Erenlai - Headphones required: John McBain's psychedelic guitar

Headphones required: John McBain's psychedelic guitar

by on Tuesday, 23 October 2012 Comments

Finding a decent picture of John McBain is not easy. I'm not talking about John McBain from General Hospital or The Simpsons' Teutonic action-man McBain. The net is awash with their likenesses. And don't get me started on John McCain. He can stay in 2008.

The John McBain I am sharing with you here is an American underground guitar hero. So underground not only have you never heard of him, you can't easily find his likeness online.

Through the series of videos and commentary below you will be able to chart McBain's evolution from psyching it up in New Jersey's most THC encrusted basements to soloing in Seattle's grunge supergroups, from jamming in the desert with Josh Homme to laying down some of the most subtly dense recordings of modern times.

He may not be famous, but McBain has managed to play an important part in a number of emerging scenes over the last 20 years. And just as these scenes threatened to get huge, McBain either walked away or was passed over. It is not always easy to distil McBain's influence in each of the acts he has played with although there is a common thread: an unremitting commitment to explore the possibilities of psychedelic rock.

I cannot pretend to have heard every McBain track nor am I overly familiar with his life and ideas. The obscurity of work makes such biographical details all the more difficult to find. But this is just reason why the world needs to be introduced to John McBain and his psych guitar. Through his work we can track a path across the margins of American alternative music. And the best way to assess a figure such as McBain is through what he does best - play the guitar.

It's a satanic drug thing...

Having played in a string of garage projects in late 80s New Jersey, McBain and his buddies hooked up with "Dave Brock lookalike" Dave Wyndorf and started getting some local attention gigging as Monster Magnet.

Monster Magnet is still chugging on at venues around the world, turning out ever more processed and unimaginative albums. Some would say that in spite of the band's rise to mid-90s alt fame and a fleeting flirtation with mainstream success in the late 90s, Magnet's best days where when McBain was part of the set up. Two 1991 recordings characterise this era: Tab and Spine of God.

The Tab EP is notable for the track ‘Tab…’, a 32 minute trance-inducing meditation on the realms of analog recording. Held together by a metronomic bass and drum loop, Monster Magnet seemed to want to make ‘Tab…’ as trippy as possible. McBain's rhythm guitar floats around Wyndorf's processed vocals as all manner of distorted and indulgent sounds compete to be the most outrageous. A sound engineer at the time applauded this as "the return of drug rock" and I think he was right. This fuzzed out groove became one of the foundations of the dopily named ‘stoner rock’ sub sub genre.

More compact than Tab, Spine of God is no less extravagant in it's homage of 70s rock. Beginning with a flanged drum solo, Monster Magnet pays closer attention to the dynamics of song writing and the listener is rewarded. While ‘Ozium’ is cruisy and drawn out, the album's highlight is undoubtedly ‘Spine of God’. Centred on a hypnotic guitar riff, ‘Spine of God’ rises from the slightly paranoid medina of the verse to the crunch and roar of the epic chorus. All cloaked in unapologetically acid-soaked histrionics.

Unfortunately as Monster Magnet's profile and responsibilities grew, McBain's discomfort grew too, and his anti-social behaviour led to his dismissal.

Following on an invitation from his friend and former tour mate, Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd, McBain moved to Seattle.

Sad McBain

Early 1990s Seattle is a place of myth. For a guitarist seeking respite from the pressures of rock ‘n’ roll, Seattle would not seem an obvious choice. In his time there, McBain lent his hand to some classic underground recordings. 1993's self-titled Hater was the first.

My friend gave me her copy of Hater because, in her words, “it was too country”. Compared to Soundgarden, perhaps. But compared to Garth Brooks, not at all. Hater has the feel of a bunch of talented guys letting loose from their grungy day jobs. Compact but loose, it is an enjoyable slice of early 90s alt rock. This track, ‘Sad McBain’, opens over a furious McBain solo while vocalist Matt Cameron reels off what seem to be a collection of McBain’s notable sayings. Notably, “LA rock sucks”.

The Evil McBain

The Desert Sessions series of albums are best know as Josh Homme and a bunch of his mates jamming in the California desert from 1995 onwards. The project's evolving sound reflects its revolving membership and, unfortunately, is a bit hit and miss.

