The idea of a concept album is an old one, but a concept career? That’s another matter entirely. We’re not talking Gwar here but rather art-rock heavyweights Oxbow, who have charted a narrative path from 1989’s Fuckfest right through to Thin Black Duke, this tale’s closing chapter and in at least one sense the end of an era for the band. We spoke to Oxbow not only to get a glimpse into the album, and their extraordinary career, but also to get a small glimpse at the personal dynamics that have wrought such emotionally charged art.
Cheers for the time and it’s great to have you guys back. What have these past ten years brought to you and what those experiences have brought to this album?
Niko Wenner (guitar): We’ve been talking about that a lot as it has been ten years since we put out the last record. We’ve all lived our complex lives and they’ve contributed to the record but I think for me, and it’s a great question as we should put out records more often than we want to, but the best answer I have for the ten years is that there are way more interesting things about this record than how long it took. As a way to get into what’s on the record, the music and feelings, emotions and words, that’s cool stuff to talk about. It took us a while because we wanted to do it right.
Dan Adams (bass): Ten years between age 10 and 20 are probably more significantly broad in terms of change than our stage but still, four different people over a decade, you’re going to have a huge variety of changes in everybody combined. Of course they have influenced the music. It’s much harder to describe how any one particular change influences the music so like Niko said, let’s talk about the music.
There’s been a constant evolution with you guys, flipping backwards and forwards from album to album. Are there any commonalities that run through your work; any core ingredients to any Oxbow record?
Niko: We’re a bunch of really passionate, opinionated…
Niko: Obnoxious, difficult dudes, and that’s the music we make. We end up talking about the precision, because the passion and the messy, bloody – as in completely involved – part is obvious. You can hear the intensity that Greg plays his drums, you can hear the amazing intensity that Dan plays his bass with, you can hear it in the voice – hopefully you can hear it in the guitar, the stuff that I do. Intense passion is obvious so sometimes we talk too much about the way the records are constructed and the way that we are very careful with the harmonies; even simple things like tuning. We are very careful to be in tune on this record because you can have great passionate performances and then, oh shit, there’s a squeaky kick-drum pedal, like on that Led Zeppelin recording of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. The commonality is that – the intense connection that we have with people that want to listen to our records.
Greg Davis (drums): We still sort of work in a similar way, the way we work out the music and the way Eugene presents the lyrics – those things are reasonably constant. Even though things change, the mechanics of the way we work things out is still pretty similar to how it’s always been.
So what is the recording process like and has there been any shift in the balance between improvisation and your focus on structure?
Niko: Improvisation is very important to what we’re doing. My answer, and those guys should answer too, but my improvisation is part of the way that I begin the songs when I write them. My role has evolved to be the guy who writes his guitar parts and they remain fixed – the guitar and the piano parts tend to be things that the other guys improvise their parts, even until the recording itself, off of. When I wrote the music for ‘Ecce Homo’, my guitar part didn’t really change from 2009 in January until we recorded it in 2013 and the way you hear it now on the recording. Ask those guys why but it seems to work.
Greg: If you’re asking if, when we’re recording, we’re doing a lot of improvising, I would say only some and by the time we’re in the studio to record the record, we – or at least I – know pretty much what we’re going to be doing. I’m not one of those guys who plays the song the same every time I play it, partly because I can’t remember just how I played it each time before, so I guess in some ways there’s a little bit of improvisation; there’s a lot of improving that goes into working the music out, but by the time we’re in the studio there’s only a small amount. I don’t know if Dan would agree or not.
