Interview: King Black Acid
King Black Acid were one of the fixtures of the psych scene in the late 90’s and early 2000’s with classic albums such as the classic Sunlit (1996) and the mesmerizing Loves a Long Song (2000). Under the guidance of its mastermind, Daniel Riddle, the collective re-defined psychedelia and spacerock for the modern ear, from the languid, mysterious and haunting epics of their early career that often reached 20-minutes or more in length, to the more precise and focused, often anthemic songs of later releases, such as the collection of songs they wrote and performed for the soundtrack to the 2002 Richard Gere supernatural movie The Mothman Prophecies.
Things grew a bit quiet after that for King Black Acid, at least in terms of studio albums being released. But the band never stopped writing new songs, releasing a series of singles between 2011 and 2015 that kept fans appetites whetted in the hopes that a new album would be forthcoming. And we were not let down. In the spring of 2017, the band issued the excellent Twin Flames EP, three songs that explored the more mellow and somewhat acoustically inclined side of King Black Acid and just a couple of months later they released the epic psychedelic masterpiece, Super Beautiful Magic.
I caught up with King Black Acid main man Daniel Riddle this year to talk about the making of the new album and all other things KBA.
Psychedelic Waves: So, tell me how it all went down back in the very beginning when King Black Acid got started?
Daniel Riddle: I started using the name King Black Acid at first when I was making 4 track tapes in my bedroom and sending them into the local radio station KFJC. I was messing with loops, stacking delay using tape machines, tweaking old analog synths and singing weird shit over the top of it. Every once in a while, one of the DJ’s would play my music in the middle of the night and I would get super excited.
PW: Who were your musical heroes, the ones that inspired King Black Acid?
DR: I’m not sure I’ve ever had a hero, but I have been inspired by many artists ranging from pop artists like Bowie, Neil Young, Beatles, Brian Eno, Talk Talk and ELO to more underground acts like The Toiling Midgets, Flipper, The Residents, The Birthday Party, Wire, The Stranglers and Can. It was not so much bands or artists that had the greatest impact but albums that really affected me. Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Talk Talk’s The Laughing Stock or Chairs Missing and Pink Flag by Wire. Those are just a few of the albums that changed how I hear music.
PW: Your earlier albums, such as Womb Star Session and Sunlit feature very lengthy tracks. Was there a lot of improvisation involved in these, or were they more composed in nature and carefully planned out?
DR: There was a lot of intuitive playing. I knew I was not well versed in the craft of song writing so I worked hard on creating a powerful live experience. To capture that magic it made for lengthy compositions. Sunlit was a long album because we were on tour and had a few shows cancel on us and we were staying in a warehouse that was converted into a recording studio. It was suggested to us by our good friend Denny Swofford (Cavity Search Records) that we use the days off to record. The studio had only vintage analog gear because in 1996 everyone was selling their shit to buy digital. These cats went to estate sales and picked up gear like the mixing desk from the old Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and an Ampex 16” x 2” deck that once belonged to Kenny Loggins and Donna Summer. We set up in the big room all facing each other in a circle and played some loose song ideas I had floating around in my head. I made up hand signals and body moves to signal the changes and we just went for it. It was live in one take. Then I overdubbed the vocals just making up the lyrics and melodies.
PW: Do you think at some point you might re-visit that era and do some epic longer tracks like those again?
DR: We still incorporate the longer arrangements live and occasionally on recordings. The Twin Flames EP had some lengthy material but not in the 20 minute range. One of my goals has been to learn more about the craft of song writing and work that in without loosing our flow and feel or worse yet without becoming formulaic.
PW: You contributed a number of songs to the movie soundtrack for The Mothman Prophecies. How did you get involved in that project?
DR: That was one of those “It’s all about who you know” deals. One the film’s producers used to run a record label out of Seattle and signed one of my bands from the 90’s.
PW: There was a gradual shift in focus over the years from long, more experimental pieces to shorter, more composed songs. Loves a Long Song seems to be a transition album of sorts, with a couple of songs breaking the 10-minute mark but the rest being shorter. Then there was The Mothman Prophecies soundtrack and the singles. Last year’s Super Beautiful Magic is the first full-length studio album to not have a track over 10-minutes (other than the three-part Dreams suite). Tell me about this evolution from long pieces to shorter songs over the years.
