Black Sites – The Echoes that Lie

Tuesday, 26th October 2021

Corralling influences from a deep well of heavy, classic, and progressive influences in the rock and metal spectrums, Black Sites have been establishing their style quite quickly since starting in 2015. Featuring musicians with a pedigree that includes work with Novembers Doom, Bear Mace, Trials, and Without Waves to name a few, the abilities are there to produce tremendous songs and records. And that’s what you’ll have on the third album Untrue – encompassing heavy parts, groove elements, progressive angles, as well as adding in the detailed vocal harmonies and smooth transitions to create songs you want to return to again and again.

We reached out to vocalist/guitarist Mark Sugar for a fascinating conversation regarding the work of Black Sites. You’ll learn more about the latest album, Mark’s journey as a music fan through the 1990’s to today – the joys of Metallica, King’s X, Black Sabbath, and Hammers of Misfortune – plus interesting talk regarding humanity and what’s on the horizon for the band.

Dead Rhetoric: Untrue is the third album from Black Sites. How did the songwriting and recording process go for this effort – and where do you see the major differences in this record compared to your previously releases?

Mark Sugar: The way this record started was in January of 2020. I called the other dudes in the band, told them I had some songs, and said we should work on new songs for a new record. Immediately two weeks later, our bass player quit the band, and right after that the world shut down due to COVID. We didn’t do anything for a while after that because we couldn’t figure out how. At a certain point, we said screw it, we can’t keep waiting. Garry (Naples) our drummer went in and recorded his parts on his own, I wasn’t even there. He recorded separately, I did my parts at home. Our guitarist Ryan (Bruchert) did his parts on his own, and at the very end of the process, we did a little bit of guitar parts together once everybody was vaccinated.

The main difference was a lack of a bass player and doing things remotely. The distance made things a little less efficient. We have been doing this long enough, and know each other as musicians well enough, that it didn’t seem to affect too much. The album still sounds pretty coherent. I think this album is more of a continuation of the last album Exile. The first album was a different thing – we had a totally different lineup in the band other than myself. We figured out how to make songs that were a bit more direct, and connected with people to get a point across. We figured out a good method for getting working sounds on the record. Recording ourselves so we sound good. Untrue, we worked with Sanford Parker who worked on Exile, and he had a bit more involvement on this one. It’s more of a continuation and progression from Exile, finding what our strengths are and what we sound good doing.

Dead Rhetoric: What areas seem to be your focus on the lyrical front? Are there times where the concepts have a personal take/interest, or do you take inspiration from current events and social/political topics?

Sugar: It’s both. The think especially on this album is its all the same thing. The political is personal. I live in a mixed-race household, my family is mixed raced. If white supremacists let’s say are running the country and I’m upset about that, someone could say your songs are political, but no – that affects me personally. That’s my wife, my kid, the people who live in my house. Especially the way things have been the last few years here, that all filters into it. The political stuff, not the COVID thing. Most of this was written before that. It’s not like a Rage Against the Machine album where we are name checking officials that would make it sound dated in two years, we tried to avoid that. That’s not in our best interest.

I think some of the themes are more universal, but certainly applicable to what’s going on now. The album is called Untrue, and a lot of it is about dishonesty, about judgement, about having to make tough choices about who you deal with, and surround yourself with. A lot of that was coming up for me personally, and I imagine to a lot of other people too. The theme on this record is a little more worldly. It’s still personal, and we have had some pretty personal stuff on the last two albums here and there. But I think it’s more of a blend now, not any song is about any one specific thing. It could be about one thing that happened to one guy, or it could be about something that effected seven million people. It could go either way depending on how you read things.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you find as a vocalist and guitarist one aspect coming easier to you versus the other?

