Swagger Rock: An Interview with Black Pistol Fire


Black Pistol Fire doesn’t seem to give a shit about any of the standard questions about whether the music they’re creating is fashionable. Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen are two guys who know exactly who they are, for better or worse. They play bluesy rock n’ roll that sounds like The White Stripes and The Black Keys. It’s what they know and it’s what they like. They left Canada because there wasn’t enough Rock N’ Roll for them there, and they haven’t looked back.

Hush or Howl is BPF’s 3rd album, and while it’s obviously not much of a departure for this singularly-minded band, it’s definitely more accomplished. Tighter. Catchier. More dynamic. From the opening hand-clap-stomp salvo of “Alabama Coldcock” to the banjo-led momentum building of “Your Turn to Cry”–– you’ve got eleven 2 ½ minute songs that could all be singles or backing tracks for the next CBS detective drama (“Not so fast, perp.”*lowers sunglasses* “Today it’s Your Turn to Cry”).

Which is why it won’t surprise you that Black Pistol Fire’s primary sustenance these days comes from licensing royalties (you may have heard them on NBC’s About a Boy or The Blacklist.) We spoke to BPF about navigating the perilous waters of licensing, as well as their Canadian origins, the recording process for Hush or Howl and more in this epic interview.

On Life As a Duo

Eric Owen: Financially, life as a duo sometimes works a lot better.

Kevin McKeown: And it’s easier to manage – two people as opposed to four — and decisions are a lot easier.

Matthew Hall for Ovrld: Are you ever tempted to add on anybody to the band?

KM: No. Not to this band, but maybe down the road. If we did, it would be under a different band name.

EO: Black Pistol Fire is just the two of us.

Ovrld: That’s part of the whole brand.

EO: That’s a huge part of it. But it’s gotta be the right person musically, and also I think socially. You don’t wanna play with someone you hate. You have to have musical chemistry for you to do it, and social chemistry.

KM: I think for me, I don’t know about Eric, but I think, you know, there are times that I miss it. I miss having another element to fill out the sound, or for an idea for a song, you’ll think it will really work well in two-part. But it’s like, no, that’s not gonna work, so let’s try to figure out what’s gonna work for the two of us.

EO: Which is good, ‘cause you’re always kind of confined in this box and you gotta get creative with it.

On Songwriting/Process/Motivation

Ovrld: I wanna talk a little about song-writing. What’s your process? It seems to me that you’re a pretty riff-driven band. You come up with a nice lick and then you build a song off that. Is that a fair assumption, or do you guys start somewhere else?

KM: A little bit of everything. You know, when we first started out, it was a lot of getting in the room in the garage and then just jamming; and then letting stuff come naturally and piecing it together later, then making sure it’s all whole.

EO: Take a piece from [the jam], and maybe do something else.

Ovrld: You record those?

EO: Yeah, on my shitty phone, but usually Kevin remembers it.

KM: Yeah, I remember all that stuff. Some other times I’d be sitting at home, and then I’ll have an idea for a song, and then you get all the parts but when you go and play it, some part’s not working. I mean, “Dimestore Heartthrob,” there’s a new record that went through several incarnations.

EO: Yeah. That song “Dimestore Heartthrob,” which is getting played on KUTX right now, there’s three totally different versions of that song out there…What is the one thing that carried that song, what is the thread of that song? Just the name or I guess, the lyrics?

KM: Yeah, the name and a few little lyrics.

EO: A few lyrics, yeah.

KM: But the melody was changed.

EO: The melody is not even close. The rhythm is not even close.

Ovrld: Do you ever start on acoustic and then go to electric?

KM: Yeah, most of the time. You know, if I’m just at home playing, it’s acoustic. That’s the thing too, you build up a catalog, an arsenal of ideas and riffs so that when you do go jam, sometimes they come out, and then you’re like, “Oh, that really worked well,” or you go back to the drawing board. For me it’s all about building an arsenal. You know, you had an idea like a month ago for a really cool bridge, so you see how it works with this new song you’re working on…

Ovrld: Was there something that sets this record apart or was it more, “We make music all the time. Whenever we have a batch of ten good enough songs, we make a record…”

EO: Yeah, that’s kind of a fair assessment. I mean, we always wanna be recording and producing music…you’re only as good as your last recording. People get bored with stuff…We wanted to really make a statement and this is the record that Kevin and I came to play. Hush or Howl– which Kevin came up with– there’s two ways of looking at it, like the hushed and softer songs versus the howl of the louder songs. [Or] it’s either put up or shut up. We just really wanted to make a mark and we were getting…not frustrated but…maybe frustrated…but it’s just wanting things to progress more than they have and that is the statement for this record.

