BLACK MOUNTAIN X YEAR ZERO
“Come with us. Your world is of no use to you anymore.”
By Andrew Sayer
Photos by DJ Struntz
“Come with us. Your world is of no use to you anymore.”
These soothing words taunt at the beginning of Year Zero. Take the red pill. Keanu would. Accept a new reality.
The voice, although smoky and beautiful, isn’t one of the striking women used as backdrops in the Globe opus, Year Zero. It’s the haunting voice of Amber Webber, vocalist for Vancouver psych-band Black Mountain, who scooped the roll from Keanu Reeves. Yes, that Keanu – Special Agent Johnny Utah. Year Zero is a creative masterpiece helmed by Joe G: visionary, conspiracy theorist, artist.
Though on the surface Black Mountain and surfing may not go hand-in-hand, there’s more similarities than just Joe’s vision of the near future.
“You share a smoke, do a shot, then end up in a van together for what seems like the rest of your life," says the band’s front man, Stephen McBean. This phrase mirrors many lifestyles: music, surf, skate, create…all similar because we’re different.
The movie is post-apocalyptic themed, shot on film, and some of the memorable scenes take place in the desert. It’s far from the surf standard. Some trendy blog soundtrack would not do it justice. It needed the swampy sounds of Black Mountain to create a custom soundtrack – a perfect marriage between sound and visual.
Before Black Mountain’s involvement, the crew traveled the world in style for a year and a half. Typical surf spots were not on the agenda. Each location fit a specific goal to tie into the theme of an apocalypse gone good-times. Locations included the WWII bunkers of southwest France, secluded deserts in Western Australia, uncharted barrels in Sumbawa, luxurious Cabo, emerald ramps in Costa Rica, and the barren wasteland of Lancaster, California. With action complete it was time to further flip the script on how a surf movie should be put together. It was time for Black Mountain.
Why Black Mountain…
Joe G: I was fully a fan [laughs]. I was like the biggest fan in the world of Black Mountain. Fuck, I’d been into their music forever. The whole thing with projects now is everyone can find a cool song. Everything’s so picked over. The only way to do something special is to almost commission it. So that was the idea. Just commission shit.
We had a music guy in New York that knows all these people. We had a short list of bands that we wanted to work with (actually just Black Mountain or Black Angels). Basically, I wanted to work with Black Mountain but I felt like they were too good or something and wouldn’t want to work with us. I hit this guy up.
“Hey man, do you think you could find out if these guys would do a film with us?”
“I actually know Stephen McBean if you want me to set up a meeting,” he said. I was like, Holy shit, are you kidding me!
Meeting Stephen McBean…
So the music guy fully just sent me to his house in Silverlake and I went and did my little spiel. I’m a big fan and know literally everything they’ve ever done. It had probably been four years before this meeting that we used one of their songs in a skate event we did in Australia called Money For Blood with Thrasher. Phelps was just giving out money to people when they landed crazy shit. It was so heavy. I was all psyched to shoot film, Super-16, real slow-mo, and I had the song Heart of Snow in my head the whole time. Used that song, cleared it, whatever, and they had to see the cut. It got approved.
When I was in his house, totally nervous, he’s making me coffee and says, “Yeah, we’ve only licensed our song to one surf or skate thing before.” So I’m thinking, Australia.
“It came out really good though,” he adds.
“Wait, was it called Money for Blood?”
“That was me, man!”
From then on he was like, “Oh yeah, we loved it. I sent it to all my friends and was all psyched.” It was cool because he believed in what we did and obviously we believe in what he did.
Black Mountain’s non-sellout Vancouver skate roots…
Once we clicked on what we had already done, he knew it was going to work out. And he’s – just being a skater – you look at it differently and understand that it’s an opportunity. If we do a good job it will be a good thing for them and just a cool thing to do. So, I think it helped a lot.
Fitting a post-apocalyptic theme…
We wanted to do the post-apocalyptic thing because I knew that 2012 was coming and I’m a fan of all that shit. I read about all the Mayan stuff. There’s actually a guy, Daniel Pinchbeck, who wrote a really cool book on the apocalypse that was the opposite of what everyone in Hollywood would portray it as. Where instead of a doomsday it’s an awakening of conscious. I thought, that’s the perfect thing for surfers. If it was the Apocalypse and the systems around us broke down and the structures of society broke down we would probably adapt better than anyone. We would have a blast.
