NUMB.ER: WHATEVER “IT” IS
illustration by juliette toma
Numb.er’s 2018 release Goodbye was to me a farewell to the musical trends that make a local scene feel uninspiring: led by Jeff Fribourg, a founding member of popular psych-‘gaze’ band Froth [and sometime L.A. RECORD contributor—ed.], Numb.er’s blend of punk, darkwave, and goth felt like it was written specifically for me. Fribourg’s stark vocals recall early Gun Club or Bauhaus, while the music behind him—piercing, primal, paranoid—brings to mind classics like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. Fribourg spoke to us now while thousands of miles away from the city he grew up in. Numb.er performs with Palm and Harmony Tividad on Thurs., Aug. 16, at the Roxy. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
You’re speaking to me via long distance call from Paris—what are you doing out there?
Jeff Fribourg (vocals/synth/guitar): I’m here working for the summer. I got a job doing some graphic work for a company that’s s based here now. I’m feeling out this new weird kind of a job in a creative field I’ve always been pretty interested in. Being born and raised in L.A., that’s always been a huge part of my identity as a person. And then to strip myself of that and to go somewhere completely different where there’s a language barrier and all that … I’m having to rediscover my bearings. Especially going into it in acknowledgement of all the crazy punk shit that was going on in the late 70s and 80s … Like all the synthwave stuff. I’ve been trying to dig deep into that musical history. So I’ve been able to meet a lot of interesting people at record stores and stuff. The guys at Born Bad Records have been showing me all sorts of really cool contemporary stuff from Paris and the region. There’s a band that I saw out here called Stratocaster that was super rad—like Parisian synthpunk. Just really wild shit.
At first listen, Goodbye doesn’t feel like the product of sunny Southern California. So if doesn’t sound like Los Angeles, where does it come from?
Jeff Fribourg: I’m really heavily influenced by music from all over the place. The bands that are current in L.A. right now—or over the past five-or-so years—have been pulling influences from other regions and genres. Mainly for me, it’s from bands like Wire and [their record] 154 specifically. Or like Bauhaus, Tones on Tail… a lot of U.K. stuff, but not particularly British. There are so many other places that are amazing. X-Mal Deutschland from Hamburg. More on the gloomier side. But an L.A. band that’s been super influential to me is Christian Death.
Bands like them remind us that there is a grit in our city. As someone who grew up here, how do you identify with the less-tourist-y aspect of life in L.A.?
Jeff Fribourg: I think much of it is overlooked. For a year or so I lived in the South L.A.-Inglewood area. I walked a lot when I was there. I had a routine where every day for six months I would pack like ten rolls of film and walk down Slauson Blvd. I’d take photos until I couldn’t walk anymore. There’s so much weird industry out there that’s totally on the backburner—and poverty. I grew up in El Segundo, which most people view as a little beach town. But then you’re also sandwiched between the airport, a water treatment plant—for all the shit—a fucking oil refinery, an Air Force base and Raytheon. Mattel’s even located down there. I had Barbie in my backyard. It’s just so weird—the amount of crazy shit that’s also in LA. It’s kind of unsavory.
As a photographer, has that visual perspective affected your songwriting?
Jeff Fribourg: When I’m writing lyrics, I try to visualize the scenario. That plays in a lot. I like to paint a picture in my head. Like when you look at a photo, you can sometimes feel the story of the image. If you could add words to it, what would they say? I’ve been doing a lot of photography where I would walk around and shoot this kind of mundane life from this weird perspective of an outsider. I have this photo project that I’ve been doing for about eight years. Every year for Christmas I’ve gone on a trip by myself and have experienced the holiday in a different city—alone. Especially with the idea of being ‘numb’—the feeling of walking around a place that you’re unfamiliar with during a time of togetherness. Having that separation and isolation, as well as the numbness and the emptiness that comes from that. My music would definitely fit in with some of these projects that I do, so it makes sense. Simplicity, mundanity, obscurity, and the darkness within all that.
Where did you spend Christmas last year?
Jeff Fribourg: Last year was the one year that I didn’t do it. I just stayed home, which was kind of crazy. I didn’t go outside all day. The year before that, I went to El Paso. I drove all the way out there by myself and got a shitty motel. There was a hole punched in the wall of my room. I was trying to go to Juarez. I had someone who was gonna take me across, but it’s kind of sketchy in Juarez so I just stayed in El Paso. One year I did Disneyland, which was super bizarre. Especially because it’s actually the most crowded day of the year there.
