Interview with Tom Fec of Tobacco
Talkin’ with Tom Fec of Tobacco
The Modern Age of Music and Image
By: Patrick Gipson
The name Tom Fec is enough to make you curious. Hell, it’s only six letters altogether. “Fec?” What kind of a last name is that? Where are the signs? Without the internet, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that Fec is the musical and lyrical masterforce behind such modern alternative music staples as “Black Moth Super Rainbow” and more recently, “Tobacco.” Without the internet, I’d be clueless to guess Fec’s age-range, his past musical endeavors or even his hometown. In an age where all we need to know about our favorite artists is only a scroll and a click away, Fec refreshes you with an aurora of mystery; both physically and audibly. With his premier outfit, “Black Moth Super Rainbow,” now disbanded, Fec has taken his beautiful musical foresight to his solo project, “Tobacco.” His second album, Maniac Meat, accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of offering a new electronic groove, with hip-hop inspired beats over modern-driven synthesizers and hardly decodable vocoder-filtered lyrics. Just enough to keep you scratching your head… History has proven that enigma can be a core element to the legend of any band, from Pink Floyd to Ratatat. Let the art takeover. It’s not just maintaining the secrecy; it’s the creation of a sound that transcends the band photo or an album cover. A tremendous challenge in an age of imagery and flashy theater. Recently, Fec took some time to discuss with me the new solo record, his distaste for music festivals and the Butthole Surfers in 1996.
Tobacco is your artistry name that spawned from your time with Black Moth Super Rainbow. How did you create the alter-ego and why does it characterize yourself?
“It wasn’t really meant to characterize me or what I do. There was a point in time where more than just our friends were listening to us and we realized we didn’t want to have our names out there; for whatever reason. We used to think it was because we wanted to be completely private.”
Do you feel the mystery allows a more imaginative perspective from your fan base?
“I think that’s definitely become a point of interest when it comes to the band, but it’s not mystery that I’m going after. It’s staying away from details that don’t matter; I always just want people to hear it for what it was, not associate me or the personality with it. I want it to be its own thing, its own world.”
Your first album, Fucked Up Friends, is very instrumental; did you fear that lyrics could also deviate fans from the true message of the music?
“I think if you’re abstract enough with your lyrics and you paint a colorful picture, I think that can also keep it interesting. With the first album, there weren’t many lyrics; I didn’t feel like making any. [laughs] There are a lot more on the new one. I was trying to paint a lot of different pictures that didn’t really make a lot of sense, but made sense to me.”
You were able to arrange appearances by Aesop Rock on your first album and Beck on your newest record. How did your relationships with these artists begin and what was it like working with them?
“Aesop, I toured with him when we were touring with Black Moth, for like a month or two. We became friends and he did me the favor of being on the record. Beck was more fate. I don’t actually know Beck, but the guy who runs Anticon [Records] was making a clash with Beck’s music director and they got around to talking. I really wanted to work with Beck and I was just finishing this record at the same time; everything just worked out at the right time. If I had to pick one person to sort of model myself after, that’d be totally it. [Beck’s] Mellow Gold is the perfect record and I really wanted Maniac Meat to be my Mellow Gold.”
How do you go about composing and recording a song now, without the accompaniment of your Black Moth bandmates?
“Honestly nothing’s changed. When I was working with Black Moth I was doing everything myself…record it, then bring it to the band. The only thing now is I don’t have that step in teaching anyone the parts. I think I sort of grew out of some of the ideas I had with Black Moth, that’s really all that’s changed.”
Is it true that you originally began crafting some of your Tobacco beats for a personal workout playlist?
“This record, yeah. I wasn’t planning on making another album, although I knew I would eventually, but I wasn’t writing an album to write an album. I was trying to make this soundtrack to sort of jog to, because running is really boring, so I created a soundtrack to my own jogs everyday and that’s sort of what became this record.”