Sugar: Oh my god, playing guitar comes much, much easier to me! That’s probably apparent from listening to the records. I was solely a guitarist for years before I got talked into fronting a band. I initially did not want to do it, we just couldn’t find anyone else to sing. I stuck with it, took some singing lessons, kept practicing. I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it, three albums in. I’m naturally more of a guitar player, and I’m not even that great of a guitar player. That’s just the instrument I gravitate towards when I am playing and writing music.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you think are some of the key elements that you consider as musicians and songwriters to develop as Black Sites? As your influences run the gamut across the spectrum of old school heavy/classic metal and progressive music…

Sugar: Speaking just for myself as the guy who writes most of the material, I think what you said is a huge part of it. Having that many influences to draw from and listening to that many different things. Ryan and I are kind of 90’s kids, we got into metal at that point where all of our favorite metal bands started to suck. We were starting to draw influences from Megadeth – Youthanasia, the Motley Crue album with John Corabi singing. When you blend that with old school Black Sabbath, Fates Warning, Queensrÿche, or Rainbow. All this awesome classic stuff, and we could put a different spin on it due to those 90’s influences that people don’t remember or didn’t like, you can make something unique out of that. It is subliminal, but we draw from metal circa 1992 to 1995. Most people don’t remember that even happening. If you can grab that and make something fresh out of that, that will definitely set you apart.

Dead Rhetoric: That was an interesting time period, the early to mid-1990’s. Music styles in America were changing, alternative music was taking over because of grunge. It seemed like Pantera was the only band very popular in the United States holding the flag for heavy metal, and you had to seek out overseas bands when it came to metal…

Sugar: Absolutely. That’s when black metal, the tech death metal stuff first came up. I missed out on that. Low by Testament, these bands changed a little bit but what they were doing was cool. One song or one riff from that era could spawn some ideas twenty and thirty years later. When I first started discovering these bands, I definitely had to move backwards in their catalogs. When I discovered the bands at the age I did, these bands either put out terrible music or had already broken up. I had no choice but to work backwards. Mid to late 90’s, I’m discovering classic thrash records, progressive records. Stuff that most people weren’t listening to heavily back then because they weren’t putting out new records. I developed influences in that gap, a year earlier when discovering this music I may have liked Korn, but that was not my era. Because I had to work backwards, I had more of an appreciation for the classic stuff. Maybe had a better way to meld it together.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us regarding the cover art for Untrue? And what is your outlook on cover art in heavy metal – have there been specific times where a cover art held special meaning to you before even pressing play on the music?

Sugar: Cover art is huge. I grew up going to record stores and going through stuff. Most of the music I bought then was bought solely on the cover art, or sticker on the record. You didn’t have anything else to go on, other than people recommending stuff. Album art is super important, humans are a very visual species. Catch their eye with something, that happens instantly, whereas listening to a six-minute, prog metal song takes six minutes.

Having said that, our cover art for Untrue is pretty dark, pretty abstract. For the last two albums I was very heavy-handed in the art direction. I do graphic design in real life, so I’d like to think I know what I am doing. I did the sketch for what became the Exile cover, and I did the full layout for In Monochrome our first album. For this one, the artist who worked on it (Alexandre Goulet), I just sent him two sentences of what I was thinking. It’s called untrue, everything sucks, everyone is bitter in a multitude of ways. Also we like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by Black Sabbath, so make it look like that. That was the only direction we gave, and what he came back with was essentially the finished cover. I designed us a new logo, but that’s what we ended up at. I don’t totally know what it means, but I think it looks really cool. Without knowing what it means, it looks a lot like what the album sounds (like). That’s always a plus.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe Black Sites when it comes to playing live versus what people experience on record? What have been some of your favorite or more memorable shows to date for the band?

Sugar: Part of the thing with Black Sites is the live shows have been pretty sparse. Part of that due to COVID, but even before that, everyone in the band has other projects, real life stuff going on. There have been very few shows, but having said that most of them have been pretty cool. One that stands out for me is having the opportunity to open for King’s X. One of my all-time heroes and favorite bands. We got to play with them at a venue in Chicago called Reggies, and it was fantastic. Those guys still sound awesome, and the plus is when you are playing shows like that, opening for more progressive bands, the audience will stick around and keep an open mind. Everyone could have easily gone outside to get a breath of fresh air, they did not. The mentality was they were already there, might as well check out this band. They seemed to dig what we did, we made some new friends that night.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges the band has to tackle to establish more of a foothold in the scene?

