In a genre most often characterized by sparse, down-tempo orchestrations, San Francisco-based doom metal two-piece Black Cobra channel the gods of the riff with thrash-paced incantations of detuned, hardcore-affected anguish. Theirs is a sound of thorough desolation, and their most recent studio album, Invernal, their third full-length, is undoubtedly the best representation yet of their sophisticated brutality and mesmerizing heaviness.
I experienced the band live at the Bowery Ballroom in 2007 prior to ever hearing of them. I was unceremoniously introduced to a two-piece ensemble made up of guitarist/vocalist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafa Martinez with a sound as massive as any full band I’ve come across. Immediately hooked, over the next three years I was roundly thwarted in my attempts to see them again, until the summer of 2010 when I watched them annihilate a small Manhattan studio in what remains one of the best shows I’ve ever witnessed.
After close to a year of recurring nightmares that somehow the group would come through the area without my knowledge, evading my constant trolling of their website and Facebook page, Black Cobra is back playing not one but three incredible area shows with lineups that even my overactive subconscious could never have imagined.
The first will be at Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, NJ, with stoner rock legends Kyuss Lives! (the band Kyuss minus founding guitarist Josh Homme) and The Sword, with The Atomic Bitchwax set to open the event. The second will be at the newly christened Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn with Zoroaster and The Body. The third is another Kyuss show at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly.
On short notice, I caught up with a cheerful, pre-show Martinez for the following Q&A.
I think the new album comes the closest of all three records to capturing the live Black Cobra sound. How was the recording of this one different from the other albums?
We went to record with Kurt Ballou of Converge in Salem, MA, in his studio, GodCity. He was really helpful in capturing the energy of the band. That guy has recorded so many great bands that his input was really, really helpful as far as how he heard what he wanted the record to sound like. He did an amazing job; he definitely pointed us in the right direction. We’re very happy with what he did.
Was Jason using a new vocal approach for this one or was that just a symptom of Kurt Ballou’s production?
It’s just him in there, just yelling (laughs). I mean, we tried different tracking techniques, like multiple mics—just sort of experimenting with different things. Live, it’s just him screaming his head off. Definitely the vocals were something that we wanted to focus on a little bit more and give it a different dimension.
It worked well. More accurately capturing the live sound is what I look forward to on each new Black Cobra release.
Oh, I’m glad you think that because I’m the same way. Sometimes you see a band live and you get the record and it’s like, “Aw, man, it’s not the same.” But it’s better than the other way around. It’s better than the record being good and the band is horrible live. But the best is for both to be the same.
It blew my mind when I saw that you don’t play double bass. I mean, some of the parts are so fast…
Oh, thanks, man! I don’t know. Every instrument I pick up I always do something sort of unorthodox with it. Because sometimes I hear something on a record and I think that it’s played a certain way. And then I learn it that way and I go watch the band live and it’s nothing like I thought it was. It’s one of those odd things that I picked up. I don’t know why.
I’m always amazed at how full the band sounds for a duo. Does Black Cobra have a particular philosophy or technical approach to getting such a thick, heavy sound live?
I don’t know. From the beginning, we sort of wanted to write music that we wanted to hear. It has to have a heavy dynamic, a good groove, and just a good hook. You gotta have a good hook in the song because if the band’s not into it, it’s going to be hard to convince the audience.
We just try to push the envelope. I think, every record, we’ve upped ourselves, or tried at least. For me, [five years ago] I couldn’t play the drum parts I’m playing now. I just couldn’t. I really took up drums seriously about six, seven years ago. We’ve done close to 600 shows now, so after having played so much, it’s like I sort of up the bar every time to push myself.
And there’s not really technical things, but as far as songwriting and arrangements and structure, we’re always looking for new avenues. Our inspiration comes from many different things—not just music. A lot of Black Cobra is inspired by film. There’s definitely music, but themes in certain genres and things like that. We try to combine different disciplines and different mediums into the music. With the artwork on this one it’s pretty evident because we’re both into sci-fi a lot. We read a lot about history.
