"We're Going to Make a Painting For You": An Interview with Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins
Pall Jenkins talks about the band's new record, Amore Del Tropico, a sunnier but equally subversive look at love gone awry.
Once the sound of fury for San Diego's indie powerhouse, Three Mile Pilot, Pall Jenkins packed up his anger and angst after splitting with his girlfriend and -- along with Pilot's similarly heartbroken Tobias Nathaniel -- bailed on noise rock in favor of the beautiful melancholy of Black Heart Procession. Three albums and a good deal of an international following later, the Black Hearts partially abandoned the morose dirges of their previous work and released the critically praised Amore Del Tropico -- a sunnier but equally subversive look at love gone awry -- in 2002. Never one to settle on a single art form, Pall decided to flesh out the promise of Amore's concept and shoot it as a full-length film, to be released later this year on DVD, which is a blessing or curse depending on what kind of fan you might be. While Black Heart fans have been clamoring for Pall to stretch out and flex his creative muscles and will no doubt be thrilled with the DVD, Three Mile Pilot die-hards are lamenting the extended hiatus that has pushed back the art-rockers continually promised but not yet realized next effort. It's a fine line you tread when you've got a million things going at once. As Pall says, it's all about getting the time to get together. Got it?
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PopMatters: Talk about the new album. It's lighter and more upbeat than the last one.
Pall Jenkins: Yeah, a little bit here and there. I still feel it retains definite elements our sound and our style. I just think we've stretched out and experimented in other places.
PM: What led to the decision to expand the style? There are some rocking songs on there and I think even a bossanova. . .
PJ: Yeah, kind of a tropical bossanova, calypso thing going on. I think it had to do with us trying a bunch of recording equipment in our new studio in San Diego. We invited people over for help with different things. If we needed cello or violin, we called somebody up and had them come by and play. Also, we consciously wanted to write different kinds of songs, record in more of a collage. I wanted to make a record that showed my different feelings. Plus, we felt that our third record, 3, didn't really stretch. We felt like we wanted to make this one move forward or elsewhere.
PM: The rhythms have diversified, but there is still that sort of darkness and that sense of humor -- maybe even more humor than the last albums -- even though it's still about a murder mystery.
PJ: Yeah, it's still spooky, but there's comic relief at times. This is our drummer Joe's first time on a record, so that's an element that made it a little more upbeat. And as you were saying about comic relief, yeah that's true. But we're really serious about our music and the things that we believe. It's not a joke or anything, you know.
PM: I think there's a sense that darkness has got to have that counterposition, that lightness to help it go down.
PJ: Exactly. I mean, if we were to take it too seriously, I think we'd be this super-murderous gothic band, you know? And that's not really how we are. We like darker music, we like frank, emotional music, but at the same time we're not crying all day long.
PM: Which is something you really can tell if you watch the video for "Did You Wonder." It's hilarious because it's Dimitri getting his ass kicked the entire time, but that's also what makes it sad.
PJ: Yeah, that whole song is about just having a really shitty day, going through shitty things but in a funny way.
PM: So talk about the upcoming DVD. Does he get his ass kicked for the entire film?
PJ: He's the main character of the movie. That video doesn't really explain the movie too much because that just one little segment where he's having a bad day. The movie is a murder mystery about this character Luigi, who has all this crazy shit happen to him.
PM: How did you assemble the cast? Was it just a bunch of your friends?
PJ: Yeah, a bunch of friends and some different people we know. Like Dave Sheridan, the bully in the video, who also plays the neighbor and the cholo. He's a friend of ours, an actor who works out in LA and has been in different movies.We asked for favors from friends we thought would be good for different things.
PM: How did you come up with the concept? Did you have the visual idea as you were recording the album, or did it come afterwards?
PJ: It came as more of a response to making the record. As we were sequencing and finishing up the last bit of recording, I started seeing the order of the songs as a story with imagery, so I figured it all out, basically each song being a chapter or a bunch of imagery.
PM: It fees like a concept album, and reminded me a lot of Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon.
