Eugene S. Robinson and his band, Oxbow, are intriguing on many levels. Enough so that this makes my third time interviewing Robinson. On the outside, he looks like any other run-of-the-mill guy. Well spoken, intelligent... Loves to talk about music and fighting. Loves the act of playing music and fighting. Unfortunately, sometimes the two have coalesced at different live performances.
So, what of this Eugene S. Robinson? College graduate, former dance instructor, musician, fighter, author, etc. There's a lot behind the man. Rather than wasting any more of your time, let's get started.
When I last interviewed you (right before the release of "Love That's Last...), I mentioned that you'd make a good writer. In the time between then and now, you've had two books published: FIGHT... and A Long Slow Screw. How have the reactions been to both?
Well, FIGHT: everything you ever wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you'd get your ass kicked for asking was a wild ride. It brought in a lot of people who had no idea who Oxbow was. And, of course, in my little egomaniacal world there was no one who didn't know about Oxbow and so this was a surprise to get new people at shows who had only shown up via the book. And the book, of course, got me all kinds of places I never could have gone with only the band: NPR several times, Sirius satellite radio, pretty much every place but the New York Review of Books. And the New Yorker. I sold about 9,500 books. Which, to me, was a success. To the people at Harper Collins? A failure.
Though I would be surprised if even 20 percent of their books sold as many. In any case it was an overridingly positive experience.. Mostly because people IN the fight community who knew me from all of my fight articles had no idea I could really write. I mean REALLY. So this was a blast. Of course book publishing is sucking worse than the music industry and so my pleasure would be short-lived as everything is crumbling down like walls of wet sand.
A LONG SLOW SCREW was put out by our friends at Hydrahead Records on their new imprint called Robotic Boot. Which is as close to self-publishing, given my friendship with those guys, as it was possible to get. But the book went through a tortured path into existence....from Random House to Penguin Putnam to almost obscurity. It was a blast to have this out. We've only sold about 4500 copies but that's good enough for me. And it gives people nightmares, which is even better.
But the best and most satisfying part of both of these books has been the slow public realization that I am a real writer and not just a guy in a band who thinks enough of himself to want to publish his fucking diaries. Like Brian May is a real astrophysicist, I think it is probably safe to say that I'm real enough of writer to make people forget that I jump around on stage in my underwear.
Do you have other books in the works?
Yes. But I don't like working for free. And so am in no hurry to finish it. Not until I have someone who wants to put it out. But things work in strange ways. A French company Les Editions Incultes is releasing A LONG SCREW in France in French in January 2012. And I have another French company releasing a play I wrote called THE INIMITABLE SOUNDS OF LOVE. In October I have been told. So that's pretty productive for a guy who spends most of his time these days fighting.
Aside from writing, what else have you been keep yourself busy with, creatively?
A few side projects...
1] STRANGER BY STARLIGHT...a great atmospheric, creepy thing I am doing with this kid Ant Saggers. Still has no home. But we're looking for someone to put it out.
2] LEISURE HIGH...a duo thing I am doing with Bevin Kelley from Blevin from Blechtdom. Has a home but I have yet to return the contract because I have a thing about contracts. I like to hand them to people. Not just mail them in. And thusfar the label owner has not been available to meet.
3] SAL MINEO...Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu and I are doing this.
4] BLACK FACE...Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag and me plus an all-star crew doing Dukowski-era Black Flag...all Dukowski-penned Black Flag songs, recorded but never released when he left Flag, redone with me on vocals. Cool deal.
5] PETIT + ROBINSON...me and laptopist Philippe Petit. Record comes out in July.
There's also some talk of staging the play in France that I wrote. I'd like to find someone to publish it here but who the hell publishes plays? I have no idea. I'd also like to start doing TV commercials, TV movies and films again but there are only some many hours in the day.
Oxbow seems to be growing in popularity, from my point of view. I remember when there was ONE video on YouTube of you guys, and no one I knew had heard of you. Now, there's more videos of you guys performing live, and interview, etc than I have time to watch. I've read about you guys in magazines. Have you guys noticed/seen this change, also?
Of course. Realistically, it is the only reason we're still out there. I mean we're more sensitive than most to temperature changes and if the needle was slipping backward...if the shows were smaller, the crowds less significant, the reviews not so enthusiastic? We'd fuck off for sure. That is not to say that we'd stop making music, but for sure we'd stop loading thousands of pounds of equipment in a van and taking the show on the road. I mean we can be geniuses without leaving our houses. so it might sound like bullshit when guys in bands say it but it is truer than not: the audience is the only reason we're still out there. well, that and deep-seated insoluble emotional difficulties.
