Moogfest Preview: Tom Fec of Black Moth Super Rainbow
Tom Fec, a.k.a. Tobacco, doesn’t hesitate to call Cobra Juicy, his newest album as Black Moth Super Rainbow, “pop music.” In some ways, he’s right. Critics have almost unanimously agreed that Cobra Juicy is more accessible than many of BMSR’s records past. With songs like “Psychic Love Damage” and “I Think I’m Evil,” Fec builds soundscapes that unveil a more coherent style of songwriting than fans have heard on previous BMSR or Tobacco records. The instrumentation hasn’t varied wildly: Psychocandy-reminiscent guitars meld into kaleidoscopic synths and hypnotic backbeats. He even croons (albeit through a vocoder) a little bit on “The Healing Power of Nothing,” and the lyrics seem to almost make love-song sense: “The healing power of nothing/always felt so wrong…Nothing works no more/Feels like it’s run its course”.
But Fec simultaneously guts any traditional pop sensibility with tracks like “Windshield Smasher” and “Hairspray Heart” that both rankle the brain and encourage dancing. Each hook builds gritty spaceship-ready reveries that even sober and left feet will find irresistible. “Gangs in the Garden” vibrates like a fishing wire, ruthlessly moving listeners through a funhouse of mind-melting beats. Fec transitioned from analog-only a few records ago so can’t be charged as a luddite, but his loyalty to “real” sound has stuck: no software, no samples, all real synths. Maybe it’s the organization of the record that juts out at first listen—it’s fluid, though not predictable, punchy yet soothing, and paces out almost perfectly at a breezy 39 minutes. Fec is self-releasing the eleven-track LP, which drops Oct. 23—just in time for a six-week BMSR tour that kicks off this weekend at Moogfest.
Shuffle’s Hannah Levinson spoke to Fec about the record, the tour and using Kickstarter. BMSR plays at the Orange Peel on Friday, Oct. 26.
Shuffle: First off, I just want to say that I streamed the new album and it’s really great. Congrats on finishing that. So Cobra Juicy—anything behind that title? Any overarching themes you were trying to highlight or goals you wanted to accomplish with the record?
Tom Fec: This is supposed to be the point, the peak of the arc for how focused, how far in I can go into the pop song world with what I’m doing. And so now that I did that, I can kind of start backing off again, start going down that other side.
I’m kind of just always gonna do what I do. It started off not being focused at all. It was just really ramshackle. Anyway, I finally sat down and put some thought into the arrangements, how the chords and stuff are gonna hit. I think everyone’s always looked at what I’m doing as weird, and some people think it’s too fucked up, but this one was supposed to be touching—that side of pop music that actually really is touching, you know? Cause it’s always been sort of pop music to me, but I think this one just gets closer to what other people think pop music is too.
Shuffle: Yeah, I get that. It’s a really cohesive album. A track that pops out like that to me is “The Healing Power of Nothing.” It has more of a pop accessibility to it…and a couple of the other ones. In terms of lyricism, I can definitely feel the album going in that direction, but then it’s aurally different than that “pop” sort of stuff people gravitate towards or feel is more universal.
TF: Yeah, like I said—it’s still me, and it’s all I can do. That’s as far as I can push in that direction.
Shuffle: So if this is “as far as it goes” that way, whether it’s either to appease people or for your own sense of seeing how far you personally can take things—what comes after?
TF: Well, I just make this stuff to entertain myself, so again, I was pushing myself on this one to see if I could do it. It’s not like a cliff, I’m not gonna fall off or anything. It’s more like an arch, so now I feel like I can get more abstract again. I have a lot of really weird ideas that people might not like…but it’s time to start doing them.
Shuffle: So this is meant to be the most accessible peak or point in your music career. From here on out it’s “Hey everybody, just try to keep up?”
TF: (Laughs) Yes.
Shuffle: I read somewhere that you had another EP or LP coming out then scrapped the release, maybe that you weren’t happy with the quality of it. So if you feel like this album is up to par, what’s the difference between that stuff you were recording a little longer ago and Cobra Juicy? Why were you willing to release this material and not that?
TF: That stuff was just too…it just sounded like what you’d expect from a Black Moth album. I couldn’t imagine supporting it for a year and touring on that. I just tore it down, and I remade it into something that’s more fun. When we stopped touring in 2009, I was essentially done with the band and I wasn’t planning on doing another album. I just got to the point, I don’t know, where I was just like fuck it–I’m just either gonna do another album and put this album out that I really don’t like cause it’s just boring, and that’ll be the end of everything. Or I’ll just make something that, again, is completely for me—that entertains my self. I didn’t expect people who listen to Black Moth to like pop music. I didn’t expect people who like Black Moth to like Cobra Juicy at all, so I just said fuck it. I might as well have fun. Go down in flames.
Shuffle: So it is also awesome that you were able to raise so much money through a Kickstarter campaign to make Cobra Juicy. It’s kind of interesting timing; you’ve probably heard a little bit about the movement toward that approach to putting out records. Amanda Palmer’s success kind of put the spotlight on it, she called it the “future of music”—what’s your take on that? It worked for this record, but would you do it again? Do you think it’s the way artists should be thinking of going when they want to put out an album, or do you think it’s only feasible for some and is going to stay in a sort of limited scope?
