It is with great enthusiasm that I showed up at Foufounes Electriques in order to see Black Cobra. As it was their first passage through the city of Montreal, my expectations were very high. Black Cobra is a band from the San Francisco area that manages easily to make me head bang aggressively with their overwhelming wall of crushing sounds. I was a little stressed to do the interview since I’m a fan of their work. Like a good boy scout, I was ready with my questions and my camera. However, the interview did not take place as expected because the band was delayed at the Canadian Customs and barely got to the venue in time for the show, which began very early. However, I was determined to make the interview happen despite the unexpected delay. And so I approached Jason Landrian and offered him to conduct the interview after the show. That’s how I found myself with Black Cobra in the famous dark alley next to the Foufounes Electriques …
You’re currently on the road supporting your album Invernal, which slays by the way; I sense there’s a big hype around Black Cobra. You’ve been touring with some big names lately; it must help getting noticed by people who does not know you. What are the usual reactions from the crowds who have never heard Black Cobra?
It’s been really positive. We get a lot of people going: “oh I heard the record and I didn’t know it was two people » which is cool. Also some people who had no idea we even existed were turned on by our set. It has been a really good response between the Kyuss tour and Corrosion of Conformity (C.o.C). We just did an Australian tour with Fu Manchu and then this tour in the States and Canada again with C.oC. The whole thing has been great.
People must be surprise to see only two guys on stage; do they always focus on the fact that you’re two?
A lot of times, especially from new audiences and especially playing the kind of music we do. Our music’s really heavy, it’s real bottom end heavy and I guess it’s a little bit intricate. I think people are thrown off by the fact that it’s only 2 people. A lot of people come up to us after we’re done playing and tell us they heard us from outside or from another room and when they walked in and saw there was only 2 people playing, they couldn’t believe it. With our records and stuff we’re always trying to go for that and we don’t want to focus on the fact that we were a 2-piece. We want to focus on the fact that we are a band and we’re playing music. I like to think of Black Cobra as a sort of entity, instead of just 2 guys. Our names are missing on any of our records, precisely for that matter because we didn’t want to be prejudged as a two-piece so people could prejudge what they’ll hear. It’s cool, people’s reaction is mostly positive, there is always those one or two traditionalists going: “oh you guys need a bass player” and we’re just like: “dude, you don’t get it ». If you’re on board with us then, awesome, if you think we need a bass player then, we’re just not the band for you. Everyone has their opinions, we’re just not that band, there are plenty other bands with bass players and you’re free to go and listen to them. We have nothing against bass players. We’ve known many awesome bass players. There are a lot of bass players we love: Rush, Motörhead, Iron Maiden, and Metallica of course with Cliff Burton… Black Cobra has nothing against bass players, it’s just what we ended doing.
You do incorporate fuzz sounds in the music from the bass amp you use.
Right. I’m using a bass amp live and in recordings as well. We’ve never used a bass guitar on any of our records; it’s always guitar and drums. We always wanted to be able to simulate everything live because we knew we were going to start touring at some point. At the beginning we weren’t quite sure we were going to tour and everything, but we’d still never put bass on our records, you cannot cheat on people. We want to be as genuine as possible. We wrote it with guitar and drums, we want to record it with guitar and drums, and we want to play live with guitar and drums… and vocals. We try to keep it as pure as possible.
Are you satisfied with your level of fame? Would you rather keep the venues small or do you like playing bigger venues?
It’s strange I like both. Sometimes it’s really fun to play in the small venues, and sometimes it’s kind of a bummer to play in small venues because they don’t deliver, their professionalism is a little bit lower. Not to say that we are some big rock star band, but when you play in big venues like the ones with Kyuss every night, theaters, smaller theaters, 2000 capacity venue or so, you get used to monitor systems that are top notch. There’s never a question of: “oh can I hear what Raf (Rafael Martinez) is doing?” or “can I hear myself?” But then you have weird things like barricades; people are like 20 feet away from you. It’s kind of strange you know. Playing on a big stage is weird as it is for only 2 people. I feel way more comfortable because I have more room to move around. Like tonight at the Foufounes Électriques, the stage was so small I felt like I had no room to move around. Also, we were so pressed with time and we didn’t get a sound check. At this point we’ve done the Hell Fest where we played in front of 3 000 people and Kyuss, playing in front of a couple of thousands of people every night to tonight or our own headline shows, in front of a couple hundred or less. I definitely feel comfortable on both aspects but playing the big stages is a little more… comfortable. Because I have more room and they have guys running the monitors and all that shit for you. It’s interesting doing both.
