The first time I saw BLACK GIRLS was on April 17th, at the grand opening of The Broadberry. As I stood knee-to-stage, camera in hand, letting my ears recover from the squealing feedback of GOLDRUSH, lead singer Drew Gillihan walked up to the microphone with a clear plastic cup full of cheap red wine. As the band kicked into the first song, he seemed restrained, perhaps even bashful—everything I didn’t expect him to be, based on what I had read in local publications. But after a few songs, he loosened up (perhaps due that potent liquid he was periodically swallowing) and ended up putting on one of the most entrancing live vocal performances I’ve ever seen—on the local or national level.

Of course, the rest of the band was also in top form. Jeff Knight grooved away on the bass with his with low-simmering suaveness, guitarist Fletcher Babb switched seamlessly from one style to the next, et cetera and so forth. Perhaps my experience was enhanced because of the newness of it all – the band, the venue, what have you, but whatever the case may be, I was thoroughly blown away. My ears rang for days afterward, but that was alright, because I was glowing.

After the show, I immediately went to the merch table and snagged a BLACK GIRLS t-shirt with a picture of a lipsticked mouth smoking a raggedy, old cigarette. Since that night, I’ve joined the large contingent of Richmonders who think BLACK GIRLS are the greatest thing since sliced bread…or perhaps since STEELY DAN, at the very least.

A BLACK GIRLS show isn’t so much a performance as it is an interactive experience. Granted, this can be said about a lot of bands, but where BLACK GIRLS separate themselves is their ability to make a believer out of someone who knows nothing about their music. They are skilled at forming emotional connections with the audience, no matter how many people in the audience have actually heard their music. Point in case: three songs into my first encounter with BLACK GIRLS, I felt like I was watching six of my best friends perform on stage. I somehow loved these dudes, even though I’d only been introduced to them, like, eight-and-a-half minutes prior. It’s this intangible quality that’s helped them become one of Richmond’s most popular acts, and it’s also part of the reason why they’re heralded as one of (maybe) a handful of bands on the local scene with the potential for regional and/or national success. And, this success will happen…if the Music Gods have any sense of justice, anyway.

To put on an immersive live show is one thing. To release quality records worthy of repeated spins is quite another. Fortunately, BLACK GIRLS have had no issue adapting their onstage magic to the studio. The fruits of their labor shine through on three stellar albums: Black Girls, Hell Dragon, which features some of my favorite cover art of all time, and Claire Sinclaire, which received a glowing review from RVA Magazine. Their sound, which can be described as a groove-driven hodgepodge of funk, soul, surf-rock, and blushed-cheek sensuality, has gotten more full and more mature, if you want to use that term, with each passing album, while retaining the playful rawness that made them so cool and captivating in the first place. They’ve written several songs (see: “Music Theory (for Haters),” “Broadway,” and a truckload of others) that stand breast-to-breast, structure-wise, with any pop song written by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Indeed, the parade of consistent releases has proven that they are no gimmicky, one-off fluke. These six white boys—who have shared bills with the likes of ALABAMA SHAKES, THE HEAD AND THE HEART, and KENDRICK LAMAR—have a deep understanding of what constitutes a quality pop song, and time after time, they deliver the goods (see “Soul Tornado,” or practically any song on Claire Sinclaire, for proof that their pop sensibilities and musicianship are as strong as ever).

I once read that PHISH is a band that you have to consciously decide to like; that is, you can’t fall in love with them by simply passively absorbing their music. If we can take this statement to be true (and it seems pretty accurate to me), BLACK GIRLS are the anti-PHISH. Their music just sort of seeps into your veins, no intellectualization or justification needed. To paraphrase a line an ex-Deadhead friend of mine once used to describe FLEETWOOD MAC: “It’s just good music, man. I don’t understand how anyone couldn’t like this.” This seems applicable to the BLACK GIRLS because they, like Stevie Nicks and crew, make music for the sheer pleasure of creation. They’re in the game for all the right reasons. And if BLACK GIRLS stick to it, perhaps a wider audience will have an opportunity to appreciate the unique sound that many scene-conscious Richmonders have been raving about over the past half-decade or so.

