Catching Up With Black Moth Super Rainbow's Tobacco
On the release of its 2003 debut album Falling Through a Field, Black Moth Super Rainbow’s warped synths, crude drum machine beats, vocoder vocals and lo-fi production immediately stood out on the strength of founder Tobacco’s idiosyncratic vision.
Still, once the initial novelty wore off, it was hard to foresee how skillfully Tobacco (real name, Tom Fec) would go on to funnel his trademark arsenal of sounds into genuine pop songwriting—an accomplishment that has caused him no small measure of hand-wringing doubt over whether he should pull the plug on the project altogether. With new album Cobra Juicy, the fifth full-length released under the BMSR banner, founder Tobacco returns with another batch of polished tunes subverted by unsettling lyrical content. As a countermeasure to Black Moth, Tobacco has also released two “solo” albums in his own name—a nuanced distinction considering that Tobacco records Black Moth’s music almost entirely on his own.
Nevertheless, Cobra Juicy‘s despairing sensuality and glimmering dancefloor hooks reveal new aspects of Tobacco’s muse, thus setting the album apart from the playful fairy-tale menace of Black Moth’s sprawling 2007 opus Dandelion Gum, its Dave Fridmann-produced 2009 follow-up Eating Us, and the wanton abrasion of his own albums. He spoke to Paste about being confined by expectations, his ambivalence about Black Moth Super Rainbow, and why he thinks MGMT’s manager and Weezer are lame.
Paste: You’ve been saying for years that you’re not sure whether you want to keep Black Moth Super Rainbow going. Why did you decide to release this album under the BMSR name?
Tobacco: By the time the last album [Eating Us] came out, it felt like the whole thing wasn’t really mine anymore, like it was out of my control. I started to think that Black Moth had to be something that people had kind of turned it into. I hate when I get feeling like that. So I felt like taking it back and changing it. I made another album last year, and it sounded like just another Black Moth record. I was like “If I’m going to take it back, I need to do something new.” I had to remember that it was my baby, and that I can do whatever the fuck I want with it. That’s what it was meant to be in the first place.
Paste: That album you were working on last year—Psychic Love Damage—why were you unhappy with it?
Tobacco: It sounded like a Black Moth record that you would expect. I liked making it, but as soon as it was done, it just bored the shit out of me. I was like “there’s just no way I could put this out and support it and tour on it for like a year and a half and be okay with it.” If I would’ve put that record out as the next one, that would’ve been the end for sure. But people will get to hear the best pieces of it. There are five pieces that were all pretty close to being done that I’m going to let out, but with the disclaimer: this is not what this band is at this time.
Paste: How much did any ideas from that album end up on Cobra Juicy?
Tobacco: A few of them. “Like a Sundae” and the song “Psychic Love Damage” in a different form was on there. And “Blurring My Day” too. I mean, I feel like I’m not really meant to have people listening to what I do at all. It’s just luck that people do. [Laughs.] The fact that people care about it is insane to me. Some of it starts off almost like an inside joke or a whim. And what I want to hear, I feel, is so different than what I think anyone would want to hear. This new album is like a pop album in my mind. It’s, in my mind, what I was supposed to have done after Dandelion Gum. Eating Us wasn’t right. So now I have the next album planned out. If people have been willing up to this point to put up with my shit and all the weird things that I want to do, I can get even weirder. I have some ideas that I don’t think should ever make sense, or that anyone should ever like, but I might as well try ’em.
Paste: How much material do you end up throwing out in general?
Tobacco: There’s not a lot. I can kind of tell in the beginning if I want to take something further. I don’t usually finish stuff and scrap it. That’s kind of rare. Every once in a while I’ll find something that makes sense in a new context. On [Tobacco album] Maniac Meat, that song “Fresh Hex” with Beck, I was writing it for the album Eating Us but it made no fucking sense, so it became a throwaway. Beck asked me for some shit and when I sent it to him, he said that was the one, so it ended up making sense. There’s some of that on Cobra Juicy too. I got hired for a pretty major remix album. I was supposed to remix this person’s whole album. I finished it, and I got fired right after I finished it. He didn’t like it. I get fired a lot from remix projects. [Laughs.] Some of those ideas ended up over here. Working on that taught me how to think in a different way. It was actually inspiring in the end.