While most albums see Homme and his merry men making punch tunes punctuated by wacky interludes, it is on Vol.1 and Vol.2 where they take off in space rock mode. No doubt due to McBain's presence. These were Josh Homme's first easily available post-Kyuss recordings and it is one of the great shames of modern rock that McBain and Homme didn't collaborate more. These recordings easily fit into the “robot rock” mould of early Queens of the Stoneage, where driving fuzzed out guitars are well complemented by soaring analogue keyboards. Initially released on vinyl, Vol.1 And Vol.2 were compiled on a CD released by the late Man’s Ruin label. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can listen to the full EPs here:

Escrito por Homme/McBain

For those who got past the "features former members of Kyuss" sticker on the cover perused the liner notes of the self-titled Queens of the Stoneage LP, a line in Spanish might have caught his or her eye:

Escritas pr Queens Of The Stoneage Exepto por 'Juan Regular' Escrito por Homme/McBain/Bomb The Sun

McBain and Homme's collaboration on ‘Regular John’ is the epitome of Homme's then oft-quoted “robot rock” and yet possibly typified his desire to make music that "Girls want to dance to". The tight riffing floats over the bouncing beats of drummer Alfredo Hernandez. As big beat electronica was wooing punters across America, Queens of the Stoneage were returning a dancing groove to rock at the end of a somber decade of grunge bookended by the twin inanities of hair metal and rap-rock. John McBain only helped out on ‘Regular John’ but this song remains a QOTSA live staple to this day:

In an interview from 2006, McBain noted :

I`m not interested in fame. Music is an outlet for me that I appreciate and take very seriously. It`s a really personal part of my life. I make music for myself. And I`ve seen too many "famous" friends of mine either completely fall apart physically and spiritually from the pressures of the "music biz" or transform into ego driven assholes. And in every case their music suffered. No exceptions.

Importantly, McBain’s anonyminity is in contrast to his friends and former bandmates from groups such as Monster Magnet, Soundgarden and QOTSA. This quote pointedly decries the pressures of fame.

John Paul McBain

Releasing four albums of garage-psych between 1997 and 2003, it remains a mystery how Wellwater Conspiracy didn't capture the imagination of rock fans. Remember, it was in the early 00s that “rock was reborn”, as retro-tinged bands such as The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines and the The Hives all released popular albums that played around with the meat and potatoes templates of garage rock. However, none did it as well Wellwater Conspiracy. If only they added a 'The' to their name, fame and alt-adulation could have been theirs.

‘Sleeveless’ from their first album is McBain's favourite and perfectly encapsulates Wellwater Conspiracy's twin muses of the freakbeat and 60s psychedelia, infused by the vision and experience of these Seattle grunge survivors.

Asides from the Soundgarden rhythm section (and fellow Hater and Desert Session collaborators) of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, the Wellwater Conspiracy was joined at times by Josh Homme, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and other Seattle Musicians.

Centaur Of The Sun

Undoubtedly his crowning achievement, The In-Flight Feature (2006) is a cornucopia of stereo textures and warm wah-wah work. Utilising all the available effects of the studio and drawing on his years of experience, McBain crafted a delightful excursion into the potential of sound. Ten tracks long (with three bonus tracks), the echoes, tremolos and drones of The In-Flight Feature evoke the comfort and indulgence that the album's title alludes to while not getting bogged in retro trimmings. I recall reading at the time that McBain expressed interest in soundtrack and production work. If that's the case, then this is the best business card on offer. It is decidedly fresh. All the songs are brilliant but I shall include this one as it the fan made clip was endorsed by none other than McBain (see the video's comments)

Carlton Melton

This most recent (2012) recording offers the latest McBain incarnation. Jamming with the grizzled looking San Francisco three-piece Carlton Melton (who I amusing saw referenced as "psych lifers"), McBain adds some layers of fuzz and overdrive to what amounts to a heavier and more sprawling continuation of the ambience of The In-Flight Feature. This vinyl-only release is fortunately available on YouTube:

Myth making is integral to rock. Much of the time it is unfounded, as in reality the artists neither have the skill or charisma to warrant such adulation. However, the sublime and sustained guitar work of John McBain is enough to generate an aura of respect, if not a myth of its own.

Whether he was behind the times or ahead of them, for the most part John McBain remains part of none of them. To this end, he exists as a footnote in the annals of alternative rock. It is fitting that for a man who worships the underground sound, it is in relative obscurity that he will remain. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for the future.

I’m not really sure what McBain is doing these days. Fingers crossed that he is bunkered down in his studio and laying down tracks for some more epic sonic excursions.

(Photo by Boolve under Creative Commons License)

 

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

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