Stopped in their tracks, or onwards to new horizons?

Words and photography by Jakob Muxoll

The Danish powerhouse of a hardrock band had massive success early on, released a critically acclaimed debut album, but was stopped in their tracks by a surprise departure by their singer, Niels Beier. Personal challenges plagued Beier, and with so many things, something has to give. Beier announced his departure from the band, and the future was suddenly the great unknown. Where were they going? Would they even recover as a band? Brothers Mike and Jack Svendsen ventured with their dad in the band Volt, while the remaining trio, Mike, René and Jack, auditioned several prospect singers. Reliable sources informed me, that they were gonna record new material as a trio, with René Hjelm doing double duty on both bass and vocals. Back in August 2018, a new single, “Pretty Pistol”, was released, which I also reviewed. I had a chance to catch up with the trio, prior to their debut as a trio, backstage at the High Voltage Club in Copenhagen.

So, Black Oak County are back. Tell me about your new situation – Niels (Niels Beier, former lead singer, red.) relocated to Greenland, you guys tried out a few prospect singers…tell me what’s up? “Well, I simply decided that I’d like to try out as singer. Like that. I’ve sung in other bands before, and it suddenly appealed to us to try running this as a trio” , says singer/bassist René. Right, so from bass player to singer/bass player, did that just come natural to you? “Definitely no! It haven’t been easy to learn to play and sing at the same time. But it’s starting to come together slowly.” Cool, so all the old songs from the first album…You obviously knew them and all? “Sort of, I didn’t know the lyrics in depth, so I had to learn those first. That definitely demands a few pieces of paper on stage tonight with hints.”

What have your own thoughts been about this? Like, Niels comes up one day and says he’s moving to Greenland…then what?

“What the f..k(!)…pretty much sums up what everyone thought.”, says guitarist Jack. “Well it definitely came as a shock when he shows up at a rehearsal and drops that bomb. But we all sort of saw it coming, you know? It probably came more of a shock because we had it going for us at that time. We had a momentum, and this was like – a big buffer stop was put in front of the “train” we were running. It was like, nononono, not right now buddy!”, says drummer Mike

Yeah I know what you mean. I was in a band once, where the singer said he wanted to go sailing for six months. Guess everyone in bands experience that at some point, but when you’ve got that momentum going, it’s a pretty nervewrecking thing. René, as a singer, what are your inspirations?

“Oh God….Don’t know how to answer that one. There’s a shitload of things. Nowhere in particular, I guess…I sing like I do, and write like I do. It just comes out, you know? If it’s something, it would be Tim Christensen/Dizzy Mizz Lizzy-esque, would some people probably say, but there aren’t really something specific that I try to “be like” or sound like or write like. I’ve got the René Hjelm sound, I’d say.” Yeah that’s something I definitely noticed when I heard your new single “Pretty Pistol”. It’s a different sound. More clean and smooth, more…uhm…polished, some would say, vs. Niels’ very raw, almost primal voice. “Yeah that’s just raw power, that. He’s running on pure raw power. I just don’t have that. That’s not something my little body can do.”

Jack: “I’d say, if one should mention at least some inspirations, one could mention Scott Weyland (late Velvet Revolver/Stone Temple Pilots, red.) Josh Todd from Buckcherry, and most definitely Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe). These guys always seem to be somewhere in the back of René’s head when he writes.”

René: “I’d say Weyland, if I had to settle on someone. Especially from the first album. Definitely scrutinizing that one. It’s really one of the greatest rock albums in recent times. It was, you know, just Matt Sorum, Slash, Duff and Weyland, and they just came out with this crazy band, and it just worked 100% from the get-go. So he’s a guy I’ve listened a lot to, and drawn inspiration from, but not in the sense that I wanted to sound like him or write like him. And I don’t think I personally sound like any of those guys. Not that I’m unique in that sense or anything, but I feel like I’ve got my own thing going.”

As I wrote in my review of the new single, there definitely were these Stone Temple Pilots scents rolling through my head. Many elements triggered the same synapses in my mind. The Pilots are one of the bands that kinda sets the bar for me, along with Alice In Chains and the likes. René: “Yeah I’ve got ya’ – but I mean, Stone Temple Pilots aren’t a band I’ve dwelled in as such, but Weyland’s stuff for sure.”

– Yeah he was one of those dudes that was just 50% of his band, right?

René: “Exactly. He just had that “thing”, right? He is…or was, just a fantastic singer. He wasn’t the greatest, like, natural talent, with regards to singing, technique etc., and I’m not either, but you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve that you’re just really good at, and that’s what you roll with. I think that, what I’m bringing to the table, isn’t so much the singing technique as such, but more the ability to write hooks and melodies, and writing-wise, that’s probably where I’ve got my strengths. That’s the place where I feel that I shine and can be original.”

Do you guys feel that Black Oak County has changed expression or sound, or do you think that you’re moving along in the same track as before?

Jack: “I think that a band will always change its expression and sound, when having someone else behind the mic. But as such, we think that it’s definitely still with the same raw energy and the huge choruses, that defines us. But by having René’s voice, it will always change the way stuff sound. We are definitely moving ourselves over into something…dare I say, more mainstream sound, perhaps, where, before, it was much more raw and heavy and dirty. That whole southern-hardrock thing, with where we should be in the phonetic image and the song writing, we’ve moved over to this “now it’s us – what do we want?”. Someone said to us, okay, now it’s just the three of you, and you sound like 30 billion other bands out there. So we took that challenge up, and wanted to find our own sound.”

