“What other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!”
—Nathaniel HawthorneHawthorne—along with literary contemporaries like Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson—epitomizes the period of dark romanticism in which man is pervious to sin and the sinister, personal torment is a given and nature is a place of mystery and creeping decay.
That was 150 years ago, but the spirit of the dark romantics isn't languishing between dusty book covers. Since 1997, San Diego's The Black Heart Procession has kept it alive and kicking—or at least scratching at the lid of a pine box buried beneath a fresh layer of soil.
Vocalist/guitarist Pall Jenkins—who, along with Tobias Nathaniel (piano/organ/guitar), is the core of Black Heart—even looks the part of the brooding romantic anti-hero. On New Year's Eve, he shows up for lunch at a popular Mexican eatery in an inky button-down shirt and vest. He wears his hair long and loose, and his face is bearded. He has a gold-capped front tooth that catches glints of light when he smiles. And then there's that gravelly, weathered voice.
Jenkins describes the band's aesthetic the same way anyone who's ever listened to Black Heart would: Dark.
In fact, he says, the songs he and Nathaniel have been writing and recording for an upcoming full-length album—their sixth, which as yet has no firm ETA—might just be their darkest yet.
“It's very dark. It's the darkest thing we've done in a while. A lot of the stuff is feeling dark.” Jenkins pauses and then laughs softly. “It sounds stupid, that word, over and over again.”
From lovelorn dirges to calypso-inflected murder ballads, Black Heart's songs are shaded by passion, loss and despair. Characteristic musical elements include melancholy minor chords, wheezing pump organ and even the musical saw, which has an eerie, almost-human tone to it. And the lyrics, which Jenkins writes, are serotonin-deprived enough to warrant a pharmaceutical intervention.
Jenkins, who also uses the name Paulo Zappoli, is also a key member of Three Mile Pilot (on hiatus for years, now back in the studio) and Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects (a more recent, and wild, endeavor). But he says writing songs for The Black Heart Procession requires tapping into a different part of himself than writing for his other projects.
“Music is a very intimate thing,” he explains. “When you're writing music, it's like being naked, like walking naked into a public restaurant. Writing songs is a similar thing, where you're showing sides of your emotion and yourself, or delving into a place that's a darker area. And how it happens with songwriting—things happen and I try not to fight it. I just write songs and go with the flow. And sometimes they're dark, and other times they're not as dark.”
Some Black Heart lyrics seem to have been plumbed from the depths of a truly despondent soul, but like fiction, songwriting can take literal emotions and experiences and transform them with imagination. Jenkins doesn't seem particularly depressed—or keen on murder, for that matter. He's simply adhering to the Black Heart vibe that he and Nathanial have cultivated.
“Black Heart definitely has a certain aesthetic that we try to keep up,” he says. “Me and Toby are a partnership, so we have rules that we set on each other. We might be working on something and one of us will say: ‘That's not very Black Heart.'”
The Black Heart aesthetic, which is nuanced in spite of its limitations, extends well beyond the band's recordings. The band's illustration-heavy artwork, all done by Jenkins (his mother is painter Anna Zappoli), has a consistently macabre feel to it. And for 2002's Caribbean-tinged Amore del Tropico, Black Heart turned to friend Matt Hoyt, an independent filmmaker, to create an accompanying DVD that visually spins the tale of the album's murder mystery.
All of this bodes well for Black Heart's devoted fans. Jenkins, who is also a producer, pays careful attention to what keeps the band's admirers coming back for more. Take, for example, the limited-edition tour EP that will be available at the upcoming Casbah show. The collectible album, which sells for $15, includes the numbered tracks that have appeared on previous albums (“One” through “Five”), as well as two new songs (“Six” and “Seven”). It also features Jenkins' collaged artwork on the cover, a poster tucked inside and wax seals on the packaging. Only 200 copies were printed and hand-finished, though Jenkins says he might make a few more to sell on the band's website.
Ultimately, much of Black Heart's appeal perhaps also lies in a glimmer of recognition, if not an intuitive grasp, of what Hawthorne meant when he called the heart a dungeon and the self a jailor. Picking the lock to that darkness through artistic expression or appreciation is sometimes the surest way to set the heart free. The Black Heart Procession plays on Saturday, Jan. 12, with Manuok, Calico Horse and Fantastic Magic at The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. 619-232-HELL. www.blackheartprocession.com.