DR: For one we try not to make the same record twice or even become too predictable. We want to challenge ourselves and explore new territory. Loves A Long Song was a game changer for me personally because it was the first time I ever worked with a producer (Jeff Stuart Saltzman). Up until then I had never written down a lyric or written a bridge in a song or any of those other important things. Jeff came in and said, “Let’s do six guitar solos and four different outdo sections. Also, let’s write out the lyrics and work on the melodies and try to orchestrate these tunes a bit.” It was one of the most valuable musical experiences I’ve ever had. It was hard to break old habits but I loved the results. As for the experimental side of things you are asking about, that still runs strong in our music. We use all kinds of found objects, circuit bent to toy keyboards, hot-rodded and modified instruments and techniques. We love that weird shit.
PW: Can you tell me a bit about your creative process, how go about composing a song, and what is the difference between creating a piece that’s 20-minutes long versus a song in the 3-5-minute range.
DR: It’s important for me and my players to create inner guided music. Not what is popular or what might sell or what the kids want to hear that week. Composing music for us is about listening to the dream life of each piece and asking the song what IT wants. That can be very hard in a world filled with over stimulation and a media body beating down on your every thought, action and expression. How does one create in an authentic way? How does one live an authentic life? Especially knowing it will be looked upon as irreverent or offensive to the masses and the system that provided the gilded cage. There is a very big difference in composing 20-minute songs versus 3-minute songs. The difference is in composing inner guided music with a connection to the dream life and the heart or making music that will allow you to be accepted, approved and financially compensated by the machine.
PW: What’s your current gear set-up, both in the studio and live. Any favourite instruments or pedals?
DR: For live I still use a 1969 Princeton Reverb amp on top of a 1965 Fender (blackface) Bassman head that was customized with a reverb tank and put in a Dual Showman housing. My favorite FX pedal is a vintage Bass Whammy. In the studio I’ll use just about anything as long as it has character.
PW: On your CD Baby page, you describe Super Beautiful Magic as “a side project of KBA founding member Daniel Riddle,” and credit it to King Black Acid and the Crystal Unicorn. But you have often included addendums to the King Black Acid moniker, such as The Womb Star Orchestra and The Starseed Transmission. I assume these distinguish who you are playing with from album to album? But what is the difference between a King Black Acid core project and a King Black Acid side project?
DR: Because it is so hard to keep the same players with folks getting married, having kids, getting jobs, taking drugs, finding god or just getting frustrated that music costs so much money to play, I keep KBA as a collective. Players are free to come and go. When a line up comes together, it usually has a signature sound. Each of those line ups gets a surname. King Black Acid and the “…….” The only reason that the Super Beautiful Magic album was any different is because those songs were all orphaned. They were also studio creations first as opposed to a band jamming on ideas. They are all freakishly abnormal songs from the island of misfit toys. There was a lot of session players, guest players and collaborations. This was a very different approach than anything else done under the KBA umbrella. You can really hear the difference if you listen to the Twin Flames EP that came out only a few months before Super Beautiful Magic. That was a whole band that worked on that EP and gave it cohesion and Super Beautiful Magic was sonically all over the map.
PW: There’s been a bit of a hiatus, at least in terms of King Black Acid recorded output since The Mothman Prophecies, though you haven’t been completely gone, you’ve released a handful of singles during that time, but it was 17 years between the studio albums Loves a Long Song and Super Beautiful Magic. Why the hiatus from album making? What were you up to during that time, and what prompted the new album in 2017?
DR: Jobs, kids, families, drug addictions, pestilence in biblical proportion and the fact that it costs a lot of money to keep a band up and running. We all spend way more than we’ve ever made. It truly is a passion project. Although if HBO calls and wants us to make music for a hit series about monkeys who make computers to have sex with…we will do that shit.
PW: Super Beautiful Magic, while still having that signature King Black Acid sound, strikes me as your most psychedelic work in terms of lush details and elaborate arrangements. Was this intentional?
DR: Not intentional but yes, because it was more of a studio project and that some of those songs had been worked on for many years, it has a more orchestrated in-depth sound. It also takes way more chances and explores way more sonic territory than anything previously produced by KBA.
PW: Tell me about the process of creating Super Beautiful Magic.
DR: This album was very different from anything released by KBA because it was a collection of songs that did not fit on any previous album nor were they written in a group or band environment. These are all studio creations. Most of them composed on instruments like the Omnichord, Casio SK-5, circuit bent synths and using tape loops. Then shaping the arrangements with traditional instrumentation and methods. There was also much more collaborations and guest players.