How would you characterize your sound? Are genre tags just barriers to potential listeners?
“I think they are barriers. All they do is paint the picture before you even hear it. All they are is associations; someone says ‘electronic,’ one person might think Aphex Twin, while one person might think Lady GaGa. I don’t like the genre tags, but I know it’s necessary for some people as a starting point I guess. I try to avoid them.”
You have made numerous appearances at nationally-acclaimed music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Sasquatch. What does the festival mean to the artist in terms of exposure, even today, amongst the age of instant communication and the internet?
“To me, I think there are two groups of people, Group A and Group B, when it comes to festivals. Group A is really excited to be out there, performing and having a great time. Then there’s Group B, who…I’m trying to be nice about it…festivals are really annoying to play. I think I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it wasn’t for South by Southwest and what it did for us. I just think the fans are better off and you’re better off just playing in a room, for people who want to be there and see you. Festivals are like being in a zoo, you can go over to the monkey cage, or the lion cage. I feel more on display at a festival and I feel a lot of them are really poorly run. That said, there are a lot of really good ones. Sasquatch was a really nice one; beautiful setting. That’s really worth it.”
I like your comparison of festival stages to cages at a zoo. So what cage is Tobacco in?
“In the Pittsburgh Zoo, we have a dark room, it’s like with tarantulas and reptiles and shit and there’s this cat they keep under this really dim red light. It’s like the thing that people see this and they’re like, ‘what’s this? I don’t really know,’ and walk away.”
You’ve been involved in different solo and band projects, with changing names and sounds. Do you feel something as simple as a name change can totally reenergize or inspire a musician to new boundaries?
“Totally. It’s just one way of breaking down an association. I think it will be really hard for me to start fresh ever again unless I really don’t tell anyone who I am. I think anytime you make a change like that, people are going to expect something different. Any time it cleans the slate for you, you’re not tied to the old material. All you have is what the future holds for you.”
You’ve mentioned before how you like to keep your sound honest. Are revolving projects the easiest way to do that?
“I think so, because I’m not the same person who wrote Dandelion Gum. I don’t like performing that; everything I’ve done with Black Moth, I’m not into it. So for me to be on stage, at this point in my life, performing BMSR material, it would be a lie. The only way to stay honest is just to move on and do what you want to do. That’s the toughest part for fans to understand. People think I’m an asshole because I’m not doing the Black Moth thing. Sure, I could be doing it, playing your city and give you a show and take your money while I didn’t believe a fucking second of it. That’s not what you want.”
You’re a musician and we are your listeners. Is the artist always right, or are the fans always right?
“Both. That’s another problem. It’s like, (sigh)…how do you serve yourself, how do you serve the fans, when you both want something? So for me, I think the best way was, instead of making Black Moth, what I really wanted to do was go on with this other thing, so people aren’t coming to see Black Moth and then getting something they don’t want. I think that would be unfair. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of bands, to do that. All the fans want is the old stuff and all you want to do is the new stuff. (laughs) For me, I just kind of start over every time.”
I was listening to your album and suddenly had the urge to listen to the Butthole Surfers. I later realized the Butthole Surfers were your first live concert experience, correct?
“They were one of those magical points, you know? They were just everything different than from what I had heard before. Totally insane. It’s funny, my dad does not know any of the music from my generation…any of it. I gave him a copy of Maniac Meat and he was like, ‘the first song really sounds like the Butthole Surfers,’ and I was like was like, ‘wow I never really thought you would say that, that’s what I was going for.’”
What’s next for Tobacco?
“I’ve got this rap companion to Maniac Meat that I made way back that will be out soon. I kind of stopped working on music…I feel like one of those music guys who’s like ‘I’m going to make a movie now!’ That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve had this idea for like ten years for this thing I wanted to do, so now’s the time. That’s probably what I’ll be working on for awhile now.”
Thanks Tom, it’s been a pleasure.
Interview completed October 2010