Tobacco found a reason to resurrect Black Moth Super Rainbow, the band he thought he'd left for dead.
Dandelion Gum caught me in the cheapest way possible; it smelled. My promo copy of the 2007 release by Black Moth Super Rainbow wafted with the cloying sweetness of the brittle, pink gum that accompanies packs of cards, and as off-putting as it was, the scent succeeded in bringing the album to my attention. The music was equally prepossessing - lo-fi, melancholy psychedelia with hip-hop drum loops at the core and a vocoder'ed voice singing clear, memorable melodies robotically. A theremin squiggles enthusiastically amidst clouds of distortion on "Melt Me," and sonic textures play together with gleeful abandon when a power drill-like three-note keyboard part sits next to an airy flute-like part, a gong, and Boogie Down Bronx drum programming on "Lollipopsichord."
Black Moth Super Rainbow plays an early show Thursday at One Eyed Jacks with The Hood Internet, and it started as a project for Thomas Fec to make the music he wanted to hear. He didn't have rock 'n' roll dreams, nor was obsessing over music part of some high school ritual between him and friends. "I thought bands were stupid and even music was stupid," he says by phone. He didn't see a concert until he was 16 and didn't go again until he was 18. Music became more of a force in his life when he began reading CMJ and listening to the college radio-centric magazine's accompanying CDs. That started him on a hunt for weird music, stuff he couldn't find on the radio. What he couldn't find, he made. "It was a total hobby that was never meant for anyone else to hear."
Beck's Mellow Gold and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Now I Got Worry changed things for Fec. He felt liberated by "the idea of being able to do anything and not having to be trained, and not having to be in a studio, or have anyone even care what you're doing," he says. Blues Explosion was particularly meaningful. "They were a great gateway. Now I Got Worry was like a revelation - the production, the way they approached what they were doing. I was able to apply that to a bunch of new ideas I was having."
When I suggest that after a few albums, I felt like I had heard what Blues Explosion had to say and that new albums stopped being cost-effective, Fec says, "You could say that about what I do. Whenever I read reviews of whatever I do, after Dandelion Gum, everybody said it all sounds the same, but to me, being the one who makes it, it sounds so different." He hears how the music pursues elements of the band's sound further, but within the Black Moth musical milieu. He's in no danger of leaping to an entirely different quadrant of the musical world because part of what appealed to him about Beck and Blues Explosion was the freedom, including a freedom from conventional notions of talent. "If I wanted to make a different type of music, it would be very difficult," Bec says. "I'm doing all that I literally can do without any kind of training."
One of Black Moth Super Rainbow's signature elements from the start was born by his effort to creatively circumvent limitations. The vocals sung through a vocoder don't represent an attempt to add a robotic touch, though the tension between the robotic sound and the human nature of the voice is certainly there. "I can't sing," Fec says. "I didn't want to be a singer. The vocoder's a way for me to be anything I want to be. It's just a way of having a voice that I can't have."
From the start of Black Moth Super Rainbow and his "bands" before it, Fec has been responsible for the music, bringing in friends and friends of friends to play the songs live and as occasional collaborators. "It was never about finding musicians for hire," he says, even though that is the role the other musicians effectively occupy. The way he laughs after he says, "Anyone who had a problem with it isn't here anymore," suggests that maybe it hasn't always been that way, but these days the live band is largely made up of people who have their own bands, and in some cases are the principal songwriters. They put their projects on hold to tour with Black Moth Super Rainbow, but "everyone feels strongly enough about what they do on their own that they're not insecure about it."
From the start, the band has maintained a level of mystery starting with the musicians' names. Fec recorded under the name Tobacco, and other members include Ryan Graveface, Iffernaut, and The Seven Fields of Aphelion. He didn't do many interviews, and those that he did - like this one - took place before the tour started. "It's hard enough to exist with the band sometimes," he says. "We don't do anything in an organized way." Those touches, along with the robotic voice that fronted the band and such song titles as "I Think It's Beautiful That You Are 256 Colors Too" and "Neon Syrup for the Cemetery Sisters" created an image of a secret group with an appealingly obscure, slightly creepy, magical, lovely worldview.
The last part is a fabrication on the part of listeners, but it's one Fec is comfortable with, not because that's how he sees the band but because it represents the audience participating in the group, investing their own creativity in a way. That room for the audience is similarly built in to the lyrics. "I put a lot of thought into having something that is really simple and doesn't mean anything, but could mean anything to anyone," he says. "I don't like to stick a song with a message of what exactly it means." One of the collateral byproducts of his use of the vocoder is that it obscures the words themselves, adding additional space for the listeners in the songs. Not only can they decide for themselves what the words mean, but they can choose what the words actually are. One of the challenges he faced when making last year's Cobra Juicy album was taking words that once had clear meanings and mutating them into something more open-ended.
For a long time, it looked like Cobra Juicy might not exist. Dandelion Gum was not Black Moth Super Rainbow's first album, but it was the one that put them on the national map. They got a lot of love at SXSW in 2007, and they toured with The Flaming Lips, with whom they shared an affection for spacey textures, melancholy moods and beautiful melodies. It was through the Lips that they met producer Dave Fridmann, who produced their next album, 2009's Eating Us. It was the band at its most collaborative, with the bass player contributing many of his bass parts and the drummer recutting the programmed drums live to capitalize on Fridmann's ability to record drums. By the time it was done though, Fec wondered if the album might have been a bridge too far. "I felt like Dandelion Gum was as far as it should have gone, and Eating Us - Eating Us sounded really great, but as far as the songwriting, it was a lame duck," he says. "Kind of boring. Maybe too mature, too elegant. That's not who I am. I think I'm going to like that record more as time goes on. At that point in time, that was the wrong thing but I've never made the right decision about anything, so it's going to end up making sense some day. " By the time the band had finished touring the album, he had decided to put Black Moth Super Rainbow to bed. He wasn't one to send out press releases, but as far as he was concerned, "It was done."
At the same time, he was more interested in the songs he was recording under the name Tobacco - a solo project away from what was largely a solo project. In 2010, he released Maniac Meat, a more abrasive, aggressive album that still sounds like a self-conscious rejection of the loveliness of Eating Us. " It doesn't take a lot to make old technology sound damaged and creepy," Nate Patrin wrote at Pitchfork. "But taking the next step and making that creepiness sound appealing is what makes Maniac Meat the feel-weird hit of the summer."
"With Black Moth, I never make music for people, but I release music for people," Fec says. "Black Moth was always more curated. It was the part of me and the songs that people could understand and relate to. The Tobacco stuff was the totally insane stuff that was just for me."
He had no plans to revisit Black Moth Super Rainbow, but when he was fired from a remix project for a pop female vocalist, he ended up with the skeletons and ideas for a number of songs that made more sense to him as Black Moth songs than they did with purer strain that was Tobacco. "I had all this new knowledge of writing around pop vocals, so I had all these new ideas," Fec says. He started a Kickstarter project to fund recording, then cut Cobra Juicy as he had worked before - by himself. It's more aggressive than Dandelion Gum and Eating Us, but the structures are pop structures.
The album sounds like it has helped Fec make peace with Black Moth Super Rainbow, and Thursday night's show will be his second visit to New Orleans to perform since the album's release. He doesn't think too much about the band's future, but he believes there is one. "I'm sure we'll do it for a while," he says. "I don't know when or if there will be another album, but we'll continue touring because that's still fun."