May I Refer to Myself in the Third Person?: An Interview With Bobby Conn

Bobby Conn
King for a Day
Thrill Jockey

“I’m officially leaving adolescence this year,” says Bobby Conn, but is he serious?

The diminutive frontman is known as much for his not-quite-on-the-level press interviews as for crazily theatrical, glam-rocking live shows and baroquely complicated CDs. In late 1990s/early 2000s interviews, he generated buzz by insisting, in at least one case, that he was the Anti-Christ, and on another occasion, that he had severed a finger to remove a wedding ring (never mind that he continues to play guitar with his band). Now nearing 40 and the father of two — his partner Monica Boubou plays violin in the band — he seems moderately more committed to facts and partially resigned to adulthood. Still, his latest album’s art shows Conn enthroned and crowned on its front side and identically positioned on a toilet inside, surely an indicator that some vestiges of teen humor survive. And, as for Conn’s “truthiness” quotient, let’s just say that there are some portions of our talk that seem to bristle with irony-signalling quotation marks.

All of which is fine. Sincerity is so over-rated, and anyway the interplay of truth and lies has always been central to Conn’s work. Whether he is creating a monologue for a Rumseld-esque defense overload, as on 2005’s The Homeland or imagining Tom Cruise in Dianetic-spewing frenzy on King for a Day, Conn is a master at conveying absolute conviction … coexisting somehow with utter disingenuousness.

“Self-deception and delusion is really part of the human condition,” says Conn. “Frankly, people who don’t seem to be aware of that, it’s hard for me to trust them. I feel very uncomfortable when I meet people who are so convinced that they’re positive.”

“I’m attracted to it. I’m interested in it. I understand its power. But I also feel like that’s how we get into trouble,” he adds. “George Bush for example. Very confident man. Very sure of himself. And, what a great lot of good it’s done for so many people.”

And so his albums are full of characters who are absolutely certain about themselves — and absolutely wrong. His “Punch the Sky”, a minute and a half of bravura self-help insanity, comes direct from the infomercial spiel of a certifiable madman. It might remind you — and this is not an accident — of a certain Scientology-spouting motion picture star in his Academy-nominated turn in Magnolia. It’s a tirade that promises 70 billion year life spans, firing on “all eight cylinders all the time,” and it is only a little bit over the top.

On being asked about the resemblance, Conn admits, “I don’t really know much about Scientology, but I just … I have an impression in my mind of what it could be like, and I just sort of went with that, improvised that and felt that might be fun.” He adds that part of the insanity of his screed comes from the fact that it was initially too long. “John and I took all the pauses out of it in editing, and that’s why it’s so psychotic,” he says. “It was originally 2 and a half minutes long and then we reduced it by a minute and a half just by taking out every single breath, so that everything is on top of each other.”

The rest of the album is more musical, but also peopled with unusual characters, and baroquely orchestrated with a 12-person band. “All my records are overblown, so with this one I just decided to get everyone in the same place at the same time,” says Conn. “When I thought about this record, I said, ‘I’m going to really bring it back to basics and do it live in the studio. But then I realized that in order to do it the way I wanted to live in the studio, I needed 12 people.”

Homage to vampires and Ennio Morricone

Conn had crushed his thumb in the fall of 2004 (at his day job at a framing shop in Chicago), and, unable to work or play the guitar, he spent a month and a half playing all the parts to King for a Day into his computer, generating charts for the album’s rather elaborate arrangements. (The opening song “Vanitas”, for example, is eight and a half minutes long and includes extended string arrangements, saxophone and a chorus, in Latin, that quotes the Bible. Conn says that anyone who can’t get through “Vanitas” doesn’t deserve to hear the rest of the album.) “It was the most prepared I’ve ever been to start working on a record,” he admits. In January of 2007, the band began a month-long residency at Schuba’s in Chicago.

Then, Conn and his very large entourage (which includes the band, a baby daughter and his five-year-old son Augie) road-tripped to the Key Club, a studio in Benton Harbor Michigan run by Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffin. A bleak setting at best, Benton Harbor was particularly foreboding in February when the sessions took place. “It’s just sort of a place where people collect unemployment. There’s a lot of vacant property there. And we recorded there in February in the middle of a blizzard. It was kind of like being in outer space, except that we were in this little bubble of a studio,” said Conn.

The studio had live-in quarters upstairs so Conn and his entourage camped out for the week, eating and playing together and, in what Conn says was a “huge” influence on King for a Day watching lots and lots of 1960s supernatural serial Dark Shadows.

“It’s a soap opera, so nothing really happens, but they create this air of menace,” says Conn, tring to pinpoint exactly how a set of grainy TV shows impacted his new album. “Actually Barnabas himself … We’re always like ‘When is he going to kill someone?’ You hear people referring to him killing people, but you really want to see him caught with blood all over him … drinking blood.”

“I wanted the album to sound a lot darker. I wanted it to be a little murkier,” he continues, “and I think part of it was watching Dark Shadows every morning.”

An Ennio Morricone compilation on heavy play at the studio added to the threatening feel as well. “It’s amazing. It’s brilliant, and he did all these great horror movies in the 1960s and 1970s, and I kind of wanted to get more of that spooky feel,” he added. “Also some of the people in the band have become more into the cult, and I wanted to throw them a bone.”

Despite certain Satanic influences, however, the recording went smoothly, and Conn mixed the tracks with John McEntire at his Soma Studio in Chicago. “We finished it in about a week, but it’s pretty dense material, as you can tell,” says Conn. ” I just thought, ‘It can’t be done. This can’t be as good as it sounds.’ So then I remixed a lot of it at different places. Some of it at SOMA, some of it back at Bill Skibbe’s studio, and then I didn’t use very much of the new mixes. So … It was kind of done the first time. I just didn’t want to let it go.”

