lack Moth’s frontman, Tobacco, wants a vacuum. A metaphysical vacuum. Tobacco’s name is I can’t tell you. He likes it that way. “When I was younger, I hated music. I didn’t get into it until high school. And when I started making music, I didn’t want it to sound like anyone, which I know is impossible. But it just feels right to be removed from that stuff.”
“Removed” means a lot. So does “That stuff,” it turns out. Anonymity in 2007 isn’t incidental; it’s a lifestyle choice. That might even be going too far. A semi-rural town in Finland hosts a yearly mobile-phone throwing contest. In 2001, the number of cell phones in Africa surpassed the number of landlines. Revised: anonymity, or the hope of it, is a myth. Nobody is out of reach. The Black Moth folks wear goofy pseudonyms—Father Hummingbird, Iffernaut, Power Pill Fist, the Seven Fields of Aphelion—and Tobacco uses them without skipping a beat. I ask him who he is when he sings. “None of the BMSR names are characters,” he tells me. Earlier, “Power Pill is my cousin.” Who’s cousin?
For the past several years, the group has taken time in the summer to record in a farmhouse near Butler, Pennsylvania, west of Pittsburgh. There’s no studio and no soundproofing. They bring what they feel like bringing. They “hang out” (I later ask Tobacco what his hobbies were as a kid; he asks me if “hanging out” qualifies). He’s either shy or purposefully vague; the mystery feels more deliberate and intriguing than knowing the truth. “I’ve been advised not to talk to anyone or wander off the property when we’re out there. I don’t want to get in trouble for saying this….” He trails off into a chuckle. “But I hear it’s, like, martial law—if you walk on someone’s property, they’ll just shoot you.” I bleat out a laugh and then both of us are quiet, because it’s not actually funny.
For a second, I seriously doubt his shtick. I mean, isn’t it so arbitrary? Fruity names? Fruity histories? Then again, I’ve been to Pittsburgh. It’s a dead place. Or, it feels like it’s dying. In a good way. But it seems like the kind of place where imagination can go a long way. Tobacco talks about wanting something “pure,” and on reflection, I see what he means.
I also start to get the feeling that Tobacco’s sense of remove, while part mythmaking and part genuine interest in being left alone, is backgrounded by a light paranoia. Tobacco tells me, “When you’re out there in the woods, up in the part of Butler, where the cabin is, it’s kind of scary. I mean, there aren’t really any houses around. It’s just that piece of property. And there are a lot of weird folktales from around the area, and some were passed down, and some were made up. I can’t even remember which are which anymore, actually.”
Interest is piqued, mild inhumanity established. But he also has a deep reservation about his music’s place in the world. “No real label would ever take a band like us seriously. Not now, probably not even 10 years from now.” I try and call his bluff. He doesn’t balk. “I mean, I think anyone who’s a serious businessperson—well, my ideals get in the way, I think, of what businesspeople try to do.” Of course, when we get down to his ideals, he just wants some room to be a little lo-fi, a little weird. This turns his definition of “businessperson” into a heartless shark with a ponytail. This is not exactly a forgiving way to consider the world.
But it’s also that Tobacco’s touchy about his place in the Pittsburgh music scene, or any, for that matter. “When a band has been in the industry for a long time, it changes them. And when a band is in a music scene for a long time, it changes them. When you’re in the middle of something like that, when there are a lot of people around, you can be influenced from every direction. So, on purpose, we haven’t been a big part of the scene. But on the other side of the coin, we haven’t been welcome either.” Before I spoke with Tobacco, I had talked to a friend from Pittsburgh.
“I’m talking to the guys from Black Moth Super Rainbow today.”
“I hear they’re assholes.”
Tobacco isn’t. When I bring up whether or not he feels a part of the Pittsburgh scene, he starts—“We don’t. I mean, half of it’s because….” He stops himself. He sighs. I imagine him wringing his hands. When I ask him if he’d move away, he says yes without hesitation. For good reason. He wants more people to hear his music.
Black Moth’s most recent album, Dandelion Gum, isn’t a throwback so much as it is about the disorientation of throwing back—a modern seasickness. Ten years ago, Beck and Boards of Canada let the past collide with the present in ways seemingly designed to fuck with everyone’s temporal gyroscopes. BoC made educational films psychedelic; Beck stretched kitsch into a reasonable endgame of junk surreality. Black Moth have lyrics like “We miss you, summertime” (who’s we?); Black Moth stews flute synths with crusted-over funk and deliberate way-outness—well, better understood, Black Moth aren’t way out as much as they signify way-outness.
I don’t want to ring too many jargon alarms or fall headlong into the chore of theorizing about music as visceral as Black Moth, but Dandelion Gum’s atemporalities might be described as “memoradelic,” a term coined by former Stylus writer Patrick McNally. Tobacco is 27; Tobacco has a certain matrix of memories, and he leans on them to make a distortion of the present—Dandelion Gum sounds at a remove from the present in a way that cements it there. Tricky. “It’s totally the PBS/WQED bumpers, those four-second interludes between “Sesame Street” and “Electric Company.” And as a kid, you don’t even care, but as I got older, I wanted to figure out what they were.”
Paradoxically—appropriately—Tobacco keeps pressing forward. “I kind of like to stop using something from before when I get something new. Like, forced limitations”—remove; name, place—“That’s the only way I can get anything done.”