Electronic artist TOBACCO is not interested in appealing to a mass audience, instead focussing his efforts on making music that makes some feel isolated, and others liberated.
Words by Berni Botto
Eclectic, fervent and heavy, Pennsylvania-based musician Tobacco does not shy away from the more experimental side of electronic music.
His latest album, Sweatbox Dynasty, has been met with controversial criticism — the Guardian thought it was “destined for the bargain bin”. Though Tobacco himself – real name Thomas Fec, is all too aware of his estrangement effect - even tweeting about his fan’s alienation and over the course of the discussion it becomes clear that this isn’t an accident.
"I’ve always thought it’s corny when everyone likes something — there’s nothing cool about everyone liking something. So you have to upset people, and I think that’s really hard. It’s almost impossible to upset people these days, so if I can upset more people than I can please, then that’s awesome; then I’m doing my job.”
The response is a direct result of Tobacco’s attempt to create music that is different to everything and anything else in his genre, indeed it’s what challenged him to make music. "There were just things that I wasn't hearing that I wanted to be hearing, and I figured I could do it. It’s always just been about trying to make stuff that I don't think other people are making.”
As front man of experimental band Black Moth Super Rainbow, his differing style stems from boredom with the current state of the electronic genre.
“Electronic music is really boring,” he explained. “Most of the time it’s cold, and it’s dead, and there’s no soul to it. I honestly don’t feel much from it, so I do as much as I can to make it real."
Fec’s attempt to distort is evident through the masterful injection of innovation and personality in his work, creating new sounds out of old technology. His preferred analog method of recording for instance gives his songs a retro 80s tinge.
“It’s electricity running through wires and shit, and you’re hearing the way the electricity is being formed rather than samples on a computer,” he says. “Again, it’s just more real.”
Staying away from the myriad pre-loaded Ableton samples that almost every other electronic musician uses not only gives Fec’s work that additional dimension of reality, but its limitations demand him to think outside the box. "I think a lot of the process and a lot of the happy accidents come out of being forced to work with not very much,” he said. “You don’t have a choice — you have to be creative.”
His inspiration is fluid, taken from what interests him and what surrounds at any given point which at present is one of the “zillion sub-genres of metal”. “It's like metal that’s from the 80s that sounds like it was recorded on a boombox; it almost sounds really bad, but really good,” he explained. “If it was well produced, I don't think I would like it. It makes it seem more dangerous.”
Fec takes the notion of danger and character in music and runs with it. His efforts are captured in Sweatbox Dynasty with his treatment of electronic music adding a certain layer of depth, dripping with personality and originality rather than a collection of safe poppy hits to dance around the house in your underpants to.
"This isn’t supposed to be 12 dance songs lined up in a row,” he says. “Tt’s supposed to be like a living, breathing piece. There are a couple songs in there that kind of anchor it down to reality, but really it’s just one thing.”
The album flows and blends into a dark, grungey, sometimes weirdly upbeat mesh of synthetic melodies and rhythmic intricacies. Tobacco explained that the character in his music is not only a product of unconventional, outdated production methods; the occasional stutter in rhythm and timing feed into the reality of it. “Going 4/4 constantly through an album is so boring to me,” he says. “I think sometimes when you listen to music, you get too comfortable, and those inconsistencies are to keep you from getting comfortable.”
The same ideology applies to Black Moth Super Rainbow with little variance in his thought process between his band and solo work. "I mean, there’s no difference — it’s all just me,” he says. “I write stuff, and then the stuff that I think is pushing it a little more and is a little more sonically interesting, and maybe a little weirder, that’s usually the stuff I’m super into and the stuff I'll put with Tobacco. The stuff that I think more people would appreciate and like, that ends up going in the Black Moth pile.”
As for the criticism, Tobacco does not seem too bothered. "I make music for the sake of making it. I shouldn’t say that it never gets me down — it used to get me down, now it gets me down a lot less. I made this album with the intention of alienating people and not wanting everyone to like it,” he says.
"It’s okay if you think it sucks, I want a lot of people to think it sucks. But when people say to me 'oh man, that’s just laziness' — no, it’s not laziness. I put so much thought into what I was doing on this album; it’s not laziness at all. You’re a lazy listener if you think that this is lazy.”
A big influence in what he produces in the future is what he has produced in the past; he takes the feel and the purpose of his previous work, weaves it with his changing interests, and evolves it into something new and different — so his already eclectic music gets a little weirder every time.
"What I hope for this album is that people are patient with it, because it's not made for just putting on once. I can imagine a lot of people being turned off by it on the first listen. I just want people to be patient with everything I do, because it's only going to get worse from here."