In the Key of Black

The Black Tones' First Album Is Finally Coming

The brother and sister rock duo had the city’s music scene suddenly abuzz last year. This spring, eight years after forming, they release their first full album.

By Stefan Milne February 26, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Tori Dickson

The game’s splash screen reads “The Black Tones.” The yellow letters with red-orange backing evoke the cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly rendered in Super Mario Bros.–style 8-bit. The next page on offers a character select, Eva or Cedric. Then, tapping their space bars, players kick hate-group ass: Tiki torch toting alt-right, KKK, Nazis, Confederates.

That splash screen is indicative. The band’s core, Eva and Cedric Walker, are twins currently storming Seattle music. And, like Mayfield, they have a knack for alchemizing hellacious subject matter into a hell of a good time.

The video game accompanied “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead),” the first single released on the Black Tones’ debut LP, Cobain and Cornbread, which comes out this April. The song is a severe groove, driven by Cedric’s splashing cymbals and Eva’s limber, wah-wah guitar work. Halfway through the six-minute runtime, her voice—drawing, she says, on Billie Holiday and Jim Morrison—calls out: “We want love.” And a chorus: “They want us dead.” Again. “We want peace / They want us dead.” It carries on like that for six more pairs before her guitar again engulfs the track. On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the song was the most played track of the day on KEXP (where Eva is now a DJ). The band accepts that success queasily, often introducing the song with statements to the effect of the exposure is cool, but why is this sort of protest song still relevant?

Cobain and Cornbread is an album nearly eight years coming. When Eva played guitar and sang at Northwest Folklife in 2011, her family had never seen her perform and were awed by her voice. “Eva likes to say I was bawling, but I’d say it was more like—” Cedric, sitting beside his sister in a Columbia City coffee shop, traced a tear down his cheek with his finger. “My heart was filled.” He wanted to play drums to back her up, so she started giving him lessons. After a few months they managed to gather a drum kit at Goodwill, and in September 2011, the Black Tones played their first show in the University District. Other members have rotated—they now hire a bassist for big gigs—but the Walker twins are constants.

The Black Tones continued to play for the next six years, self-releasing some tracks on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Then in 2017, Eva’s now-fiance, Seattle writer Jake Uitti, sneaked one of the band’s songs into the hands of Jack Endino—the local music producer who’s worked with Nirvana, Soundgarden, and hundreds of others. Endino caught a show and that clinched it. “They’re a great live band. There’s just no denying it,” Endino says. He was struck, particularly, by Eva’s voice. “A good singer is the rarest thing…especially in the indie rock world.”

The band recorded “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)” and “Plaid Pants” with Endino. After the tracks’ success, the band and Endino joined each other in the studio for a few more sessions. The results, along with a few previously recorded tracks, comprise Cobain and Cornbread. The title’s an alliterative nod to the Walkers’ upbringing (Southern family in Seattle) more than any overt local influence. Sure, Cedric’s drum thunder may recall Nirvana-era Dave Grohl. But the Black Tones specialize in a brand of rock—equally incantatory and incendiary—that saw its heyday in the 1970s. Eva cites major influences as ’70s Nigerian psychedelic rock; Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, a local virtuoso soul group; George Clinton’s Funkadelic; and Kraftwerk, the avant-garde German band known for its weird, churning, synth-heavy grooves. 

“I like to think we’re just a rock and roll band,” Eva said later, before mentioning how frequently people skirt the word “rock” when trying to categorize them. “It’s like, you’re a black band, you must be funk. Or one of you must rap.”

“We got one person who said we were ‘world rock,’” Cedric laughed.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Eva said. “That’s Yanni.”

The Black Tones cement their twin bond live.

The two play off each other when talking, tipping together in laughter, and those familial vibes now extend beyond the twins. When the band played the Crocodile in Belltown in 2017—then their biggest show—they invited their mom and sister to sing backup, and the tradition stuck. At big shows family members, clad in Black Tones T-shirts, now join the chorus of "The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)."

Last year saw the band’s exposure radically expand. They opened for Death Cab for Cutie to celebrate the Paramount Theatre’s 90th anniversary. But for Eva and Cedric things culminated on New Year’s Eve at the Showbox when they played with Red Fang and Thunderpussy, the local classic rock revivalists. To “make a splash,” Eva said, they decided to do the show in their underwear. Their mother disapproved but accompanied her kids anyway. During the last song, Eva tossed her bra into the crowd and finished the show in pasties playing her guitar behind her head.

But her performance flair gave way to the band’s most steadfast aspect, the family’s support. She and her mom high-fived on stage. “I’m topless, holding my guitar,” Eva said later, “and I was just like this is what female empowerment looks like.”

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