I've been seeing footage, and photos, of Oxbow performing acoustically in smaller rooms/halls. Where have you guys been doing this?
All over the place. Wherever people want it. And plenty of places where they did not.
Niko has been involved in other projects, and you've been popping up on different albums; making guest appearances. Are these other projects a means to express different things that wouldn't necessarily fit Oxbow, or is it more to keep busy? Something else, perhaps?
Well, like I don't know if you have read accounts left behind by Hendrix's father where he said he couldn't figure out why there was all of this broom straw in the kitchen when he knew none of his kids were sweeping up and then he spied on Jimi who was jumping around in the kitchen playing the broom to the radio. At which point he decided to get him a real guitar. Well, I am like this about voice/vocals. And so if I have an opportunity to do something, very akin to experimenting with my voice, well I do it. I mean I don't sing new songs with Oxbow until I am standing in front of a mic in a studio. but I go to practice. So it all happens in my head until we're ready to document it. But with other people's music, as long as they meet the stipulations....those being
1] don't suck
2] feed me, fly me, pay me [negotiable the further away from sucking you are], and give me a place to stay and3] extra points if I can write the lyrics [after sending me your other lyrics, song titles and record title]
....I am in. Simply because it offers me a chance to do what I don't normally do with my voice...and that's achieve a coloration maybe I have yet to work with in an Oxbow context.
also there are very few bands that I hear and think, "man...I can't offer them ANYthing." So it is ego driven. I think, like Christ, I can help/heal the world. Or at least the world's music. AND I like making music with people for whom making music is a serious goddamned pursuit. since that closely mirrors how I feel about it.
This shit will live well beyond me. It better be good.
Hydrahead has a pretty loyal following of its releases. How has it been going, so far, with them? More releases planned under their banner?
Yes. You know I have a category of people who I call "favorite people." This is a noteworthy designation since what it really means in my cosmology is people whom my liking of is far out of proportion to anything they would have actually ever expect based on what's passed between us. And I can name them. Tom Mallon, Richard Kern, Allan MacDonell, Mike Fox...and the guys who run Hydrahead. There are a few more on that list. Now I have close friends who I feel that way about but they would not be surprised to hear it. The people mentioned above might be. I'd do a lot for these guys. Anytime. Anyplace. Without many questions. Because they have typically done me good turns that have usually altered the course of my life for the better. Or sometimes not. Mike Fox is just the most genial guy in the world and if I could bring a tenth of that to my dealings with other human my place in heaven would be assured. Of course Mike will probably now get arrested for a string of cross country murders...but he's always been a prince to me.
You might notice that there are no women on that list. That's only because the list of women is waaaaay too long to make it sense to list.
But yeah. I have side project stuff out on other labels but Hydrahead is where we'd like to be until we die. Or they die. whichever comes first.
I remember seeing a post you made on Facebook about possibly playing with The Offspring. Really, The Offspring? Is that possible, or is already a legend to be told along with Bigfoot, etc?
No. that was strange and this kind of strangeness happens periodically. It's so strange that I usually write about it since I start to think I made it up. The Offspring was one. And AC/DC was the other. And neither happened, but we were approached.
From the looks of some of the pictures you've been posting; it looks like you've been working on your BJJ game. Who are you training with these days? Are you just competing in grappling tourneys, or competing in MMA fights, also?
I'm training with Team Serao...technically a Luta Livre team...that is Brazilian catch-wrestling/submission...but outside of the belting system it's all the same...I am an Orange belt in luta livre...this is a the equivalent of a purple belt in BJJ I think. And yeah, I am just competing in BJJ tournaments. But that's because I am training 7 days a week, twice a day for two of those days in this. when I get good enough to just skate a bit I'll go back to working on my stand up and fight again MMA.
I saw the video you posted where you gave tips on how to handle a bar fight...while intoxicated, if I'm remembering correctly.
NO....it's when you were being assaulted by a drunk!
Being a former bouncer, and current performer of rock-based music in bars, clubs, etc...I'm sure you've had your share of experiences. How did you get approached to do these videos? Do your tips stand up to Bas'?
A website in Germany asked me to do it. So I said, "hell yes." and my tips and Bas's? Well no one has made a remix of my tips yet. And Bas is a bona fide fucking bad ass. I am a tourist by comparison, hahah....
You mentioned a willingness to fight members of different bands, over the years (i.e. Rollins, Danzig, etc). Any new ones you'd add to the list?
