Photo: The Seven Fields of Aphelion / Courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Gods in Heat: Tobacco on Celebrating Two Decades of Ghostly International

With a headlining show as part of Ghostly International's 20th anniversary, Tobacco reflects on his own start, why he went with Ghostly, and why his old band Black Moth Super Rainbow is closing up shop.

20th Anniversary Show
Ghostly International
Ghostly International

Sam Valenti IV, the founder of record label Ghostly International, lives by “8 Ghostly Principles”. It’s right there on Ghostly’s website, and it includes such bullet points as “Art as Democratic Space” and “Healthy Disrespect for our Industries”. They are obvious rallying points for people getting wrapped up into Ghostly’s distinct aesthetics.

The two that feel most important today are “Healthy Respect for Artists” and “Persevere and Preserve”, the latter of which has the expanded descriptor: “To stay the course and to document our existence.” It may seem like a small thing, but now, two decades after the label’s formation in 1999, recognizing Ghostly’s history feels as important as ever. Ghostly has established itself as a fiercely independent label that is unafraid to put out challenging, sometimes even deliberately non-commercial projects. Meanwhile, they find a place in critical, good graces by helping out boundary-pushing electronic albums by the likes of Com Truise, Matthew Dear, Grammy nominee Tycho, and more than a few collaborations with the influential Adult Swim brand.

To mark the label’s 20 years of existence, several anniversary shows have been set up across the country, all taking place on different days and in different cities with different lineups. The one thing uniting them together is a celebration of all things Ghostly. Whether it be Gold Panda with Beacon and Heathered Pearls in New York or Geotic and Mary Lattimore in Los Angeles, there’s something for everyone in these shows. It culminates in a 19 October concert in Chicago (at the Metro) with Tobacco and a 16 November date in Detroit (in the TV Lounge) with Matthew Dear and Lauren Flax.

Speaking to PopMatters about the pressure of doing a headline set for the Chicago date, Tobacco (Thomas Fec of Black Moth Super Rainbow notoriety) simply responded: “The thought of pressure from the weight of the event hadn’t crossed my mind until this question, so now I don’t know how I feel.”

Fec’s own experience with record labels and putting out music in the 21st century has been distinct. The trippy, vocoder-heavy psychedelic pop of his band Black Moth Super Rainbow initially self-released through a variety of monikers. But their Graveface imprint helped in putting out not only their records but those of associated acts. Describing those early days of putting out his material, Fec notes that it was largely about “just learning what to do and what not to do. It always felt like I had to be way too involved. Despite where the Black Moth Super Rainbow stuff started and ended, self-releasing isn’t my preferred way. I know a little bit about it now because I had to, but never something I wanted to do.”

While Tobacco, Black Moth Super Rainbow, and other acts in that trippy musical family largely started using Rad Cult as their label of choice in the 2010s, Fec put out his third solo effort Ultima II Massage with Ghostly in 2014. “Out of everyone I’ve worked with, they have their shit the most together,” Fec notes when asked why he went with them. “They’re like a complete organization that still lets me have total creative control. I can just focus on doing what I do and trust what they’re doing behind the scenes.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Fec was a fan of a lot of artists on the label, too. “We just took Steve Hauschildt on tour, and that stuff is really good,” Fec explains. “I probably told him this enough times to annoy him. But he’s hitting on some SAWII kind of thing that a lot of his contemporaries haven’t been able to write. And the new and improved Com Truise is nice! I like him sounding sad.”

Yet going with Ghostly has been a deliberate choice for Fec, having seen the ups and downs with all parts of the musician-finance landscape. In 2012, Black Moth Super Rainbow did an outrageous Kickstarter for their then-upcoming album Cobra Juicy. The band was looking for $45,000 and offered silly-but-unique prizes like a subscription to Tobacco’s VHS club, a private rollerskate party DJ’d by Tobacco, a one-time chance to listen to Fec’s never-released prank call album backstage before a show. The Black Moth Super Rainbow fans came through in droves, ultimately pledging over $125,000 in funds to help make the campaign a success. For all of the custom designs, masks, and personal ephemera that was being offered, you’d think that Fec would be exhausted by the end of it all and wonder if he’d ever do it again.

“No, there was a time and place for that,” Fec notes. “I looked at it as a glorified preorder with a way to make some expensive stuff while spreading the word. That was also in the early days of crowdfunding when it seemed almost pure [laughs]. Since then, I’ve watched people take advantage of their fans and abuse the platforms. I don’t think it would be appropriate for someone in my position anymore, at least with the kind of stuff I do now, like making an album. But as far as going big, yeah, I might do that again someday.”

It’s been a long journey for Fec and an even longer one for Ghostly International, with Tobacco’s Chicago performance helping cap a dynamite celebration of the label’s first two decades of existence. Given Black Moth Super Rainbow’s start in 2003, Fec’s band could be seeing a 20th-anniversary celebration coming up soon. That leaves the question: is it something he’s looking forward to?

“I guess that would be 2023. I’m doing my last show under that name in November, and I’m looking at [2018 album] Panic Blooms as the final chapter. I’ve been here before, and I’ve closed the book twice in the past. So I’ve learned that taking something off my calendar doesn’t necessarily mean shit. But for now [new 2020 single] ‘Hot Wet & Sassy’ is all I care about.”

One of Sam Valenti IV’s other Ghostly Principles is “Genre and Medium Agnostic”, which is described as “Focusing on art as beyond boundaries or classifications of the day”. Tobacco, Com Truise, Tycho, and so many other acts from the Ghostly roster defy the boundaries of what electronic music can do. It’s the kind of roster that has given Ghostly its resilience. At this pace, Ghostly is well on track for another two decades of sharp, progressive music with those eight principles leading them all the way.