After 25 years, “The Greatest Goth Band of All Time™” returns to unleash a debut album chockfull of spooky thrills and unspeakable horrors, as the three members of Pitch Black Manor speak with ReGen about the band’s history.
An InterView with Joshua Bentley, Lyle Erickson, and Chad Fifer of Pitch Black Manor
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Bentley: Chad sat next to me on the school bus in sixth grade and I told him a joke.
Fifer: ‘Why did Captain Kirk pee on the ceiling of the Enterprise?’
Bentley: ‘To go where no man had gone before!’ I’d say this is when the band began.
Fifer: We started hanging out together in junior high and were already doing what we called ‘remixes.’ We’d record dialogue from Kung Fu Theater and use a dual tape deck to cut it into existing songs that we’d mash-up, with some Halloween FX tapes and belching.
Bentley: My brother Scott was giving us these mix tapes with great industrial and new wave bands like Portion Control, Pink and Black, à;GRUMH…
Erickson: I met these guys freshman year of high school. We sat near each other in class because our last names are clustered alphabetically.
Fifer: It was the late ’80s, so we were right in the pocket for Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order. I got my first Sex Pistols tapes around then. In Los Angeles, these were all big acts who got lots of radio play. In East Moline, the whole goth/punk/new wave thing was a small fringe group, but we had access to Chicago and WaxTrax!. We went to an under-21 club in Iowa every weekend that played good music and it was its own subculture.
Bentley: And we all had a mutual love of Lugosi/Karloff movies. Pitch Black Manor comes into view.
Erickson: I got a guitar for Christmas and that kicked it off.
Bentley: A very large and very haunted basement served as our base of operations in my parents’ house through high school.
Fifer: We started with a TR-707 drum machine, a Yamaha DX-100, and a guitar, then booked shows and hustled to buy more equipment. We toured with a coffin strapped to the top of a station wagon. It was great.
Bentley: Dissolution was inevitable due to the rightly held belief that this band would not pay anyone a living wage. We held the band together about three years after all of us graduated from high school.
Fifer: I left for California in ’96. We don’t have a cool break-up story – it was just life moving along.
Bentley: And the internet was dial-up at the time – not conducive to long-distance collaborations. Most bands of our time went the way of the dodo for the exact same reasons.
Fifer: When The Postal Service album came out like 17 years ago, my first thought was of getting the band back together through similar means. This has been percolating for a long time.
Obviously, you’ve kept in touch over the years, and have supported each other’s projects; what motivated you all to reform Pitch Black Manor at this particular time? What made the stars right after 25 years?
Fifer: I kept making music for the film and podcast stuff, but I did miss playing in a group. Although when I tried jumping in with different bands in my 20’s, I hated it. Everybody took themselves too seriously. I decided I was good with just Pitch Black Manor, whether we played again or not.
Bentley: The pandemic seemed to derail the world around us, but that’s what pushed us back to the Manor. The band was the force that kept me from so much self-destructive behavior in my youth and now was saving my sanity again. Virus or Great Old Ones, I think our return together was bound to happen because of what the band meant to all of us through the years.
Having played together again and recording Monster Classics, what would you say have been the most significant changes in how you perform with and relate to each other? What is the group dynamic like now vs. 25 years ago?
As all three of you are credited with songwriting and production, what are your respective roles in the band – in terms of the instruments you play, but also in your creative input? Or to put it a bit more flippantly, how do you write a song?
Bentley: We accomplish a hell of a lot more in less time – this album took about five months start to finish.
Erickson: Working asynchronously is weird because there is no immediate feedback or group vibe, so every choice is a little less transient. You have to record tracks and send them out versus riffing on something together. We just tried not to overthink anything and roll with whatever came in from everybody else.
Fifer: The great thing about being middle-aged instead of a kid – it’s impossible for us to be cool now, so it’s just not a worry. When we were teenagers, even though we always had a sense of humor about ourselves, I had anxiety about how I looked and whether people liked us. And that went into the music one way or another – a desire to be tough, or cool, or fit into a genre.
