When it comes to the music of South Dakota’s doom country and hellbilly punk desperadoes Phantom of the Black Hills, two worlds couldn’t collide more violently, with plenty of bluegrass banjo pickin’, backwoods mandolin and upright bass thumpin’, together with loud punk guitar, hard-hitting drums and dirty, snarling vocals. This definitely isn’t your grandpappy’s country music, that’s for sure. And let me tell you, these fellas don’t look like the strummers and singers your grandpappy watched at the Grand Ole Opry or Louisana Hayride; instead, with cowboy hats pulled down over menacing outlaw masks, button-down shirts with suspenders, jeans and leather boots, these bandits look better suited to rob a stage coach or hold up a bank than lay down their hellfire songs.
Speaking of Phantom of the Black Hills’ songs, they pretty much go down like burning swigs of old Appalachian hooch; but they also make you want to move your legs a bit, like the twitching limbs of a condemned man danging from the gallows. On both albums — Ghosts and Born to Gun — it quickly becomes clear that their songs are much more mechanical than organic, with loops and sampling, and with a lot more distortion than twang. Even more than that, their songs amount to a soundtrack for unleashing one’s inner sinner and going forth into a night of transgression, where one loses oneself in drunkenness, violence and debauchery, at the end of which one very well might have ruined one’s chances at heaven.
Phantom of the Black Hills is a loose and ever-changing assemblage of evildoers and musicians, with but two anonymous core members. These modern-day outlaws are the sort who pick buckshot out of their meals, guzzle firewater, hide out in seedy saloons and gambling shacks and brothels, hoot n’ holler and fire their six-guns at the moon. They’ve got the devil in ’em, and it shows in each and every song they write and play.
Last year I came across a Phantom of the Black Hills song for the first time, “Roses on a Grave,” on a compilation from Devil’s Ruin Records titled Rodentum: Dark Roots Music IV. While I was impressed with all four of the compilation volumes, I found myself listening to select songs over and over, among them the one by Phantom of the Black Hills. As a writer and music enthusiast, it didn’t take long before I contacted them and asked if they would be interested in being featured in one of my roots music pieces. Not long after that I received a press package containing their second full-length release, Born to Gun, on Ratchet Blade Records. And as far as the individual tracks on Born to Gun, I am especially impressed with the opener “Scratchin’ at My Door,” “Cross Yourself (Before You Cross Me),” “Thief in the House,” “Whorehouse,” and “That’s How I Pull Rank.”
Recently I had both the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Phantom of the Black Hills. What follows is that interview in its entirety.
How about beginning with a little history of Phantom of the Black Hills?
Just lifelong renegades and outcasts doin’ what comes naturally — takin’ the music we love in its core form and infusing it with the rage and frustration that we all feel every day.
Who are the members of Phantom of the Black Hills? And what instrument, or instruments, do they play?
The Phantom – vocals, guitars, bass; Popeye – guitars, programming, drums, loops; and a mob of pickers and bangers…whoever is around. The POTBH is more of a torch that must be carried on than a set group of players.
In recent years, the dark roots, gothic country and cowpunk branches of music have seen a notable increase in bands and singer/songwriters. A good handful of them were featured on Devil’s Ruin Records’ Rodentia compilation, and then the three related comps released after that, on one of which a Phantom of the Black Hills song is included. What are your thoughts on today’s roots revival?
Yes, there is a notable increase in bands, some of them quite good, but along with that you get more bad ones too. There’s a lot more going on out there to sing/write about than Satan and drinkin’ and shit. But all in all, it’s great that there is a pretty steady stream of good music with new ideas that people are diggin’. And as long as folks can keep supporting it, it will continue to flourish.
Phantom of the Black Hills’ sound is host to a few different obvious influences — outlaw country and punk, Americana and metal, and roots rock and frontier-core — which together make the sound both rustic and heavy, organic and mechanical, acoustic and electric, and old-timey and modern. What would you say to roots purists and traditionalists who frown at all such fusions?
We are so far out there that that crowd doesn’t weigh in on what we do at all, you’ll never please the purists anyway. If you want a modern band to completely replicate a music that is some seventy years old then Hank Sr. would have been playin’ Civil War waltzes or something in his time, instead of creating the great music he did. We’re kind of like the executioners in the old days, you either liked ’em or you didn’t, but everyone excepted it as a job that had to be done.
How did the whole outlaw thing come about for you guys…your musical personas?
It comes naturally, obviously we’re very interest in it, and it strikes so deep that it almost kills it to go into too much depth about it. Let’s just say it sums up the whole feelin’ we’re tryin to put out there, and masks convey our relationship with mainstream society, since it’s the blankest expression that can be mustered.
If you were to pick a famous outlaw in history to be the face of Phantom of the Black Hills, to represent your sound, and to reveal a glimpse of one of your influences, who would it be?
Probably John Wesley Hardin. Complete rage and relentlessness, just reacting to circumstances (including shooting a man for snoring) whether wrong or right. Also Jesse James, living with the paranoia, betrayal, frustration…man, we feel it. Back then you were held accountable for your actions, instant “Frontier Justice.”
What have been some of your most memorable touring/gig moments to date?
Man, gigs are a blur, like an armed robbery or something, and touring heavily is something that we haven’t been able to do for one reason or another.
What has been the overall response to your new album, Born to Gun, from both your loyal fans and new listeners alike?
It’s been great! This music connects with people from all over the world, it seems. One thing I wanna say about our fans, the hardcore Phantom Riders, is that we appreciate them like none other. This isn’t the easiest band to follow, but we’ll keep delivering the goods the only way we know how.
Is there anything of note coming up for Phantoms of the Black Hills in weeks and months ahead? Shows? Collaborations? Recording? Compilations? Etc?
Workin’ on record number three right now, hopin’ to have it out as limited edition vinyl. Also getting a dvd out with all the videos on it along with some wild surprises on it.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you would like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours.
Not much of a preacher, but I will say to all out there, don’t get caught up with the differences of the genres of this type of music; don’t divide, unite. That’s what happened with the old punk scene; you had crusty punks, gutter punks, peace punks, poser punks, many more, all buttin’ heads against each other, then corporate America came in and killed it, now it’s Hot Topic and Good Charlotte…fucked!