Shoegaze pioneers look back

It must be a strange feeling.

Phoned up, out of blue by a journalist in Scotland (is that North of London?) to talk about a band you left behind some twenty years ago. Formed as a side project, Washington DC based shoegaze group Black Tambourine seemed to tap into something deeply personal leaving their mark on the indie landscape.

Recorded a mere ten songs, their back catalogue is brief to the extent of seeming blunt. Black Tambourine's mixture of noise pop, vintage Motown and more gave their output a power which belies their record sales.

Bastions of the early Slumberland scene, Black Tambourine have been picked up by a new breed of shoegaze influenced acts. Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts combined with half the population of Brooklyn seem to be listening to the band with a new retrospective emptying the vaults.

ClashMusic caught up with erstwhile guitarist Brian Nelson to talk about Black Tambourine's enduring appeal...

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There is a story that Black Tambourine initially started as a side project – is that correct?
It was pretty much a side project. At the time I was in a band called Whorl, and Archie (Moore) was in Velocity Girl. When we started Pam (Berry) was overseas, doing her post-college travelling time. She wasn’t in any bands at the time, so when we started it was a side project for all of us, but we’d been in communication with Pam saying: “when you come back you’re gonna be in our band”. She sorted of agreed.

How did the Washington DC indie pop scene develop?
We had a group of friends who all met in college and all fell into a similar taste in music. I have to admit that Mike (Schulman) – who now runs Slumberland – he really picked up on British bands, the likes of Postcard Records, Creation and really made myself and some of our other friends aware of this stuff. He was the catalyst, and we fell in love with the records and the sounds. It came out of that. We were all friends who liked this music, so eventually we pieced together the influences and began trying to make our own. We loved that music but we weren’t hearing it anywhere and it was hard to find – those records were like treasured jewels to us! Maybe it was just because we couldn’t get enough of it that we had to make it ourselves.

Was this an Anglophile streak then? Did you consciously look to Britain to get away from the nascent grunge scene?
It was a little before grunge, we were just getting into this stuff during the late 80s a little before Nirvana broke. It was formative years for us, in terms of our tastes. We always knew of American bands like Beat Happening, Galaxie 500, The Feelies – any of those bands were also hugely influential to us. But there wasn’t anybody doing the type of thing that Creation Records, eventually Sarah Records were doing over here in the States. Once we had picked up on them those records were so good and it was so hard to find them that we started to form bands who were doing the same type of thing. So it wasn’t necessarily a conscious Anglophile thing, in that we weren’t trying to copy the way British bands sounded – Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo and things equally influenced us like that.

Black Tambourine - For Ex Lovers Only

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Black Tambourine have a definite bubblegum pop influence, how did that come into play?
I think we were all sort of Motown, doo wop fans as well. Again I think Mike was the taste maker for us in many ways. When he grew up his dad had a huge record collection from the 60s, and I think that’s how he got into music. He would just listen to those seven inches, and his dad had a lot of Motown, doo wop singles. Most of that aspect of our sound came out of Mike coming up with riffs and guitar bits that reflected that type of music. But as well, The Jesus And Mary Chain were an enormous influence on us and they took a lot from the girl group, 60s sound. They could carry that 60s sound with a lot of noise and distortion, and we just wanted to do the same thing.

The band only play a handful of shows. Why was this, and what were the gigs actually like?
The shows were sparsely attended! Very few shows. At the time, it wasn’t necessarily easy to get shows, we were lucky in that we had a club in DC called Deepsea Stage and they were really great in that you could almost just book the space and play your show. A lot of the early Slumberland bands played there, I mean we played there a lot. We also managed to get a couple of college radio shows, as well as a few shows out of town. Again the band was a side project to a certain degree. We all had other bands and other involvements going on as well. We didn’t always have a whole lot of time to practice for shows. The whole notion of going on tour was very alien to us, we were doing this on our own so we didn’t have the backing of a label behind us to get the records out and do any sort of touring. Playing shows kind of happened when it happened, and we were happy to play them we just didn’t pull that many off.

How did you promote records and shows? Was there an underground network of shoegaze fans?
It was kind of like that. We knew pockets of people here and there in other cities. When we started Mike worked at a record store in Maryland called ‘Vinyl Inc’. It was through this record store that he began working up contacts with distributors, and other sorts of people who could help get a record out. Once he had done that we could get it disseminated through fanzines or through going on tour. We established friendships, contacts with other bands that helped us figure out where the best place to send the records was – where they actually sell.

Why did the band split up in the end?
It’s kind of easy to me with the benefit of 20 years of time, but we kind of just stopped doing it. I joined Velocity Girl with Archie, and we eventually got signed to Sub Pop Records. Mike got more involved with Slumberland, the label really picks up and he started putting out records by out of town bands. It didn’t really leave a lot of time for practices and then shows. What we recorded was just our material at the time, so we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to write more. We were all kind of pushing our energies in different ways. It wasn’t a conscious “this is it, we’re done” it just stopped.

Black Tabourine - By Tomorrow

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Black Tambourine then have this curious second life, developing a cult following. Did this surprise you?
Yes! It surprised me very much. Even now, a decade or so later there’s a lot of bands in Brooklyn – Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts – who get compared the Black Tambourine and some of those bands are referencing it as something they listen to. It’s very flattering to think that we are – at least in the conscious of the critics, if not the bands – part of the stepping stones along the way. Although I definitely think that a lot of those bands are more influenced by the same people we were, rather than by Black Tambourine. We share the same aesthetic. I don’t necessarily think that we were some pivotal group, but nonetheless it’s very flattering to be mentioned alongside a lot of cool new bands.

Is there anything else left in the cupboard that is yet to be re-issued?
Nothing that we deemed releasable. We have some live shows that we recorded on cassette, and some demos, but we don’t want to put stuff like that out. This isn’t Neil Young’s ‘Archives’ – we’re not going to throw everything out warts and all, we only want people to hear the best stuff. Anything that is not out, it is unlikely that it will be released as it is embarrassing for us for one reason or another.

The band go on to have these varied careers, is that period in Black Tambourine something which stuck in your own minds?
Yeah. I was always very happy with all of our recordings and our aesthetic. I felt we had an idea about what we wanted the band to be, and we came closest to achieving that- at least on record. The records aren’t especially well recorded or anything, they’re just underground lo-fi recordings, but I think we kind of nailed the sound we had in our head. For that alone I would remember it. Having been involved with plenty of other records I can tell you how hard that is! I’m really happy with it, it was very fulfilling to have an actual package of songs. In retrospect perhaps it’s better that we didn’t go on to put out a bunch of bad records.

Black Tambourine - Throw Aggi Off The Bridge

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Black Tambourine's new retrospective 'For Ex Lovers Only' is out now

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