Anyone that makes more money than we do.
Tell me what you're willing about "The Thin Black Duke."
It's the next Oxbow record. We've come up with a new scheme to record and release it. We have finally come to believe that the album is dead. So we will release it 2 songs at a time. On vinyl. Until all of the songs, not in order, exist in the marketplace. THEN we'll release it on a DVD with video, documentaries, outtakes, extra art the whole deal....but at the END. this is ambitious but it will be great and intense and for people who like Oxbow: perfect.
What are some of the major events in your life that have made you who you are today?...From Whipping Boy...to Stanford graduate...to involvement in pornography...to a lover of all things combative (though this may be out of order)...to Oxbow?
This is a very very complex question. But let's start with Stanford: It was luck and a certain amount of kismet. I had a calculus class in high school taught by this lunatic, which it turns out I could get out of if I went to see a college presentation. The only one offered then was Stanford. Which was presented over by a sort attractive hippie chick who showed us pictures and said: "it's 30 minutes from a beach...and 30 minutes from san fran." I asked what the ratio of males to females was and when it was close enough to guarantee continued sexual contact that I had been used to growing up in New York City under the dual aegis of both disco and punk rock, I signed on.
Didn't visit. Didn't talk to anyone about it. California seemed cool and hardcore was just happening so it made sense.Of course I was wrong about a lot. It was also the beginning of the Reagan revolution and the student body was mostly from california and was so unsophisticated [I mean who had never met someone who didn't believe in god before? half of my classmates apparently]....I quickly figured out I had made a terrible mistake. In all but one regard: the music. I have said it before and I will say it again: punk rock saved my life. School became my job and my whole social life, network and contacts occurred under the shit-smeared arch of hardcore.
Which gave birth to Whipping Boy....tours with Minor Threat, Negative Approach....shows with the Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys...crazy craziness and eventually only 6 months late a degree in communications. Or journalism.
Fighting predates this and goes back to a genetic predisposition for being an opinionated loud mouth and a hater of bullies.
Pornography goes back to Larry Flynt being the only one in America who was willing to pay me $2000 for 2000 words on collections thugs.
All of these roads seem logically placed. To ME. But I'd never think of them as "major events." That seems to be something you could say in retrospect. But while in the midst of them? You're just pulling on all kinds of intuitive throttles and hoping you don't die.
What do you want to be remembered for the most when you leave this world?
For being a great father, genius writer, and compelling performer. And the fact that I will have died with my pants around my ankles jumping out of someone's bedroom window? Well, I'd just as soon have that forgotten.
And, lastly...someone is reading this who has never heard of you, or Oxbow. Give them a reason?
There are no salient reasons why one WOULD listen to Oxbow. I must side with the gnostics here whose theories on received knowledge very clearly seemed to suggest that everything is not for everybody and those that are meant to know? Well, they know. And everyone else? Justin Bieber!
My guess? Very little.
First thing's first: exactly how many music/sound projects do you have going, right now?
Including full bands with rehearsed songs, nine. And, then there is another band that broke up, but we are still finishing our album. Lastly, there is a band in Baltimore I fill in for here and there when they are down a member.
Tell us about the them.
Pregnant Spore is my main project at this time. It is mostly electronically-based, abstract and experimental sound. Tape manipulation, homemade instruments, vocals with lyrics… There are really no rules with this one. It's almost always produced organically and performed all at once for the recordings, with no computer editing or processing besides light mastering if needed. I try to keep my approach creative, exploring new territory with every new piece. It has been a challenge and a joy to try and just strip from myself from any conventional means of expressing myself that I've been conditioned to know, and to just let loose completely. This has resulted in a lot of interesting discoveries and meaningful recordings/performances with this project.
Ghost Volcano is a three-piece between the guys in Mold Omen and I. It's a pretty weird and sparse-sounding group in which I perform a little more minimally since Andy and Mike have their own thing going on with violin, vocals, guitar, warped records, etc.
Lessons is my project with Andy that is sort of along the lines of Ghost Volcano but a little more dense. We have only recorded by swapping short files back and forth which creates an interesting energy in the pieces. We have performed live once, though.
Dementia and Hope Trails is a guitar-based, psychedelic, drone/ambient solo project. Lots of reverb, delay, modulation and looping. It is mostly melodic, but some of my longer pieces dabble in more cacophonous territory. It is a very emotive project for me and is mostly focused around loss or nostalgia.
False Flag is a power electronics/harsh noise/industrial project centered on false flag terror and government tyranny. It is actually all assembled and processed using computers, but the source material and sound-generating processes vary. I often collaborate with others and it has become sort of a collective.
