Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interview - Oxbow

Words: John Mackie

California's Oxbow were last in the country on tour this past summer with fellow noise-makers Harvey Milk. Now home, vocalist Eugene Robinson took time out to answer some of our questions via email.

I've come to Oxbow very late...

This might be considered, in many quarters, to be a positive development.

My first serious introduction was the gig in Glasgow with Harvey Milk. I've subsequently investigated "The Narcotic Story" which I love. Could you tell us a bit about the recording of it?

Our records are always difficult and bloodied affairs. Our refusal to work with anyone other than producer Joe Chiccarelli on this (versus say having him record the basics and then have someone else mix it) caused innumerable delays as he would frequently skip out to produce stuff for Jack White and the Raconteurs and other much much larger groups and personalities. Within this framework as well just getting what we need to have happen creatively is difficult. First Lou Reed had thought he might be on it. Because you really can't have a record called The Narcotic Story without Lou Reed. And then he bailed. And then we couldn't afford prime time hours to record in so we took off hours. The first studio we did the basics in was shit even though we knew that all of the records that had been recorded there, many by Metallica, sounded like shit we thought it'd be different for us. But no... So we had to construct a skiff, or a room within a room, at the studio to make the sound make sense. And then because the vibe was so bad with the studio we escaped and went to another studio to do my vocals. This studio was a great one for vocals. So great that immediately on our completion of them the studio went out of business.

ADD to this the generalized agita born of sleeplessness and just trying to corral the craziness and you have: The Narcotic Story.

It's a dense and multi-layered record with so much going on. How does an Oxbow record usually take shape?

It takes years. And years. We went through one 6 month period where we rehearsed nothing but a 3 minute section of a song. Just this. Again and again. I say WE here but I really mean Dan, Niko and Greg. Since the first note that I ever sing on a song is the note that you hear on the record, I mean we never rehearse vocals BEFORE recording them, I mostly just listen and let the song come alive. In my head. And having written the lyrics I have months and months to have them make sense for me from an emotional standpoint as well. and this is even outside of the actual logistics of how we get things to happen my an audio production standpoint.

"The Narcotic Story" is your first record on Hydra Head. How has it been working with them? As a label, does it feel like a natural home for band like Oxbow and do you envisage remaining with them for the forseeable future?

In short order: GREAT. And YES.

You recently finished a tour of Europe with Harvey Milk. On the surface there are few similarities but from the audience's point of view it certainly made for an interesting and varied bill. Here's a 3 part question! What was touring with HM like?

Quite nice. Temperamentally the bands are coming from completely different places. They're, culturally speaking, pretty Southern Gothic, if that makes any sense and it is no wonder to me that some of my favourite writers are Southerners, so from my my vantage point this really worked. From their vantage point I think they expected me to be getting into a LOT more fistfights and were actually disappointed that this tour, sadly/gladly, offered very little of that.

What do you make of playing in Europe compared with back home?

Well our last tour of the States was with Isis... so it was GREAT. Our last tour of the States withOUT Isis can be best be described if you can envision a pair of boots slowly compressing your testicles, if you have them. and now imagine this forever. or for at least 6000 miles. Welcome to America. And truthfully: the UK is great for Oxbow but not very different in many regards, usually in the "fuck you - we don't care about you" regard, though the UK has always been cool to/for us... The stench of seen it all/done it all clings to the soundmen, support staff, promoters and venues here as it does in America. I say that though while also noting that this last tour was our best one ever in the UK and everyone we dealt with was unfailingly wonderful. it's just that my memory of the UK goes back 20 years and it has not always been so.

A bill featuring different "types" of bands can often mean one of them playing to the other's audience or at least an audience used to different fare. How do you feel about that?

We've played with A Perfect Circle, Isis, Tom Waits' band Oranj Symphonette, Mike Watt, The Melvins, Neurosis, and swing bands. Harvey Milk was as close as we're going to get to a band that sort of occupies the same art space. that is: one where the audience is OK with WHATEVER.

The Oxbow live experience was genuinely unlike anything I'd seen before! Intensity (an overused phrase but apt I think), performance art, feral noise... There were people near me who were standing literally open mouthed. I guess audiences, myself included, are not used to being part of such a truly visceral experience. For me it was thrilling. It got me thinking a lot of how it seems as if audiences for the most part clearly tend to want something cosy and traditional. I'd like to know if you agree with this? Also how important is it to you to challenge perceptions of what a live band does? Do you feel that that you consciously set out to challenge an audience?

