Tempe-based rockers The Black Moods were hesitant when Grammy Award-winning producer Johnny Karkazis walked into their small, makeshift studio for the first time.
For five hours, the trio and the Chicago-based knob-turner lugged the equipment Karkazis shipped to Arizona in The Black Moods’ home base.
“I didn’t know if this was going to work,” singer Josh Kennedy says. “All of our cables are makeshift. It set the mood for sure. I figured this could fall apart at any moment. When everything started working, I said, ‘Oh my God, hold on.’”
The sessions produced by Karkazis—whose resume includes work with Shinedown, Adelitas Way, Megadeth and Plain White T’s—spawned a series of singles, including “Bella Donna.” The relentlessly addictive, Doors-influenced song hit streaming services June 1.
“We were working on the EP and our producer, Johnny K, was in town,” Kennedy says. “But my granddad passed away. I had to go back to Missouri. When I was leaving, he was trying to bring out a Doors-esque style groove, ‘Love Me Two Times.’”
“When I went back to Missouri, I was sitting by myself in my grandparents’ house. Nobody was there, and it was the first time I had been there alone. I was playing the acoustic. When I returned, we talked about what we were working on.”
He played for drummer Chico Diaz and bassist Jordan Hoffman what he was working on.
“We lit into it and everything started falling into place,” Kennedy says. “A case of beer later and 3 a.m. came around and we were doing back-up vocals. I was nervous. I didn’t know if Johnny would like it or hate it. He said, ‘This is great.’”
The Black Moods and folks associated with them played “Bella Donna” for Gene Simmons, Robby Krieger and Alice Cooper, all of whom loved the song, Kennedy says.
“It’s always great to hear someone plug a guitar into an amp, and turn it up,” Simmons says. “Here is a prime example of fresh, new rock.”
Pairing with the song is Bella Donna wine, created by Scottsdale’s Desert Rocking Winery. Kennedy was vague about the song’s meaning.
“It’s a deadly flower and a drug from the ’60s that Robby Krieger told us about,” Kennedy says with a laugh. “It’s good for you and bad for you at the same time.”
Kennedy was bred in the most unlikely of spots for a rock singer—Wheaton, Missouri, in the Ozarks, where his head was filled with Southern rock and country music. Wheaton has a population of only 700.
He found his calling when his dad summoned him to the living room to see a band that he liked.
“They didn’t have MTV,” he says. “This one day I was in my room playing and my dad says, ‘Hey Bub—he calls me Bub—come check out this band.’ It was the Gin Blossoms playing ‘Hey Jealousy’ on an awards show.”
Kennedy’s dad told him he could write music like that because it wasn’t virtuosic.
“I decided when I was 13 that I was going to play guitar for the Gin Blossoms,” he says. “On my 21st birthday, I was on tour with the Gin Blossoms. They invited me onstage and I got to play guitar.”
Flashback to when he was a teen, when he met the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, after a show with his side project Gas Giants.
“I was a super fan,” Kennedy says with a laugh. “I talked to him after the show. His advice? Go to college. He was playing 200-seaters to 50 people. Of course, I didn’t listen. I came out here. I found him playing Long Wong’s and I hit him up for a job. I worked at his studio.”
The Gin Blossoms have proven to be a huge influence on Kennedy’s songs like “Someone to Save Us” from The Black Moods’ 2016 album Medicine.
“‘Someone to Save Us’ is an example of a song that has the Gin Blossoms kind of feel,” he says. “It also has a harder rock sound than those guys have.
“We take elements of stuff I grew up on—Bad Company, Led Zeppelin. I listen to them just as much as I did the Gin Blossoms.”
Now he has the jangly alterna-pop musicians’ phone numbers on speed dial.
“The 13-year-old me would be freaking out,” he muses.
Kennedy is impressed by the business acumen of local rocker Roger Clyne, who has hosted The Black Moods at his shows in Rocky Point. The Black Moods return to Mexico on Friday, June 8, for a handful of shows with Clyne.
“He brought us to Mexico and made us part of what he’s created, which we are super grateful for,” Kennedy says. “Initially, I went down by myself when he heard my record. He invited me to sing a song with him, me and the Peacemakers. Then, he invited us as direct support and we gained many fans from that.”
Music is all the trio does. When they return from touring, they get right back into their Tempe studio.
“Bella Donna” was recorded during the sessions for a possible forthcoming EP. The band is torn between releasing singles and an EP or full-length album. Kennedy says he has learned a lot about himself while working with Karkazis, to whom he was introduced by Adelitas Way’s Rick DeJesus.
“He’s definitely pushed us,” Kennedy says. “He called us names and stuff. He’s turned into a member of the family. It’s shocking when you meet him. He’s a big-time producer who has all these hits. It’s a little intimidating.”
At one point, Karkazis was so unhappy with The Black Moods that he asked the musicians to head home and write additional tracks, Diaz says.
“You always want to play your song for someone who’s successful like that,” Kennedy adds. “The songs you think are great, though, are anything but. He’d tell me to change stuff. He’d rip me apart in front of everyone. He’s ruthless.”
Diaz, who grew up in Tolleson and Phoenix, says Karkazis brought the music out of them.
“He pulled the pieces out of each one of us,” Diaz says. “He turns over every stone. We get it and it pays off.”
“Nothing’s pedestrian,” Kennedy adds. “He doesn’t let things slide by. If it’s not cool, he’s not doing it.”
The Black Moods are tracking with boutique, vintage equipment. “(Stuff) you can’t crank up on stage and hear because it’s 1950s and 1960s stuff,” Kennedy says.
His go-to guitar is a Fender Stratocaster that has an interesting backstory.
“We were on tour, and the opening band had a guitar they were insistent on me playing,” Kennedy says. “I kept saying no, but after a couple more beers, I said, ‘Give me the thing.’”
He strummed the guitars and said, “What is this?” He bought it from them for $200.
“We have this elite guitar tech. He grabs our guitars, but I won’t let him touch that one. I tell him if he cleans the (crap) off of it, it won’t play the same.”
Hoffman is the newest member of The Black Moods. Raised in Toledo, Ohio, Hoffman was living in Los Angeles working as a musician and server when he auditioned for The Black Moods. He joined September 25, 2017.
“It’s nice because we collaborate with the songwriting,” Hoffman says. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t want to just play for somebody. I wanted to play with somebody.”
Hoffman also lends background vocals to the songs, something that’s new to The Black Moods.
Karkazis calls this version of The Black Moods the best.
“They’re so talented and dedicated—all the good stuff you can say about a band,” Karkazis says. “It’s a really special band. It makes you wonder why they’re not hugely successful. They’re well known in their hometown, but I don’t know how well known they are outside of there. Maybe they just haven’t been in the right situation. They would meet any challenge I threw at them. They’re the kind of band a producer would love to be working with.
“It’s encouraging to see a band so hungry and so talented. We seem to have a good rapport with each other. It all seemed to fall in place. We don’t know what the future holds, but I love the songs we’ve recorded.”
Mile in the Sky Balloon Fest, Prescott Mile High Middle School, 300 S. Granite Street, Prescott, prescottevents.net, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 16, $30-$50. The Black Moods go on at 9 p.m.