The metallic hardcore band Burnt By The Sun released their last album in 2009, and disbanded soon after. Three of the band’s members (vocalist Mike Olender, guitarist John Adubato and drummer Dave Witte) have formed River Black. I caught up with Olender for a chat about how the reunion came about, their self-titled debut album and other topics.
Chad Bowar: Tell me how River Black came to be.
Mike Olender: River Black’s been around for awhile under different names. After Burnt By The Sun wrapped up John and Dave from Burnt By The Sun decided that they wanted to, after a little bit of time, get back together and start writing again, and do something that was different and distinct from Burnt By The Sun, but still had a bit of that flavor that they created together. They brought on board Brett Bamberger from Revocation, and started the process. Dimitri, the first singer from Dillinger, started with them. That played out for awhile and they wound up going on with another singer, and then a third singer, all under different band names.
During that process they reached out to me a few times to see if I was interested in being part of it. And, though I dug the music and I love the guys as people, the timing and all of that just really wasn’t there for me. So I didn’t take them up on it until the last time, which was December of 2015. For me, actually at that point, the timing had worked out really, really well and I decided to go ahead and do it. We had a lot of creative energy right from the beginning. And River Black was officially born.
Was there any thought of going back to the Burnt By The Sun name?
There was. Gordon from Season of Mist asked us that. He’s like, “Okay, so now that Mike’s back, why isn’t this Burnt By The Sun?” It’s very different from Burnt By The Sun. Burnt had a little bit more going on in terms of what we were trying to go for musically. River Black is much more rhythm oriented and relatively straight forward and so forth. I think it’s just got a very different feel to it. Plus, with Brett in the band, he has a very different style and energy than Ted Patterson from Burnt By The Sun did. Some people, they may hear similarities in it, but to us it sounds totally different.
With the four of you guys spread out, how did you go about writing the songs for the album?
By the time I came aboard, most of the stuff was already written. They had sent me stuff. In fact, before I was even in the band, for a couple years before every now and then they would shoot me an MP3, “Hey, check out this song we wrote. What do you think?” And that type of stuff. So when I came on board, out of the 11 tracks, I’d say eight or nine of them were written already. After that, the last two that needed to be written happened pretty easily.
John lives in New Jersey, Dave lives in Richmond. Brett was in New Jersey and now lives in Richmond. It wasn’t that big of a deal for them to get together every now and then. So every couple of months John would go down to Richmond and hang out for a long weekend. Dave and John, the way those two have always written together. You put them in a room for an hour and they’re coming up with a new song. It was pretty easy creatively.
Did you write all the lyrics or did they write the ones for those first songs?
Yeah, I wrote all the lyrics.
Had you written anything over the years or did you start from scratch once you actually heard these songs?
In the last few years I’ve done a few musical things. A New Jersey band, For The Love Of, I had closed out with a few years ago. I had done an album with them. So I had written some stuff since Burnt By The Sun. But with this, none of the material from River Black was written prior to it. Everything came from hearing the music, getting the vibe of it, and then just proceeding creatively from there. It was nice to have a new outlet and some new things to get off my chest and to express, so it all came together.
Now that you’re in your 40s, is it more of a challenge to find that anger and passion, or is it still pretty easy to tap into?
That’s a great question. It’s still there, but it’s different. As a parent now, I see the world a little differently. It’s probably because what River Black focuses on is human nature, and the difficult space of wanting to be something more than what human nature has wired you to be. A lot of that is instinct. When I became a parent, a lot of instincts that I didn’t know existed in the world were there front and center.
So that definitely helped shape some of the lyrics for the record. It made it much more personal; more personal and more of a primal response to things, more instinctual as opposed to intellectual or academic, which is kind of what I tried to aim for with other records I’ve done over the years.
As far as recording the vocals, since you’d been away from the game for awhile, was that more challenging this time around?
It was. I had to really work up to it. I was doing the demoing in home at my home office back in Charlotte when I lived there. That was fun; taking little breaks from work in the middle of the day and banging out demo tracks. It was a fun way to blow off some stress from work. But I worked my way into it. I was listening to the demos, and I would go back and isolate the vocals. I knew what I wanted to sound like, and I knew what I wanted to try to capture, but I knew I had a long way to go to get myself back there, just because I’ve been out of the game for so long. It’s not just a matter of going and doing a live set where you just go up and bang out nine or 10 songs and then you’re done. When you’re tracking vocals, you’re doing them over and over and over again a lot of times if you’re trying to nail them a certain way.
