A talk with Tobacco of analogue synth sorcerers Black Moth Super Rainbow
Tobacco doesn't like the Beatles, or the Who. And Pink Floyd is "okay." This makes sense for the man whose prolific mind fuels Black Moth Super Rainbow. The Pittsburgh analog synth sorcerers specialize in prismatic albums that swing seamlessly between sunlit repose and hallucinatory freak-outs. They use an array of vintage beat makers, keyboards, and guitars. Those who pin BMSR's mercurial sound with the "psychedelia" label aren't peering deep enough into the looking glass.
"Maybe subconsciously all that garbage is in there and I don't realize it," Tobacco consents. "I definitely don't try to make it sound like Pink Floyd or the Beatles, but maybe that stuff's just stuck in my head and I just can't get it out."
He's happier to cite the Beastie Boys' 1992 mutative alt-rap disc Check Your Head (Capitol) as an influence, one that's especially evident on his 2008 solo effort Fucked Up Friends (Anticon). He also credits one of the Beasties' hip-hop cohorts: "I hated music when I was a kid. The first song I ever liked was "Just a Friend" by Biz Markie."
From Biz Markie to prog rock, nothing about BMSR's sound is straightforward. The group cultivates a mystique that blends the anachronistic with the futuristic. Some surrealistic soundscapes are steeped in bongwater, while others teeter on the glittery edge of acid-trip oblivion. The resulting deconstructed melodies and beats elude most genre epithets. With Eating Us (Graveface) about to drop on May 26, Tobacco, né Tom Fec, is hoping that people will finally stop calling BMSR weird.
"I've never thought an album like [2007's] Dandelion Gum (Graveface) was weird, but a lot of people did, even people who liked it," says Tobacco. Not so with Eating Us: "Everyone's either understanding what I was going for or they're just repeating what we're telling them,"
Tobacco wrote and recorded Eating Us on his own, before enlisting the help of producer David Fridmann, who he says "just sort of pull(s) the gunk out of" BMSR's sound. In the process, the wonderland of sonic bits and pieces found on albums such as 2003's Falling Through A Field (Graveface) gives way to an expansive landscape of heady incantations for the electronic age.
If Dandelion Gum saw Black Moth spreading its wings for flight, Eating Us is the sound of the band going airborne. Drums replace beat machines. Layered dream-dipped hums and purrs play hand-in-hand the spooky minor-key trills that are one of the band's signatures. The melodies are more cogent but no less rainbow-hued. Tobacco's Vocoder-drenched voice is inhumanly-human on tracks such as the regal "Iron Lemonade."
For bands that continue to put out albums the traditional way, these are trying times. "When I was one of those young whippersnappers in high school, I used to read magazines and that's how I found out about stuff," Tobacco says when asked about the shifting frameworks for music and music writing. "Now it's all blogging, [and] no one would have heard of us without it.
"What sucks is that our album leaked a month ago and everyone started reviewing it," he continues. "I've been reading things by people who weren't even done listening to it they were reviewing as they were listening. That just changes perceptions. It's not about the album anymore, it's about the hype that leads up it. When I was a kid, it was all about finding the album when it came out that's when its life began. Now, once the album comes out, it's dead. Who knows, May 26 may be the last time you hear about [Eating Us]."
That isn't likely. BMSR's albums are like musical toys, catering to nostalgists who still seek out music in its physical form. Their 2008 EP Drippers (Graveface) was packaged with five scratch-and-sniff scents, and Eating Us includes a 16-page booklet that can be refolded to create different images. Oh, and the cover art has hair.
The best bands constantly change, metamorphosing against sameness, labels, and the death of ideas. BMSR continues to evolve from the dimmest corners of the mind into transcendent swaths of weirdo-pop sensibility. It's almost like the Beatles, if they got behind synthesizers, went underground, and never emerged from 1967. Almost.