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Black Humor

Black Black Ocean's dadaist rock laughs in the face of absurdity.

There's a fine line between myth-making and fucking around. Tons of rock bands throughout history have been as good, if not better, at playing the image game than they have been at playing their instruments. The Clash, by a barrage of astute media manipulation, was able to downplay the fact that its members started out as stack-heeled glam rockers and long-haired folkies. Jack and Meg White seem to like blurring the definition of their relationship (Ex-spouses? Siblings? Both?) as just another way to spruce up their insular mystique. And when it comes to bands such as the Residents, the act of puckishly obscuring and reinventing their identity approaches the realm of high art. Really, with some groups, it's hard to tell where the enigma stops and the bullshit starts.

"When I first moved to Denver, I didn't have any friends," says Ryan Eason, lead singer of Black Black Ocean -- ostensibly about to settle into a typical tale of boy meets band. "So I joined the Denver Chess Squad and ended up being paired with Stephen [Till] through the organization. We started a team called the Hott Knights -- that's with a k in 'knights' and two t's in 'hot.'"

Denver Chess Squad. Hott Knights. Right.

Wading to exhale: Quintin Schermerhorn (from left), 
Stephen Till, Ryan Eason and Jared Black are Black 
Black Ocean.
Wading to exhale: Quintin Schermerhorn (from left), Stephen Till, Ryan Eason and Jared Black are Black Black Ocean.

"We played against IBM's Big Blue computer," he goes on, just getting warmed up. In the background, Black Black Ocean's other constituents -- guitarist Stephen Till, bassist Quintin Schermerhorn and drummer Jared Black -- whisper and giggle. The four are cloistered in a van, passing the cell phone around as they drive through the cornfields of southern Illinois at the end of a short tour across the Midwest. "We were the closest team to defeating Big Blue, but no one's ever going to. It's a computer, for God's sake."

There's really no reason to assume that a band with a name like Black Black Ocean is going to be particularly lucid. In fact, trying to get a straight answer out of its members is like being chucked overboard into the Pacific at midnight. As you sink through layers of increasing murkiness, you begin to lose track of which end of the question is up. The surface recedes, and the atmosphere of surrealism becomes asphyxiating. After a few frantic gulps of interrogation, you might as well just give up.

"Our failures as a chess team led to another outlet for our creative urges," Eason explains, continuing his tale of the secret origin of Black Black Ocean. "We were here in Illinois on an international chess tour, and we found Jared and Quintin working at a gas station in DeKalb, just rocking out. They had a jug band, like washboards and shit. Jared played the spoons; he had never actually played the drums before. He's finally mastered holding the sticks, which is hard for many drummers. They always drop them. They try to hold two at the same time, but they can only focus on one.

"We were looking to play on the state fair circuit," he concludes matter-of-factly. "We wanted to do strictly outdoor festivals, just jug-band type of stuff. There aren't a lot of jug-band festivals in Denver proper, so we decided to pursue another avenue, which was rock. The transition started off kind of slow; it took a while. But by now we've had enough circle jerks to really know how each other works."

Black Black Ocean's brand-new EP -- recorded, fittingly, at local Briny Deep Studios -- is called Vultures for Permanent Fix, and more than any act of collective masturbation, it shows just how well the quartet works together. On the disc's first track, titled "In a Perfect World You'd Be at the Bottom of a Lake," Till's guitar scrapes across Schermerhorn's bass like flesh against pavement. Black's drums are an acid eating into the rhythms, boring wormholes through Eason's wracked, wheezing, fractured screech. "SM" is a funkier affair, starting with a sequence of needle-like electro before busting out a convulsive groove somewhere between Brainiac and Q and Not U. "Even Babies Have to Pay" slinks along in a disjointed slither, and "Dirty Picture Game," the closing track, is as tense as it is catchy. The tone is unsettling yet morbidly infectious, full of garbled, twisted imagery, and the packaging -- designed by Stephen's brother Jonathan Till, a former member of the group who also supplied artwork for its previous release, Operacion -- is edgy and gorgeous.

But seeing as how there's neither a lyric sheet nor a Black Black Ocean/English dictionary that comes with the purchase of Vultures, Eason decides to shed light on what exactly is going on between all the screams in the EP's four songs.

"'In a Perfect World' is about a personal enemy of mine that I can't get into too much detail about, for legal reasons," Eason elaborates. "'Even Babies Have to Pay' is about how the second you're born, you have all kinds of liabilities that you don't even know about. You've got all kinds of shit to do; you just don't know it yet. Babies and doctors and hospitals and dying and shit. But you just die in the end anyway, so fuck it, right? 'Dirty Picture Game' -- that's about porno. It sort of conjures up the image of the girl from Kansas who goes to L.A. and tries to be an actress and ends up getting flushed out of the bottom of the porn industry...and dies. It's sad, but it's a game, you know? It's an industry revolving around the demise of certain individuals.

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