Black Moth Super Rainbow
Tobacco Pipes in on Black Moth Super Rainbow
It makes sense that Tom Fec got the idea for his alias from the creepy “Tobacco Man” character in Troma’s late ‘80s, low-budget, straight-to-VHS flick Redneck Zombies.
“I was a kid when I saw it,” Fec recalls, “and that just kind of stuck with me. The character is just so surreal. And just terrifying. He wasn’t like a killer or anything, it was just a guy who rode around in a tobacco truck, and he would ring a bell and sell tobacco to these hicks, these rednecks. And he had a burlap sack over his face, and he would go into detail about how miserable they would be from using the tobacco. How it would destroy their mouths and…” He pauses to laugh. “I don’t know… It was really fucked up!”
It makes sense because, under the name Tobacco – which he appropriates as the creative spearhead of Black Moth Super Rainbow as well as for the music he makes outside of that project – Fec often wears weird masks in photos and performance, and his voice is disguised and distorted with a vocoder, much like Tobacco Man’s voice is all warped and hallucinogenic in that movie.
But while Fec’s music can be strange and a bit disorienting, it’s not scary. In fact, Cobra Juicy, the latest album from Black Moth Super Rainbow, is certainly the most accessible, pop-oriented work he’s done since BMSR coalesced in 2003. The greatest thing about it is that as catchy, fun and succinct as the songs are, they retain the trippy, experimental edge for which BMSR is known.
It’s an album that almost didn’t happen. After Dave Fridmann produced 2009’s Eating Us, a release that expanded BMSR’s ecosystem into neo-‘70s floral-prog territory, Fec retreated to his Pittsburgh base of operations and assembled its intended follow-up, provisionally titled Psychic Love Damage. He then scrapped it, deeming it “too close to everything I’d done.” Salvaging selected songs (including one called “Psychic Love Damage”), Fec reemerged last fall with the Kickstarter-funded reinvention Cobra Juicy. Unlike Eating Us, which featured musical input from the five-member Black Moth Super Rainbow band (like Tobacco, they all use pseudonyms – keyboardist The Seven Fields of Aphelion, guitarist Ryan Graveface, drummer Iffernaut, etc.), this fifth BMSR album was tracked solo by Fec, and makes for an engaging marriage of the synthetic and the organic. It’d probably be a big hit at Borg bashes.
The first time I reach Fec’s cellphone, I get his peculiar voice mail message – an overly enthusiastic, “Hello!!!” like the disturbing ones you sometimes hear on ice cream trucks, followed by the beep. Great. I assume it’s just Tobacco being a weirdo, but about seven minutes later I call back and get an even weirder explanation:
“There’s a guy, I think he’s in the psych ward, he has the wrong number. I don’t know who he thinks he’s calling, but he calls me every day, and that message freaks him out,” Fec laughs.
Getting daily calls from someone in a psych ward would freak me out! So, Cobra Juicy is more of a pop album, in a way.
“Yeah, that was one of those things I wanted to do just once in my life of making music. To kind of push myself to see if I could make kind of a pop record, where every song is catchy and it kind of takes you on a rollercoaster. I’ll never do anything like this again. But to me, that’s experimentation, because that’s not really who I am… I was really happy with [Psychic Love Damage] when I was making it, but by the time I was done, I was like, there’s no way I could support this record and be really happy about it. I realized that what Black Moth had become, or just what it was, without changing it, wasn’t really me anymore. Black Moth has always been kinda ‘nice.’ It’s not hippie music – I’m not a hippie – but I think that’s probably the reason hippies maybe like it sometimes. It’s not really offensive or angry at all. I guess I’m a little more aggressive, I think.”
As far as recording and writing songs, do you prefer working alone?
“Definitely. I get that writer’s block almost instantly when I’m trying to write with someone in a room. I think you can be a lot more free when no one’s around.”
If you thought you could pull it off well, would you rather perform alone?
“No, because I do think there’s something to be said for actively putting on some kind of show where people are, um… I don’t know. I think being able to watch interaction between people on a stage is more interesting sometimes. Unless you have some kind of crazy visual show, which is kind of what I try to do with the Tobacco project. But I think as far as Black Moth goes, it just makes sense to have a band.”
And everyone has to have a pseudonym?
“No, they don’t have to, but everyone kind of has their own thing that they’ve done, before they were ever even part of the band, so it’s been cool to bring everyone in, and just have them keep their project name as who they are in the band.”
When you play a show as Tobacco, is that just you by yourself?
“Even with Tobacco, it’s always at least two people. Sometimes it’s three, sometimes we’ll even have a drummer. But the Tobacco show is more… a lot of the beats and the bass and stuff are pre-programmed, and it’s a lot of projections and visual things. And I’m a lot more free to do a lot of weird stuff.”
