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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