By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In three weeks, the Black Heart Procession finishes the solo leg of their U.S. tour and hooks up with Man or Astro-Man? for a series of dates in the Northwest and along the East Coast. Man or Astro-Man?, as you might be aware, plays manic, intergalactic surf music, Dick Dale-on-crank instrumentals that move at about a hundred miles an hour with 10 toes gripping the board just to stay out of the water.
The Black Heart Procession, by emphatic contrast, is more like a shark beneath the surface.
A short list of instruments on the Black Heart Procession's third album, the straightforwardly titled Three, includes piano, pump organ, waterphone, saw, space echo, clarinet, "noises," and "long distance phone voice." The reviews and write-ups in their press kit describe the music as "the sound of a broken heart," "brooding," "gloomy," "the feeling of resignation that awaits us at rock bottom," "depressed," "gothic dirges," "somber," "weary," "melancholy," "eerie," "haunted-house howls," "a voice that sounds emotionally spent," "24-hour suicide watch," and-- in case you hadn't picked it up by now--"dark."
Now what, you may be asking yourself, is this pack of dour San Diegans doing touring with a frantic bunch of space surfers like Man or Astro-Man?
Pall Jenkins, lead voice and saw player for the Black Heart Procession, doesn't quite know either. "But they're great guys, we really like them. We're looking forward to those weeks. I don't know how their fans will react, to be honest. But it ought to be fun. I think it'll go okay. Maybe we'll play some louder songs."
Any saw player self-aware enough to realize how badly his particular ax might wig out Man or Astro-Man? fans, while remaining optimistic about the band's reception, can't be all that down on himself. "No, no," Jenkins says slowly and quietly, "this album isn't quite as down or sad as the last one, even though there are some sad songs on it. I'm not depressed, really. I'll be honest with you, I just haven't had any coffee yet."
Jenkins and Tobias Nathaniel, switching instrumental duties freely, form the two-man (and with frequent horn player Jason Crane, sometimes three-man) core of the Black Heart Procession, a fluid band that ranges from duo to full ensemble depending on the venue: "We know people in a lot of cities, and sometimes we'll just have people come along on the tour for a few dates, or when we hit town we'll call our friends and ask them to play at the show on a few songs. It's really relaxed, very loose. Mostly this time out we're touring as a four-piece."
Jenkins, like the rest of the band, is getting over jet lag. In support of Three (which follows similarly titled releases One and Two), the Black Heart Procession is preparing for a months-long tour that will take them all over the U.S. Also, they returned from Italy just a few days ago, where they played a show with the always-terrifying industrial noise outfit Einstürzende Neubauten, another band that wouldn't seem to offer a likely pairing opportunity; yet to hear Jenkins tell it, the show worked. "I've always been a big fan of them, too, and they were wonderful to us. They even paid for our tickets to go out. In fact, I just picked up some new stuff by Einstürzende for the first time in a while, so since the show in Italy I've been playing that around the house a lot. That and Tammy Wynette. I really like Tammy Wynette."
Take the atmospheric backdrops of industrial music and couple them with the lush, slow arrangements and he-done-her-wrong lyrics of Nashville country, and you might be approaching the Black Heart Procession's sound, which isn't the incessant lamentation the press kit would have you believe. There are a clutch of outright heart-tuggers on the album--"Guess I'll Forget You," "Waterfront (The Sinking Road)" and especially the closing track, "On Ships of Gold," definitely qualify as late-night-lonesome fodder--but most of the songs are about survival, even when that survival proves a Pyrrhic victory at best. "You by the waterfront/You still alive/You move away, you want to wash away/What ills your heart," sings Jenkins; and, later: "If the war was over/I could go anywhere I felt with you.../I lie awake/And dream of you/It won't be long till I'm home..." Scarred, battle-weary and tired, sure--but the voices on the Black Heart Procession's third album are voices of people who've lasted through some awful shit and have remained alive to talk about it.
Even when they're at the end of their various ropes, as on a regret-laden tune like "Till We Have to Say Goodbye," the voices in pain continue to tell their stories, which is a triumph of a sort. "No, I don't think Three is as depressing as the earlier albums. Maybe things have gotten a little bit better," Jenkins says.
From at least one standpoint, Jenkins couldn't be more right: The Black Heart Procession, which began as a smaller project branching from San Diego favorites Three Mile Pilot, now surpassed its original limits and even the band from which it grew. "By the time you get to the third album, you're probably not a side project anymore. I think it's kind of easy for people to write about your other outlets as 'side projects' early on, but the truth is, the Black Heart Procession wasn't even meant to be a band, really. We all just needed to take some time off from Three Mile Pilot and record some other things; that band had been around for so many years. Now it's almost like Three Mile Pilot is becoming the side project."