Tobacco’s Tom Fec turns gutter-culture gems from yesteryear into beautiful noise.
Disco and R&B super producer Nile Rodgers says that bands start with concepts.
In the case of his era-defining group Chic, it was all about celebrating glamour when most of his brethren were embracing the guts of funk and the wank of ’70s rock.
For the Beastie Boys—back when they were still lurking on the fringes of downtown New York’s art and punk scene—the point was “to walk around annoying people.”
And for Tobacco, the latest project by Black Moth Super Rainbow founder Tom Fec, it was based on a DVD crammed full of trash TV.
The DVD in question, which was pressed into Fec’s hands after a BMSR show in Rochester, N.Y., a few years ago, was made by a shadowy character who calls himself Beta Carnage. And its combination of low-rent wrestling, weird workout routines, even weirder porn (like someone-in-an-E.T.-costume-is-getting-nailed weirder), and generally grainy betamax-level quality had Fec hooked on his first viewing.
“I really like the way certain things, when I was growing up, represented one thing, and now we can take that stuff and put kind of a new flavor on it, and it becomes something else,” Fec says. “All the stuff that was looked at as gross shit is art to a lot of people.”
Fec, who kept in touch with Beta Carnage, asked if he could edit its contents into a DVD of his own, and once he got the green light, he added a zonked, occasionally galactic soundtrack to his version of the footage that eventually became Fucked Up Friends, the first Tobacco LP.
Though Fucked Up Friends was created with the same vintage synths and drum machines that powered Fec’s Black Moth Super Rainbow records, there was something different about it. In place of Black Moth’s floating, occasionally precious affect was an energetic bite, the sound of a newfound sense of direction. “It’s like when you get your first job and you get your first paycheck, and you just blow it on bullshit,” Fec says.
Of course, the reappropriation of trash culture is nothing new. At this point, it’s not even particularly unusual. If anything, you could probably argue that it’s been one of the most prominent modes of cultural expression for Fec’s generation, something that’s manifest in everything from thrift store T-shirts to the vapid, post-Pop art of artists like Mr. Brainwash. It’s almost hard to imagine a Late Night on Public Access TV highlight reel inspiring anybody to do anything, but there is nothing cynical about Fec’s work. “I’m not really familiar [with a lot of that other stuff],” he admits.
“I’m pretty much just drawing off what I remember. And now that I’m older,” he laughs, “my parents can’t take that stuff away from me anymore.”
In Tobacco’s blasted, gross music, you can hear the sideways, smirking qualities of his childhood musical heroes the Beastie Boys and the Butthole Surfers, mauling the already-antiquated futurist sounds of Fec’s vintage synth gear, and the combination certainly struck a chord with plenty of people. Diplo called Fucked Up Friends one of his favorite records of 2008. Everybody from Jamie Lidell to Beck dug it, too, Beck so much so that he guested on two tracks for Fucked Up Friends’ follow-up, Maniac Meat.
For so many other musicians, getting the chance to work with Beck would have meant dropping everything and going anywhere. It could have been an opportunity to make any number of songs in any number of styles. But both tracks, “Grape Aerosmith” and “Fresh Hex,” were the result of a business-like email exchange, a sanitized transmission of instrumentals and vocals. And not because Beck was too busy, either. That’s how Fec wanted it.
“I’m sure he’s an awesome guy,” Fec says. “If you’re going to put your ass on the line by being on a record like mine, I’m sure he’s a great guy.” But, says Fec, “As much as I look up to him, I think it’s great that we weren’t in the same room. On one hand, it’s really awesome to be able to get to work with some people, but on the other hand you’re pulling away the curtain.”
To Fec, the private, personal wonder he feels while listening to his favorite records rarely measures up to what’s hiding on the other side of said curtain. “Getting the Internet and everything,” he explains, “without even trying, I’ll wind up on a website with a story about the Beastie Boys from the time when I really loved them, and then I’ll go, ‘Awww man, I didn’t wanna know that!’ Y’know what I mean? It kind of kills the picture that I’d painted.”
That may explain why Fec tries to keep as much of Tobacco a secret as possible, why he performs wearing a bizarre gnome mask, and why he wryly refused to offer proof that he won’t pull an MF Doom and send some lackey to perform in his stead at the First Unitarian Church this Friday. After all, when it comes to things like trash TV and offbeat musical superheroes, it’s more fun if you don’t know the whole concept.
Fri., Sept. 10, 8pm.
With Junk Culture + Dreamend
First Unitarian Church
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Hard Working Day and Night