Like a lot of people, I feel safe saying one of the heaviest live shows I’ve ever seen was a Black Cobra show. Unlike a lot of people, I can say the gig took place in a shoe museum. Yup, that’s right: a shoe museum. As in a museum… for shoes. Wanna know something else? Torche played too.
I was in Los Angeles on a pseudo-business trip, and in between squandering my savings at Amoeba Records and eating the best Mexican food I’d ever had, I caught wind of Black Cobra being in town. Can’t say it was much of a surprise, since Black Cobra‘s reputation for touring so damn much is well earned and they can pretty much pop up anywhere at any time, but when I walked into the place and saw the shoes belonging to former and/or dead A-list celebrities, well yeah, it felt a little surreal.
That was 2006. Black Cobra had just released their first album, Bestial, and were really just starting to amass their cred as a live band. Since that time, they’ve put out three more records — the latest being the stellar Invernal (review here) on Southern Lord — and have come to be recognized as one of the most brutal acts in their generation of Heavy. They’re outclassed by none in terms of performance, and for being comprised solely of guitarist/vocalist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafa Martinez, their presence is staggering.
Invernal was produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou in his Godcity Recording Studio in what Landrian reveals was a matter of days; even fewer than either the band or the respected engineer/mixer thought going into the project. The album is righteous in its intensity and focus, and working from Antarctic themes lyrically and musically, comprises some of the most pummeling Black Cobra material to date. To be blunt, they’ve outdone themselves, and as much as they’re known for being a live band more than a studio band, Invernal deals any such characterizations a decisive blow.
From his home in foggy San Francisco, Landrian took my call and discussed working with Ballou and what his and Martinez‘s time at Godcity was like, their upcoming tour with Kyuss Lives! and The Sword (I went right for the hard-hitting questions on that one, as you’ll see), the thematics at play with Invernal, how he and Martinez work together in the studio and on the road, and much more.
Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Can you lay out the story or the themes behind the record?
Well, there’s not necessarily a plot to it. It’s not like a concept record, you know, like how a King Diamond record is a concept record. It’s more just a theme – the whole Antarctica, icy, post-apocalyptic thing – it’s just present in all the songs and it was present in all our minds while we were writing the record and the songs and everything. It was kind of always there, and it was just the idea we had for the record. There’s not necessarily a narrative or anything like that, it’s just all the songs have a similar theme. They were just all sort of based around that same idea, of Antarctica and a post-apocalyptic setting. We kind of mixed the real setting of Antarctica with the sort of sci-fi idea that Rafa and I had. That’s where we got all the ideas for the songs and everything. The theme of the record.
What was it about those ideas that stuck with you as you were writing? And that was while you were writing the music, or later with lyrics, or both?
It was definitely both. On the last big tour that we did – I guess it was a year ago now, which is crazy for us because we tour a lot – we just started reading these books. The first book I read was Endurance, which is about the journey of Ernest Shackleton, who was the English explorer that went to – his thing was that he was going to traverse the Antarctic continent. The Norwegians had actually reached South Pole first, and at that time, which was the early 1900s, like 1913-14, the Norwegians had reached the South Pole first, and that was a thing that was going on at that time. The English were trying to do it first. So I guess to have another reason to go down there, Shackleton said, “We’ll be the first to traverse the whole continent.” His story is really amazing, if you’ve never read it or don’t know too much about him. You can Google him or pick up that book, Endurance. It’s really fascinating. It’s a really harrowing story. I don’t know why necessarily I picked that up on the road, we just… I guess part of it stems from Antarctica and icy stuff has always been fascinating to me, I think partly from growing up in south Florida, where there’s no snow or anything like that. The other thing is just that, that story is so crazy. To think that people even went down there at that period of time. And he wasn’t the first one to do it. There’s people earlier than him that went down there and tried to go on scientific and exploratory expeditions in Antarctica and stuff. Anyways, that whole story just fascinated us, and we kept reading more and more, as much as we could get, about those first explorations of that area. And as we were reading it, we were like, “Ah, this would be really cool to write about.” So that was the basis of everything, but it’s not like the album is about Ernest Shackleton particularly or anything, but that definitely was the catalyst for writing that stuff, and then Rafa and I have always had our toes in the pool of sci-fi and horror and everything when it comes to writing, and so that was just kind of natural for us, to mix it in with that setting. We just went from there, and it was definitely there when we were writing the music and the lyrics, so as we were writing the riffs and jamming together and all that stuff, we always had that sort of idea in the back of our heads – that it was going to reflect that sort of environment, at least. That’s kind of how that whole thing came about.