On bigger tours and shows, do you ever feel like the stage is too big for just the two of you?
There have been some times where, it’s been like a festival situation, and the drums are on a riser behind me, that’s when it feels to big for us. I’m used to have Raf right next to me. I mean, he’s 50% of the band. Having him in the back, it’s kind of sucks for him and for us. We can play the songs without having to look at each other, but having 50% of the band, basically behind me, is sort of odd. We played the Scion Fest like that. I had this entire gigantic stage for one person and that felt weird. When I have Raf on the stage next to me, it definitely feels comfortable. I’m not averse to that. The small stages are fine too; it goes either way pretty good.
Traveling around the world as a band should be simpler with only the two of you…
Yeah for the most part, I mean it’s cool when you have to fly anywhere, it’s a lot cheaper than for 4 or 5 people. And it is a lot less complicated. I bring my guitar, my pedals and Raf brings his snare and his kick drum pedals or cymbals, it’s minimal. It does make it a lot simpler.
I’ve read in a prior interview that you would of liked to play with Quebec’s own Voivod, did you have a chance to catch them at this year’s Roadburn?
Unfortunately no. Originally we only had the Roadburn show booked and we were going to fly in and just do the Roadburn. Our plan was to go the whole Roadburn weekend and see Voivod, play Dimension Hatröss and everything. After we booked that show, this C.o.C. tour in Europe came up with Zoroaster, because of that we ended up touring. We were with C.o.C. on the days prior to the Roadburn date. We played the last day of the Roadburn. There was a part of me that was so broken because I wanted to see Voivod so bad, but we did get to meet Michel « Away » afterwards and we got pictures posted on our Facebook. We’re both big fans of Voivod.
Invernal was based of misadventures of an Antarctica expedition and the themes of Chronomega are related with existentialism, from what I can tell you look like smart guys, and totally not angry, regular dudes. What gives you the drive to play aggressive music?
Oh man, that’s something we have always loved, both of us, always getting deeper in the music. The first thing that drew us in this was metal bands like Metallica, Black Sabbath and whatever. That was sort of the initial reasons that we started playing music. I’m a pretty calm guy off the stage and everything but I hate a lot of shit man! I really do! I really fucking hate a lot of things. In my everyday life I meet people and I’m cordial, but there’s so many things wrong with the world, and that’s where all that shit comes from. There needs to be some kind of release… some sort of catharsis for that. That’s where we come in with the music, hoping it’s a catharsis for all the people too and not just us. There are so many things that sucks, but there are a lot of cool things too! You got to balance it all! If you live your life in just negativity, it’s going to be shitty but… that’s why you got to have a catharsis. To get the shit out and live the rest of your life like a normal human being.
It shows trough your music that you know what you’re doing by displaying great skills, does it come natural to you, or do you really try to push the « sludge metal » sound boundaries to another level?
We’ve always tried to push ourselves for sure, as far as labels like “sludge/metal” or “stoner metal”, “doom” etc. go, we never tried to fit ourselves in there. It’s kind of what just came out when we started writing, even from the first EP. We just sat down and started writing, these are riffs that came out, these are the beats that came out and these are the vocals that we wanted to put with it. And it fit nicely within a subgenre like sludge and doom and all that stuff. Yeah we’re always trying to push ourselves, to push the boundaries of what can be considered sludge or whatever. In my opinion when people say we are a sludge or a doom band, I say to them: « well, we play very fast! » A lot of our songs are fast which is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum for a lot of doom and sludge, which has very slow and crushing heaviness. I love tons of sludge and doom bands, but we always want to kind of push ourselves and in the same way push what can be considered as part of that genre. We’re just trying to expand as much as we can and we’re always open to new ideas. Yeah, we try to expand.
We hear the « thinking man’s metal » term from time to time, do you see heavy music as an art form, and could you consider your work as a research?
