Black Swan Lane
Time Can Never Lie:
Black Swan Lane Stares Down the Other Side
“The music, to me, is pretty uplifting,” notes Jack Sobel, concerning his musical endeavor of over 13 years, Black Swan Lane. He pauses, then adds: “The lyrics themselves change that… My stuff has always been really dramatic… But then… people [write me] every day saying how much it means to them, and how it’s getting them through their day. If you say so!”
Anyone who knows Jack knows he has a tendency to be a gloomy droop, perhaps even a bit misanthropic. Most times I’ve seen him laugh, it’s usually after he’s uttered some sort of self-deprecating comment. But the truth is, I know him to also be quietly generous, restlessly industrious, exceedingly talented and, yes, sometimes a little funny. He, his wife and teenage son (whose soccer team is one of several Jack coaches) live in a substantial house in an upper class Acworth neighborhood, where he prepares amazing dinners, enjoys the company of his two golden retrievers – Jaxson and Bailey – and a golden retriever mix named Rosie, and regularly stays up into the wee hours writing and recording music in his extensive basement studio jam-packed with a drumkit, keyboards, fancy microphones, mixers, computer setups and multiple guitars. Anyone’s first impression would be that life’s treated him pretty sweet.
And if Black Swan Lane’s moody, somber, multilayered music can’t always qualify as uplifting (though some of it is), it is stunningly beautiful. Deep, sublime, magnetic and mesmerizing. Impeccably crafted and performed. Over the course of eight BSL albums (and several prior to that with his previous group, The Messengers, which included longtime BSL guitarist John Kolbeck), Sobel’s musical output has only grown more impressive, and the latest Black Swan Lane album, Vita Eterna, marks yet a new zenith. Get it and turn the motherfucker up loud. Songs like “Pure,” “The Prisoner,” “Tremble,” “Shadow of the Stars,” “Two Oceans,” “Condannare” and “These Old Wounds” stealthily elicit goosebumps as if a ghost whispered softly across your bare skin, while at the same time shuddering your walls with a full-force gale of guitars and drums. At one time, they would’ve surely received ample airplay on college and alt-rock radio stations alongside dense, shadowy, guitar-centric post-punk groups such as The Church, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Chameleons.
“I’ve played/wrote/arranged/produced a lot of music in my life and this is up there with the best,” testifies former Chameleons guitarist Dave Fielding, who guests on guitar on many of Vita Eterna’s tracks. “Jack Sobel is a genuine soul. A great songwriter musician,” Fielding continues in a post in the YouTube comments section of BSL’s video for “The Prisoner.” “This album is so full of soul, atmosphere, spirit, feeling, heartfelt emotion, and it’s real.”
The Chameleons – a briefly prominent component of the Manchester, England scene of the mid-1980s – and Black Swan Lane have had an intertwined relationship over the course of the latter’s existence. Black Swan Lane was initially formed as a collaboration between Sobel, Kolbeck and Chameleons vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess, who played and sang on the first three BSL albums. The second one, The Sun and the Moon Sessions, was recorded with Burgess’ post-Chameleons group The Sun and the Moon while they stayed with Sobel to perform a one-off show at The Icehouse in East Atlanta Village in 2008. Most recently, Fielding was flown over by Sobel to contribute to Vita Eterna, which Sobel calls “an incredible treat… he added a wonderful element to the entire project.” In case you were wondering: yes, The Chameleons are Sobel’s favorite band, or at least they were for many, many years.
“I listen [to] a wide range of stuff. But you know, The Chameleons, and Kitchens of Distinction, that’s a huge influence, guitar-wise,” he says. “But we bring it to a different level. Black Swan Lane has a sound where we have that addictive, repetitive loop going behind the scenes of this wall of [electric] guitars, along with a couple of acoustics panning left and right… But we’re not shoegaze, either. So, back then I was listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins with those kinds of guitars and flowing melodies. But then [also] the darkness of Bauhaus and Joy Division. So I’m trying to combine those elements of beauty and dark. Not only in the words, but also [the music].”
Hanging out in his studio on a recent Sunday night, he cranks up a Vita Eterna outtake for me called “Finally Here,” recorded with Fielding on guitar, that he claims was too “poppy” for the album, despite it being “probably the best song we’ve ever written.” Okay… it’s slightly brighter and poppier than the usual BSL fare, but it wouldn’t sound as out of place on Vita Eterna as Sobel believes. It sounds like a long lost single from The Church circa Starfish. It’s exhilarating, a tour de force. “We fucked up the mixing of it,” he mutters. “I just couldn’t get it right. But I’m hoping to bring it back at some point.”
There’s even a song called “Happy” on Vita Eterna. But naturally, it’s not a happy song. Few of Sobel’s are.
“Well, there’s a couple… maybe five percent,” he responds. “I mean, life is painful, you know, and there’s been a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of medical issues, a lot of near-death experiences, and near-divorces.”
Indeed, Jack went through a very rough period a few years ago, from which he’s still recovering. We’ll get to that. But first, let’s bring everyone up to speed on how the 48-year-old came to be doing any of this in the first place.