I guess so much is atmosphere on the album and the artwork and the lyrics, but in terms of writing the music, how do you feel you can reflect “cold,” as an idea, through music?
I think what we were going for was not necessarily cold, like the temperature, but – I guess this is where Shackleton and those early explorers came in – the cold being an element of absolute brutality, you know? And something that is kind of an idea that we’ve always had in our music, which is this force of nature. I think that’s where we were coming from. Not necessarily trying to reflect cold in the music, but the effects of that, and the effects of the most brutal cold that you could possibly be entrenched in, which is someplace like Antarctica. You read the stories of these people, with their limbs freezing and just going out and their breath is even freezing, and it’s crazy. At least the idea we had when we were trying to write the music was how to express that.
And did you then take that and bring that to the recording? Did that kind of thing factor into working with Kurt Ballou at all? Not only in choosing to work with him, but in going in, did you say, “This is what we’re trying to accomplish with this record?”
Not necessarily. I think we were trying to just, again, the idea of cold and all that stuff was always there. It wasn’t necessarily at the forefront as we were writing, like, “Oh, we need to make this sound cold,” or this and that. But we just had that in our minds. “Okay, so the album is going to sort of be about this, so let’s keep that in mind as we’re writing,” and then, in choosing to work with Kurt, he was someone that we’d heard his previous recordings and just really thought that he could capture our sound well. It was someone who’d also been suggested to us before by Southern Lord. He’s done a lot of recordings for the label as well, so it’s kind of just natural for us to go and record with him in that sense. But yeah, we didn’t really go too much into that during the actual recording process, because in that process, we were trying to just capture the best sounds that we could, and felt like the songs already portrayed the things that we wanted them to.
How long were you guys in the studio?
We were only there for about a week. It was eight days. We finished everything in eight days, and then we had originally booked 10 days, but we finished early.
I know. It was pretty crazy. We were nervous about 10 days, like, “Oh man, is that gonna be enough?” And seriously man, Kurt is a really talented engineer – and obviously a guitar player too – and in the sense that we worked with him, man, it was so easy. He really took his time in getting the sounds that we liked out of mic’ing and amps and everything like that, and then once the initial sounds were recorded, he did his own mixes, which is something that we had never done with an engineer before. We’re usually there in the room with them, listening to the mixes and going, “Hey, turn this up, turn this down,” whatever. He was like, “Hey, why don’t you guys go and get lunch or something?” He’s like, “I’m gonna do a couple mixes on my own and see what I think, then you guys tell me if I’m in the ballpark or not of what you’re looking for.” Honestly, the initial recordings, just unmixed and everything – the sounds that he captured from – he’d call them the “dry sounds” – were just so good. We were really stoked on just that, so when he went and put everything together, even his first mix that he gave us was amazing. It was actually very close to what the album is. I think we went back and maybe just brought certain drums up and down in certain parts, or the guitar solos a little more or something like that, but overall, it’s very close to what his initial mix was, and also very close to what the raw sounds were. There wasn’t like any kind of studio trickery or anything like that going on with that. Working with him, it was just so easy. He’s got such a good ear. He’s been recording bands for so long and especially bands that are heavier, and playing with Converge and everything, his ear for that kind of music is so good and precise. He’s got such a good idea of what to bring out in that kind of music, so it was really easy working with him.
It’s interesting that it took you guys even less time to record than you thought. I think the perception of Black Cobra, because you tour so much, is that you’re such a live band. In a way, it makes sense that you would kind of rip through the album and get what you wanted out of it.