He adds, impishly, “You know what mixing really is?” “What,” I say. “It’s wallowing in your ego,” he replies, shifting to a whole other character mid-sentence. “You’re spending more time going, ‘Oh, this is so awesome, dude, check it out, there’s echo on it now! Awesome.'”

Plotting the next 40 years

Bobby Conn has been making music for 20-plus years, first with Chicago-based Conducent and later in a series of solo albums. Yet as he nears 40, Conn says he’s started to think about the next forty years of his career … and using Sammy Davis Jr.’s biography Yes, I Can as a model.

“It’s an amazing, amazing book,” he says. (This is one of the parts of the interview where irony thickens to a texture resembling pea soup.) “Really?” I ask, giggling uncontrollably. “It’s brilliant,” he insists. “The best parts are his comebacks. He has many comebacks. You know what I mean? And I felt like, if I’m going to continue making music for the next 40 years, which is my plan. I need to have kind of a tragic point. And I’ve really investigated like becoming addicted to some kind of drug, but I really don’t have the time or the money to devote to that.” (He has to stop at this point because I am laughing so hard that we both fear for the quality of the tape recording.) “So I just tried to capture the feeling of that pathos. That mid-career taking stock and reassessing, kind of looking backwards a little bit, and having that kind of like sense of sorrow for what might have been, and really trying to play with that. I don’t know … of course, if I can refer to myself in the third person. May I?,” he goes on. And of course, he may.

“Well, Bobby Conn, he thinks … he takes things very … he’s very sensitive,” he says.

“I suppose that most people don’t know this about him,” I interject.

“Yeaahhh,” says Bobby. “And he feels that he’s an incredibly important figure, you know. Of course, most of the rest of the world doesn’t really agree. And there’s a tremendous amount of sorrow.”

“That’s always the case,” I sympathize.

“Is it always the case?” he asks sharply.

I mention Shakespeare and Van Gogh, who don’t interest him at all.

“What about Tom Cruise? Let’s just focus in on that,” says Conn impatiently. “Isn’t that the goal? For any American male, the goal should be Tom Cruise. That is one happy motherfucker. Have you seen him?”

I venture that he may be insane.

“But he’s having a great time. All the time. At least when he’s on camera, but when isn’t he on camera? ” counters Conn. “That’s really kind of what I’m really interested in is how these personalities play out there, the small biorhythms that ordinary people — like yourself and myself — would play out over the course of the day. For the hyper celebrity, these things are played out on a massive scale and amplified. So that it’s a really big deal … oh, my god, she broke a heel getting out of her car and she nearly dropped her baby. Britney Spears. And it becomes a big news story. I think it’s really exciting that humans can be so fascinated by the most superficial aspects of other people. I don’t know. It’s interesting. I guess what I was trying to capture with this record was to delve into that obsession with superficiality in a very specific way.”

The song “Anybody”, for instance, is, to skirt legal issues “about a certain celebrity couple and their sort of like celebrity pregnancy” according to Conn. As it happens, Conn and his partner Monica were expecting a child at the very same time as Tom and Katie. “It was kind of interesting to see the parallels. Because their kid was the object of so much attention. Though I will say something for Suri Cruise. What is the deal with her hair? Is that a wig? Did they put a wig on their baby? Have you ever seen a baby with that much hair?” (As an aside, Conn mentions that his own daughter, now seven months old, celebrated her first Halloween dressed as Suri Cruise. The Conns put a wig on her head.)

Another song “21”, told from the perspective of a young hanger-on, also has a super celebrity element to it, a person that the main character is disastrously attracted to. Conn is now in the process of making videos of all the songs on King for a Day and plans to have a predatory, Dianetics-obsessed figure in several of them.

Touring en famille and otherwise

Conn and his band will perform King for a Day at full strength at their CD release party on February 17th at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. The rest of the tour, though, will be accomplished with smaller ensembles, four or five people for one series of shows, a different set for the next. A core band drawn from Christian rockers, the Detholz!, including Jim Cooper, Karl Doerfer and Johnny Steinmeier may play East Coast dates, while another may take over for West Coast and European shows.

Sadly, Conn’s partner, violinist and muse Monica Boubou, may not be making all the dates, due to the complicated logistical issues posed by touring with two small children and a nanny. “We’re really trying to make it work, and she’s going to come with us to New York, and we’re going to try to make it work in Europe,” says Conn. “I think I’m about 50% less appealing without her onstage with me,” he adds. “I think I come off like kind of a creepy weirdo by myself or just with boys. And when she’s there, she’s just such a … had such a winning personality on stage that people are like, ‘Oh, well, he can’t be that bad, because otherwise why would she be there. So there must be some redeeming quality to the man.’ She is truly, my better half. And she’s a much better musician than I am.”

Once home, Conn plans to get back to writing music, and to freeing himself from the industry-sanctioned schedule of a record and tour every two years. “What I want to do is to record individual songs and then just release them directly online and try to do that for an entire year or so and not make an album,” he says. “Even at the really tiny indie rock level that I’m at, it just … it seems like you run really hard for a year and a half making your thing and then it all comes down to how well it does during the first six weeks of its release. There’s a lot of pressure to tour for three months.”

And, as Conn reaches the golden end of a long adolescence that cycle is less and less appealing. “I’ve got two kids. You know? It’s tough. I’d rather just kind of drop these brilliant little turds out as I make them and then see what happens.”