A Powerful Shade: Black Pistol Fire To Play Hi-Tone


Black Pistol Fire's Eric Owen &  Kevin McKeown
  • Black Pistol Fire's Eric Owen & Kevin McKeown
Black Pistol Fire sounds like it could be the name of a cowboy-themed arcade game, but it’s the moniker of the duo made up of vocalist/guitarist Kevin McKeown and drummer Eric Owen. The two Toronto natives met in kindergarten and started playing music together in high school.

They’ve since relocated to Austin, Texas, known (among other things) for its psych- and garage-rock scene and home to the LEVITATION Festival. (With records like 1967's "Levitation," Austin's 13th Floor Elevators pretty much invented the psychedelic rock genre). And the Toronto transplants fit in to Austin well with their scruffy appearance, blues-tinged guitar licks, and energetic live sets. On Sunday, Black Pistol Fire are making a stop at the Hi-Tone, with Emily Wolfe to open the show.

The band recently released a new single, “Black Halo,” on Rifle Bird Music. The track's vintage slapback guitar sounds demand attention. A lo-fi psych-rock shimmer gives the song a hint of darkness and just enough edge to act as a counterweight to its toe-tapping groove. Though the minimal production on the single is pristine, live performances are where Black Pistol Fire shines the brightest.

On guitar and vocals, McKeown samples freely from the popular music mosaic, employing a tightly wound punkish energy, blues riffs, and a good ol’ fashioned rock-and-roll veneer. Owen on drums is all shirtless flailing arms, and long curly hair, as the sticks in his begloved hands bounce off the toms and cymbals. It’s like Animal the Muppet learned to play by watching old videos of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.

The result is far greater than the separate parts; the band sounds too lush and too dynamic to be just two people. While some reviews compare the duo to another famous blues-rock-influenced duo with “Black” in their name, I think the similarities are superficial. The comparisons that come to mind for this listener run the gamut from Bo Diddley to Buddy Holly to the Black Angels (yes, I know, another band with “black” in their name).

I spoke with Owen and McKeown via email about Austin, Goner Records, the band’s new single “Black Halo,” and why they like the word “black” so much.

Memphis Flyer: Austin seems to be a town that loves its psych-rock and garage rock. Do you find that your adopted hometown has been a big influence on you?

Eric Owens: It definitely has over the last few years. Our earlier records didn’t really have that psych element, but we’ve really tried to incorporate more psych elements into the records these last few years. I have personally seen the Black Angels five times in the last two years, and they blow my mind every time. Their sonics are incredible, bordering on full madness at times.

MF: With your sound, I definitely hear some blues tinges as well as more psychedelic influences. Do you get tired of people bringing up acts like 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson when talking to you?

EO: Not at all! We’d love to hear more of that. Our music is pretty varied; we’re kind of all over the place. It’s all under the umbrella of rock-and-roll, but we try to incorporate as many other sub-genres as we can.

MF: I love the tone on the guitars on the new single. Do you spend a lot of time dialing in tone, or are you more “set it and forget it” players?

Kevin McKeown: Thank you! It definitely takes a while to dial in the tone. Hours! Pedal combinations, amp combinations, it’s a never-ending battle. Trying out several new pedals on this run alone, always refining.

MF: Let’s talk a little more about the new single. With lyrics like “got my shadow in a black halo,” it sounds like a song about being cursed. Am I way off the mark here?

EO: Not off the mark. It’s inspired by the California Wildfires of last year and how someone can lose everything they have yet still be holding out hope. Searching for that silver lining.

MF: In some ways, the protagonist in the song seems to find comfort in his black halo. I guess it’s a constant, something that can be relied on.

EO: Relied on yes! Comfort and solace, you be the judge ...

MF: Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but it seems like you have an affinity for the color/word “black.” Is that rock-and-roll thing? Black leather, danger, and all that jazz?

EO: All that jazz! It’s just such a powerful shade, color, tone, whatever you’d like to call it. It’s kind of like the unknown.

MF: Where was the song recorded?

EO: This one was recorded in Austin at Arlyn Studios, where we’ve recorded the majority of the last three albums with Jacob Sciba.

MF: Can we expect more new music soon?

EO: Definitely. We’re dropping two tracks in early May and another later in the month, all leading up to the next album in the fall.

MF: Have you played Memphis before?

EO: We have not. We’re stoked though. Our opening act, Emily Wolfe’s bass player Evan is from Memphis, so it’ll be a homecoming for him. Plus Memphis has so much musical history. It’s the home to the King of Rock-and-Roll and Stax, for crying out loud. And we’re also big into Goner Records and what they’ve done.

MF: Is there anything else you want to add?

EO: The show’ll pretty rad ’n sweaty! Plus we’ll be playing some new tunes. Should be a gas!

Black Pistol Fire perform with Emily Wolfe at the Hi-Tone, Sunday, May 5th, at 8:30 p.m. $15-$20.

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