Inappropriate King LIve is all computer-assembled as well, but it is mostly field recordings I have made myself, and then (sometimes) manipulated using software. It's very diverse as far as vibe and aesthetic because compositions vary in style somewhat heavily.
The Human Excuse is a solo acoustic endeavor, but post-production usually results in a lot of manipulation, processing and layering, resulting occasionally in very noisy or ethereal and ambient pieces. Live, I perform with just a guitar. Folk songs, sappy melodic acoustic shit mostly. I've been doing that since high school.
Widow's Bath is a collaboration between Matt Boettke (Scant, Sex Complex) and I. It has turned out to be a harsh noise collaboration but pretty psychedelic, kind of Government Alpha-style.
OK Putrid is an electronic noise project between my good friend Kait and I. We have nothing recorded yet, and are still finding our niche.
Sea Breezes is a contemporary screamo-meets-space rock group I do with some friends. I play guitar and do most of the vocals. Not too out of the ordinary but we use lots of effects on our guitars. It is a way for me to dip into my punk/screamo roots with a huge pedalboard while screaming my head off about ex-girlfriends and shit.
Boat Water is a sort of Baltimore super-group I am in with a bunch of friends and my sister. We do songs anywhere from acoustic folk/country jams to Codeine or Mineral-influenced slow, electric, ambient songs. We all play multiple instruments.
How long have you been involved with music? Did you start out doing more experimental-based sounds, or was there a point of introduction into this world?
I'd say my introduction in music was prog rock/metal in my earliest years. I was very into Rush, Dream Theater, and also into a lot of death and black metal (the not so crust kind). I still like all that stuff, but as I played more and more guitar, I started getting into more and more experimental styles with the use of processing and effects. It was really a heavy progression from buying a few pedals up until now where I'm actually purposely busting equipment and altering it to create new sounds void of all structure and rhythm. I still enjoy playing in more punk or rock-oriented bands.
You run Rainbow Bridge Recordings aside from your many projects. Things seem to be going well from what I can tell. You have a steady stream of releases flowing from your well, it seems. What separates RBR from other labels/imprints? Why start one, at all?
It started as just a name I could put behind all of the releases my various projects or bands would self-release. It was actually just a web store at first. I also acquired an interest in helping out other projects I really loved, so it grew. Now, several years later, it's blown up into something that keeps me very busy and requires a lot of money to fund. My next batch is going to be mostly smaller names because there is too much good stuff out there that isn't getting heard.
If I were to try to think of reasons why my label could be set apart from others, it could be that the art style is really colorful, sometimes silly and sometimes bizarre; sometimes even obnoxious. In a way that pleases me, though. A lot of labels focused on harsh noise are bigger fans of darker and more gritty artwork, but I prefer the brighter aesthetic, I think. I like combining even the harshest of releases with bright colors. The Boar tape I put out not too long ago, which, at the time, was an unmoving HNW project, was plagued with rainbow colors across the front cover. I just really fucking love color.
Aside from being creative, sonically...you also seem to enjoy the visual aspect of art as well as sound; even down to your personal appearance. Do you find that people tend to judge you more based on your colorful appearance in a scene where a majority of the visual aesthetic seems focused on the darker side of life?
Well, I don't necessarily think that people are focused on the darker side of life so much as the idea that they are not concerned with their appearance in a creative mindset. A lot of people I know, in the noise community and otherwise, especially when it comes to the "less weird, more harsh" stuff, just jeans and t-shirts tend to be the limit. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Some people express themselves with fashion, some don't.
I was dressing the way I dress now in elementary school. I've been shit on for it my entire life. But it is who I am and I don't do it to fit in OR rebel. I just do it because it's what I'm attracted to, how I feel comfortable and true, and how I feel honest. I am negatively judged, but that's anyone's life who does anything that at all sticks out. People will always be judged based on appearance, especially in communities where a person's style isn't common. It is a shame, but I am not saying I don't judge people habitually myself. I think it's something we all do.
But I like to focus my energy on the idea that it's counter-productive in so many facets of life. It does hurt sometimes, but not necessarily due to how people will insult or judge me personally. I moreso just get so bummed out about humanity's tendency to categorize and form opinions on people based on the silliest of things. The male jocks are expected to wear baggier clothes with short, masculine hair and a macho attitude. The gay dudes are expected to talk with a lisp and behave flamboyantly. The crust punks are expected to be shitty, dirty, lazy people with wear patched up clothes and a few dreadlocks. Straight dudes are expected NOT to wear make-up or a dress. All of that is total bullshit. All of those thought-processes should be magically eradicated.
