The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Photo by Dale NixonIf My Morning Jacket were to record an album thatwas inspired by their favorite porn, it might sound something like the Pink Mountaintops' self-titled debut. With a scraggly beard and a lonesome tenor, front man Stephen McBean looks and sounds like he could be a sleazy Canadian cousin of My Morning Jacket's Jim James. And when McBean—formerly of Jerk With a Bomb—is taking a break from his stoner-rock quintet, Black Mountain, he likes to sing about doin' it.

We're not talking about subtle references here—on “Rock N Roll Fantasy,” he wistfully croons, “I came all over myself/Wish I came all over your blouse.” He sings about wrapping his legs around you. He sings about humping mountains. And once you hear the robot-voice moans and cheesy keyboard riff that could have been lifted from a low-budget skin flick on “Bad Boogie Ballin',” you're gonna want to listen to it again. Sex sells—even in Vancouver, where the local arts crew eats up McBean's live performances—but he has yet to quit his somewhat ironic day job.

“Technically, I'm a mental-health worker,” McBean explains sleepily, his words flowing as slow as molasses. He's an employee of the Portland Hotel Society, an organization that buys out and cleans up the area's slummiest hotels—and offers the improved and respectable living quarters to the low-income (and often drug-addled) long-term tenants. McBean doesn't have the responsibility of a nurse or a social worker, but he does more than answer the phones and change the toilet paper.

“I look after people when they need help,” he says. “The Downtown East Side, where I work, isn't so bad, though. The Portland Hotel is more of a loony bin. A lot of the people there are very schizophrenic.” Still, McBean's workplace is no picnic. “It's like old Skid Row Vancouver,” McBean admits. “People use intravenous drugs on the street. I've never seen that anywhere but here.” He talks at length about an epidemic of HIV and hepatitis-B in the late-'90s and how the Portland Hotel Society set out to combat the problem by opening the first safe-injection site in North America. “It looks like a high-school testing area, except that people are using heroin and cocaine,” McBean says matter-of-factly. “It's one of those things that's weird and kind of screwed-up, but the problem here isn't ordinary, so we need unordinary means to deal with it.”

It's a little strange to be talking about drug reform with him—when the Pink Mountaintops record is said to be inspired by weed and trucker speed, and Black Mountain actually has a 12-inch single called “Druganaut”—but perhaps his vested interest in drugs bolsters his expertise on the subject. And since most of his band members also work for the Hotel Society, it's possible their distressing workplace conditions contribute to the cathartic quality of their music. After all, somebody who's chanting “Sweet '69” over crazy guitar noise is obviously in need of a release—or at least knows how to have a good time at band practice.

McBean's serious tone fades as he talks more about the work of the Pink Mountaintops and the genesis of their down-and-dirty lyrics. “On the last Jerk With a Bomb tour, I started scribbling notes in the van and at rest stops. The songs are about me being away from my wife, just missing her.” He adds, awkwardly, “But, um, we've since split up.” Don't worry, though—it wasn't because of the record. She was anything but scandalized and even wrote the lyrics to a track called “Leslie.” Still, the sadness in his voice as he mentions the breakup is proof he's not some kind of bombastic, sex-crazed psycho. He says he never expected anyone to hear these songs and gets a little bit bashful if you ask too many questions about them. “When I did the Frog Eyes/Destroyer tour, it was just me with a sequencer,” he says. “Sometimes it was really hard to stand up all by myself and sing about sex in a foreign town.”

This time around, he's looking forward to the onstage chaos (and comfort) of a full band. It'll certainly be more of a hedonistic party than a creepy one-man-show. “We're going to have a seven people onstage, including two drummers and two keyboardists, and . . .” His voice trails off. It's hard to tell if he's been distracted or trying to figure out who's going to play which instruments. Or maybe, due to the subject matter of the songs, he's considering the prospect of exotic dancers?

“Hmmm . . . strippers,” he muses. “No, we can't afford that yet.”


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