René: “But then again, the fact that Niels isn’t there anymore – It’s not just the vocals, he also played guitar, and being the main writing force in the band, he did bring significant amounts of both musical and lyric material to the table. And when you suddenly take him out of the equation that whole southern theme/Black Stone Cherry thing, disappears. So naturally, it HAS to sound different. The new stuff just won’t have those things. And why should it, to be honest? Now we’re more over into that Velvet/Pilots/Cherry territory. Some would probably call it 90’s rock, cut to the bone, skim the redundant stuff, roll with the riffs and the hooks, and away you go. Somewhat more simplistic and minimalistic. Songwriting-wise it’s in another place too, so it’s not just the extra guitar and the vocals. Of course all music with vocals are built around the vocals, so it’s something you’d notice right off the bat. Another thing that has changed, is the fact that, that extra set of strings did do something to our sound, that is hard to fill out. We do feel the lack of that second guitar.”

Mike: “The new single are more clean and clear, you can hear what everyone’s doing, what each instrument’s role is, On our debut album it was a lot more bombastic, giant sound, whereas now it’s more rock’n’roll.”

René: “We used to be more or less in the same frequency spectrum all the time, everyone. This sometimes kinda mudded stuff together, so you couldn’t hear what was bass, what was guitar and what was vocals. We did get some critique on that point. It might be a mixing thing or whatever, but, like Mike said, it’s a lot more defined now. The guitar is more crisp. It’s a more modern sound for sure.”

Black Oak County in the Copenhagen streets.

Awesome stuff guys. So at Flick Of The Finger, we’ve got this thing called “Five In Five”. Just random questions about random stuff, nothing to do with your music as such:

#1 – Biggest f..k-up on-stage. Where and what?

Jack: “Do you mean, like, just messing up chords and stuff?”

Mike: “I remember one time at Tobakken (venue in BOC’s hometown Esbjerg, DK, red.), we were trying out a gimmick with me playing with light-up sticks, and it was dark. I mean pitch black. I just got my brand new DW drums, and the drum podium was very high so I couldn’t see very much in front of me. So I had played that drum solo, and suddenly it just said “bonk”, and I had hit my front tam that was on its way over the edge of the podium. Jack managed to run over and catch it and push it back up, otherwise that would’ve been like 10000kr (about £1200, red.) hitting the floor right there.”

René: “That show generally had a lot of f..k-ups. The drum podium was this huge contraption, using speakers as stairs, so you’d look cool walking up to Mike while playing and all. Niels took a walk up there while playing, and then fell over, smashed his Les Paul on the floor so some of the binding fell off. We also had some confetti cannons, one in each side, that were supposed to go off at the same time, but only one of them went off, so it was a very flat feeling, when it should have been this awesome 80’s gimmick. I was standing just over the one that went off, thinking “Wow this is awesome!”, but looked over to the other side, and there was just nothing.”

FOTF: “Right…we’ll just go home then…”, ha ha!

#2 – Your new band name – The name of your favourite fruit, plus the last reason why you took pain killers. Your new band name is?

Jack: “I really like apples, so I’m gonna go with apples. But I haven’t taken painkillers in a long time.”

Mike: “Actually I just took painkillers recently.”

Jack: “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

Mike: “I like peaches, and I recently had an iskias nerve clammed up. That would be Iskias Peach.”

#3 – Favourite 90’s album?

Jack: ““Dirt” by Alice In Chains. Probably the best record, in my mind at least, made in the 90’s. And the best guitar sound too.”

René: “Down” by Nola, but I’d lean towards AIC too. Dizzy Mizz Lizzy would also be up there.”

#4 – Musician superhero powers. What would thy be, and which band would you use them on?

Jack: “Guns n’ Roses, late 80’s. My super powers would be to sing louder and better than Axl Rose. I mean, really beat him in all aspects of singing. Higher octaves – he could really go high back then.”

FOTF: Ha ha! I’m sure he would try to beat you up over that!

Jack: “I’m sure he would. I read an interview, about sometime back in the 80’s, where Rolling Stones had called and asked Guns ’n Roses to come on tour as support. Slash flew out, watched the sound check, took the limo back to the hotel, fell asleep and missed the show. Then on the first support show, he played  with his back to the audience for the whole show. The second show went better, and the third show was phenomenal. When that third show was done, they were supposed to have their pictures taken with the Stones, but Slash jumped straight into his car backstage to get a shot of heroin. So he missed the photo-op with the Stones. Or maybe he was just too cool for that kind of thing.”

René: “I’d be like that Xmen chick with the nine fingers, and suck all the talent and writing out of Axl. I’d be like, “you guys never wrote those songs, I did”.”

#5 – Okay, final question. Jam, album or tour. Who would you like to jam with, who would you do an album with, and while would you like to tour with? Living or dead?

Jack: “I’d jam with Lemmy, Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads, and John Bonham. That would be awesome! And then Dio on vocals. Cliff Burton too. I’d have two bass players and two guitarists.”

Mike: “I’d be in Guns n’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. And Motörhead. There’s your party right there.”

René: “Osbourne in the 80’s. That’s where I’d be.”

Jack: “Ozzy and Mötley Crüe on that tour they did in the 80’s, where they snorted ants and drank urine and whatnot. One time I had to piss in a soda can, because, you know, I really had to go, and Mike was on the toilet, and wouldn’t let me in. All provocative. So I went to his room (Mike and Jack are brothers, red.), and there was a pile of empty soda and beer cans, so I went in one of those. The next morning, Mike opened up a 7UP, took a sip, put the can down next to the one I pissed in, and went for another sip a few moments later. I just heard that “Oh f..king hell…..!” From his room. I was in my bed, thinking “Ha ha, learn, motherf..ker!””