Heart of Darkness?
In three weeks, the Black Heart Procession finishes the solo leg of its U.S. tour and hooks up with Man or Astro-Man? for a series of dates in the Northwest and along the East Coast. Man or Astro-Man?, as you may be aware, plays manic, intergalactic surf music, Dick-Dale-on-crank instrumentals that move at about a hundred miles an hour with ten toes gripping the board just to stay out of the water. The Black Heart Procession, by emphatic contrast, is more like a shark beneath the surface.
A short list of instruments on the Black Heart Procession's third album, the straightforwardly titled Three, includes piano, pump organ, waterphone, saw, space echo, clarinet, "noises" and "long-distance phone voices." The reviews and writeups in their press kit describe their music as "the sound of a broken heart," "brooding," "gloomy," "the feeling of resignation that awaits us at rock bottom," "depressed," "gothic dirges," "somber," "weary," "melancholy," "eerie," "haunted-house howls," "a voice that sounds emotionally spent," "24-hour suicide watch" and -- in case you hadn't picked up on it by now -- "dark."
Now what (you may be asking yourself) is this pack of dour San Diegans doing touring with a frantic bunch of space surfers like Man or Astro-Man?
Pall Jenkins, lead voice and saw player for the Black Heart Procession, doesn't quite know either. "But they're great guys; we really like them. We're looking forward to those weeks. I don't know how their fans will react, to be honest. But it ought to be fun. I think it'll go okay. Maybe we'll play some louder songs."
Any saw player self-aware enough to realize how badly his particular ax might wig out Man or Astro-Man? fans, while remaining optimistic about the band's reception, can't be all that down on himself. "No, no," Jenkins says slowly and quietly, "this album isn't quite as down or sad as the last one, even though there are some sad songs on it. I'm not depressed, really. I'll be honest with you, I just haven't had any coffee yet."
Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel, switching instrumental duties freely, form the two-man (and with frequent horn player Jason Crane, sometimes three-man) core of the Black Heart Procession, a fluid band that ranges from duo to full ensemble depending on the venue: "We know people in a lot of cities, and sometimes we'll just have people come along on the tour for a few dates, or when we hit town we'll call our friends and ask them to play at the show on a few songs. It's really relaxed, very loose. Mostly this time out we're touring as a four-piece."
Jenkins, like the rest of the band, is getting over jet lag. In support of Three (which follows similarly titled releases One and Two), the Black Heart Procession is preparing for a months-long tour that will take them all over the U.S. In addition, they returned from Italy just a few days ago, where they played a show with the always-terrifying industrial-noise outfit Einstürzende Neubauten, another band that wouldn't seem to offer a likely pairing opportunity; yet to hear Jenkins tell it, the show worked. "I've always been a big fan of them, too, and they were wonderful to us. They even paid for our tickets to go out. In fact, I just picked up some new stuff by Einstürzende for the first time in a while, so since the show in Italy I've been playing that around the house a lot. That and Tammy Wynette. I really like Tammy Wynette."
Take the atmospheric backdrop of industrial music and couple it with the lush, slow arrangements and he-done-her-wrong lyrics of Nashville country, and you might be approaching the Black Heart Procession's sound, which isn't the incessant lamentation the press kit would have you believe. There is a clutch of outright heart-tuggers on the album -- "Guess I'll Forget You," "Waterfront (The Sinking Road)" and especially the closing track, "On Ships of Gold" -- that definitely qualify as late-night-lonesome fodder, but most of the songs are about survival, even when that survival proves a Pyrrhic victory at best. "You by the waterfront/You still alive/You move away, you want to wash away/What ills your heart," sings Jenkins; and, later: "If the war was over/I could go anywhere I felt with you.../I lie awake/And dream of you/It won't be long till I'm home..." Scarred, battle-weary and tired, sure -- but the voices on the Black Heart Procession's third album are voices of people who've lasted through some awful shit and remain alive to talk about it.
Even when they're at the end of their various ropes, as on a regret-laden tune like "Till We Have to Say Goodbye," the voices in pain continue to tell their stories, which is a triumph of a sort. "No, I don't think Three is as depressing as the earlier albums. Maybe things have gotten a little bit better," Jenkins says.
From at least one standpoint, Jenkins couldn't be more right: The Black Heart Procession, which began as a smaller project branching from San Diego favorite Three Mile Pilot, has now surpassed its original limits and even the band from which it grew. "By the time you get to the third album, you're probably not a side project anymore. I think it's kind of easy for people to write about your other outlets as 'side projects' early on, but the truth is the Black Heart Procession wasn't even meant to be a band, really. We all just needed to take some time off from Three Mile Pilot and record some other things; that band had been around for so many years. Now it's almost like Three Mile Pilot is becoming the side project."
Apparently, living in a balmy seaside climate like San Diego feeds the Black Heart Procession's sound, rather than working against it: "We kind of huddle in our houses, try to imagine other places than the one we're in. The music doesn't really sound like where we live, but there are definitely elements of the music that are influenced by living here. I think the music is more a reflection of what we choose to surround ourselves with, rather than the landscape we actually live in. I think [living in San Diego] helps the music, really."
Here again, Jenkins is probably right on the mark. On Three, the Black Heart Procession sustains a sound midway between Nick Cave's slow open-chord balladeering and the outré weirdness of the Ralph Carney-Kramer-David Hild collaborations (Jenkins's voice, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hild's). That weirdness -- the strange, echoing orchestration and sad lyrics that somehow manage never to tumble over into saccharine lovesickness -- is what keeps the Black Heart Procession from sounding like the hopeless funeral train they're sometimes made out to be.
Occasional Dada stretches -- like a plastic horse's head -- don't hurt, either.
"Oh, man," says Jenkins, laughing. "We were playing a show -- see, we knew the music was kind of slow and down, and we wanted to give people something else, something to look at while the music was playing. So we try to make our stage appearance something else to entertain the audience, and we'll dress ourselves up a bit. And we were playing this show, and in the middle of a song, suddenly everyone in the audience starts laughing. And I thought, 'What the hell are they laughing at, are we messing up?' And when I look around, there's Jason [Crane], and he's got this huge, full-head horse mask on, with the trumpet sticking out of the horse's mouth. He didn't tell anyone he was going to do it. And we all cracked up. It was just so...unexpected."
The horse head -- the weirdness of which has to be seen to be fully appreciated -- makes a generous photo debut on Three and still figures in the stage show on occasion. "Now every time we play, we try to make Jason wear the head, and he says, 'No way, no, it's hot, I break out, I get hives.' But he usually does."
So, despite the ethereal sadness of some of the Black Heart Procession's music, things could assuredly be gloomier. "It's great," says Jenkins firmly. "Everyone in the band really loves being on tour, and that attitude is something we insist on when people come out with us on tour, because touring with people who hate traveling can be such a terrible experience. All of us on this tour love it, being in a different place each night, meeting people, doing the merch-selling...even if only ten people show up, that's great. We try to connect with them, make them believe that it was better than sitting at home for the night."
The Black Heart Procession might be connecting better than they think. This writer's ten-week-old kitten absolutely loves Three; she rolls around contentedly on the floor in front of the speakers when the low, thudding piano parts come around. It's the only thing that seems to distract her from ankle-biting.
"Wow, that's good," says Jenkins. "That's better than normal. Usually if there are dogs near the stage and I start playing the saw, they try to attack me."
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