We spoke with drummer Stephen Farris about the band’s beginnings and becoming the “Snuff Lords” of Richmond, their experience playing the grand opening show at The Broadberry, as well as their touring and recording plans for this summer.

How did you all come up with the name BLACK GIRLS? Was it just a play on the fact that you all are just regular looking white dudes, or was there more to it than that?

When Drew [Gillihan] and I started the project a few years back, we were just recording different types of tunes in our basement , and at the onset we were really obsessed with soul and funk music, still are I guess, but we were really into doing this over-the-top, layered falsetto style of singing the hooks. This was before we had a name, and I think this one time we were showing some stuff to some friends, and they asked if we had gotten a trio of black girls to come in and record backing vocals. So that was kind of flattering and we thought, “Hey, not a bad name either.”

How did you all conceive the name “snuff rock”?

Snuff Rock comes from around that same time period, after we had put together the first group of guys to play these songs, and they kind of took on this whole new vibe. We weren’t sure what to tell people when they inevitably ask “What’s your band name? How’d you come up with that? What type of music do you play?” Usually in that order. At the time, we had just discovered snuff tobacco (tobacco powder you snort), and it was fueling our practice sessions and early shows. It’s pretty fucking nasty, and it gives you kind of a dirty little boost of energy, so naturally we put it on a pedestal as our D.O.C. and branded ourselves “Snuff Lords”.

Can you talk a little bit about the experience of playing the opening show at The Broadberry?

The Broadberry opening was a great night all around. We were stoked to be a part of what we, and most everyone, think is gonna be a really important step forward for the Richmond music scene. Bands that work hard around here deserve the chance to be on a real stage with real sound, and I think what’s really exciting is that now we have a place to bring out of town acts that normally wouldn’t stop through.

You all just got back from a pretty lengthy East Coast tour. Any stories worth sharing from that journey?

Our last tour was very relaxed if I had to put a word to it. We headed down south when Richmond was still caught up in trying to be winter. We had nice weather, met a shit ton of cool people everywhere who were nice enough to let us crash, cook us breakfast, and show us around their neighborhoods. Southern tours are just different in that way.

BLACK GIRLS has played with some pretty big name acts. What was it like to play with bands of that stature, and were you able to pick up any pointers from them in terms of touring, recording, etc.?

We’ve been super lucky to get on some of the bills we’ve gotten on. It’s humbling when people give you a shot to really try and prove yourself on a big stage. You learn something new every time, for sure. The first time doing a big show you look around and realize there’s like six feet between you and any other person in the band, and you know every note and every beat is gonna be heard by the audience. It can be unnerving. But so far, everyone we’ve played with has been exactly what you want them to be, just really encouraging and quick to give you a pat on the back or tousle your hair. Except the dude in WAVVES, but we accidentally drank all his beer.

You all have played in various venues around Richmond for many years now. What is ya’lls favorite?

Balliceaux and The Camel are home for us.

If y’all could share a bill with one band – past or present – what band would it be?

I’m sure everyone in the band has a different dream show/tour, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that the best tour would be with whoever has the most ballin’ tour rider.

Are you all friends off-stage? Or is it more like you only see each other during practice and shows? What do you think has been the glue that has held y’all together throughout the years?

We’ve all been friends for a long time. Drew and Jeff went to high school together, as did Mike and I. We all met freshman year of college and hit it off. We’ve been living together in one way or another since then, so after five-plus years of sharing bathrooms, playing music together isn’t that tough of a thing to handle.

What are your future touring and recording plans with BLACK GIRLS?

We’re actually hitting the road in a couple weeks doing the same Southern/Western run we just did, only this time with a band from Brooklyn called TINY VICTORIES. Other than that, we’ll be around Richmond/DC doing shows. Namely, Crowefest July 5th, or Crowechella, or Crowefest ‘93, whatever you wanna call it.

For more updates on BLACK GIRLS, be sure to visit their website, “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and listen to their music on Bandcamp.

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  1. Pingback: Why Richmond’s “Black Girls” are the anti-Phish. | small town life

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