Black Cab: The Cab Effect
Over bottles of red and plates of prosciutto in a Melbourne wine bar, Black Cab tell KATE HENNESSY about uncomfortable moments with an infamous road manager, being courted by 'Pitchfork' and why they won’t play the Hopetoun in her native Sydney again.
“Pitchfork contacted you?”
“Um, hang on, let me check … yeah. Pitchfork. The founding editor [Ryan Schreiber] got wind we had a new record and asked us to send him a copy. Have you heard of Pitchfork?”
It’s six weeks prior to this exchange and Melbourne duo Black Cab are perched on stools at a Melbourne wine bar. They’re smearing cheese on tiny crackers, discussing the “chicks” at ABC Classic FM and downing red wine with the gusto of guys who don’t booze hard very often.
Quick poll: have you heard of Black Cab? It’s bewildering how few people have. Why? Because they’re really, really, really good. Black Cab’s core is singer and producer Andrew Coates and guitarist James Lee. When touring and recording, the band balloons into a collaborative six-piece featuring guitarist Alex Jarvis (Automatic), bassist Anthony Paine (High Pass Filter), drummer Richard Andrew (Crow, Registered Nurse, Underground Lovers) and programmer Steve Law (Zen Paradox).
Coat barely off, I’m equipped with my own gargantuan glass of red. Bottle drained (the majority of which just became mine), Coates cheerfully orders a second, accompanied by a plate of cured Italian meats and more diminutive crackers. He tops up all round, finishes asking Lee about his pending marriage, and enquires as to how Melbourne is treating me so far.
Two things are immediately clear. The first is that while Black Cab may be best known for drawing inspiration from the iconoclastic drug-haze of the late 1960s, the haze doesn’t extend in any way to their person. The second is that two delicate arrangements of cheese and prosciutto, politely shared between three, will not be enough to stifle the onset of drunkenness. Both facts are pleasing; both make my job easier.
So enamoured am I of this band, a courtyard of backpackers in a Croatian hostel last year were held captive to a spontaneous “listening party”. Those who signed up to continue listening on my iPod, after Manu Chao and Bob Marley had been re-throned on high rotation, became my travel buddies.
Black Cab’s first record Altamont Diary (2004) is a concept album based on 1969’s ill-fated free concert at Altamont Speedway in California. In 2006 they released the sitar-drenched Jesus East, blending Indian instruments (looped and droning) with driving rock’n’roll and country guitar stylings. An achievement, considering how faux-reverential and jarring sitars, tablas and the like can be in the wrong hands, on the wrong song.
While Black Cab’s spacious, psych-country sound rivals the best of those at Altamont in ’69, it’s not their sound as much as their approach that locates them in the tradition of bands from an era when “concept” was frequently the silent word in front of “record”. A time when extracting an individual track from a record made about something risked the collapse of the entire metaphorical deck.
I’d missed that “whole-of-record” approach. Until Black Cab brought it back.
It’s hard to pluck one track off Altamont Diary or Jesus East and not yearn for the rest, in order. They’re records that evoke music in the warm mid-afternoon, being young and amazed, sitting cross-legged on your bedroom floor smoking a clandestine joint, flipping side A over fast so the mood holds until the first crackles of side B. Listening to the whole thing again from start to finish because that’s how it’s meant to be heard.
Black Cab’s third record, Call Signs, is due for release on August 1 through Laughing Outlaw Records. The double single ‘Rescue/Black Angel’ is available now. This time around Coates and Lee deployed their era-evoking songwriting talents to pre-unification East Germany, paranoid and policed by the Stasi. Call signs were the transmission signals delivered to East German spies. The album starts with the four-tone signal used to alert spies they’d found the right transmission frequency. Genuine audio samples of short wave radio messages from the era were also used as samples.
“We don’t have a popular following but we’ve got an obscure, critical following in really strange places around the world.”
“It’s not a concept album though, it’s a theme,” Coates clarifies. “We’d read a book by Anna Funder called Stasiland that really captured the mentality of living at a time when around 50 percent of East Germans contributed intelligence information, often about their neighbours. There was so much distrust and paranoia and it really interested us.”
But why stray so far afield, geographically, for inspiration, I enquire. What’s with the cultural cringe? “We leave the convict rock to The Drones,” Coates retorts, equal measures humour and economy.
While Call Signs largely departs from the ’60s-’70s US nostalgia vibe, they’ve still snuck on a gentle tribute (‘Black Angel’) to American folk singer Judee Sill who died of a drug overdose in 1979. They don’t, however, see themselves as part of the recent re-emergence of psych-rock, including bands like The Dolly Rocker Movement who wear their influences loud and proud … on their paisley button-up shirts. “Those wiggy 60’s-style bands are a little derivative for my liking,” says Coates.
