Posted by: Necci – Apr 17, 2012
On the morning of January 3, the members of Black Girls woke up in their borrowed Winnebago in Wilmington, NC, posted to Tumblr that “coffee and bacon fumes are currently pouring out of the camper like Breaking Bad,” and began looking forward to rocking a venue called the Soapbox Laundro-Lounge that night, unaware that they were about to receive some very exciting information.
That Tuesday show in Wilmington was just the second on the band’s two-week “Roasted, Toasted, Deep-Fried Southern Winter Tour 2012,” which also included stops in cities like Birmingham, New Orleans, Nashville, and Newport News, but the news that manager Erica Jacobs relayed after their set made it one they won’t soon forget. They’d been picked to support The Head and the Heart, a Seattle-based indie-folk outfit recently featured on Austin City Limits, on a jam-packed, cross-continent string of dates in March, including a sure-to-be-epic show at the National in Richmond on March 21.
If you haven’t been following Black Girls’ ascent to the forefront of Richmond’s music scene, this opportunity may seem sudden. In less than two years, they’ve become one of the city’s most buzzed-about bands, garnering “Best Of” superlatives, landing on a bevy of year-end lists, and earning one-off opening spots for national acts like Fucked Up, Wavves and Alabama Shakes. While a passerby might be tempted to chalk up the group’s success to hype or good luck, the truth is that a powerful combination of hard work and ingenuity runs throughout their past and present. It was visible everywhere I looked when I recently spent some time at the Oregon Hill row house known as “The Jazz Lounge.”
The Jazz Lounge is part practice space and part living space (three of the five members of Black Girls live there), and a quick look around reveals homemade speaker cabinets; a velcro-dotted wooden pedal board that lead singer Drew Gillihan stained, cut, and sanded to fit atop his Moog Little Phatty synthesizer; and a stack of t-shirts that are--you guessed it--homemade. But it’s easy to scan past what may be the most significant example of Black Girls’ homegrown sense of initiative: concert tickets for shows at The Jazz Lounge, which the band made, sold and collected themselves, with a little help from their friends.
“Over a year ago, we started doing those,” drummer and backup vocalist Stephen Farris says of the house shows the band hosted. “It was kind of out of necessity, because we were writing these songs and putting them together. We wanted to play to a crowd, but the only places that would book us were shitty bars on a Monday night.” Out of that lack of opportunity came a series of successful shows -- he notes that “they always were packed” -- complete with those homemade tickets, some of which hang not far from where guitar and keyboard player Mike Bryant sets up for practice.
“My favorite thing about Richmond,” Bryant explains, “ever since even before we were in bands, when we were just freshmen in college here, was the amount of house shows going on. I feel like in a lot of ways we’re deeply rooted in that scene.” And Black Girls weren’t the only ones gracing the stage at the Jazz Lounge. Bands from near and far joined the fray, including Richmond’s own White Laces, as well as groups from as far away as New York.
“That’s when I first met all these dudes,” guitarist and backup vocalist Fletcher Babb recounts. “I would come to these shows in the basement all the time. First time I ever came to this house, there were probably 40 or 50 people out in that front fenced in area, and they [had] our friend Josh at the front gate taking tickets. I’m like, ‘What the hell is this? A house party that charges people and takes tickets and everything? This is craziness.’” While he started as a spectator, Babb soon joined the band, along with guitarist and hype-man Harrison Colby, when Mike Bryant went overseas to study music. Mike returned a few months later, and though both Babb and Colby stayed on, briefly turning the band into a six-piece, Colby left the group shortly thereafter to pursue a career in film.
But the band’s knack for creating goes back even further than their house shows, to when Gillihan, Farris and Bryant, all of whom were attending VCU, played in a band called River City Choir. “We were just playing music together, living together, playing in different bands and not taking it very seriously,” Gillihan remembers. Even though he wasn’t an official band member, Black Girls bassist Jeff Knight was already in the mix at this point -- he reminds his bandmates jovially that he “played percussion at the Triple for one show.” And while River City Choir’s style was, according to Farris, “more Americana kind of stuff,” the time they spent playing music with one another in college helped them start to develop the loose yet upbeat ethos of “snuff rock” -- the name the band has given to their blend of southern psychedelic soul.
