“This is actually a very interesting time that you called. We’re in Richmond, Virginia, and our van is not broken down, but we can’t get in. So it’s a nice, new, beautiful Sprinter van and the keyless entry won’t work, and then because of that, the key won’t turn, so yeah, we have a bit of a situation,” disclosed Black Pistol Fire drummer Eric Owen with a laugh. He didn’t seem too stressed about being stuck, seemingly outside in warm weather; the duo was also scheduled to play Baltimore, Maryland just a few hours later (and in fact, they made it in time). “It’s not that far. We’ll make it work. I’m not too worried about it. It’s just an interesting bump in the road and we’ll see how it turns out.” Being a huge fan of the badass rockers and feeling frustrated on their behalf about the van situation, I attempted to let Owen off the phone a bit sooner so as not to add stress – but that’s not at all what ended up happening.
Sharing stories and insights for longer than planned, he shed light on his drumming style, their musical process, forthcoming album, perspective from the stage, close friendship, and more with unhurried enthusiasm; it seemed he was glad to find some way to stay busy until they could get back on the road. “It’s all good. We’re just kind of waiting on a dude! Or a girl! Just someone to come show up,” he said in a good-humored tone. The irony of facing an old-fashioned problem with such a pristine piece of technology was not lost on him, and he commented with a laugh, “It’s got like a DVD player and all types of outlets and it’s so fancy! And then, you know, halfway through a tour, we just can’t get in.” Maybe the gods of rock were trying to facilitate a long transcript, for history’s sake, but however it happened, it was a treat getting to dig into such a deep music discussion with the seasoned drummer. The memory of the call was even trippier a few days later, when their scorching sound was firing up a mob of passionate fans at MHOW, inciting audible gasps and screams throughout the night. You could tell it was one of those searing and intimate shows that everyone present would surely boast about having witnessed as the years go by. The much-loved Austin-based duo, originally from Toronto, Canada, have that tough-to-describe grit and pulse-accelerating energy that makes for pure rock-and-roll magic, from beginning to end to encore.
It was exciting to find out that one of Owen’s favorite shows happened right here in New York City (the first time we covered Black Pistol Fire, in fact) at Governors Ball 2016, when Kevin McKeown brutally smashed up his guitar and threw the pieces out into the crowd. “That’s the only time he’s ever done that!” Owen revealed. “I remember it. That was a very fun show. It was early too; I feel like it was like the noon show and it was rad. It was a good time!” This turned into a satisfying analysis of how much gear they’ve destroyed over the years. “Oh, gear’s been destroyed. But for him, that’s definitely the only guitar he’s ever broken, for sure. He’s never smashed another one. I break a lot of drum stuff, not because I’m trying to – I guess, in a way, I’m kind of trying to break it, but I’m not actually. But oh man, I go through cymbals like crazy. It’s a very expensive thing to have to pay for frequently, but it’s part of it. We break stuff all the time not really wanting to,” he snickered. “We’re like, ‘Fuck, that broke and I’ve gotta get a new one, and it’s gonna cost five hundred bucks!’ And it happens all the time.” Always enjoying his hard-hitting, tempo-surfing style on drums, I wanted to hear all about his approach. “I’m one of these guys where like, for me, if a concert has a drum solo, it’s probably the time when I go to the bathroom,” Owen confessed, straightforward as always.
“My style of drumming – I like beats and grooves. I like fills too, obviously. But I’m more so about a good tempo. I like a lot of groovy drummers and I like a lot of punk drummers as well. I’m not too technical with it, I guess. There’s metal guys who can do like crazy fills and double kick and I mean, it’s very impressive, but it doesn’t do anything for me; I wouldn’t want to listen to that. For me, drummers that were big were like Dave Grohl – he was huge for me growing up; him probably being the biggest. And now, two guys I really like are Matt [Helders] from Arctic Monkeys. He’s one of my favorites. And the guy from alt-J [Thom Green] is rad as hell. I just like a really cool beat. That’s kind of changed over time. When I was a little younger, I definitely wanted to be more like John Bonham, you know, just hit hard. He never crazy did crazy fills, he just kind of hit hard; he wasn’t too much. So I’ve gotten better about not overplaying, over the years. And early on, I kind of did, and then I listened back to the first record and was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a lot of drum fills.’ Now, there are still some, but I don’t know, I’m constantly torn on what to do. And especially now with us incorporating synth more, I’m trying to just make a really good groove for the song. It’s more important than just kind of wanking a drum fill to please myself.”
