An Interview with Mark Engles of Black Map and Dredg

Kevin Keating
Black Map (Ben Flanagan, Chris Robyn, Mark Engles) Photo: Ray Blanco
As a long-time fan of the band Dredg, I've been excited to learn and hear more from a new band called Black Map since hearing about them about a month ago. Black Map is a rock trio consisting of:
So far, the band has only released one song called "I'm Just the Driver" (see below), and have an upcoming show at The Blank Club in San Jose on Friday, January 10th. This will be an incredible chance to catch a band on the ground floor before they take off -- and at a fantastic, small, intimate venue in San Jose! Get tickets here. [Update: here's our review of the show.]

I had the chance to catch-up with Mark over the holidays and here's our conversation:

SFBAC: The first question I have is this, how did Black Map come about?

Mark Engles: I guess knowing Ben Flanagan for a long time, Trophy Fire’s singer, and within the San Francisco music scene, and he’s played with Dredg, and we became really good friends… we brought him along on some tours where he became a nice addition on stage, adding guitar and vocals. And we always just talked about the idea and it would come up when we were hanging out as friends, we need to do something someday, just some sort of project and as we talked more about it we also kind of found out if we did do a project it would probably be something that would be more straight forward, a little more simple, just rock. Then eventually, you know, I knew Chris Robyn from way back in the days of Dredg playing with Far. And Ben had become better friends with him more recently, and they had talked. And Chris was feeling the same thing, that he was interested in playing with a rock band again. He’d be working with Crosses with Dino from Dredg so there’s a lot of fun incestuousness going on there. Anyway, we all knew each other and the three of us were in the mood to play in a band that was kinda just straight ahead, not thinking too much about it and we didn’t talk too much about the style except we wanted it to be loud and big. We just kind of got into a room and started playing and that’s where it’s at.

SFBAC: What’s the status of each of your respective ‘other’ bands? Far, Trophy Fire & Dredg?

Mark Engles: I can’t speak for Far, I know they haven’t been playing. Trophy Fire’s definitely still a band and they still do great. Dredg, we’re still active but we just slowed down for various reasons. We toured a lot in 2011, we did some Australian stuff in 2012 and a couple of shows here and there more recently. But, no, it’s more about, you can be in multiple bands at one time. And it’s always fun to have a contrast, have someone else contrarian to what you’re normally doing. I’m mean, over the years you just wanna push yourself and try new things. So it’s fun to be back in a band that’s pretty much straight forward guitar, bass, drums and vocals… so that’s kinda how it is.

SFBAC: That’s a great segue into my next question which is related to the only song you’ve released so far, “I'm Just the Driver.” The song is exactly as you just described, a straight forward, heavier, traditional rock song, compared to the prog-rock experimental styles of Dredg. So my question is, what are the main differences in either writing or recording styles between Black Map and Dredg?

Mark Engles: I would say writing-wise, we knew when we first had conversations we just wanted to   be fun. And I know that sounds kinda cheesy, but it’s true. I mean, grab a 12-pack, get into the room, don’t really discuss the style, bring in riffs we’d already had, you know, stuff sitting around that you really liked that you probably wouldn’t use with our other bands, or on the spot jamming stuff. But I think the main thing is going back to styles of music that we listened to in the mid 90s, heavier rock, even metal, I mean things that you would never try to write with your current ‘other’ bands but you can do it with this, just don’t think, just play and go. The opposite of that would be too contrived. And the recording was basically the same thing, we’re all veterans and professionals so we get in there and the recording process is pretty much how we’ve all done it. Get comfortable and just go, and it feels good.

SFBAC: Do any of you have home recording studios or do you usually go into commercial studios?

Mark Engles: Well, we all write at home, but no, the stuff that you’ve heard, the four songs that we feel comfortable with, we’ll eventually have an EP of four songs coming out… We have a lot more tracked, but “Driver” is the one we felt was like a great first… And we went into Castle Ultimate Studios in Oakland. But definitely, we still love going into the studio and trying to get the best tones. It’s very natural when you hear it. We really don’t wanna do drum replacement or, I mean, a lot of heavier music of bands that I hear now-a-days, they just sound so manipulated. The drums don’t even sound human. I think we wanted to make a really heavy band that sounds pretty natural.

SFBAC: How did you guys come up with the name Black Map?

Mark Engles: Um.. Not too much thought, I came up with it, I love geography and geology, I always have.  I think we wanted something that won’t be too difficult to remember and we kinda threw stuff at each other and that one seemed to be the one that worked. The imagery, it’s definitely a darker band, heavier, and it’s got some cerebral qualities to it as well… and I don’t think we have any crazy symbolism behind it at all. We just like it.

SFBAC: Back to your upcoming EP. Are you currently shopping the EP to record labels? Have you signed to one yet?

Mark Engles: No, all that’s definitely happening right now. We’re at the stage where we’re figuring out what we want to do… Put it out yourself, labels, all of that… But no matter what way we go about it, we’ll put out the four songs in the next 2 months or something like that.

SFBAC: So as far as your live shows go, you’ve only played once or twice so far as Black Map, is that right?

Mark Engles: We’ve played once. We played in September in San Francisco and we are playing January 10th at the Blank Club in San Jose.

SFBAC: So is there a bigger tour schedule in the works? Or are these two local shows meant to be a way to practice and get some performances under your belt?

