. But I guess the film has a certain kind of post-apocalyptic vibe to it, kind of an indie-rock quality to it.

“I think,” he recalled, admitting his memory is a little hazy on the particulars, “that Joe G. and the producers of that whole enterprise sort of liked the music and got in touch with us through the label. … We just kind of got asked to do it and we said, ‘Well, this might be kind of fun.’ It was very open in terms of what they asked for us — they just wanted us to do some jams and record them, basically.

“The thing is, we were being asked to do something because someone wanted us to do our thing and then connect it with their thing. That usually works out fine. But as soon as there are stipulations or particular things they want you do, that’s not something we could really do. As long as we had free rein, it worked out OK.”

Photo by Ryan Walter Wagner

The album only offers a few new songs, the rest being culled from Black Mountain’s existing catalogue. Of the new bits, the Enya-fronting-Floyd trance poem “Phosphorescent Waves” may be the best of Black Mountain’s experiments in chill, with vocalist Amber Webber’s haunted yearnings sailing over a thumping heartbeat, framed by Schmidt’s weeping synthesizer garnish. But the cut that’s gotten probably the most attention is the grinding rock opus “Mary Lou,” a slab of dark and serrated dive-bar psychedelia, a kind of Romeo Void on lysergic drip. Some of the Web buzz around the song suggests that it’s a new BM cut, but Schmidt says, eh, not exactly.

“‘Mary Lou’ actually was an old song,” Schmidt explains, “probably as old as the songs from the first Black Mountain record [2005]. It was just one that we played a little bit years and years ago, and then it kind of got shelved. It was just something that we never really got around to recording, like creating a definitive version. So, when this film opportunity happened, we figured it would fit and it would be worth revisiting finally. If we hadn’t done it for this, I suppose it would have eventually come out on one of our next records, I don’t know.”

No telling when any of that will happen. We caught Schmidt just as he was packing up for the band’s first road work of any significance since the end of last summer, and he admits that a new album — at least relative to content — is probably still a ways off. Refreshingly, for a band as good and as long-tenured as they are, Black Mountain doesn’t push too hard to stay busy. They work when they work; they get away from it when they don’t.

“We did a little bit of jamming recently, just kind of to bounce ideas around,” Schmidt says about the band re-emerging from its half-year hiatus. “We haven’t really spent enough time playing since we took our break to hash out much new stuff. We got a couple of things that we might try and play on the road.

“We never really force things, we just kind of let things develop on their own. But it will be good to go out and play again; once you go out and play on tour, it makes you want to go in and record. And once you go in and record, it makes you want to go out and play live. It’s like stretching two different sets of muscles.”

Indeed, but this one kept gnawing at us. We couldn’t make it stop.

Is there actually a surf scene in Vancouver?

Schmidt laughed.

“I’m sure there probably is, but if so, I don’t know anything about it,” he says. “There is good surfing apparently on Tofino, which is on the far side of Vancouver Island. I guess it’s a globally recognized spot for surfing. … But beyond that, I know nothing. I’ve never even been there.”

Black Mountain plays the Fox Theatre Saturday, April 20. Indigenous Robot opens. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $17 for under-21 tickets. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.