Dan: Eugene’s probably the biggest improviser…
Eugene Robinson (vocals): No, no, the exact opposite. I hate improvisation. That’s why, when we started Oxbow, I was explaining to Niko in the garage of where I was living at the time, “I want a type of music and I don’t want any fucking guitar solos.” It wasn’t that I hated guitar solos, it’s just that there’s no other art form in which, in the middle of a play or in the middle of a dance, one of the performers or actors just starts to extemporaneously go off on something that doesn’t advance the thematic line or storyline or dramatic line; sometimes it does, sometimes it adds. So for years and years, I’m at practice and thinking not even about the words I want but the emotional tone or timbre that I think the song should have. When it’s finally performed in the studio, I’m trying to make what I heard in my head happen in the real world and it’s not like Ella Fitzgerald singing scat. There’s a big difference.
Dan: You cut me off when I was trying to say there’s a big difference between improvising all of the content and improvising. I think improvising, like what we do in the studio, is a very fine shade. In a way, it’s reacting to what you’re hearing and then responding with what you’re doing to play or sing. I think the thing for Eugene, unless you’re singing these things before in the shower, which I don’t think you are…
Eugene: Sometimes, sometimes…
Dan: …this is the first time that’s what is in your head can be heard and you’re reacting to what you’re hearing along with music which, to me, is an improvisational loop, even if the content in your head is pretty well formed. I would say the same thing about Greg – you and I are doing things pretty similarly, in that we know what it is we’re trying to do in the studio and even beyond. If things are feeling a certain way we might alter things slightly but that’s just the dynamics. It doesn’t mean that we’re playing different notes or putting them in different places on a gross scale but on a fine scale.
Niko: I think we should point out here that the very first song on the first Oxbow album has a great big long guitar solo. It’s about two minutes long and it’s improvised A guitar solo actually does something. It has a rest from the voice and the guitar solo can thematically advance the musical ideas in the song. It can give a rest to what has been the chorus and verse and develop things in a way that other parts of the song can’t.
Eugene: There are two types of solos, right? I was listening to ‘War Pigs’ the other day, but when Iommi comes in with the guitar solo – you’ve been immersed in the ‘War Pigs’ story he’s created with this four-dimensional frame for you to appreciate the song – and when he comes in for that second solo, it’s like, “What the fuck is this?” There are two types – there’s the advancing of a theatrical or thematic line, like when I say solo I mean uninterrupted musical expanse. Sometimes it advances a narrative and it’s usually, in my mind, when a guitar is voicing something. In ‘War Pigs’ I as a listener did not feel like it was voicing anything. In ‘Curse’, the first song off Fuckfest, I didn’t even recognise that that was a guitar solo until later, someone pointed it out. That’s how much I thought it advanced the thematic lines. I guess what I’m saying is that this is an effective one but in general, that was one of the things that I absolutely didn’t want to hear. This kind of heavy metal trope of, “Now I’m going to do something entertaining that wasn’t the entertaining thing that you were listening to before.” That was always kind of weird to me, as is putting your own face on the cover of your record. That also seems kind of strange to me.
“Our obsessions are well spelled out from Fuckfest through to Thin Black Duke but I think what we’d like to do, or at least lyrically I would like to do, is to bring us into our preoccupations now, which are not at all part and parcel of what I was thinking about when I was doing King Of The Jews or Let Me Be A Woman.” – Eugene Robinson
I especially appreciated the brass work on this album, especially on a track like ‘Other People’ – it doesn’t necessarily seem freeform but how much direction was given here?
Niko: The strings and the brass were notated after the vocals and after the bass, drums and guitar, so they were intended to move around those elements and in to support, so they were not improvised at all. They are completely notated. There’s an oboe that comes in occasionally, our friend Kyle Bruckmann, he was improvising but there’s two tubas, two trumpets and two trombones, eight string players, a double string quartet. There’s a section on ‘Other People’ and I really like the way that came out – it has an accelerando, meaning it’s speeded up and might sound a little chaotic and it’s intended to be that. The brass players did a great job.
What are your own musical backgrounds? Were you formally taught or has it been self-education?
