Black Map. A clean slate, an open-ended set of directions with no boundaries or guidelines tying you to any predetermined path? Or a bleak, morbid symbol of nothing-good-to-come, no matter which journey you choose? Maybe a little bit of both? Dystopian themes and dark lyrical images sit atop bombastic, surging rhythms and melodies–suggesting all paths are possible, but you may lose a few things along the way. This is Black Map (guitarist Mark Engles, singer/bassist Ben Flanagan and drummer Chris Robyn).
Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Black Map is a perfect sonic intersection of its members’ pasts. In 2010, Ben Flanagan found his anthem-heavy pop band The Trophy Fire taking some time off from the road, and simultaneously found himself becoming fast friends with Mark Engles of the internationally popular experimental art rock band, dredg. It wasn’t long before Flanagan was touring the world with dredg as a side guitarist/vocalist. The two friends became inseparable, sharing their affinity for ‘90s rock bands that melded the heavy and the beautiful, such as Northern California cult icons, Far (which just so happened to be the former band of their friend, Chris Robyn). With Far as a major influence, Engles and Flanagan began writing the heaviest, most powerful music they could muster, while still keeping the strong sense of melody their other projects are known for. The duo took some of their early ideas to Robyn and when the three men began playing music together in the same room, the synergy and spark was instantaneous. With the touring schedule for dredg not nearly as busy as in the past, and with Robyn stepping down as a touring member of Crosses (side project of Deftones’ Chino Moreno and Far’s Shaun Lopez), Black Map was able to find time to record their forthcoming DRIVER EP (out February 25), and will hit the road in 2014.
The group unceremoniously released their debut single “I’m Just The Driver” on YouTube in November to overwhelming response, and were soon featured on BBC Radio 1’s “Rock Show” as one of their “Best Tracks of 2013.” Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with guitarist Mark Engles to discuss his musical roots, the formation of Black Map, the creation of their ambitious new EP, ‘Driver,’ and much more!
I always like to give our readers a look back at an artist’s earlier years. How did music first come into your life?
Going way back, my Dad always had old country/western music on when I was growing up. It wasn’t like this new crappy stuff but the old classics from Willie, Johnny, Merle and all that. Then my old brother always had a huge influence on me. As I got a little older, he started giving me punk and metal mixed tapes on cassette. It really started from there. There was a drum set in my house from a very young age that my brother used to practice on. That was my first instrument. I guess I always had some natural rhythm and while he was playing drums, I would grab the guitar. It was a cheap acoustic at first. As I got older, I met some friends at school and the first real musicians I met were the guys that ended up being in Dredg. We were probably thirteen or fourteen years old at the time and met each other after school through sports. There weren’t many other kids at our school that were listening to the same stuff, like I said, punk and metal stuff. It just seemed natural and we went from there.
Who were some of the bigger influences that you gravitated to and helped shape you at that early age?
Early on, I guess it was some of the standards like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Misfits and things like that. This was back in the early 90s. From there, I got into heavier metal stuff like Sepultura and things like that. As I got older, I diversified even more and started listening to things that weren’t even metal as my tastes grew. It really all stemmed from guitar rock in the beginning and I branched out from there.
Was there a there a particular catalyst that made you want to pursue music as your career?
I can’t say there was one moment in particular. I always just felt it was something that came naturally to me. It was always so much fun and it became my passion. I feel like as the years go by, as long as you are pushing forward and the goals you have keep getting bigger and bigger and those goals started to come to fruition, that is was the right thing to do. If I hadn’t done it, I probably would have ended up not being able to sleep at night! [laughs]
It certainly is working out great for you so far! That leads me to your latest project, Black Map. How did this project come about initially?
Black Map came about from me being great friends with Ben Flanagan, the singer and bass player. We had lightly spoken over beers or just hanging out. We were, first and foremost, friends from the San Francisco music scene. We had just loosely talked, saying “Let’s someday do something.” It wasn’t until Chris Robyn from Far showed an interest as well. He hadn’t had a project in a while and was itching to do something. I grew up listening to Far; they were another big influence on me when I was younger. Of course, walking into a room to play with one of your favorite drummers is always a good thing. It all sprung from loose discussions. We knew we had a basic direction and wanted it to be straight ahead rock. Especially for Flanagan and I, both of our bands really try to diversify from album to album, which is great but it felt natural to me to go back and do something where we weren’t thinking as hard and doing what was innate to us.
What do you other band mates, Ben Flanagan and Chris Robyn, bring to the table for a project like this?
Chris, as I said, has always been one of my favorite drummers. Dredg and Far used to play shows back in the day and I was always a fan. He is always so direct with his drumming. He is a very heavy hitter but he has a great groove. I used to always love to watch him play and it is so much fun to play with him. I have always been a fan of Ben Flanagan’s lyrics and melody choices. You can hear all three of our older bands in this new band but it is turned up a couple of notches, if you will. You will hear the Far, the Dredg and The Trophy Fire but it is pushed further. Flanagan did a great job with his vocals; where as The Trophy Fire is a little softer than this. He is pushing his voice and getting a little more gruff with it, which is awesome! I think it is cool that you can hear the influences but it one notch more too, where it becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Did you have any goals or expectations to achieve with this project when you first started out to create this EP?
