Washington DC based quartet Black Tambourine may only have existed for two years. They released only a handful of singles and didn't even reach double figures in terms of live shows, yet, twenty years later, their influence lives on.
With a combined background of playing in numerous bands from the burgeoning lo-fi underground scene, setting up a record label and editing fanzines, the foursome of Pam Berry, Brian Nelson, Archie Moore and Mike Schulman conjured up some of the most heartfelt, scuzzy pop of that era whilst not staying around long enough to bore the pants off all and sundry in the process.
By 1991, Black Tambourine were no more, with Moore and Nelson working together in Velocity Girl, Schulman busy with his Slumberland Records imprint and Berry roaming around numerous bands. In 1999, a compilation album entitled Complete Recordings was issued by Schulman's label to widespread critical acclaim, and in recent years the likes of Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have cited them as a major influence.
This month sees the release of their most definitive collection to date, a deluxe, remastered edition of said compilation with four previously unreleased songs. When we heard they were itching for a chat, it seemed like as good a time as any to reminisce about the old days with all four band members and look ahead to the future...
DiS: How does it feel that nearly twenty years on from the band ending being cited as a major inspiration by numerous artists from various corners of the world, the UK's Manhattan Love Suicides, Sweden's The Legends, and of course fellow Statesiders The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart to name three?
Mike: Of course it is very flattering because I really like those bands, and also just plain surprising! We only made two singles and played five shows, so the idea that the music has lived on to inspire other bands is amazing. When we started the band (and Slumberland Records) we were total amateurs who were absolutely besotted with music and record collecting, and it was stuff like early Creation, Postcard, early K, Bus Stop, C86, Velvet Underground, Love, Wall of Sound, etc that inspired us to start making music. So to now be a piece of the inspiration puzzle for other bands and be considered part of that noise/pop continuum is thrilling.
Brian: It makes me feel somewhat bad that the bands we were ripping off twenty years ago aren't getting more of the credit. Go listen to the Shop Assistants, Psychocandy, and early Primitives singles everybody!
DiS: What inspired you to revisit and remaster these recordings,
particularly as when initially released there didn't seem to be that much interest?
Mike: Well, the original singles actually did pretty well at the time, and the 1999 compilation also got some nice reviews. Really, this new reissue was spurred on by the fact that the vinyl for Complete Recordings has been out of print for a while, and I wanted to make it available again, since there's been a lot of demand for LPs and it's by far my favourite format anyway. When we started to look at it, the idea of doing it as a 12" LP rather than 10" came up, which led to the desire to add some extra material to make use of the longer playing time. Since the 1999 reissue, we've dug up various tapes of live shows and radio sessions, all of which contained songs that we never got around to recording. These tapes are pretty rough sounding, though, so Archie (who now works in a recording studio) suggested that we might take a crack at recording them properly. As it turned out I was planning a trip to the east coast to visit family, so we booked a day in the studio and banged out the four "new" songs. No rehearsals!
Brian: Mike was brainstorming ideas for Slumberland Records' 20th anniversary and it was one of the ideas that got tossed out, I think jokingly at first, by Archie. This was after we put the kibosh on trying to pull off a reunion show because of our disparate geographical locations. Collectively we've got two countries, three cities, and six kids separating us!
DiS: Will there be any shows despite the logistical issues?
Mike: There's been some discussion but it's hard to picture it happening. We're all quite busy with family and jobs, and the geographic separation would make it difficult to get in enough practice time to actually be any good live. It would be quite disappointing for all involved to play again and not do a decent job of it.
DiS: You only played a handful of live shows at the time though. Is this a major regret and if so, would you want to turn back time and take the band out on the road?
Mike: Well, Brian and I were pretty busy with Whorl and Archie was very active with Velocity Girl, so Black Tambourine was very much a side project when it came to time and the ability to play shows. It would have been nice to have played a few more, but personally recording has always been more gratifying than playing live.
Pam: No regrets here! Touring itself would have been a great time for the roadtrip-with-friends aspects alone, as long as singing in front of people every night could have somehow been bypassed!
DiS: Of the songs which initially came out in 1999 as The Complete
Recordings, which ones do you look back on with fond memories as being your proudest achievements and in hindsight, are there any you'd have written and/or recorded differently?