Niko: I’ve been very lucky to have some great teachers. I started studying guitar and the thing that saved me from the studies, so I went and took classical music in college, but I began being really interested with guitar and I always kept my ‘rebel’ interest in music and that kept me from getting burned out with classical music, that kept me from getting frustrated with jazz and the limitations that pop music give you, so it’s been a balance. For example, I see a lot of my classmates stop doing music or stop being interested in producing and writing music, but for whatever reason my core interest in fooling around with an instrument and being creative in it has gotten me through. I found some really useful formal education.
Greg: I’m just a punk rock kid from the late ‘70s so no formal music training at all.
Eugene: From the late ‘70s? Man, you’re fucking old!
Greg: And I’m a drummer by accident.
Dan: For my part I took piano lessons for four or five years and studied with a drum instructor for about a year. I ended up playing a lot of drums in high school, mostly jazz bands and things, and then started playing bass later on and never had any training in bass, which is probably why my technique’s terrible and my hands hurt when I try and play.
I was wondering how things are coming along with the Choir Eternal project for Supersonic Festival.
Eugene: Yeah, so are we.
Niko: We’ve been friends with the Supersonic gals at Capsule, though now it’s simply Lisa, for a long time, maybe since 2000 or the late ‘90s, before they started Supersonic. Lisa, in 2012, and Jenny were kind enough to provide orchestral instruments for an orchestral version of Oxbow. This time, Lisa said, “Hey, let’s do a choir thing.” So, in doing that Supersonic and Capsule appointed a guy, Sean, to act as liaison. Sean found singers and a director so it’s an incredibly complex process but thank goodness we have help. I’ve been sending scores to the director, Robin, and we’re negotiating how much they will be changed. This is going to open up discussion within the band. What we’re doing mostly is trying to terrify ourselves, first of all. To scare the hell out of ourselves, to keep it interesting, that’s part of the improvisation, but to provide a really great performance that people in the audience will have their hearts enlarged by. To feel some of the terror, to understand it and watch us negotiate that. It’s going well but I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve got pre-notated parts that will be abused and hopefully turn into great music. I think it’s going to be a wonderful, terrifying evening.
In terms of the themes of your music, has there been much of a change over the years in terms of positivity and negativity, life, death, sex, whatever?
Eugene: I’ve said this before so if you’ve read this before I apologise for repeating myself, but if you were to take the records and put them end to end, in my mind it follows a very distinct narrative line; Serenade in Red would be, “What does a serenade do? It’s a meditation on love.” Evil Heat might be a meditation on sex and power. The preoccupations are around an essential core, which is what you would get with any book, even if page 10 is very different from page 110, so I don’t think there have been see-saw pendulum shifts, more we’ve followed the cycle to its logical conclusion with Thin Black Duke. I actually was trying to figure out what that meant – a logical conclusion – and then, as luck would have it, a friend of mine who is a journalist did an interview with Glenn Danzig, of all people. They asked, “What are you gonna write songs about now? You’re 63 years old,” or however old he is now, and he’s like, “Everything I could’ve said around the themes I’ve spoken on, I have already said. I have no idea what I’m gonna write about now!” I think if you’ve been making music long enough, you actually successfully say the thing that you’ve been trying to say, and then it begins a really interesting thing – what do you say once you’ve said the thing that you’ve been trying to say? I would hope that we’d draw from the Picasso palette and that our endless love of creativity would provide us with answers that are not presently making themselves known. Our obsessions are well spelled out from Fuckfest through to Thin Black Duke but I think what we’d like to do, or at least lyrically I would like to do, is to bring us into our preoccupations now, which are not at all part and parcel of what I was thinking about when I was doing King Of The Jews or Let Me Be A Woman. It’s changed and it would be nice to have music that, like a pair of pants, still fit and I think that’s the task we have in front of us.
Niko: For me, it’s a moving target and as the years go by, everything looks different. I see the same things differently, I see myself differently, and I have changed, and a lot of those things that I see have changed. So if what we create is sensitive to our surroundings – and I emphatically say it is – that’s what’s interesting to me, and being sensitive to those changes is a constant wellspring of creativity. There’s always something because it’s such an incredible difference. Wisdom is not the right word but at the age that we are now, it’s still fascinating to be alive. The world gets you down but I have no interest in being dead at the moment.