One aspect I was eager to discuss with Owen was rooted in them being a two-man band; it’s not often the case that the drummer steals fifty percent or more of the crowd’s attention, and I wondered if he was conscious of that while he played. “I definitely notice. There have been times when there are just people who have filmed me for an entire show, which is very distracting,” Owen laughed. “Especially with the weird venues. Not like a New York venue, but other venues where we’ve played, where the crowd can kind of wrap around the stage a bit – not totally, but they can kind of go on the sides and the peripherals. So there will be people like five feet beside me, not that far away, holding their arms out. In theory, I could almost hit them with a drumstick – not quite, but almost – and they’re just filming me for an entire show right there. And that’s happened multiple times, and I’m just like “…agh! Fuck off!” he laughed again, too humble to admit it’s got something to do with his own performance. “I’m aware of people watching and I kind of like that. It’s cool. I think our show sounds good, and that’s part of it, but there’s definitely a large visual component of watching Kevin be the best frontman in the world, and then me kind of doing my thing.” We also discussed his propensity to play with the tempo. “Someone asked us the other day actually, how we choose setlists. We usually go in knowing the first three or four songs, and then we usually know the last one or two, but it’s always about the flow. We almost never have two really fast songs back to back, or two slower songs back to back, or even two medium-tempo songs. We kind of like to have this roller coaster effect in the set, if we can. And even within the song itself, if it’s a jammy part, we really like to have a mid-tempo part kind of get ramped up and going like punk speed, and then really slow it down. It just keeps it interesting; it’s fun. It keeps us on our toes. And I like changing the energy of the song and really piquing ears.”
As we discussed Owen’s perspective from behind the set, I was curious if he was ever somewhat freaked out watching his buddy make some crazy climbs and take some even crazier leaps in all the years they’ve performed together. Had McKeown’s stunts had ever made him nervous? “There’ve been two times in the past two years,” he said definitively. “Riot Fest was one of them. Number one, it was a very high stage, like very high. The stage must have been, I don’t know, it must have been like eight or nine feet off the ground. Maybe not nine, but it was so high. And the gap to the crowd was huge; you had to jump to like an island in the middle of that gap. So yeah, that was wild. I didn’t really see it happen, because I’m kind of busy at that point usually. Sometimes there’s a lot happening in a song where I have to hold down the synth as well, and I’m focusing on that, so I kind of noticed it in my peripheral. But I saw the video afterward and I was like, ‘Jeeesus, dude. That looks dangerous at fuck!’”
“And then we played Austin in December. It was an outdoor venue [Scoot Inn], and it was freezing. It was like the coldest day of the year last year in Austin. The winds were crazy. It wasn’t as cold as New York, obviously, but by the time we went on stage, it was in like the upper thirties, with a crazy wind chill. I played with a hoodie on, and full jeans.” I just about cracked up over the term “full jeans,” because Owen most often rocks out in nothing but cut-off denim shorts. “Anyway, he went to the back of the venue. There’s the stage and the crowd and there’s kind of like a bar and an inside area. He went and climbed on the roof there. I don’t know how he got up there. And it’s kind of a rickety roof. It’s not the most stable. You know what? It’s funny. A lot of these times, I personally don’t get to see it happen; I usually hear about it from Nick [Joswick], our tour manager. Usually, he’s doing it during one of three songs, and those are the ones with more intricate synth parts, where I kind of have to pay more attention to the notes, I guess. So I can’t really look up as much. But maybe I’ll see a video online and go, ‘Dude, that was fuckin’ nuts.’”
The way he replayed their exchanges was really funny, and I asked if they were typically cracking jokes or, perhaps, more quiet and subdued when they’re hanging out offstage. “It depends. If it’s a day we’re feeling good, then we have a good time, absolutely. There are times when I probably talk more than Kevin because as the vocalist, he’s got to rest his voice. Because the worst thing you can do is talk, for the voice. I’m sure you know, if you’re at a party and you’re talking a lot, the next day, you’re a little bit hoarse. So usually, it’s just me talking and maybe sharing some of the stories with our crew. I have a lot of Kevin’s stories, so I like to share a bunch of those.” We also talked about how their close connection comes through on stage, and I wondered if their musical synergy ever felt telepathic. “Absolutely,” he confirmed. “I couldn’t do that with anyone else. And I don’t think he could either. You know, if you jam with other people and you try to do this thing, you’re like, ‘Oh! This person doesn’t know how to do that, or what I’m doing.’ It’s interesting. But a lot of times, I can just tell by a little way he’s nodding his head at me which ways he’s going. Our show has less improvisation than it used to, probably because there are just more songs. But there are still those moments in a show – maybe three or four times in a show, where we’re going off on something – and usually, I can kind of figure out what he’s doing or what he’s going for. Then sometimes it doesn’t land and it’s like, ‘Oh…that didn’t work.’ But even that, just the challenge of it is very fun. And rewarding too, when it does work, which is often.”
Something impressive that’s evident throughout Black Pistol Fire’s work is their knack for achieving a sound that sounds so much bigger than just two people. “It’s definitely changed over the years,” he said, explaining how they fill things out so richly. “I think, early on, a lot of it was dynamics and arrangements. So we’d have part of a song where it’s just the kick drum going, and a guitar hitting on that shot, and it was the way we kind of syncopated things early on; that was a huge part of it. Now, it’s still that element there – like high highs and low lows would be a good way to put it. We really make things sparse and then build and then we want to have an explosion of sound and kind of make it seem bigger than it is. I guess it’s also kind of my drumming style, and Kevin’s guitar tone; he has some of the hugest guitar tones there are. And everyone’s always like ‘You don’t have a bass player,’ but we do! I’m the bass player now, you know? I mean yes, there’s two of us, but I consider us like a four-piece band; guitar, vocals, drums, and bass.”