Mike: I'd say that 'Black Car' and 'By Tomorrow' are probably my favourites. For me they strike just the right balance between melody and noise, and I like the tunes. I don't think there's much I'd change about any of the recordings, to be honest, except maybe to fix some of the botched notes and beats. We recorded quite quickly due to monetary constraints and so didn't do a lot of re-takes, but I've always been really pleased with how accurately the recordings realized the sound that we had in mind. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) the primitive studio conditions and our primitive skills we came out with something that we all still stand by.
Brian: I flubbed one of the snare hits on 'By Tomorrow' striking the rim instead of the head of the drum. It's a very audible click. Listening back now I wish I'd done that more than once. It sounds kinda good!
Archie: My favourites are 'Black Car' and 'Throw Aggi Off the Bridge'. For the most part, I wouldn't change anything about any of the songs or recordings. One thing I sorta wish was different was the title 'Throw Aggi Off the Bridge'. I love the song, but I'd be happier if it was just 'Throw Her Off the Bridge' or something like that, because the Pastels reference permanently stamps the song as "twee" and "indiepop". I think the song would have a more universal resonance without "Aggi" in the title; the black humour would seem a little more sinister.
Video:Black Tambourine 'Throw Aggi Off The Bridge'
DiS: Those two would go down as my personal favourites too. What inspired those compositions and in particular with the latter, who?!?
Mike: I'll leave the lyrical content to Pam, but musically I can say that 'Black Car' shows off our well-developed Mary Chain/Galaxie 500 obsessions, and 'Throw Aggi...' owes quite a debt to Mr David Gedge.
Archie: Galaxie 500 was definitely the main sonic inspiration for 'Black Car'. I have no idea what the lyric is about, and honestly can't make out a bunch of the words.
Pam: The Black Tambourine lyrics I had a hand in writing were not always inspired by specific people. But 'Throw Aggi...' was a crush song about Stephen Pastel, inspired by a Pastels video I’d seen on SnubTV for the fine fine superfine song 'Crawl Babies', where Stephen’s spinning around on a bridge singing. Aggi wasn’t even on the bridge in that video, I don’t think, it was just a stepping off point for a song about impossible popstar amour! I don’t guess I thought at the time that anybody associated with the Pastels would ever hear the record. Having met them since then, I’ve obviously had a change of heart about throwing anyone as ace as Annabel into the drink!
Brian: For me, the band always felt stronger on record than live. It never felt like multiple tracks of guitar noise could really be reproduced well live. Also given our round-robin way of handling instruments, always trading off on guitar/bass/drums never gave any of us a chance to really master one (particularly the drums). That being said, it's always thrilling to play in front of a live audience, even if it's only a couple dozen of your closest friends.
DiS: Of the four previously unreleased new recordings that have made the deluxe edition of the album, what made you choose those four, particularly the two cover versions?
Mike: We wanted to pick songs that kind of showed our more raucous side, since the original recordings leaned towards the dreamier tunes. There were others we could have chosen, but we concentrated on the songs we remembered how to play (remember, no rehearsals!) and would round out the picture of what the band was about.
Archie: We chose to record those four new songs because we figured they'd be easy to relearn, and they were always fun to play. We used to refer to 'Lazy Heart' as "the Misfits Song"; the new recording of it is significantly slower than we used to play it. 'Heartbeat' and 'Dream Baby Dream' were songs that we played at all of our shows, and I love our interpretations of them. We also used to rehearse a version of 'Feast On My Heart' by Pylon, but never played it in front of an audience. For all of our UK influences, all of the cover songs we played were by American bands.
DiS: Why didn't 'Lazy Heart' or 'Tears Of Joy', the other new recording here, make it onto the 'Complete Recordings' album first time round?
Mike: Mostly time constraints. We had to pick eight songs to concentrate on when we went into the studio, so we picked the ones that I think we felt the most confident of being able to nail with the minimum of re-takes.
Archie: Almost all of the songs we originally released (with the exceptions of the basement-recorded 'Pam's Tan' and 'I Was Wrong'), were recorded during one day-long session with a guy named Barrett Jones. I'm actually pretty amazed that we recorded eight songs in a day, so it's no surprise to me that we didn't fit in 'Tears Of Joy' or 'Lazy Heart'; if we had ever gotten around to a second recording session, I'm sure they would've been next, as well as the two covers.
DiS: How did the new recordings take place bearing in mind you're all dotted around various parts of the world at this moment in time?
