Black International | website | facebook | bandcamp |
Last month Black International released their second album, A Lesson In Repression, a 13 track post punk magnum opus. We asked singer / guitarist Stewart Allan to give us a bit of insight to the processes and stories behind the songs. What he returned to us was more comprehensive and interesting than we could have possibly imagined!
A few months after the release of our first album in March 2011, our bass player Gavin left the band. Craig and I decided that since we had a show on the horizon we’d reorganise things and cobble together a set that we could play as a two-piece. We would worry about bass players and the like later on. Since I already used two guitar amps simultaneously, I swapped one for a bass amp and ran that side of the split signal through an octave pedal. We ended up doing a few more shows with this setup, and just decided to keep going with it.
That decision had immediate ramifications on our new material; I had to play guitar parts that kept the low end going, keep the jazzy chord inversions to a minimum and generally simplify things into riffs rather than relying on the harmonic shifts a bassist can provide. It also coincided with a move towards longer, heavier material in general. That drift towards murkier climes raised issues when we started thinking about the next record. We were conscious that it might end up *too* oppressive, *too* repetitive, especially when deep down we were trying to write pop tunes; hence the abrupt tonal flips that litter this album.
Rather than the sonic equivalent of being repeatedly slapped in the face, there are occasions when we rub on some metaphorical ointment. Anyway, that was really the starting point when it came to envisioning a collection of songs; how do we make a coherent album that isn’t just ten punk blasts in a row, without it sounding like we’re trying to be “experimental” or developing a taste for cocaine? THIS IS THE RESULT.
This song dates from summer 2012, and was written very quickly by our standards, probably in around six hours. As soon as we played it live people picked up on it and would mention it after gigs. I think the genesis of it was us trying to emulate the band Die! Die! Die! A guy I know from New Zealand had drawn my attention to them, and I picked up their first three albums. Unusually for us, we were both really into them and I think we were coming at this song from the same direction straight away. It’s not a rip-off by any means, but you can probably hear a couple of little homages if you listen closely. Having said that, the chord sequence in the last movement reminded me strongly of early ’70s Pink Floyd when we were writing it, listening to it now I have no idea why I thought so.
A Fence To Keep People Out
I seem to remember this taking ages to put together in rehearsal, we’d try it, lay it to one side, do a bit more, forget it for a while… We were actually still arranging it the night before recording, trying to get timings right. I’ve noticed a few people describing this song as sounding quite ‘gothic’ in character, which I can understand. One of the reference tracks I gave to Craig and our engineer Andy was ‘Into the Light’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees, it didn’t influence the writing, but in terms of recording and mixing it was at the back of our minds. We filmed a video for this track with Ciaran Lyons, a really talented director. Shooting time-lapse footage in low light conditions means you have to move very, very slowly, and it’s a drawn-out process. Factor in low temperatures, suspicious locals and the woods surrounding a derelict mental hospital, and you have a recipe for acute discomfort. The drive up to the place featured a long single-track road, pitch darkness, and trees with teddy bears and dolls tied to their branches, it was all a bit Blair Witch. The album title is taken from a line in this song, which was in turn pinched from my friend Luca. We should probably say thanks to him.
Animal Without Backbone
I remember coming in with the bare bones (ha!) of this shortly after our first album was released, and there’s a rehearsal recording of us jamming it with Gavin playing bass. It got thrown onto the ‘to do’ pile for ages; we resurrected it at the tail end of 2013, substantially rewritten and a bit less sludgy in vibe. This is a key track on the album; it’s essentially the piece that the quieter stuff hinges on, hence the need for it to be quite horrible. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. It has a post-hardcore feel but Craig’s drumming skews it; the emphases are totally not where you’d expect them to be in a ‘rock’ song like that. Again, we shot a video with Ciaran, also in time-lapse. This time it involved spraying 20 litres of watered-down white paint and 8 pints of milk around a pigeon-shit encrusted room. There was definitely a conversation about Lyme disease afterwards and some discussion as to whether or not you can catch it from feral fowl faeces. Unpleasant.
The main concept for the album was to have the more aggressive songs offset by passages providing breathing space. This piece is a double-tracked synth improvisation; there’s an initial layer in the key of A, with a second one overlaid, then randomly pitch shifted and reversed, which gives it a weird texture. I’d been listening to Boards of Canada and an album called Fireflies by the Anglo-Japanese ambient duo Rion a lot when this was put together, and its working title was ‘Pastoral Drone’. That should give you an idea of the thoughts behind it; an evocation of warm, fuzzy, summer morning light shimmering over fields. The additional percussion sounds are taken from a pitched-down recording of me running my knuckles over my bedroom radiator, which is decidedly un-pastoral.
