An accomplished journalist, author, and mixed martial artist, Eugene is possibly best known as the murderous balladeer fronting avant garde noise collective Oxbow. With a beguiling combination of imposing physical presence and rapier wit, Eugene S. Robinson has long been at the forefront of thought provoking and challenging music for more than twenty years. Robin Wallace pops the questions.
BR: In the current market, music is easily accessible to anyone who wants it, both legally and illegally, and with bands open and vocal about their direct influences – what are your thoughts on bands such as Saint Vitus, The Obsessed, Negative Approach, and Flipper reforming and touring their old material?
ER: It’s really a mixed bag and only to be considered on a case-by-case basis. But first this must be noted: I will shake no one’s hustle. If it interests you to do, amuses you, keeps you off the street who am I to pass judgment? Sure, I have an opinion but my opinion is not really worth a pool of piss.
That being said I will say this: if someone gave me $10,000 to do songs that I used to do when I was 18 years old and manufacture the mindset and the set and setting that generated Whipping Boy’s musical contribution and I thought I could make it live without hating myself in the morning? I would do it. A nickel LESS? Would not be worth it. TO me. But then again no one gave a shit about Whipping Boy, so this is moot. I love Negative Approach. But I’ve also loved all of John Brannon’s bands and would see any one of them if they were playing. The fact that a certain segment wants to see them enough so that they can make cash by doing so, fills me with a certain amount of glee since I know John will put it to good use by putting out another Easy Action record. St. Vitus and The Obsessed? I felt like they never really went away. Flipper? Well when a band member dies I tend to think that is IT. But who am I to say again? Flipper has some great songs and if you never heard them you should. I am just less interested.
And artistically? I think it would be very tough to try to catch lightning in a bottle. Twice no less.
BR: Personally, I am extremely excited about the possibility of seeing The Obsessed and Negative Approach whenever possible, but there are many ‘purists’ seeking shelter behind the ‘SELL OUT’ tag. The notion of ‘selling out’ is all prevailing in the fickle music world we abide in, but do you believe the sentiment is the same? How would Eugene S. Robinson sell out?
ER: Anyone screaming SELL OUT either lives at home where creature comforts flow aplenty or they’re independently wealthy. I avoided Sham 69’s disco tour but if what I really wanted was London 1979? Well I just should have gotten my ass over there. Likewise if they don’t like it? Stay home.
But the concept of SELLING OUT means one thing, if we want to accurately hang something on it that sticks, and that’s that you buy the Republican line that you made it to where you made it to by dint of ONLY …YOUR genius….YOUR talent….and YOUR individual initiative. So bands that got signed to major labels back when this meant something that did not make it possible for others to come up the way they did? They are sellout sucks even if I defend their right to help NO ONE if that does not suit their interests. Ian MacKaye, opinionated blowhard that he is, DID make it possible for art to live, thrive and continue in a much more significant way than, for example, his close friend Henry Rollins who while I am sure he hires deserving people to work FOR him has done really not much of anything to generate art beyond his art. But each to their tastes, you know?
But personally I look forward to selling out in the same way one might look forward to having sex with someone really sexy: because my offering is really quite limited. So if Lockheed wanted to use my screaming to advertise a new missile system? Please let me know. If Exxon wants to use an anal rape excerpt from my novel to show how they DON’T treat the American public and will pay me for it? I’m a-ok with that. Because? Because living in your car sucks.
I mean I used to work at Intel, Nikon, Apple, Adobe, AND Larry Flynt….I’m all about selling out. I just am not about fucking up my art work.
BR: To me, and the manner in which it was introduced to my life, music has always, and will always be an immersive experience. And it was not simply about lyric sheets and gatefold sleeves. Having enough money in your pocket for one album, spending an entire day in the record shop, weighing up the pros and cons until finally a purchase was made. When you are stacking shelves for pocket change – there is no such thing as disposable music. Do you feel that this kind of immersive experience in danger of being lost forever?
ER: It’s gone. Well, that’s not right. Music is more ubiquitous than ever. People can listen to it on their phones. 10,000 songs. Right there. All on shuffle. No lyrics. No cases or albums. No narrative articulation. I mean this is how music has always been consumed really. You didn’t need a lyric sheet when you heard a Louis Armstrong song, but you COULD hear his lyrics so it was unnecessary. So I would make the claim that as it has gotten easier to consume music, its significance has diminished outside of its usefulness as personal soundtracks to doing laundry or getting groceries or whatever. So it is a MORE immersive experience, just a less significant one. And of course, the bands get even less than they did before. Or rather: I’M getting less than I did before.
BR: Kim Gordon and Robert Smith (amongst other artists) were both highly critical of the model of ‘pay what they want’ employed by Radiohead – implying that it set a precedent for all bands regardless of size of fan base, ambition, etc. What are your thoughts on this model – and do you think it is a positive move forward?