Sugar: After the last few years, I don’t really think of it like that. It’s certainly a challenge that there are just so many bands. A big part of cutting through that is to have really good PR and promotion. That’s something we have to delegate. If the material is good, if you write good songs and record them reasonably well, people do notice that and will gravitate towards that. Exile blew up as a result of that, whereas the first album did not because it wasn’t quite up to the standards I had hoped. And that album was on (Mascot Records), but Exile connected with people in different ways. Garry and I play in another death metal band called Bear Mace, and the same exact thing happened. We were super underground, but if you do things right, five or ten people think things are great, and it steamrolls from there. I don’t really worry about standing out in a scene. My main concern is writing good music and playing it well. The standing out will take care of itself.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the Chicago heavy music scene these days – it seems fairly active with lots of bands, venues, and diversity?

Sugar: There’s a lot going on here, even now. Venues were shut down for so long, but I would say Chicago is more on the extreme end of things. A lot of death metal, of all varieties, a lot of doom metal, those are the big two genres here. But there is everything from garage type stuff to proggy stuff, abrasive stuff too. Bands that play everything, there are venues that will host it, people who will come watch it. There are four million people who live here, some of them are bound to start a band. It seems to be pretty healthy here, just from the sheer volume of music I see coming out, shows happening even now. Our other band Bear Mace played a show a couple of weeks ago with Gruesome from San Francisco, and we were blown away by how many people were there. People still want to see heavy music, and it’s pretty encouraging to see.

When your biggest problem is, oh crap there are four shows going on, which one do I go to? When those are the decisions you make, then two weeks later there are no shows ever, you start to take stock a little bit and appreciate it more. I’m hoping that is what other people are experiencing, and that seems to be the case. I noticed a lot of outpouring of support for bands the last year and a half, even before live shows came back. Buying merch for bands, purchasing records and music, that escalated more and that was very cool.

Dead Rhetoric: Who are three bands that you believe shape your outlook on heavy metal – and what has been the best act in concert that you’ve personally witnessed, purely from a fan perspective – and what made that so special in your eyes?

Sugar: First the three bands part. You are putting me on the spot if I have to narrow it down to three. The big one for me is Black Sabbath. We ripped off the first six letters of their name, we kind of stole their logo, that band has been huge for me since I was a kid. I hear younger kids saying there are not metal, they are more bluesy rock. Without Black Sabbath, metal is not possible. Beyond that, I’m going to think of somebody tomorrow and feel really bad about not mentioning them. Another big one would be King’s X, who we played with. When I first heard them, that was really eye opening for me because they were really melodic and pretty heavy, technical in their own weird way. It helped me with songwriting, especially how vocals appear in a song. Huge influence for me. Third would be a band Hammers of Misfortune, from San Francisco. I had gone to a show to see another band, and they were opening. Just watching what they do, there are six people on stage, everyone sings, there’s a Hammond organ, such complex ideas in those songs and how they develop them. At the time I was playing in a band that was just playing riffs and yelling, and that got me thinking that I could do other things. That band probably directly led to Black Sites forming, more so than anything else.

Favorite concert memory as a fan. First thing that comes to mind is the first show I ever saw. This is crazy as I was already playing in bands and playing shows by then. I went to see Metallica back in the mullet days, original lineup Danzig and Suicidal Tendencies were the openers. That was a fantastic show, I was a little kid and my grandmother took me to that show. I had to beg her to take me, I saw that show with my friends. My grandmother was seventy at the time, going nuts to Suicidal. That always stands out to me, that was a fun night. That was a weird set list with deep cuts – they played “Disposable Heroes” that night, it was awesome. They brought Danzig for the encore to do a bunch of the Misfits songs.