Originally from Albuquerque, where his dreams of becoming a rock star (as a drummer, his first instrument) outweighed any cares about the classes he was neglecting at the University of New Mexico, Jack transferred to Auburn in the early ’90s to help his parents out with a hotel and restaurant they operated, bringing along his fiancé at the time, a woman named Eden.
“There’s a lot of songs about that girl, and our record company’s called Eden Records Group. She had a lasting impact on me, and I actually had a child with her, which some people know and some people don’t know,” Sobel says. “She left me shortly after, hated the South, and didn’t get on well with my parents. So I was stuck in the south. Didn’t understand anybody… it was just different. And I missed the [Southwestern] food, and I missed the atmosphere, the mountains, and the climate. I’ve obviously been here a long time now, and I’ve become acclimated to it. But I still miss home. There’s an acoustic instrumental we named ‘Sandia’ on our sixth album, [named] after the Sandia mountain range in Albuquerque.”
Sobel’s parents then moved to Augusta, and Jack followed. He hated it there, too, but met a woman with a quintessential 4AD singing voice named Lauren Fay, whom Jack describes as “Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and Xmal Deutschland rolled up into one person.” They started The Messengers as a synth project with Fay on vocals and Jack doing all the music. Then they started dating, then broke up, and that was the end of that. With Fay gone (she does contribute backing vocals to Vita Eterna, notably), Jack remained determined to keep The Messengers going with him on voice, synths, sequencer and rhythm guitar, his new Augusta friend and collaborator John Kolbeck on lead guitar, and James Fairey on keyboards. In the midst of all of this, Sobel returned to school in Auburn and graduated with a Psychology degree.
“It took me five years,” he says. “I think I dated a couple teachers to get through college. One of whom, my English teacher, wound up on the cover of [The Messengers’ 1996 CD] Queen Today. To this day, I don’t think she knows.”
Post-graduation, Sobel got engaged to another woman, got married, moved to Atlanta, did music part time and went into the restaurant business, working in various capacities at the likes of Gorin’s Café, Tiburon Grill and Fratelli di Napoli, the cumulative effects of which, he says, “killed my back, killed my health…lifting cases of wine, lifting tables. I wound up in the hospital, I wound up in physical therapy at Georgia Tech learning how to walk again. There were times I couldn’t get out of bed at all. A lot of it is also smoking cigarettes… That’s [my] one vice, to this day… it’s caused so many health problems for me – thyroid disease, and I have a blood disorder from smoking. I also have degenerative disc disease, and they say smoking has facilitated that, as well.”
Despite all that, The Messengers continued playing and recording sporadically. The aforementioned Queen Today even boasted Scott Weiland as a producer in a bizarre twist of happenstance. In the spring of 1994, Stone Temple Pilots were recording their second album, Purple at Southern Tracks on Clairmont Road. Sobel was at that time living down the street in a unit at The Park on Clairmont apartment complex, where one of his neighbors several years later was Richard Jewell, bizarrely enough. But while STP were recording in Atlanta, the band members were housed in that same complex, and Weiland ended up in the apartment right next to Jack.
“Since we knew [Scott] was there, one day John and I and this other guitar player, we left the apartment door open while we were jamming. And [Weiland] walked by and he walked right inside. Just walked inside my apartment. And we were like, ‘…holy shit…’”
One thing led to another, and next thing you know the STP frontman’s going to see strippers with his new pals at the Pink Pony, doing lines of blow off Jack’s credit card while making weird blubbering noises in the passenger seat of Jack’s car zooming down Peachtree Street, and going to see Mazzy Star with them at The Point, a show during which “people are just handing him pills, and he’s drinking bourbon, and taking whatever… I’m like, ‘How do you even know what that is? I don’t know how this guy’s alive.’ So [later] that night,” Jack recalls, “[Weiland] knocks on my door, he’s like, ‘You gotta come watch me.’ I had to babysit him. So I’m sitting on the couch, and he’s [passed out] with his eyes rolling back in his head, and on MTV, ‘Plush’ comes on, and I’m like, ‘This isn’t fair. It’s just not fair.’ And I had to be at work in a few hours, ’cause I was working the morning shift. But I did it.”
Despite the wear and tear on his body, Sobel’s years toiling in the restaurant industry paid off in 2000 when he opened Agave in Cabbagetown; its Southwestern fare has been a hit with foodies and casual diners alike, and today it rightfully remains among the city’s most popular restaurants (hence the nice house in Acworth).
When The Chameleons reformed for a couple years and played the Echo Lounge in 2002, Jack met and ate dinner with them and had them autograph albums and guitars (one of which still hangs on Agave’s front wall). A few years later, Burgess returned on a solo tour, and although The Messengers had by that point petered out, Sobel convinced Kolbeck to reconvene to open Burgess’ show at 10 High, during which the Chameleons frontman invited Sobel to play drums on a song. This led to Burgess participating in the recording of a final Messengers album, 2005’s Abundant Sunshine.
