Transcending Logic: An Interview with Black Moth Super Rainbow
Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Tobacco weathered a difficult couple of years after hating 2009’s Eating Us and tossing an entire new album out in 2012 because it sounded like the same old thing. He talks to us about coming out of the doldrums, finding a meaner more guitar-centered sound and why you don’t need drugs to trip out to BSMR.
"Black Moth Super Rainbow is not drug music," says Tobacco, the main singer and songwriter behind one of indie rock’s trippiest sounding bands. "If you want to use it to enhance your experiences, that’s fine, but I get kind of bothered sometimes when everyone’s so quick to credit drugs for making this stuff."
Black Moth Super Rainbow has been making its candy-colored, vocoder-filtered, Rhodes-and-synthesizer-shimmering psych since the mid-00s, emerging, appropriately enough (at least in lepidopteral terms), from another band called satanstompingcaterpillars.
The band’s third album Dandelion Gum was the break out, pulling in giddily positive reviews and, er, a bunch of drug references. I myself, writing for PopMatters, opined that "Dandelion Gum is one of those records that makes you feel like you’re high, even when you’re not, like you’re on the verge of shambolic visions, even if you’re taking out the trash, like there’s an ineffable order to the universe, even when all signs point to chaos. "
The association with contraband has dogged Black Moth Super Rainbow through its sprawling collaboration with the Octopus Project, its Dave Fridmann-helmed Eating Us and, now, the band’s fifth album, Cobra Juicy. Tobacco, who goes by the name of Thomas Fec in the real world, has just gotten back from a six-mile bike ride when we talk. He says that he gets more out of cycling and running and hanging out with friends than from any artificial substance. He doesn’t even take drugs.
Tobacco is fine with the idea of alternate realities. In fact, he explains his band’s use of nicknames (Seven Fields of Aphelion, Iffernaut, etc.), masks, film, and costumes as a way of creating a self-contained musical universe. "I just never wanted music to be attached to a person. I just wanted it to be its own world, with its own visuals and names," he says.
But, Tobacco maintains, it is not a world that you need a pill, a joint or any other kind of chemical assistance to enter. "People just don’t want to use their imagination," he says. "The easiest thing is, ‘Ah, it’s just drugs.’ Then you don’t have to think about it. But it has nothing to do with it."
In search of the unknown sound
"I never really aspired to be a musician. It wasn’t really ever something I wanted to do or could see myself doing," says Tobacco. "I just wanted to make what I wasn’t hearing."
Tobacco wasn’t interested in music as a kid. He was about 15 when he began digging into the sounds around him, looking for something that just wasn’t there.
"I got tired of what was on the radio," he says. "Then, I think my mom found me a copy of CMJmagazine. It came with a CD. So every month it was a bunch of new bands and I had never heard of a single one. Eventually, I got to the point where I had heard enough of that to go off and make my own."
Tobacco started, as many musicians do, with a guitar and four-track. But he quickly realized that the sounds in his head weren’t going to come from a standard rock rig. "I wanted to start recreating all these great sounds from PBS when I was a kid, likeOne, Two, Three Contact. I just remembered all these weird synth sounds, and then Boards of Canada came along." At about the same time, eBay was starting to take off as an online marketplace for used instruments. Synthesizers were available – and affordable – even if you were a young kid from suburban Pittsburgh.
Tobacco taught himself the rudiments of the instruments he plays – guitar, keyboards and synths – but never aimed for virtuosity. "I learn every instrument just as much as I need to. I wouldn’t call myself a multi-instrumentalist because I don’t actually know how to play any of these things," he says. "I force myself to play what needs to get done for the recording, and then I can never remember it afterwards. "
Limitations are an important element in Tobacco’s music. He’ll switch from one instrument to another when he gets too comfortable, or when all the songs start to sound the same. Even his signature vocordered sound comes from his awareness of his own limitations.
"I’m not a singer," he admits. "Pretty much the first Black Moth album, where my voice is on there for a few songs, that’s about as much as I can do. But with the vocorder I can get any texture, any sound. I can even make female parts. I can make all kinds of harmonies."
A meaner moth in Cobra Juicy
Tobacco was unhappy with Black Moth Super Rainbow’s last album Eating Us. "The last one just felt really lame to me," he says. "It was cool when I was making it, but I don’t know, by the time it was released, I was just so past it. "
"I wanted the next one to be a little meaner," he explains. "Not totally mean. I didn’t want it to be the same old woodsy kind of thing."
Tobacco went into the studio and started recording a series of songs that got the tentative title Psychic Love Damage . But by early in 2012, he announced that he had scrapped the whole set. " Psychic Love Damage was coming out like the Black Moth album that you would expect," Tobacco says. "It was like Eating Us Part 2 or Dandelion Gum Part 2. When I got to the point where I was pretty much finished, and I was pretty much expecting to put it out, I thought ‘I just can’t. I can’t imagine supporting that on tour for a year."
Tobacco started over. He used more guitar this time, filtering the sound through pedals and effects so that it sounded like a synthesizer. He came up with the giant, abrasive riff that starts "Hairspray Heart" and built a song out of it. He changed the modules on his synth to extract different sounds. He became fascinated with vocal harmonies. And finally, when Cobra Juicy was done, he gave it time to sink in. He knew he didn’t want to make the same mistake he had with Eating Us, where he rushed completion and ended up touring a record he didn’t love. When I talk to him, on the eve of an extended U.S. tour, he sounds satisfied with it, ready to take the new songs out on the road with a five-piece band.
I ask him what makes the difference between the new songs that he’s happy with and the older ones that didn’t make the cut -- the old question of what exactly it is that makes a great song. "I think for me a great song has always been a song that transcends any formula. It’s so much nuance and so many ideas that are so complex and yet so deceivingly simple," he says. And, as you might have predicted given his reluctance to sound like anyone else, even himself, it has to be authentic and original. "You can try to be whoever, but you’ll never ever get it because you’re not them and you can’t understand what it is that makes their process. It’s almost like existence. You can’t explain it. You’ll never be able to explain it. It defies logic or formula."