Paste: How does that work out as far as you getting paid?
Tobacco: I didn’t get paid.
Paste: I can’t imagine that left a good taste in your mouth, or that it left you feeling good towards that artist.
Tobacco: I don’t know. I get fired so much from remix projects it’s not even fuckin’ funny. I don’t know why anyone ever hires me to do remixes. They want something that’s in their imagination that they think I am. And when I give them what I do and they don’t like it, it’s like “well that’s what I do, so why did you hire me?” I think I end up asking that every time.
Paste: Every time? Even if you don’t get fired?
Tobacco: [Laughs.] No, only when I get fired. For this one, I didn’t get mad because I realized as soon as I got let go that, shit, this is the best thing that could ever happen. It was one of the motivating factors in making a new Black Moth record. I was like “these are some ideas I’m really, really proud of.” I realized I could totally take some of these ideas and lessons and theories and apply them to something new. It was weird, I was actually relieved and happy when I got fired from that one. Because I thought it was more important to do this.
Paste: On the other hand, the remix you did for Air’s “Sing Sang Sung” sounds like Darkel [AKA Jean-Benoît Dunkel] singing with Tobacco as his backing band. It sounds like people approach you to do these things.
Tobacco: Yeah. They approach and then they offer some money and then, if I don’t get fired, it comes out.
Paste: You don’t have a stipulation that says you get a severance fee?
Tobacco: It’s supposed to work that way. That whole remix project was in 2010. I did that Air remix in 2009. I haven’t really done anything else in a while. I did one for Rob Zombie this year that they actually used. But the day they hired me I was sure I was fired. These days, I feel like the world of websites and record companies and managers and people like that have taken the art of the remix and run it into the ground and totally destroyed it. It takes something really special to get me to actually do it now.
Paste: What would you prefer the remix to be? In your ideal world, what is the art of the remix?
Tobacco: Let me tell you what it isn’t: It shouldn’t be anything any idiot can do just so they can get a post on Pitchfork for a day. I feel like that’s what remixes have become. It’s become a way to associate, like “oh, we really like this artist, and they have a different fanbase so we should get them to do a remix.”
Paste: Calculated name-dropping.
Tobacco: That’s all it is. Man, I get that so much. I just leave that phone off the hook now. If one more fucking stupid Pitchfork band tries to remix… [trails off.] It just makes me crazy, because you can see right through it. When Air came to me, they had absolutely nothing to gain from my name. So I knew that they were genuine, and I could look at it like “okay, this is cool.”
Paste: Yeah, but someone like Beck could arguably benefit from some indie cred.
Tobacco: I thought he was super-genuine. There was nothing for him to get out of that. He’s one of the last people left that I looked up to and wanted to work with. Now that I’ve worked with him, no one else matters to me.
Paste: Not even Scott Weiland?
Tobacco: Well, that would be great.
Paste: You’ve maintained that you’re not being ironic when you say you like Scott Weiland and that you’re not into drugs, psychedelic music, or what you call “Pitchfork bands.”
Tobacco: [All those expectations on what I’m supposed to like] are part of what I call the Black Moth box. You create this thing that’s outside of the box, right? And the second you do that, people build a box for it. And it becomes an even smaller box than any box you were trying to not be in. And I feel like that happened to Black Moth. I can’t tell you how much hate mail I got for the “Sun Lips” video.
Tobacco: Because it wasn’t psychedelic. Because it wasn’t what people wanted, but that’s what we saw. You can’t argue with my vision for my project. It’s impossible, because you don’t know what’s going on in my head. I know it’s just criticism, but it gets kind of hurtful when people are just berating you, like “You’re an idiot! Why would you do this!” I got a little bit of that on “Windshield Smasher,” but I think people are maybe starting to understand that I’m not going to give you what you’re seeing in your head. You’re going to get what I’m seeing in my head.
Paste: It’s not just criticism that’s driving that—it’s people loving something you made so much that they feel like they’re in possession of it and then they start grappling with the artist. But you’ve gotten to a place where you’ve got these two modes you can go back and forth between. And maybe more modes if you start to feel boxed-in doing Tobacco stuff.