On Success/Money/Licensing

KM: You always have to keep moving, you always have to have something going. Especially when you have a really good team, as we do now, a sync team, a licensing team, it really helps. We figured out a while back that it’s gonna be really hard to break through the scene just by trucking away. We’ve been fortunate to have some licensing, you know, some commercials, TV shows, stuff like that. And unfortunately, that’s the way that you really get through to the mainstream. So the more material you have, the more chances that something’s gonna get heard.

Ovrld: That’s a really interesting commentary on where the music scene is right now.

EO: That’s how we’ve survived.

KM: Really, yeah. If it wasn’t for a couple syncs we landed, we’d probably have to get day jobs, and who knows if we still like…

EO: Probably wouldn’t be in Austin.

Ovrld: But it begs the question: when you are writing music, are you thinking this would make a good commercial spot? Have you crossed the chasm to jingle writing?

KM: You know what, we didn’t really start getting serious syncs until… well, we got some really big ones off the first record and the second record was kind of like an organic thing, we just had the songs and we recorded…Then with this, the new record, it was like we wanted to make a statement and we wanted to make the songs as good as possible, of course, but in the back of your head, you’re always thinking [about it],especially when it comes to lyrics. I’m always very cinematic. I have a story in my head…and you could definitely see where a song might go in a commercial or movies but, that’s not what the goal is.

EO: Especially in our type of music, the songs that get synced are mainly for the sound. Wouldn’t you say?

KM: Yeah.

EO: It’s like, ‘oh it’s like a…’

Ovrld: The aesthetic.

EO: We’ve learned it’s the term “swagger rock.”

Ovrld: Oh god [laughs].

EO: We didn’t know that.

Ovrld: Sounds awful [laughs].

EO: It’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, almost, like at a pub. Stuff that kinda makes you wanna move and tap your toes and shit.

Ovrld: Is the “Howl” part of the record a direct reference to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club?

Both: No!

KM: It’s one of my favorite records.

EO: I love that record.

Back to the Recording Process

Ovrld: For the recording process [for Hush or Howl], was it significantly different? Do you guys stick to a pattern for the recording process?

EO: This one’s way different. It’s the first one we did in Austin, so we had the comforts of home when we weren’t recording.

Ovrld: The other ones were in Detroit?

EO: We did one in Toronto, but that…was really pieced together, like, a day here and like a couple months later, two days there, something like that. This one is the first one where we booked four days in a row, and we did it. Then there was one day a couple months later, but it was the most time we’ve ever had in a studio for sure.

Ovrld: Oh, really?

EO: Yeah. We’ve never done that. The first one was two days I think, plus the day of mixing.

KM: That was funny. We recorded this record last year in April, but…six months prior to that, we went back to Detroit and we recorded 12, 13 songs, and a lot of those songs are on the new record but we just kind of tightened screws. We just didn’t really like the production.

EO: It sounded horrible.

KM: So we recorded all these songs and then we were more happy with the way we recorded it in Austin.

Ovrld: But it’s the same record?

KM: There were some songs that didn’t make the cut but…

EO: And there were ones that were done later, too, that weren’t around for that first session.

KM: Yeah, but that’s what happens. The longer you have to sit with a song before the release, the more it starts to change. “I don’t like this, I don’t like that.”

Ovrld: That’s fun to me. A song is this living, breathing thing up until the point you record it and then you have to play it the same way a million times. Jam bands don’t have this problem ‘cause they’re changing it all the time.

EO: We love jam bands, we appreciate that. There’s a lot of improv in our shows. There’s no song that I think we’re sick of.

KM: No, no. We keep it interesting for us, like we will play the song but like in the middle, we’d probably play a jam, a cover, or something, and then bring it back to the end of the song. Just so it’s a little more fun every time we get to play…

EO: If you play the same way every night, there’ll be probably no mistakes, or maybe very few, but then it will get boring.

On Canada

Ovrld: How often do you guys go back to Toronto now?

KM: I go back every Christmas. I try to. And then usually, if I had it my way, I’d go back in the summer for like a couple of weeks. It’s gorgeous.

EO: We also have to for visas.

Ovrld: I read that the reason y’all left there was that while there were other music scenes going on, there really weren’t any that fit you. Like, there wasn’t a solid rock n’ roll, blues, garage type of thing.

KM: And there still isn’t.

Ovrld: There still isn’t?

