Tom Fec (Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco): Interview
“I don’t like music that’s all one thing, because I think it’s corny no matter what you’re doing. We’re not that simple, and we shouldn’t be listening to stuff that’s so straightforward.”
Tom Fec is quietly building a tiny, twisted religion. Like the KISS Army and Misfits Fiend Club before him, the mastermind behind the psychedelic synth projects Black Moth Super Rainbow [often shortened to “BMSR”] and Tobacco has started his own “Rad Cult.”
This past summer, Fec used a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the release and distribution of his latest album, Cobra Juicy. He named the hypothetical record label that would carry it “Rad Cult.” The money pledged by fans also funded the ancillary packaging and artwork Fec wanted to produce. Most notable among the BMSR accoutrement was a specially designed full-head latex mask of a terrifyingly mutated orange face. The Kickstarter was a roaring success, so there’s now a small army of BMSR-devotees running around with identical orange head masks. Ominously, the first music video from the album, “Windshield Smasher,” depicts a group of similarly orange-masked hoodlums accosting a young couple with baseball bats, ultimately forcing frosting-covered cake down their mouths and chopping off their hair while pinning them to the hood of a car.
Beneath all this scruffy bravado, however, there’s an artist who truly believes giving his unvarnished id free reign is the best way to satisfy his fans. Before BMSR head out on a nationwide tour this spring, Fec talked with us about the making of Cobra Juicy and where his brand of lovably leering weirdness comes from.
Cobra Juicy’s been out since October. How have you incorporated those songs into your live set?
I didn’t really write those with a band in mind, so there are a lot of compromises and we have to strip it down a little bit. [The songs] don’t really sound that complicated on the record but there’s a lot of nuance there that you can’t really get. I think it’ll still work. It was one of the more difficult albums for us to do, but I think we got it.
What led to you financing the record with a Kickstarter campaign?
It came out of necessity, really, because I couldn’t get signed and I had all these big ideas. I wanted to do a pre-order with a safety net. I wanted all these big ideas, and I wanted to make sure I could pull them all off: the masks, the animated vinyl cover, stuff like that. There’s not really a safe way to put out an album, but luckily people were into it.
Between the album covers, the masks, and your videos… I notice a reliable aesthetic. Is there a consistent visual language to your work?
That stuff is just as important as the music, because it just gives it some frame of reference somewhere. Maybe in 2013 what I’m doing isn’t so weird anymore, but it felt like it was when I started. So to be able to anchor that in some other way, whether it be the videos or album artwork or whatever, I kind of create a world around it and it all makes sense in a way.
I always thought of myself as a prank-call connoisseur. I’ve probably listened to that stuff more than I’ve listened to music since I was a little kid. I try to make my own mark.
Did you learn anything about your fans through this whole Kickstarter experience?
I think I learned that the people who are onboard and want me to do what I want to do are kinda up for anything. Ever since I started the band everything [I’ve done] felt like an idea that shouldn’t work, and the fun of it has always been trying to make these… not dumb ideas… but any crazy whim that I have, trying to make that come to life. The fact that […] we’ve sold like a thousand [masks] now tells me that at least my fans are into stuff that’s not just mp3s.
It seems like you’re consistently interested in tangible, “real” things — your famous penchant for vintage analog synths over computerized electronics, for example.
The synths were just an aesthetic choice because I could never get the right sounds out of anything newer. With the old synths, you’re literally hearing the actual current going through circuits, so it feels more real. It’s closer to a guitar or something; I could never get that out of software or digital keyboards. That stuff feels really lifeless, I think. I think you need life in music, it gives it more soul.
So you create the sounds with analog instruments. When you go out and play those sound live, do digital or computer-based sequencers play a role in arranging everything?
When we play out, we play everything live, at least with Black Moth. We use less stuff because you don’t need that high level of studio detail when you’re playing a club or a venue. Plus that old stuff can be really finicky, so we don’t really take it out that often. But with Tobacco, there’s a lot of sequencing happening. There’s only two of us onstage, so it’s a necessity, unfortunately.
Software programs like Ableton Live, for example, seem to really focus on allowing you to sequence audio in a way that’s supposed to feel organic and hands-on. As technology advances, do you feel these kinds of programs are starting to meet you halfway?
I use Ableton when I do Tobacco shows. I’m still not really good at it. I feel like with that software… first off, I’m not a DJ or anything, so I’m not really good at throwing all these pieces in on the fly. I’ll bring a little mini-modular with me, and a talk box or whatever. Instead of manipulating Ableton a whole lot, I just need to manipulate it a little bit, and [the performance] is about what I can do with my other machines onstage.
Switching gears a bit here, I’d like to talk about the “Windshield Smasher” video. It’s such a fun but weirdly disturbing clip. Where did all that come from?
