Chris Black might be the busiest musician in Chicago’s metal scene. The multi-instrumentalist and former Metal Maniacs contributing writer fronts three Chicago bands: Dawnbringer, Superchrist, and High Spirits. He’s also a former bassist for Nachtmystium, and has worked with the band in both production and creative roles on their past four albums and a handful of EPs. He even operates his own label, Planet Metal, in the interest of helping other acts get their music out.
Clearly, Chicago isn’t big enough to hold all of the metal in Black’s head, which is probably why he also plays drums for the Pennsylvania-based power-metal act Pharaoh—whose fourth album, Bury The Light, came out March 6. On top of that, the band is playing its third show ever at Joliet’s Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse festival May 18.
Black has also logged studio time recently with two of his other projects, Dawnbringer and the Motörhead-inspired trio Superchrist, with tour dates for both sure to follow later this year.
The A.V. Club caught up with the multitasking metalhead to talk about Pharaoh, his other projects, and the state of the Chicago metal scene.
The A.V. Club: You’ve got a new Pharaoh album, Bury The Light, out now. How did it turn out?
Chris Black: To me, it’s very similar to the previous album, [2008’s] Be Gone. That may be something of a distortion because the leap from album one to album two, and then again from two to three, was a pretty big leap in terms of production value and in terms of some of the songwriting elements. There’s the amount of songwriting that was going into the songs in terms of really testing different parts and different transitional things, and making sure the vocal melodies were established as well as they are. So, the leap from album three to album four hasn’t been as significant—at least as far as I can tell. In terms of developing our sound, I think we basically did that by Be Gone and now it’s kind of a period where we will explore within that sound, and maybe find some new corners and avenues within that. But, I don’t see the boundaries expanding as much as they have to this point. With that said, anybody who likes the last album should be pretty happy with this one.
AVC: Does the rest of the band being based in Pennsylvania cause any complications? How did you end up working with them?
CB: Well, I was still living up there when the band formed in 1997, and it wasn’t until 2000 that I moved here. At that point, very much like today, Pharaoh was predominantly a studio and songwriting project rather than a live band. To be honest, there aren’t very many complications as a result of the distance. In the past couple of years, we’ve said, “Well, maybe it’s actually a good thing.” A lot of the difficulties that bands traditionally face are interpersonal difficulties, and in our situation, we’re not spending a lot of time together. I think the four of us have been in the same room maybe four or five times in 13 years, so we don’t have a lot of interpersonal stuff that weighs a lot of bands down. When we’re together, it’s to work. We have a lot of fun, but we have a pretty good work ethic as far as getting our stuff done. It’s never been a problem because of what our goals are. Our goals are pretty much just to make albums.
AVC: Is it odd for you being the drummer in Pharaoh as opposed to being the frontman in your other projects?
CB: No, because I still get to do a lot of songwriting. That’s one of the things special to us about Pharaoh. All four of the band members write. We write in different combinations, and sometimes we write alone. In that sense, my role is similar. Where it’s a little weird sometimes is I don’t have a totally authoritarian status when it comes to management kind of stuff with the band. Again, it’s a more collaborative environment, which isn’t to say that I’m a total dictator in the other environments. But I do have a measure of authority that I don’t in Pharaoh—at least not exclusively.
AVC: Dawnbringer seems to be your best-known band these days.
CB: At the moment it seems that way, which is a complete reversal but kind of cool.
AVC: How’s the new Dawnbringer recording coming along?
CB: That’s in progress. We’ve got all the rhythm tracks done, and we go back next week for overdubs and mixing and stuff like that.
AVC: You’ve done some production and songwriting with Nachtmystium before, as well as being their bassist at one point, and you’ve said in interviews that you just kind of know Blake well enough that you’re able to encompass what he wanted to say with some of his music. What has that been like?
CB: Addicts  is the only album I wrote the majority of lyrics for, and speaking of that one specifically, it did kind of come naturally. Blake and I made four full-length albums together and a bunch of EPs, and my role definitely changed during the time that we were working together. At first, I had a purely technical role. I was just there to press record and put mics in front of the drums and stuff like that. By the end—fast-forward from Demise to Addicts—my role is entirely creative. Sanford’s in the picture, and I’m not going to stand there and tell Sanford where to stick a microphone, you know? He’ll tell me where to stick a microphone! As you said, I was writing lyrics and really helping to shape these songs. My role has kind of gone from one extreme to the other. With the years and experiences that that transition represents, Blake and I had a pretty intuitive sense. I knew where he was going to go, and he would kind of know where I would want to maybe redirect it a little bit. That’s how you end up with Addicts, which we’re still very happy with. I’m very happy with that record.