You definitely seem to have a love for a lot of harsher style noise. What attracts you to this particular style/approach?
It's odd that you say that! I think people perceive Pregnant Spore as harsh noise because of it's energy or textures, and even aggression is sometimes perceived. But rarely is there anger or darkness in my sounds, in my opinion. I don't go crazy with distortion. I don't really fit into the harsh noise style. I like playing loud, because I like to fill a room and overwhelm it. Music is more effective that way.
I know a lot of the frequencies I may produce with my equipment can be grating or harsh to the ears, but to me, harsh noise as a genre title seems to be more focused on things that I'm not too interested in creating.
Who are some other artists, or things, in general, that inspire you in your creative output?
Weather is a huge factor. Weather changes always fill my tank and make me want to record and perform relentlessly. I am also inspired by traveling and experiencing different cultures, surroundings and experiences despite my irritating agoraphobic tendencies. Lately, I have been heavily inspired by searching and researching new scientific and spiritual aspects of life… meditation, eastern philosophy (the Daodijeng especially), energy, psychotherapy and self-improvement techniques. Of course, personal experiences are emotional experiences and a lot of my Pregnant Spore and Dementia And Hope Trails material is very much based around trauma and drama experienced in the romantic, spiritual, mental or social parts of my life.
Last year, you put on the first Rainbow Bridge Fest in Baltimore, MD which was fucking GREAT! I remember you saying that you weren't going to do it this year. Now, you are. Why the change of heart, and what can we expect this year? Details?
To be honest, Matt Boettke has been bugging me. We were recording Widow's Bath material at my house and he turned and looked at me and said "Look dude… can we do Rainbow Bridge fest this year if you just let me handle most of the booking and organizing? I already have a plan." How could I say no to that?
What are you trying to achieve, personally, through all of these different modes of expression?
I am obsessed with creation and expression. I am not saying I am the most interesting being and that I have a ton of introspect and innovative ideas to offer the world, but I feel like there is so much in my brain piling up at all times. Pouring it out there is like taking out the trash. It's a purging. Of course it is more than just that... it's not just unleashing build-up, because I obviously try to thoughtfully compose and concentrate on themes, and care about how it's presented. (I can't say that about my early material, however.)
I get shit for dabbling in so many different styles. I know a lot of people think that playing acoustic singer-songwriter tunes, harsh noise and powerviolence in different bands at the same time in your life makes you some sort of fake or poser trying desperately to get attention or acceptance from everyone. I always thought a main point of being any sort of artist was to be passionate, honest and selfish. If you feel so inclined to create in different mediums and in different styles because it all makes up who you are, then by all means, do it.
So, there is really nothing I am trying to accomplish, per se. That isn't the question. The question is "are you being honest and passionate about what you're doing, even though you're doing ten thousand different things?" And I would have to say yes, at least to the best of my ability. I am not a perfectly enlightened and pure being, and there are always distractions from honesty and passion that can show up in my art, but I suppose that gives it it's personality. When I do what I do, from what clothes I put on to what kinds of bands I'm playing in and with what people, I am trying to do it with no inhibitions and in the most pure way I can, stripped down, raw, as if I was wearing my heart and my brain on the outside of myself for anyone to see or hear if they were so inclined.
If you could change one thing about the noise/sound scene, in general, what would it be?
Community, and the stimulation thereof by means of merely flat-out politeness, respect and acceptance. Just like any scene, there are too many cliques and too much prejudice. Too many promoters who only invite their friend's bands to play and disregard hidden gems who can't get anyone to take them seriously because what they do might be a little different. Too many stuck-up assholes who act so much better than you when you try to talk to them, whether you are giving them a compliment, asking if they'd like to help with a show, or what have you. I wish that naming names wasn't a shitty thing to do, and I know that I am not perfect about all of this either, but there are at least ten people I could name off the top of my head that are pretty accomplished and experienced in the noise scene but at the same time, give the noise scene a bad reputation for being so nauseatingly pretentious.
Sometimes I feel like the nicer and more genuine you are, the less "cool" you are and the less your art is respected or admired. It's sad, and it would be ideal if that changed. However, the only thing I can change is me, and my disgust for the scene is a downfall of my own, because I think I spend too much time worrying about it and being upset about it. I should be more positive but I'm so damn jaded already! I'm too young to be jaded! I haven't been doing noise long enough to be jaded.