Colombian native and former South Florida resident Rafael Martinez has been involved with some of the most electrifying bands in metal since leaving Miami in the mid '90s to pursue further training and education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Few will remember his recorded local music ventures like Pointe Blank and Monochrome, but many will recognize him from stints in seminal bands like -(16)- and Acid King. With friend and longtime collaborator Jason Landrian, Martinez has been tearing into the world of heavy music as the two-headed monster known by the name Black Cobra.
With four studio albums and an endlessly hectic touring schedule that has taken them all over Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia, Black Cobra shows no signs of slowing down. Sharing the stage for the first time with locals Holly Hunt and Shroud Eater, the band's Basel-related engagement at Gramps this Sunday will be a welcome respite from the overbloated fiasco of the fairs and a real treat for local metalheads.
We here at Crossfade had a chance to catch up with Rafa and this is how it went.
Crossfade: I have always thought of you first and foremost as a guitarist. However, you've gone on to take part in established acts like Gammera, -(16)- and Acid King, where the guitar wasn't exactly you did. Now you drum in Black Cobra with Cavity's Jason Landrian on guitar. Tell us about the creative process in the band and how you guys assemble your songs.
Rafael Martinez: Well, as you pointed out, I've had the opportunity of playing guitar, bass, and drums in different bands since I first began my musical journey about 25 years ago. So I'm always playing different instruments at home and writing music that we later transform into ideas that fit Black Cobra. We also record a lot in the practice space and build kind of an archive of ideas. We then go through all of it and start working on pieces that we like. Sometimes songs will happen more spontaneously on the spot and others we'll spend more time on, working out more complex structures.
In the beginning, you guys lived on opposite coasts, tell us how that worked then, logistically and artistically and how it has changed over the years with you guys living closer now.
When Jason was living in New York back in 2003, I was still in Los Angeles playing bass with -(16)- and Acid King. So on down time from tours, I would record ideas in my studio in North Hollywood. I would mail him CDs of what I had put down on tape and we would listen to the recordings over the phone and talk about how we wanted to develop certain songs. We didn't have any kind of schedule, so we had no pressure of finishing songs by a certain date. Sometimes we would start a song and wouldn't get back to it for months. It was a very interesting process not playing in front of each other all the time. I went to NY a couple times and we managed to get a lot of ideas recorded that ended up on the first album.
Now that we've been living in the same city for a while, we've worked a lot on band chemistry and playing a lot together has enabled us to explore more dynamics. We've done over seven hundred shows now, and playing live is one of the best things a band can do to hone in your sound. Christ, I remember during the Chronomega world tour, we did 180 shows in ten months. We had the songs down solid by the end of that trek.
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I want to talk about aesthetics for a bit. When you guys released the seven-inch in 2004, it was an attractive product. I've noticed that your releases since, specifically the four full-length albums, all have very distinct looks. From the deep-sea mysteries of Bestial, through the sepia-tinged goggles of Feather and Stone, the day-glo volcano of Chronomega to the wintry hell of Invernal... How do you guys choose the look for each release and what can we expect for the next one?
We've always had an affinity towards forces of nature and the like when it comes to visuals. Art always comes after the music. Jason was responsible for the look of the first EP as well as the first two albums. Alan Forbes had done some t-shirts and posters for us, and he expressed interest in doing our third record, so we went with him for the third record, which looked great. He basically did a different painting for each song and he nailed exactly what we were looking for.
For Invernal, we hired artist Sam Ford. He plays drums in the band Wizard Rifle. We had done a show up in Portland with them and his roommate is an old friend of mine, Nate Carson, who runs Nanotear booking. We were crashing at their house and Sam had been working on a cover for Thrones. He was maybe halfway done with it, but we were really impressed at what he had, so we kept him in mind.
