When exactly did Black Tambourine become “the seminal indie pop legends Black Tambourine”? It’s hard to pinpoint the moment, probably because there wasn’t one. But it certainly didn’t happen during the band’s brief existence that casually started and ended during the first George Bush presidency.
Back then, the Washington area quartet was part of a tight-knit scene in the shadow of the city’s punk explosion. Black Tambourine didn’t play punk, but the band could match anyone when it came to noise. Its songs were deeply soaked in a squall of reverb and distortion and yet still managed to be wonderfully melodic.
The band didn’t play those songs too often. There are fewer than 10 shows in its history, including at such not-quite-hot-spots as the University of Maryland’s Stamp Student Union and Abi’s, a now-defunct Mediterranean restaurant in College Park. Part of the reason for the inactivity was that everyone was busy with other bands. Brian Nelson and Mike Schulman also played in noiseniks Whorl; Nelson and Archie Moore played sunny pop in the increasingly successful Velocity Girl. Schulman also played in the Powderburns and started a label, Slumberland Records, that was a hub for most of those projects. Black Tambourine was just one of the bunch, and soon enough it simply wasn’t.
“It just kind of fell by the wayside,” singer Pam Berry says. “We fell out of the habit of practicing. Well, we’d practice, but we wouldn’t really practice. We’d just hang out. So we just kind of stopped.”
Schulman says it was very much a side project. “As much as we loved doing the recording and writing the songs together, I don’t think there was ever an idea of, ‘Hey, let’s quit our bands and just do Black Tambourine!’ ”
In addition to playing few shows, there wasn’t much of a recorded legacy, just a couple of 7-inch singles. Schulman released the band’s entire output (10 songs) on the “Complete Recordings” compilation in 1999. That’s when interest slowly began to pick up. Black Tambourine’s sound and songs held up well; fuzz and feedback never go out of style. “Throw Aggi Off the Bridge” and “For Ex-Lovers Only” became mix tape staples, the perfect mixture of woozy and catchy. By the early 2000s, Black Tambourine had become a sort of secret password to gain entry into the inner sanctum of the indie-pop community, but a few years later more people were in on the secret.
As Schulman was re-launching Slumberland Records, which had been largely dormant for most of the past decade, he approached New York’s the Pains of Being Pure at Heart in 2007 about recording on the label. The Pains had a familiar sound, and they weren’t the only ones.
“I mean, I do the label so I was doing the mail order for the compilation, and I wasn’t totally ignorant to the fact that people were kind of into it and it seemed to have legs,” Schulman says. “But there’s a big difference between having some record collectors want to buy your old records and having bands citing you as an influence and playing music that is not entirely out of the realm of what you were doing.”
Berry was more surprised. “I’m not sure they were influenced by us,” she says. “A lot of people like a noisy band with a bunch of feedback.”
She needn’t have been so skeptical. Such buzzed-about bands as Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose and Crystal Stilts were big fans, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart enlisted Black Tambourine’s Moore to engineer and mix their debut album.
In 2009, Slumberland released “Black Tambourine,” a collection of the familiar recordings with some bonus material (including original demos and newly recorded versions of old songs), and it was greeted with rave reviews. Critical coronation was complete. Now it was time for a reunion, right?
Not so fast. Berry lives in London, and getting her to the States was going to be a serious issue. She’s not a flier — at all. “I’m so irrational about it,” she says. “It just irritates me so much.”
Schulman, who lives in San Francisco, said that there was idle talk of playing in London but that it was too expensive. The tide finally turned when longtime friend and supporter Gail O’Hara began planning concerts to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chickfactor, the cult-favorite fanzine/indie-pop bible she and Berry started in 1992. Berry resisted O’Hara’s initial invitation, but when the other members were into the idea, she got on board. Two weeks ago, she boarded a plane and made it to America for the first time in eight years. (After visiting family in Florida, she took the train to D.C.)
Saturday’s show, the second of two Chickfactor celebration nights at Artisphere, will mark the first time in 20 years that Black Tambourine has played together, and it’s one of just three scheduled reunion shows. They won’t have too much time to get into the groove; Schulman landed in the District late Tuesday night, allowing for just two days of practice to make up for 20 years of inactivity.
“It’ll be pretty seat-of-our-pants,” he says. “I think there will be some muscle memory and deep familiarity that comes out when we start playing.”
“It could go badly, but it could be great,” Berry says. “It’ll be fun whatever happens. And we’ll be playing with a bunch of people we love and it will feel like a party. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-1100. www.artisphere.com. $25.
For a sampling of Black Tambourine’s music, check out:
From “Black Tambourine”:
“For Ex-Lovers Only”
“Throw Aggi Off the Bridge”