Tobacco: Interview

    The members of Black Moth Super Rainbow have been churning out their own brand of roots electronica for the last decade, but it was only after the release of their third album, Dandelion Gum, an opening slot for the Flaming Lips, and a showcase at SXSW that music fans began to take notice. As the band prepares their second album for Grave Face Records, Eating Us, band leader Tobacco took some time to discuss the nature of nicknames, the accessibility of old-school synth, and how to avoid the sophomore slump by recording like professionals.


    Who is Black Moth Super Rainbow?

    I don’t know if I figured that out yet. It changes from day to day. On a day like today? Hmm, I don’t know. That’s kind of a tough one.


    How did the band come together?

    I had been doing a lot of weird four-track stuff since high school and I had the idea to use analog synths and a vocoder to play live. I got my cousin to play bass and found some friends that could play. I found a couple of musicians through work. I had never intended to play any of my stuff live, but then I saw other people doing it. I wanted to try playing, but I felt awkward using my real voice. That’s when the vocoder entered in to the picture.


    Did you always know that you wanted to play electronic music?

    I started off playing guitar, but it was all four-track noise, really. It ran the spectrum from quiet and creepy, almost ambient, to loud and grating. This was the beginning, but when I was coming up with the idea for an actual band synthesizers seemed right, and old synths are the best kind. They have so much more character, and there are about a million different ways to get unexpected sounds out of them.


    Was Pittsburgh a positive place for a brash young electronica band?

    Not exactly. It was really difficult to get anyone to give us a show. We sent out letters and demos, and we couldn’t even get anyone to turn us down. We were so far under the radar so as not to be noticed at all. And since clubs weren’t having us, it was hard to get anybody interested. I looked at it more nationally. We had the Internet, so I worked really hard to build the band’s presence online. We weren’t in the right place when we were starting out, but we were able to get our stuff in the hands of people who wanted. The funny part is that after putting in all this work, we finally found a few people in Pittsburgh who like us.


    How did the band transition from the satanstompingcaterpillars?

    That was the name I used when the band was just coming together. It represented the first music that I had been composing, which was pretty lonely sounding. It was all acoustic. There were no beats, just a voice and a guitar. The singing and playing was very quiet. I wanted to dump the old stuff and move forward.


    At what point did you jump in and become full-time musicians?

    I’m currently the only one in the band that is doing it for a living. Everybody else has day jobs, so we have to plan tours and other band stuff around that. I went to school and was hired by a company to work with film, but I ended up working on software. I did that until 2007, when went out on tour with the Flaming Lips. It just worked out that things fell into place and I was able to live off the proceeds of the music.


    Were you always Tobacco?

    No, not at all. That came about when we starting to actually be interviewed and people were starting to write about the band. I didn’t want my personal life to be involved in any way, shape or form. And when I was a kid, I didn’t know anything about the bands I was listening to; the only thing I had were the albums. I liked that sense of mystery.


    Why did you choose Tobacco as your stage name?

    There was this Troma movie called Redneck Zombies, and one of the characters was called Tobacco Man. I think it was supposed to be a comedy, but I didn’t find anything funny about it. That character messed with my head and really stuck with me. When we picked names it seemed natural to choose it. There’s been some discussion that we’re somehow playing characters in the band, but the names are just faceless identities. They have nothing to do with the band.


    How has the band’s sound evolved over the years?

    The first three albums I still made pretty much on my own. I like the way they sound, but there are limits to what I can do. The difference this time is that I made the album the way I normally would, but then I took it into the studio and we added parts. There’s an actual drummer and bassist playing on the album. People who haven’t liked the production on the last albums probably won’t be as grossed out or horrified this time.


    Tell me about Eating Us.

    I felt like I had something to prove. I took a lot of heat about the production values on the previous albums, so at least once I wanted to make something in the traditional way. There’s a lot of space on this album. It isn’t so gritty and homemade, and it’s exciting to hear songs my songs recorded so clearly. I like to mask the songs in a lot of fuzz and tape distortion, but we didn’t do that this time. Eating Us is really the best the band has ever sounded. Maybe people who liked it before will hate it, but I think the sound is amazing.


    Is the finished product what you imagined when you started?

    Yeah. Almost exactly, which was another neat thing about the studio. When I do it on my own, I see it one way, but it comes out sounding way different. That was the great thing about working with Dave (Fridmann) is that he had the skills to make the band sound the way I hear it in my head.


    Is there a specific part of the album that makes you particularly proud?

    I’m actually really proud of the song “Twin of Myself.” That’s the one song on the album that goes back to the old days of me recording by myself. It felt right as soon as I made it. The other songs on the album didn’t come together until we were in the studio, but this one could fight for itself. That song reminds me that I can still do it on my own if needed.


    How do plan to translate this album to the stage?

    I present the songs to the full live band, and then they make up their own parts. It takes us a long time to rehearse and come up with something that works. We try to get an approximation of the album, but the live show always ends up being very different than a record. I think that this tour may be closer because the musicians have been more involved throughout the process.


    The album leaked on April 19. What are your feelings?

    I’m fine with it. It takes away a little bit of excitement with the actual release date, but you can’t expect people not to seek stuff out if they’re interested in hearing it. I’m glad to hear that enough people want to hear the record that the leak was on the radar. The only drawback is when the reviews come in, and it’s obvious that the writers haven’t listened to the album at all, but are wanting to be the first to get their two cents in. They come up with an opinion by listening to a minute of the fourth song, and that’s really not fair to us or the person reading the review.


    Where do you see the band in ten years?

    I can’t even see it a year from now, so it’s hard to say. I don’t think it still be going, though. I’ve always had concepts and timelines for the band, but they are only theories. It’s also ludicrous to ever say a band is ending. I just try to treat every album as if it’s the last one, but I can say that in ten years we still won’t be together.


    Do you ever see Black Moth Super Rainbow making something accessible enough for an iPod commercial?

    That’s another weird thing. Everything I make is really accessible and sounds fine to me. It’s only when the record comes out that people tell me how fucked up it is. So I can’t really say. I think I’m accessible the way I am.