Posted by: Necci – Jan 25, 2012
It seems like a lot of musicians are afforded an undue amount of credit if they attempt anything outside of the expectations that the public might have of them. One acting gig, art exhibit, or book of shitty poetry and all of a sudden they're a Renaissance (wo)man. But then there are those who aren't constrained by a single medium, those equally at home on stage, in print, or on film. It's rare that any artist possesses the versatility to attempt this, and rarer still that they're good at any of it.
But even the best of them would have a difficult time keeping up with Eugene Robinson. Since 1988, he's fronted the band Oxbow, a combination of post-hardcore discordance and Sabbathy stomp that has been, whether fairly or not, as well-known for their confrontational live performances as for their music itself. He recently has been fronting the band Black Face, a collaboration with Chuck Dukowsi, resurrecting previously unused songs Dukowsi had written during his tenure in Black Flag. He's collaborated with other musicians, from the Dead Kennedys to Marianne Faithfull. He's written two books, Fight: Everything You Wanted To Know About Ass-Kicking But Were Afraid You'd Get Your Ass Kicked For Asking, a socio-cultural examination of combat culture from somebody who actually likes fighting, and A Long Slow Screw, a take on hardboiled noir fiction that takes the style beyond basic genre tropes. He's provided articles for publications like GQ, The Wire, Vice, and Hustler. His on-screen work is as varied as a part in the Bill Cosby vehicle Leanord Part 6 and his own show on German television. He's a prize-winning competitive fighter. And somehow, in the middle of this, Robinson was able to take a little time to e-mail me back some answers to a few questions I had for him.
Oxbow possesses a rare degree of consistency for a band that has existed for the better part of a quarter century, both in terms of the frequency of the releases and the ability to evolve without straying too far from a distinct aesthetic. Does this involve a regular re-evaluation of your own goals for the band, or is it more of an intuitive process?
Well, we’re regularly fielding complaints from interested parties concerning the frequency of our releases. Something along the lines of: “When are you going to have NEW material?” Of course a little probing indicates that their knowledge of the Oxbow songbook is so sparse before The Narcotic Story, that the reality of it is MOST of what we’ve done would be new to them. So thanks for correctly identifying that this is indeed part of a cycle. Usually interrupted by the living of the lives we’re documenting in almost religiously assiduous attention to detail. Which sort of answers your question. Our obsessive and yet totally haphazard way of doing business both has us rehearsing one fifteen-second section of a song for six months, as well as changing it on the spot while in the studio.
And sometimes we even have very direct ideas. Like now: since strings played such a major part of The Narcotic Story, even though I love them, I really don’t want to hear them any more than I want to hear the drunk next to me at the bar tell me the same story again. It shows a disregard for the story, the teller, and the listener. However, I am just one part of the puzzle and [Oxbow guitarist] Niko [Wenner] very clearly might have a way of making me see things differently. Or more precisely: HEAR things differently.
You've worked with a fairly wide variety of artists, from better-known figures like Marianne Faithfull and Jarboe to lesser-known artists like Conifer and Philippe Thiphaine. Is there any sort of criteria you use when determining the people with whom you collaborate?
Sure, if we’re talking about me singing on THEIR stuff: I have to like the music. The lyrics can’t be shit. Since I will not sing shit lyrics. Or they have to be open to me writing them. They sometimes have to fly me out there, wherever 'there' is, to record. Which entails feeding me and housing me. They have to pay. Or rather: don’t offer nothing for something. And at the very last, two things: it’s got to open up the possibility of me using my voice in a way that interests me, and they need to be hustlers. I did a whole record for these jerk-offs who shit-canned it to smoke weed, be too afraid to tell me they hated what I did, and wish I sounded more like Phil Anselmo. That winnowed down my willingness, restricting it only to: HUSTLERS. I mean I don’t like the idea of doing this so that no one HEARS it.
But if we’re talking about them performing on Oxbow stuff? Well that’s much more complicated. And weird. [Producer] Joe [Chiccarelli] was helping us pull Lou Reed into The Narcotic Story. Scheduling screwed this up but given that this Metallica thing (curiously they poached Marianne Faithfull almost immediately after Serenade in Red came out) is the most disappointing thing in the history of recorded music, I know that our fortunes are being directed by something smarter than us. But those who have appeared have usually appeared as a result of a deep, deep obsession with the artist in question. The only unfulfilled one was Diamanda Galas who, though I would consider her a significant one-time friend, never thought making music with Oxbow made sense for her. I think she said “your voice sucks, your band sucks, and you have small hands.” Hahaha. And she thought we mixed Faithfull poorly. Which is something I think Faithfull felt as well. But getting her involved in the mixing process was something she, or her agent boyfriend at the time, resisted. So it goes. We’ve been lucky with who we have had. And it’s all been a joy no matter how you cut it. On our next record The Thin Black Duke I have no obsessive voices I’d like to hear on it yet. I did want to get John Dankworth involved, but he died. But right now for this record, no voices are calling out to me, as for the first time really, this Oxbow record is not a dialogue. For what that it's worth.
