Epiphone continues our long running conversation with Black Pistol Fire founder and guitarist Kevin McKeown. We first spoke with Kevin in 2015 just as he and drummer Eric Owen were relocating to Austin, Texas from Toronto. Over the last four years, BPF has built up a devoted following among fans around the world and the band has become a mainstay on the festival circuit including South by Southwest where the duo tried out the Masterbilt Century Archtop Collection. We spoke with Kevin at Sputnik Studios located in Nashville as the duo put the finishing touches on a new album due later in 2019.
Welcome to Nashville, Kevin. We’re at Vance Powell’s Sputnik studios where you are finishing your new record. How do you like Music City?
It’s great. We’re finishing everything this week. We recorded half of the album in Austin and now finishing it here with Vance who has worked with a lot of artists we really love including Jack White. We wanted to push ourselves out of our comfort zone a little bit.
It’s easy to get comfortable in Austin with our surroundings especially with the set-up, the gear, the board, the people that you’re working with. Things gets to a point where there is a certain level of chemistry that becomes quite present every time you go into record. That’s great, but that can also be a little bit crippling sometimes because it becomes a little bit too predictable. It’s been great to come down here and let go a little bit. We can see what’s working and what’s not working and give ourselves over to strangers--people who have made great records. That’s what we’re doing--trying to evolve as a band. We’ve made five albums and the last two we’ve done in Austin. This was our first time getting outside Austin since we moved there and Nashville is a place we actually haven’t spent too much time in. We’ve only stopped in during our tours. It’s kind of crazy. So, we were really stoked to get down here and see if the city might bring out something new in the music.
When we first met, you were just in the process of moving down to Texas.
That’s right. And Austin feels like home now. We moved down there a long time ago—and at the time we had family –girlfriends and wives—that still lived in Canada. There was a lot of back and forth. Now, it feels like our home. Nashville has a great vibe. But there is an intimidation factor—so many great musicians. We felt that way about Austin, too, but eventually those reservations went away. It’s easy to forget when you come to Nashville that all the heavy hitters in music are here. But for people who have lived here all their lives, this is just the way it operates. We love it Austin. It’s a great sense of community. We all try to help each other out.
Austin has long tradition of launching the careers of gifted lead guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. But you carry a lot more responsibility than they do since Black Pistol Fire is just a 2-member band. How has the Austin scene influenced your guitar playing?
I don’t think you notice at first but when you fully immerse yourself in any kind of environment you’re not fully aware of what’s happening at the time. But then you look back and think you can see the evolution of the decline (laughs) of your playing. I do practice all the time. One of the major reasons for moving down to Austin was Stevie Ray Vaughan—I was such a fan as a kid. I had his records and VHS tapes and would try to study all his licks. When we moved down to Austin, (drummer) Eric (Owen) got down before me.
We didn’t have a bass player and he started booking shows so we just started playing the two of us. I noticed immediately when we started doing those kinds of shows that it forced me to play differently. You can’t have a 10 minute shredfest if there’s no rhythm. So, for me, it became about trying to find ways around that where I could still add in melody with rhythm together. That altered my playing to using my thumb and fingers—more of a blues Robert Johnson style--trying to get in as many notes as possible but also have power. You can say a lot with two chords or three chords if you have the right back beat behind you. You can say so much with how much you pull back. And then when you add in another instrument—your voice—that’s where I’ve started to focus my playing now, accompanying the vocals and the drums. In my mind, I’m thinking what would a lead melody be doing on vocal or keyboard? That way of thinking totally changed my playing when we started doing the duo thing. And especially being in Austin. Now when I get into the studio and jam with other people, my brain still tells me when to hold back and when not to play.
It’s easy to forget that the voice is an instrument in the band.
Absolutely. We did a showcase in Los Angeles at NAMM and I quickly realized that everybody on the bill were these monster guitar players. I thought—“Oh man, that’s not what I do
!” I remember feeling very scared and insecure. I thought these guys were just gonna shred me off the stage. I can’t do that. Back stage I had a conversation with someone who said that everybody has got their thing. Like B.B. King, you should focus on being able to play two notes and just shatter somebody (laughs). If you’re someone who can strum the shit out of a power chord, that will resonate with people. That’s where I’m starting to get to now. I don’t feel like I have to be this kind of player who can do a million different notes and styles. I think now I’m just trying to focus on finding something that strikes a nerve with somebody, whether it be the way you strum that chord or the way you dig in a little bit.
Did you end up the kind of artist and guitar player you always wanted to be?
Not really. I grew up on old rock & roll, R&B—Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino. That was the stuff that was playing in the house. I always thought when I was older I’d do something along those lines. Maybe kind of find a way to do some kind of throwback. Then you get a little older and you start to discover Nirvana, the White Stripes and all of the sudden, rock & roll hits you like a freight train and then you have to go back and find out what inspired those dudes, and they were inspired by these blues. So yeah, it didn’t exactly wind up where I thought it would when I was younger, but now I just can’t really picture myself—or me and Eric—doing any other type of music then what we’re doing. But we’re constantly changing. That’s the thing with a two piece—those boxes and walls can get pretty close-in after a certain amount of time goes by. We’re working hard to figure out what else we can do.