PW: You also described the album as “a full-length album of ambitious musical adventures!” This is not the first time I’ve heard you describe your songs as “adventures.” When talking to my friend Jerry Kranitz back in 2002, you said that when you were working on Loves a Long Song, you said to your then engineer Jeff Salzman, “I told him that I wanted to be able to do the same type of thing the Beatles would do where you’d listen to a song like Strawberry Fields - the song is 3-4 minutes long - but it seems like it’s 10 or 15 minutes long. It takes you on this adventure.” The title of the opening cut on Super Beautiful Magic, Welcome Home Down the Rabbit Hole certainly does conjure up notions of adventure. So, tell me about this idea, the idea of songs as adventures.
DR: These songs are all adventures in some way or another and they all have their own unique story. Because you brought up the first song Welcome Home Down the Rabbit Hole, I’ll tell you the abbreviated story of that tune. In 1999 when I was working on the Loves A Long Song album with Jeff Saltzman, I was learning to do much of the recording myself at home because I could not afford time in a recording studio. One day an artist friend of mine (Michael) dropped by my house for a visit and after we smoked a little smoke and drank some tea it came up in conversation that I was learning to home record. My friend Michael then informed me that he had just picked up a hammer dulcimer at a garage sale and that we should bring it in to the house and record it. I set up a few room mics and a sampler and he brought in the dulcimer and I pressed record while we jammed for 30 minutes or so. A few months went by and Michael showed up at a KBA concert and was trying to buy everyone drinks. I asked him what was up and he bluntly informed me that he printed his own money on a fancy printer and was going to party away his last few days. “I’m dying of AIDS,” he told me. I was really shocked by all this and wanted to talk more but Michael wondered off into the crowd and in the weeks after did not return any of my phone calls. A few months later I get a call from a friend who said that Michael had passed away. A few weeks after that I had a long night of lucid dreams where Michael came to me and talked about life on the other side. I asked him questions about spirits, animals, ghosts, music and love. When I woke in the morning I tried to write down as much of the dream as I could remember. A few months after that I was digging through old tapes in the studio and found the recordings of Michael and myself and decided to use the notes from the dream as lyrics and make the dulcimer session into an actual song. I worked on it off and on over the next few years bringing in string players, backing vocalists and whoever I could get to come over and session. Once I decided that I wanted to make a record using a few of these more adventurous tunes, it was just a matter of figuring out which ones fit on an album together and how I could make them flow together and tell a complete story. That took me about another year or so until finally I formulated the Super Beautiful Magic story line. Each song on this album has a special and very unique story attached to it.
PW: Tell me about the creation of the Dreams suite. It is in a sense a longer piece, but you intentionally broke it down into separate parts, three different songs.
DR: Yes, I thought breaking it apart might help getting it played on streaming services because that is where 90% of the worlds population now listens to music and they will not stream our longer material like Sunlit. Each piece also touches on a different part of the same story line or narrative. The idea was about how we at times in our lives have to kill off parts of ourselves in order to survive. I heard David Bowie say in an interview once when asked what happened to his Ziggy Stardust character, “I had to kill Ziggy before Ziggy killed me with all the drugs and drinking and craziness.” I find when we kill off these characters that become an extension of our ego, we in turn will often see the people around us who were attracted to those characters die off as well. For example, when someone stops taking drugs, all the friends they partied with are no longer friends. This leaves one to not only mourn the death of those friends but also be haunted by them and their past. I might be over-explaining or over-thinking it but this was the narrative going through my mind as I put together those three pieces. The lyrics do not always spell out a literal story as I often think about the song idea then pick up amid and sing to see what comes out before my brain gets too much of a chance to mangle it. This way it becomes as much a poetic mystery to unwrap for me as hopefully is for the listener.
PW: I particularly liked Ain’t Nobody Gonna Drink My Blood. Can you walk us through the inspiration and creative process that went into it?
DR: Ain’t Nobody Gonna Drink My Blood is a collaborative effort I did with a friend (Alan Ledgerwood) who was visiting my studio and asked if I would record his new song idea on acoustic guitar. After he left I rearranged the song so that the bridge was now a chorus and I wrote new lyrics and melodies. After playing it for him, he came up with the bass guitar and drum parts. Later my friend Gabby Holt who guests all over the Super Beautiful Magic album came in to sing the chorus with me and add some backing vocals. The lyrical idea was based on my experience in the entertainment industry. I’ve commented many times that Hollywood is filled with vampires and pedophiles, but the other side of that story is that there is also a never-ending line of willing victims lined up to be drained of their talents, ideas, life force and blood. Creative people, musicians, actors, film makers, etc…. all have a strong desire for constant approval. They will do most anything to get it. Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general is set up to harvest these willing sacrifices. In an act of rebellion, I sang “Ain’t nobody gonna drink my blood. They better run when they see these tears. Ain’t nobody gonna eat my heart. And tell me I ain’t livin’ good. Ain’t nobody gonna drink my blood. They better run when they see these tears. Ain’t nobody gonna eat my heart. And steal my soul. It’s my soul”
PW: What musicians joined you on Super Beautiful Magic (i.e. who is The Crystal Unicorn?) and what musicians are you currently playing with live?