ER: Every time I argue with assholes about hating that my music is stolen, they bring up these millionaires. I’m glad Radiohead can afford to give away their music for free. I can’t. In fact I can’t even RECORD it for free. Or rehearse it for free. So the public is supposed to benefit from my obsession because art is free? But beer is paid for? Fuck that.
BR: Do you think this allows artists to assert more control over their output and merchandise?
ER: How so? Oxbow just played a show with SLEEP at this totally wonderful venue called the Fox Theater in Oakland. I would kill YOU to play their again it was so good. But I did not miss out on the fact that they took 35 percent of our merchandise sales. By the way they did not call CDs or albums merchandise. They only charged 10 percent for selling that. So where’s that control Radiohead is talking about?
BR: Could it be viewed as more community oriented – a technological advancement on the old hardcore days – when people like Daryl Jennifer and Ian MacKaye were hand folding the sleeves to vinyl?
ER: Only if afterward I can take the cash I have gotten for this “control” and use it to buy groceries. Or pay for my rehearsal space.
BR: Alternatively, do you think that it is simply a further example of larger organization’s continued monopoly on every other aspect of the music industry – from radio airplay and MTV to manufacturing and distribution – perhaps that artists and bands have now been backed so far into a corner that they have resorted to giving their music away?
ER: I can see you working here but it’s really NO ONE’s FAULT….our producer Joe Chiccarelli says he took around the Napster guys back before they set the beast lose and NOT A SINGLE LABEL gave a shit. So blame the old guard….
BR: Websites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud allow bands and labels quick and direct communication with their immediate and prospective fan base; in addition to providing instant access to music through a ‘pay what they want’ or providing a free direct download link. Do you believe that the cost implications of producing vinyl and even cd are still a viable option for bands?
BR: Did you happen to read the blog post by Emily White (intern at NPR)? It was in relation to her having 11,000 songs in her hard drive but only having bought 15 cds in her lifetime. The pendulum appears to swings to different ends of the spectrum, depending on who you speak to, but could you describe the kind of effect that illegal downloading has on Oxbow?
ER: Our label is only in a position to give us $2000 to record a record. You can’t record a record for $2000. So we pay for it. Then we hear that we’re assholes for expecting anyone to pay. Also all of our show receipts go to pay for rehearsal space. Our music has always had to be a hobby. Now even more so. I mean in the old days we hoped it would be like the old blues guys and we’d have enough to just record the next record without shorting our kids’ college funds but this has not even worked out.
BR: The first Oxbow song I heard was ‘The Last Good Time’ on the album, ‘Serenade In Red’ and I maintain that this song serves as the perfect introduction to the world of Oxbow. What is your favourite Oxbow record and why?
ER: Probably still KING OF THE JEWS…and mostly likely since it was my first post-suicidal ideation recording. I mean desire for self-cancellation clung to FUCKFEST like a garbage smell. But in KING OF THE JEWS? You can actually hear me developing this idea that homicide is a much more evolved use of my time/life.
BR: After spending some time and money hunting down the rest of the back catalogue, the album that continues to stand out for me is ‘An Evil Heat’. At times your vocal performance reminded me of the perverted pitch of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist; I found it immediately unsettling yet enthralling. Who would you say has had the most influence on your style, both vocally and musically?
ER: Well that’s the difference between Whipping Boy and Oxbow. In Whipping Boy I had not found a voice/MY voice. Oxbow is the voice I hear when I hear my voice in my head. So not so much influence. Though I would always claim to have felt MUDDY WATERS working away inside my head too. And Little Richard.
BR: Despite giving birth to 7inches of aggression, Black Face seemed to finish as quickly as it started. Was that always the plan? What happened?
ER: That was not the plan and I don’t know what happened. Chuck had “reservations.” He tried to explain but I said that I did not need an explanation from him any more than I want one from a woman breaking up with me. You’re leaving. That’s the end of the story. Even more so since this was much more about HIS legacy than any of MY legacy. These were his songs, and it was his idea. He chose the band name. He provided the lyrics. And the artwork. I added voice and got us shows, press and a record deal. He cancelled the shows and made things unpleasant enough for the label that they kicked us off of it. It’s baffling. But part of not wanting to know why is not continuing to try to answer why so I just say simply to people I am sure will understand it like this: Mom and Dad got divorced. That’s it.
BR: I found your collaboration with Phillipe Petit to be absorbingly sinister. How did that project come about come about?
ER: Well Petit used to book Oxbow shows. Well before he started doing music. But he saw in me a kindred spirit in hustle I think. And we talked about music and saw that no one was really doing what we wanted to do and so we did it. This next thing we finished, THE LAST OF THE DEAD HOT LOVERS….is coming out on this imprint of Southern Records and features this great Polish singer KASIA MEOW….is fantastic and challenging and a good second part of a trilogy that just gets crazier and crazier.
BR: With whom would you love to collaboration with musically?