Mike: With Archie working in a recording studio that made it fairly easy to get the room for a day. I was visiting MD anyway, so we recorded all the music with Arch, Brian and me, then sent the session to Pam to lay down her vocals. She did that and sent it back to Arch, who applied some of his considerable studio skills to mixing, along with a few judicious extra tracks from him and Brian. It's pretty cool how it all worked out, and I feel like the songs turned out a lot like they might have if we had recorded them twenty years ago.
DiS: I've also read somewhere that there are numerous other recordings including live performances hidden away in the vaults somewhere. Will any of these see the light of day in the future and again, why were they not included here?
Mike: There is more stuff, but it mostly doesn't sound that great. Generally Pam is drowned out by the racket we're making, so a lot of what makes the songs interesting is missing. I think a few of the remaining songs are cool, though, so who knows what might pop-up. A friend of ours just located a pile of video tapes of most of our live shows, so there's definitely the possibility of putting together another video based on archival footage.
DiS: When the band disbanded in 1991, was it always your intention for it to become permanent or just a hiatus dependent on how your other projects progressed?
Mike: Hmm, I don't really recall us discussing it in great detail. The timeline is a little hazy for me, but I think that Brian was just joining Velocity Girl and they of course were getting much bigger and were touring a lot, so it seemed pretty apparent to me that it'd be hard to find the time.
Archie: The band just sort of fizzled out. It seems strange to me now, because even at the time, we all loved the band. I don't really remember the circumstances of us deciding to break up. We didn't have any real fans outside of our circle of friends and a few pen pals, and we certainly never thought people would be interested in our records years after their release, so I guess it just didn't seem like a big deal to stop playing.
Pam: I don’t remember it ever being discussed either way and specific memories of the time are a bit hazy from so long ago, but I remember that some of the band were fairly busy with other bands and it seemed pretty likely that the ones who weren’t would just get up to doing something different.
Video:Black Tambourine 'For Ex-Lovers Only'
DiS: Archie and Brian, you're probably better known for your work with Velocity Girl. When looking back at your work over the past couple of decades, how do they all compare from band to band and if you could pick a personal favourite record you've worked on, what would it be and why?
Brian: I'd probably have to say all the original Black Tambourine recordings and Velocity Girl's Simpatico are what I'm most proud of for different reasons. Black Tambourine because the recorded output more or less exactly represents the idea of the band for me and what I think we wanted it to sound like. To me it's extremely accurate to our aesthetic and sonically pleasing while still fitting an indie production budget. It's the closest match to what I heard in my head. On the other hand, Simpatico was closer to sounding like a record I could have imagined listening to in high school or early college. The kind of recorded sound I aspired to making when I was being most inspired by records, of course, in no small part because of John Porter's production.
Archie: It's easy for me to romanticize Black Tambourine, since we were together for such a short period of time and consequently never had to worry about commercial pressures or the stresses of touring. Also, we were always very unified in our vision of what the band should sound like, and our sound came quickly and easily. Velocity Girl was more complicated - there was a lot of conflict, personal and musical, between the band members, so our records necessarily involved a lot of compromises and we had very different ideas of what Velocity Girl should be. I'm very happy with the Black Tambourine records, and I still really like the first two Velocity Girl albums a lot, as well as our singles.
DiS: Mike, your Slumberland label has been responsible for some of the most exciting and groundbreaking new bands of the past twenty years. When you started the label in 1989, did you still expect it to have as much significance - if not more with the advent of bands like Crystal Stilts and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - twenty years later?
Mike: First off, thanks for the kind words! When we started the label - and it was a very much a "we" situation, all of the members of the core group of bands helped out - I think our biggest ambition was to put out a single or two by the main bands -- Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, Whorl and Powderburns. As I alluded to above, we were all just learning to play and were into all this different stuff - post-punk, pop, punk, lower east side noise, no wave, proto-shoegaze - and the bands represented the total spectrum of what was admittedly a crazy mishmash of influences. We felt like what we were doing was pretty different from other bands in the US, let alone DC, and wanted to document what we were doing, presuming it might only last a few years. The reaction to the first handful of releases was surprisingly positive, and that encouraged us to look beyond our little group of bands and try to put out records by bands we liked. So we started working with bands like Small Factory, Jane Pow and HoneyBunch and things kind of grew from there. Even when we started releasing albums there was some feeling of just making it up as went along; there was no master business plan, no thoughts of building a catalogue for posterity or anything like that. It's really exciting to me that Slumberland has lasted as long as it has, and I think the records we're releasing today are as good and relevant as any we've ever done. I'd say the label's profile is higher than it's ever been, and to have our work be influential and inspiring to others twenty years down the road is kind of amazing.
