Hometown hero's new album First Blood brings a glimpse at the man behind the mange
MUSIC The morning of our scheduled interview, he sends me a text message, asking me to push things back a bit. Because he says he's been up until 5:30 a.m., I figured he's spent the previous night out being a bad bunny. But my assumptions are incorrect: the self-professed early bird known as Nobunny has stayed up late getting work done. The masked man, who now lives in Oakland, is out and about in San Francisco. I remain patient, knowing that he has plenty on his plate, including the release of his new album and an imminent European tour.
Nobunny's First Blood (Goner Records) is more polished in production than previous efforts, including Love Visions (1-2-3-4 Go! Records), his breakthrough from 2008. He's been at it for nearly 10 years now, but our hometown hero's ascent to garage-rock stardom hasn't come easy. Before getting off the phone with me, he speaks of darker days in Chicago, where he went from two-time Bozo Show visitor to "lying and stealing heroin addict," only to be saved by a heartbroken sister and a pre-Hunx and His Punx member of the now-defunct Gravy Train. And by the time I finish interviewing him, he shares some information that I didn't expect him to delve into, giving me glimpses of original obsessions, addictions, and future ambitions.
Still, at about the 30-minute mark, our first conversation comes to a sudden halt when Nobunny alerts me he has to put money in his parking meter. My time is up. After all, Blag Dahlia of Dwarves fame is expecting him for a radio interview. (Nobunny takes a page out of that fellow Chicago-to-Bay Area transplants' book by shedding his threads on stage with the exception of the mask.)
I have the sense that Nobunny is holding back a little, like there is a wall. Is he guarded? Maybe a little nervous? He'd publicly admitted to shooting heroin before, but it isn't until after our initial phone call that he begins to be genuine and upfront about his humbling experiences and the struggle that made him who he is today. All the while, I feel he is in complete control of our interactions, and imagine that's probably what it's like to work with someone so self-critical in the studio. The dichotomy of the man behind the mask begins to unravel.
We initially speak through a dodgy cell phone connection, interrupted by distracting wind and disruptive sirens. I'm in the TL, and he's in the Mission. Both environments are worn down, sort of like the mangy Muppet-looking mask Nobunny wears during show time. He's lived through misery before. He spent one winter in Chicago with a trash bag serving as his front door, and worked the graveyard shift at a highway gas station during his last year in the city. "I lived in a cage in a squatted grocery store that had become a shooting gallery-crack house," Nobunny says. "Things were not all right."
Just a week earlier, I'd seen Nobunny at the Total Trash Fest. He did what he does best: live rock 'n' roll, delivered sweaty and in briefs, with some crowd-surfing. The one new song worked into the set hinted at First Blood's tone. The album itself clocks in at a short but very sweet 26 minutes. Nobunny rips through the tracks, playing guitar, bass, and drums himself. He gets some assistance from his pal Jason "Elvis Christ" Testasecca, who's aided him with home recordings in the past, and a couple of other musicians who get honorable mentions in the credits.
"Blow Dumb," First Blood's first single, has been described as "Velvet-y" sounding. Perhaps because the Velvet Underground is associated with New York's high-art scene by way of Warhol's Factory, Nobunny points out that the track is a love song to California. It gives a special nod to the Bay Area and hyphy, but also shows some love for SoCal, with a possible Burger Records shout out. The end result is ideal for a groovy road trip with friends, riding down Highway 1 with nothing better to do than smile in the sun.
Content-wise, not everything on First Blood is so buoyant. Elsewhere, Nobunny's lyrics confront sexual desire, unbalanced relationships, inner weakness, and the self improvements necessary to pull yourself out of the proverbial gutter and see the world. Plenty of lustful longings are laid out as he expresses exactly what he wants in the twangy-sounding "Pretty Please Me": a noncommittal fling, no questions asked, just as long as it feels right.
The blatant "(Do the) Fuck Yourself" conjures up perverse images straight from Nobunny's stage show, where his masked persona goes public, employing ball-gags while prancing around scantily-clad. When we finally meet in person, I ask him where these antics come from. His answer is quite simple, and makes sense coming from a rabbit, "I'm just horny," he says. All the while, in order to maintain a "shred of anonymity," he wears his favorite deranged-looking mask. It never seems to come off.
"I don't think I'd like to deal with being in an un-masked band at, say, Hunx's or Thee Oh Sees' comparable level of popularity." Nobunny says, when asked about the get-up. "Knowing eyes are on you when you are not on stage sounds maybe not always fun." Nonetheless, a fruitful creative partnership with Hunx has been vital to Nobunny's survival: "Seth [Bogart, a.k.a. Hunx] has been a very supportive friend, and, yes, in some ways I feel he saved me, or at the very least vastly improved my living situation."
Though Nobunny often expresses the wish to record and play alone, he's no stranger to collaboration, including a recent live session with Jack White at Nashville's Third Man Records. Not all dream teams come true, though — since childhood he'd hoped to work with another master of disguises, the famously introverted King of Pop. "Michael Jackson was my first obsession, " he says. "I wanted to be him. I still want to be him. According to Rocktober's History of Masked Rock 'n' Roll, MJ was a masked musician with all his surgeries and what not. We all wear masks, some are just easier to spot than others."
Speaking of costumed camouflage, First Blood's final track, "I Was On (The Bozo Show)" is a psyched-out, swirling down-tempo dirge with many levels of dedication. One could read it as homage to the late clown-god Larry Harmon (a.k.a. Bozo), as Nobunny hazily recalls his lost innocence and how he sat in the back row of a Chicago television with his little brother to meet the world-famous archetype on two separate occasions. Yes, Nobunny was on The Bozo Show — twice.
But behind its showbiz facade, "I Was On (The Bozo Show)" is also an agonizing confession from a former addict. "It's for my blood brother and sister as well as my friends who struggle with drug addiction," Nobunny says. "In another time, clowns made children happy and the circus was fun, but now they've become just another relic of past, tarnished by the more common association that their images are horrifying and that they are to be feared. I'm pretty sure no Juggalo ever went to clown school."
A mythical creature from garage rock's underbelly, Nobunny has earned his success, even securing a gig at the Playboy Mansion in L.A. as part of his 10-year anniversary celebration next Easter. But he's no stranger to the addictions he sings about on First Blood final track. "My sister had been buggin' me a bit to come visit her in Arizona, and I finally decided to take her up on it before I killed myself," he says, still discussing "I Was On (The Bozo Show)"'s origins. "I drove across the country shooting dope the whole way to the desert west of Tucson. She didn't even know I was using. She nursed me back to health out there all alone in the desert. Our only neighbor was an 80-something yogi from India who was out there on a 30-day silent meditative prayer."
If that sounds like material for a boulevard of broken dreams tell-all, in all seriousness, Nobunny has come out of the experience stronger, poised for new adventures, but most of all, grateful. "I am thankful to have enough fans to make touring worthwhile," he said. "While I'd still be writing and recording and performing with no one looking, it's really nice to see people at our shows dancing and singing along and smiling."