This track has possibly the longest gestation period of anything we’ve ever done. I remember fooling around with that first chord sequence in rehearsal as far back as 2007, but again, it was discarded and semi-forgotten about for a few years. We attempted to record it during the session for A Gilded Palace / The Sky Is Falling In in December 2011, but for a couple of reasons (it didn’t really fit with those songs and it needed a bit of structural smoothing out) we chucked it back on the pile. We had the additional concern that due to a conspicuous minor 6th chord and a couple of particular harmonic progressions, it reminded us a bit too much of Radiohead. Usually anything that could draw overt comparisons to another band would result in the offending song getting the chop, but we felt that taken on its own merits, we should just include it and stop being so paranoid (android).
Another instrumental linking track, this is a little John Barry-esque guitar piece. The twangy part is done on a Fender Jaguar doubled with a VI, which can be used as a baritone guitar or a six string bass, depending on preference. I pinched the title from a track on Angels Egg by Gong, for no particular reason.
A conscious change of direction from the stuff we were doing on the first album, this was the first new song in our live set after In Debt was released; heavier, more repetitive and less arch. The slidey riff in the last section was partly inspired by the Holy Mountain EP they released on Winning Sperm Party, coupled with the slightly tongue-in-cheek Black Sabbath vibe the rest of the track has. This has the same guitar setup as ‘Animal Without Backbone’; a Jaguar through a Fulltone Distortion Pro, double tracked with a Yamaha SG200 and an Empress Fuzz, running into a (now sadly deceased) 50 watt Selmer amp.
This was written for In Debt, and was supposed to be the final track on that. A combination of lack of studio time and the feeling that it wasn’t quite right for the album kept it off. Whilst it sounds like it’s played on a mandolin or something similar, it’s actually an unplugged hollow-bodied electric guitar with a capo on the 9th fret, close mic’d. The Rhodes piano part was just made up on the spot in Chamber Studio, we ran it through a Fender Twin amp with a touch of Space Echo.
In The Lion’s Den
I can’t remember if this song was a conscious attempt to write something with a linear, non-repeating structure, or if it just came out that way. Probably the latter. The recording was a complete nightmare, to the point where I thought we might have to bin it. Firstly, I decided in my infinite wisdom that we’d been playing it too fast, and cut the tempo by about 20 bpm. Fine in theory, tricky for Craig to adjust to with 5 minutes’ notice. Then the planned guitar arrangement didn’t work, and everything sounded really horrible and discordant (in a bad way). I was freaking out and thought we’d have to scrap the whole thing having wasted most of a day fruitlessly trying out different ways of arranging it. Once the guitars were finally sitting together properly, I somehow blew my voice out recording the vocals, and lost another half day of useable time. We were beginning to think it was cursed. I’m not sure if it’s because of or despite the trouble we had with it that it’s now one of our favourite tracks on the album. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
In The Sun
I can remember exactly where I was when I wrote the beginning of this song; June 2012, in a cottage right next to Boleskine House, former abode of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley and latterly, Jimmy Page. Film-maker Kenneth Anger spent time there during the lengthy production of Lucifer Rising, and I spent a week listening to Bobby Beausoleil’s soundtrack for that film, soaking up the vibes. Strange then, that the song I came up with was a wistful little pop tune with a daydreamy lyric. When I got back from holiday Craig and I finished it off together, blasted it out really quickly. That’s always the most enjoyable scenario, when we get that sort of telepathic thing going and songs just fall into place. Although we’d been playing this for about 18 months before recording it, I didn’t actually finish the lyrics until 5 minutes before I did the vocals. It all hinged on the chorus and I’d agonised about it for weeks, then ended up just spitting something out almost unconsciously as I was eating a Pot Noodle.
Tape Red Satan
Originally this was supposed to be a pleasant, dreamy, floaty thing but I couldn’t get the synth to sound the way I wanted it. During a “shit, what now?” moment I played it with that blocky, square wave tone and it seemed to work. The rising distortion was done with the noise slider on the Juno 106, just gradually faded up as it was played. There’s an overdub of a guitar through an Ultralord fuzz pedal pitched down to this horrible sub frequency which gives it a discomfiting quality towards the end, and a little bit of prepared piano. The title comes from a dream I had about the guys from Birdhead setting up an Acid club night, Tape Red Satan was what they called it.
The Primitive Method
We didn’t have much idea how this song would actually sound until it was done, as we’d never played it in a finished state. The arrangement was finalised a few minutes before we started recording, the same with the lyrics. They were written under a bit of pressure. It’s essentially a swipe at the new right in the UK; the protagonist is an underdog stockbroker with a gift for fantastic rhetoric, a rivers-of-blood reactionary with a failed career in light entertainment.
The Skeleton Of A Murdered Idea
This took about 10 minutes to write, it just appeared from nowhere one day, fully formed, complete with silly title. The ending was supposed to have a French horn and/or cornet doing little abstract runs but partly because we ran out of time and partly because it sounded cool with the synths merging into a big textural mass, we didn’t bother. I must confess, I slightly prefer our pre-album demo recording, it’s actually a bit more of a polished performance, but we went for a rawer take in the end. My voice was getting a bit ragged by this point and you can hear the guitar strings rattling in places, but we thought it had a nice feel in the context of the rest of the album.