It started off being a bigger-budget idea, and we kind of had to compromise to it being what it is. It’s the first video from the new album, so I wanted to come out baseball bats swinging [laughs]. I thought it was the perfect visual idea for that.
For me, this video typifies the vibe you’ve got in a lot of your work wherein there’s this sinister or leering feeling. There’s the offbeat violence of this video, song titles like, “I think I’m Evil,” etc.
I think mainly what I’m going for is, I don’t like music that’s all one thing, because I think it’s corny no matter what you’re doing. Like a dark metal band: “Everything is evil.” To me that comes off as corny, and a lot of other music that’s just happy, whether it’s indie stuff or pop music or just happy or whatever, it just comes off as corny. It just needs to be more complicated than that. We’re not that simple, especially now in 2013, and we shouldn’t be listening to stuff that’s so straightforward and simple.
It’s interesting you say that because I noticed Cobra Juicy has some of the most structured and pleasant pop songs you’ve ever written, but the “Windshield Smasher” video is probably the most directly threatening and unsettling visual piece you’ve put out.
I always like having fun with what I do and what I put out there because, from the second people started listening, like when Dandelion Gum came out, they had expectations for what the video should be. Everyone figured it would be this sunny valley trip with people in fields with weird colors. That shit is so predictable and so stupid and it’s been done so many time. I remember when the “Sun Lips” video came out, so many people were so upset, like, “This isn’t what we expected! This isn’t what we wanted!” But that’s just how it is, that’s what entertains me, and that’s why I make this stuff.
“Windshield Smasher” was violent, but it wasn’t too mean. I still think it was kinda good spirited, but it was a lot of things at the end of the day.
So many people were so upset, like, “This isn’t what we expected! This isn’t what we wanted!” But that’s just how it is, that’s what entertains me, and that’s why I make this stuff.
I understand you also have a project called Sbarro Hottopic wherein you make prank phone calls?
[Laughs] Yeah. I haven’t done it in a while, but when I was doing it hardcore I got like 12 hours of material. I don’t know if the [Sbarro Hottopic] album is ever going to come out because of the legal stuff around it, but I’m really proud of it. I always thought of myself as a prank-call connoisseur. I’ve probably listened to that stuff more than I’ve listened to music since I was a little kid. I try to make my own mark.
I think just this week or maybe next week, there’s a Graveface [Records] charity series, and I did an EP for them… it’s six tracks… it’s pretty tame, nothing that would really get me into trouble, but you’ll get the idea.
Did you make a lot of prank phone calls as a kid?
Yeah, there was a payphone at a shopping center that was like a five minute walk from my house, so I would go down there at least once a week in the summer and just practice.
I’ve noticed a lot of indie bands in their lyrics, artwork, and general vibe seem to be channeling the feelings of revisiting childhood… remembering what it’s like to be 8 years old. Your stuff seems to channel the feeling of what it’s like to be 13 or 14 years old and experiencing all the anger and excitement of that age… kind of that adolescent spirit of wanting to fuck with people.
Totally, yeah. I try to fuck with people not in a funny, jokey way but in a powerful way. I’ve always thought… this’ll probably come out really bad, and I don’t know how to phrase it right… but I’ve always felt kind of punk in a way. Not what punk has become or what it is — I don’t even understand what it is now — but the, “Fuck this, fuck everyone. I’m just going to do this because I like to have fun and piss people off.” I think that spirit, especially now, is a lot more in-front of what I do.
I think a big part of why your music makes me think of being 13 is that your beats and synth-line tones remind me of the old VHS tapes and weird shows I watched when I was that age. I realize, though, as younger and younger people start hearing your work they won’t have the same frame of reference. They’ve probably didn’t grow up with the same sonic language. Do you ever think about that?
I think it’s a weird thing to think about because a lot of that stuff that’s reference,d like VHS and Beta and the synthesizers, some of the sounds, and the arpeggios and stuff… it’s kind of too old for some of the people to listen to it. Maybe they have no frame of reference for it. Maybe they’ll interpret it in some weird new way.
Maybe it’ll come off as even more evocative and threatening because it sounds so foreign?
Yeah. Kind of like when I was a kid I remember that everyone wanted to be from the 1970s, and I didn’t really know what that was. I think it kind of got morphed into something else… that became the 1990s, I guess. Every generation just mutates what the generation before it was doing… or maybe they were mutated… I don’t know if that’s right but it’s probably how it is.
Any current plans for another Tobacco album?
Oh yeah, I’m working on it now; hopefully early 2014. In the meantime, I just finished an album with this guy Zackey Force Funk, and we’re calling the project Demon Queen. That record should be out in June. If you go to my SoundCloud page, you can hear a couple songs from that one.