A common misconception about the Black Heart Procession is that they live out the world of pain, longing and intrigue they create in their music. That's easy to assume; listen to any one of their songs, and it's easy to get drawn down into the depths of whatever lies at the bottom of your own heart.
But from a coffeeshop in Portland, Ore., band member Tobias Nathanial speaks with the lightheartedness of a newlywed, and gives the same explanation he's probably had to give a million times.
"People think we are going to be depressed and bummed. I don't have any more room than what I already use for the music. It's exercised it out of my system. Playing shows or being introspective to write a song, it's enough."
When he and singer Pall Jenkins formed the band, they were brokenhearted. Drawing on those feelings, they descended into a dismal reality that most musicians, even most people, are afraid to touch. What started as a half-serious way to deal with mutual depression created a dark contrast that they, in retrospect, realized they were missing. It was an escape from the blandness of their hometown of San Diego. All irony aside, with a lack of changing seasons, sunny weather lurked just as tauntingly as unyielding rain. As Toby describes it, "The static state breeds a complacency that is disturbing." Music became their self-inflicted winter.
Even after five full-length albums and nine years healing time, Black Heart is still writing music that can literally rip your heart out. Instead of moving on, they've mastered the art of crafting misery into songs.
"In order to understand contentment, you have to be aware of the darker aspects of your life and sadder feelings. For me, making this music, even if I'm happy in my life, it sort of reminds me that it's an aspect of life as well, and allows me to evolve and be balanced."
Their self-produced May release, The Spell, is an evolution. It combines equal parts Black Heart with Album Leaf's bassist, Jimmy LaValle, and violinist, Matt Resovic, plus ex-Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer. The result is a venomous jump-off from their sober soul. Strings fill the music with intrigue and indie-rock drumming replaces despair with intensity. Over a vibrating undercurrent of synthetic guitar and violin, Pall's voice is a wailing battle cry for the heart. Buried in snow, lost at sea, or locked in the gaze of a lover, in every song, he's been induced into a vulnerable trance and longs for escape.
Spell includes lighter, almost pop highs, but remains dark at the core.
"We'll never make happy music. There's some uplifting moments, but I think the name applies and it always will as long as it's Pall and I doing this."
It's nostalgic for the bare-bones style of 1, 2 and Three, when they were still composing in Pall's living room. The fourth release, Amore del Tropico, was their first self-produced project. An abundance of time and technical control resulted in a concept album arranged around a murder mystery. Recording Amore included other musicians, as many as 13 on some tracks, which shook up their small but tight fan base.
But for the band, change is welcome.
"We just want to be creative and have the freedom to evolve."
Pall plays a saw, but limits himself so it won't become too much of a novelty. Toby grew up playing classical guitar, but abandoned it for a period to learn to play the piano and focus more on pure composition. And too much sunshine finally drove him to Portland.
The threat of complacency keeps the Black Heart steadily beating. They still earn their fans one at a time, they're still the "alchemists of melancholy," and their tales of love and betrayal still live up to all the reviewer tags: "funereal," "haunting," "entrancing," "swaggering," "balmy," "in need of Prozac." But in reality, Toby and Pall have rewritten the thesaurus, and rise above the routine.