Noise legends Oxbow say if you don't like it, stay home
Interviewing Oxbow was one of the most intense things I've done in recent memory. Even knowing the back story of the group, I was unprepared for how fierce, how sharp, and how full of fire these artists are.
Oxbow formed in 1989 and have never been interested in settling on a genre. In over two decades they've only released six full length records: a search for perfection that defies the demands of modern hype as much as their sound itself. Vocalist Eugene Robinson collages blues freak outs, guttural Birthday Party-esque gothic swagger and spoken word muttering over music that rises and falls between minimalist avant jazz to roaring, aggressive hardcore, metal, and noise - and everything imaginable in between.
Yet there's something dainty and tender dwelling within Oxbow: the music doesn't lurk in the surface mud of anger that many loud, macho groups accept as territory. Oxbow are at the bottom of human evil, probing for the reasons, or a glimpse of a true face to beam back as a warning to the world's children. They've collaborated with Marianne Faithful, and Robinson has been touring recently in support of his new project with experimental pop band Xiu Xiu: Sal Mineo.
Oxbow seem to fear nothing and confront everything: race, sex, interviewers who ask the wrong questions (you'll see) and their Garrison show this weekend is something music fans
should not cannot miss. The force that is Oxbow has never been in Toronto before, and, as the band only tour about two weeks of the year, it may never return.
Oxbow founders Eugene Robinson and Niko Wenner answered these questions via email.
I get obsessive about wanting to see the live energy of certain groups and Oxbow is one of them. I can't wait for the show. After many years of touring and releasing records, what's more enjoyable for you, performing live, or recording?
Eugene Robinson (ER): Well they are different, almost completely different animals: recording and performing live. Recording is very much more of a HEAD process. Live is much more of a HEART issue. The balance is delicate. But it is a balance. Even if we manage, through every fault of our own, to not play very much live and not record very much either. Possibly largely connected to the fact that really complex things take time to make work right.
Niko Wenner (NW): I love both live and recording, couldn't do without either one and see them as very different but complimentary things. There are areas you can get to, things you can say, with each that are impossible otherwise. The lasting artifact of a polished recording, and the sweaty go-with-the-flow power and release of our live gigs both have their contrasting charms. Each must contain elements of the other but inevitably they satisfy different, and equally necessary cravings. Live demands reinterpretation every night and the beautiful new things that happen when you allow that. Studio recording is about getting one version of the story very, very right.
Have you ever played Toronto before?
NW: Near the start of the 10 years I was touring with the San Francisco band Swell we stopped in Toronto, maybe 1993 or '94. I was excited to be in Toronto but it was an under-attended show in a small forgotten venue. Too bad. I'm hoping for more this time.
ER: Never. Our understanding though is that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. True?
It helps if you're wearing flannel... but don't do that. What's an ideal Oxbow show like, from the venue and the crowd to your own frames of mind?
ER: That's not so easy of a question to answer. Ideals are floating targets in any case. And in this instance would be built on a presumption that we have any sense of what the outcome will be anyways. And I don't know but the hope is always that it be the most perfect distillate of our lives and times as we've lived them right up until that time you see us. so you'd have to ask us all, and then average the responses but there are a few truisms: the sound would be perfect.
The stage would be wide. I would have a straight mic stand with a little bit of tape connecting the cord to the microphone. The stage would be about 4 feet high. That is: low enough to comfortably jump off of, but not so high I can't get back up on it quickly. Great lights. and a large, large crowd. This is probably perfectly prescriptive for an "anything can happen" kind of night.
NW: The ideal show is when we feel like we've reached people. When we've had some kind of conversation within the parameters of a live gig. This only happens when the audience pays attention.
What is the most difficult kind of audience for you, and how do you deal with them?
ER: people who are enemies of art. And there are many ways to deal with them. But the best way is just to hope that they stay home, keeping their hatred pure by watching TV and doing whatever else it is that they do.
NW: The most difficult audience is one that does not pay attention on any level, won't give us a chance. That only ever happens when we are paired with another group with both a much larger audience and one too narrow minded to try us. All you can do is play for the people that DO care. Frustrating as hell, and very rare thank goodness.
Is it true that Oxbow only tours two weeks a year? (If yes) what led to this decision?
ER: Yes. And "real life"....I mean when we went on tour with ISIS we did five weeks with them back in 2007. But very few jobs will give you 5 weeks of time to go off and play music. Most jobs give you 2 weeks of vacation.
