During Black Cobra's "Omniscient," two men become an army. A pounding drummer and a guitar player who shouts and scorns more than he sings sound exponentially bigger than any two people should. In fact, listen to the song, and I dare you to hear a musical limitation arising from the band's limited membership: Jason Landrian's low-strung axe crackles from the amplifier at a mid-level menace, taut enough to offer melodic guitar swivels but loose enough to supplement the rhythm section. Drummer Rafael Martinez plays with the pop and power of the double-drumming Melvins, his fills big and heavy at the bottom but fleet and fierce on top. When he shifts the song's tempo just before the midpoint, you'll swear a cavalry is pulling back on the reins.
Bonus points if you can spot the band's regional origins: Made of equal parts Southern metal royalty (Cavity) and California metal elite (Acid King), Black Cobra combines the force of the latter and the liquid sludge of the former. They grew up in Miami but call San Francisco home, which will make perfect sense by track's end.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: "Omniscient" is from your first record, Bestial. Were you and Jason still living on separate coasts then?
RAFAEL MARTINEZ: Yes. I was living in Los Angeles, and Jason was living in New York. We were still trading riffs through the mail and just through the phone. We would talk about things. I would record riffs and drumbeats and send them to Jason. The ideas he had, he would send them back to me. ... Little by little, we would piece things together. It was a very different sort of writing process, in that we didn't have a rush to finish things. We didn't give ourselves a deadline. A lot of times we would work on something, and we wouldn't touch it for weeks or months. I was touring a lot at the time with the band 16, playing bass. After that, I was touring with the band Acid King. I was touring a lot around the world, so that would sometimes let things sit. We would get back to it, and sometimes it would sound really fresh because we hadn't heard it in a while. We'd be busy just with our everyday life, so it was a different approach to writing. Eventually we had enough material for an album, so we decided to go for it.
When did this song start to take shape?
I remember the slow riff. That was one of the first things I had written when I moved to L.A. in January of 2003. I document things a lot. I have archives of ideas I get here and there. Maybe I won't use them right away. That was one of the very old riffs we had, and the beginning part wasn't written until like a year and a half after that. We had other ideas that went along with it. Because I had played guitar most of my life, sometimes I wrote drum parts hearing the counter rhythm of the guitar with the drums. There was this rhythmic bouncing going back and forth that I was hearing. We really wanted to do something that was dynamic and came from the backgrounds we had: Jason played in Cavity, and from my background of music with 16 and Acid King. There were a lot of different elements from those bands we were trying to combine. That song in particular, it came from very different eras of our lives. I was playing in one band when I wrote one riff, and Jason heard it and gave me his feedback. A year later, we got back to it when we were working on other things. It all came together from many different sessions. It wasn't all done in one sitting, where we wrote it in five minutes.
After leaving a batch of tunes alone for long periods of time, is it hard to focus on them—or even remember them—when you return?
We were very careful about documenting things and making sure we had the recordings. When we first started, we had over 80 different riffs and beats that we went through. We would listen to 'em over the phone and weed out what we liked or didn't like. Whatever would stick out, we'd say, "OK, we've got this riff. Let's work on this." When we'd hit a block with it, we'd put it aside and start working on something else. But we would give it a name and say, "OK, this song, Omniscient,' let's let it sit for a while and see where it develops and where it organically moves to and what it calls for." The beginning is very abrasive and it starts really, really fast and really heavy, and it goes through all kinds of rhythmic changes. After a while, we were like, "We should add something else to it, and we could slow it down and it could go into this other riff that I had from way, way before." It worked. Sometimes, it's a lot by trial and error: You put things together and you don't like what you hear, or you inject other ideas you have into it.
We weren't really together at all during the year. When we did the first EP, we didn't have anything written. Jason flew out to L.A., and he was there for like a week. We started writing right then and there. I mean, we had riffs and things that were documented, and we went through them. From us jamming in front of one another, that sparked other ideas. A song like "Omniscient" took a while, but, again, we never really had a deadline for it. We weren't signed at the time, so there wasn't a record label saying, "You need to have this done by a certain date." So having that kind of freedom really let us have free reign over how we approached the writing. Jason and I would talk on the phone maybe twice a week, and sometimes he would say, "I'm going to be really busy for the next two weeks, and I can't..." I'd say, "Oh, don't worry about it." Eventually, we would get back to it. But it was a product of playing and being in different areas of our lives at different times and bringing them all together.