Erickson: That was it. That was the only thing that made our music shitty.
Bentley: And we cut out all of the prank calls we would make to local business, which probably accounted for about half of band practice back in the day. Caller ID ruined everything and it’s been a slow slide into fascism ever since. I miss prank-calling pest control companies and telling them about large bats that bite children.
Fifer: Yeah, technology has changed a lot – with music as well as prank-calling. It’s too obvious to get into, but there’s a big difference between ProTools and our old Tascam 4-track. In terms of roles, predominantly I do drums/bass, Lyle’s on the guitar, and Josh sings. But on the album, Lyle played bass and did some drums, we all wrote keyboard lines. On any song, one of us maybe took the lead, but it’s very collaborative. It’s not much different than how it used to be in the band room.
Bentley: I’m mostly conceptual and lyrical, but after many years of trial and error, I can write some pretty decent song structures for these guys to lay into. If you need a song written lyrically from the perspective of a lovesick werewolf or annoyed squid man… I’m your guy. Don’t ask me to play an instrument live; it’s not going to go well. Chad and Lyle are much more well-rounded musicians.
Was all of the material on Monster Classics newly written, or was there a revisiting of ideas and/or demos that you’d not had the opportunity to pursue until now?
Similarly, since Chad’s been releasing music under his own name and Joshua had been in The Human Aftertaste, was any of the material on the new album at all informed by your work in your other musical outlets?
Bentley: I had two mostly finished songs that magically fit like spooky puzzle pieces into the mix of material we were working on. Both were written for consideration for two other projects/bands, but I just had the feeling this is where they belonged. One of the songs was started for the express purpose of writing a Halloween album; little did I know this track would be the thirteenth track on the album.
Fifer: Only one of the tracks, ‘The Dancin’ Fiend’ is an old song of ours. We actually didn’t even intend to put it on here – I was considering it as a bonus track. One day, I was noodling with it by sampling our old live performances and remixing them, when I got a text from a friend. He attached a video of his five-year-old son Henry jumping around and singing the chorus of the song: ‘Can’t stop what you can’t kill!’ He did not know I was working on the song in that moment or that we were doing this album at all – it was just something he’d taught the kid from the old days and the kid loves singing it. The synchronicity was too much; the song had to go on the album (and we sampled Henry’s rendition in the song).
Erickson: Otherwise, it’s all new.
Drawing inspiration from Halloween, horror literature and cinema, etc., there’s surely an unending wellspring from which to cull ideas; what are your feelings on the way gothic and horror literature/cinema/media has evolved over the years?
Erickson: Yeah, and although horror media has certainly evolved, for me it’s always been about a monster on the loose. Even better if that monster has alien or unknown motives, because that’s the cool part.
Fifer: There are a ton of other horror-rock bands out there and we love them. It’s a well-established genre of its own with long roots. But I feel like we stand apart just by virtue of the fact that we’re better than everybody else.
There has not only been a resurgence of musical styles and waves of nostalgia – post-punk revivalism, synthwave recalling the ’80s, movies referencing the ’80s and even the ’70s… to what would you attribute this? What is it about the past that you feel is resonating with people most these days?
Bentley: The revival of the ’80s makes total sense. It was a time when a singular musician or just a couple of musicians could grab a drum machine and a synth and touch the heart and soul of a generation. They weren’t saddled to a whole band and could write all of the parts and have them arranged the way they wanted. Sure, a recording studio was very expensive in the ’80s, but you didn’t pay for a whole band. Now you can track it all at home, and if you need mixing and mastering, it’s pretty reasonable to outsource. Of course, the ’80s were very repressive, but there was a sense of freedom that is now gone with the advent of the surveillance state. That magical blend of freedom and nonintrusive technology of the ’80s may be what is resonating for the many of these artists. Hell, what happened in the ’80s, and yes, the ’90s, stayed in the ’80s and ’90s… no smart phones.
