Memory lane

Black Tambourine

Surfing across the indie-music blogs earlier this year, you'd think it was 1990 all over again: Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, Pitchfork, Some Velvet Blog, Brooklyn Vegan, Tiny Mixtapes and countless other king-making websites were salivating over the March 30 release of a new compilation by the legendarily short-lived fuzz-pop quartet Black Tambourine, the first collection of its kind to hit vinyl and which contains four newly recorded tracks.

It's a lot of hoopla for a band that existed for a scant two years in those halcyon days of pre-Nirvana indie pop, never released a proper album and played enough shows to count on one hand, mostly university gigs in its native Washington, D.C.

"I don't think we ever played in front of more than 20 people," recalls band member Mike Schulman, whose label, Slumberland, reissued Black Tambourine's first 7-inch as well the new compilation. "A lot of what people like is the mystery. No one saw us. No one could step forward and say, ‘I saw those guys play.'"

Black Tambourine has carried this mystical aura to cult renown over the last 20 years. Like bands such as the Clean, Game Theory and Slint, they share the curse/blessing of achieving their greatest notoriety long after their dissolution. Thanks to an intense name-dropping campaign by the likes of the Aislers Set, Tullycraft, and others, Black Tambourine has become canonized in every list of essential twee pop by its decades of followers in the indie music press and industry.

In fact, it's nearly inarguable that Black Tambourine's sweetly ramshackle noise-pop sound has never been bigger than it is today, with groups like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts and others emulating its style.

"I'm always highly flattered and surprised when people still reference the band as some sort of influence," says multi-instrumentalist Brian Nelson. "It's cool that an aesthetic that would appeal to us would also appeal to other people. We just copied bands we liked at the time. It proves it's not a fad, that some of these bands want to keep that aesthetic alive."

Schulman agrees: "We were looking backwards at doo-wop, the Phil Spector stuff, the Jesus and Mary Chain records we bought the year before. The bands, now, that we get compared to, like the Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls, are looking backwards a lot as well."

The time seemed right for a Black Tambourine reissue. The upcoming, self-titled release includes all the songs previously available on the 1999 collection Complete Recordings, plus demo versions of two of their most popular songs ("For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge") and four newly recorded tracks, which include covers of Buddy Holly and Suicide.

The compilation celebrates the 20th year of Slumberland Records. The group bandied about the idea of a reunion show, but they couldn't work out the details. Schulman relocated to San Francisco, and vocalist Pam Berry moved to England, where she occasionally sings for folksy indie-pop duo the Pines.

Instead, as the fates aligned, three members of the band — Schulman, Nelson and Archie Moore — found one day to get together and record the new material. They sent the tapes to Berry, digitally, in the U.K., where she recorded new vocals.

"We were all a little nervous," says Schulman. "We hadn't played together in a very long time, and we didn't have time to rehearse. We were probably all a little scared that it wouldn't go well or that we were wasting time and money to do it. But it was pretty effortless. The songs are pretty simple, and we picked it up pretty well."

The collection appears to be the final punctuation mark for Black Tambourine. All the members have children now ("Kids tend to put a cramp on the band business," says Nelson). Berry is a stay-at-home mom, Nelson works at an alternative weekly in D.C. and Schulman writes software while running Slumberland on the side.

"I'm a firm believer in ‘never say never,' and `a reunion tour` would be a lot of fun," says Nelson. "But the logistics would require a lot of coordination, and I don't know if we could pull it off. It's not in the books."

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