Rocking with the “Black Dirty”

Members of the Black Dirty // Photo by Abi Reimold

Do the words “Black Dirty” mean anything to you?  Well they should.  And no, the phrase doesn’t refer to anything naughty, despite what your corrupt mind might lead you to believe.  It actually refers to one of Philadelphia’s most under-appreciated new bands, but they don’t blame you for going there.

“I was listening to the radio and I swear a commercial used the words ‘black dirty,’” recounts singer/guitarist Tyler Brooks.

When he brought it up to friends, everyone had their own take on what the odd word pairing might mean, but few viewed the term through rose-colored glasses.  Most thought it sounded like an insult—something sexual or even racially charged.

“People thought it was all different kinds of speech, like the word ‘f—‘” Brooks laughs.

Intrigued, and maybe just a little bit obsessed, by the power of two simple words to illicit such a range of reactions, the band gave the phrase “Black Dirty” as their name at a show one night when they had gotten tired of their old one.  And it stuck.

“Your interpretation says a lot about you,” Brooks said.

The two words could be pure nonsense on their own, but bring a wide range of personal histories and predispositions to bear and suddenly they’re charged with meaning.  The same could almost be said about the band itself.

Before their still relatively brief run as Black Dirty began, each member of this math rock quartet played in very different musical environments.  Whether they were playing in funk or metal bands, or getting a degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music (as in the case of current drummer Jerry Gambino), each member brings a distinct musical pedigree that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.  Instead, all these separate flavors blend seamlessly into a sonic concoction that is both exhilarating in it technicality and intimately soulful.

Take for instance the eclectic jam “Qwerty.”  It starts off like a song by The Antlers you can shake your hips to, with some soft atmospheric tones and an infectiously funky guitar riff alongside Brooks’ smooth vocals.  Then, with a magician’s sleight of hand, the song slips gracefully into pummeling drums and furious tapping that’s a distortion pedal away from belonging on a Protest the Hero album.  Despite the drastic changes in tempo and parts that sound like they’d be a workout in themselves to try to play, the song never drops its chill charm or loses its way.  It’s these ballsy musical choices, polished into tunes that manage to be accessible for casual listeners while still providing something for theory nerds to get excited about, that betray the mark of true musicianship.

In fact, members of the band (rounded out by guitarist Brandon Cohill and bassist Steve Camisi) say themselves that their mates are some of the best musicians they’ve ever played with.  With only about a year and a half of shows under their belts, Black Dirty play like a much more seasoned unit.  The songs are tight, and that’s exactly how the band tries to play together on stage.  Math rock, with its ever-changing tempos and uneven time signatures, is not the easiest of genres to play live, but Black Dirty work as hard as they can to try to do on stage what it takes hours to do in a studio.

The band tries to do everything it can for itself, from pressing 1,000 copies of their new EP “Dirty Water” to booking their frenzied four-day bent in a Pittsburgh studio to record it.  It’s this hard work and independent ethic that allows Black Dirty to stay disciplined while still being able to do what they want.

“We take the music seriously,” Brooks said. “But not ourselves.”

If the inspiration for the name was any indication, you shouldn’t be surprised that Black Dirty is a band with a penchant for the irreverent.  Before joining the band and devoting more time to music and playing shows, guitarist Brandon Cohill was getting on stage to do stand-up comedy.  Now, he brings his jokes to Black Dirty shows, including something about “a vampire and a tampon” that apparently got an interesting reaction from a venue in Stroudsburg full of kids who looked like they were still in high school.

“It was so unbelievably weird,” Brooks said.

I’m even told that, before I finish my write-up, I should wait to see the photos of the band to be taken later that day (the interview was on the phone) so I can see Camisi’s allegedly luscious lips.

“They look like jungle caterpillars you’d be forced to eat on Fear Factor,” Brooks deadpans.

Apparently these lips are very inspiring.  I suggest that “Jungle Caterpillar Lips” might make a good song title and Brooks laughs, saying not to count that out as a possibility.

If “Jungle Caterpillar Lips” ever does see daylight, it’ll be on another short EP.  Brooks said the band would rather release less material more often than to attempt a more conceptual full-length album.  But with the “Dirty Water” EP freshly pressed and online, Black Dirty is now focusing on playing shows.  Their next big thing is a date with Bullet Proof Tiger at North Star Bar on August 21, but come fall the Black Dirty could be playing in a basement near you.

“DIY shows are the best,” Brooks said. “The venue itself has a following.”

For Black Dirty, the Philly basement scene is where it’s really at.  Everyone comes to see every band.  It’s the kind of intimate atmosphere in which the band’s humor and laid-back attitude can find a comfortable home, not to mention a place in which their serious musical chops will get the appreciation they deserve.

If the songs on “Dirty Water” are just the first taste of this band, then there can only be good things ahead for Black Dirty.  It’s available for download now on their Bandcamp page at whatever price you’d like to pay.  Though it seems to be a success so far, Brooks still maintains it’s “more important to be heard than paid.”

Tyler Horst can be reached at tyler.horst@temple.edu.

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