Damaged, Abstract, Cut-Up Sewer Things: An Interview With Tobacco
Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Tobacco discusses his past and prepares us for a demented future with his upcoming solo album, Sweatbox Dynasty.
The music world doesn't know what to do with Tobacco.
His Wikipedia history begins, "Little is known about Tobacco, as he, along with the rest of Black Moth Super Rainbow, are very private and rarely do interviews." When I asked Tom Fec whether he though his public persona was shrouded in mystery, he replied simply: "No."
As to why, he explained, "Somebody said it once, and the rest of the music world can be like monkey-see-monkey-do." He once refuted the idea of his music as "psychedelic", but as he's matured, he's come to terms with the fact that fans, critics, and musicians often see the same thing with very different pairs of eyes. The figurehead of psych, er, electronic pop outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow even claims the band received hate mail from irate fans who felt the band's imagery did not suit the ideal of cookie-cutter hippie-dom. Maybe we shouldn't label Tobacco's music psychedelic, but we can certainly say it's lush, loud, and hits you like a ton of synths.
The Black Moth project formally began in 2003, and soon after, Fec got hooked up with the prolific Ryan Graveface, who released the bulk of their records on his eponymous label. Wherever Tobacco goes, he brings with him the familiar musk of dense production, fuzzy synths, and vocals vocoder-ized beyond comprehension -- a sound so nice, Nickelodeon blatantly pilfered it for a promo. Inspired perhaps as much by prank call artists as by his fellow musicians, he seems to draw thematically from a fourth grader's definition of demented. To Tobacco, the auditory works alongside the visual, which for him constitutes found footage and VHS-era appropriation -- though he says these days, he's more interested in creating new content.
Over the years, Tobacco has continued to validate his cultish status. When he couldn't land a record deal to fund the last Black Moth album, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign -- think six-figures-successful. Through Anticon, he's cranked out several solo records, similar to Black Moth's sound but with a more aggro, hip-hop flavor. After the release of 2014's Ultima II Massage, he unplugged his synths for a year, citing a loss of interest in anything. Recently, he sprung back to life, writing and recording his newest release in a matter of months. The product, Sweatbox Dynasty, was recorded exclusively on tape arrives on Ghostly International
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I've heard you tend to shy away from being labeled "psychedelic", and you claim you don't use psychedelic substances? ... Why are you lying?
[laughs] I'm not trying to call you out or anything, but I think that people who assume that are being closed-minded to the possibility that people could just make stuff that works in those situations.
Would you still say that the label "psychedelic" doesn't apply to you, in terms of the music?
I mean I guess it has to because everyone says it does. It's just not the way I hear it. But I guess, as I get a little older, I've started to learn that maybe those things aren't up to me. That's just not the way I hear it.
You associate a very distinct visual style with your work: sort of a childish, grotesque, cut-and-paste sort of thing. And it seems to me fairly un-psychedelic, more of a VHS-era pastiche. Do you think your fans are kind of thrown off by this incongruity?
I think it depends on the project. I'm assuming with the other band, Black Moth, that people might get thrown off a little by some of the more aggressive kind of things, but it just wasn't meant to be that [psychedelic]. What I put out there is the way I always envisioned it. Some people were so upset with me, especially with the first Black Moth video that ever came out, "Sun Lips". It was about these guys that were finding dead animals and shit. [laughs] I got so much hatemail about that, and I didn't understand because it was such a cool video to me. But people were like, "I don't understand, you guys were supposed to be hippies." Like, no, we're not. You said we were supposed to be hippies. We never said we were hippies.
That seems like a kind of crazy thing to get worked up over, especially because your music doesn't seem like it would incite a lot of hatred.
It does though! I think that's a good thing though. When time people are that invested in something, it just means they feel like it's a part of them, you know? And they almost feel like when you don't do something then that fits into the world they've created, then you almost betray what they've envisioned.
Would you say that the music influences the visual, or do they work in tandem?
I think they work in tandem. Neither influences the other. [His found footage videos are] really just my way of digging up this stuff that people made earnestly. Whenever they made it, in the '90s or the '80s or whatever, they believed in it, and there was nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. When you watch it now, all you gotta do is put my music behind it, and you see what it is. It's like, "Holy shit, you couldn't make something so awkward and demented if you tried."
I also wanted to bring up your haunted massage parlor video, which you did with Eric Wareheim from Tim & Eric. How did you get set up with him?
Man, I've been asked that question before. I don't remember. I feel like I've just known him for a while now, like, for a long time. Somewhere through music, somewhere near the beginning of Black Moth, probably, I met him. He did a Kickstarter video for the last Black Moth album, which I guess was four years ago now.
So where did the massage parlor imagery come from?
It was all a very loose concept to the album. Any time we were driving on I-80 or I-81 -- it was somewhere in the northeast -- since I was a little kid, I would always see a billboard for Ultima II Massage. It was just this janky massage parlor.
Oh, so it's a real place?
It's a real place, yeah. And I brought that up to Eric. Eric's actually from that area, so Eric was very familiar with that stuff. So it just kind of happened. I don't remember which one of us came up with the idea. But it kind of had to be what we envisioned this billboard to be leading you to.
Do you frequent massage parlors yourself?
Never been to one.