This EP was created mainly to get the music out there. We have only played a handful of shows, so it is to get it out there to the universe of the interwebs, if you will, and make sure people know what we sound like. Coming from other bands and having so many friends in the industry, we were getting a lot of “What do you sound like?” This EP is just to give everybody a taste of what we felt where the first four solid songs we have. We will have almost an album’s worth of music ready soon but we really wanted to get these songs out there to let people know what we they are like and not have people read a review and guess. Once we get this out and about, the shows will start coming and we will set our sights on a full length release down the road.
What can you tell us about the writing process for this album? Did you approaching differently than you have in the past or with other projects?
The first four songs on the EP are probably a little more along the lines of things that Ben and I had around; stuff that we wouldn’t be using for Dredg or Trophy Fire. It was just stuff that wouldn’t fir those styles and existed in really raw forms. For me, there are a lot of riffs on the EP that were just riffs on the computer and then taken in the room and molding it with human beings to mold it into something that is more real. After those first four, now we are writing all together, so the songs are molding and evolving into a more complex and heavier spot. Being in a room with human beings, you can through in so much more stuff than with a rigid skeleton of a song that is on a computer. I think both ways of writing are great and both have their own advantages. I think these first four songs are more straight ahead and the rest of the material which should be out later this year or early next year will be heavier and more complex. The writing is always going to evolve when you are in a new band and are still feeling things out.
You released “I’m Just The Driver” as the first single. What was it about this song that made you select it as the lead-off track? We just felt it had a little of each of the different styles that we thought this band could bring and sometimes you just look at what will make the best first impression. I think all fours songs have something about them that make each great but that song seemed like the most natural first impression we could give when we were asked what Black Map was like. When we get that question, this is the song I would like to show people.
In starting up a new band and putting this new music together, is there an obstacle or challenge you feel you have faced or overcome?
No, not necessarily. Musically it is almost too easy for us! We are just having such a good time getting in a room; we don’t over think it. We aren’t thinking to hard song to song or from part to part. It is more of a situation where if it feels good, go for it! That isn’t always the case, especially when you have been playing for a long time. On the back end of things there is always going to be difficulties with timing and we aren’t eighteen anymore, so we can’t just jump in the van and tour the country. We do definitely plan on touring soon. I guess the main challenge is being able to balance our personal lives with playing rock ‘n’ roll, ya know? But that comes with the territory!
This thing is just getting started but what have you’re learned from your time working with Ben Flanagan and Chris Robyn?
I would go back to what I just mentioned, which is me being guilty of over thinking stuff when it comes to writing. Black Map is the first project in a long time where I really have gone back to something that feels more natural and feels like I am in my bedroom as a younger man, not over analyzing. Chris, as a drummer, just wants to go and rip in! It is something that feels very natural!
What you are thinking in regard to video releases? Any plans in the works?
Yeah, I think we would like to a video for at least one or two of songs on the EP. Nothing is set in stone yet but we are definitely working on it and would like to do that soon.
Looking back on your career so far, how do you feel you have evolved as a musician along the way?
I guess I have just relaxed a lot! [laughs] When you are younger you tend to stress, overanalyze and be a bit more antsy about things. I have definitely relaxed a lot and realized if you are confident in what you do; let it be what it is. That is probably the main thing I have learned.
What do you consider some of you musical milestones at this point in your career?
There are definitely a handful. I feel as you evolve, your goals tend to grow as you grow. Along the way, things like being able to sell out The Fillmore in San Francisco was huge. I will always remember that! Another big thing was to be able to play internationally; places like Europe and Australia, is something I take very humble and truly appreciate. It is amazing to be able to take your music around the world. Being able to share the stage with certain musicians who you were influenced by is any great experience. Those are all small goals but I feel like they build as you get older.
What do you have on your short list as far as goals you have for yourself musically?
There are always other countries I want to see and I would love to play Asia! I think with this project, I think just getting on the road is a short term goal I am eager to accomplish, as well as doing a full length release and build a fan base, I hope we are able to go out with some bands we respect and that fit our style. There are always bigger goals with bands like Dredg that I am still working with. I am looking forward to continuing pushing forward but it feels good to have something fresh and new to start over again with. You are going through the same steps but you have a lot more experienced going through these steps with a new band.
What other bands out there have peaked your interest lately?
There is always something new! I love St. Vincent and think she has done some phenomenal stuff with the last two records. Elbow has always been a favorite of mine. The new Queens of The Stone Age record is just mind-blowing! Red Fang and The National’s new record are definitely in the rotation!
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring musician looking to make a career in the industry in the current climate?
That is a great question. Be honest. Don’t fall down the trap of being something you are mot. It sounds cliché but it is true. You really have to enjoy it or you are not going to be happy. Just get what you are doing out there! Play a lot, put music out and don’t over think it!
I want to thank you very much for your time today, Mark. The new music is very exciting and I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Thanks for supporting us! Talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.