At the turn of the century, the duo behind Brightblack Morning Light moved from the Deep South to Northern California — Humboldt and Marin counties, home to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jerry Garcia, ’60s counterculture and high-quality marijuana. They squatted in chicken coops, built tepees, and brewed up a new musical style mixing the atmosphere of My Bloody Valentine, Slint and Sigur Rós with the twang of the Grateful Dead.
If you find hippies dippy and post-rock pretentious, that might sound like the most insufferable music possible.
Fortunately, Brightblack’s new Brightblack is undeniably gorgeous, bringing to mind classic rhythm & blues played at half speed. In person, Rhodes player Rachael Hughes (a.k.a. Rabob) and guitarist Nathan Shineywater (a.k.a. Nabob) — both 30 — seem to share a near-psychic bond, picking up on each other’s sentences and philosophical musings. They have their share of individual quirks, though: Rabob is passionate yet sober, Nabob more eccentric and laid-back. The grandson of a preacher and son of a coke dealer, Nabob is a man with a complex relationship to what you might call “good times.”
L.A. WEEKLY:What’s the deal with the African-American backup singers on your album, Ann McCrary and Gail West? Their harmonies are really beautiful, but looking at their picture in the liner notes, amid all the hippie types, I could tell they’re not of the same world.
NABOB: They sing with Mavis Staples. Mavis might do four, five shows a year, and she’s into them.
RABOB: We knew we wanted to have backup singers and trombone players. We’re from the South originally, and wanted to go back and harness that feeling. So we went to Nashville to work with [producer] Mark Nevers, and he knew this trombone player . . .
NABOB: I really don’t like the guitar too much, so we’re like, we should get some trombone players, and see if we can capture the first concept of the Southern herb horn.
NABOB: Southern herb horn.
RABOB: Not jazzy. Not jazzy! Anyway, we hired him for a couple hours, and he just busted out. He had worked with those harmony singers for about 10 years, and they came in and just sunk into the music.
You thank Slint in the liner notes, but besides post-rock influences, what jumps out most is your connection to ’60s and ’70s R&B.
NABOB: When I was growing up in Alabama, we went past this African-American church on the way to ours. The churches were segregated, and I could never put my finger on that. Why were we gathering at the same time, at the same kind of venue, yet weren’t allowed to be together? The origin of the music we’re singing is worshipping nature. To have two African-American ladies — gospel singers — singing chants that are derivative of Earth-based worship was an underlying motive: How can we get the Staples Singers to sing about river love?
RABOB: We pull from the ’90s and up, but a lot of the music that puts smiles on our faces and makes us move is music from the ’60s and ’70s.
Is there a similar dialectic in your outlook — the South filtered through Northern California?
RABOB: I grew up in a great small Southern town, a liberal-arts-college community, but I wanted to get out of there, eat organic food and not feel so much like a freak.
NABOB: I first moved to Northern California for a brief stint in AmeriCorps. I was into watershed restoration.
RABOB: We hang out with all the hippies, and they’ve totally embraced us and helped us out so many times.
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NABOB: It’s cool to be near that culture. It was a uniquely American expansion of freedom, because we are a free country, and there was a time when people were experimenting with different spiritualism and freedoms and art and modes of consciousness. A lot of those people’s kids don’t value it. [Imitates teenager.] “I don’t want to be vegetarian. I want to have steak, and I want a Nintendo and shit.”
RABOB: When we’re on the road, we make a point to be on a river, in the wilderness, and not be in the city, and not be a consumer in Babylon, and not be tied down to that bullshit.
NABOB: At the same time, we’re documenting something in Alabama that hasn’t been done before, whether it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd or Sun Ra or the Delta blues. So often people approach that music from New York or L.A. or Chicago or Seattle. Like that whole alternative-country thing makes me want to vomit. I’m like, What are all these people from the city singing country music? A ’Bama flag is flying. But it’s black, it doesn’t have a normal pattern or design to it, and it’s a Rasta-colored Dixie flag.
Brightblack Morning Light, Fri., July 28, at the Troubadour, with openers Daniel Higgs and Mariee Sioux.