Erickson: Also, young musicians will always have a sense that the good stuff happened right before they showed up. So, there’s a constant urge to reach back to the good old days. When I was growing up, the ’60s and ’70s seemed mythic!
Fifer: I think as a band, we don’t look to do ‘retro’ music. We’re bound to sound ’70s/’80s/’90s just because that was our youth and that’s how it comes out.
In the broader sense, what kind of music do you find inspires you the most? What are you listening to these days?
Bentley: I’ve had my head in the mouth of a monster album for the last five months, so it’s kind of a weird place musically to be in right now. Honestly, lately I’m drawn back to the music that inspired me on this path over 30 years ago. I’m back to my old albums like Cabaret Voltaire’s Code, MINISTRY’s Twitch, Thrill Kill Kult’s Confessions of a Knife, and Skinny Puppy’s Bites. After you get done with an album, there is an exhilaration and sadness, so I guess I’m trying to process that sadness by reaching to the music that transports me back to where it all began. Luckily, the exhilaration has outweighed the sadness because this album is Halloween party incarnate. It’s the eternal return for me.
Fifer: 90% of the music I’ve been doing over the last 20 years has been scoring, and I suppose one thing that’s pretty different from back then is that I’ve worked in lots of other genres. I like anything that does mood well. Lately my go-to background music has been Antônio Carlos Jobim, the bossa nova artist, or Atrium Carceri, the ambient outfit. My wife says my preferred genre is haunted James Bond, which is probably accurate. But I like pop music here and there too. I love the songwriting on the new Lennon Stella album – it’s a teenage breakup pop album and I listen to it while I make dinner like a man.
Erickson: I’m listening to birdsong – not because it’s beautiful, but to learn which of the creatures will betray me.
From what I can see, the album was created with everyone in a different state – Illinois, California, Iowa – and collaborating via the internet is pretty commonplace now. As well, since we’re in the midst of a pandemic and social distancing, many artists/bands are not only creating new material, but performing via livestreams. Obviously, they don’t hold the same power as a live show, but as it’s become part of the status quo (and with tours getting canceled, venues and clubs closing down, etc.), what sort of possibilities do you see for bands to use new and online technologies to keep music alive and maintain the excitement of audiences?
Fifer: Um, yes.
Erickson: I would like to see that.
Bentley: Live Pitch Black Manor… we’ve made it this far, I guess we’re just going to have to wear masks, which is fine for a band that loves Halloween.
Do you think live music can survive or evolve in the wake of the current situation?
Fifer: It’s more that our expectations have to evolve. This has been a pretty traumatizing experience for everybody, and a lot of people understandably respond by trying to enforce the old reality. The energy of a bunch of people in a room rocking is just not going to happen right now. It’s okay to miss it, but expecting it from a modified version will only disappoint. That said, humans are incredibly adaptable and the longer this goes on, the more innovation we’ll see.
Erickson: Of course, live music will come back in the long run. The guy at my local music shop tells me that guitar sales are off the charts right now, so maybe this all just creates an underground of new musicians.
You’ve released some music videos, but will we see live performances by the band? Is that even a consideration?
Fifer: Yes, and you will.
If you could conjure up any figure – be it historical, literary, or cinematic – for 24 hours, which would it be and why?
Bentley: I’d opt for Pete Burns, the lead singer of Dead or Alive – take some vocal lessons, cut at least one song together, and squeeze in an ’80s dance party with plenty of club drugs. Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know is the world’s most perfect album start to finish.
Eons from now, the sun has expanded to the size of a red giant nearing its final collapse. You’re standing at the edge of a precipice witnessing these last moments of existence before it all explodes. What are your thoughts in this final moment before it all ends?
Fifer: I was so frustrated to have played in the band for so many formative years and to not have come out of it with an album I was proud of, so… I might be thinking, ‘glad I got that Monster… album in!’
Erickson: Same. Also, ‘did somebody shit their pants?’
Bentley: ‘I just shit my pants and I won’t have to wash them!’
Photography provided courtesy of Pitch Black Manor