Dead Rhetoric: How does the band balance out the activities within the group along with work and families/relationships? Do you have the proper support in place from the people close to you when it comes to your musical endeavors?

Sugar: I think so, because no one is trying to stop us yet. We do what we do, and as you get older, you have more responsibilities that come along. Ryan runs a business now, I have a kid, Garry seems to just plays drums. He has more than five bands going. He is a person who is born to play drums and is passionate about his job. He has the support and network in place to be able to do that. I’m lucky that I have the space to write music and record it in an efficient fashion. I’ve made some kind of record every year for the last four to five years. I have the time and resources to do it.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your hobbies, interests, and passions away from music when you have the free time to pursue them? And how are you handling life as we come out of this global pandemic that shook the world to the core the last couple of years?

Sugar: I was thinking about this the other day. I don’t have a whole lot of interesting hobbies outside of music. Mostly due to time management, I’m going to grab a guitar and try to write some songs. That seems to be how I spend my evenings lately. I do visual art, I draw a little bit. I have been known to enjoy movies and some action films once in a while. Really it’s music and my family, that’s where I am at right now.

It’s been rough. I am a fairly isolated person anyway, so the pandemic didn’t impact my social life that much. Not being able to rehearse with the band really sucked. Not being able to go to shows or play shows really sucked. We seem to be on the tail end of that right now. As I mentioned I have a kid but he’s too young to be vaccinated, so I have been laying low. It didn’t hit me as hard as it did a lot of people. I didn’t lose my job, nobody in my family died, I didn’t lose my house. We got to fill that time by making Untrue. We literally didn’t rehearse for that at all.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you handle when negativity or stress enters your world – are there specific techniques that you’ve learned over the years to push you through and come out better on the other side?

Sugar: Wow. I don’t think negativity and stress have ever exited my world. Being in heavy metal bands is how I cope with that. If I didn’t have that amount stress waking up every day, I wouldn’t find the need to do this. That’s my outlet because the world is that way, or I feel the world is that way. In a weird way, I’m grateful for it. I’ve noticed there are times when I see things going really well, I don’t feel like sitting down and saying anything with my music. As far as handling negative emotion or stressful situation, playing music is what I’ve got to cope with that.

Dead Rhetoric: What worries or concerns do you have about the world we live in today – and where do you think people need to put their time and energy into to make things a little bit better?

Sugar: That’s a little bit above my paygrade, I just play guitar. I don’t know. My main concern over the last few years especially is I’ve noticed just the rise of a broad sort of ignorance. People not knowing things, people not having common sense. I don’t think I’m particularly smart, but I do better than some people. There is a point where that level of ignorance can be weaponized. When you look at the people that tried to take over the United States government, or people who were convinced to drink bleach to cure COVID-19, that’s people telling you to do some dumb shit that will hurt you.

One theme that came up on the record a lot, as a society, what do you do about that? “Sword of Orion” the first song on the record is about taking people who are opposed to peace and killing them, because otherwise you are just going to argue with them for the rest of humanity’s existence. The ethical thing to do to save lives would be to take the people who are hurting people and just kill them all – I don’t want to do that and I don’t want it to come to that. It’s been a rough couple of years, and you think about those things.

For the most part people are fine, but people need to think a little more with empathy and about other people. That might go a long way.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for Black Sites over the next year or so? Are there any other side projects/musical activities from the members to look forward to, and has work begun on the fourth album?

Sugar: Yes, and yes, and yes. There is stuff in the pipeline. We will try to play live if it seems safe and reasonable to do so. We are working with a new bass player finally, and there should be an announcement about that soon. Garry and I have been writing for Bear Mace, so there are some new Bear Mace tracks – we have made a dent too in Black Sites, Volume Four. There is some new material already floating around. We are just letting stuff come to us. It’s an extension of where we are at now.

I would love to play more shows. And there will be another record and that is up to us.

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