TF: That’s a really long answer. It wasn’t my first choice. I was trying to get signed, and any label you can think of pretty much told me I was unsignable, so I didn’t really have a choice. I had a lot of really big ideas. Making masks is pretty expensive, you know. I wanted to treat my Kickstarter like a giant pre-order with a safety net, so if for some reason I didn’t meet my goal, I wouldn’t be stuck spending $30,000 making masks. So I looked at it a little differently than I think a lot of people look at it. There’s this old school mentality, I think, with people who criticize people who use Kickstarter. They’re like, “Why do you need all this money to make an album? Amanda Palmer didn’t need a million dollars to make an album.” And even some people were saying that to me–“You don’t need $125,000 dollars to make an album.” Yeah, you’re right, I don’t. I make it for free. I need zero dollars. This isn’t the fucking 90s where we need to work with producers and waste our money—but items cost money. These things cost money to make. If you go into a store, and you’re like, “This person made so much money. I should really be able to steal this.” It’s essentially what they’re saying without knowing that they’re saying that. So anyway, that’s the way I treated it, like a giant pre-order with a safety net. I would never, ever do it again. The past three weeks has been a fucking nightmare. Trying to fill 2,000 orders is really difficult.
Shuffle: Oh, yeah. So is it just you in a silo licking envelopes?
TF: It’s so much more intense than that. I counted—cause people get multiple tiers, and you get multiple things per tier—there’s like, 30,000 pieces here to deal with. It’s insane. I won’t do it again. And if no one’s going to sign me…I mean, I don’t know where we’ll be, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Shuffle: Yeah, one day at a time. Also, just because this is also up on the Kickstarter page and I’m curious—what does “a little more demon-skater” mean?
TF: It’s just—it’s a little more “fuck you” than anything I’ve done. I’ve felt like—just the way music has been going—when I first started putting stuff out as Black Moth, I thought oh, this is cool. Like “indie music.” I felt like there was this counter culture. But it’s not the case anymore. Maybe it never was. It’s the mainstream now. And the way that these labels act—the bigger indies—there’s no fucking difference. People are kidding themselves if they think there’s a difference. It’s literally the way everything is. There’s literally no counter culture. I feel like at this point in time, I’m surrounded by all these fucking yuppies. These fucking bands, they’re all yuppies, all of them. The music they make is for yuppies, and most of them are trust fund kids. That’s whatever and it’s fine, but it’s not me. I feel like, with the music I make, I was meant to be grouped in with the misfits. You know, with all the misfits of music. But now I feel like the misfit of the misfits. That’s all I can really do, you know? So that’s the “demon-skater” attitude: fuck all of them.
Shuffle: No, that’s really interesting. But then my next question is, if it’s all “yuppies”—if that’s the bulk of who’s producing sound, of who’s listening to it, then where are…I don’t know how to say this…
TF: Where are the real motherfuckers?
Shuffle: Ha! Yeah! Do they just not exist? I guess that’s the real question. Is that actually true?
TF: I mean, I feel like people I know and I’m friends with are real, but I’ve also seen a whole bunch of people who aren’t. I don’t really hang out with musicians—I’m only friends with a couple—but none of us are trust fund kids. None of us are yuppies. So I don’t know. They’re out there, but it’s just…it’s so mixed up right now. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and I first started getting into music, and I could start to see—even at, like, ten years old—when the major labels were bringing these bands out, and they were trying to make them seem like Nirvana, or whatever…and I was like, what the fuck? This is so crazy, and there’s no way to tell the difference now until you hear how bad they are. And the same thing’s happening now, I think. I just feel like these bands are being groomed, and indie, or whatever you want to call it now, it’s so…it’s just so crazy. I feel like I almost kind of proved that, the fact that whatever their criteria was for signing bands, that I couldn’t even get signed. I mean, maybe. Maybe, truthfully, I don’t know, maybe I just kind of suck.
Shuffle: Maybe it’s your personality.
TF: (laughs) I mean, maybe. And I could totally be fine with that, but…I’m not sure that’s what it was.
Shuffle: Yeah. It is really…complex.
TF: It is. It is really complex. You have a lot of people in these grey areas. I’ve gotten really jaded by those people. Playing out, and playing with some of these bands and just seeing it firsthand, it’s…I don’t know. You meet people who are like you and you meet a lot of people who aren’t like you, and the people who aren’t like you, you’re like, “Oh, man.” I mean, now I understand. I understand why I don’t get good reviews by Pitchfork and stuff.
Shuffle: (insert expletives of choice here) So to follow that, then how do you feel about live shows—because you’re initially making this sound for yourself, right? But then people say “I like that, come play it in my city for me”—how do you balance that? Is it actually fun to go play shows, or is it fun to record, and playing shows is just this weighty afterthought—you get through it when you have to do it?
