Foreboding palls and incipient malevolence is singer guitarist Pall Jenkins' preferred shade, coating his band's muscular chamber roots with a gothic air. It's kind of like the electro-addled blues of Califone transplanted into Nick Cave's murky environs and given the ramshackle, wounded grace of a Tom Waits tune.
It isn't called The Black Heart Procession for nothing.
Now entering its 15th year and supporting its sixth full-length album, Six, the band has continued to evolve musically while remaining true to its gloomy, moribund vibe. Jenkins didn't set out to become the patron saint of ominous creep, it just sort of turned out that way organically, like the band itself. Over time, he's come to accept that this is what comes naturally, and he fully embraces that dark spirit on Six, the band's most harrowing, emotional album to date.
"The darker lyrical content and the dark music is stuff that naturally comes out of us. That being said, we don't walk around in latex and black makeup," Jenkins said. "I enjoy being happy and laughing with my friends, but it just seems like when I try to write music, it comes out more serious, and those are simply my times to be more serious."
Jenkins got together with bandmate Tobias Nathaniel in the mid-'90s. Jenkins' band, Three Mile Pilot, was signed to Atlantic and needed a keyboard player. The classically trained Nathaniel joined the indie rockers (which also featured Pinback frontman Zach Smith), but their time in the majors was fraught with conflict, and the pressures eventually broke up the band.
Nathaniel had moved in with Jenkins by this time, and during their downtime in the wake of the breakup wrote some songs that would become The Black Heart Procession's 1998 debut, 1. It developed almost completely without premeditation, with Nathaniel lending epic piano swoon to Jenkins' brooding, roots-tinged rock.
"It wasn't really thought out in this way that we were going to be a full-fledged band. We were living together and we started writing these songs and they came together so we [recorded them]," Jenkins said. "When we started this band we just wanted to make music and not question it, and that's kind of where we always return to. It's always nice to sell records and we want people to appreciate what we do under the theory of just doing what feels good. And if you have an idea, try it. If it doesn't sound good in the end, don't put it on the record."
That ethos has guided the band through a variety of sounds tied to its ever changing lineup, besides Nathaniel and Jenkins, and instrumentation. Violins, cellos, theremin--anything with a spooky sound might appear.
The experimentation reached an apogee with 2002's ambitious Amore Del Tropico, which adds a Latin air and lush strings to fashion a cinematic tale of love and murder.
The band pulled back to the core five-piece for 2006's political allegory, The Spell. And for its latest, BHP pulled back even further--to just Nathaniel and Jenkins--making music like they used to in the beginning. (Hence the return to the numerical album title conceit.)
Even more central to the album's tone is Jenkins' embrace of darkness. He promises, "I'm not leaving until I tear out your heart" on "Wasteland," gets down and dirty on the grimy, sewer-obsessed "Rats," and builds his own "Heaven and Hell" into a moody blues vamp like "I Put a Spell On You" as cast by Voldemort. However, Jenkins isn't down with fairy tale endings.
"I always felt like because we were dark, I had to give some sort of hope at the end," explained Jenkins. "With 6, I was, like, sometimes life just sucks and there isn't a positive answer. There isn't always hope at the end or a light at the end of the tunnel. I let that go and said, 'OK, the songs don't really have to have a closing lyrics or something of hope.' So for me, it was, 'OK, hopelessness.' We want it dark; we want it black."
Of course, two years of touring on an album full of rather dispiriting views of love and human nature isn't necessarily easy.
"I'm 41 years old, and heck, yeah, it's draining to get up there and express yourself in that way to people and be honest about it, day in and day out," Jenkins said. It's a challenge to perform darker, sadder music and still put on a show that has life to it and isn't just down the whole time.
"At the same time there's community to the fans and the people," he added. "We do know that they kind of get where we're coming from. A lot of people also feel a sense of camaraderie with depression or darker things, so I think sometimes our music actually makes people happy, believe it or not."
The Black Heart Procession is currently touring as a three-piece (guitar-keyboard-drums), something they haven't done in a while. The band reworked many of its songs for the new format, and Jenkins anticipates the lineup shaping their next creative effort.
"We want to take drums and percussion in kind of a new way," Jenkins said. "We had a lot of fun playing as a two-piece but still wanted to feel some rhythm there. ... I don't know if it's going to translate as much on this tour as maybe our next recording sessions."
The darkness of The Black Heart Procession may never change, but there's always a chiaroscuro of new shades to explore.[ Video is no longer available. ]