The Black Dogs
by Nickie Shobeiry
The Black Dogs are a blues, psyche and stoner-rock trio from North Devon. Consisting of drummer Andy Higgins, bassist Matt “Crispy” Roberts, and lead vocalist/guitarist Gary Saunders, The Black Dogs are sure to blow the roof off any well-respected establishment with their raw-and-roaring sounds.
What’s the story behind The Black Dogs? How long have you been together, and how did you all meet? We’ve been around since 2012, but formed our current line-up a year later. We met Andy through mutual friends back when Matt and I played in blues trio, The Dolly Dagger Experience. During this time I stood in on bass for a few months with punk-rock group Anti-Macassar, for whom Andy played drums. That band split, we were looking for a drummer, and things just fell into place from there. We were after someone who could dedicate as much time to the project as we could, and Andy ticked all the boxes.
What was it like the first time you performed together? With our current line-up, the first show we played was a support slot at The Palladium Club in Bideford. All gigs come with a few shambles here and there, and this one was no exception. We’d only had a few weeks rehearsal and weren’t too sure if our sound would “bless the stage,” so to speak. Although this was our first gig, it was that evening I believe we realised the potential of playing with a much more aggressive percussion section, so we kept everything under our hats until we had something more to bark about.
What’s the inspiration behind the band name? The Black Dogs was a title coined by Matt on a cold winter’s evening a few years back. We were desperate for a name that would stick, and a sheet of collected hopefuls was left on the table, all in good faith. I think once we realised the originality of the name and how it somehow hadn’t already been stolen by some rum-bellied country duo, we had to have it. We needed something that was broad, bold and memorable.
You’ve performed at the well-loved Leper Fest three times now. What’s it been like for you each time? Leper Fest has been fantastic ever since day one – the sound we get there is unlike any other venue, especially once the room fills up with people. Being able to play in an environment that projects our sound so well makes for a much less stressful evening. The first time we played at The Loft was back in 2012, when we supported a folk group with Steampunk duo, The Wattingers. We went on first, played loudly and then left quite abruptly, as I had to get up early to work the following day. Our paws must have left a few prints on the way out as we’ve been invited back a fair few times since. You can bet that any talk of an event at The Loft is the brewing of an immensely far-out evening.
What would be your ultimate venue to perform in? I believe anywhere obtuse and extraordinary would be more desirable than a large, well-known venue. Saying that, I think we’d be refusing a fair bit of exposure, given the opportunity!
As well as playing many originals (my favourite being Moonshine), you also cover the likes of Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, ZZ Top, and stoner-rock bands like The Atomic Bitchwax. Who are your top musical influences? Personally, I’m very blues based, but also listen to a lot of other genres. The more underground something sounds to me, the more I like it. I love my psyche rock, but try not to restrict myself to just one style of music, which can sometimes be a pain to enforce. Matt takes a lot of influence from metal, as well as some of its sub-genres – both of us are heavily into our stoner/ doom bands and we have a plentiful collection of CD releases between us. Andy enjoys a variety of music and has lent his drumming to various punk groups in the past. The fast-paced, merciless nature of his drumming in this field made for a much more seamless transition into our new style I believe. Collectively, we enjoy anything that’s not too commercialized or refined, and as a result pick our covers as such. When listening to music it’s great when the artists really make what they’re doing their own. Those are the bands I think we find ourselves most influenced by.
Out of your current set list, what are some of your favourite songs to perform? We enjoy playing original material much more than covers – it’s so much more rewarding to deliver our own music the way we want, as opposed to our take on somebody else’s work. Saying that, there are a lot of covers our shows just wouldn’t be the same without. A lot of our tracks we’ve being playing for quite a long time and can become less enjoyable as times goes on – I think we learned our lesson here by not spending practices reciting everything we already know, and moving on to fresher ideas instead. Moonshine is great fun to play live, as well as Danger Zone – anything that’s fast and reckless works great in a live setting.