I don't know about cosy and traditional and them really WANTING it. I mean people eat EGGS... I don't know how many of them really WANT to eat eggs. We are habituated in strange ways and if an evening's entertainment involves a LACK of real physical peril, existential anxiety, and psychosexual discomfort, well that would be fine for about 99 percent of the people out there walking around. decent people all, in all likelihood. there have been people at our shows who have wanted to, they say, see us and have not managed to for 20 years. This is virtually impossible, really, so I am left to assume that this is only the kind of thing you hear when you're ready to hear it. that is: understand it when you CAN understand it.

Or more prosaically... People who are real music heads like the accumulation of musical info as much as they like music. Right now I could not tell you at ALL what Yo Lo Tengo or Galaxie 500 or Linkin Park sound like but I have a GENERAL idea and for me? That's clearly enough given how short life is. this is the efficiency argument and this might play heavily into people saying "once you've seen one crazy Negro screaming to a noisy but highly proficient and divinely inspired band you've seen them all" but this is probably not true.

As for whether what you call the challenge is conscious, well I'd have to say no. Maybe if you have not read the lyrics it might emerge as a challenge but there is a direct one to one relationship between what we're singing about and how we're playing it and this has everything to do with how all of our lives are lived: with great difficulty. NOT sub-saharan African difficulty. We're all quite well-fed. But 1st world difficulties and clearly difficulties of the blood.

Eugene, how much do you see your live show as a "performance" as opposed to an act of "playing music" in the way other frontmen might approach it? Again, this goes back to challenging audience's perceptions with regards to the role of a frontman in a band, you often break down the barrier that exists between the band and the audience. Is this something you set out conciously to do or does it just feel like a natural thing to do?

Without the music what I am doing has no measure.

There are so many different elements to your sound. All these ideas and "influences", for want of a better phrase, fighting AND at one with each other at the same time. Being great musicians gives you the freedom to explore these different areas. Do you ever feel the urge to make a straight ahead "rock" record?!

Are our records NOT straight ahead rock records? They're not madrigals.

The amount of lazy descriptions of you I've seen are quite astonishing often along the lines of, "a metal band", "a hardcore band" etc. To me your music seems almost impossible to categorise even if I was inclined to attempt to do it. Are you bothered or frustrated by these types of statements? Do you thrive on them?

I am bothered and frustrated by capricious gods who see fit to under-reward me while those half as talented are over-rewarded. But naming conventions? I could not care less.

Eugene, could you tell us the background behind your book "Fight"? You've also written extensively elsewhere. Do you have any other books in the pipeline? As both a writer and a musician, do you ever find yourself having conflicting priorities or are both elements able to co-exist without being detrimental to each other?

Yeah. I wrote an article about my obsession with fighting and was flown to NY immediately afterward and given a book deal with Harper Collins. The gods were not so capricious that day, apparently. It's a great book that is NOT being distributed in the UK by the company publishing it because of the 2 pages I was urged to include on knife fighting and the idea that the book would aid and abet citizens of the monarchy in putting holes in each other. It's presently on sale ONLINE so... hey... I'm not asking for a handout... I'm just asking for A GODDAMNED HAND... Buy the book. Other books? Always... But nothing I've managed to sell yet. So: Air. And lots of it. Until a check gets written.

But do I find the writing/music thing tough? No. Writers are much more egomaniacal than musicians. I mean YOU know this, hahaha...

Finally, Oxbow have been together for close to 20 years. How do you keep things fresh?

Our music is not our business. I mean while we're involved in the business of music, we can't feed ourselves doing it and so then it becomes something done beyond real world constraints. like wicker basket weaving. it keeps us off the streets. I don't know if this equals FRESH but when no one cares what you do it can be quite liberating to do WHATEVER.

What makes you want to keep making music together?

Anger. And bitterness. Mostly. And a mutual hatred of fate. And our own wretchedness. And I wish I was joking but I am not.

How do you think Oxbow have evolved over the years?

Have we evolved? This could clearly be part of the "problem." Hahaha...

Thanks to Eugene for replying to our questions so quickly, it was a pleasure to chat to him. You can find out more about Oxbow and Eugene here:


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