NW: I find myself saying more and more frequently: someone's got to buy the cat chow. And there's no money in being in Oxbow.
During the rest of the year, what are you all doing aside from Oxbow?
NW: What? There is something else?
ER: We all have jobs. But let's presume for a minute that you mean CREATIVELY which will allow me to just say: side projects. I did SAL MINEO, a record with Jamie Stewart from XIU XIU... Important/Aagoo put it out. And we just toured on it back in February. I did a guest vocal tour with L'Enfance Rouge for 3 weeks December 2012, and will again in december of this year in Europe. A cd/dvd of that is out this year as well called THE FIRST WILL & TESTAMENT. Plus LEISURE HIGH with Bevin Kelley from BLEVIN FROM BLECHDOM. And finally a thing called STRANGER BY STARLIGHT with this kid Ant Saggers. Add to this my play THE INIMITABLE SOUNDS OF LOVE: A THREESOME IN FOUR ACTS out on Southern Records? Well, busy. But idle hands are the devil's playground. Oh, and I almost forgot, the project with Philippe Petit called PETIT-ROBINSON-MEOW called LAST OF THE DEAD HOT LOVERS....we're trying to find a venue to stage this but have not yet even though the record is out and it's great.
So that's what I'M doing the rest of the year. Well that and being the best MMA journalist of the YEAR, haha....
Are you writing songs together all year, and how much time do you spend writing music separately versus together?
ER: we write all the time. But the lyrics get finished first. And then Niko goes off and works up genius song ideas and we hammer those into something called Oxbow. we take a long time between records because it takes a long time to get this stuff right. to quote Nina Simone, "you think this is easy? It's not. YOU try it," haha....
NW: All year yeah, but really it's writing a lot all year and rejecting almost all of it. I find for Oxbow even more than any other music writing I do I have become extraordinarily picky. Really, you have no idea. For example more than ten years ago I realized I could write an "Oxbow song" without even thinking about it. I became determined to instead push myself to do something different but still of a piece, still Oxbow. Better for me, better for the band, and better for whomever might listen to us.
I'm the guy that starts the songs and brings the music I've begun at home, into rehearsals. And eventually I'll finish the musical arrangement taking into account the lyric by Eugene that I've determined works best with the music, suggesting which line goes where, a repeat here, etc. Dan and Greg will make essential changes to my initial musical thoughts about bass and drum parts, sometimes suggest better guitar parts too. And together we will work through ways to slowly make each song better, sometimes changing the initial musical concept to a lesser or greater extent. Eugene continues to improvise his recorded vocal parts based on mysteriously accumulated exposure at rehearsals often involving hypnopedia. This then requires extensive sound editing in order to achieve the focused and powerful sound of our last record The Narcotic Story. This also falls to me.
Eugene, among being an artist, actor, author, journalist, radio host and who knows what else, you're a fighter, which interests me because it's completely beyond the realm of most musicians I know. I was reading about this and saw something about tractor tires and sledgehammers. I don't know anything about fighting. How did you get involved in it and what goes on for you in the ring?
ER: well there are quite a few musicians who are fighters now. And even a few fighters who are musicians. But we can thank fighting for Oxbow since I would have turned into Fat Elvis a long time ago had it not been for fight training. But I was just a guest lecturer at the SF Art Institute and it was on athletics and aesthetics and I had said if you do not realize at this point that physical discipline is intimately connected to creating lasting and vibrant art, you're crazy.
Because it is. And so I do. And the same things that got me into it in the first place -- fear, paranoia, unspecified but not unknown tragedies --have informed my music. but in the ring, or cage, or on the mat? Unbridled joy. Which is also part of the Oxbow shows. and like Oxbow shows where sometimes the audience disappears for me a lot of times fighting the person I am fighting just ceases existing and it becomes very much more about me versus me.
When I think about it, the biggest fights I've gotten into (which can barely be called fights) have been while playing music. I believe you've had problems with audience members which turned into physical confrontations: how would you summarize what can lead to engaging corporeally with an audience member during an Oxbow set?
ER: Hateful, hurtful acts that would also get your ass kicked on the street: punching me in the testicles, throwing cigarettes at my head, threatening to hurt me, anything really that detracts away from the fact that we're serious artists creating serious art and if you'd like a forum to do the same, well, that's great, but do it on your own time.