That was the idea for the movie. Let’s go on a little adventure and just say that nothing else exists and we’re just gonna have fun in the apocalypse instead of it being horrible. I always try to make our style more psychedelic or weird – a different experience – and their music totally takes you to another place when you listen to it, especially the album, In the Future. God, I would listen to that album and everything would materialize in my head. I thought, We have to do something with this kind of music.
Black Mountain’s involvement…
I learned a lot from working with them and I had learned a lot before from working with other people. Obviously they’re a band that’s fucking amazing, so the more structure you give them, the less you’re going to get. It’s like if someone were to tell me how I should do what I do, I’d be over it. I just drew abstracts and moods on a piece of paper where the emotional arcs were. This is intense and this is surreal. We just drew it out.
From there they started making songs. I would show them the footage. First of all I wanted them to see that it wasn’t shitty…that stuff was good and that it was worth spending time on. I think they connected with it because they record so much of their stuff analog, on tape, for those same reasons that we shot on film–because it’s alive. With film there’s just something about it that looks special and with analog it’s the same thing. You just hear something in it.
My honest expectations were, they’re super busy, they’re just going to make some stuff, and we’ll love it because it’s them even if it’s not the craziest thing they ever did. But they went and got so into it. Stephen was based out of LA, while Josh and Amber were still based out of Vancouver. He would do stuff, send it to them, they’d start laying down on top of that, then they’d send it to me and I’d be like, "this sounds amazing."
It was crazy because I was really conscious to not try to think that I was directing what they did because that would be wrong. Just by showing them what we were doing, they fully got it and made music far beyond what I was expecting.
Amber Webber from Black Mountain’s voiceovers…
My whole plan was actually to have Keanu Reeves do the voiceovers. Swear to god. Chas Smith and I wrote all these, well, the whole movie.
Chas’ Keanu article in Surfing…
Yeah, so that was from a drunken lunch where we were talking about Keanu. He called me when he wrote that article and said, “OK, I sent an article to Surfing, but I don’t think I blew the whole Keanu thing.”
Ah fuck. Anyway, we were getting all hyped because of his roll in Thumbsucker. This movie is fucking so unbelievable. He plays this spiritual orthodontist. It’s really dry…really funny. This kid keeps going to the orthodontist and Keanu knows that he’s sucking his thumb, but on this whole spiritual trip. He approaches it in three stages:
Stage One: Keanu realizes he’s sucking his thumb. And gives him advice about how to stop.
Stage Two: He’s this full new age guy who’s telling him all of his different psycho babble theories on why maybe it’s OK or how he could quit by doing this, or whatever.
Stage Three: He’s basically figured out that he knows nothing and he should just keep sucking his thumb and everything is fine.
It’s super weird, but literally the movie’s structured that way. So Chas and I wrote this whole thing for Year Zero, which is what the main chapters in the film became:
One: Skepticism – “Rules cast aside. We search for an answer. How do we live in this strange new world?”
Two: Embrace – “Come with us. The world is of no use to you anymore. Be free with us. Find your truth. Put down your possessions and follow us into the infinite. The new world. The year zero.”
Three: Realization – “We find her. We follow her. We ride and we run. Forever.”
If the Apocalypse is due and Year Zero accurately depicted the near future, then bring it, and let us flourish. “Be free,” Amber’s voice echoes in the final moments of the film. The red pill went down smooth. You chose correct.
Black Mountain`s Year Zero soundtrack is nothing less than the band`s full, balls-out glory distilled down to one dense, 45-minute acid tab of music. The Year Zero soundtrack weaves crunching, analog psych metal futuristic droneouts and, somehow, a twisted saxaphone ditty.
So how on earth does a band like Black Mountain end up writing music in the name of the world`s sunniest sport?
Understand, Year Zero is nothing like your ordinary bro-time surfer flick. Shot around the world on 16mm film, Year Zero is set in a near-ish future where the world as we know it has ended. Director Joe G. places the survivors in a damaged but stunningly beautiful place, a world where the reset button has been hit, where we hold onto the vestiges of the things we love, but those things become weightless, and the ensuing freedom is as exhilarating as it is scary. To simply call it post-apocalyptic is to undermine the imagination that Joe G. brings to the world`s remains, and Year Zero is ultimately as much a "surf movie" as it is a movie about Earth illustrated through surfing.
With Year Zero, Black Mountain go to a place that is intergalactic and downright ruthless, with a sound big enough to stand up to the vastness of the ocean, the bigness of the sun, and the lives of the people left living. Which is fucked up and heavy, no question, but so goes Joe G.`s vision, and thanks to Year Zero, now we know: Black Mountain could actually pull off being the last band on Earth.