Your song, In The Name Of The Lord, is a favourite among your fans. What was the inspiration behind it? In The Name of The Lord was written in memory of Mr. John Lord of Deep Purple shortly after he died. It was as simple as Matt suggesting one practice, “We could write a song for John Lord and call it In The Name Of The Lord, man!” – and that’s exactly what happened. I think I brushed the idea off as a joke until I got home and thought about what Matt had said, then understood the genius behind it! It turned into a song about the coming and passing of death, as well as the fragile mortality within us all. We arranged the track to be simple yet bluesy, in effort to keep the composition respectful, dignified and more of a commemoration than a statement.
You finish your current sets with your heaviest stoner-rock song, Bloodhound. What was the writing process like for this track? This was one of the three instrumentals, alongside Falling of The Leaves and Solipsis, that Matt and I wrote one hazy evening around a year ago. This was the first time we’d written and shared ideas together, without being in a practice set-up. Usually I bring a few riffs to the table that I’m getting on with, the guys put their best interpretation alongside it, and we have song – but these three were crafted much more under the magnifying glass, and contained lots of solos, breakdowns and stops.
What’s the writing process like for you overall? Where do you draw most of your inspiration from? Everything we put together comes out through the enjoyment of doing something that’s different and personal to us. The layouts and formulas of our original material is just what stimulates us most as band – we love playing lots of heavy rock, but equally enjoy dabbling in subtlety and sometimes taking a “less is more” approach to the compositions. Lyrically, I write our blues tracks in a way I’d expect them to be written – I reference oppression, pain, escapism, and try to capture an atmosphere of hardship and decay in 20th century suburbia. With other styles that could be considered more original, I put much more of myself into the lyrics, as opposed to setting out to do the genre some justice. I’ve always found it difficult to approach lyrics with pen and paper as though I’m drafting up an essay; lyrics for me are something that come with the music and fall out when their ready. I find pushing myself or setting too much time aside for it quickly destroys the peace, and changes the art into a regimented task, instead of an expression of the moment.
You’re releasing your album on March 28th. What’s the recording process been like? How would you describe the album’s tone? The recording process has been slow, but we’ve been building our own recording space since we started tracking, so we were expecting it to take its time. Doubling ourselves up as sound engineers in the process has had its fair share of learning curves, but in the long run, gave us the final say on every part of our tone. As much as hiring a producer and studio time may have given us a “better” sound, we’ve found sticking to our guns and keeping our production as personal as possible pushes us much closer to the art in what we do. We hope the tone of our first release matches a kind of hazy 70s style production. The last thing we wanted was for anything to sound digital, which was occasionally unavoidable with the limited knowledge we had to begin with.
In what way would you say your music has evolved since The Black Dogs first came together? The more we write our original material, the further we seem to delve into the styles that we really feel comfortable in. Making things our own in every sense has always been quite mandatory in what we do. After Matt and I came out the other end of our blues endeavours, we still had to drag some of it over, in order to fill out set space in the early days. The album really reflects the transition of our music from blues into stoner rock. It marks an important time in which we’d approach our songs in quite a standard way, to going off the rails with our writing, and forming more expansive ideas.
What’s the best advice you’ve received as a musician? I think anything that helps dampen the ego and bring out more artistry than personality is always relevant to performers. The best advice I had was from a rather intoxicated conversation with singer-songwriter Jake Jacob at Swanage Blues Fest a few years ago. He stated I should spend most – if not all – of my money on musical equipment, and that I’d never regret it. He wasn’t wrong. I think a lot of successful performers would edge aspiring artists toward holding their own with their music, and not necessarily following the herd or playing what people might expect to hear when approaching a composition. I believe people find success by rocking the boat and doing things differently, which in 2015, where everything seems to have already been done, is a real quality to have.
What can the world expect next from The Black Dogs? A lot more gigging, hopefully! As soon as we finish the promotion and shows around our album launch, we’ll be making a start on our second release. Woof Woof!