PJ: I always kind of look at records like that: imagery and connection, leaving clues and room for people to imagine. A fun part of music is allowing that in a record, like buying a book that you haven't read yet and can't wait to read. Or buying a puzzle that you want to put together. Rather than buying a record and having it all spelled out for you. I like to leave some it for you to dig into and figure out. It's the same as playing live. A lot of live shows represent the record. "OK, we're showing you our record and what we've done; we're playing it live." But I like to look at a live show as "We're going to make a painting for you" or "We're going to make something on the spot." Sure we'll play our songs, but I like to feel that things are being created at the moment, not just regurgitated.
PM: That seems to go along with what you and Toby have put together over the course of Black Heart, where it's about more than just one discipline. There's music and painting and film and poetry. You were even writing a book at one time. So when you enter into Black Heart's realm, you're entering into a surround sound artistic experience rather than just hearing a song from an album.
PJ: Yeah, I think of art more as a concept, an idea, a thought or an action. Something you're doing more than just being in a rock band or whatever. And I love rock bands, you know? I'm not saying that's not a good way to do things. But where I feel comfortable creating is just in a different place than that. I want to do something that pushes myself and is to some degree different from anything going on.
PM: Is the move into film a natural progression for you? Do you have the directing bug now?
PJ: I don't know. It was a fun experience, but we're not done yet so I still have to finish it up. But I've always wanted to do something like this; I've just never had the right story. Once I did the draft of the movie, I said. "OK, if I don't do it, it's not going to happen." So I just did it. I got a small production company to help me figure out how to organize the whole thing, set up a schedule and everything. I'm the type of person that loves to really focus -- I'll do anything to try and make it happen -- and that's kind of how it was. So now it's shot; we're just finishing the editing. It was such a learning experience, but the way we did it wasn't, like, super. I mean, it was planned out well -- we had a screenplay and had everybody involved -- but at the same time we didn't fill everybody in on the clues. So a lot of the actors didn't know why they were doing these things. That was kind of fun, you know? "Hey you're going to walk over there and pick this up and then you're going to come back here and then you're going to be going down here." We let people try and figure things out for themselves while we were doing it.
PM: Did anyone ask you, "What's my motivation, Pall? What's my motivation?"
PJ: Some people were like that, like, "I don't get it." So I'd have to explain what was going on. People knew that if they wanted to know, they could know. But since there's no dialogue and it's all about visuals, we just needed people to do certain movements.
PM: When is the DVD coming out?
PJ: Sometime this year. It's probably going to be about 70 minutes long and in the same order as the record. We'll put segues in there and connect things together with sound effects and stuff like that. I can't say exactly, but it'll probably run around 70 minutes.
PM: Do you guys have any plans to put anything else on DVD, like any concert footage, etc.?
PJ: Maybe. There's definitely going to be a bloopers reel and stuff like that, probably a video we did for the last record that nobody saw.
PM: I've been digging for videos for you guys, but I can't find any except for the newest one.
PJ: Yeah, there's one another one we did, and we have a newer one from this record but we're going to wait for the DVD for that. "Tropics of Love" is going to have a video that we'll be putting out soon. All the videos are connected to the film. That was the only way to do it and get it finished.
PM: So back to the album. Which songs on the album were rewarding in that sense of opening it up?
PJ: I would say "A Cry For Love" or "Tropics of Love." "A Cry For Love" is probably the most lyrically and vocally challenging. Having the backup singers was rewarding in a way. "Fingerprints" is another; I've never done a song like that before, that kind of a Serge Gainsbourg gypsy disco thing. It's really funny, but it also has this real creepy feeling. Like irate housewives, you know? While they were singing, I kept telling the girls pretend that they were pissed-off housewives. "You haven't been out of the house in days!" Something like that.
PM: You'll make a great director, Pall. Any other songs? "Sign on the Road" stands out for me.
PJ: That one too. That's probably the other one. I liked playing that one and I like the recording. I recorded the kick drum for that by miking a filing cabinet, so that the air of the kick drum is making the cabinet move. And the slide guitar is really nice.
PM: The band seems to have a core group of four, but with each album you grab an extra two or three people. You'll have a full orchestra complement soon.