DiS: From the perspective of the label, which release are you most proud of and why?
Mike: Oh, it's almost too hard to pick just one. The Stereolab album was a big one in my mind, the first band we worked with outside our group of friends who went on to become really well-known. I'm really proud of the 14 Iced Bears compilation we did; those early singles of theirs were hugely influential for all of us, so getting to bring them into the Slumberland family is still remarkable to me. And of course The Pains of Being Pure At Heart album is a real source of pride; being able to help this really young band reach an audience well beyond the usual indie kids who know and buy Slumberland releases has been immensely gratifying.
DiS: Pam, since you left Black Tambourine what have you been up to and what made you relocate to London?
Pam: Over the rest of the 1990s when I was living in DC I was working at City Paper, playing in bands with friends, doing the occasional live show and some recording, all of which was a heap of fun. I moved to London in 1998 because my boyfriend was English and the long-distance thing was becoming an expensive drag. We got married and decided to stay in London and I’ve been here ever since. My friend Joe and I started playing music together as The Pines a few years back and we used to record a lot and play out more than we do now, but Joe’s busy with work and I’m busy wrangling two daughters so apart from playing the London Popfest last month, we really only play every couple of years now.
DiS: While there are obvious comparisons with lo-fi US bands of the time like Yo La Tengo and Drop Nineteens, Black Tambourine always had a very English sound to me. Which bands and labels from the UK inspired you back then?
Mike: When we started playing together in 1989 I couldn't think of any bands who quite shared that same bunch of influences. Drop Nineteens and Swirlies formed a little later, as did Lilys. Galaxie 500 and Crash were American bands we loved, and the Bus Stop label was a real bright spot of US pop. But, yeah, a lot of our influences were English. Early Creation singles were big for us, and of course the Postcard label, Pink label (esp. June Brides and McCarthy), the Mary Chain (duh!), early Sarah singles, Jesse Garon & the Desperadoes were crucial, Pale Saints, Ride, C86 (esp. Shop Assistants, Subway label, 53rd & 3rd), The Pastels, Marine Girls. We were all pretty big record collectors and made a real point of keeping up with the English indie scene, so it all just fed in there for us.
Brian: For me it would have to be the Shop Assistants, Jesus and Mary Chain, Creation and Postcard record labels. My guitar riff in 'Pack You Up' was definitely one inspired by Lush. My wife recently gave me the highest compliment without prompting by saying that song sounded like Lush. Maybe I should have disguised it more!
Archie: Lots of UK bands were explicit influences on Black Tambourine. The working title for 'Throw Aggi Off the Bridge' was "the Wedding Present Song"; 'We Can't Be Friends' was "Another Sunny Day Song". In general, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Pastels, Shop Assistants, Primitives, Pale Saints, 14 Iced Bears, Jesse Garon and the Desperadoes, the Flatmates, and all of the fizzier C86 bands were favorites of ours.
DiS: Finally, what are your individual plans for the rest of 2010, and indeed the foreseeable future?
Mike: I've got a busy 2010 planned for Slumberland, with albums soon from Chin Chin, The Lodger, Tender Trap, Neverever and Procedure Club, and then more stuff from Frankie & The Outs, Devon Williams, Brown Recluse and others close behind. Then there's my full-time job and my family, so I'm keeping busy!
Brian: To get my kids to bed earlier, so I can get some sleep!
Pam: Recently I’ve been doing a bit of playing out/recording with Greg Webster and some long-distance guest singing with Bart from Cat’s Miaow for a new Bart + Friends release - we have a 16-track recorder at the manse that occasionally gets dusted off for these kinds of exciting things. I look after the girls by day and work as a freelance subtitler on nights and weekends so I stay pretty busy, but when I’m not working I try to cram as much printing, sewing, and general crafting as I can into my free time. I just finished an evening class in letterpress printing and am aiming to keep on keeping on with all the crafty unfinished projects I’m working on to put in my etsy shop this year.
The album Black Tambourine: The Complete Recordings - Deluxe Edition is out on Monday 29th March via Slumberland Records.
For more information on Black Tambourine visit their MySpace.