Funky and fresh, Fayetteville’s Black Garlic upends all expectations. In blending blues, rock, funk and soul, the progressive six-piece march onward into new territory for what will surely be crowning artistic accomplishment. Having lost founder, frontman and talented musician Stevie Watts last summer, remaining members Josh Bibb (guitar), Rob Gross (drums), Michael Williams (bass), Duncan Mapes (keyboards) and Christian Ray Tanzey (trumpet) have taken up the mantel so wonderfully wielded by Watts in his prime.
The tragic end of life remains a driving force behind the band and a heavy reminder of life’s fragility. “Losing our founding member and beloved friend Stevie took an enormous toll, not only on the rest of the members of the band but the community, as well,” says Mapes. “However, as Stevie would have wanted, we only became closer as friends and ultimately closer as musicians. We have tightened up our sound, written new material, seen larger venues, played larger festivals. With the end of a life, starts the beginning of a new. The death of Stevie Watts was more than tragic, but our success (now and in the future) will all be from his legacy. We couldn’t ask for a better saga than that.”
Now in its fourth year as a powerhouse collective, which first began as a one-off gig, thanks to Watts, Black Garlic are readying a new album. WATTZ is primed to be as electric as it sounds and serves as an emotional, remarkable tribute to Watts, whose presence is forever woven into the backbone of the record. “We dedicated and named our album in honor and remembrance of our dear friend and founder Stevie Wattz,” says Williams. “It turned into a psychedelic journey of styles and moods of what we began as and our roots as a band.”
The band’s sonic intensity would certainly not be the same without every single member, each bringing poised style and talents to craft an immovable bedrock of force, but it’s Watts who rises as the album’s unwavering beacon. “The main driving force was to get out what Stevie was a part of. He is featured on six of the eight tracks and probably the biggest driving force behind it is to immortalize our best friend,” Williams adds.
As the group continues pushing forward, in remembrance of the work Watts did, their own tireless dedication to the music will not go unnoticed. They have a slew of shows this summer, and simply put, they are positioning themselves to be music’s next treasure. Below, the band chats with Hashtag about their music and love of Fayetteville.
Black Garlic are set to play The Wild Bean in Lewisburg coming up on Saturday, June 22.
What’s it about Fayetteville that’s kept you rooted there?
Mapes: Fayetteville is quite literally “the coolest small town” in WV. The area exudes such an incredible vibe, and the people here are friends, not strangers. We have made a name for ourselves in this town, and when asked, there is a 100 percent chance any native will have heard of us. The community has always supported us and shown so much love for our passion. When we come home for shows, the turnout and amount of love they give us is nothing short of phenomenal.
What songs would you consider to be the album’s pinnacles?
Williams: There are three songs that really stick out for me, personally. “Danny Glover” is an epic 14-minute ballad that weaves in and out of genres which features our guitarist that passed, John Colby Elswick of The Kind Thieves, and Kyle Travers and Ian McIsaac of Travers Brothership. There is “Jazzella,” which is a slower jam that until the breakdown delivers a massive punch to ease itself back to the reprise of the beginning, and “Blound Brears” is a guitar shredders dream…from the beginning to the very last note, it’s like a song you’d see featured on Guitar Hero.
Musically, what did you want to explore with this album?
Williams: We all come from different musical styles and backgrounds but are pretty eclectic individuals. We took what we brought to the table and flowed in between genres. Mixing all aspects of ourselves musically is what we wanted to accomplish.
How has your style and approach changed through your live shows?
Mapes: The more live shows we play together as band, the tighter we become. Not only as musicians but as friends. That ultimately affects, changes and matures our sounds. We get better ideas of what works and what needs adjusted for future shows. Sometimes, during a live show, a member might add a new sound to a song that is perfect, and it will get cemented into future performances. We are not the band we were even a year ago. Our sound has progressed, yet it holds the original quality that was formed from the start.
When developing your sound, what were those early days together like?
Williams: We went into our first shows for almost six months without having songs truly solid. We were the true definition of a jam band in the beginning, but things took a wild turn for the better. We became more solid as individual musicians and a band. We could jam with the best of them and still be able to find our comfort spot — “the moment” as me and Stevie liked to call it.
On your website, you have a live performance of “Doogie Howser’s Cheese Grater” uploaded. What is so striking about your work is how you let the instruments really live and breathe as their own entities. How do you know what a song requires?
Williams: Practice and repetition. How we feel emotionally, physically and mentally. We try to highlight the main parts of the song, while still managing to let the notes flow and breathe for our audience and ourselves, as well.
As touring musicians, does the road often inform your writing?
Williams: We have only been on three day stretches. I can definitely say for sure that playing live helps us hone in on our all-around presence as a band and helps us fine tune our already existing songs. Most of our writing comes from the time apart that we practice individually. We throw out ideas at practice and embellish on them until we’re ready to present them live.
What have been your best live performances of your career?
Mapes: After Stevie’s passing, we were asked to play a festival by the hosting band, Big Something “The Big What?.” Those guys have been so generous and kind to us since we first met them years ago. They knew the impact that Stevie left on this world and wanted to honor him in the way he deserved. We played their late night set with members of Big Something sitting in with us. Stevie’s photos were behind us that night on the stage screen. The crowd was so receptive and showed overwhelming love for us. They knew this was more than just another show. This was the sending off show of a legend.
– Jason Scott w/ B-Sides & Badlands. Read more of Jason’s interviews at bsidesbadlands.com.