Who is Black Moth Super Rainbow?
That is the immediate and elementary interview question I had for a band that has spent its entirety in the shadows: never showing face, save for a few unintentional YouTube clips of a self-proclaimed “boring in-store performance.” So while I knew I couldn’t, for the sake of what little literary reputation I may have, outright ask them this rudimentary question, figuring out the answer to it was very much the task at hand.
Little did I know it wouldn’t take me very long to get an answer: As soon as I began researching for my interview with lead songwriter and aspiring producer Tobacco, I slowly started to realize I was walking a very thin line trying to separate Black Moth Super Rainbow from Tobacco’s own persona. Despite four other band members — whose names are even more ostentatious than their song titles, and include The Seven Fields of Aphelion, Power Pill Fist, Iffernaut and Father Hummingbird — Tobacco speaks for the band. In our correspondences, he often refers to himself as the band and doesn’t notice as he flips back and forth between using “I” and “we” when discussing Black Moth. In fact, not long after our discussion began, one thing became clear:
Tobacco is Black Moth Super Rainbow.
“It’s a really really grey line right now,” he explains. “When it comes to recording and stuff like that, I pretty much do all of it. And then I got the people together who are the band to re-create it live. I always confuse the two, like I’ll say ‘we’re recording a new album’ or ‘I’m going on tour’ but almost 100 percent of the time it’s me doing the writing or recording. Then I’ll bring it to them to either reinterpret it or come up with something on their own for when we play live.”
It’s quite understandable that this would happen in a band where faces do not exist. Lending credo to the notion that he is very capable of manipulating this thin grey line, Tobacco has taken painstaking efforts to make sure the bands image remains shroud in mystery. “As long as I can keep it going, I want to keep it about what we put out there, the images and the songs rather than who we are and the instruments we use.” Throughout the interview Tobacco exercised this grey line, bending it a few times, but never did he fully cross it.
To be clear, he was not egotistical about it, instead sounding as though he was more like an aspiring solo producer who realized a need to present his music in a live setting. Tobacco hinted at the notion that as his solo projects come to light, the line will become a bit more defined. “I think it will eventually make sense,” he admits. “Probably whenever the next Black Moth record comes out, because I want to try and change the band a lot for the next time around. I don’t want it to just be a ‘me’ album.” Tobacco quickly slips back into solo mode to add, “I’m sure a lot of it will since I’m writing it,” before continuing, “but I was talking to someone today about going into a studio and having a drummer play drums and a bass player playing bass.”
This musical ambiguity strikes a common chord with a lot of the new buzz-worthy, Internet-savvy bands who have come up via fan-bases created through very strategic promoting. This is as much as it is a product of things like MySpace and Facebook — where bands like Crystal Castles and High Places have become media darlings — as much as it is a product of Pitchfork, where people like Dan Deacon and Bradford Cox immediately come to mind. Ironically, both of these artists have since gone on to become stars because of their personalities, though it remains to be seen whether Tobacco will fill these same shoes.
It’s easy to say he will based on his music and aspirations alone, but there has also been some creative marketing that has helped Black Moth’s career, most notably via a split LP with Octopus Project released back in 2006. The House of Apples and Eyeballs was the brainchild of Ryan Manon, the owner of Grave Face Records, Black Moth’s label, without the input of Tobacco, who — whether ironic or not — owes a great deal of his success to this split and the doors it opened up. “You know, it’s funny. Ryan saw them live and just asked them if they wanted to record with us.” Tobacco tells me of the split, before wondering aloud, “I don’t even know if he asked me before he came up with that idea, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.” He pauses for a moment as he considers that notion before confirming, “Yeah, I didn’t even realize it was being discussed.”
But make no mistake, this band is no anomaly, this is not a freak accident or a stunt that was somehow pulled off. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. “We had a different name and we had a bunch of different ideas, but I guess if you’re going by when the actual band like it is as it is right now started, I would say 2003.” Originally known as Satanstompingcaterpillers, Black Moth Super Rainbow remain steadfast in promoting themselves quite heavily despite staying faceless in their personal settings, culminating in a winter tour that saw them on a bill with Aesop Rock and the Flaming Lips and a SXSW spot that will see them performing for MTV and VICE; all of which would suggest Tobacco has no problem letting mass audiences in on the secret.
You could even say that Black Moth Super Rainbow has developed almost a cult-like following, which has allowed them to grow quicker than they would have if they just showed us their mugs. Maybe this is why Tobacco cites the artist Neck Face as an influence? “No, that’s not it, I just really love his artwork. I kind of wish I could be that good.”
So what are we to make of this separate life — musically? To define Black Moth Super Rainbow by its creator is to look at the type of music he is putting out. His solo work relies heavily on straightforward, in-the-pocket beats resulting in a hip-hop production style. Filling me in on the status of his upcoming solo album, he confirms, “The Tobacco record that is coming out is a hip-hop record. I mean Aesop Rock is on it, so it’s obviously not a Black Moth record.” He even goes on to say he will put out his solo record via a hip-hop label. “They like to keep everything really secret, so I’m not supposed to tell anyone until it’s announced. The only info I can give you is that it’s a label that’s very well known for abstract hip-hop.”
But Black Moth is not so categorical, and this mystique it wields, combined with the artwork and “rural Pennsylvania” upbringing, would suggest something closer to a jam band following. Tobacco conceded, “I think it’s mostly our fault that people think we’re hippies that have these sermons and we hold these ceremonies in the woods and we’re ‘one with nature.’ I think that’s mostly my fault in the way I pushed the band when the new album came out.”
“I never understood the whole jam band thing,” he countered. “I guess I could almost understand it, but I don’t have a single song that’s longer than like two-and-a-half minutes. We don’t have any parts where we meddle or try to showcase our playing, it’s all like trying to write catchy part on top of catchy part for those two-and-a-half minutes.” Again, he finds solace in the fact that his solo work will eventually define him. “Hopefully the Tobacco thing can distance that even more.”
It is this revelation that rippled throughout the tone of the interview. His coming to terms with the fact that Black Moth may only be a means to realizing his potential as a producer. Whether solo or with a band, the platform doesn’t really matter so much as the perception. You see, figuring out who Black Moth Super Rainbow is was never really the challenge; I should’ve been trying to answer the question “Who is Tobacco?”
I originally wanted to interview him in person, to break down the fourth wall so to speak, and get a better idea what lies behind this proverbial mask. He never wavered. In fact, he was going to limit us only to press photos and a phone interview before I talked him into taking photos of himself via a disposable camera. It should also be noted that Tobacco is not the only one in the band with a solo career — Power Pill Fist saw his second Grave Face release this past February — but just as telling is the fact that in the two weeks it took to conduct this interview and photograph “session,” he did not see the band. He told me he hadn’t seen the band since the tour with the Lips. Yet despite lending more and more to the notion that this is a Tobacco project rather than a band, the final litmus test has and will always be the music. And because of that I will be eagerly anticipating whatever else he — or Black Moth Super Rainbow — put out.
In the end, I might have revealed who Black Moth Super Rainbow is and raised a few questions about Tobacco. The biggest question I was left with, however, can only be answered in time.
Will he still hide his face when he’s not in a band?