“As far back as we’ve been playing music together,” Farris says, “it was always sitting around with a guitar or something, just hanging out and playing around with songs and vocal melodies and lyrics. The whole falsetto thing and the whole call and response thing really stem out of sitting around making each other laugh, and doing this and that, but then being like, ‘Well you know, actually that sounds pretty sweet. Let’s try and do that for real.’ It came out of a totally real place.
“We just decided to make it our own thing -- snuff rock.”
When you see them live, it’s impossible to miss the distinctive swagger that comes with the self-determination of the snuff rock brand. After all, “What kind of music do you play?” can be one of the most difficult questions for a band to answer, especially for bands that have diverse influences. Black Girls have a definitive answer and, much as they did with their house shows at the Jazz Lounge, they seem to revel in the idea of creating something where nothing previously existed.
Given this appreciation for all things homegrown, it should come as no surprise that when it was time to start committing the songs they’d been working on to tape, Black Girls rolled up their sleeves and turned the Jazz Lounge into a recording studio. Their self-recorded, self-titled first album was released early in 2011 on Worthless Junk Records, with a liner note that reads, “these ten songs outline more than two years of musical evolution, with each one representing its own unique chapter.”
“It was fun,” Farris recalls. “We got to really put a lot of personal touches into everything, and spend a long time doing it.” The amount of time spent on this self-titled first record was partially a product of their environment, as the group didn’t have the means to record live at the Jazz Lounge. “We didn’t even have the inputs or cords or anything to do that. I would record drums, then someone would record something, and they could be days or weeks apart.” Nevertheless, the album does a fantastic job of capturing the band’s charisma, eclectic tastes and creativity. Tracks like “So Sorry,” “Club Bangin” and “Broadway” have grown into trademark anthems at their exuberant live shows. “Broadway” has even taken on a vibrant second life, thanks to their collaboration with another of Richmond’s highest-profile bands, label-mates No BS! Brass Band.
“It was huge for us, linking up with them,” Farris says of No BS! “It just seemed right off the bat like the perfect combo.” Released in July and christened by a two-night stint at Black Girls’ favorite Richmond venue, Balliceaux, the No BS! Brass Band vs. Black Girls split 7-inch features a revamped cut of “Broadway,” with five members of No BS! adding powerful swells and expertly executed punctuating harmonies. The track was recorded at Minimum Wage, the home studio of No BS! drummer Lance Koehler, and the experience left a strong impression. Fletcher Babb recalls that “they would listen to the song twice and figure something out right away -- faster than any of us could hope to do.” They also fell for the flexibility that recording at Minimum Wage afforded, returning to Koehler’s studio to record nearly all the tracks that appear on their second album, Hell Dragon, which was just released in January.
“Lance has so many different instruments,” Mike Bryant raves. “It’s his house, so all his musical equipment is in there. For a time, there was a Hammond B3 in there; he still has a Wurlitzer, a grand piano...” Going from the Jazz Lounge to Minimum Wage also meant they could infuse more of the swagger and energy found at their shows into their second effort. The skeletons of each song were recorded live, and Fletcher Babb notes that they never used a click track, saying of Hell Dragon that “it’s never too clinical and mechanical.”
“Recording is a different art form from playing live,” Bryant acknowledges. “There’s different things that go into being good at that art form. With this album, as the recording went along, we got better at it, and we got better at being loose in the studio.”
The same goes for the album’s title. Drew Gillihan shares that, much like the band’s name (none of the members are black or, as you’ve probably gathered by now, female), it was “just a good idea--someone says it and you know it’s right.” Though the counter-intuitive nature of their name has been the source of some web-based controversy, the group has yet to encounter any anger in person -- “only people on the Internet,” Mike Bryant notes -- and they encourage skeptics to come see them play. According to Bryant, “you wouldn’t leave one of our shows with a lot of misconceptions.” Stephen Farris echoes this sentiment, offering an open invitation to “come hang out with us, or come to a show. Talk to us.”