Tobacco: But that was kind of the point of this record, like “you know what? If I want to do something crazy, fuck it. Why does it have to be under Tobacco?” It can be anything. I’m not signed. No labels want to sign me. They’ve all told me that I’m un-signable. So I should just be doing whatever the hell I want to do. So, whatever people want from me, fuck that.
Paste: How did you get to the point where you could filter that out? It gets to the point where your audience becomes strawmen. And then you’re dealing with your expectations of their expectations. Which seems like a very dangerous place to be creatively, or even just mental health-wise.
Tobacco: Yeah, it took a minute. [Laughs.] That’s why there were three and a half years between Black Moth albums. Everything I do, even the name of the band, starts off as what I think is a dumb idea that would be really funny, trying to entertain myself.
Paste: An inside joke with yourself.
Tobacco: An inside joke with myself.
Paste: But then the joke ends up being on you.
Tobacco: That’s why you just gotta keep writing new jokes.
Paste: You work on Black Moth and solo material together, and you don’t usually know which project a particular song is going to end up being a part of. When does that become clear to you?
Tobacco: It doesn’t really become clear until there are a bunch of songs and they start grouping themselves. There was a time, until the last minute, when this album was going to be a Tobacco album. [Pauses.] I don’t know what it was that made me decide. [Laughs.]
Paste: Eating Us has a more polished sound than the albums before it, but the new album sounds polished as well. How was the working process for Cobra Juicy different?
Tobacco: I approached this new one way differently from anything else I’ve done. I started off by learning how to record guitars. I’ve never had electric guitar on an album. I think people won’t even notice, honestly. But a song like “Windshield Smasher,” that’s not a synth song. That’s all guitars. I don’t know if I worked so hard on getting the guitars to sound like synths that you can’t even tell. [Laughs.] For Eating Us, I made those songs 75 percent at home and then I brought them to [producer] Dave [Fridmann], he polished them up, and then we recorded all the drums and some of the bass in the studio. Here, I spent well over a year and a half on some of these songs, constantly going back to them, and re-recording parts. I haven’t had a labor of love since Dandelion Gum. That one took me three years to make. This one was pretty fuckin’ long too. Eating Us was actually pretty short, when I think about how much work actually went into it. I think my train just totally derailed.
Paste: You mean your train of creativity, or your train answering this question?
Tobacco: My train answering the question.
Paste: Your touring drummer Iffernaut played the drum parts on Eating Us. Live, she has a knack for recreating the vibe of the recordings she doesn’t play on. How do you explain how she goes about doing that?
Tobacco: She’s just a really unique drummer. She’s probably the biggest piece of what makes the live show different from the records. The rhythms are there, but she makes the feel of the beat her own. She’s not your standard rock drummer. She interprets the music in a way that we’ve all gotten accustomed to. We kind of know how to adjust to her. It’s cool. It’s what I think makes a show special. The songs from Eating Us did sound more similar, obviously, because she was on that one.
Paste: You’ve had some recent turnover in the live band. How have you been able to keep the same core of people since, for the most part, they don’t get to contribute? What’s their motivation?
Tobacco: I don’t know. I was just lucky enough to find a group of people who don’t care. I mean, I’m sure they’d probably like to be on the records, but at the end of the day it doesn’t affect them so deeply that they have to lash out.
Paste: How much, if any, input was there from anyone else on the new album?
Tobacco: It’s weird because I have solo albums, but Falling Through a Field and Cobra Juicy are the only albums that I’ve ever done 100 percent on my own.
Paste: Can you talk about the progress you’ve made with the vocoder effect that you always use on your voice? It sounds like over time you’ve gotten more comfortable layering it and doing harmonies. How tricky is that?
Tobacco: It would’ve been really tricky a few years ago. It’s not tricky now. It’s the first instrument that I can actually claim that I’ve gotten to point where—I’m not trying to be cocky—I’ve finally mastered something. I still haven’t heard anyone who sounds like that, who’s stuck with a vocoder and used it so much for so many years. It’s second nature now. I know instantly how to think in vocoder. [Laughs.] That was a big difference for me this time: I wanted the vocals, instead of just being another instrument like they always have in the past, I wanted to think of them more as a vocalist, and do the little things an actual vocalist would do. Little inflections, a lot more lyrics, and harmony.
