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.
"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.
"And as for 'SM,'" he continues without laughing, "it's about the exploration of sadomasochism and sexual deviancy in a healthy way. You know, humiliation by choice. We just want the audience to know that there's a time and a place for gettin' all up on strangers, and Black Black Ocean shows are the time and the place."
For once, Eason's not exaggerating. Live, Black Black Ocean is fucking nuts. Like a think tank whipped into a berserker rage, the players transmute nerdy calculation into brute concussion. Being four fairly shaggy dudes, they apparently save the razors for their music -- a shorn and lacerated mess of chipped edges and broken angles that ends up slicing into the audience every once in a while.
"When you're out on tour, you don't really care what the people in other towns think," says Till. "We're less restrained -- way less. We're humping everybody. If the bartender is the only one there watching, then the bartender will be humped. Ryan will be harassing people and touching them in inappropriate places."
"Yeah, I had some really upset alpha males after a show one time in Cheyenne," Eason recollects. "It was because I felt their penises. I think that they felt violated, like I was somehow threatening their sexuality with my advances. And that was the idea. I guess it worked. But they could've kicked my ass, so I'm glad I got out of there."
Apparently, though, the group's confrontational live shows have made the right impression. On this tour, Black Black Ocean caught the attention of the Ohio indie imprint that serves as home to Denver's Voices Underwater.
"Action Driver will be putting out our next release," says Eason.
"It's going to be a two-song concept EP. Fifteen minutes," adds Till. "The first five minutes are just solos -- dueling guitar solos, wailing."
One almost hesitates to ask what the concept is.
"Eagles are forever," Till states soberly.
While it seems almost quaint for a scathing post-punk band to pay tribute to Glenn Frey and company, surely Black Black Ocean can think of a more deserving and germane inspiration.
"Well, I'd say Skynyrd first," Eason comments. "But the Eagles are a close second. And I'd throw Danzig in there somewhere."
"No, no, not the Eagles the band. Eagles the bird," Till clarifies.
So they have a new CD called Vultures for Permanent Fix and another on the way called Eagles Are Forever. There must be some kind of connection.
"I don't know. I didn't even think about that till right now," Till replies. "Permanent, forever, vulture, eagles. Well, the eagle soars a little bit higher than the vulture. One would be good sequel to the other."
"Dude, just think about it," Black philosophizes. "Eagles are forever. Forever, that's a long-ass time. And eagles, they have to be forever. I mean, imagine a world without them. There would be no freedom. Freedom is number one."
Eason, the apparent group historian, decides to clear up the etymology of the phrase: "We all ate peyote, and we were sitting on the sand dunes in Wisconsin. We saw this fucking eagle soaring slowly overhead. It turned out it was actually a crop duster, but we thought it was an eagle. It was dropping all sorts of noxious chemicals on us, which, combined with the peyote, made us realize that eagles really are forever."
In the midst of his musing, Eason is suddenly interrupted by the sight of something ominous passing the van on the interstate. "Oh my God, the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile!" he shouts, while his three compatriots appear to whoop and holler out the window. "Fuckin' A! Fuckin' A! Dude, we have to switch vans. We're selling our van and getting a wiener. Holy shit. We should just fucking pull up and commandeer it, be like, 'We're taking you over. We're taking your wieners with us.'"
The fixation with nitrates and by-products isn't without precedent -- as is demonstrated by Black's own version of the legendary events surrounding Black Black Ocean's formation. "Ryan's story is pretty inaccurate," he declares. "This is how it really happened: In a beautiful town just outside of Des Moines, there was a hardcore metal festival. At this time, I was lead guitarist for a hardcore metal band called Endangered Feces, and Ryan played the drums in a band called Lucifist. He was the first drummer in all of heavy-metal history to use ten bass drums at the same time. Ryan and I met, and we headed down to the local hot dog stand, where Quintin was serving them up hot and fresh. Luckily, Quintin is a big fan of sauerkraut, and so am I. I asked for sauerkraut, and it made Quintin real excited, so we started talking about playing music. After that, Ryan and I start walking back to the festival, and there was this homeless person right at the gates begging for some money to come in and see some heavy metal. So we said, 'We'll get you into the show, but you have to stay by our sides and be our full-time mechanic.' And that was Stephen.
"That's how we all came together, as far as I'm concerned," he sums up, then acknowledges, "The chess squad might have had a little bit to do with it."
And so it goes on. The topic of conversation soon turns to the benefits of living in Denver ("We have houses there and shit," says Eason. "It's where our girlfriends are. We get to sleep there and eat. That's the best thing about it --eating") and what kinds of ingredients would be in Ben & Jerry's Black Black Ocean ice cream. ("Chocolate, sauerkraut, crunchy peanut butter, maybe some meth," lists Black. "Ruffles potato chip crumbs and cocaine sprinkles. And it would come served in a big jug, not a little container. You'd get a fucking jug of it.")
Although gumption and dedication have taken the band from its first humble gig to headlining the Ogden Theatre in a little over a year, the foursome is not about to start getting serious about itself. And as much as Black Black Ocean indulges in gratuitous myth-spinning, its focus is clearly on the careful construction of its spasmodic music.
"I think that the way we feel about our music is the one issue that should be left ambiguous or maybe even silly or goofy," says Schermerhorn.
Yeah, the one issue.
Silent until now, Schermerhorn has finally taken the phone from his accomplices, perhaps scuttling to the back of the van in humility, like a sinner entering a confessional. With a deep breath, he decides to unburden his soul, to set the record straight, to come clean and cut through all of the chicanery that the rest of his bandmates have been shoveling for the last half-hour.
"That hardcore metal fest that we all supposedly met at," he admits, "was actually in Toledo."
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