That confident looseness comes through loud and clear on Hell Dragon, and tracks like “So Sorry,” “Get Off” and “South Carolina” give those who haven’t yet made it to a Black Girls show a wonderful glimpse of how enjoyably engaging the experience is. It’s an atmosphere the band has been nurturing ever since they started packing the tiny Jazz Lounge with a not-so-tiny number of people. In many ways, they bring the house show to you.
“Even when we’re playing at a club, the whole idea is to be like ‘We’re all partying together. Let’s rock out,’” Farris says. “We play our best when people are almost literally right on the stage partying with us.”
Bassist Jeff Knight regularly sidesteps the monitors at the front of the stage, as if his natural inclination is to get as close as possible to the audience. At the same time, Farris’ call-and-response exchanges foster both audience participation and the uncanny feeling that you’re in the middle of a crowded party, unconsciously taking in the excited conversation happening all around you. Mike Bryant’s Fender and Fletcher Babb’s Epiphone engage in their own ongoing conversation, with carefully composed and layered lead and rhythm guitar parts that add to the enveloping mix of voices. And then there’s Drew Gillihan’s dynamic voice, from his operatic low vibrato to his weightless falsetto and every confidently belted note in between, adding an extra gear that can turn any crescendo into a dramatic event. As Knight puts it, “The energy comes from the music, and therefore it charges up the fun.”
But as well as this formula has served them, and as confident as they are in the style that they've shaped, the members of Black Girls haven't stopped looking for ways to perfect their sound. “We’re constantly trying different stuff,” Stephen Farris shares. “We’re always looking for new shit and new styles and new ways to use our equipment.” That hunger for progress is one trait they share with the group they commonly cite as a major influence -- Steely Dan. “That’s why we stopped River City Choir,” Farris confesses. “We heard Aja and we were like, ‘Let’s try and do something as ambitious as that.’”
Watching the band during a brief practice, this quality became evident almost immediately, as small tweaks were made, and guitar parts rearranged. Fletcher Babb experimented with adding delay to a section of “Club Bangin” that he’s played god knows how many times. And remember Drew Gillihan’s Moog synthesizer? Even though he snagged the synth off Craigslist just days before the band was finished tracking Hell Dragon, he still brought it to the studio to add some finishing touches. “It’s a new school Moog,” he explains. “It’s all digital. It’s got all the old Moog shit in it but you can just push buttons.” Far beyond just pushing buttons, Gillihan deploys custom patches that are as complicated to dissect as they are hilariously named (“Hell Rabbits,” “Mary ass lice,” and “Denzel-dog,” for instance).
The same Moog was onstage on Saturday, January 14, when Black Girls packed the Camel for the official Hell Dragon CD release party, unleashing the type of fun and raucous show that is befitting of such a fun and raucous album. Also at the Camel that night were a few members of The Head and the Heart (two of whom -- Jonathan Russell and Tyler Williams -- have roots in Richmond), providing a brief glimpse into Black Girls’ very near future on the road. In March they’ll be stopping in 17 cities--including Toronto and Montreal, their first shows outside the U.S.--opening for The Head and the Heart in venues like the Vic Theater in Chicago and Terminal 5 in New York City. In a happy coincidence, their second-to-last stop on the tour finds them at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville, making for their second trip to Music City in just three months.
As drained as the group was when I caught up with them on January 13 at Republic, before the first of two homecoming shows that concluded the Roasted, Toasted, Deep-Fried Southern Winter Tour, they seemed to relish their time on the road. They raved about their evening in New Orleans and the one-of-a-kind green room at the Bottletree in Birmingham. They even made the most of their commutes. On the long ride from Nashville to Newport News, the band turned the camper into a screening room, plowing through the entire fourth season of Mad Men. It’s as if they have a sixth sense for creating a good time out of thin air, regardless of the hand that they’re dealt--be that a lack of willing venues, a studio full of instruments, or an abundance of free time.
With their March booked up, Black Girls is already looking to how they’ll use their free time this summer. Stephen Farris says that they’re hoping to make their way onto as many festival stages as possible. Fletcher agrees, saying, “anywhere else we can go on tour that’s far away.” While it doesn’t appear that they’ll have any trouble, something tells me that if they don’t make as many festival appearances as they’d like, they wouldn’t hesitate to put on their own.
And something tells me it would be really, really fun.
Words by Davy Jones
Images by Jake Cunningham