black pole revisits generation x alternative rock – interview

June 29, 2011
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Alternative music in the early ‘90s arguably had the biggest impact on American pop culture since the Baby Boomer generation. It was an exciting time when the Do It Yourself aesthetics of the punk generation 20 years prior helped inspire hungry artists and musicians to express themselves without restraint. Within Generation X were many independent local bands that gained popularity at home, but failed to attain a larger audience. Out of the historically turbulent Berkeley, CA emerged an all-black alternative rock band by the name of Black Pole, forming between late 1991 to early 1992 according to the band. It never saw the success that bands like Alice in Chains or Living Colour did, but it was just as intriguing and had just as much potential.

Contributor: Griff Fuller Jr.

Today, alt bands like TV on the Radio or The Roots, with predominately (if not all) black members are more accepted. But 20 years ago, to be black, alternative and playing rock music was rare on some level, despite the influence of eclectic artists like Parliament and Jimi Hendrix on the alternative music scene. In understanding alternative music and its place today, we must understand what it meant to the generation before. Sean, Andre, and Keith from Black Pole gave their personal insight in the interview that follows (the fourth member, Jan, was unavailable at the time of the interview).

Afro-punk: How did the band form and where did you get the name from?
Sean: I met some guys at the Black Rock Coalition, and they had a drummer, and me and the drummer started ripping like crazy, and it just left everybody else. I had no idea what we were doing, we just took off. So I said, I gotta call Keith (the bass player), got Keith in there and then we all just hit it really hard, just clicked right away. And then Andre calls me from LA and said, ‘I wanna start a band’ and I’m like ‘What? You wanna start a band?’ And uh, so… I was like ‘what are you gonna do?’ And he said ‘I’m gonna sing.’ I think it was something like that, it was a long time ago.

Keith: To give you some back story, Sean and Andre had been friends for a long time. But Andre and me had been in a couple other bands, so when I heard that Andre was trying to be a singer, I was not surprised… but I was pretty surprised. (Laughs)

Andre: It’s really funny because I just remember wanting to start a band, and thinking of Sean initially but not really knowing what I was gonna do. I had been down in LA and that scene… I saw what it was, and knowing people up here in Northern CA, and what that scene was. I wanted to kind of take a little bit of the LA scene and bring it up here with the Berkeley scene. I didn’t really know where that was gonna go, but I just felt that the energy was right for us up here to start a band that would kick ass on all other bands.

Sean: Somehow we ended up practicing in this maternity clothing warehouse, and I came up with this really lame name like ‘Black Hawk’ or something really bad. And this other guy, another friend, was banging one of the rods from the clothing rack on the table and was going like “Guys. Guys,” like he was tryna tell us something. And so someone said ‘Black Pole?’ And just like that everybody was like ‘Yeah!’ And then there was this whole thing with the friends and the girlfriends, they were like ‘Well, that name, I mean, you know, you can’t really use that name.’

Andre: It seems like a lot of people were offended by it, or (it) made them uncomfortable. But like Sean said, as soon as it was said out loud… I can remember saying, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ And I even thought, alright we’re gonna have to have the balls to keep that name and it’s gonna make us have to really really fucking back it up.

Keith: It was also at a time when N.W.A. [Niggaz Wit Attitudes] was kind of challenging what you could get away with in a name, and that whole energy in the hip-hop at that time leaked over a lot to what we were doing.

AP: Who were some of your biggest influences to inspire you to make music?
Sean: It’s everybody, it’s a lot of stuff, there are like no boundaries. But I will say one thing about the whole meeting of the band – when Andre said ‘I wanna do something.’ (To Andre) You saw Jane’s Addiction around that time, didn’t you?