Hitting it off, Burgess and Sobel decided to do a US tour together playing Chameleons songs, with Sobel on drums, Kolbeck on guitar and (latter day Chameleons member) Kwasi Asante on percussion, a combo that eventually became Black Swan Lane, recording the 2007 debut CD A Long Way From Home; the album’s song “In the Ether” was used in the 2009 Jesse Eisenberg/Kristen Stewart movie Adventureland. “Things started kinda happening with music again, and it got back in my blood,” Sobel puts it. “So I was like, OK, let’s keep doing this.”
By the fourth album, 2011’s Staring Down the Path of Sound, Black Swan Lane had coalesced around the core of Sobel and Kolbeck, with additional musicians and vocalists as needed (Fay sings backup on that album as well). And then Black Swan Lane, which has rarely done live performances, for an assortment of reasons, decided to embark on a cross-country North American tour with ChameleonsVox, Burgess’ current band with which he performs the Chameleons’ back catalog.
With ten guys on one tour bus, several of whom apparently against the concept of showering, Sobel says the hygiene conditions on the road trip were disgusting. Not long after returning from that jaunt, Sobel noticed what he suspected was a spider bite on his left leg, presumably acquired while traipsing around nearby Lake Allatoona. But it turned out to be a massive infection that kept getting worse and worse, baffling doctors for years. “I went up to the hospital,” Jack recounts, “and they put a four- to six-inch hole in my leg that looked like a big vagina. I had to leave that open, and my wife had to stuff gauze into my leg, which I couldn’t do myself.
“And then, uh, I wound up having more surgery, and then that led to me having anxiety problems. Because, I developed cellulitis in my leg, and at one point I was just shaking so bad, and they said I was kinda going septic. And then one doctor said I had necrotizing fasciitis (the so-called ‘flesh-eating disease’), and I lost my shit. I couldn’t sit, I had to sit on one side of a chair, and I was so afraid of it happening again, because the amount of pain I kept having to go through with the shots directly in the back of my thigh with these big needles. There had to be 10 to 13 different procedures…but I kept testing negative for staph and MRSA. I was prone to cysts, but these would explode into hell, and cause massive infections in my body… A great 35 lb. weight loss plan!
“So, after going to different surgeons and them saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’ we finally found a surgeon who was like, ‘Yeah, I know what to do. I’m gonna go in there and untie all these nerves,’ and I don’t even remember everything he did, but he fixed me. And knock on wood, it hasn’t happened since. And that was my last surgery. It’s still uncomfortable for me to [sit]. So, long car rides or tours, airplanes, whatever, sitting is…I hate it… Doctors eventually discovered I have a very bad case of Hashimoto’s disease, which affects my overall immune system.”
So, y’know, forgive Black Swan Lane for not having a lot of cheery, upbeat ditties. Adding insult to infection, so to speak, Kolbeck left the fold after BSL’s seventh album, 2017’s Under My Fallen Sky. (He’s on three of Vita Eterna’s cuts, but those are reworked older recordings that didn’t make the tracklistings of previous albums.)
“His mom passed away,” Sobel explains, “and he got kind of disillusioned, I suppose, with music. He wound up getting a full-time job at a nuclear power plant at the Savannah River in Augusta, where we first met… Everybody keeps asking about playing live, and when are we touring, and this and that. Right now I need to find somebody… I mean, John played two people’s parts [live]. And he is probably the best guitarist I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, he’s professionally trained… [We] put so many fucking guitars on songs in the studio, it’s hard to translate [live]… My immediate problem is, everybody I’ve tried out so far is fuckin’ awful. They either don’t have timing, or rhythm, or they have never understood the genre of music we’re doing… Our music’s very complex, to put a show on. And I’m just not gonna do it half-assed. I don’t wanna do something if it’s not great.”
Translated into English from Italian, “vita eterna” means “everlasting life.” Many of the religious believers among us have faith in the promise or at least possibility of such a miracle. Jack incorporates the Buddhist Aum Om Yota symbol into some of Black Swan Lane’s graphics, though it’s unclear how seriously, if at all, he takes that particular religion, or any. Still, it’s clear that his recent health scare has given him pause to contemplate his mortality. Nothing living on this earth lives in this form forever, be it cherished family members, or friends, or musical partnerships, or ourselves. So Vita Eterna may be the deepest of Black Swan Lane’s albums yet. One thing is certain, for whatever it’s worth: it’s definitely the most Italian.
“Our third album (Things You Know and Love) was supposed to be called Vita Eterna, until John Kolbeck said [that] sounded like a food processor or something,” Jack recalls. “But the reason I brought it back was, a lot of [this album] is reminiscent of Italian things. One, the cover [art] that I found, it’s [by] an Italian [photographer], Andrea Gottardi – he did our sixth album (A Moment of Happiness) also. Our manager, who wrote additional lyrics for the album, Alex Dematteis, is Italian. We’ve got an Italian woman talking at the beginning of the song [‘Silence of the Heart’]. We’ve got another song, ‘Condannare,’ in Italian. And it’s kind of an ode to my mom, who’s Sicilian, and her whole side of the family is just pure Italian. And I love spaghetti, so it made sense.”