Brighblack Morning Light's swampy psychedelia grows from the ground
By Lorraine Carpenter
In Dig!, the sensational documentary about the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Anton Newcomb is likened to someone who emerges from a long spell in the desert screaming that they’ve seen God. For Brightblack Morning Light’s Nathan D. Shineywater (Nabob) and Rachel Hughes (Rabob), spiritual experiences in the wild are as routine as tea and doobies.
Both Nabob and Rabob were born in lower Alabama, absorbing Southern gospel from the time they were toddlers. Nabob was raised by his grandfather, a preacher, and his father, a coke dealer. He attended an all-white church that wasn’t nearly as fun as the nearby black church sounded from the street, but unofficial segregation kept the congregations separate, instilling Nabob with a distaste for organized religion. Likewise, the racism he experienced when he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, left a sour impression of city life.
“I had to take speech therapy classes ’cause they said I talked like a black person, and they didn’t like that,” he says. “I had to sit in this classroom with little headphones on and repeat words into a microphone and then get graded on it. That was my first experience with what I guess you’d call city living.”
In recent years, Nabob and Rabob, who say they have a sibling-style relationship, have “dropped out” of the urban scene. They were members of the same dead-end Alabama band, though not at the same time, playing My Bloody Valentine covers and some originals. Before long, they were happily living in tents in Northern California, moving into small cabins when the cold set in.
Their first recording was a split seven-inch single with Bonnie Prince Billy in 2002, under the name Rainywater, followed by their first Brightblack Morning Light LP, Ala.Cali.Tucky, recorded with Will Oldham in 2004. This record, and their hypnotic, ambient live shows, piqued the interest of Matador Records, who released the duo’s breakthrough eponymous album. Nabob’s slide guitar and Rabob’s Rhodes piano, backing their ethereal vocal harmonies, evoke bands like Spiritualized, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star, but with a slow, swampy, psychedelic groove echoing Brightblack’s Southern roots.
These days, between tours, Nabob and Rabob are temporarily living in a friend’s adobe on a New Mexican mesa, elevation 10,000 feet. On his first cup of morning tea, before the day’s first doobie, Nabob expounds on his greatest musical influence, Mother Nature.
“Basically, I’m a man. Looking through history at the relationship between men and nature, there’s all these different kind of minds: there’s the scientific mind, which names all the trees and plant families and sees everything as scientific phenomenon; there’s the conquering mind, the kind of person who gets on a bike and goes up the side of a mountain based on some kind of testosterone-driven, competitive influence; then there’s other people who just go for the walk. I go for the spiritual aspect. I believe that all forms of life have spirits and that you can interact with those spirits, and by taking marijuana, I’m able to hand over my male mind, my scientific mind, my conquering mind, to the plant itself. Then I surround myself with ancient native plant life, and there’s a connection that grows there, an exchange that’s almost semi-telepathic. That’s the most important aspect of marijuana for me. It grows wild, it was put here for a reason.”
I believe that all forms of life have spirits and that you can interact with those spirits, and by taking marijuana, I’m able to hand over my male mind, my scientific mind, my conquering mind, to the plant itself.
Nabob wouldn’t turn down cocoa leaves if he were to visit the Andes—guides often offer it to tourists to help them cope with the elevation—but he has yet to try cocaine or other hardcore drugs.
“My dad told me when I was young, ‘Son, if it don’t grow from the ground, don’t you touch it,’ and I kinda kept to that, except with LSD. I think everybody needs to check that out, even if you’re not an artist, no matter what you do. I feel like it’s such a complex world these days and the boundaries of good and evil, especially in America, are just so strange. It’s a necessary tool to find your own place in the midst of all these lies and deceptions.”
Not surprisingly, Brightblack Morning Light are pacifists—at a recent show in Tucson, Arizona, the site of an air force base and army intelligence center, they specifically restricted military recruitment. They’re also devoted environmentalists, teaming up with their record label to offset their van’s emissions, and those of the fans who drive to their shows, by purchasing 50 pounds of C02 offset from Terrapass for every item purchased from the Matador online store for a two-month period. They’ve aligned themselves with other causes, such as freeing Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier, but the issue closest to their hearts, and to their music career, is reclaiming the space where live music is performed. “Whenever we take these songs somewhere, before we get plugged in, we have to go through certain degrees of Babylon that have infiltrated where we’re playing music. On the progressive scene, the big thing on everybody’s mind right now is reclaiming where we gather and exchange songs and how we do it and who’s in charge, because currently it’s owned by Budweiser, and that’s really a shame.”
To this end, Nabob acted as curator for a series of festivals called Quiet Quiet, bringing artists such as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver to Big Sur, California for an independent, rural music happening.
“It was a little bit of a dream come true ’cause I had Rambling Jack Elliot come out—he’s one of those guys who was hanging out with Woody Guthrie before Bob Dylan knew who Woody Guthrie was. We got to smoke some ganja together out of an apple, then he gets up and plays some of Woody’s songs, Bob Dylan’s songs, songs of his own. And when you get to contemplating [about] staying strong and steadfast for what you wanna do, and here’s a man in his late 70s toking out of an apple, it can happen, you know what I mean? It’s not an illusion. It’s the truth.”
This article first appeared in Heads Vol.7 Issue 06 - May 2007
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Founder of Canada's first compassion club, the VCCCS (Vancouver Compassionate Cannabis Club Society)
This article was originally published in Heads Magazine May 2002
Heads: What is the VCCCS?