In this particular case, Ernest Shackleton, was one of the main themes of the record: Exploration of Antarctica in the earlier part of the 1900s. Whatever moves us, whatever we feel sounds like a good thing to go for, that’s where we gravitate.
Do you do anything to get psyched up before a show?
When we have time (laughs)! Sometimes we’re rushed. Beforehand you just sort of warm up and you have the stereo in the room. You might put on a good song to help you. You gotta get ready, you know, stretching and doing the whole thing. That alone, I mean, you know what’s about to happen. It depends on shows, too. We did Hellfest and we were playing with Mötörhead and Slayer and Kiss and it was like, “Oh my God, you’re playing with heavyweights.”
Or even now that we’re on tour with Kyuss and The Sword. They’re all great bands so we always do the best we can. Now, we’re playing—pretty much the whole set—is all new songs and we’ve never played them live. Playing them in these big theaters is always kind of strange because we’re used to playing them in smaller clubs. Now it’s like we’re getting thrown into this huge tour, which is exciting but also very challenging at the same time.
Yeah, I’ve only seen you at relatively small venues.
Yeah, we play bigger shows once in a while. This is like every night is a huge show. It’s that kind of a thing. I mean, in Europe we play the big festivals and it’s just thousands and thousands of people and the next day we’ll play a club in front of 100 people. It’s good though. I think it’s good, even though you’re doing big shows, to get back into just jamming in a small room. A big show is great, putting the whole thing together and all, but you gotta remember to keep things tight even when you’re in a small room.
Do you feel like on this Kyuss tour you are playing to mostly people who get what you’re doing? I find myself wondering if Kyuss and The Sword are so big now that they attract more ‘mainstream’ types to the shows who might not be as initiated into the kind of style Black Cobra plays.
I had been questioning the same thing before we started the tour. The Sword and Kyuss, I guess from our standards, you could consider a little bit more mainstream, but they’re still pretty underground. I mean, Kyuss wasn’t on TRL or MTV, neither was The Sword. I understand what you’re saying. They are bigger but a lot of the Kyuss fans—especially a lot of the older ones—they’re metal heads and they like psychedelic music and they like old Judas Priest and Metallica and Pantera, and hardcore kids also like that stuff. And the thing with The Sword is just this classic metal vibe about the whole thing.
We are the oddball because we are just going up there and doing a little bit more hectic thing, but it helps amp up the crowd for the rest of the night. You know, we go on first and do a half-hour of nonstop blazing. And then, the rest of the night, people can sort of relax a little bit more. So far it’s been great. I think it’s the perfect tour for us right now. We’ve known The Sword for about four years now so it’s always fun to be with friends.
Is it weird going from playing a big theater to a small club?
It’s just part of the job: You gotta be ready for anything. I’ve never been to most of these venues and when you show up it’s like, “All right, here’s your little area. Do whatever you can with that.” Other places, it’s just like you have to learn to adapt to the situation. You can’t expect them to always be the same. It’s really cool playing a lot of these theaters because a lot of them have really interesting history. I mean, playing the Wiltern in L.A, it’s like, good God, who hasn’t played there? I mean, James Brown played there, Prince played there, Jane’s Addiction played there. A lot of those theaters have an interesting history.
You have played in other bands, like Acid King, in addition to Black Cobra over the years. Is Black Cobra the priority going forward?
Yeah, I’m so busy with Black Cobra—we did 170 shows last year for Cronomega in 10 months—I mean, I couldn’t possibly squeeze anything else in there, as much as I’d like to.
I play guitar all day, I play piano when I’m at home. I’m always messing around just playing music, writing, trying to branch out.
Black Cobra will play Wellmont Theatre on Dec. 10, Saint Vitus Bar on Dec. 11 and Johnny Brenda’s on Dec. 12. For more information, go to blackcobra.net.