You’ve been involved in music for some time now, first with your former band Froth and now Numb.er. How do you feel L.A.’s musical geography has shifted?
Jeff Fribourg: It’s super exciting right now. It felt like for a minute, there was a bit of a lull where there wasn’t too much that I was personally interested in. But right now for me, it feels like sort of an oasis. There’s so many cool underground weirdo punk bands popping up and so many new projects from other people that were already in cool bands. And amazing new bands with people who were never in bands. There are also these cool new DIY shows. I think promoters are back to really caring about throwing these small, intimate shows. I feel like there’s a good show like almost every night in LA now. And I also have to give it up to L.A. RECORD. If it were not for this publication, there would be a lot of shit that I would have never heard.
If I don’t ask this question, someone else will. Is the dot in between ‘Numb’ and ‘er’ meant to signify anything?
Jeff Fribourg: It was kind of partially on accident with the dot. I wanted to call it ‘Number’—the derived form of ‘numb’—but obviously that’s spelt the same way as ‘Number’ the numeral. I’ve always really liked the way the dictionary breaks down the pronunciation of a word, where’s like weird dashes or dots and shit. I thought having a dot there allows you to kind of take a breath and understand the meaning a little better. I’m a very visual person so I really wanted the name to have something visual to accompany it—something that wasn’t just a meaning or the word itself.
Every time I type it out, the computer thinks the dot is supposed to separate the word into some kind of a URL.
Jeff Fribourg: I looked into getting that as our website, but it’s the most random thing. You have to be part of the country [Eritrea] or something. I tried, but ended up settling with Numb-Er.net. I always thought .net was pretty funny.
On your Bandcamp you describe your music’s exploration of different genres as ‘never committing to a singular worldview.’ What exactly does that mean?
Jeff Fribourg: There are so many different perspectives out there. It’s kind of disheartening to me to refer to something as just one thing. When people ask me what my music sounds like, I usually say that it’s kind of post-punk because that’s just the easiest way to explain things at this point. Not goth, but a little more grey and gloomy. Kind of cloudy. But I love all sorts of music. I love krautrock, noise, electronic dance, weird dark shit. I fucking love the Beastie Boys. There’s just so much out there that it’s difficult to commit to one specific idea or genre. I like to have the option to cross between different sounds to tell the overall story, especially when it comes to writing a record. I don’t want to put something out there where every song sounds the exact same. I’m way more interested in telling a beautiful or meaningful story that takes you from one place to another—one that fulfills my emotions with different sorts of sounds. Whatever works best for the idea at hand. Looking at music, or even art in general, there are so many different ways that you should experiment with looking at it. Using different tools for different emotions. I mean, if you’re trying to make the same painting a hundred times, then you’re just going to end up making the same painting a hundred times. It could be a great painting, but it’s going to be that same painting.
Especially nowadays—we really have a lot of tools at hand.
Jeff Fribourg: The first song on the Numb.er record—’I Need It’—there aren’t any instruments on it. It’s just my voice on an iPad. It was originally meant to be an exercise. But it’s great to be able to just make these sounds to explain how I feel. It doesn’t always have to be ‘Let’s just get four chords together and then we’ll have a song.’ I was having trouble fully committing to what I wanted to say. I was frustrated and had been listening to this cool Estonian rapper—this guy Tommy Cash. If you don’t know this guy, he’s insane. Also the craziest music videos in the world. Super inspiring. There’s this song that he has that’s like dark and eerie with a lot of noises. So I was like ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna roll a beer bottle on the floor and am gonna like swish with my mouth and just montone-ly let this noise out. Like, “uhhhhhhhh.”’ I just wanted to make something that’s not with guitar or wasn’t necessarily lyrically-based. That was literally one take that I did from the top of my head. And that was it. I need it.
What exactly is the it that you ‘need?’
Jeff Fribourg: I need ‘it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is.
NUMB.ER WITH PALM AND HARMONY TIVIDAD ON THURS., AUG 16, AT THE ROXY, 9009 W. SUNSET BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD. 9 PM / $15-$17 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! NUMB.ER’S GOODBYE IS OUT NOW ON FELTE. VISIT NUMB.ER AT NUMB-ER.BANDCAMP.COM.