Full Moon with Black Heart: An Interview with
The Black Heart Procession
It was a night with a full moon, a harvest moon, when the Black Heart Procession settled in to Seattle. It felt like it should have been Halloween. This strange carnival of music rolling through Graceland and then onwards and East. Emo kids Sweep the Leg Johnny opening up, the Black Hearts following, and then the outer space antics of Man or Astroman? ending the evening.
I showed up at 6:30, thinking that was the time that I was to get there for the post sound check interview with the band, but one of the few constants in rock n’ roll is that nothing ever happens on time. Piano and saw fill the empty room… such a melancholy sound is so out of place in here, right now… all the lights on, the tables being set up… so I hide in the back bar until I’m found by Tobias and Pall, and the conversation begins.
What I’m really curious about is how this line-up came to be… I never would’ve put together the Black Heart Procession and Man or Astroman? Pall smiles, “Well, we’re on the same label, so that’s part of it, but we’ve met a few times, and they’re nice guys. They asked us to go on tour with them for a few weeks, we said OK.”
By the time they reached Seattle, they had been on tour for a week together, and it seemed like it was a good match. Both Pall and Tobias remarked that oddly enough, it usually seemed to work. As Pall says, “In a cool way, playing these shows. I mean, they’re kind of Sci-Fi and we’re kind of spooky and it’s kind of this weird…”
I jump in, remembering my earlier thoughts… “Sort of like a carnival…”
Pall nods. “Yeah. It can be cool, it can be difficult, but we usually work it well. We get a few hecklers.”
I notice every time I see this band, it seems that they have a loyal following of people who make sure that the rest of the crowd is being quiet. Those people going “shhhhh,” and I wonder if it happens everywhere, or if maybe it’s just these Seattle crowds. They both kind of think about it, then Tobias mentions that it happens both ways. “Sometimes people are really quiet, or there was a show in Denver where there were a couple of real loudmouths. Every so often, though, like in San Francisco, it will just be dead quiet, and not even a “shhhh,” which is real nice.”
Pall adds to this, “Sometimes there is a bit of a ruckus, which can be good too, depending on the crowd, but it can be a nice change of energy for us.”
Going on the energy mention, I bring up what I think is the most energetic song I’ve heard from them. That one on the Up Records EP, “Song About A…” Was that an intentional attempt to go in a different direction? Pall shakes his head, “No, not really. It was just a song. We came up with this idea. That song we didn’t think about too much. We just kind of did it and it was what it was. Maybe at the time we wanted to do something louder… we don’t really say what we’re going to do, what area it’s going to be in, we just write the music we write and it can change depending on how we’re feeling at the time.”
There’s a little pause, a quick sipping of drinks, and I ask about the songwriting process, as I’ve always felt that their lyrics are almost like poetry, and separable from the music. I wonder if the lyrics come beforehand and a song is placed around it or if sounds and songs are created that lyrics are fit into. Pall jumps at this one, with, “Both ways, definitely. A combination of the two as well, sometimes. we’ll have a bit of a melody and together work out a song, or find a chorus with a couple of words and then make a story out of it.”
Going back to the Up Records EP, it turns out that they had offered to do the second Black Heart record, after they were on Cargo, but they just decided to go with Touch & Go. Pall points out that they “Really appreciated the interest, and liked all the people at Up, so we thought it would still be really nice to do something for them… so we did that EP.”
We talked for a little bit about things like Cargo, about how cool it is being on Touch & Go. Some friends of the band circle around and join us at the table, and then I move on to the tour questions. I don’t know why, but one of my favorite questions for bands has always been, “So what kind of music do you listen to when you’re on the road?” Tobias picks this one up, telling me that basically whoever is driving gets to listen to whatever they want. “We all have pretty diverse tastes. PJ Harvey is a frequent player… Portishead, Black Sabbath, Violent Green, all sorts of bands.”
I mention how they seem to appear in Seattle often, and they tell me that other than the fact that they tour a lot, they also have good friends in Seattle. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that pretty much everything they’ve recorded has been up here at Bear Creek. Is that a friend’s studio? Pall nods, “It’s a really nice studio, and we’re friends. Three Mile Pilot had recorded a record up there, and that’s when I met Ryan. When Black Heart wanted to record, we wanted to get out of town, so we took a little trip to record. We went up there for ten days and did our first record. It’s really conducive to our type of music…”
Tobias cuts in excitedly. “They have this 1910 grand piano that’s beautiful, and a turn of the century pump organ… all these really cool instruments and the atmosphere is really amazing. Out in the woods and rainy and dark.”
Pall finishes, “Yeah, and we got a 24 hour lockout so we just record all night long, stay up until 5 in the morning.”
I ask about the latest recording, Three, and if they had more time to do that one. It seemed to have a huge drum sound, and the production seemed maybe more lush. Pall tells me that it was about the same as the second one, but that they did try different things on the drums this time. There are samples, they played over samples, they let Toby do some drumming, and one of their friends, Jason, did some drumming. “Some of them worked out better than others, but we were just experimenting.”
I inquire about their recent show in Seattle with only Tobias and Pall showing up, and Pall tells me that it’s just something they do sometimes, just tour as a two piece depending on who’s around.
We start talking about touring and traveling, and I lead the talk towards their hometown, San Diego. Tobias kind of shrugs and says, “It’s really small, but it is strong. It’s like there’s one of every kind of band there. It’s a good community. San Diego is one of those towns where you have to know where you’re going, otherwise it seems like maybe just an extension of a Navy base.”
At that statement, one of the friends who had joined us grabs the tape recorder and passes it to the other side of the table, where one of the bands friends (Lailea?) speaks into it, saying… “North Townie, you have to go there! (at least, that’s what I think she said… maybe North County?)
All of us are laughing, and it kind of feels like this should be the end, so on that note, I ask my last question. “Pall, the little red heart you wear on stage, flashing in the blue glow. Is there a story about that?” Pall kind of thinks about it a little, and then replies, “It’s like wearing my heart. It came as an idea, we were wanting to do things that were a little bit more than just being a regular band. It represents a little bit of sarcasm in our music, too, because we’re not always really serious. We feel serious about our songs, but sometimes there’s a little bit of tongue in cheek…”
I laugh, saying, “You mean you don’t walk around gloomy and depressed all the time?”
Pall says, “No, not at all…” and then Tobias interrupts with “Wait, we’re supposed to answer that one ‘Yeah, we’re suicidal and we’re heroin addicts and we dress in black…'” Pall, smiling, nods. “We’re not making a fashion statement, it’s just what happens when we’re playing our music. If we could write good happy songs, I would embrace it, but it’s not something that is really coming out of our work. ‘Diamonds,’ I think, is a little bit happy. Maybe some sadness, but it is a bit more upbeat.”
And then the conversation drifts off into music and friends and then the show begins and I am lost. The show lifts me and throws me through sadness and elation until all I can do is drift back to home in the haze of the evening, feeling the moon full against me, and clearing my thoughts by lying down on my bed with the latest from the Black Heart boys playing through my stereo. Goodnight.