Arts Desk

How Black Tambourine Reunited—Sort of—to Make Its Definitive Document

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Ask some fans of noisy indie pop,  and they'll tell you the genre hit its apex with Black Tambourine. The D.C. band, one of Slumberland Records' early flagship acts, recorded only a handful of songs around the early '90s—all which, you'd think, were collected on the descriptively titled 1999 release Complete Recordings.

Not so. Slumberland will release a self-titled Black Tambourine anthology on March 30 that's a little heftier—in addition to the material the group made for singles and compilations during its brief existence, it includes two unheard demos and four newly recorded songs, for which the group reunited to commit to tape last summer—well, sort-of reunited—just as the label turned 20.

"We labored over calling it Completerer Recordings," said Brian Nelson, one of the group's guitarists, but the members settled on Black Tambourine—they feel, he said, that it will hold up as the band's definitive document. (Nelson is the network administrator at Washington City Paper.)

The new recordings include two originals—"Lazy Heart" and "Tears of Joy"—and two covers, of Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" and Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream."

Guitarist Archie Moore wrote in an e-mail that guitarist Mike Schulman urged the group to reform for Slumberland's 20th anniversary parties in Washington and New York last year. The idea was quickly shelved: While Nelson and Moore live in the D.C.,  Schulman runs Slumberland from Oakland, Calif., and singer Pam Berry lives in London. And Moore and Schulman had recently become parents. "Even if we could meet up for the shows, there'd be no rehearsal time," Moore wrote.

So on a lark, Moore proposed that Schulman fly to D.C. for a one-day studio session, and that Berry record her vocals from London. "I really didn't think it would happen," Moore wrote. "It was me voicing a little pipe dream after Mike voiced his. ... We spent one long day in the Baltimore location of the company I work for [Cleans Cuts], knocking the backing tracks out, and throwing a few guitar and percussion overdubs.  Even at this point, we couldn't really tell if any of it was useable.  We sent the tracks to Pam, and she sang and made them sound really good."

Moore said the group chose those four songs because they represent a somewhat different side of the band—less dark and dreamy—and would be easy to relearn. That, and they were fun to play. "We used to refer to 'Lazy Heart' as 'the Misfits Song,' and Pam used to bang the shit out of a cowbell on 'Heartbeat,'" he wrote. "During the time that the band was together, I'm sure we assumed we would record songs periodically, in batches, for singles, and those four certainly would have been considered worthy of release."

Nelson estimates that group's members haven't spent time in the same room for nearly 20 years. Schulman moved to the West Coast in 1992, and Berry moved to London several years later.

Moore and Nelson, who both also played in Velocity Girl, said that there's still a good deal of Black Tambourine material they're not planning to release anytime soon, such as live recordings of every Black Tambourine show (which include two or three unreleased songs) and other demos. And then there are several "lost" mixes that were stolen from a car—Moore said the group recently found a cassette of them that he'd like to post online for free. "They're hissy, and there's a little bit of cassette wow and flutter, but you can still hear what made them interesting, so I figure some people might enjoy hearing them," he wrote.

The group's reputation as a seminal indie-pop act has grown in the years since its dissolution, as other acts have channeled its sound, equal parts '60s girl-group pop and lo-fi sonic assault. It wasn't until later—when the Slumberland band Aislers Set became popular in the late '90s and cited Black Tambourine as an influence, and now because of noisy, poppy Slumberland bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts—that Nelson said he realized his group's impact.

"I sort of felt like at the time we were just imitating bands that we kinda liked and considered canonical," he said.

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