Mark Engles: We’d love to grab tours of course, and the fun thing is, luckily we know a lot of bands since we’ve been around. I mean we’re old men so we are definitely looking forward to jumping on as an opener or main support, and doing like 3-4 weeks here in the States. Eventually hitting Europe. I mean we definitely want to tour. We feel like we’re one of those bands where our live show is gonna be fun and its gonna come off well. We just have to start out slow, and at this age, we all have other things going on as well… but this is what we love to do so eventually we would hopefully get there. Putting the EP would help a lot too.

SFBAC: What are some of the influences that the three of you are bringing together?

Mark Engles: Well, there’s probably two ways to explain that. The obvious one is what all 3 of us have in common. When we first sat down over some beers, we were talking about it and obviously for me it was Far when I was younger. When I was 16 or 17 years old, the first Far record was something I fell in love with. It was obvious that the powerful, straight-ahead guitar-driven, big drums was probably gonna be a thing. That’s why we love Chris’s drumming. So that was that, but we started discussing specific bands too and we had a lot in common, and plus, we brought our own [bands] too. We talked about bands like Failure; for me, even more on the metal side, a band like Entombed, just their riffs. I mean, we’re not going to be that metal, but the type of riffing that comes off some of their stuff. I mean Wolverine Blues from 1993 or 94 has always been incredible to me. We just knew we wanted to be big and powerful but with melody, and not overthinking it… Just with that one song (Driver), you hear aspects of all three of our bands in there. You’ll hear some Dredg, you’ll hear the Far ‘directness’, and of course, Ben Flanagan is Ben Flanagan, his vocals will be there. And we pushed him too, you know? He’s an amazing vocalist that can give you a bunch of different styles. He can give you the soft, more ‘sultry’, if you will. I mean he’s so talented that he can give you the raspy yelling but with melody in it too. So it’s fun to see him push his limits as well. I mean, you can name specific bands, but it’s more about an era too. It seems like somewhere between 91-92 into the late 90’s, that kind of raw, straight-ahead stuff, where it’s not over produced, and you can pull it off live because it’s just three guys in a room.

SFBAC: Looking back at each of your respective careers, are there lessons-learned that you’re applying to the new band? For example, related to the record business side of things and the process of putting an album out, touring, etc.

Mark Engles: Yeah, yeah, definitely! Like how much the business side sucks! Yeah, definitely, I mean we’re all very experienced so that’s definitely coming into play. It depends on the specific conversations you have, but I guess there are moments where we’re telling ourselves not to over think. And I mean, I think we’re too new, to have to try and over think a lot of things. But now-a-days, everything has changed regarding how you release it. So I think we are at the stage where it’s pretty simple what we need to do. All you have to do is get your music out there and start playing live more often.

SFBAC: This might be a strange question, but what are your thoughts on music piracy?

Mark Engles: In a vague sense I think piracy, at least to me, is a thing that exists. And I don’t think any musician is allowed to have an opinion on it anymore. I mean we all do it. I still purchase musicians that I love, but everyone has been pirating even since the cassette days. It just got to a point where a bubble burst and it became more rampant. Piracy is something that exists and you can’t be upset about it. It’s just the nature of it now, so you have to embrace it, find ways to work with it. For us, we are in an earlier enough stage, in this band, where we care less about it. But for Dredg, there was a time where it was an issue, but that time has passed, and musicians have learned to deal with it. But for this band, we’re not worried about that at all right now. In fact, it’s like, please copy it and give it to people! Just to get it out there more. I mean we dig it (the music) and think other people will dig it.

SFBAC: Considering you’re a local Bay Area group, what’s your favorite local venue?

Mark Engles: Wow. I feel like we’re spoiled in San Francisco. Nothing will ever beat playing the Fillmore. Not only the venue itself, and the great sound, and the people that work there are very, very nice, but just the history… It’s a dream to be able to headline a venue like that. The Great American Music Hall has also been one of my favorites at those levels. On a smaller level, Bottom of the Hill. I mean it’s just a solid, solid rock club. But any place that treats you with respect and has good sound, that’s always a good place to start!

SFBAC: If I can jump back to Dredg… What was it like to partially record your second album (El Cielo) at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound in San Rafael, CA?

Mark Engles: It was pretty insane, to be honest it was kind of like four naïve musicians going in thinking we were going to track all of our drums in this gigantic symphony room. I mean this thing was huge. I don’t remember the dimensions, but it was just massive. And we did get some amazing tones in there for the drums and some of the sounds you hear on there. But I think we were just fortunate enough at the time to be on a major label at the time and we could do that. But the experience itself was just incredible. And we only spent eight days there. On that album, we spent so long on. We definitely moved around, and Skywalker was one of studios we used, and it’s definitely an amazing memory.

SFBAC: Back to black map, can you give us a date on when to expect more music, or a release at all?

Mark Engles: No, nothing specific. I know it’s pretty much ready to go. It’s just the behind the scenes stuff trying to figure out how we wanna do it, artwork, all that fun stuff. Not long. I’m thinking maybe the end of January, maybe the middle of February? Somewhere in that ballpark. Hopefully no more than two months. We’ll play this show in January, and maybe do another San Francisco show around the time of release. And see if we can line up some tours, you know?

SFBAC: Sounds great Mark! Thanks for making the time today and we're looking forward to your upcoming show at the Blank Club! 

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