So you're known for keeping things pretty analog, between the synths and the tape machines. Would you say you've softened your feelings about digital effects, or are you doing same, purely analog stuff that you were doing ten years ago?
Yeah, I softened a long time ago. It doesn't matter. It's just what you do with it. I use a microKORG a lot, and that's digital. So I don't really care, as long as it sounds good to me. As long as you can make it sound real.
After Ultima II Massage, you say you went a year "without plugging anything in." Did you make any music during that time?
No. No, I was, like, done. [laughs] I was totally done in my head. I don't know what was going on. Yeah, I didn't do anything. But when I finally started getting ideas again, they rushed back into my head. As soon as I finished Ultima, I had started a couple things, and I couldn't even finish them. I had no interest in anything. [Pauses.] So this new album took me like three months of just working every day, all day.
According to the release details, Sweatbox Dynasty contains "jock jams which collide against rap bumps," where "madness clearly becomes method as our anti-hero lulls us into a state of intense, earned peace." Is that what you were going for?
You don't have to answer that.
Yeah ... I don't know. I don't know.
So we've only gotten a little taste of your album so far with "Gods in Heat". How would you describe it? What should we look out for?
My honest answer is, remember when you got one of those albums as a kid? Like, you heard the one song on the radio, and you bring it home, and there's nothing else like it, and you're like, "goddammit!"? It's like that. [ laughs] "God's in Heat" -- I love that song. To me, it fits on the album, but the rest of the album is like a damaged, abstract, cut-up, kind of, I don't know, thing you find in the sewer. It's not really like that song.
"Gods in Heat", to me, sounds to me almost like it could be a Top 40 R&B or pop song, without all the noise. Do you get that at all?
I've actually had a couple friends tell me that. I didn't hear it when I made it, but I guess I can sorta' hear that now. Hopefully the people who love Top 40 will go out and buy this album and then put it on and be like, "Ahhh, why did I buy this?"
It seems like people often consider Black Moth Super Rainbow to be your band. How much credit do you take for Black Moth's output?
I don't really take credit for anything. I can tell you, the last album and that last EP were 100% me.
Did you then have your band support you live?
Yeah. On this Tobacco tour coming up, we're going to have a full band too. It's gonna' be Maux [Boyle] and Donna [Kyler] from Black Moth and New Fumes out of Dallas. He has his own thing, but he's part of the band now.
Can you tell me the story of how you got involved with Ryan Graveface some 15 years ago?
[laughs] I don't remember.
You don't remember. What? He remembers! I'll tell you the answer. He said he saw you guys live after reading a review comparing his music to your early Black Moth stuff. Does that sound familiar?
Yeah -- that could be it. [laughs]
And then he signed you? Or started collaborating?
I'm trying to remember chronologically. I'd had a couple albums. He helped distro or something like that.
You've talked about your difficulty getting Black Moth signed more recently. Did you really have a hard time, or were you just very particular about what record contract you wanted.
No, I wasn't particular at all. I'm not trying to put anyone down or put any labels down, but I had a few meetings with some of the big indie labels, and they were telling me what their artists sell and how much they make on their releases. And knowing what I sold, I was like, "Oh my god, this will be easy. This is a given. There's no way we wouldn't get signed." And then, they didn't want us. I guess these days it's more about being able to claim a band as yours. And maybe Black Moth is just un-claimable? I think the Kickstarter speaks for itself. That was only a fraction of what that record ended up making. It makes sense to me in a world where record labels are struggling, but how do you pass up…? I guess that's how people are. It's more about pride, which is fine.
You ultimately ended up raising [over] $125,000 on your Kickstarter. Were you at all surprised by that?
Yeah, I was surprised. I didn't think anyone would give a shit. I never think anyone will give a shit. I would assume if I were to release another Black Moth album, no one would give a shit because it's been like four years, but who knows?
And you had that VHS Tape Club for the higher donors. What was on those tapes?
Stuff that I had laying around that I had gotten from some pretty awesome stores that were closing and stuff that friends had laying around. So only the best of the best. They were just straight rips. I was almost doing a movie of the month club.
You've also been known to make many a prank call in your day. Have you made any prank calls recently?
No, I was thinking about that lately. It's been a while. Probably the last time Black Moth was functional was the last time, so three or four years since I made a prank call.
Are you inspired by past prank call artists?
Yeah, very much so.
Do you want to name any--
Longmont. Longmont Potion Castle.
I often find that you're described as having a very mysterious persona. Would you say that's accurate?
What's up with that?
Somebody said it once, and the rest of the music world can be like monkey-see-monkey-do.
'cos you seem pretty frank with me, if this really is Tobacco talking.
Yeah, it's me.
I have to say I'm kind of disappointed you didn't use a vocoder when talking to me, but I'm glad I can understand what you're saying.
Yeah, that takes a lot of time to set up and do it right. I've been demoing the new album and doing everything I can to not get to the vocoder part because it's so annoying.
Would you consider yourself part of any kind of wave, or would you say today's musical landscape is too segmented for movements to arise?
I feel kind of exempt from waves. I don't think I ever did anything that really fit in with anything, and think I still don't. Not on purpose, that's just how it is.
Are there any artists you consider your contemporaries?
Not really. It's hard to say. There's no one I hear and am like, "Oh man, that was my idea" or "That's something I want to do."
Except that Nickelodeon song, right?
Well that's different. [laughs] That actually was my idea.