AVC: There’s sometimes criticism regarding people with multiple projects that’s sort of like, “What is he doing in that band that he couldn’t do in his original band?” or “He’s afraid to try this in his main band.” For example, there are a lot of things that Phil Anselmo did in his half-dozen side projects that he could have just done in Pantera.
CB: Right. There needs to be a clearer musical division. I think I have that pretty well under control. I’m not going to write “The End Is Eternal” for High Spirits, you know what I mean? As far as being afraid to try something, maybe there’s some measure of that, but a lot of these different ideas just don’t seem like they’d work. I think the process of trying to force something into a container where it doesn’t belong is ultimately bad for the thing, and it’s going to be bad for the container also. Each of these entities are mutually strengthened by being separate.
AVC: Between all of your bands, you play just about every instrument. Which one is your favorite?
CB: Honestly, I’ve been enjoying the bass a whole lot. I never got to a point where I was sick of it, but the last couple years, I was kind of focusing on vocals and really getting into that. The last couple of months, the bass has felt really good and kind of easy, in a way. My least favorite is drums just because I don’t have a chance to practice as much as I should, but that’s just the way it is. Later in life, I’ll try to get back to drums. Maybe.
AVC: What about all of the criticism metal bassists get, like, “Oh, you can’t really hear the instrument anyway?” That’s kind of been the joke for a long time, especially in thrash and death metal, because so many bands seem to bury it in the mix.
CB: That’s true. I think it’s all in how you use it. If you’re using it in a musical way, it’s going to stand out. If all you’re doing is using it to provide a little low end for the guitar riffs, then it doesn’t need to be as prominent. In Superchrist, there are only three people in the band, so I can really blast on the bass and it sounds good.
AVC: How did Planet Metal get started, and how does that fit into everything else that you do?
CB: I was living in Michigan in 2007 and became friends with this band Wastelander who were just getting started. I had been thinking for a time about releasing some other bands’ stuff because for a few years leading up to that, I’d been really building up a lot of distribution contacts and trading partners just with the Superchrist stuff. I figured that if maybe I had some other titles to offer, business would grow a little bit. So I ended up releasing Wastelander’s album, and Kommandant from Chicago. The 12th release, Sauron’s Thrash Assault CD, just came out. It’s not a full-time thing. Nothing I do is really a full-time thing, in and of itself. If you combine everything, it’s substantially more of a full-time thing in terms of the hours. Planet Metal gives me kind of a regular, steadier income. The other income comes kind of in spurts. It’s more work, really, making packages and going to the post office. I like keeping music in front of people. I try to sell at shows as much as I can—setting up a distro table and bringing out crates of vinyl and some CDs. That’s my favorite way to sell because you’re actually face-to-face with the customer. Nothing’s going through the mail, PayPal isn’t getting any cut, and people can actually flip through the records. Planet Metal is just one piece of the puzzle as far as my life goes, but it’s been a really cool way to keep Chicago people hooked up—especially now that Metal Haven’s not around.
AVC: It’s kind of weird that Metal Haven didn’t last, considering the amount of attention the metal scene here gets these days. What’s your take on the state of metal in Chicago?
CB: It deserves the attention. I think anyone who thinks it sucks here has obviously never lived anywhere else. If anything, it’s almost too big. There’s like two shows on the same night that you wanna go to. That doesn’t happen in other places. It’s great.
AVC: And a lot of the bands that have been around for a long time, like Cianide, are just now starting to get the attention they deserve and getting offers.
CB: It’s unbelievable. And they’re saying “yes.” That’s the unbelievable part! [Laughs.] I wish some of the other bands from that generation were a little more active and able to enjoy it. I miss Scepter. I wish Eric Wagner were still in Trouble, and all of these things.
AVC: It’s almost a shame that Paul Speckmann is all the way over in the Czech Republic now.
CB: I know! Right now, he’d be king of the land back here. I’m sure he’s got his reasons.