Leading up until the Upstream Music Fest + Summit, a Northwest regionally focused festival with over 300 acts, KEXP will be featuring a new local artist from the lineup with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. Today’s post features Seattle rock and roll trio The Black Tones, performing Saturday, May 13 on the Rain City Rock Camp stage at 7 p.m.
Calling a group "rock and roll" in 2017 may spur more questions. "What type of rock music?", "What subgenre would you label them as?", "Are they a throwback act?", etc. But there's a reason to call The Black Tones rock and roll without calling them a throwback. With a mind for the delta blues and a deeply Northwestern-punk aggression, they've created a visceral and immediate sound that's hard to not be invigorated by. Last year the trio put out their debut EP, Mr. Mines, offering a primer for the propulsive riffs and rhythms that make their live performances so thrilling. We chatted with the band about their familial bond, and how "there's nothing more punk rock than being black."With Eva and Cedric being siblings, how does that effect the dynamic of the band? Did you grow up in a musical household?
Cedric: Us being twins and having such a close bond the effect is wonderful. I couldn’t image being in a band with anyone else. Eva helps me become a better musician every time we practice and every time we step on stage together. My job is to lift her as high as I can as her drummer. As for the family background growing up I played trumpet in middle school then I switched to the steel drums in High school. My mom was a dancer and so was Eva actually. My mom and grandparents definitely told us to pursue whatever we had our hearts set on.
Eva: Playing in a band with my twin brother is the best decision I ever made. We get along like best friends, argue like siblings, and love each other to the edge of the universe. Getting to create and perform together is a dream. Plus we have the best communication of anyone I’ve ever played with. We don’t come from a family of musicians per say, however they played music all the time. My old sister especially was always putting on my mom’s vinyl records and we would listen and sing along to the 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and my grandparents were really into really early jazz and swing. Yes, my mom was a dancer and educator and she got me into dancing when I was 8 years old. I use to be a tap dancer in a dance company called TTAAP Central and have shared stages with people like Savior Glover, Ernest “Brownie” Brown, Jeni Legon, Chester Whitmore, Norma Miller, Skip Cunningham, the list goes on.... We would do big shows and travel, dancing in venues in New York City at 12 years old and such. I guess you could call it my introduction to show biz hahaha, but mostly to the variety of music I was exposed to as a kid through dance.
You’re from Seattle, but your family has ties in New Orleans. Could you speak a bit about how that region has impacted your style and sound? What Seattle spin do you think you put on those influences?
Eva: My siblings and I are full blown Northwesterners, but being raised by full blown southerners created this sort of half breed of soul and rebellion. I love the old school stuff, like Motown, old blues and folk music. I also really love classic rock, ya know, that British invasion stuff, which by the way was inspired by blues. I associate my grandparents with soul, warmth, and tradition and that definitely is reflected in our music. We don’t like to use a zillion chords in one song, we like to keep it simple and soulful, quite similar to my grandma’s kitchen.
Cedric: The New Orleans influence has a big impact on the music since our grandparents were a heavy influence on us. They would always play the blues and jazz at the house and it was something that we just grew up with. Now for us being born and raised in Seattle the rock seen has always been alive. Eva has definitely always taken to old blues and rock n roll, she was definitely my inspiration to start listening to classic blues and punk rock. I was always into the NW rock scene growing up before listening to the more older blues and punk, whether that had been Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, Alice In Chains, etc. So when you ask about the Seattle spin the southern blues comes from our grandparents influence and the punk I’d say comes from growing up in Seattle.
Alongside punk and blues, you’ve cited black power as being a dominant theme in the band. What made you want to fuse those three ideas together?
Cedric: Like my sister always says, “Well you can’t have rock and roll without blues, and you can’t have blues without black people”, so this isn’t anything I think that we are fusing together I just think it’s a reality that most people had forgot. So we are here to remind people of history.
Eva: History has been so diluted and white washed, that us being rockers is this odd thing to most folks. I’ve been told, “You’re so white for being a rocker!” or “Wait! YOU play rock music?” It’s unfortunate that history has continued to leave us out in a significate part of rock history. We hear about Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and we are told that’s how far our rock history goes. Kind of like when learning American history, we only learn about MLK and Rosa Parks, not that they weren’t important, there is just so much more history as well in this country. Not necessarily a great history of America, but A WHOLE LOT of history we don’t get to know about. But when the oppressor has the power to change history to reflect himself and those that look like him, we are pushed away, left out from all contributions we’ve made. There’s nothing more punk rock then being black. We’ve always had the odds against us. A white punk and a black punk walk into a used suit store. Both walk out and into a job interview. Who’s most likely to get the job? Both are punks, but one still and will always have their privilege. We fight to survive, we walk on eggshells, and we have more reasons to be rebellious and tired than any white punk does. Black is rock n roll, black is punk, black is tired, black is professional, black is black, black is infinite.
Your EP Mr. Mines features a Son House cover. The delta blues seem to be such a big part of your sound. What made you want to cover that song specifically and include it on the record?
Eva: I love Son House’s music. Listening to him is the closest thing to legit time travel to me. When I hear his voice I feel this instant connection to him and the times. The hurt, joy and passion in his voice is so convincing that I feel like he’s singling me out to either tell me a story, or give me some much needed advice. Son House also kind of looked like my grandpa hahaha, so I think that was another draw to him. “Grinnin’ in Your Face” was a song I learned from a woman in Port Townsend and the first song I projected my voice on. When she first sang it, I was blown anyway by the message and the style. I love that Son House has no other accompaniment but the clapping of his hands, it reminds me of old gospel and field songs. It is for sure one of my favorite songs and I love singing it. I want to honor legends of blues in my music and during live shows or on albums, because people should know about these folks.
I saw on Facebook you had a picture holding up a test pressing of some of your new music. Is this a pressing of old songs or do you have a new album in the works?
Eva: This was actually a test pressing for songs on Mr. Mines! We have only ever had our music online for download and such, but it has been a dream of ours to press on vinyl. We are already working on songs for the second album, but we will first release physical copies of Mr. Mines this year.
You’re playing the Rain City Rock Camp stage at Upstream and I noticed you’ve worked with School of Rock Seattle as well. As a band, do you intentionally put an emphasis on youth outreach and musical education? If so, how did that come about?
Eva: I love inspiring kids to rock, especially black kids who aren’t being exposed to rock n roll as a part of their history. We do this because we love it, but also, as a kid, my rock heroes were all white dudes and a handful of white women. I never saw myself. Now that I know some of this history that wasn’t being shown to me, and I want to be out of the blind spot and in the faces of young black girls and boys who may feel discouraged picking up a guitar, or drum sticks or a bass because they don’t think they have a place in the rock world their ancestors helped create and influence heavily. I currently work at School of Rock West Seattle, after I was inspired to get involved with the company from performing with the students of School of Rock Seattle. It’s a great company teaching kids rock n roll history and they get to perform on some pretty amazing stages. My mother worked with children most of her life, and I never really saw myself following in that direction, but since working at the school, it’s a choice I’m happy to have made. I can bring my own knowledge of blues and rock n roll to this environment and keep the history alive through my own voice. As well as when I’m not at the school and trying my best to honor that history with The Black Tones.
The Seattle rock 'n roll trio returns with an irascible, mostly instrumental meditation on being in the crosshairs of white supremacy.
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