Paste: It sounds like you actually multi-track harmonies.
Tobacco: I hadn’t until this album. Maniac Meat has a lot of layers, but it’s just different registers of the same part. This one has a lot of harmonies.
Paste: How concerned are you that people won’t listen to Cobra Juicy as a whole album?
Tobacco: I put a lot of work into the song order, so I hope they’ll listen to it, but people can listen to it however they want. Even if they narrow it down to two songs, I can’t really complain. I like my albums to be short, like 30 minutes. I think this one’s right on the edge of being almost too long at 36 minutes.
Paste: Wouldn’t you say Dandelion Gum violates that rule, then?
Tobacco: I have to listen to Dandelion Gum in two parts. Maniac Meat’s a tough one too.
Paste: So your own stuff would tax your tolerance as a listener!
Tobacco: Yeah, when I’m making something, it’s really hard to pare it down to what it needs to be. I can’t really think of a way I would edit these albums down. They’re already edited down.
Paste: You recently said that you thought it was messed up that Weezer allows their fans to vote on songs they like while they’re making an album.
Tobacco: Did I say that out loud? [Laughs.] I know I thought that, but I don’t remember saying it out loud. You might as well kill yourself when you start giving people creative control over what you’re doing. Maybe someone will figure out some kind of thing in the future where we can sign over our projects to the public. Like “give me 2 or 3 million dollars and you can have my project and you guys can write all the songs and everything the way you want them, and that would be awesome. Because then I can go and do something else.” But until then, I’m still in control of what I’m doing. So fuck Weezer. That’s stupid.
Paste: The video for “Windshield Smasher” might give people traumatic associations with birthday cake.
Tobacco: I don’t like making statements, but it’s meant to be a statement: fuck all that hippie shit. This is not a hippie band. It was never meant to be. I’ve always felt like, whether you can hear it in my music or not — and I’m sure you couldn’t — almost like a punk asshole. People thought I was this gentle weed-smoking kid tripping out in a field somewhere. I think I’m more of like a dickhead prankster.
Paste: At the same time, the suggestion of the violence in the video is pretty carefully done. You guys go to a line and pull back.
Tobacco: Oh yeah. I’d say that video represents me. We had some ideas to take it further, but it made me uncomfortable. We just hit it on the head with the brink of violence. As long as no one’s actually getting hurt, there’s nothing wrong with it.
Paste: Well, you’re basically just forcing people to eat birthday cake and get haircuts. It ends up in not quite as threatening of a place as it initially starts.
Tobacco: Yeah, it parallels me and what I do. I think people are sometimes scared of this music at first, but then they realize it’s not going to hurt them.
Paste: You’ve said before that you’ve seen a lot of the evils of the music business. Besides not getting paid for remixes, what have you seen that could be so dispiriting?
Tobacco: A lot of stuff in the live world, especially when you’re not headlining, is so demoralizing. We did a summerfest show in 2008 with MGMT and the Ting Tings at McCarren Pool in Brooklyn. This company puts it on, and they bring in all three acts individually. We’re not on a tour together so there should be no politics. Ting Tings were opening — because at the time they didn’t have any hits yet — we were in the middle, and MGMT was last. All day, the Ting Tings’ management was trying to get us bumped so that we were opening and they could get the middle spot because it was just so important to them. It didn’t matter to me, but it was just one of those sleazy things. And dealing with MGMT’s manager, that guy is the worst. It’ll be great if you print this: he’s a fucking asswipe. His attitude and the way he was dealing with things and the way they were trying to push us around, telling us how much to sell our merch for… I mean, what are you gonna do [in our position]? We didn’t have a manager and that whole show I felt like both of those bands were working against us. You can call it paranoia, or you can just call it like it is, which is: it fuckin’ happened. [Laughs.] That was one day in particular that really stands out for me. If you don’t have someone sticking up for you pushing your weight around, you’re going to get fuckin’ trampled.
Paste: But then, how bad would you feel if you had a manager doing that to other people?
Tobacco: I would feel horrible. I’ll never let that happen. I’m working with a guy now who’s been helping me out on like a manager-type basis. But it also comes down to picking the kind of personality. He’s a good guy who wouldn’t do that to anyone. These people picked cutthroats who are going to get them to where they want to be.