May 21st, 2009 | Interviews

emily ryan

Download: Obits “Pine On”


(from I Blame You out now on Sub Pop)

Obits is the new band from Hot Snakes (and Drive Like Jehu) guitarist and singer Rick Froberg. He speaks now about the most lethal animal in the Serengeti desert and about the possibility of the cockroaches developing their own Elvis. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

What do you think of your dad’s idea that there’s a Froberg gene that makes one perform music? He was posting on the Tobias Froberg website about it.
Rick Froberg (guitar/vocals): Oh God, I gotta put a stop to that. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m not related to Tobias Froberg anyway. He’s no performer, that’s for sure. All the people in my family are really diverse. I have a cousin who plays music and my brother plays music, but their music isn’t punk rock or anything. I guess you could speculate about it.
Who do you admire most in your family?
I never really envy anyone’s talents. I’m not saying it’s because I’m super-talented myself because I don’t think I am. But it’s pointless to do that—you’d be distracted from your own problems. I mean, my brother was a good football player at SC and stuff like that—got a couple of rings which is pretty cool. But I have no interest in football. I’m only 150 pounds—I can’t play football. My physique isn’t built for anything except sitting at a desk. As a kid I raced BMX bikes and had a super small brief stint in skateboarding—I worked at Transworld Skateboarding for a while and I was really bad at it. I’m pretty coordinated, but nothing that involves going mano y mano with guys five times my size.
Who was the largest guy you ever had to go mano y mano with?
Being on the receiving end of a beating at a punk show or something? I don’t know the size of the person or whether they’re bigger than me—but there’s several! San Diego was known for notorious for its lousy atmosphere at its shows. In the south of San Diego—like Chula Vista—there’s a lot of kids from Navy housing and they’re a lot tougher than the kids like me from North County by the beach. I just wasn’t born like that. I’m not that type of person.
You said once that the chance and ability to make art can help someone have a more sane and healthy life. Has that been true for you personally?
I think that if you look at whatever you do in a certain way…I mean, you can look at anything like that. Anything can make you more sane and healthy if you apply it correctly. My economic situation totally does not depend on someone else—it seems like I’m doing really poor when everyone else is doing really well and I’m doing really well when people are doing really bad. I’m a freelancer, you know?
You said before fighting is an art form—is forgery an art form? You’ve got that song ‘Fake Kinkade.’
It sure is. There are great forgers out there. It’s a talent unlike any other. I don’t think the song you’re referring to is so much about that. I’ve read some pretty good stories about art forgers and they’re pretty fascinating people. I don’t know any of the names.
Is there such a thing as a rock ‘n’ roll forger?
I don’t know. Music is performed over and over again. It happens in time—it’s not an object and the object itself is never going to be as—maybe. I guess you could say bootleggers or something like that would probably be people who forge. If somebody else is making money off of you? I don’t have too much experience with that.
You’ve joked that you guys steal from anybody—how does that practically work? Who do you lift from and how?
That happens very rarely mainly because unlike the great art or music forgers of the world, I don’t have the skills to sit there and rip anybody off. If it’s something like ‘play a D minor here,’ that stuff is all public domain. There’s definitely a couple of riffs that I think definitely side with something else. I don’t know if that happened on purpose or on accident, but there’s only so many things you can do before you hit on something that somebody already did. If you’re going to take something, you might as well fucking take it. It’s all part of the big picture, I guess.
Do you believe in the happy accident? Or in having too much technique to know what to do with it?
Yes. I am a believer in that. They’re not in the frame of mind to let anything else ever happen because they’re—I think it’s totally what you’re presupposing to do. Take an L.A. guy like Nels Cline. He’s an experimental guitarist and he does a lot of experiments and he’s also a really fine player, so he can do both things well. And I think that when something new happens it’s a result of combining two older things or things you just run into. It’s totally possible to do that because with rock ‘n’ roll in general, the things you run into are generally things you don’t intend to run into. You go your own way and hopefully something interesting will happen. I think that the first band I heard that made me aware of possibilities was Sonic Youth. They were the first band that actually made me want to play guitar because of the sound they were doing and it just seemed possible to do what they were doing—there was a world of things you could do without having to deal with being able to play well.
Have you ever felt the opposite? Heard someone that made you want to put down your guitar?
Other than ‘what am I doing wasting my time? I should get a job.’ ‘Why am I doing this? I should be doing something that’s going to help me be stable in my life.’ That’s just a fleeting moment of self doubt. I just like doing this and if you can do what you want to do, on some level you should do it. Otherwise you’re kind of wasting your life. That’s why I’m as old as I am still doing this stupid stuff. Rock ‘n’ roll is kind of dunderheaded music. The problems involved with doing it—the aesthetics and such are really fascinating to work with.