It’s nice to be considered a “thinking man’s metal”… we do think, we do read. We do think about a lot of things, like the Shackleton journeys. The topics we write about are things that are just interesting to us, whether or not that means we’re more thoughtful than other people I don’t know. I think we do view the music as an art form because at the end of the day it is! It’s a release, it’s an expression and it’s more than just hammering out a bunch of shit on loud instruments. We’re always trying to convey emotions, feelings and expressions… So yeah, we do view it as an art form and it’s nice to be thought of that way, I guess. Metal always has this kind of stigma over; people consider it like Neanderthal fucking music where it’s just a bunch of dudes beating their chests. We don’t necessarily fit that mould, our band or individually, we’re not these kind of dudes.
Both of you guys played in bands before, notably Cavity and Acid King. Do you think you could one day feel limited by just having a guitar and a drum in Black Cobra and grow tired of your own sound?
I think that when that day comes, when we start to grow tired of this sound, we’re going to try and push it as much as we can, because yes it’s a challenge. I wouldn’t say it’s limiting, but it is a challenge having only two instruments, or three if you consider the vocals to work with. We always thought of the voice as third instrument, that’s why a lot of the lyrics are unintelligible; we’ve used it more like a rhythmic tool. Even back on the 1st album (Bestial, 2006) we were writing that record and practicing the songs and it was hard for us to play. We were like: “how are we going to play this live?!” and we just made ourselves do it, practice, practice, practice. Every album’s been like that. I remember finishing Feather and Stone and also being like: “Fuck how are we going to play this live?!” We just had to do it and even up to Invernal, Raf was playing beats he had never played, I was playing parts I never played before, we had solos which we never had before, with backup tracks I had to sample in a live situation and he had to play along to. In that way, we had to push ourselves. We’ve had to say: « Fuck it, lets just do it » and try to pull it off. Luckily, we’ve been able to so far and will hopefully not feel limited by the fact that it’s only two of us, and see it more like a challenge and less like a hindrance.
You’ve been receiving a lot of positive reviews for your work with Kurt Ballou. Would you work with him again or would you prefer trying someone else for the sake of diversity?
We’re always open to diversity but at this point, I’d really love to work with Kurt again. I’m so satisfied with the way Invernal came out. I love the way all our albums sound but with Invernal, I think he really kind of nailed what we’re trying to go for and what we wanted the sound like. He is so talented, not only as a guitarist in Converge, but as an engineer his ears are so amazing. He keeps picking things out. There were so many times, when we were recording, when he said: “no, do that again very quick” or « you guys were a little off here ». Being the musician that wrote the music and is playing it, you’re so close to it, that it’s hard to separate yourself from it. Having a third party in there with such a good ear, as Kurt does, is such a relief, it’s such help. I think it’s potentially what we’d like to do in the future, keep working with Kurt he’s amazing.
Finally, You openly say that you’re fans of sci-fi and horror, what have you been into lately that might shape up ideas for your next album?
Lately, we’ve been concentrating on touring a lot, it’s hard to keep up with that on the road. We’re all huge fans of Vincent Price and the Roger Corman era. That’s always going to be a big influence on us. Directors like Ridley Scott, with his latest movie Prometheus, which I still haven’t seen but I’m anxious to see it. But it’s funny because even John Carpenter’s The Thing was an inspiration for Invernal. The setting and the isolation, it’s amazing. It’s not so much the horrific aspect of those things we like to draw from, but it’s just the feel or the vibe, the atmosphere. It evokes so many emotions when it’s done well. John Carpenter, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento… They can really pull those emotions out of you. There are so many different kinds of movies that are evoking negative emotions and I feel those are so much stronger than those with happy emotions. You can see a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and feel like you’re on the edge of your seat. It has nothing to do with you, but fuck man! You’re invested in it. You are there and it is pulling these emotions from you, that’s what we like. We try to evoke that somehow with our music, pull emotions out of people.
And you achieve it pretty well, thank you and keep on givin’er!
Many thanks to Audrey Fournier from Pelecanus for the transcription!
More live shots of Black Cobra live at Les Foufounes Électriques, Montréal, 22/06/2012.