Owen also shared some interesting glimpses of their songwriting process. “The lyrics are the last thing to come; usually, almost right up until we’re about to record, pretty much, is when they’re getting finished. So the idea that I hear first is usually the guitar part, whether it be a chord progression, or a riff, or a groove, or something, and like a melody too. He’ll have a vocal, phonetic thing he’s singing on top; maybe it’s some words – they could be the words, they could be the final chorus, or they could just be gibberish. So that’s almost always what I’m hearing first. And he’s really good, so most of the time, I’m pretty excited about it. There are times when I’m even more excited than others; I remember a handful of occasions when he’s played something for me, like a riff and then a melody. I find that our songs are the best when he’ll start playing something, and I’ll start playing along with it, not knowing it’s something he’s been working on, and we just play it, without even saying anything. And that’s usually the best result; almost always. It’s like ‘Wow, that was awesome, let’s do that again,’ and then he has another idea for another part. I’m pretty sure ‘Lost Cause’ was like that, and ‘Bully’ [from Deadbeat Graffiti], and ‘Cry Hell’ from Don’t Wake the Riot was like that. Not every song, but a lot of songs, they just kind of are. And then there are other ones that are big, very laborious and take a long time.”
Black Pistol Fire, who have bestowed a wealth of original material upon their fans – their ample discography spanning the past seven years – have also whipped out some cool covers during their live performances. A few years back at the Bowery, we got to hear them tease the first verse of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” before their top-notch cover of “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac. They’ve recently reimagined songs by Childish Gambino, Buddy Holly, and Richard Berry too, showcasing their ability to step outside their own norms. “We’re trying to figure out another new one too. We’re hoping we can get it there on this tour.” At first Owen hesitated, but then he decided to unveil what was in the works. “We’re trying to get a very mellow, trippy version of ‘Dumb’ by Nirvana. But when we cover something – except for ‘Oh Well,’ which is pretty similar – we try to have it be different from the original. We’re working on it, so we’ll see.”
As thrilling as that topic was, I also had to get as much detail as possible on their forthcoming full-length record, due for release this fall – including whether the artwork will be yellow, based upon their string of recently-released singles. “I will say, you might be on the right path,” he said cryptically with a laugh. “We’re almost done with this new one now. There’s a couple of songs, I guess, that are sonically similar, but we definitely want different beats, different grooves, different guitar tones, and tempo’s a huge thing. You ever hear an album and it’s like, ‘Oh that’s a good song. Oh that’s a good song too, but it kind of sounds like the other one’? We don’t want that.” He divulged another interesting fact about the unreleased LP. “This is the first time we recorded two of the songs digitally, without tape. We recorded in Nashville for the first time with Vance Powell.” Powell has also worked with Reignwolf, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, and more. “So we recorded with him, and he basically said to us, ‘This is going to sound better, and I don’t want to do tape.’ And it was like, well, we’re here, let’s follow the lead. And it sounds really, really, really good. I think it’s gonna be more rocking than the last album, but also a little more introspective; a little more personal stuff on the lyrical front, I think, from Kevin.” On the subject of lyrics, Owen gave all the credit to his bandmate – almost. “I think I’ve come up with like two words in our history. It was ‘the,’ and ‘hey.’”
In the P&W tradition, we began discussing the band’s whiskey habits, which led to a unexpected tidbit about how they prepare to take the stage. “Our rider’s pretty small, but we have four shots of Jameson on our rider, because that is our pre-show ritual,” Owen explained. “We sing a Canadian children’s song that’s called ‘Sandwiches,’ and it’s like a deep chant about one’s love for eating a sandwich [by Fred Penner], and then we take a shot of Jameson. I would say, my favorite whiskey – I’m a big scotch fan. I like eighteen-year-old Oban; an Oban 18, if that’s available, which it usually isn’t.” Confirming they sing the ‘Sandwiches’ song every single show, which is really fun to picture, Owen noted, “Except for when there’s no whiskey in sight. No whiskey equals no ‘Sandwiches.’” A Canadian children’s song, while a hard pivot from the edgy blues rock Black Pistol Fire are known for brewing, makes a lot of sense given that Owen and McKeown have been friends since kindergarten. Owen mentioned that their dynamic “has definitely changed over the years, as things happen. But there’s a couple ways to describe it. It’s like a marriage, in one way – you’re connected to this person, you’re, in a way, stuck with this person, but there’s also so much love. It’s really hard to describe. And then on the other hand, more than anything, he’s like my brother. It’s been a wild run of friendship. I personally don’t know anyone that’s had a friend as long as he’s been my friend, so it’s pretty amazing.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley