PEAK SEASON: STEPHEN MCBEAN AND THE HISTORY OF HIS MANY MOUNTAINS
“Don’t get too precious with it,” says Stephen McBean. “Good songs tend to write themselves.” With that, the creator of Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops stops riding his bicycle to talk about 17-plus years writing, recording and playing music mainly as part of the Victoria underground – all before Jerk with a Bomb.
Stephen Gordon McBean was born in Vancouver in 1969, “part of the McBean clan who originally come from the Loch Ness area of Scotland and have a history of cannibalism.” His mother Patricia is a Sharkey of Irish descent. After moving to Sidney, BC in Grade 6 via Kleinburg Ontario, McBean started music. He got influenced by punk after visiting a cousin in Vancouver who was going to the Buddha and gave him a DOA seven-inch and the Subhumans’ Incorrect Thoughts LP. That was part of the arsenal brought back to the Victoria suburbs.
In 1981 Jerk Ward – named after the mental institution in the Woody Woodpecker episode ‘The Screwdriver’ (1941) – became his first band. “The initial spark playing music when you’re a kid and you pick up an instrument and there’s no rules and you just do anything. That’s when the magic happens. They were my best friends.” He refers to bandmates Randy Long, Jon London and Julian McClain. It was hardcore punk.
“Me and all my friends when we first started playing we were the new kids but we were a little young to be considered first wave American Hardcore. Nowadays I’m like the ‘older guy.’”
McBean recalls The Dayglo Abortions, an active Jaks skate team group of punks,
“When I was 13 they were in their 20s. Bonehead playing naked chasing chicks. I opened for them 15 times. The first Jerk Ward show was opening for Scream, which became Dave Grohl’s band, and Kill City, which was Ron Reyes, Steve LaViolette and Carlos Longo.
“The first recordings were done on a ghetto blaster. Steve from the Neos had a four-track cassette. No second takes. Now we try to stay true to that initial spark and inspiration. Sometimes when we go into studios I know the records I like…sometimes you trick yourself and want to hear everything perfect.”
Jason Flower who co-wrote the 1978-1984 Victoria underground book ‘All Your Ears Can Hear’ and wrote the fanzine Dethrip from 1986-90 is a huge fan of Jerk Ward.
“They were active 1981-84 inspired by and supported by the Neos, Victoria’s hardcore group. The Neos taught them how to tune their instruments. They did a number of demos recorded by Steve Bailey from the Neos, featuring guest appearances from both Kev Smith and Bailey.”
A collector’s 12-inch vinyl Jerk Ward – Too Young To Thrash – is available only through Flower’s ‘Supreme Echo’ Facebook page. (Flower is also promoting a new Dishrags 12-inch release on May 24 at the Railway Club.)
In the interim McBean joined Victoria political punk band Red Tide. He played as a bassist right before and at the beginning of Mission of Christ.
“That was a cool. Jon Craggs was a good songwriter,” McBean recalls.
Jerk Ward evolved into Mission of Christ (MOC), a crossover band.
“Those were the years of wild youth. We were around 1986 to 89. I was 17-19. That whole time metal and punk were coming together. We got signed a bunch of times as MOC. Metal Blade and a bunch of different labels. It was hard back then to figure out ‘you’re a band and go on tour.’ Just to afford a guitar was a pain in the ass at that point. It was before the Internet and before Maximum Rock n’ Roll had Book Your Own Fucking Life magazine. We were 10 years younger than all the bands. I had no idea what we got paid if we got paid,”
“That was the beginning of thrash metal. Back then it was just underground music. You’d go to the New York Theatre (Vancouver) and see Skinny Puppy, House of Commons, DOA, Grapes of Wrath…It was just all underground music. It hadn’t splintered as much. We were influenced by the Accused and we could play with them. There’d be mods, skinheads, metal heads, punk girls. You’d get a mix tape and it’d have everything on it.”
The band recorded two tapes and a 7-inch, then broke up in 1989.
“A few of us in that band started another band, Onionhouse. It was kind of a grunge act started with Jon from Sidney, in reaction to the increasing violence at our shows. There were black metal skinheads. It had all converged. People were getting beaten up. It was kind of a drag.”
Onionhouse didn’t last very long before he started a band called Gus after moving to Vancouver in 1992.
“That was the first band that toured North America, booked our own shows, that whole thing. Did a bunch of 10-week tours, playing basements and punk places. We used the Maximum Rock n’ Roll book. Put a record out on Wrong Records, the No Means No record label. Did a bunch of 7-inch releases.”
“It was a punk band, slightly bass heavy in that kind of No Means No, Victoria kind of way. Bit of noise, bit of Melvins, funk, the Amrep stuff that was going on then. Lots of screaming. Lasted four years,”
“All these were recorded in basement studios. Scott Henderson from Victoria. Gary from the Rat’s Nest, worked with him a bunch. Cecil English, Ken Jenzen from DOA at Profile. No one quite knew – maybe Cecil – what they were doing. That was the exciting part of it,”
“Gus broke up and Ex-dead Teenager was next.”
Enter Josh Wells from Black Mountain.
“We did a couple of tours. I got a four track and made the first Jerk with a Bomb track in 1995-96. Someone asked me to play a show and I was nervous. I asked Josh to play drums with me. We played parties. Then we recorded an album … three albums.”
As Jerk with a Bomb, McBean was never part of that Vancouver scene which saw The New Pornographers – Neko Case, Carl Newman etc. – and Mint Records shoot to fame. Instead in 1999, McBean played for the punk kids “drove all the way from Edmonton to Winnipeg to play a show when no one showed up. Not one or two but no one.” That was the Jerk With a Bomb tour and at that time it was Keith Parry from Scratch Records who was a believer. Parry defines his label, “Home of absurdist and extreme music of all natures is what we championed.”
Scratch would release Jerk with a Bomb and the first two Pink Mountaintops and Black Mountain CDs in Canada. Jagjaguwar would become the US label. Up until McBean moved to Los Angeles, he and Parry were roommates for three years. McBean acknowledges, “He’s been a big support. He’s one of those people who introduces you to new music at a time in your life when you need it.” For Parry, now a full-time instructor at Nimbus, he still bets on McBean.
“A guy who was born to make music. Regardless of whatever success he’s had in the last number of years, he’d still be playing something.”
McBean hints at an approach to releasing music.
“Maybe finding a good filter for yourself. I’ll go through songs I’ve written, like ‘some girl broke my heart’. I’ll listen to that song later and go ‘thank god I didn’t release that.’ The whole thing about songs, they have a life of their own. Fun to play the first time. You want to play a song for years and for it to have life every time. If you don’t believe it, you can’t play it. It’s not your friend.” On the other hand, “You can’t worry about it. King Buzzo (Melvins) says one way to survive is to ‘never have a hit.’”
Pink Mountaintops is currently on tour in support of their new album. With McBean now living in LA, it makes sense that the new record, Get Back, is produced by Icarus Line’s Joe Cardomone, who “is able to push you in a good primal direction, to sense whether you are acting yourself or putting on a front.” He’s also back in a punk band, Obliterations (with Bluebird’s Sam Velde) and they are recording an album for Southern Lord.
To his early days with Jon London (RIP), Randy Long (RIP) and Julian McClain (RIP), McBean keeps them in the light.
“Of course I look back. They were my best friends.”
“Every once in awhile I kick myself. Pink Mountaintops just went to Brazil and there were people there who knew the music. Musicians go on the road for years and then you become the jaded musician that hates music… ‘I’m owed this. I’m owed that.’ You’re not fucking owed anything.”
Pink Mountaintops perform at Harpo’s Upstairs Cabaret in Victoria May 22 and The Fox Cabaret in Vancouver May 23.
By Susanne Tabata
Photos: Supplied by Stephen McBean. Photos by Mandy Lyn and Jeff Helgason
Special Thanks to Jason Flower and Keith Parry.
Susanne Tabata is the creator of Bloodied But Unbowed and thepunkmovie.com