BLACK STONE CHERRY – Shots With The Devil And Tea With God

October 28, 2020, 3 years ago

By Aaron Small

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BLACK STONE CHERRY – Shots With The Devil And Tea With God

“We’re so proud of this album,” begins Black Stone Cherry guitarist Ben Wells, talking about his band’s new batch of songs, The Human Condition, set for release October 30 via Mascot Records. Ben, along with vocalist / guitarist Chris Robertson, bassist Jon Lawhon, and drummer John Fred Young have never really wavered from the superb Southern hard rock first presented on their self-titled debut album fourteen years ago, always putting forth home-grown goodness. This time around though, The Human Condition easily falls within the top three of Black Stone Cherry’s seven studio releases – simply a wonderful set of music.

“Starting with Kentucky (in 2016), Family Tree (in 2018), and of course this one, we self-produced all of them. But with The Human Condition, we really turned it up a notch as far as holding each other accountable when it comes to everybody’s parts,” reveals Ben. “Sometimes, when you’re in the studio, you can let things – not slide under the radar, but it’s easy at times, if you’re doing it on your own. If you don’t have a producer in there or a ‘coach’, you don’t have that other ear or other person to push you a little bit. This time, we said we’re going to be our own worst enemies and each other’s worst enemies when it comes to making sure that every single part is recorded as good as it can be. We really, really pushed ourselves to those limits, and made sure the vocals, drums, guitars, bass – everything had to be top notch. We have to represent ourselves the way we want to. It was fun to do that though. It was really fun to get out of our comfort zone, to really push and pull each other to do it better.”

Black Stone Cherry utilized a different methodology on The Human Condition. Previously, the basics would be recorded live, all four band members playing together. This time, all instruments were recorded individually. “Right, that’s what we did. Normally, we would play with John Fred, all of us together, and we would keep the drums, then go back in and put guitars and bass on top of it; unless we caught something magical on a guitar track, like a solo or something that we couldn’t recreate the magic of. This time, John Fred tracked all his drum parts with one guitar. It allowed us to really focus in on just the drums, it wasn’t everybody playing at once. We were able to sit back and listen. Instead of just playing the drums, he was able to decipher his drum parts, much like we would guitar parts. An intro riff from a chorus to a bridge, everything is different, and we play it all different. It was a different method for John Fred, and for us. The result was just… his drums sound like thunder! He was really proud of himself too, because he could do a take, come and listen to it, and go back in and do it again and again. It was a way for everybody to put each other’s parts under a microscope and really focus in. When the end-product came out, it was like, woah, this is incredible!”

The cohesiveness on The Human Condition is remarkable, especially considering the fact that Black Stone Cherry went into the studio with four songs, wrote some new ones, and dusted off a few old favorites that have been kicking around and never made it onto previous albums. Which songs fall where? When listening, you cannot tell what’s five years old, as opposed to what’s five weeks old. “I appreciate you saying that,” says Ben. “The song ‘Again’, the majority of that was written in the studio. There was one part of that song, in the bridge, that had belonged to a song we had written in 2007. It was a cool song, we planned on recording that old song for the album, but then when it came time… because it was one of the later ones we did, we weren’t sold on it. You have to be that way when you’re looking at these songs. You can’t just say, ‘We like the song, let’s re-record it.’ If it doesn’t stand up, we’re not going to do it; but we liked the bridge part. So, essentially, we wrote a brand new song around that, right there in the studio. All the lyrics and the riff were written right there. That was super cool because it was super fresh.” 

“Then the song called ‘Ride’, was a song we had in 2003; but it had a different title back then. All the music is essentially the same, to a degree; the bridge we changed a little bit. Then, the lyrics are all different. I remember, we were in the studio one night, it was really late, and that was one of the last things we came to. We’d got the music done, and we all knew we still had to rewrite these lyrics; we kept putting it off cause we knew that was going to be a job. So, one night late in the studio, we were all getting ready to leave, and Chris had a melody for the chorus, and all of a sudden, we got inspired and just started spouting these lyrics out. He went in the vocal booth, and he was singing the lines as we were writing them. It was the coolest thing! It gave us all a third wind, cause we were all tired, burnt out, and ready to go home for the night. Then – boom! Everybody wakes up and his vocals were done within 25 minutes.” 