HB: The Compassion Club is a registered non-profit society; we have been distributing cannabis for medical use for four years. We began as a one-woman dream, equipped with a paper and a backpack full of borrowed cannabis, eagerly breaking the laws prohibiting cannabis each day. Now we have created a zone where prohibition does not exist in order to allow medicinal cannabis users to access cannabis without the fear and stigma of prohibition. We have matured into a consensus-based organization that employs 28 staff, and serves a membership of 1,600 people. The members have a huge range of conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, chronic pain, seizure disorders, glaucoma, hepatitis C, anxiety, depression, insomnia, eating disorders and many others.
We began as a one-woman dream, equipped with a paper and a backpack full of borrowed cannabis, eagerly breaking the laws prohibiting cannabis each day.
Heads: Other than supplying marijuana, what does the club offer?
HB: Both the registered members of our organization and the members of the local community benefit from access to low-cost alternative healthcare through our Wellness Centre. Available to them are clinical herbalists, clinical counsellors, a nutritional counsellor, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, a Reiki practitioner, an acupressure massage therapist, and a yoga program. These services are subsidized by the sale of the cannabis and, as a result, users can access them on a sliding scale. Those who have more, pay more; those who have less, pay less.
We operate with a consensus decision-making model in all levels of the Society to ensure that all voices have equal influence and our decisions are as high quality as possible. We have a flat pay scale, therefore all employees regardless of their position, are paid an equal wage. Our members are involved beyond accessing the services available, as we have monthly meetings to discuss and make decisions on current issues. Our members are stakeholders in the consensus process regarding our political positions, policies they are directly affected by, and other important decisions.
The members have a huge range of conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, chronic pain, seizure disorders, glaucoma, hepatitis C, anxiety, depression, insomnia, eating disorders and many others.
Heads: What are some of the challenges you have faced?
HB: There have been many challenges along the way; thieves, by-law inspectors, unfriendly landlords, grumpy neighbours, greedy growers and poverty stricken members, to name a few. However, it is the victories and the miracles that truly stand out. The cop who guarded a safe full of our cash and cannabis when thieves tried to rip it off. The judge who first recognized that we provide an essential service. And, most recently, the senator who told us we are “untouchable.” The miracles are happening every day.
There have been many challenges along the way; thieves, by-law inspectors, unfriendly landlords, grumpy neighbours, greedy growers and poverty stricken members, to name a few.
Heads: Can you tell us about some of your members?
HB: Gregg Cooper is a young man who was diagnosed with rapid-onset multiple sclerosis only four years ago. Today, he cannot bathe himself, dress himself or feed himself without cannabis to ease his muscle tremors and pain.
Vicky Nicholson has multiple sclerosis fibromyalgia, a serious joint and muscle disorder, and is restricted to a wheelchair. Instead of living a life debilitated by these conditions, Vicky is a national marathon athlete, winning medals each time she races, and she attributes her amazing physical success to cannabis.
Instead of living a life debilitated by these conditions, Vicky is a national marathon athlete, winning medals each time she races, and she attributes her amazing physical success to cannabis.
Michelle David is in her sixties, suffering from serious arthritis among other conditions, and she is able to resist the pressure to move into a nursing home, resist the pressure to use morphine, and lives an independent, drug-free life through her use of cannabis.
Many of our members cannot walk, eat, sleep or work without cannabis. With access to cannabis and alternative healthcare and support from the community at the Compassion Club, we have assisted people addicted to heroin, cocaine, crack, methadone, morphine, codeine and alcohol to overcome their addictions.
This new industry will become either a government- or corporately-controlled monopoly, or it will become a sustainable, efficient, and fair cottage industry.
Heads: How do you feel about Canada’s recent moves to legalize medical marijuana?
HB: As medicinal cannabis becomes a new legal industry in Canada, new challenges face the Compassion Club and the greater cannabis community. This new industry will become either a government- or corporately-controlled monopoly, or it will become a sustainable, efficient, and fair cottage industry. As it stands now, Plant Prairie Systems is positioned as the sole legal producer of medicinal cannabis in Canada. Economically and ethically, this monopoly is unacceptable.
The highly charged political environment caused by prohibition has created a situation where the political agenda has been prioritized over the real healthcare concerns. Prohibition has muddied the waters for those creating the regulations for access to medical cannabis, and the regulations pander to prohibition, rather than creating an effective, rational program. The regulations as they presently exist are far more extensive, invasive, difficult to administer and enforce than regulations for any other prescription drug or natural medicine.
The bodies that govern the medical community, such as the Canadian Medical Association, have rejected the new regulations so extremely that doctors are being threatened with insurance revocation if they recommend cannabis to their patients. The doctors are afraid and those in desperate need wait in the horrible Catch-22.
Within the cannabis community are the resources necessary to create an alternative structure to the one the government and corporations would have us caged in, the one we are collectively going to continue to tear down until it is destroyed.
Heads: How do you propose we solve this problem?
HB: We, the cannabis community, will solve this insane situation. Community-based cannabis distribution centres run by caring, responsible, and informed folks will continue to be the most effective model for the distribution of medicinal cannabis. Within the cannabis community are the resources necessary to create an alternative structure to the one the government and corporations would have us caged in, the one we are collectively going to continue to tear down until it is destroyed.
I believe it is possible to have successful, community-based cannabis distribution centres meeting the needs of all Canadians who need access to this forbidden medicine. I believe it is within our power and I believe it is our duty.
Read Black Ops - Heads Lifestyles' exclusive May 2019 interview with C-suite cannabis activist Hilary Black here