Is there any one song that springs to mind when you think ‘Oxbow’? As in, what’s the most Oxbow Oxbow song that you’ve ever written?
Niko: Just last night I was playing my guitar that I’ve had since I was 14. I played ‘The Valley’, which is one of the first songs that we worked on for our first record, and for me that’s a very personal song and has a lot of meaning, and still works technically. Another song like that on the last record, A Narcotic Story, is ‘She’s A Find.’ Those are both slow, contemplative songs but they convey a lot of what we try and do, that is personal stuff that also has a lot of lusty energy to it as well. For me, those two songs really explain Oxbow. Just to say quickly but on the new record, I was interested in not having songs that only had one side of what we do. I wanted to have every moment, which is impossible, but as much as possible to have all of Thin Black Duke to have all the facets, all the sides of what we do, so that was really a challenge. I want all of Thin Black Duke to be completely Oxbow, so that was the challenge for that.
Eugene: If I had to pick one to explain to people what it is we do, I think my personal choice would be ‘Yoke’ or ‘Cat And Mouse’. Here, this is what we do. If you can listen to this, you can listen to anything else we do. Those are Rosetta Stone songs.
Dan: I think Eugene’s choices there have a lot of variety, aggressively switching between different types of music within a song in a way, and I think to me the thing that is constantly compelling about what we’re doing is the scope and the change, and the contrasts. Like Eugene’s analogy of chapters in a book, what I think makes a great book is that there are little pieces that come together and play against each other, and for me that is also the variety of songs all playing together and working as a bigger piece. I think that context is really important.
Thanks a lot for this. Given that this is my first time conducting an interview like this, I thought I would ask if there is anything that you guys would like to say to each other that you don’t normally say.
<Eugene bursts out laughing>
Niko: I love you, man! That’s always implicit but we don’t say it very often.
Eugene: It’s interesting you say that because one of the things that your first question led to was thinking about the passage of time, and I think what’s interesting about the superset of Oxbow activity is what it contains. These guys have seen me meet the woman who would become my wife, seen me get married to the woman who would become my wife, seen me have children with the woman who was my wife, seen me get divorced from this woman, seen me get remarried… there’s a lot of Oxbow living behind this Oxbow music. We have, between the four of us, seven children with another one arising. It’s been a wild universe of things; it’s not like the media would show you, where this is some shit that you do in college and then you’re done with it. When you’re making significant art it tends to occupy large chunks of life. I don’t think I need to say that to the guys in Oxbow but it’s just a reflection of what I was thinking about with some of the reviews for Thin Black Duke. Yeah, not a lot of people do what we have done for as long as we have done for as little. I want to stress the ‘as little’ part!
Dan: That’s making an assumption on a certain type of value. I’d say a lot in terms of spiritual value but…
Eugene: Yeah, I was just talking about cash!
Dan: One of my best friends from when I was a kid died on Monday, shockingly, but it certainly immediately makes clear that there are a lot of things that could have happened, could have been shared or spoken that aren’t for, once somebody is gone, that window is closed. You can look at that as a lifetime of lost opportunities, but at the same time I think about Oxbow. As Eugene said, we’ve lived a meaningful percentage of our lives very close, and there are plenty of things that we haven’t talked about – certainly I haven’t, because I don’t tend to talk about my personal world – but one thing is explicitly sharing things and another is just living. I think there are plenty of things we could say to each other and maybe we will talk about other things in the future that we’ve never talked about, but meanwhile I think what’s more important is that we’re still managing to live a portion of our lives together so that we can keep doing what we love doing, and that’s music.
Eugene: Well said.
Niko: We’re very fortunate that we enjoy hanging out together.
Eugene: And the key to enjoying that is not doing it a lot
Niko: There you have it.