PJ: (Laughs) Yeah, I keep trying to convince Toby to do a 10-piece tour. They're like, "You're crazy, we'll go broke."
PM: Speaking of going broke, you built your own studio.
PJ: Yeah, it's in my house. It's nothing extravagant or anything. We don't make a ton of money, but we make enough to pay our rent and keep touring and going if we work hard. So it's definitely not some amazing amount of money. But I'm happy and totally appreciative to make music, put out records and have people respond to them. I think it's a really cool thing in the end to see a CD of something you've made. That's one of the main reasons why I play music: to see a record that documents part of my life or my thoughts. And then on top of that, to be working with a label like Touch and Go, who is just great. I've been buying their records for so long and just really admire their company and their aesthetic, as far as having no contracts and 50/50 split. The people who work there are great. So I feel fortunate to be in the position we're in.
PM: Right. With a deal like the one that Touch and Go offers, you get to reinvest in a studio which in turn makes it easier for you to create in the future. Does having all this technology on hand allow you guys to follow whatever muse hits you whenver it hits?
PJ: Yes, exactly. When we were talking about doing the album, we had our reservations. Like, "OK, should we go to another studio and have a producer and an engineer work with us?" And the idea to buy our own equipment and do it all ourselves came up. Because we produced our other records with engineers, and I really wanted to learn how to use the equipment. So I talked to Cory, the owner of Touch and Go, and told him my ideas. And he had the same reservations we had -- we didn't want to turn in a worse record, we didn't want to suddenly record our own crappy CD -- but wanted to get good equipment and focus on making a record that sounded equally as good as our other ones, if not better. And he was super-supportive. It's so cool to work with somebody like that, who can see the upside of a band owning their equipment and being able to create when they want to create and having the time to create without the pressure of being in somebody else's studio. It's just good to have somebody like that supporting you.
PM: How was it working with Isaac Brock on Ugly Cassanova?
PJ: Oh, that was really cool. He came down, we drank a bunch of beer and stayed up until like 8AM and recorded two songs, "So Long to the Holidays" and "Pacifico."
PM: Not like you need another project, but have you guys talked about working together again?
PJ: We've talked about it, yeah. We said it would cool to write some more songs together, but he's got Modest Mouse and Ugly Cassanova and I've got this going on. Maybe some point down the road we will.
PM: The consensus seems to be that this is Black Heart's best album. So with that and the fact that you have the DVD coming up, where does this put Three Mile Pilot? Does it push that band farther back on the burner?
PJ: Well, I know that everybody involved in Three Mile Pilot definitely wants to make another record. We're all still great friends and the only issue is finding a time when we can really get together. Because they've got Pinback going and we have Black Heart going and everyone's pretty busy. We've gotten together a few times, but it's just never been long enough to get stuff done. We have about six songs partially recorded. But we really want to get together and make a record that is satisfying to all of us, not something to just fulfill that need of finishing a Three Mile Pilot record. So we decided not to put a time frame on it. We'll get together sometime and get this next record done for Three Mile Pilot, but we just don't know when.
PM: Then you've got the fact that your musical styles are so different now from what they were on the last album.
PJ: That's the other tricky thing. When we have gotten together, it's like we've drifted so far . . . I don't want to say apart, but just exploring in different areas. Pinback is doing their thing and Black Heart is doing our thing and they're pretty different, you know? You would have no idea that they were once one family called Three Mile Pilot. It's kind of strange, but I think all that has to happen is we have to be in one room long enough together. Because we're all such good friends and we know how to make music together. I'm sure it'll happen once we're in a room long enough. We don't want to tell people it's over yet, you know? We still do want to do it. We just don't want it to be forced. We want it to be a natural thing.
PM: When you guys have gotten together, has your sound taken a completely different turn? Each new Three Mile album went into unchartered territory.
PJ: Yeah, I think that's the same. There was some different kind of stuff going on. We really didn't . . . it's hard to say really, you know? It had a definite Three Mile Pilot feel, because something happens when you put all of us in the same room that's different than any of the projects we're doing. So we want Three Mile Pilot to have it's own thing going on; we don't want it to be like Pinback or Black Heart. That's a harder question to answer. We'll have to see how it goes.