Talking Tunes, Zines, & More With Pam Berry Of Black Tambourine

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Haven't heard of Black Tambourine yet? Here's the lowdown: The late ‘80s/early '90s cult D.C. band known for creating reverb-soaked pop songs breeds rabid obsession. With a super-short history — only one self-titled full-length album, plus a few compilations in barely as many years) — the band could be just another microscopic blip in the music history books. But the fuzzy, dreamy sound championed by the band — comprised of singer Pam Berry, Brian Nelson, Archie Moore, and Slumberland Records honcho Mike Schulman — influenced a bevy of acts that came after them, despite their own short-lived run.

Why are we revisiting our band crush now, you ask? While Black Tambourine was born out of the D.C. ‘burbs of Silver Spring and College Park, its members haven’t been in a room together in nearly two decades. However, tomorrow and Saturday, they’re reuniting at the Artisphere in Arlington to celebrate 20 years of Chickfactor, a zine that Berry co-founded with pal Gail O’Hara. We spoke to Berry about Black Tambourine’s enduring influence, the possibility of fresh material, and the “twee” label (Spoiler alert: She is not a fan.).

black-tamboslide Photo: Courtesy of Black Tambourine

First things first: Why a Black Tambourine reunion show now? And how stoked are you?
“It came about because of the Chickfactor 20-year anniversary shows. We’d been asked a few times to play again, especially after the Complete Recordings release a couple of years ago, to mark 20 years of Slumberland, but with all of us living so far away from each other and having young families and limited time off work and not being sure we even should play after so long, it never happened. But the Chickfactor shows are special, Gail [O’Hara, co-founder of the zine] is one of our oldest friends, and the folks we’d be playing with were some of our fave live acts and friends from back when we all lived in the area. I’m so excited about seeing everyone again, I might burst! It’s going to be a real treat to catch up with and see these folks play!”

We love zines at Refinery29. Can you tell us more about Chickfactor?Chickfactor was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever been a part of, and doing the mag together gave me and Gail an excuse to yap with people we revered, tell people about records we were digging, set up shows with a gazillion bands on the same bill, and keep in touch after she left Washington City Paper, where we worked, and moved to NYC. The all-night assembly sessions, the visits to New York — chocka with shoe browsing and Chickfactor parties and very little shut-eye — are the things I miss the most about doing a fanzine with Gail!”

The members of Black Tambourine haven’t played a show together in 21 years. Are you at all nervous? Rusty?
“I can’t speak for the others, but yes, I’d say I’ve got a good case of the nerves about playing after so long. And of course we’re going to be rusty — we were something approaching rusty two decades ago! But we have kept in touch over the years, and the fellas have played together a few times over the last couple of years when Mike’s flown to the East Coast to record with Archie and Brian. And we’ll get a couple of practices in before the shows. It’s going to be a great time!”
black-tambo-1slideBlack Tambourine wasn’t around for very long. Why is that?
“At the time, it didn’t feel too long or too short — we played a few shows and made a few records and then we got busy with other things. We’d all been involved with other bands and projects at the same time as playing in Black Tambourine, and we’d never had the goal of turning into a touring band or anything; we were just a bunch of good friends playing music together and recording when we’d written some songs we liked or got the offer to release a record. Eventually, other things took precedence, other bands became more active than Black Tambourine.”

What do you think of the substantial influence that Black Tambourine has had on certain types of music, despite its short run?
“Substantial influence, ha! I’m absolutely flattered when I hear current bands mention liking Black Tambourine, but I suspect they would have probably come to their sound with or without hearing our limited output, roundabout the same way we did.”

Do you love or hate the "twee" label? What do you think of twee revival bands, like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart?
“I’m not a fan of the label — not because it’s pejorative, which it largely is, where I live — but because it’s a terribly inaccurate description of most bands I see being labeled with it, Black Tambourine included. I don’t think of us (or the Pains, or a million other bands that get called 'twee') as being affectedly cute or sickeningly sweet or purposefully charming. I think people might use 'twee' when they mean 'nerdy' or 'indie' or 'jangly' — I’m not sure how it came about that noisy guitar bands ever got labeled 'twee.'”


Photo: Courtesy of Black Tambourine
black-tambo-4slidePhoto: Courtesy of Black Tambourine

What was it like being a D.C. band in the late '80s/early ‘90s? How did the area shape you guys?
“We met in the sprawling grounds and tightly packed aisles of the University of Maryland in College Park and Vinyl Ink Records in Silver Spring. But we’re not from there, though some of us lived in a group house for a time in Silver Spring, and that house was the scene of some excellent BBQ action with live pop music in the backyard. Being a D.C.-area band meant seeing Beat Happening play! And playing at d.c. space! And being friends with a bunch of other people running labels and playing in bands, so things like the Lotsa Pop Losers festival happened with Slumberland and Teenbeat and Simple Machines. It seemed like a lot of great stuff was going on then, socially and musically.”

Is this the beginning of a beautiful new history for BT, or is it a one-time thing?
“If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said we’d never play a reunion show, so you never know what will happen, but with us living in the U.K., D.C., and California, it seems unlikely we’ll start touring or playing very much. It’s expensive to travel and hard to get time off work, plus we all have young kids now and not a lot of time [to] spare. But I’m hoping it means we start to do a bit more recording — recording new material has been my favorite part of being active as a band again!”
black-tambo-3slidePhoto: Courtesy of Black Tambourine

What have you been doing since the dissolution of the band?
“In the last twenty years, I’ve been doing a bit of recording here and there when I get asked (we have a 16- track portastudio at home for ease of recording in the kitchen, and my husband is a dab hand at recording) and playing music with friends. Although, Friday night will be the first time we’ve played out in a couple of years. I left D.C. and moved to London about 14 years ago, and I work as a freelance subtitler for hard-of-hearing DVD releases of movies and TV shows. When I’m not working, I print and sew and bind books, and bake, and spend a lot of time wrangling our gals Ava and Tallulah.”

The show is also a kind of celebration for your new EP, OneTwoThreeFour, a four-song tribute to The Ramones. Why The Ramones? Can we ever expect new BT songs?
“We’re all big Ramones fans and felt like these were songs we could learn fairly quickly and have a heap of fun recording in the Black Tambourine way, with a healthy amount of reverb and guitar squall. We have ideas for future covers and still have a few songs we played live back in the day that we never got around to recording, so I really hope we will have new Black Tambourine songs sometime.”