It could be an age thing. If the ’60s and ’70s were long buried before you were even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye – clearly the case for many of the fresh-faced tambourine-shakers on the scene at present – the “wiggy” part of derivative probably doesn’t quite hit home. Hell, I’ve been there myself. Who could forget the weird ’60s revivalism of the early ’90s? I stomped around in mustard bell-bottoms and a tie die for years, ranting ineloquently about Val Kilmer’s brilliant depiction of Jim Morrison in The Doors.
Black Cab may have moved on, continent-wise, but Call Signs still features their trademark touches: subtle but ever-present drones, heavily-treated vocals, atmospheric interludes, judiciously interwoven samples and, generally, indications of some serious post-production labour. There’s so much filling out the background in any Black Cab song: reversed guitar licks, aerated background harmonies, synth, looping and other less distinguishable elements of density. No matter how many times you listen to a Cab song, it’s always got more love to give.
I enthuse as much, deep into bottle two, as conversation drifts to Sam Cutler.
British native Cutler is the former tour manager for the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. He was left to deal with the recriminatory aftermath of the Altamont Speedway concert on behalf of the Rolling Stones, specifically the death of a young black man called Meredith Hunter at the hands of Hell’s Angels. Altamont’s ugly dénouement came to symbolise the implosion of 1960s optimism: the ideology of peace, love and unity seemed to slip, quite suddenly, away, as it appeared violence, fractured politics, self-interest and racism had triumphed. The last track on Altamont Diary is called, simply, ‘1970’. It’s close to 11 minutes long and is a masterpiece of moody arrangement and evocative guitar. It’s a song with the potential to curse everything written afterwards to float somewhere downstream of genius.
Black Cab featured samples of Cutler on Altamont Diary, lifted from the incredible cult doco by Albert and David Maysles, Gimme Shelter. Altamont Diary was released to scattered critical acclaim in 2004, with David Fricke from US Rolling Stone magazine writing: “With bloodied-fuzz guitars, hellish electronics and sound bites from Gimme Shelter, the Australian duo Black Cab has created a riveting, album-length memorial to the fatal folly of the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont Speedway.”
“The Australian Rolling Stone didn’t bother reviewing us,” says Coates. “We call it, ‘The Cab Effect.’ We don’t have a popular following but we’ve got an obscure, critical following in really strange places around the world.”
Cutler’s a character who both amuses and intrigues Black Cab. Coates and Lee both hold down reasonably demanding day jobs and Coates has two small children. The band is a satisfying project but they are not defined by it. Cutler keeps creeping back into conversation, they assure me, because he’s “much more interesting”.
In 2005, a journalist at now-defunct magazine The Bulletin came upon Cutler’s address. Bizarrely, Cutler had landed in Queensland and the journo posted him a copy of Altamont Diary. Cutler was impressed and made contact with the band.
“You have to remember we were ‘celebrating’ the biggest bummer of his life, a period he’d consigned to history,” says Coates. “But he was coming down to Victoria for the Rainbow Serpent festival so we arranged to meet up.”
By that time, Jesus East was in the making and Cutler agreed to contribute a spoken-word piece.
“It was like a bad interview,” Lee recalls of recording day. “We were coaxing him, but it was going nowhere. So we put the backing track loops on, gave him the mic again, and he did it all in one take.”
The result was ‘Valiant’, the second-last track on Jesus East. In it, Cutler – now in his mid-60s – reminisces about the glory days of the Grateful Dead entourage (famously known as “Deadheads”): their unity, sense of shared spirit and open-mindedness. He also expresses his disillusion about today’s music scene.
“Nowadays, it doesn’t feel to me like there’s that community of spirit when I go to music shows. For a start, everyone’s doing different drugs,” he laments. Towards the end of the piece Cutler advises “young people today” to “go for what is real … look at your own heart and your own spirit … follow your own master.”
The song polarises Cab fans, says Coates. “Some people really hate that song, some geezer raving about the Grateful Dead … They’re like, ‘Who is he?’”
Mess+Noise writer Eliza Sarlos, however, knew exactly who Cutler was in 2006 when she wrote: “When Black Cab come to town and bring Sam Cutler (ex-road manager for the Rolling Stones, circa Altamont) along with them I’m immediately irked. What band needs an aged roadie to drink their rider and give them cred? To be honest, not Black Cab.”
It appears Cutler’s notoriety is his blessing and his curse too.