“Ride” has some great lyrics, including the line, ‘Shots with The Devil and tea with God’. “Thank you. That line right there actually is one of the only lines from the original version. Just like you, we loved that line. It was a cool, clever line and we wanted to keep that in there. Everything else was totally rewritten. People who have heard it say it sounds ‘really old school.’ Well, we wrote that music in 2003, before we really knew how to write songs. And that’s the cool thing about the album – it has songs that are more mature sounding. Then you’ve got a song like that, it’s a barnburner. There’s a good ebb and flow.” Another gem of a line in “Ride” is, ‘Modern Rambo, what’s your cause?’ Obviously, if listeners haven’t seen the Sylvester Stallone movies, it won’t make any sense. “I appreciate you picking up on that stuff, cause sometimes we might understand it, but when other people hear it…”

The album title is open to interpretation as there’s not a song called The Human Condition. “We had that line… we were on a conference call, talking about what we were going to do in the studio,” recalls Ben. “I think it was Jon who said, ‘We are writing songs for the human condition,’ and Chris said, ‘Hey, that could be an album title.’ We thought it was cool, but nobody was really thinking about album titles at that point. We were still trying to figure out when we were going in the studio. That title kept hanging around, and as we put these songs together and started writing the rest of the lyrics, 2020 started to happen. We figured that title fit with what we were doing. What’s cool is the fact that besides Family Tree and Magic Mountain, all our other albums haven’t had a song named after them. We always try to find titles that encompass the majority of the record, what we were feeling at the time. You listen back to some of these lyrics, it covers the gambit on our human condition at this current time.”

“Ringin’ In My Head” is the leadoff track on The Human Condition, and it was written four years ago, thereby negating COVID-19 as an influence, but it certainly seems to be about the current pandemic. “I know. That’s what’s the eerie, eerie thing about that song. We wrote that in 2016. We thought about putting it on the Family Tree album, but it wasn’t done. So, when it came to this – we were in the studio the first of March, and it wasn’t until later on that we were listening back going, ‘Man, this is really spooky that this song and the lyrics are so prevalent right now. If we had recorded it for Family Tree, it wouldn’t have had as much relevance as it does now. I believe things happen for a reason; it needed its time.” The opening lyric to “Ringin’ In My Head” goes, ‘People, people, your attention please, I need to tell all y’all about a new disease.’ What was that referring to back in 2016? “I don’t know. I can’t remember exactly what had inspired it? I’m trying to think… it wasn’t about a disease in particular; we were meaning that as a metaphor. I know the ‘Ringin’ in my head’ line we had, there was a bunch of different lyrics; I think it was more about the music business in a weird, metaphorical way. It can be a disease if you let it… we just weren’t sold on it at the time. Now, I listen back and man, it’s pretty bizarre! It’s almost like the song wrote itself and saved itself for the perfect time.”

Seeing as we’re talking about lyrics, another impressive song is ‘Some Stories”. In it, Chris sings, ‘Some stories ain’t worth believing, some stories ain’t worth repeating.’ The assassination of US President JFK is mentioned, as well as the Moon landing. Black Stone Cherry doesn’t seem to be a band of conspiracy theorists. “No, not really,” chuckles Ben. “Honestly, we wrote that song in 2010. We’ve always wanted that song to be on every album since we wrote it, and for whatever reason, it never has. We made a pact this time – if this song doesn’t make the album, then we all quit. So, we put it on there, and what’s cool about that song is, we were just telling – cause the song is called ‘Some Stories’, people can take it as conspiracy theories. We were singing about things that people already consider conspiracy theories; it doesn’t necessarily mean we do. But, our album Folklore And Superstition (from 2008) had a lot of songs lyrically that told a lot of stories. That’s kind of what we were wanting to represent on this album. A lot of fans tell us, ‘We love the songs that talk about stories, whether they’re true or false, it just puts you in a different state of mind.’ That’s why that song made its way on the album; we didn’t change a lot about that either cause we’ve always loved it.”