Andre: Yeah

Sean: So, that was just one aspect. I think Andre was describing how Jane Addiction’s shows were like mini-Lollapaloozas. And so there was Fishbone, and Living Colour, and Hendrix and then all of the hip-hop stuff that was going on… but all of those influences were coming in…

Keith: I know Andre you were listening to at that time, The Pharcyde. At that particular time we were all listening to a pretty wide spectrum of music, except we were covering… ultimately it was coming from as diverse as show tunes or garage bands up in Portland. We didn’t really care where we got the materials, we were feeling it. But before that there’s always the long history of how we were playing music in the beginning, I remember Sean being the dude walking around with the broken guitar playing all of the Zeppelin tunes.

Andre: I think that’s pretty much how I felt about it. Also, you know, musicians, real musicians, don’t care where the goodness comes from. I think all of us were really into music, so it didn’t matter where it came from or what type of music it was. I just remember feeling if it was inspired, that’s what I was picking up on. So, between the four of us, I don’t think there was any genre of music that one of us couldn’t go into a long discussion on. We were really open with one another’s ideas when we came together, so it didn’t matter.

Sean: One of the best compliments I think I’ve received out of any band I’ve ever been in was someone came up to me after a show and said, ‘I don’t know what that was or what kind of music that was, but I like it.’ I never really wanted to have like ‘This is this style of music, and this is that.’ Or ‘you guys belong here or you guys should be in funk bands.’ There was none of that.

Keith: Everyone had the same dilemma which was ‘What is it? Where does it go?’ Back in the days when there were no labels and A&R people were like ‘How are we gonna market … where does it fit?’

AP: Was it important for the band to have a small limited fan-base or to grow and expand its audience?
Andre: I don’t think we really thought past the music.

Keith: We didn’t even try to tour really. (Laughs)

Sean: And then I remember, I did at one point, like later when I started to see possibilities… I started getting big ideas of just making a presence, and being like… styles of music started to be so separated and so kind of segregated, and I just wanted to just blow all of that up.

Andre: I would have liked to had gotten bigger for all of the egotistical reasons, you know, girls, nice shows and being treated that way. That would have been good. But artistically where I was it didn’t matter. And I was such good friends with Sean and Keith. Sean and I from like 8 or 9 years old, Keith and I from 15… 16 years old, so I felt comfortable. Like these were like my brothers for real.

AP: Now we have Twitter, Facebook, and all of this stuff. How do you think you guys would have done in the digital age?

Andre: We would have done great. Now, whatever little thing you’re into. You probably could get about 3,000 people around the nation that’s interested in that. I think if our band, if he had leaped into other regions I think people would have been… like that compliment you said Sean, that guy said ‘I don’t know what it is, but I like it.’ That’s what inspired art does to people, you don’t get it all of the time, but it just draws you in. I think we had that kind of magnetism, not to be all egotistical, but what it was is that it was so highly energetic and individualized, but yet single-minded in its vision. We were all really different cats but we all were going in the same direction. And I think a lot of people would have probably gotten on board if they had access to it.

AP: What changes would you like to see within the music industry?
Andre: I’m pretty happy with how the music scene is going now because of the independence that allows the artist… you know, you can go and find things online where people have like, you know half a million hits and they’re not even signed to anything. It’s up to the individual, cause there’s really nothing holding you back. You don’t need anybody’s signature. You don’t need anybody’s check. I’ve been listening to this dubstep stuff, and these guys are just making their music at their house and then they fucking make up a record label and it’s them and their friends. So yeah, I think music and art is great now.

AP: Why do you think most African-Americans don’t listen to music outside of R&B and Hip-Hop?

Sean: I really wanted to show that African-Americans are much much more diverse than the corporate aspect acknowledge or let them be. They are only signing a certain type of group. I saw so much diversity. Especially growing up in Berkeley, everybody hung out with everybody. There were so many aspects to what people were doing, but you don’t really see that.

Keith: It’s changing though. You look at someone like Lil Wayne. That motherfucker’s crazy. You can tell that these kids are listening to a lot more. It’s weird; a lot of it is a narrower in scope. A lot of it is more pop culture. It’s more across the board, I think. I could be wrong.

Sean: I went to a Living Colour show recently and I was surprised cause it seemed like there were a lot more black people there than I expected or knew or whatever, so I think things have changed and that’s why I like the Afro-punk website because it just shows way more diversity… there is all kinds of stuff going on.