DR: Honestly, I asked every single musician I knew and many I had never met to come over and record with me on the Super Beautiful Magic album. There are quite a few guests on their as one can read from the credits. Those are just the ones who showed up to session. Many folks were just too busy or did not get the music. I love to collaborate. I think that is when I produce the best work and have the most fun. For the live show these days we have Erik Mimnaugh on bass who has been with KBA off and on for 16 years or so. Erik also plays with a local symphony here in the northwest and has great skills, energy and ideas. His high school buddy Jordan Ruback plays drums and really knows how to go from gentle atmospheric playing to totally murdering those fucking drums. They make a great team and a super solid foundation. On guitar we have a cat named Bryon Owens who is a total sleeper. You see him in line at the grocery store and think ‘I bet he has a nice herb garden in his yard’. Then you hear him rip on that guitar and think ‘what the fuck is he growing in that garden? It can’t be legal.’ On keyboards I have Jonathan Moore who is also in a group called Streetcar Conductors. He can play any instrument really well and he sings like an angel. Our second keyboard player right now is Ryan Thomas. He’s only played one show with us so far so we haven’t been able to unleash the freak in him…yet. Time will tell. Joining
us on acoustic guitar and vocals is long time studio collaborator Gabby Holt. She is very talented. She is also equally as crazy as I am, making for some powerful and somewhat dangerous chemistry. KBA has always been run as a collective so players do come and go. Who knows what the next show will bring and who will be joining us on stage. In 2017 we had pedal steel players, slide guitar, backing vocalists, percussionists, etc. If anyone with talent is willing to put in the hard work, we will invite them on stage to play with us.
PW: Tell me about the limited edition deluxe re-issue of Sunlit released earlier this year…
DR: Every year my label partner Denny Swofford pitches new ideas to the committee at National Record Store Day in hopes they will back one of our projects. This year he threw in a wild card by telling them we will re-master the Sunlit album (which was never released on vinyl and the CD’s are out of print) and release it on a double vinyl deluxe edition with new material on side four. They loved the idea so all we had to do was beg and borrow $10,000…rework two of the songs (one of which we did for the Twin Flames EP already)…find an artist to re-imagine the design (our favorite designer Johnny Eckenrode) then get it all done in a very short period of time so it could be on all the shelves of the participating record stores on National Record Store Day. It was a one-time limited-edition release only available at this event around the United States.
PW: What else is going on this year and coming up in the future for King Black Acid?
DR: This year brought us the release of a full-length indie film that I scored and features a few KBA pieces. It’s called The Texture of Falling by Maria Allred. She’s a local actor, director, writer and over all talented wizard who I was honored to work with and hope I get the chance to work with again. We also released a 7” vinyl record with two cover songs this past spring in a limited edition run of 250 copies on colored vinyl. We do our own unique take on Big Star’s I’m In Love With a Girl and The Carpenters Superstar. We will be playing a few shows and spilling our hearts out all over the stages here in the great northwest.
I also have a recording studio here in my home, so I produce, record and mix music for artists.
Anyone who wants me to help on their album should drop me a line. Anyone who wants to chat with us can easily find us on Facebook or email us though our website. Feel free to drop us a line about whatever is on your mind.
PW: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Daniel!
King Black Acid Discography
Albums and EP’s:
Womb Star Session (Cavity Search Records CSR28, 1995)
Sunlit (Cavity Search Records CSR34, 1996)
Royal Subjects (Cavity Search Records CSR38, 1997)
Loves A Long Song (Cavity Search Records CSR48, 2000)
The Mothman Prophecies (Lakeshore Records LAK 33694-2, 2002) with Tomandandy and Low
Twin Flames EP (Cavity Search Records CSR96, 2017)
Super Beautiful Magic (Cavity Search RecordsCSR99, 2017)
Caterpillar Blood (1995) split single with Hitting Birth Family Circus
Slide Away (2011)
Behind Blue Eyes (2012)
Let’s Burn Those Stars (2012)
I’m Rolling Under (2014)
Sea of Unrest (2015)
Always Crashing in the Same Car (2013)
Superstar/I’m in Love With a Girl (2018)
For more info and to purchase King Black Acid releases, visit: https://www.facebook.com/King-Black-Acid-20552349650/, https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/kingblackacid1 and https://kingblackacid.bandcamp.com/