I’m not surprised Cutler bugs people. I used to be one of them. Then, one day, I got it. It was a stinking hot Saturday, I was alone, just off deadline and free of work or responsibilities. I’d been playing Jesus East obsessively, but skipping Cutler’s piece. When it came on that day, as I was throwing towels into a bag headed out to the beach, it matched my elated sense of carpe diem perfectly. Involuntarily, my cynicism dissolved and the simplicity of Cutler’s message filtered through. His Cockney accent, inelegance and lack of poeticism ceased to matter because I heard, for the first time, the spirit of what he was trying to say. I let go. And I was uplifted. It all sounds horribly born-again Christian until you realise a better analogy, ironically, is the experience of taking acid. Doomed to a bad trip are those who don’t let go. I’m sure Cutler couldn’t agree more.
Cutler tagged along for some limited east-coast dates with Black Cab in 2006. At the Sydney show at the Hopetoun, he surprised the crowd (and the band, as it turns out) by basing his spoken-word performance on nuclear waste, the Australian outback and LSD. “Cutler got us a lot of press for the second album,” says Coates. “We milked it shamelessly.”
During one such media affair with a journalist from The Age, Cutler ended up sitting in Coates’ lap. Just as the photographer arrived to do his thing, Cutler turned to hiss in Coates’ ear, “You’d never believe the things I’ve had in my lap.” If that made Coates uncomfortable, it’s nothing when compared to his discomfort with the sound of his own voice. A reluctant vocalist, I ask?
“You’ve got me there,” he admits. “I am deeply uncomfortable with my voice. Most artists I like have heavily-treated vocals, that’s the heritage I tap into. We went through this process with Call Signs where producer Woody Annison tried to strip the treatment off my voice and I’d put it all back on again.”
Coates’ persistence paid off. His vocals are distant yet emotionally resonant and his inclination to view his voice purely as complement to the sound makes for some spine-tingling passages when the two merge as one. On ‘Lost & Falling’, Coates bows out altogether mid-way through the song as a deluge of synthesisers envelop his vocals, reminiscent of some of Spritualized’s more intensely narcotic moments.
“I don’t give a shit about lyrics; it’s all about sound,” he stresses. “I need to enunciate words that fit with the sounds that are already there. I see it as a yawning gap that needs to be filled with vocals. So it’s about finding words that sound good that aren’t embarrassing. It’s incredibly difficult. No, it’s fucking hard.”
A topic much less fraught is Black Cab’s 2007 tour of Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium, which they recall with happy incredulity.
“There was no way we could all afford to travel, it would have been $13,000 just on airfares,” says Coates. “But Stickman Records, a label in Hamburg, said, ‘If you fuckers can get here, we’ll do the tour for you.’ We ended up getting a grant though the Australia Council, something called International Pathways.”
“We’ve never done anything like that with the band before,” adds Lee. “Just gone off and said, ‘Let’s play.’ It was great to see the other members express themselves through the band. We really consolidated as a unit.”
Reception varied wildly from gig to gig. In Vienna, it was an empty house. In Salzburg – “the home of Mozart” Lee points out – there were “screaming people who knew the words to the songs”.
Coates continues. “In Hannover, we ended up playing at 4am at a rock festival for an indie mail order label called The Swamp Room Festival. We played to about 200 acid-fried Germans … the sun was coming up when we were driving back and we were racing neck-and-neck with a US goth band covered in white paint called Batrider.”
Bottle three is empty and my notes have devolved into the chubby, free-ranging font of a five-year-old. But the Cab apparently have one last thing to get off their chest when I enquire as to when and where their next Sydney gig might be.
“Not at the fucking Hopetoun!” they exclaim in unison. “If we play at that place again, just put a gun to our head and shoot us.”
While Lee mutters under his breath, “It’s a shocker, it’s a shocker”, Coates explains their disdain with his customary succinctness. “The PA could be folded into a suitcase and the bass speaker is about the size of a wine bottle.”
Sydney is generally a “baffling place”, Black Cab claim, somewhere they largely ignore for gigs, which could go some way to explaining their miniscule profile north of the border.
Exiting the wine bar, I suggest we bookend our three bottles with a nightcap of ale. They look horrified, glance at their watches and exclaim, only half-kidding, “Why, it’s gone nine-o-clock!”
We spill out the door, and literally bump into a guy wheeling a dolly of boxes down the pavement towards a convenience store. I’m still hazily pondering their aversion to my hometown when the dolly-wheeling guy greets them warmly and they all start chatting like the old friends they clearly are.
“We’ve just been talking to Kate here about The Cab,” explains Coates to the Melburnian, who nods in approval. The irony of their recognition by the first guy we bump into doesn’t escape me. We bid our farewells.
Six weeks later, I call Coates to check some facts. That’s when he drops the Pitchfork bombshell and I tell him, excitedly, to Google the Pitchfork effect.
“Yeah, OK, thanks, I will,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m just glad someone’s listening and gives a shit.”
Black Cab's Call Signs is out July 31 through Laughing Outlaw. The album will be launched on August 28 at the Esplanade Hotel, Melbourne.