But the reality of it is it makes me really sad to have to spend my time this way. Like fucking someone who answers the phone. An unnecessary distraction that is damning nonetheless.
What's the general reaction of clubs/venues toward your involvement in these altercations?
ER: if the club security is on the ball there are never any such-like altercations.
I guess I'm leading up to this: in your opinion what should a musician do if they're being harassed while performing: I mean physical assault or sexual harassment, not random heckling. There's been discussion online particularly about female musicians having issues with crowd members and not being sure of where the lines are. My own gut reaction is violence.
ER: well I was recently just talking to Ian MacKaye about this and his method is good and complete and works for him, much like Nina Simone's did for her. Essentially since you, the disrupter, have altered the moment, let's all acknowledge this and stop the show and deal with the alteration thusly: you can play and we'll stop. Or we can play and you can stop. I sort of like that since it seems we get paid no matter what but fundamentally only BULLIES do this shit and I hate bullies and so, yes...I will try to have a teachable moment that involves them understanding that art is serious business. But maybe that's precisely maybe why they have chosen to express themselves the way they do. I am unsure. I am sure of the fact though that fighting people who do not know how to fight is really boring. And I am not getting on stage because I actually want to be bored.
But I have a sister who is a singer as well. and she shuts people down with the exact opposite kind of energy: super positive. So there are other ways than my preferred way, but if I was a female musician I would do what Lydia Lunch does when faced with that kind of assholism. Turn my guitar up, have my vocals cranked and play on, son. Play on.
NW: I'm reminded of Pete Townshend righteously clobbering people on stage with his fists "Get the FUCK off my stage!" But you know what? I think just like someone harassing musicians is a drag for the more interesting thing, the music, TALKING about people harassing musicians and the inevitable violence that results is a drag and a distraction for the more interesting thing, the music. I count four questions now on things that have nothing really to do with the band, or the music.
I'm lead to the depressing thought that perhaps there is a feeling that music itself is not interesting enough a subject. Which is a shame considering what we are doing here. Please tell me I'm wrong?
[Writer's note: this is our working-it out chat which took place after the interview.]
Very wrong! For those unfamiliar a band, I think sometimes questions about a group's mythology as a live act can help introduce the feeling of a band to new ears. I'm also genuinely interested due to personal experiences and those of friends... I understand how the string of questions seemed superficial.
NW: Not surprisingly, I'm of the opinion that talking about a band's music makes for the most usefully compelling motivation to attend - longer lasting benefits, all that. But then, I'm not in journalism. My thought is that rather than a bait 'n' switch ("hey let's go maybe there will be a riot! ...uhhhh, they just played their set.") I'd rather be known for what we are good at and what we aim to do. Call me crazy. Although, just getting people in the door IS very important. Although on the other hand I'd wager that those that harass bands are more those attracted by a band's extramusical reputation, for fights for example, than those brought in by a rep for really interesting and powerful music. Then again, in any crowd of sufficient size there's bound to be some idiots. Anyway, I sweat blood to make the band work so naturally I'm biased.
[Writer's note: back to the OG interview]
Let's pull back to something softer. What's the cutest thing you've ever seen?
NW: Okay now I KNOW you are messing with us. Hah. Fair enough.*
ER: The faces of my daughters sleeping.
Do you have any must sees or must do things on tour? I know some bands absolutely have to hit every Waffle House or look for vintage cardigans.
ER: Museums. And I like to get one article of clothing from every place I go. But it's got to be super-special. so this does not happen often. But I am wearing a shirt now from Barcelona and I did a lot to get it and would do a lot to keep it. It's a great yellow color. Also I am a huge fan of fish/seafood.
NW: I'm looking forward to seeing YYZ tags on my luggage, as the happy phrase goes.
When and what is the next Oxbow record? Will anyone hear it?
NW: Working on the The Thin Black Duke now. Perhaps people will be too distracted by fist fights to hear it, but we try. We try.
ER: two different questions, really. We're working on it now. But we have no record label and even if we did? Unknown whether anyone wants to listen to it.
What should Toronto expect on the 18th?
NW: Music, possibly brawl-free but who knows?
Eugene, what are the chances my dream of Sal Mineo performing in Toronto this year will come true?
ER: SAL MINEO travels a lot easier and faster than Oxbow....and all someone has to do is ask...but we can only do weekends for the rest of the 2013. and we're expensive, haha.
*Niko later revealed cats to be among the cutest most adorable things ever.
Photos via theoxbow.com.