TOBACCO: MORE AND MORE HUMAN
Tom Fec (aka Tobacco) may well be remembered as one of the most representative DIY rockers of the last decade. As solo artist and primary creative force behind Pittsburgh experimentalists Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco is usually content to let his enigmatic music speak for itself. Cobra Juicy, the new BMSR full-length, was independently produced and benefited from an unusual Kickstarter appeal to the fanbase for support. Here the reclusive musician gets down to some serious shop-talk and how many fucks one is critically required to give. He plays the Echo on Mon., Sept. 9. This interview by Ron Garmon.
How did the Kickstarter campaign for Cobra Juicy come about? It’s pretty high concept as these things go.
A bigger budget was kinda necessary in order to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to do masks, particular vinyl, stuff like that, and there was no label out there willing to take that on or even take me on so I kinda had to do it myself. Surprisingly, it worked out. I wanted to do something different. I wanted a bigger budget and needed to raise it on my own. I was kinda done with Black Moth, the whole concept was played out for me. Cobra Juicy just came about a lot more organically, not like ‘OK, time to make an album.’
Were you really gonna throw in a roller disco with a 10 thousand dollar donation?
Yeah! We had the skating rink ready—reserved and everything. But nobody wanted it.
Tell me about the Haunted House tour.
Nobody wanted that one either! We were gonna take people around to all our favorite haunted houses and stuff, but I had to go on my own.
Well, you’re near Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of spooky stuff in Pennsylvania generally. You coulda taken them to the mall in the original Dawn of the Dead!
Absolutely! Back when I had a job, I used to park on the lawn of the guy who got the machete in his head.
You started out recording as Allegheny White Fish and later as satanstompingcaterpillars. How did these experimentations differ from where your music is now?
I always see the projects I do as having no defined beginning and end. Allegheny White Fish was just like noise I was doing with guitar and 4-track and then satanstomping was when I did a lot more acoustic guitar and Black Moth was kinda more … I don’t know, more relate-able or something. That was the project that made the most sense to build a live band around and actually tour with.
How did the business of the band using masks and aliases start?
I didn’t want the people to run the show or it to be about any of us as people. I wanted it to be like anyone could go at any time and it shouldn’t matter. All that should matter is the world of music and visuals and videos and things that we’re making and it should exist within the art itself.
Dandelion Gum dropped in ’07 and you were lauded as experimental whiz kids, the next incarnation of Beck, Air or whathaveyou. What were the next few months like?
We didn’t really have … there wasn’t a lot of time to think about things. That’s when we first started like really touring. Within a few months of the album coming out, we were opening for the Flaming Lips. After about three months we were burned out from too much touring, so that’s when we started laying off a little bit.
When did the appealingly retro device of using a vocoder occur to you?
Thing is, I never thought of it as ‘retro’—I only looked at it as something that I could … my voice has so many limitations, so I saw the vocoder as a way to break through those limitations. I can get any sound, any note I can imagine out of a vocoder; any melody I want I can get out of it. A lot of people see it as retro robotic, but I see it as a way to make my voice more and more human. And more realistic.
You sound alien rather than robotic.
If you hear it, it sounds more ethereal.
One thinks of the old talk box guitar records of the 70s.
There’s a talk box on the new record. I use it a lot more with the Tobacco project.
How much time have you spent on the road over the course of BMSR’s career?
We’ve never really been road warriors and, after that three-month ordeal, never tour for more than like two months a year. I think that the art of what you’re doing is in creating the recordings in the first place and I try to focus more on that.
Critics, in their usual way, describe most of the band’s subsequent work as a retool of Dandelion Gum, and Cobra Juicy is no exception. Are these crits missing something?
Yeah! I mean, I think people like to look at music as genre, like, ‘Aw, now they’re doing rock.’ Or post-punk or whatever. I never once looked at what I was doing that way. I’m just like kinda moving through life making what I can make with what I can have. A record like Cobra Juicy isn’t calculated. I’d taken a few years off and this is where I am at this point.
How long did this take to record?
I recorded it all at my house over the course of about a year and a half. There’s more guitar than usual. A lot of the things that sound like synths.
Some critics have heard Mellotrons and the like in it.
None of that. I used to use Mellotrons and stuff back when I was young. The funny thing is I don’t think I used anything made before like 2009 on this record.
How many versions are being released? Vinyl, digital, CD?
There’s also the latex-mask version.
With the USB ‘tooth’ crammed in a socket. You had superstar Dave Fridmann produce this last album and this one’s self-produced—you do it yourself instead of having one of the top guns in the biz.
On the last one, I gave myself a timetable, as in on certain days, I had to do it today. This one was more like … I realized I don’t really care about trying to polish things up, so this was more about wanting to prove to myself what I can do on my own.
This new one is hypermelodic and cryptic. ‘Windshield Smasher’ in particular. Like one of those love affairs with a through-the-window J.G. Ballard ending. Is that the point you’re trying to make in the lyrics? Join the car crash set?
At the end of the day, most of this record is kinda like a big middle finger to everything that’s happening in music. It’s really not a very nice record—it’s a really kind of a fuck-you-to-everything album that has a lot of layers of other things hidden in there. I thought ‘Windshield Smasher’ was the best way to kick this off.
The next track is ‘Like a Sundae,’ which is candyfloss and breaks this pattern somewhat.
It’s in there. A lot of these songs kinda sound nice until you sit down and really listen to what I’m actually saying.
Yes, well—‘Hairspray Heart’ raves of snakebite and sounds gloriously snakebit itself. At least one reviewer has fretted about the number of lyrical ‘fucks’ you gave.
I wanted to really earn that parental advisory label.
What do you say to people who count fucks?
It’s really funny, having to censor yourself. I had to make a censored edit of that song for radio and having to count all the fucks really was pretty amusing. I wasn’t paying attention until it was done and realized, ‘Wow. This is kind of a dirty album.’
BMSR—where the fucks just keep on coming
They never stop.
How much of the aborted Psychic Love Damage project did you retain? The title tune, presumably, since it’s on here.
Maybe about a quarter to a third of that record went into this one and got altered.
To conform, presumably, to the reigning ‘fuck you’ aesthetic.
There wasn’t a lot of that in the Psychic Love Damage project. That’s one of those songs I’m really proud of. I like to have at least one pretty song on a record at this point.
Talking of blogged reviewers a moment ago, it seems as if BMSR, like a great many other bands that have been around awhile, is somehow expected to radically transform itself every album. It’s a pity no one told that to the Grateful Dead.
I don’t feel any pressure to do that. I feel like we got a nice piece of attention in 2007 and it’s been really organic ever since. All these website reviewers, no matter what, I’m only gonna get Cs and Ds on my album reviews. It doesn’t fuckin’ matter y’know. So as long as I’m doin’ something that makes me happy and I think deserves putting out there, that’s really all that matters.
What? The opinion of some scrivener who thinks the Arcade Fire is tonal high art actually matters for something? From the artist’s standpoint, I’d think it’s more a question of who’s qualified to hand you a grade on your own shit.
Well, we’re not out there paying anyone’s bills.
TOBACCO ON MON., SEPT. 9, AT THE ECHO, 1822 W. SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $12-$14 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW’S COBRA JUICY IS OUT NOW ON RAD CULT. VISIT BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW AT BLACKMOTHSUPERRAINBOW.COM.