TF: It used to be like that, but…I don’t know. I think that it’s actually nice to play for people who genuinely like what you’re doing, or appreciate what you’re doing. I think that’s actually rare. I think so many of these bands that I’m talking about become really fair weather. Like, I haven’t been given the opportunities that a lot of these people have been given—I haven’t been shoved down people’s throats like some of these other bands. So for people to find what I’m doing and like what I’m doing, that means they actually like it. So I appreciate that. I like playing for them. I didn’t have that view at first—at first I just hated leaving my town, thought “fuck being onstage.” But that’s okay now.
Shuffle: Glad to hear it. Well, I hope this tour goes really well. So about an album or two ago, you switched from a sort of analog purism and started using digital equipment. What motivated you to make the shift? Was it convenience, efficiency, creative, some combination?
TF: It was all of those things. I was using a reel-to-reel recorder and I was dumping the tape into a sampler and then building through there. Finally I was like, fuck, I should really just be building straight into the sampler and cutting out the tape. I don’t know, I don’t think it necessarily sounded better before—I think you don’t need to use tape. I do think the actual synthesizers, the things you’re using, should be real. You shouldn’t be using software, you know, cause software doesn’t breathe.
Shuffle: Got it. So a couple of other curiosities—do you listen to any other music when you’re writing or recording?
TF: I guess while I’m making stuff, I don’t really listen to anything but what I’m doing. For most of 2011, I was just listening to my demos while I was making them, so I guess in a way, I’m sort of cut off…but I mean, I’m sure I absorb all that stuff in my off time.
Shuffle: Anything you would point to, or cite, then, out of that “off-time” material?
TF: There’s one group that I kind of tried to make an homage to on this one. They’re called Freescha. I don’t even know if they’re even really doing anything anymore, but when I would listen to their records, I would always feel, like, this roller skating theme. They never really talked about that and they never really really pushed it, but I kind of wanted to push it and take it a little further.
Shuffle: That sounds awesome. It makes me wish I could roller skate. So do you have as much fun or less fun using digital equipment?
TF: Well, I don’t record into computers, cause I don’t like how sterile that is. And I still kind of do like old, jank samplers. You get a really big, thick, kind of warm sound if you push with those old samplers the right way. Even though it’s digital, I think it’s just the way that it’s processing it…so that’s kind of where I’ve been at for the last few years.
Shuffle: Dig it. So Moogfest is the first gig of the new tour—any special surprises you’re willing to drop cryptic hints about? Just the Julie Taymor-esque wave of masks?
TF: First off, this is the first time we’re going on a tour where we have these gang masks out. I’m hoping people will start showing up in those. I’m hoping people in Asheville got some of those masks. I’m going to try to incorporate that more into the show, somehow make that a part of it. It just kind of feels like we’re all these misfits now. I honestly feel like this black sheep of—even this part, this small chunk of the music industry that I’m in—I still feel like a black sheep of that. It’s like, the whole idea behind these masks and everything, is that we’re all kind of these black sheep…but I imagine someone taking these masks off later when they see someone that they know and yelling, like, “Fuck that!”
Shuffle: Or, you know, in Asheville you might even see some people who make their own. So…I don’t want to take you too far into the future, since you’re just kicking off this new tour and all, but have you thought about what you want to do next? Will you just be switching back over to Tobacco for a little while after this, or…
TF: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I’m actually really missing it. That’s like, my…it’s like that younger kid who still needs more of my attention. You know what I mean? Cause Black Moth is a few years older than Tobacco, and I just really need to get back to that project. I actually have a new record, actually kind of close to being done, that I just haven’t been able to work on for months and won’t be able to for a few more months until I get home. But I’m really, really looking forward to finishing that and getting it out.
Shuffle: That’s awesome. You’ve got to be doing that a little bit differently funding-wise too, then, right? Are you just gonna do small presses in Pittsburgh or something?
TF: No. I mean, I still love to be on the grand stage. I’ll figure out a way. I mean, I’ll find someone, somewhere. Someone has to pity me enough to sign me.
Shuffle: Pity, huh? I’m sure that’d be the only reason…so anything else you want to say about Cobra Juicy? Maybe about the mythology of the masks?
TF: With my albums, I like for the cover to be really bold and have a lot of character to it. So this wasn’t supposed to be a mask at first, it was just supposed to be an album cover, but then I thought, fuck, that would be a perfect mask. And it came out of nowhere—I mean, there was no reason. It was an orange with a skull face. It’s ugly, but there’s something about it. It’s not like Halloween…
Shuffle: Yeah. it makes me think of, I don’t know, relics. Masks are tied to so much in terms of ritual; they’re otherworldly…they send you in all sorts of different spaces and realms.
TF: Yeah, I thought of it, like—have you ever seen that movie The Warriors? It’s maybe from the early eighties, late seventies. It’s about this gang that’s trying to get home. It’s late night, I think it’s in the Bronx or something, and all these gangs come out. This one gang is trying to get back to Coney Island, and another gang they encounter has this look. Some of their faces look the same, some of their faces are painted and weird, some of them have baseball bats. So I’m calling this the Cobra Juicy gang…my own gang, in a way.