Black Moth Super Rainbow has spent the past few weeks reconnecting with its fans in the deep South, where, during this time of year, the shows have been just a little stranger than usual.
"We're having these Halloween shows, but people are going to dress up regardless," says frontman Tobacco. "They put on Halloween masks anyway. So it's sort of always Halloween when we play."
The electronic psych-pop band from Pittsburgh is touring with its fifth full-length album, "Cobra Juicy," the follow-up to 2009's "Eating Us," which was helmed by Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. Tobacco, whose real name is Tom Fec, sees this as more of a "pop album," although it's unlikely to be confused with Katy Perry.
BMSR -- also keyboardist The Seven Fields of Aphelion, drummer Iffernaut, guitarist Ryan Graveface and bassist Bullsmear -- hits you with sunny, swirling pop melodies and mostly heavy dance beats, all topped with Tobacco's mysterious vocoder-ized vocals that sound like robots with a soul or transmissions from aliens. "Cobra Juicy" is a departure for BMSR in that analog synths are sharing more space with guitar, ranging from industrial static to Western slide.
The first single, "Windshield Smasher," comes with a video that depicts a citrus-mask-wearing mob attacking and forcefully grooming a pair of hipsters in a weed-filled LA alley.
In advance of the homecoming show Saturday at Mr. Smalls in Millvale, we caught up with Tobacco by phone from Florida.
Do you like being out on tour this time of year?
Actually, I like being home this time of year because I like going to the haunted houses and stuff, but hopefully it's getting people excited and giving them an extra reason to come out.
How do you decide these days between what is a Black Moth project and what is a Tobacco solo album?
I never write for people. I always write for myself, but at the end of the day, when I try to curate it -- what the project is, whether it's going to come out at all -- normally if it's something I think people might not be too scared off by, it comes out as Black Moth, and if it's something I think people would be scared off by, it comes out as Tobacco. I think there's more structure and songwriting in this than maybe I would put into it as a Tobacco record.
Looking back on it now, what are your thoughts on "Eating Us"?
I think my drummer and Ryan Graveface, who played most of the bass parts on that record, and then Dave Fridmann who produced it, I think they all did a really great job, which actually makes it a really fun album to listen to for me. Especially the work Dave did on it is really beautiful, but I've been really harsh on it because I did about 90 percent of the work I needed to do, and I feel like I almost went on autopilot, and I was like, "Well, I'll just work this out in the studio when I get to Dave's," and I just never did. So it feels like it's unfinished. The last 10 percent is so much more important than the first 90 percent, I think. So whatever sparkle that comes in there, whatever nuance that was missing, I think was my fault. It's got to be my least favorite thing I've done.
Your decision to self-produce this time, was that a factor of wanting to do the 10 percent, or was it a matter of keeping the cost down?
"Eating Us" was one record I made where I kind of gave myself a timeline because of touring and everything. I've been on labels before, and they have never given me any kind of deadlines or anything. So it's always self-imposed. At first I wasn't even looking to make a record, I was just making songs because I just wanted to make them, and when it started to sound like an album, I think I just had something to prove to myself that I could pull it off again.
How did the use of guitar become prominent on this record when it really hasn't been used all that much?
I needed to get super interested in writing songs again and the idea of writing on a synth was played out to me. So I thought, "I'm really uncomfortable on guitar," so I thought that would be a good place to start, and that's really the reason it's a guitar record, because all the sketches started out on guitar, which I've never done before.
"The main themes I let people interpret for themselves, but they're masked under the more fun themes of vandalism and hair and stuff like that."
What were the challenges in recording them and still keeping with the Black Moth sound?
It was easy because I just did it like I do everything else, which is I just throw a mic up and just hope that it sounds good. That's all I ever do, because I'm not like an engineer or anything, and it just happens to work out. It was luck. I just used a little amplifier and a pretty cool compressor mic, and it ended up sounding good.
Obviously, the lyrics are often difficult to hear. What was on your mind in terms of the themes?
The main themes I let people interpret for themselves, but they're masked under the more fun themes of vandalism and hair and stuff like that.
You've said you were having trouble getting signed to a label for this. What happened?
It was odd, because I had meetings with a lot of labels, and when you're sitting face to face, they'll tell you how much they love what you're doing and how they're huge fans -- like in quotes that they're "huge fans." Then, when it comes down to it, they always have some weird reason, like their schedule is too full, which is a bogus reason. I thought the most interesting thing that I heard from some of these guys was they "want to find something new that they can claim." It's really nerdy. It's like they need the credit. I guess they felt I was somewhat established or something. Maybe that's their new way of saying they're busy, but I heard it a few times, and it stuck with me as a weird way to do business in 2012.
So suddenly you're like some Rhino Records artist or something?
Yeah, 'cause I've been around for like five years.
In terms of the Kickstarter to raise funds, were you overwhelmed by the success of it?
Yeah, I was. I used the Kickstarter in a different way than most people use it. I think a lot of people use it to kind of fund what they're doing, which is probably the right way to use it. I look at it like a pre-order with a safety net. I had all these big ideas, like making Halloween masks and lenticular vinyl and stuff like that. I didn't want to commit to making these things and then all of a sudden no one buys it and you're like $80,000 in the hole or whatever. So I used Kickstarter as a pre-order so I knew that once I hit that $45,000 goal, that was like the bare minimum of the product I could produce and not get killed. But, yeah, when it hit $125,000, that was awesome, but at the same time, I actually, at the end of the day, I'm like $3,000 in the hole because you have to produce all that for everyone. It's great and it's a little taxing, too.
So, the video, is it an anti-hipster statement?
Yeah, it was kind of anti-hipster, because I think we get lumped in with Pitchfork bands sometimes, and I just don't feel like that's where I really am. And I feel like the whole hipster thing is gone these days. It's like really yuppie, really totally yupped out, and I thought I'd just have a little fun with it.
Do you risk offending your fan base?
Not at all, because they're like me. They just like what they like. If I do have fans like that, who define themselves as hipsters, I'm sure they get the joke. I think most people who listen to me are just kind of open-minded and listen to whatever.
How eclectic are your music tastes?
I feel like I'm really picky, but I think my favorite stuff is all over the board. Growing up I loved Stone Temple Pilots, and I still do. The guys I look up to the most they have this [collaboration] called Freescha and Dam Funk is the new guy I really love. I don't like very much, but the things I like are usually pretty different from each other.
Do you get surprised reactions from people about being from Pittsburgh?
Almost everywhere I go people are like "How the [expletive] are you guys from Pittsburgh?" People are always surprised. I don't even totally understand that because in 2012, music people, we all kind of just exist on the Internet now. I think that was more of a '90s thing -- people having certain unified sounds to a city. Now, with Internet, it doesn't make that much sense to me. I think those kinds of opinions will start changing as younger kids start coming up.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published November 8, 2012 5:00 AM