Do you agree with Deke Dickerson that the Fender Telecaster is the most caveman of all guitars?
I have a Telecaster— I haven’t played it in a while, but I think in the sense that those things are made with a bandsaw… I mean, look at them. There you go. I was looking at guitars today and for a good one they’re $8000 for one. It’s crazy. Simple bandsaw guitar. They’re great really. They’re designed to function perfectly. You can run something over them and it wouldn’t really matter. They’re built solid. John played one—he’s got a great one.
Could you run over an Obits song in a truck and still have it hold up?
I think they’ve already been run over by a truck. Are they solid? They’re pretty fundamental, that’s for sure. They’re not super delicate fancy songs. There’s a lot of subtlety in it, but I think the subtleties are pretty subtle.
Have people asked you about your press release? That line about not believing in innovation is pretty exciting for a one-sheet.
As I said before, I feel like striving to innovate is kind of futile. You can try for those happy accidents and all, but it’s not necessarily any good. And this sort of music has been around a long time and there are things that are tried and true and there are things that work and things that don’t. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because anything that’s going to be innovative about your music is going to be out of your control—because if you were in control you simply wouldn’t do it. You’d just emulate someone you liked.
Someone asked Ian Svenonious about that statement and he not only agreed, but he said he was against quality, too—that he’s into ‘trash.’
I just saw his new band and it was pretty high quality. The music wasn’t like… shitty. They were really together and he’s a really great performer and singer—it was really compelling. I think Pete Townshend said it first—‘Steer clear of quality at all costs.’
You’ve talked before about ‘crappy rock ‘n’ roll songs that sound good.’ What’s a particularly mythic crappy rock ‘n’ roll song?
Oh my God, a mythic crappy rock and roll song? They’re all like that! The whole genre is just bad. It’s gotta have an element of lousiness to it otherwise it’s just dishonest. Like when you go see Eric Clapton, he’s a great guitar player and had made a lot of great records as a side man but when you go see him or people of his ilk, they’re so adept at what they’re doing they turn it into this studious activity. The music he’s playing was invented by guys that have nothing—just shitty guitars. It’s just this academic pursuit and it’s not really supposed to be that way.
Who is the American master of crap? In the most honorable way.
I don’t want to shit on people. But in the most honorable way, I have no idea. You listen to like a Gories record which is intentionally crappy but also it’s not, really. They’re really good songs and they’re done really well. There’s a crappy element to it but these are good songs. Crappy can be defined in many ways. I don’t have anybody in particular.
There’s sort of that line in 1956 when Elvis got signed to a major—the point when the way to make rock ‘n’ roll profitable became very defined. Is this idea of ‘crappy’ rock ‘n’ roll really the music people were making before that? When it was just that sort of anything-goes era? And is that something you think should come back?
It’s not possible to do that. People try to do that but everyone’s really self-aware. Aware of how people see them—I can go online and read about myself on the Internet. I can read about my fucking dad on the Internet!
Sorry—didn’t mean to freak you out.
I just can’t see things being like that ever again unless we have a nuclear war and have people just start over. It might produce the age of the cockroach or the rat.
So we’ll get the Elvis of the cockroaches?
Clicks and tweets! That’s a good idea—I’m gonna work on that!
Didn’t you once swear on a stack of bibles never to touch a computer?
That came from being a technophobe—a person who resists new things and technology in general. But I dived into it just like everyone else. It’s hard to live right now and not be involved with computers. I do a lot of artwork and animation on computers. It’s a blessing and a curse. It makes it possible to do this kind of stuff, but it’s also a time sink—you get sucked into all this bullshit.
Have you ever wanted to just get out in the woods with a mailbox and a lot of open space?
I thought about that when I lived in California but now that I live in the city, I think that I would find myself not knowing what the fuck to do with myself, at least initially. I’m not sure what would happens after that, but right now my outdoor life is walking around with buildings. Before, I’d get in my truck and drive around the desert, but that part of me is kind of dormant.
What’s the most frightening desert animal you ever faced off with?