The inclusion of a cover song, “Don’t Bring Me Down” by Electric Light Orchestra from their 1979 album Discovery, came as quite a surprise. There’s twelve outstanding originals on The Human Condition, which is more than enough for a full-length album. “We were getting to a point where we thought we had all the songs for the album, and usually, the label requests a B-side. We didn’t want to record another new song, and we like doing covers, we really do. We were sitting around the studio wondering, what cover do we do? We’re huge Jeff Lynne and ELO fans, that song came up and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, of course!’ We listen to that song on the bus all the time. We recorded it with the mentality of it being a bonus track. Then it comes out and it’s like, shit, it turned out better than we thought. At that point, we weren’t going to put 13 songs on the album. So, what song’s going to leave? We couldn’t agree to make any of them leave. Management heard it and said, ‘You can’t put this as a bonus track, it’s too good.’ So, ok, all 13 songs are going on the album then. I’m really happy it worked out that way because I love listening to it, it’s a familiar song, and I think people will really enjoy it.”

Simple yet serious is an apt description of the album cover for The Human Condition; job well done on the artwork with the four individual photos. “Thank you. Jon actually designed that album cover, and Chris took the photos of us. We had tossed around some different ideas, are we going to do some kind of crazy design? We took those photos cause the label had requested some head shots. When we got ‘em back, we put ‘em in four squares to use as a promo shot. A photographer and good friend of ours named John Scarpati, who shot our photos for the second album (Folklore And Superstition) saw it and said, ‘Why aren’t you using this for the album cover?’ Well, we never thought about it. Then we started looking at it as an album cover. We put the logo on there, and it’s really cool. It’s just our faces, and everybody’s different emotion. I agree, I think it’s a very simple, yet powerful cover. It says more than a big, elaborate piece of art.”

There’s also quite a bit of heaviness musically on The Human Condition, which is certainly appreciated. It begins with “Push Down & Turn”, the title of which refers to the instructions on the top of a pill bottle. “Right. That was something that Chris has been outspoken about. He’s had struggles with mental health in the past. He’s an advocate of making sure people understand it’s ok if you have to take medication for whatever reason. He posted a picture like that a long time ago, of his pill bottle, on his Instagram page. ‘Push Down & Turn’ – he was saying it’s ok if you need help, it’s ok to reach out. And he got so much response over it, so that’s what inspired that song lyrically. I think people are going to relate to that. It is a heavy song; it’s tuned down low. That’s one of my personal favorites on the new record.”

Another heavy song is “Live This Way”, and the “Whooh” at the very end is so refreshing, adding a human element to The Human Condition. “That’s John Fred doing that. I’m glad we kept that in there because the drum part at the very end of that song, it goes into this crazy little rudimental beat thing. He took so many different takes on that, until he got it right. When he finally got it right, that’s his actual reaction, hollering. We’ve got video of it, he was wearing himself out to get it right, and he finally did. When it happened, we said, ‘We’re keeping that in there’ because that’s a real feeling right there.”

Deciding upon the sequencing of the songs on The Human Condition couldn’t have been an easy process, as they’re all five-star songs. The final two tracks, “Devil In Your Eyes” and “Keep On Keepin On” are just as strong as any of the others that come before them; they’re brilliant deep tracks. “Thank you. Again, the reason is, a lot of these songs were songs we had in the past, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t make their way up to the front. We wrote ‘Devil In Your Eyes’ with a guy named Marti Frederiksen, who writes a lot with Aerosmith. It’s just a really cool song that we’ve had around for a long time. ‘Keep On Keepin On’ we wrote with a guy named Dave Bassett; we’ve written with him in the past. We love him! We wrote a song called ‘Like I Roll’ with him, another song called ‘Won’t Let Go’, and ‘Peace Pipe’. He’s an amazing songwriter and a great friend of ours. We don’t do a whole lot of co-writes, but we have a group of people that we actually really enjoy co-writing with, and he is definitely one of them. I know we all did the tracklisting together, we wanted it to flow naturally; and it never lets up.”

(Photos by Mike Rodway)

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