The nicotine-stained frontman of Pittsburgh’s Black Moth Super Rainbow explains the means behind the band’s electronic freak-pop, and the reasons for their smokescreen.
It’s a Thursday in March and Tobacco, the anonymous founder and lead entity of Pittsburgh’s Black Moth Super Rainbow, is in Cleveland snagging a new purchase: a keyboard owned by a member of ’70s rockers James Gang.
It’s the latest addition to the deceptively small arsenal of analog synthesizers, keyboards, and other gadgetry used to create Black Moth’s distinctively woozy, spacey sound. But rather than remaining a simple relic from guitar rock’s history book, this synth is about to be transformed—no longer to play second fiddle to Joe Walsh on “Tend My Garden,” but rather to helm Black Moth’s ride way into the future, a sound in which lazer-bright vocoders mingle with lo-pass percussion—a sound that just keeps getting bigger with every time at bat.
The band recently completed Eating Us, its fourth LP but first proper “studio” album, working with renowned producer and ex-Mercury Rev bassist David Fridmann. “I always thought studios were kind of a waste,” Tobacco admits. “But I think it was just time to change what the stuff sounded like, and I think Dave is just the right guy to do it. [Eating Us] is the first Black Moth album where I sort of knew people were gonna hear it. [With] the last album, Dandelion Gum, I didn’t think anybody knew who we were [and] I was probably pretty right. This was the first one where I knew people were gonna hear it, and I should probably be a little more conscious—maybe not be so self-indulgent.”
Working at Fridmann’s Tarbox Studio also enabled the band to experiment with a new set of sounds and recording techniques. “We had these big chimes that we used,” recalls Tobacco. “[Fridmann] had a bunch of little toys and noise machines and stuff that we were able to play around with. He would leave at midnight every night, and he would just let us use the studio and the computer and everything all night long ’til he came back.”
Fridmann’s distinctive touch is immediately apparent on Eating Us, beginning with the booming, echoing drums that anchor “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise,” reminiscent of the brash percussion scattered throughout the Flaming Lips’ discography. But Fridmann doesn’t gloss over any of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s lo-fi eccentricities, retaining the group’s signature ethereal vocodered vocals and fuzzed-out, acidic keyboard washes.
While Black Moth’s sound is hard to describe and even harder to plop into a specific genre, it’s often been broadly referred to as psychedelic, a term that Tobacco has abhorred until recently. “I guess I’m coming to terms with it,” he admits begrudgingly. “It is whatever people think it is. It’s not supposed to be psychedelic, but if that’s what you hear, then that’s what you hear, and that seems to be what 99% of people hear, unfortunately. I always think of it as, like, pop. I hate The Beatles, but the way The Beatles wrote songs, they were just trying to come up with sounds and textures and hooks that would stick. That’s really all that we’re trying to do; it’s just [that] the kind of stuff I have at my disposal just makes it seem psychedelic.”
With Eating Us, BMSR seems poised to capitalize on the buzz that’s been brewing online over the past two years—an unexpected step for a group that so dearly values its privacy. Tobacco and his bandmates, it seems, have been obsessed with staying purposefully below the radar.
The band emerged from satanstomping-caterpillars, a Pittsburgh-based band that Tobacco formed in 2000 with co-member Powerpill Fist. Black Moth Super Rainbow was born three years later, and released Falling Through a Field shortly thereafter, crediting themselves in the liner notes with cryptic aliases: Tobacco, Powerpill Fist, Father Hummingbird, Iffernaut, and The Seven Fields of Aphelion. They continued to release work on their own label, 70s Gymnastics Recording Company, largely retaining their mysterious and elusive reputation, refusing to reveal their legal names, and appearing in photographs and onstage with partially obscured faces. A career-defining performance with their friends Octopus Project at South by Southwest in March 2007 launched their name into the blogosphere. “That was totally, totally unexpected,” Tobacco recalls. “We knew people liked the Octopus Project in Austin, but I just wasn’t expecting what was gonna come from that.”
Dandelion Gum, the band’s third LP, was released on Graveface Records shortly after their appearance in Austin, and legions of new fans suddenly aimed their cyber-sleuthing skills at Black Moth’s enigma. “People dug up all of our real names,” Tobacco recalls, with chagrin. “It’s all on Wikipedia now. It kind of sucks because we try so hard to keep that stuff separate, and people just want to know everything. I guess that’s a good sign, but I don’t always want people to know everything. It’s like, the more you give, the more people want, and the less you give, the more people want right now. Without the internet and all these insane avenues for communicating, I think we wouldn’t be known at all right now, but at the same time it’s just too much.
“I think we get called ‘evasive,’ but I don’t know if that’s the perfect word for it,” he continues. “[Black Moth] just are private people and we don’t like talking, we don’t like doing interviews. It’s not that we don’t appreciate doing interviews and our fans coming out to our shows, we’re just more reserved. For the most part, I’ve always liked the idea of not mixing who we are with what we do. We’re not embarrassed of what we do; I’m really happy that people like this and want to know things and want to talk about it, but I feel awkward running into people that I know—that I knew before I was doing this stuff—and they know everything about me and everything about the music from what they’ve been reading online.”
Tobacco seems to long for a different era, like the days of 1980s indie rock, when buying and discovering music was an inherently DIY process fraught with SASEs, carefully concealed $1 bills, and poorly photocopied catalogs. “When I was younger, when I was listening to music, I obsessed over the recording,” he says. “Something would come out, I would find out about it, like, maybe a couple weeks or couple months later, and I would buy it. And I would listen to it, and I would obsess over the sound. But it seems like now, people are way more obsessed with the hype and stories leading up to the release; once the release hits, it’s like, it’s over and we can move on to something else. It’s completely backwards.”
This time around, Black Moth Super Rainbow seems grudgingly better prepared to contend with the proclivities of an online fan base and the fickle snap-judgments of bloggers. Tobacco, especially, seems to have acquired a degree of comfort with the trappings of minor fame, based on his experiences following Fucked Up Friends, his 2008 solo release for Anticon. “I’m getting used to it; it’s getting easier,” he says. “I’m glad that [Eating Us] is done and that I can stop worrying about making it and now just worry about people liking it.”
A few more of the BMSR frontman’s recent fixations.
Vignetting the Compost (Mush)
“He’s acoustic but really, really weathered-sounding. I don’t know if he records on Dictaphone or really old tape recorders or what, but he’s really interesting. I found him back in the day because I read that Boards of Canada discovered him or something. If Boards of Canada was all acoustic guitars and flute recordings and stuff, they’d be like Bibio.”
Happy in Galoshes (Soft Drive)
“This is a weird one, but the Scott Weiland solo album… I love it so much. It’s really, really, really corny, but there was this one Stone Temple Pilots outtake from one of the later albums that I always used to love, and he remade it on here. I’m not a Bowie fan but there’s a remake of “Fame,” and it’s a really corny remix, but it’s so good. I wouldn’t put my reputation on the recommendation but, for me, there’s something really sick about it.”
Principles of Geometry
“I don’t know the best way to describe it. It’s a lot of really cool analog synth stuff and I don’t really understand it, but Vast Aire makes an appearance on it. It’s a really, really strange CD because it’s all analog synth stuff—I’d almost compare it to the Tobacco album I made last year, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I guess my record didn’t make a lot of sense, having Aesop Rock on it, either.”