ER: The singer for the Tindersticks. Stuart Staples. Al Johnson who used to sing for U.S. Maple. Nick Cave. Bjork. All vocalists….Johnson has already refused for reasons that make good sense to me but I still thing it would stop the world. But you know you can’t make people see things like you do always. Cave I worked with at the London Jazz Festival on that Barry Adamson show but in my inimitable way I think by show end I had offended his sensibilities somehow. Which is really too bad. Our voices together would be great. Bjork came to see us play at the ICA I’ve been told but she escaped before I could suggest this. Diamanda Galas already turned me down [“your band sucks, your voice sucks and you have small hands!”] but I’d ask her again every day if I thought it’d help. You know…the list goes on.
BR: That last bastion of truth, the Internet, would have us believe that Oxbow are preparing to record another record; a full length follow up to the 2007 release of ‘The Narcotic Story’. Could you give me some insight into the preparation and recording process of a band like Oxbow?
ER: It is painful and arduous and drawn out. Five years of it. Which will come to an end when we check into the 25th street studios in Oakland and finish recording the THIN BLACK DUKE with Joe Chiccarelli. Much like FUCKFEST it reeks, stinks of death. But the preparation goes on and on…rehearsing 30 seconds of a song here and there for 3 months straight and so on. And Niko working like a Turk doing a lot of the heavy lifting of arranging and so on. It’s a curse and a blessing. Which I would wish on no one but will give to everyone.
BR: The only occasion that I was lucky enough to witness the Oxbow live was when you supported Isis with Niko as Oxbow Presents: Love’s Holiday’, and irrespective of whether the set was acoustic or not, you appear to approach live settings with the same intensity. Is there a difference in your own personal preparation for these acoustic shows? Or does the experience of performing continue to be an intense experience for you?
ER: Well we don’t play enough for it to be anything but. I mean it’s this up against the misery of the rest of our lives. But maybe I am speaking too broadly here. The misery of my life. I’ve a pretty sunny disposition but I seem to be firmly ensconced in making my life much more miserable than it needs to be…through my refusal to either give up or surrender though I feel perpetually close to doing both. Every day. But preparation? This all comes to bear when we choose the songs. If they are in keeping with the emotional tone and timbre of our day that day then we’ve pulled it off. If it is not? We’ve become the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Though I need to say: this has never happened. The Red Hot Chili Peppers part I mean. And yes…it’s still pretty intense for me. Especially since, as will be first reported here, I have just been told by a neurologist that eventually if I keep living life like I have/am I will lose use of my left arm. It will get worse not better and it will happen sooner and not later if I don’t change. And I won’t change. And sooooooo….the death march begins. And I guess it will start with the loss of my left arm. I am right handed thankfully. But this is only half the problem.
BR: Do you have any plans to return to the UK? Or do collective commitments to family life and financial restrictions mean that this is unlikely to happen in the near future?
ER: For 7 days/dates we’re doing a special thing as a prelude to spring’s tour for the THIN BLACK DUKE and it will be called the OXBOW ORCHESTRA….classical renderings of OXBOW music, specifically new music [partially] with strings, woodwinds, and classically trained voices. It will start at Supersonic October 21st and end at the Amplifest in Porto on October 28th.
BR: What music is impressing you the most this year? Is there anyone who really stands out from the crowd for you?
ER: Music made by my friends mostly: Scott Kelly’s solo record is heavy. Baroness. Bad Powers. All of the guys in Portland, Maine who used to be in Conifer. Old Man Gloom. Still love Big Business. And every list I have like this would not be complete without me mentioning SLICK RICK. No matter what he does. I am missing many/a lot but these folks don’t need me to say that they’re great.
BR: Your most recent book of fiction, ‘A Long Slow Screw’, was released in 2009; a noir crime novel set in the labyrinthine streets and alleyways of New York, highlighting he dark seedy underbelly far removed from the omnipresent tourist havens. How do you manage to separate the shaping, construction and writing of a novel from your work as a journalist, and that of a songwriter?
ER: I don’t really.
BR: One thing that struck me as the book progressed was that I observed Jake becoming increasingly odious; treating those around him with contempt when he perceived that they no longer met his needs. Jake's character comes across as greedy and unlikeable, yet when sub-vocalizing he feels somewhat familiar and reminds me of the misanthropic pessimism that weaves throughout Celine’s ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ Do you believe that at there is a ‘Jake’ at the heart of us all? And did you set out to cause the reader some conflict as to whether they could relate in part to the main protagonist?
ER: Yes to the latter question. I mean when you have your main protagonist be a murderer there’s going to be a conflict. Especially if I’m not glorifying murder or murderers. In response to your first question though I will say this by way of a clue: jake’s last name was quite purposefully chosen. It’s the name of the French version of the book, by the way: PATERNOSTRA.
Photo credit: Andrew O'Toole
Posted: Mon 16 July 2012