These songs, too – and I think on all the records – we’ve always recorded live, in a sense. We don’t have a ton of overdubs, or a ton of tricky stuff that we do that we can’t replicate live. And that’s the main thing. Because we’re a live band, we want to be able to do those things. We want to be able to play these songs live. And also, we practice a lot (laughs). When we wrote the songs, they were really hard for us to play at first. We practiced them a lot before going into the studio with Kurt because we knew we were on a time crunch. Even 10 days, like I said, we were kind of nervous about getting that done in time, and like, “Oh man, is that going to be enough with mixing and all this stuff?” We had the initial tracking done in, I think it was three or four days. It was so quick. The thing that takes the most time in the studio is just dialing in the sounds that you want as far as tones and capturing the drums the right way and things like that, and live, you have your guitar setup that you use live, and it’s pretty consistent every night. With the albums, since you do have the time to mess with things a little more and dial things in really precisely, and you kind of look at it like, “This is our statement that we’re making and it’s going to be solidified on vinyl and CD for the rest of our lives, pretty much,” you want it to be perfect, so you take a little more time in getting those sounds and everything, but once those sounds are there, they’re set. We’re not the type of band that goes, “Okay, now, on this song, we want this kind of sound.” Our tone and everything is pretty consistent, I think overall, in all our songs. So I guess in that sense, too. We didn’t have to re-mic things for certain songs or anything, we just used the same setup once we got the sounds that we wanted. And like I said, we’d practiced a lot, so we ripped through the songs pretty fast. We had to go back a couple times just to get it exactly right and everything, but pretty much we ripped through pretty quick (laughs).
Did you know all along that you wanted to end with “Obliteration?”
Yeah (laughs). When we wrote that song, we were just like, “Yeah, this is the last song on the record, for sure.” We looked at it like in the way how “Dyers Eve” is the last song on And Justice for All. It’s the most extreme song on that record, and we were like, “Oh, that’s awesome,” and that’s kind of the same idea we had with that song, just to make the most extreme song on the record the last song, our last kick in the teeth statement on that record.
That might be the heaviest thing you guys have ever done.
I think it is, man. It’s definitely the fastest thing we’ve ever done. It’s something that we’ve always touched on here and there in different songs on other records, but we’ve never just gone as fast as we did on that song, and it was something that we both, over the course of the other records, led up to that. That was what we came to, I guess, on this album. I like that song a lot. It’s really fun to play.
I know you said you practiced a lot and recorded mostly live, but you mentioned too the recording as a document. It’s there forever. Is there a difference in how you and Rafa work together in the studio as opposed to a live setting?
I guess not too much. In both settings, we’re trying to get it as perfect as possible. You want it to sound good. You want it to be what you wrote and what you were trying to get across. As far as the way we work together, I think it’s pretty much the same. We’re trying to lock into each other, pay attention to each other and feel where the other one’s going with everything. I guess the difference in the live setting is there’s that room for – “improvisation” is not a word I would use to describe what we do, but I guess for lack of a better term, if he does something that’s a little bit different than what I’m used to, or if I do something that’s a little bit different, there’s more of that kind of room for stretching out a little bit, as opposed to in the studio, we’re trying to get things precise. Which is not to say that in the live show, we’re not trying to do that, but there is a little more room for stretching your legs out, so to speak. We kind of work the same way, I feel. We’re both always trying to nail the songs as best we can, and have fun with them too at the same time.
And it’s going to sound like I’m joking when I ask you this, but I’m not. With all the time you guys have spent on the road together, and it being just the two of you in the band, do you even have to talk anymore, or can you just communicate with a series of grunts? Like the old married couple who doesn’t have to speak?
It’s funny, man. We’ll go sometimes in the van, we’ll just be driving, and because there’s only two of us – and now, in the past years, we’ve started to have a friend of ours, Eric, go out on the road with us and help us with merch, and help us overall with load-ins and everything, and that’s been really helpful – and having him to help us drive as well has helped – but even with three people, you’re splitting up those drives. A lot of those drives are kind of long, so when one of us is not driving, they’re usually sleeping (laughs), so it kind of eliminates the talking a lot. It’s sort of a weird thing, but at the same time, I’ve known Rafa [since] before we were doing Black Cobra. We’ve known each other probably 15 years now. Yeah, we still talk about stuff all the time, but there’s definitely stretches where it’s silence because he’s sleeping or I’m sleeping or reading a book, or he’s reading a book, or we’re just listening to music, and then all of a sudden, some conversation will start up and we’ll talk for the next three hours. It’s just like any kind of friendship or relationship, where sometimes you’ve got stuff to talk about and sometimes you don’t. And I don’t feel like it’s changed necessarily over the years, it’s just the way it’s always been with anything like that. But yeah, we spend a lot of time together on the road, but we still find stuff to talk about. It’s pretty cool.
Any reflections on 10 years in Black Cobra? It’s probably even a little longer at this point.