KM: Well, I don’t know. We didn’t really seek it, but when we were playing in Toronto, there wasn’t a lot of gritty, dirty, garage bands going on.

EO: The music industry there is very cliquey in a really weird way, and we’ve always been in the periphery, on the outside looking in. It was always tough; and even when we go back, still.

KM: In Canada, it feels like we’re still trying to prove something. I feel like we’re still trying to beat somebody over the head and it’s like “Check us out. Listen to this. This is what we’re trying to do.” Whereas in Austin, I feel like from the get go, they were always kinda like, “Yeah! Welcome. Welcome guys. We totally dig you.” That’s the way it felt.

Ovrld: Do you guys think that your sound is Canadian? Is there any identity there at all?

EO: No. I don’t think so.

KM: No. I mean, the fact that we’re Canadian, that’s about it…I have very strange feelings when I think about Canadian music, ‘cause we grew up with all that stuff.

EO: I don’t think there’s any [Canadian] band that would typically identify as the influences of this band. Can you think of anything Kev, aside from Neil [Young]?

KM: No, Neil Young is about it…it’s not that there aren’t any good ones, like Sam Roberts and Metric. They’re both really cool, but did they really influence us? I don’t think so.

EO: I like Sheepdogs too but…

Ovrld: I could just be off on this–– I have this theory that like, you know, there’s something about Canadians, they’re far enough away from the South that they can actually build this kind of romance about it…

KM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ovrld: …so Neil Young, for sure, The Band  is from Toronto, and they wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” that’s kind of ridiculous…

EO: Oh, yeah. I had fantasies when I was a teenager of living in the South. I mean, I have family in North Carolina which is kind of a different South than Texas, but I always had fantasies of living in the South, I don’t know why. Yeah, you’re right. It’s like I wrote this romance about the South and who knows why.

Ovrld: Americans actually don’t have that I don’t think. Like if you were from New York, if you’re from Boston, you want no part of the South. But if you’re from a place that has a little bit of objective distance, you’re like, ‘Yeah, there’s some cool shit going down there.’

KM: The kind of music that we really appreciate…if you like a lot of that early roots, R&B, and black rock n’ roll, all that stuff, the birthplace of all that stuff was in the South. When you get down to the bare bones of it, everybody knows that’s where it’s all coming from. Even the English rock stars back in the ‘60s all come from that background.

On The Austin Music Scene

Ovrld: Who do you guys dig in Austin right now?

EO: Black Joe Lewis, man. When we played the Baton Rouge Blues Fest with him, he was so badass. Great show, new album’s really, really cool. Really gnarly, nasty, rock stuff. Definitely him. Always been a big fan of Guy Forsyth, [he was] one of the first people I saw, he’s one of the best performers, I think, that you can see. He’s very versatile, and just beautiful and haunting but then he could show you some slide and some killer blues. I really like him, and if we ever got to a point where we could pick someone to take on tour, I’d love to take him.

Ovrld: Favorite venue in Austin?

KM: This one [Stubbs]. Always great sound. Used to love to play at Hole in the Wall back in the day.

EO: Favorite venue to play, or favorite venue to see a show?

Ovrld: Both.

EO: Favorite venue to play, probably here, Stubbs. The sound is always really good, both in and out. I mean, Mohawk’s also really cool.

Back to Influences/Direction

Ovrld: Where do you see your sound going from here. Anywhere we wouldn’t expect?

KM: Hard to say, because we just released this record, but I know for a fact that for the next thing we do, there’s gotta be something else. I don’t think I’d wanna go and make another trashy, garage record. We’ll still play rock n’ roll but you know, I think we wanna just keep rolling and try to tackle some other genres, maybe. Roots and, not so much folk, but I think we both commonly love that. Maybe even a reggae record at some point. I realize that we’re not supposed to do a reggae record, but I think that will be a cool thing to do.

EO: Only if it’s dance hall reggae.

Ovrld: Do the influences of this record differ dramatically from any other records? Is there anything you were really into while you were recording this?

EO: Ty Segall maybe?

KM: I don’t know, man, I listen to a lot of things. But it’s funny, ‘cause this record was done in pieces so some of these songs are like a year old so there’s a lot of music I listen to in a year, but I remember getting really into a lot of that garage rock that’s coming out, like Thee Oh Sees.

EO: That Oh Sees record is wicked.

KM: Yeah. Floating Coffin. I was really rocking that hard.

EO: Aren’t you still?

Black Pistol Fire are performing this Saturday, May 10th, with Wolfmother at Emo’s.