When we were writing for the record, we were writing songs about a nuclear winter in Antarctica. The whole thing had started from reading about Ernest Shackleton and his rough journeys to Antarctica. That sort of mutated into a nuclear war breaking out, where there were mutants and petrified flora all over. That's what we told him it was about, and after he stopped laughing and realized we were serious, he started to work on it and came up with a monolithic structure that appears on the cover. He did a great job on the whole thing.
The next album is top secret. So I legally can't tell you anything about it.
Talk to me about touring. Specifically the differences between the U.S. and Europe. Any chance of a South American tour, especially since you guys are both Hispanic?
We've been very fortunate to have pulled a good fanbase all over the world. We cut our teeth touring the States, which is a tough turf. But it prepared us to tackle any circuit 'cause it's good training ground.
We started going to Europe from the very beginning, thanks to Delboy Records from Belgium. I had met Xavier, the label owner, in Europe, when I was on tour with Acid King. He took care of all our tours in Europe for the first couple years. We've been doing a lot of the festivals out there. We just did Hellfest this last summer with Kiss, ZZ Top, Neurosis, Sleep, Bad Religion, At The Gates, Sick Of It All, to name a few.
Headlining Roadburn last year in Holland was awesome. It's interesting being in a new country every other day. It's cool checking out different cultures and learning about the history of all the places we visit. Once, we played all the way up in Estonia during the summer and I remember it was 11 p.m. and it was still bright outside.
Japan is insane. It's like going to Mars. You feel like you're on another planet. We've done two tours there and it's always been awesome. Crowds go bananas over there.
Australia and New Zealand are also like going to another planet. It's so far away, you feel real disoriented when you first get there. All the drives are like 10 to 12 hours 'cause the cities are so far apart. We flew everywhere the second time we went, supporting Fu Manchu. Great crowds down there too.
No plans for South America as of now. But we are looking into it.
"The Cry of Melora" and "Chronosphere"
In the almost 13 years that you guys have existed as a unit, you have performed rather sporadically in South Florida, which I might point out, is the original stomping grounds for both of you. Looking forward to performing with Shroud Eater and Holly Hunt this Sunday?
We are very excited to be going back to Miami. Last time we played down there was at the Boom Boom Room in South Beach about five years ago. So it's cool that we are going back to play again where both Jason and I first started playing live.
You guys open up next year in New York, any plans after that? When will you be in the studio next or have you already put something together? If so, what and when can we expect it? Will the next release also be on Southern Lord?
Right now, we are working on writing the next album and getting ready for the next couple shows. We are hoping to record sometime next year. We are still on Southern Lord Records.
How did you guys hook up the Metal Swim compilation back in 2010? Anything tangible come out of that for you guys?
We were actually in the middle of a U.S. tour and our manager calls us and tells us they need a new song recorded and mastered in two weeks. We told him to count us in. We had a small four track with us and I borrowed a drum machine from fellow Miami drummer extraordinaire Alex Mihm, who was residing in Boston at the time.
Jason and I would write in hotel rooms and I would program drum beats in the van in between shows. It's interesting the inspiration you get going 70 mph and fiddling with a drum machine. We recorded the demo while still on tour. I called John McBain in San Francisco, who used to play in Monster Magnet, and asked him if he would record the single for us and he was right on board. We played the last show of the tour, and the next morning, we went right into recording, tracked it, mixed it, and sent it to the network. It was great exposure for us. That comp had over two-hundred thousand downloads.
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I've always appreciated your inclusion of Spanish-language tracks in your albums. Any chance of a full-fledged Español album in the near future? Maybe an EP?
No plans as of now. But I've been working on a novella that's written in a new language that I've developed. It's a mystery about a mummy that lives in Hialeah, but he wants to move to South Beach 'cause there's lots of sand there and he doesn't have enough money to go back to Egypt. It's the closest he'll be able to feel like he did back home. A friend of mine wanted to make a TV miniseries adaptation for it starring the bass player of Maná, but we haven't heard back from him. Fingers crossed.
Black Cobra. With Holly Hunt and Shroud Eater. Sunday, December 8. Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami. Call 786-752-6693 or visit grampsbar.com.