It’s hard to say when exactly we started, because we were planning to do something together for a long time. It’s funny, because there’s riffs on Bestial, our first record, that are things that we wrote a long time ago that finally came to fruition when we started really buckling down and being like, “Okay, we’re gonna do this for real.” He was busy with Acid King for a while, and then he was busy in -16- for a while, and I was busy in Cavity for a little while, but we knew we wanted to play together again at some point. When we first met we played together, and he played guitar too – he’s just really talented overall musician; he plays bass in Acid King sometimes still – he fills in when they’re bass player Mark [Lamb] can’t, and he plays guitar really well too. So when we first met, we played together a lot, and we always knew we wanted to do something more serious down the road. It’s kind of hard to say when Black Cobra actually started, but we always guesstimate around 2001 is when those riffs are from. That was when we were really writing together in Florida, in his parents’ bottom floor of their house and stuff like that. I guess it’s been about 10 years, and I don’t know. I just keep looking forward to just everything. This tour that we’re gonna go on next month with Kyuss and The Sword, it’s amazing to us to be able to do something like that. We’ve been to Europe a few times, we’ve been to Japan a few times, we’ve been to Australia. Looking back on those things, it’s cool. Having said that, looking forward to what’s to come is still exciting, and who knows what’ll happen, but I think we’ve accomplished a lot at this point, and I look forward to seeing what’s gonna come next. I think we’ve done okay so far, and we’ve held it together (laughs). No one’s gotten injured or anything. I think things’ll be alright.
The Kyuss tour was something I wanted to ask you about, but I guess the only question there is to ask about it is, “Wow, that’s awesome that you guys are touring with Kyuss.”
(Laughs) Yeah man, it’s a huge thing. It’s funny, because that was one of the first bands, when Rafa and I first met, that we bonded over. We both were way into Kyuss. So it’s cool to come full circle. I saw Garcia Plays Kyuss at Hellfest, and it was great. And that was the show where Brant [Bjork] and Nick [Oliveri] came out and played a couple songs with [John Garcia]. That was amazing, but even before Brant and Nick were on stage with him, it was still a really good show. Garcia sounded great and everything. When we got that offer though, we were just like, “Yeah man, it’d be great.” We’d seen them before, and we knew they were playing really well, and everything was sounding great, so we were excited. With The Sword too, we were even more excited, because those guys are really good friends of ours and we’ve toured with them in the past. Especially being the first tour behind this new record, we were like, “Yeah, dude, definitely. It’s going to be amazing.” Really looking forward to that.
Are you going to be doing the reported Cavity reunion? Is that happening?
Man, I have no idea. I didn’t even know there was a reported Cavity reunion. I guess not (laughs). I didn’t even know there was stuff being talked about.
Last I heard, it was being bandied about for Maryland Deathfest next year.
I don’t know. I mean, I’d love to be a part of that stuff. I’m still on good terms with those guys. I think, for me, it would be hard to tear away from what I’m doing now with Black Cobra to do something. I’d love to do it, though. I really enjoyed my time in that band, and I was a big fan of them before I joined, so it was really cool for me to be a part of it. But that whole thing, Dan Gorostiaga, he’s like the only guy that was in the band the entire time, and it was his baby, so it’s kind of up to him. As much as I’d love to be a part of it, there were so many people in that band at different times, different guitar players, a couple different singers, I guess, I would understand if I didn’t get asked to do it, because there’s like probably been 10 other guitar players besides me in that band (laughs) at some point in time. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to get one or two of them to do it. But that being said, I would still love to be a part of it, and if he called me, I would definitely entertain the idea of doing it. I just know how possible it would be with Black Cobra’s schedule, too. It would be cool. I think it was a band that deserves to have a resurgence.
Do you know what Black Cobra’s plans are after the Kyuss tour?
I know we’re doing some headlining dates in the US. The last show is the New Jersey show, I think, so after that, we’re going to do some headlining shows through the end of the year. We don’t have too much more info on those right now, but keep checking our website, BlackCobra.net and everything. Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll have all that stuff really soon, though, so we’ll get that out to everybody as soon as we know everything. That’s really just the next thing, through the end of the year and we’ll see what happens next year. We’d love to go back to Europe. We’d love to do some more tours in the US, hopefully go back to Japan, maybe Australia too at some point. We’re really excited about this record. We really love the way it came out, so we just want to bring it to as many people as possible.
Tags: Black Cobra, California, San Francisco, Southern Lord