The Black Tones: “A Mixture of Kurt Cobain and Cornbread”

The Black Tones refer to themselves as “a mixture of Kurt Cobain and cornbread.” Kurt Cobain famously said, “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” This band holds that sentiment near to their hearts. As a female-fronted, all-black band, they have a lot to say — whether it is through songs like “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead),” or wearing clothing at shows that challenge the idea that this nation was ever “great.”

Immediately after walking into The Cloud Room in Seattle, my excitement for the interview peaked. The Cloud Room’s chic yet retro style was a perfect fit for the artists; the brown leather button couch on short wooden legs seated the three of them perfectly. Cedric Walker, the drummer, sat farthest from me; his twin sister, Eva Walker, the vocalist and guitar player, sat in the middle; and then Robby Little, the bassist.

RIZE Entertainment: Eva, your major influence was Jimi Hendrix, who taught himself how to play guitar. Are you self-taught as well?

Eva Walker: I actually grew up dancing. We don’t have to go into that, though. [Laughs]. I’m self-taught on guitar. It started when I was 15. A teacher loaned me one and changed my life. [I’m] self-taught on drums, and then I took lessons for maybe three months, [but] then we couldn’t afford it anymore so I just sort of continued to work on it on my own. I started on my own, and then he wanted to learn. [Looks at Cedric].

That’s a story in and of itself. Can you tell us about that?

Cedric Walker: I saw Eva perform at the Vera Project. It was the Folklife Festival. It was the first time I had heard her sing. Fans of The Black Tones know that Eva has a really powerful and beautiful voice. Yeah, I’m gassing her up a little bit! [Laughs]. But that was the first time I heard her sing, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s my twin sister right there!” I knew she was really musically inclined, so I was like, “Eva how do I contribute? How do I help you?” My first lesson was on my birthday, June 17, 2010. I remember it because it was a big moment for me. She doesn’t know that, but that was a huge moment for me.

Eva Walker: I didn’t realize it was on our birthday.

So how did Robby’s inclusion come to be?

Eva Walker: I really liked this band, The Black Chevys, and we saw them play for the first time at The Royal Room.

Robby Little: I don’t remember meeting them. [Laughs]. I had a show that night, I met a lot of people, but a few months later I met them at Youngstown down in West Seattle at an open mic feature night. I met them down there and became fans of The Black Tones. I had my band and I would go and watch them, and vice versa. After about a year of me watching them, the opportunity came for me to join them.

You mentioned being told that you were “too white” for liking rock music as a kid. Now that you are making rock music as an adult — often to a predominantly white audience — how do you feel that’s been received?

Eva Walker: I haven’t had anyone say, “Stop playing rock music.” I had people ask [as a kid], “What kind of music you like?” and I’d say “Rock,” and they’d say, “Oh, that’s super white,” or,
“You’re the whitest black girl I know.” Even just talking like this — “You talk white.” It’s just like, “What?”

Cedric Walker: [We were] born in Seattle. Sorry, this is how we talk, you know?

Eva Walker: We’re from the Northwest. This is how we talk. I’m not gonna put on some fake, whatever accent I’m supposed to be putting on that’s supposed to make me more black — whatever that means. Black is very diverse. There’s not one way of being black. Frankly, I have heard that I am “white” from white people and black people for liking rock music. It was people who were miseducated in their own history, and then people who were like, “No only people who look like us play this music.”

Robby Little: I haven’t heard anything negative. If anything, people are like, “That’s cool.”

Eva Walker: When I think of backlash I think of torches and pitchforks, so that’s why I’m like no, not backlash, but I have had someone email me and tell me, “If you keep reminding me of how black you are, I’m gonna stop listening to you.” So, there’s been that kind of backlash, of talking about our identity and talking about race — there’s been that backlash.

Cedric Walker: I think it goes both ways. Eva will get up there between songs and explains how the root of rock and roll comes from blues, which comes from black people, and people will come up after sets and be like, “Oh, I didn’t even put that together.” At the same time, during the set its more than just the music. Eva is giving you a history lesson on rock and roll, and people are starting to pick that up. I think when she explains that, that’s what simmers the backlash, because people start to connect the dots.

Eva Walker: I used to say, “You wouldn’t have rock and roll without blues, gospel and black people.”

What was your inspiration for your song “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)”?

Eva Walker: The inspiration for that song was Trayvon Martin — the list of people I kept seeing on TV that were being murdered. We were driving and I was like, “We should just call this song ‘They Want Us Dead,’ because they literally just want us dead.” Honestly, the inspiration was the news of all the police shooting black folks and getting away with it. There are people who are infiltrating the police department who are hiding in uniform that are killing black and brown people. That’s what I’m saying. That and justice not being served to the people who have been murdered in cold blood.

People saying things like, “Oh, well, I don’t get why Black Lives Matter is defending criminals. Michael Brown stole.” I’m just like, “Oh, so now we go straight to execution. We don’t have trials anymore? He should just be shot?” There is no justification for what is going on. They just want us dead. That’s why I came up with the response, “We want love, they want us dead. We want peace, they want us dead.” “We want to go to school” — the guy in Minnesota [Philando Castile] on the way to school — “they want us dead.” All of this was just a call and response to things that were actually happening. It was depressing, horrible news that inspired that song.

As a black woman in rock music, do you feel an obligation to talk about race, especially considering the current state of American politics?

Eva Walker: We write songs — we wrote song about a spider trying to kill me. We write funny stuff. I’m not gonna drain myself and always talk about race or answer everyone’s race questions. When you do have a platform I think it is important to use it, but with the self-care side of it — I have anxiety. I get drained really easily. It doesn’t seem like it because I’m yapping, but sometimes I’m just like, “Okay there’s a lot of issues going on, but I don’t wanna talk about this right now. I just wanna play this show.”

Robby Little: Throughout our songs and putting yourself out there, it is going to come up … how you feel about some serious issues.

Cedric Walker: Speaking for myself, I don’t necessarily feel obligated, but being an African American I’m not gonna turn a blind eye to people who look like me. I have a daughter now who is half black. I think about that. When you have kids involved, it hits you hard.

Eva Walker: Anyone with a platform, if you want to see something change, then yeah, you gotta say something. Gotta talk the talk.

You’ve played Timber! Fest and the first Upstream Music Fest, and now Capitol Hill Block Party. What festival do you most hope to play in the future?

Eva Walker: Man, we really, really wanted to play Sasquatch!, but that’s not happening next year. Just The Gorge in general.

Cedric Walker: I really wanted to play Doe Bay [Fest], but that looks like it’s gonna happen. That kinda came true.

Robby Little: Afropunk [Festival].

Eva Walker: Oh, man. I thought you meant realistic goals. Afropunk, yeah! That festival is gold. Afropunk is the goal.

Cedric Walker: How many times can we drop their name? [Laughs].

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna (she/ella) is the founder of RIZE Entertainment. She has worked in radio, in print for multiple magazines and with too many digital media platforms to count. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities within the industry.