I went to Africa with my family. My dad used to be in the army there so he took his sons there and we saw lots of animals. It was the actual Serengeti. I saw lots of crazy things. You’re not supposed to get out of the car—if you do, it could spell doom for you. The one time we were allowed to get out of the car, there was this revolting pond water where all the hippopotamuses were sunning themselves and wallowing in their filth. The hippopotamus is the number one killer as far as animals go—they kill people all the time. People will be camping along the trail to their watering hole and they’ll be in their sleeping bags and hippos walk right over them. They can bite you in half—they’re huge. They can run fast. They’re lethal, scary animals. So they’re in the water mostly submerged and one of the things just got up and went ‘BLEEEEEEEEHHHHH!’ and I went off running. This was like in 2005. There’s all kinds of crazy stories I could tell you. A lot of the African guides just shaking their heads at the stupid muzungu. They thought we were suicidal—they didn’t believe how stupid we were behaving. This one time we stopped by the hippopotamus pond and there were these birds flying around called black kites and they have these huge talons. They look like falcons or something they’re doing all these crazy aerial maneuvers because all the tourist and safari people had stopped to eat their lunch. Before you get there the guide says, ‘Watch out for these black kites and make sure you eat your lunch inside the car. If you don’t these things will come right up and rip things out of our hand.’ There were all sorts of rules like that. ‘If you’re going to use the restroom, use the restroom. Don’t urinate outside.’ Apparently, one of these fucking guys didn’t listen to him and went to take a piss and this black kite thought it was a piece of chicken and came down. The guy said, ‘Very bad—very very injured.’ We were sitting there eating our lunch and this group of Italians came up and the guy was like ‘Italians are the worst.’ So they get on the grass and whip out their chicken legs and they start eating them. Everything is going fine—they’re throwing their chicken bones in the air and the kites are taking it out of the air. They got in the car and left, but then another couple came after them, like an English couple. This guy pulls out a chicken and the bird comes down and WHACCK! Took it away. There’s a lot of stories about stupid muzungus getting their just deserts. We barely camped in a tent in the Serengeti and we could hear elephants going through camp at night and lions and shit. It was fucking gnarly. It was a prehistoric experience. It was a pretty cool experience. I’d recommend it to anyone who can do it.
What’s the first thing you think when you get off the plane there?
That’s in Nairobi. Just a really lousy airport, but the city itself is insane. Amazing and beautiful but it’s also very dangerous. I think it’s the capital of carjacking and things like that—there are white people still living there leftover from English colonial days but with things like security guards and barbed wire and broken glass on the walls. Not long after I’d come back from Kenya, Kibaki and Odinga were struggling for power and there were riots and people were getting burned alive. But people are really nice—people are super-friendly.
How do you feel about the rapid transformation of a city from law into lawlessness?
I actually didn’t see anything like that. I can’t say from my own experience. You know who can? Sohrab because he’s Iranian and he lived in Iran when he was a kid when the Shah was overthrown and his father was an academic. People used to come to his door and it’s like watching a holocaust movie—they’d ask him for a list of names and there were corpses in the street. He can answer that,—I can’t. I don’t know what that’s like. He was also a kid, but I’m sure that it really—it’s gotta change you. I’m sure it gives you a completely different perspective. He’s got a pretty sunny, practical outlook, generally. If you were in a situation like that, you probably wouldn’t take a relativity comfortable situation in America for granted.
You once said ‘we’re already at Armageddon—it’s just a slow process.’ Is that what we’re talking about here?
It just seems like a horrible sort of ending to be buried in strip malls. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m sure there will be some sort of diminishing thing—diminishing returns on clean water, clean air, food, space, fuel all kinds of things could happen. That’s another thing good about going to a place where people have nothing. People are fine—they’re living in a dung hut, but they’re fine. It’s hard to say what’ll happen to the world and who am I to say anything. I’m just a lowly guy in a punk band.
Lowly punk bands always have predictions about what’s gonna happen to the world.
Like what?
The Wipers’ ‘Targets’?
Greg Sage has a particular outlook on that stuff. When I first got into punk music in high school, I had my MDC 45 with all this information and all those things were really valuable when I was introduced to skepticism of authority. It turned out to be pretty useful.
What do you think of that line someone once told Mark E. Smith? ‘There’s more ideas on the back of a Fall LP than there are in all of the songs in the Top 40.’
I would never make a statement like that, but people have all kinds of ideas—they’re just different kinds than I have. People can do whatever they want. Obviously, if you’re in a band, you think your band is the best band and if you don’t think you’re in the best band you shouldn’t be doing it. It’s your own unique perspective. These are your aesthetic choices.
What second choice do you recommend to people who can’t be in a band?
People can do all kinds of crazy things. Maybe they’re crazy in the context of every day regular life and how people normally behave. Living here and being involved in the strange people I know, you can do all kinds of things.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a friend’s kitchen table?
I think the thing that comes to mind is when we stayed with some new friends in Columbus who were very nice people and had this Japanese soup party and there was shellfish and cigarettes—there were cigarettes in everything that could contain a cigarette. Any receptacle that could hold a cigarette had one in it. So—cigarette soup.