You do solo albums as Tobacco, but since you generally compose and record BMSR on your own, how do you differentiate between the two?
“I’ve always looked at it, at least in like the past five years, like the stuff that I think people can handle goes to Black Moth, and the stuff that I just really love that’s… just really fucked up, and off-putting, that’s what I keep in Tobacco. And luckily, for some reason, people have been down with the Tobacco stuff. But it’s not meant for anyone to like.”
Would you consider yourself to be a control freak?
“I would say yeah. Not when it comes to when we’re onstage as a band, I like to give that up for the night. But as far as creating the imagery… I’ve always felt like I could see where I wanted it to go. And I never wanted to be in a band. Or at least, that’s why I was never in anyone else’s band. I was never a guitarist or anything. I never wanted to be a ‘musician,’ I just wanted to make music that I liked.”
You were more ambitious with this album, as far as the packaging, the citrus masks, making it more than just another batch of songs, and turning it into more of an interconnected art piece. Not everyone puts that much effort into the artistic presentation. Is that something you’ve wanted to do in the past?
“Yeah. That’s all I have, because I got to a point, I think, once Black Moth got known, I kinda knew where it caps off. I’m never going to be like Animal Collective or whatever. I’m never gonna be widely accepted. So all I really have is, I guess, this vision or path of what I wanna do. So I might as well just try to do that. And whether anyone cares or not, as long as I can pull it off, then that’s cool.”
I don’t see why you think having an audience like Animal Collective’s is totally out of the question.
“’Cause… I don’t play the game the way these other people do… You know, I’m just not destined for that, I don’t think.”
You think Animal Collective plays the game?
“I think they’re probably better at doing what their labels ask of them, and what their people expect them to do.”
On the other hand, their music is not your run-of-the-mill indie rock. It can be really interesting, and it’s not exactly mass-appeal commercial-oriented stuff. I guess they might be better at promotion, but it doesn’t seem like they’re doing anything that’s all that drastically different from what you’re doing.
“That makes sense, but what it comes down to is, I think bands like that, they’re just connecting with people. They know how to connect with an audience, where like that’s not really my thing (laughs). I’m more of a basement person, you know?”
Do you think that could be a reason why you do the masks? You’re not as comfortable projecting your personal creation?
“I don’t like it to be about me. I think it should be about whatever the project is, or the world around it. I’m just kind of like the person that has to show up to make the sounds happen (laughs). You know what I mean?”
Were you big into Halloween as a kid?
“I did like Halloween and I’ve always liked masks, but I like seeing what you can do with a face. Like the last, I don’t know, four records, there’s always a prominent face [on the cover]. I just have a… we all do, we all just have a regular human face, and I don’t think that speaks to creating a new world.”
Are you attracted to art and movies and music that’s kind of creepy?
“Yeah, I like it when it doesn’t try to be. I don’t think horror movies are scary. In the Tobacco project, I use a lot of old footage, found footage of people being serious, like workout tapes, or some of the faces in some of the porns, that’s the shit that’s actually scary to me.”
The design of the Cobra Juicy citrus mask – can you describe how that came to you? Were you eating an orange for breakfast and just imagined a face in the fruit?
“Just like all of my other ideas – one day, I was like, ‘Oh, that’d be cool.’ It’s almost like everything starts off as an inside joke with myself. I’m like, ‘Oh, man, you know what would be awesome? If I did this thing that doesn’t make any sense…’ And then it ends up on [a record cover.]”
It seems to be a big hit, the orange mask. I see you’re selling lots of blacklight and glow-in-the dark ones through your website, and a couple of the designs have sold out.
“Well, the oranges are all gone, ‘cause that was a Kickstarter thing, and then we did limes for the last tour, and now that those are gone. We have a glow-in-the-dark one now. And then I have another one coming after that that’s gonna be really cool. I’m gonna hold off on talking about it just in case I can’t make it happen.”
This is becoming a whole little industry for you.
“(laughs) It’s like being a little kid again. I’m just imagining things, and somehow now I’m being able to make ‘em happen. That’s where all my joy comes out of this.”
Don’t ever underestimate what can become of a dumb idea. Just ask Wayne Coyne.
“(laughs) Well, that’s the thing, I’m just conditioned to think that every idea that I have is a dumb idea, and that it shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t make sense. Because from the time I started this band, the idea of what the band was, everyone was telling me that it was wrong. And then it started to take off a little bit, and it was like, ‘OK, well, you’re doing this wrong now.’ And even at this point, with Cobra Juicy, people are telling me what I’m doing is wrong… Maybe when I’m dead, if anyone’s still listening to what I do, maybe it’ll all make sense.”