Andre: I think it has changed a great deal. I think a lot of black folks, especially younger black folks do listen to a wider range of music, but I think when you’re young, that age, your image is really important. So I think a lot of cats you see, you might think they’re hip-hop, but if you check their iPods, there may be some Led Zeppelin on there, may be some Jane’s Addiction or whoever. So I think the image looks a certain way, but what people are personally interested in is probably pretty varied.

Sean: Also, when me and Andre were hanging out back in the ‘80s, we were probably the only two black dudes with skateboards in Berkeley, that was seriously skating in swimming pools, at ramps, at skate parks and stuff, and now there’s black dudes everywhere on skateboards. So, the times have changed for the better, as far as I’m concerned, at least in that regard.

AP: What lead to the band going on an indefinite hiatus?

Keith: I got approached to go on a European tour with Michael Franti’s band at the time, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It was bad timing. When I think about the end of BP, I think about that. I think about the dilemma of here comes this other band and that got worldwide success going and the first show is ‘Hey would you come play bass for us? We’re gonna open for Nirvana at the Cow Palace’
That’s not like ‘Oh hey, do you wanna play with my band? We’re going on a band tour.’ The irony of course of that particular show was that it happened on the day that it was one of our headlining shows at a big club.

Andre: I have a question. Sean did you feel when Black Pole ended any hard feelings or animosity or anything?

Sean: Um, no… let’s see, I was like. ‘I’m not stopping’ (Laughter) Dead serious. This is way too good. I haven’t played the Greek Theater. I want to play Lollapalooza, I want to open for Alice in Chains, whatever. I totally wanted to do the whole thing, and I think that it’d make a big statement. I don’t mean necessarily political or anything. But I felt like there were no other bands around like us really, in my mind. In retrospect, there probably was, but in my mind, I just thought we were pretty original.

Andre: In my mind, when it all ended. I thought we all just kind of… like ‘that was awesome’ and we all had accomplished what we set out to do…

Keith: Mothafucka, you stopped coming to rehearsal.

Andre: Well, yeah.. anyway… (laughter) like that was it and we wanted to do other things, everyone went on to continue creating stuff.

Sean: Things happened the way they happened. There were no harsh feelings, other than I was really driven to do all of the things that I mentioned. But just looking at it now, things have to happen for a reason and change, if you embrace it, is always good, it always open up some other opportunity.

Andre: And that’s what I have to say that was really impressive looking back on those videos after so long (recently uploaded live concert footage on Youtube), we put together something that really expressed who we were. As an artist, to be able to share that, even if it was with five people, it was rewarding. Looking back at that, not to sound all weird or nothing, it brought tears to my eyes to realize the comradery and single-mindedness that we were all on.

In regards to Black Pole’s indefinite hiatus:
Keith: I think that it was a beautifully realized coincidence, but really more romantic than that, it was more beautiful than a coincidence, it was just a thing that we happened to be in the same place at the same time, not even the same ideas, but what came out was an idea that satisfied all of us at the same time.

Andre: It was a growing process, you know, like going through high school and whatever else. The experiences that you come across and how you interpret them make you who you are, and that was a step for me, as an artist.

Earlier in the interview, Andre stated: “Black Pole couldn’t have kept going. It was just too about that moment. Those two years that we played was all there was for Black Pole and there was just all of our energy and everything coming together at that point.” Keith, in particular, remarked how Black Pole was an accomplishment, and implied that the chemistry with future bands hasn’t quite fully lived up to the connection he had with his former band. While the members remain friends, they all went their separate ways musically. Sean is currently in a band called the Electric Chair Repair Company. Andre still plays music, and Keith mentioned an upcoming gig at Pier 23 playing with his current band. Black Pole disbanded years ago, but is nevertheless a hidden treasure worth digging up and giving a thorough listen to.

* Griff Fuller Jr. publishes more of his writing on his blog, The Swag Express.