Words and interview by Andy Hittle.
Building on the swaggering blues-rock of Devil on the Loose (2016) and Vol. II (2018), Black River Delta’s latest album, Shakin’, is a perfect distillation of what makes the quartet from Bollnäs, Sweden, so magnetic. While BRD have studied deeply and perfected their strutting riffs, full-throated yowls, and greasy rhythms, their Scandinavian roots layer in a real sense of joy in playing with American musical heritage. We talked to Pontus Ohlsson (guitar) and Erik Jacobs (guitar/vocals) about their origin and rock-n-roll dreams.
Growing up in a small town in Sweden, how did you discover the blues and other American roots music? What were the formative albums and artists that turned you on to this music?
Pontus: I think it was through our parents.. It started with rock bands like Deep Purple and Rolling Stones stuff (who of course are British) but after discovering what they were listening to I got turned on to artists like RL Burnside, John Lee Hooker just to name a few. I then got a “Best of” album from Muddy Waters, and that really influenced me.
Erik: I discovered American roots music through listening to the Black Keys and their influences.
So much of your music feels authentically rooted in the American south. I'm not sure that the average American songwriter could pull off writing in another culture's folk tradition. How do you successfully pull off this cultural shift?
Erik: I'm not sure either . . . but it feels like it comes kind of naturally when we write songs. I don't think about the cultural shift, but of course it has to do with the music that we like and have always been listening to. I don't necessarily think of it as American music when we make it.
Pontus: Haha, I'm really not sure that we pulled it off. We still feel like Swedish kids who still are in the woods around our home town trying to imitate our heroes and acting like we are in a dirty bar somewhere in the American south. This is just how we believe it sounds [laughs]. Maybe the woods in Sweden and the American south have more in common than we think?
In America, there is a lot of bad blues rock out there. What are the sins and pitfalls to avoid when writing your music?
Pontus: Oh, we would love to know. I guess one thing we embraced early on is the fact that you shouldn't get too hung up
on details. We have always loved albums that were made in a couple of days, or sometimes just hours. That's inspiring and we always think about that when we write music. Do it fast and try not to overthink. If it's good, it's good.
How do you balance your respect of musical tradition with staying fresh and innovative? How did you approach your recording process?
Erik: People have different tastes. It's really hard to know what's fresh, innovative and what people will like but if you like what you do and feel joy in it i think it reflects on the music.
There are so many great guitar tones on the latest album, Shakin'. If you had to narrow it down, what guitar, effect, and amp is most crucial to your sound?
Pontus: I guess the combination between my Hagström Viking though my Marshall Blues Breaker amp with the Fulltone 69 fuzz pedal in the chain was used a lot. Some of the songs I also used the Roland RE-201 tape delay, and I think that really contributed to the sound. I also used some semi-acoustic guitars like the old Gibson ES-125 and some really cheap and cool ones that happened to be in the studio we recorded in.
Your name is a nod toward American bands Black Keys and Delta Spirit, both of whom are 15-20 years into their careers. Do you look to bands like this as a blueprint for your own musical path?
Pontus: Definitely! They are huge inspirations for us, both musically and career-wise. They are inspirations to us 'cause they show us that blues rock is still alive and it's still possible to tour and make albums with this kind of music, and that makes us wanna keep going. I think we might bring in some more crazy sounds for the next album, who knows?
In the future, do you see yourselves experimenting with other sounds and genres as your influences have?
Pontus: I think we might bring in some more crazy sounds for the next album, who knows?
Eriķ: Yes, we always try to evolve our sound in some way but we don't have a clear path of what's going to be the next step.
What is a dream collaboration or bill for Black River Delta?
Erik: Black River Delta feat. ABBA.
Black River Delta's latest release
Shakin' is AVAILABLE NOW
on CD and red vinyl!