You keep mentioning riffs, but you play the drums in Black Cobra. I know you've played other instruments in other bands, but are you referring to your rhythmic pattern?
I wrote that on guitar. I was messing around, just going through riffs. I put it down, and I showed it to Jason, and he was like, "OK, cool, let's use that for something." That was just a riff that was on its own. Then the fast part was completely separate. We thought, "This one's fast, this one's slow. Doesn't seem like they belong in the same song." But then we thought we could slow it down with the drums and do a build-down into it. It was weird. It wasn't in the tuning that Black Cobra is in right now. It was written in regular tuning, so I said, "Hey, let's try it in our tuning and see how it sounds." It was a lot heavier, and we liked the way that it sounded. It ended up working real nice.
How did you and Jason meet?
We both grew up in Miami, Fla. Our friend that I went to high school with, she was a drummer. I'd seen her around the city, and she had this band and they broke up and I asked them what they wanted to do. She was like, "Well, my guitar player, Jason, and I want to start a new band." Jason and I were going to the same community college, Miami-Dade Community College, and we took music history together. It was through school that we met in '96. We had a band together then called Point Blank. I left for California, and Jason moved to New York. Jason lived with me in California for a little bit, and then he moved back to Miami to play in Cavity. Then he moved up to New York, and he was up there for three years while I was in California. We always kept in touch. Even when we weren't planning on playing in a band, we were always good friends, hanging out and going to shows and such.
So you've been in California for nearly a decade?
Yeah, it's been a while. Our parents are still there [in Miami], and we visit whenever we can. Back then, there wasn't much of an underground culture, especially in Miami, for this type of music. Now it's a lot better. There's the Internet and more independent labels and music being distributed down there, so there is definitely more of an audience. But back then you had to be in more of a major city to be part of any type of scene. I guess that area down there wasn't very conducive to what we wanted to do, so we just left.
Growing up in Miami but living in California, how would you identify what you play, in terms of geography? Is it California metal or Southern metal?
That's a good question. We're based out of California, and I've lived there for the last nine years. It has had a big influence on me, but we also grew up with a lot of what was going on in Miami, which wasn't much at the time. Bands like Cavity and Load did have an influence. Everything that we've done has been done in California. We both live there now. New York, I think, definitely had a big influence on Jason. When he was there, he was exposed to a different environment musically as well as socially. New York, a very metropolitan area, is a big change, opposed to the straight-up suburbs, as most of South Florida is. He was exposed to different kinds of music than he would have been. There are not a lot of underground bands in Miami.
I know a lot of people like to be very proud of and say where they're from. You know when people in the early '90s where in Seattle, they'd say, "We're a Seattle grunge band." They were very proud of that. Or we're New York hardcore. Or we're SoCal hardcore. For us, we don't subscribe to that as far as what area we're from or stereotyping ourselves in saying, "Well, we're this style of music." When people do that, they pigeonhole themselves into that and say, "We can only be this because we're labeling ourselves as this." We try to think our only limit is our own imagination, and wherever we want to take it. We do have hardcore and metal tendencies in our approach, and those things come from all over the world, not just America. We know a lot of the British metal, Japanese hardcore, all kinds of stuff that we're into.
You two are living together in California now, correct? How has that and how will that affect your songwriting?
After Bestial came out, Jason came to Los Angeles. We started writing a lot, and songs came a lot quicker. When we weren't on tour, we were writing and recording. I have a studio. I recorded the second album. I recorded all of our jams and the rehearsals, so being together more has definitely helped the writing. We're both living in the Bay Area now, which has made it a lot easier to get things done. Since the songs took so long back then and the newer stuff isn't taking as long, we're being very careful to maintain our original goal and vision of how things can be. You're your own best critic about things, but we want to make sure that what we put out is something we're happy with, and we're not just putting things together just to put them out.
Black Cobra plays with Weedeater and Broadslab at Volume 11 Tavern Sunday, Aug. 10, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8.