So I had to build my way up to it. Then we did two main sessions at Tracks East to record the record. We started in February of last year and then we came back again in May. The first session block of dates we had in February, I was not 100 percent happy with what I had done. When we came back in May, I wound up re-recording some of those tracks, just because I felt like I hadn’t gotten really in the zone, or maybe it was just that my voice wasn’t in the shape that I wanted it to be in.
There are a couple of moments on the record that I’m pretty psyched about. Even in my heyday with other bands I’ve done long screams and stuff. I’ve never done a 10.5-second long scream before, so the first time at 42 years old doing something like that, it felt pretty cool to surprise myself when they guys were egging me on, “Go! Go! Do it again! Do it again! You can do it! You can do it!” Then I just got pissed off and just started nailing it. It’s nice to see that I can still do certain things and still surprise myself a little bit.
In addition to your vocals, you brought aboard a guest to do clean singing on the track “Haunt.”
That is our good friend Brann Dailor from Mastodon. That particular track was the one song that I had trouble figuring out what I wanted to do vocally over it. After a little while I realized that what I was hearing in my head was something that I couldn’t do. I was hearing somebody else’s voice.
We started talking about who could we ask to do a guest vocal. In my mind I was thinking either Brann or Brent Hinds, which are both from Mastodon, just because they both have very distinct styles that I thought could sound really, really cool in that song. Brann was the first one, really, where we all immediately agreed, “Yes, and he definitely would do it if we asked him.” He nailed it. That song is very different from the other ones on the record. It was great for us to be able to work with him again.
What are your goals and expectations for the record?
We don’t have any goals aside from hoping that we have the opportunity to play together in some cool venues and with some bands that we like here and there. We’ve got no touring plans, and no expectations in terms of us with record sales or publishing deals or anything like that. Everyone’s got their plate full with other stuff that we do, whether it’s other bands, or careers, or family stuff, and all of that. Us getting back together and doing this is really us doing it because we want to do it, not because we need to do it, or we felt unfulfilled without doing it. It’s really just fun.
Do you see this as more than just a one-off album?
Yeah, I do. It’s definitely more than a one-off because we want to continue writing. Knowing John, he’s probably got eight songs written already that he hasn’t shared yet. After we enjoy this record and get to enjoy supporting a little bit with some live shows, we’ll get back to the writing process again and do it. It’s funny, because when I stepped into this I thought, “All right, this will be fun to do, and we’ll do the one record, and we’ll see where we’re at.” Now, at this point that you and I are talking, the record’s not even out yet and I’m already thinking, “Yeah, I definitely would love to do another one.”
How much has the music industry changed since the last Burnt By The Sun album?
I don’t even recognize it anymore. I’ve been fairly out of the loop. The last Burnt By The Sun record came out in 2009. Even when I was touring with For the Love Of, I really had got myself, I don’t want to say in a bubble, but let’s just say I was not in the loop with a lot of things that were going on. Part of it was just not being interested in a lot of music that was coming out, and also my priority was my family and my work. But now that we’ve come back and we’re working with Season of Mist on the release, it’s interesting to see how the steps have changed and how so much is social media now.
What has been the response been like so far?
So far so good. For me, the only people who I really care about in terms of their opinion of the record is friends and people who we’ve known over the years, and people who liked any of the bands that we were in before, who are interested in seeing what we’re doing now. But generally, it’s good to hear that we’re getting some pretty good reviews. Overall, we’re happy with the way we’ve been able to make this work together, and we’re happy with the way that the record came out.
Do people at your day job have any idea of your musical career?
Some people do, mostly in the past. I try to keep my personal life, whether it’s music or social media or anything, really separate from my work. It’s much easier to avoid any conversations about, “So, what kind of music do you call your band?” I’ve been doing bands since I was 16 and I still don’t know how to answer that question to people who are not in the know with metal or hardcore. It’s really hard to just describe it, because most people think metal and they think, “Oh, yeah, like Quiet Riot, but new.” And, “No, it’s not the guy with the corpse paint on singing in front of the burning church either. Not that. It’s somewhere, I don’t know where, in the middle.” So yeah, I generally just keep that pretty separate from everything else I do.
(interview published July 6, 2017)