Published on May 29th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Rafa from Black Cobra
If your taste in music runs to sludge, doom, and stoner, chances are you’ve crossed paths with the devastating American two-piece Black Cobra.
Formed in 2001 by long-time Acid King bassist Rafael “Rafa” Martinez [drums] with Jason Landrian (formerly of doom overlords Cavity) on guitar, Black Cobra’s labyrinthine arrangements place a white-knuckled grip on your attention and get the head nodding like few other bands can.
There’s buckets of the filthy tone so beloved by fans of Electric Wizard but with a faster, neck-snapping aggression that wins over listeners who probably have a lot of Melvins or High on Fire in their record collections.
But it’s the ambition, imagination, and scope of the music—remarkable considering the lean instrumentation—that has seen Black Cobra grow from something of a side-project to headlining shows and major festivals all over the world.
While there is no doubt that Black Cobra couldn’t be the band they are without equal input from both members, it’s Rafa’s extraordinary talent and inventiveness on the skins as well as his formal training that has helped to create something unique, pushing the music from well-trodden paths and into new musical terrain.
BNU spoke with Rafa a few weeks before he joins Jason in the studio to start laying a highly anticipated new album on tape for Season of Mist Records, which is due out this fall. It’s the first album since 2011’s Invernal, considered by many to be the band’s most fully realized and successful.
BNU: What did you grow up listening to? Was there always music in your home?
I grew up listening mainly to classical music. My father was and is still obsessed with classical. Matter of fact he was going to name me Richard after Richard Wagner. I didn’t know about rock or metal until I was about 10 years old.
Did you come to playing music by imposed lessons or was it something you wanted to do? What is your fondest recollection of music when you were a little kid?
It was something I searched for myself. My older brother had started playing guitar when he was around 12 and I followed right behind him. I started on nylon-string guitar learning Spanish style and flamenco. When I was about 13 I got an electric and started learning rock and metal music.
It was a very violent environment back then and so a lot of kids gravitated towards aggressive music
What music did you discover for yourself, independent of friends and family, and what impact did it have on you? Did you ever have a violent reaction against pop or whatever was trendy, or is all music okay by you?
Metal was something I discovered for myself. Where I grew up in Colombia, the city of Medellin, there was graffiti everywhere and there were always names of bands all over the city. So I started investigating who those bands were.
It was a very violent environment back then and so a lot of kids gravitated towards aggressive music whether it was punk or metal. It wasn’t easy to find most metal and punk records, since they was all underground, so most of the time we were stuck with whatever was on Top 40 Billboard.
But it wasn’t all that bad, because back then there was good pop music like Michael Jackson and Queen. I like all kinds of music as long as it’s authentic.
What appealed to you about heavy rock music? What does it express for you that say classical or jazz music can’t? Why do you like metal?
Listening to metal helped me think for myself
Well the first bands that I was into as a fan in the ’80s were Iron Maiden and Metallica. First off, the musicality of those bands was absolutely superb. They were extremely proficient at their craft plus it was an epic experience immersing yourself into metal. It was definitely an escape from reality.
Metal music had intensity and an aggression that was very honest that you could not fake. Metal bands back then didn’t care about looking pretty or trying to follow any mainstream trend. Those bands had a particular character that was very unique, and in a weird way, listening to metal helped me think for myself and not follow what everyone else was doing.
You went to music school at one point and I think I read that your instrument of choice is piano. I’m wondering, from a musical and personal perspective, what is most satisfying to play? I imagine that drums and bass must satisfy a kind of primal urge, being so percussive, whereas piano has such great emotional range and musical possibility?
I studied piano for four years in high school. I then enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston where I studied guitar. I later studied percussion at the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles.
Playing guitar has always been my passion. I was very fortunate to have been introduced to a vast array of musical styles at a young age particularly through guitar players.
I got into blues learning Stevie Ray Vaughn songs, country playing Chet Atkins tunes, jazz learning Lenny Breau, fusion playing Al DiMeola and Return to Forever, progressive music playing King Crimson, classical learning Bach and Rachmaninov on piano.
Studying different instruments has helped me approach writing from different perspectives.
I also got into arranging at school and that got me into Ennio Morricone, Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman. Also studying different instruments has helped me approach writing from different perspectives.
When I was playing guitar and bass in bands I always had certain drum beats in mind that would compliment the other parts.
You seem to bring an element of jazz to your playing, and you work with tempo quite a lot. I’m wondering who your favorite jazz drummers are? Did you see the movie Whiplash? What was your reaction to it? Did you side with the kid or the teacher? What about drummers outside of jazz—who makes you want to play when you listen to them?
As far as jazz drummers, Buddy Rich of course. Tony Williams, Lenny White, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Billy Cobham. Those guys were untouchable. They had grace and intensity at the same time that is rare today.
I did see the movie Whiplash. Both the teacher and the kid were flawed. First off, that kind of abusive behavior from a teacher would never be tolerated for one second in any American institution. The guy eventually gets fired, but apparently he had been doing it for years.
Second, any self-respecting musician, especially someone as talented as that kid, would never take any shit from anyone. It’s a Hollywood movie of course so they had to exaggerate things quite a bit.
Any self-respecting musician … would never take any shit from anyone.
It was inspiring to see the amount of time and dedication that those kids would put into their practice sessions. Reminded me of when I first started playing. Drummers outside of jazz that I like are Henry Wilson from Floor and Des Kensel from High On Fire. I probably wouldn’t be playing drums today if it wasn’t for those two.
How is the dynamic on a logistical and personal level playing in a two-piece as opposed to a larger group like Acid King? Is stuff generally easier to manage? Or do you like creativity coming in from many people?
It’s different with every band. I never wrote anything in Acid King or -16- in my years playing bass. I came into those bands with the music already written. I had to learn dozens of songs that helped my songwriting tremendously.
Sometimes it’s interesting collaborating with many people, but other times it’s a bigger challenge with fewer players.
How does Black Cobra write? Do you guys have a space somewhere to jam, do you rent a room, or do you work it out separately and then go in and record all at once?
I have a studio where I record bands that I also use as our rehearsal space. I record pretty much every session so when we start writing we put together a big archive of ideas. We don’t think of songs in particular right away.
Sometimes it takes months, sometimes we’ll write two songs in a week.
After we have a good amount of material we start playing around with riffs and then they eventually evolve into songs. Sometimes we think of specific intros or bridges or grooves and then we work on those specific parts.
It’s been different every time. Our first record we wrote long-distance. Jason was still living in New York and I was living in Los Angeles, so I would send him recordings of beats and riffs and we would talk about the songs over the phone. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes we’ll write two songs in a week.
Playing in the genre that you do, and having built up a solid following, do you feel like there is a weight of expectation from fans when you make a record? Like, if you felt like issuing a drone record, or a black metal record, or whatever, are you concerned that the progress you’ve made would be undone if fans were to reject it? Or do you feel like Black Cobra’s fanbase would follow you wherever you went musically?
Well we always write for ourselves, we’ve never done things thinking whether people will like it or not. Our catalog has quite a bit of variation, which has helped us explore many facets of heavy music, so at this point we can take it in any direction we like.
Speaking of which—it’s been four years since your last record. Are you guys getting anything ready to release, and can you tell us a bit about it?
We are recording our new album this June that is coming out later this fall on Season of Mist Records. Legally I am not allowed to disclose anything about the album.