The act of collaboration also implies ceding a certain degree of control over the project to another's approach. Is it ever difficult to incorporate ideas that have come from individuals outside Oxbow's core quartet?
Only once. With the late Kathy Acker’s stuff on Let Me Be A Woman - not what I expected. So we used what we liked, shit-canned the rest, and then years later released it as an extra.
The liner notes for The Narcotic Story mention the development of a film and soundtrack as part of a series. Is this still in the works?
Of course, now that we figured out Kickstarter. But all of this stuff takes time. And the reality of it is that the world does not really give a fuck whether we do this or not. I mean we’re not Coldplay. So steady as she goes. Slow and steady.
How do you feel film can be utilized to expand upon the ideas in your music and has it been an influence on your work in various media?
Well, music is universal. Actually, SMELL is universal but I can’t think of any art form outside of cooking and eating that trades on this in a way that makes its art lasting. But FILM has a great and enduring economy of language that appeals to us. It is also largely impossible to do ALONE really. Which also appeals to us. But, you know, no one reads our lyrics anymore because people download our shit, either legally or illegally. I mean if I had to choose between just using the lyrics with no voice and using a voice with no lyrics, I would rather have the printed word tell my story. So it is sad that this is not part of people’s current understanding of what we do. Film would allow us to do this, no matter how obliquely. And film for sure, with its much more subtle tones - I mean we’re not talking about Transformers, though I would make the claim that there are subtle tones there too - would do what we kind of do with words.
I’ll tell you a little story. A super big Oxbow fan once had some questions for me about a lyric he could not make out, and it dawned on me that he had NO IDEA AT ALL what the lyrics either said or meant. It was a stunning moment. So film at this point seemed like a rescue to me, at least from people who might think I am singing about how tough it is to be young, black, and gay. Which is what this fellow had assumed I was singing about. Nothing wrong with being young, black, and gay. But that’s not what I am singing about.
Does Songs For The French have any relation to the narrative arc of The Narcotic Story?
Good question. That claim is made in the liner notes. Which I wrote. Frank as a character does not also make an appearance in Songs for the French, but you can’t understand The Thin Black Duke without Songs for the French.
Recent years have seen you branching out from the more aggressive sound for which Oxbow is best known, whether that's through the string sections on The Narcotic Story, the electronic elements on Songs For The French, or the acoustic shows you've played. It seems like when most bands bring in the cellos it means they're headed for the dreaded “maturity”. Are these attempts to get in touch with your inner Leonard Cohen, or do these elements factor into a different sort of heaviness?
If I lean toward you in a noisy bar and I tell you, whisper to you, that I am going to fuck your ass tonight, I am quite sure you wouldn’t think it was much of a mark of maturity. And you might feel it was pretty aggressive. And depending on the circumstance you might believe it was about as heavy as heavy gets. Unless you get fucked in the ass by strangers all the time and then, well, it would probably just be Tuesday or something.
But kids throw tantrums. Adults express themselves differently and we’re adults. Which is why it doesn’t feel strange for us to make this music, whereas we think it must feel a little strange for, say, Metallica to still have to be living the dude dream when it’s quite clear to anyone with eyes and ears that their interests have wandered quite far afield. I would make the claim that they are cowards. Or they’re intent on feeding people who need them to never change. Like I said, no one gives a shit whether we live or die so we can do whatever. And all of the desperation and moroseness and misery I feel as a product of being a human seems to me to come into the room on padded soles.
Oxbow acoustic performance, 2010
Does the lack of loud music behind you during the acoustic performances make you feel more exposed?
No. I mean it took a lot of effort but I had to fight the compulsion that everyone who takes a stand behind a mic should fight and that’s the act of being appealing. I mean laughs are good to get but at the end I’m not a chintz coffee cup, you know? I’m not out to make your consumption of beverages go a little more smoothly. I’m out to tell a story. Sometimes a story that gets its hands around something that still confuses me, so those stories have no resolve. No punchlines. Or if the stories are from one of my books they’re usually, if it is from Fight, something that Harper Collins legal would not let me put in. If it is from A Long Slow Screw, it might be stuff I cut out that amused me. If it is any other kind of story, it’s as the spirit moved me. I mean, when I thought for a long time why people would be in the slightest bit interested in me doing a reading, I thought it had to be for access. Like bar stool access. Like what might happen if they pulled up a stool next to me at a bar. I guess right before I got into that whole ass-fucking thing, hahaha. But honestly, the sex stories are the best and I love telling those the most. Because they make EVERYone, me included sometimes, feel uneasy. And that’s a good feeling. Because it’s like “anything can happen” day! And it can sometimes. Really.
Eugene Robinson reads from A Long Slow Screw in Seattle, 2010
Does the aggression of your more recent work with Black Face counterbalance some of the more subdued elements present in the more recent Oxbow material?
Well the Black Face stuff is another animal in total. Oxbow is channeled id. Black Face IS id. I mean, they’re not my songs OR my lyrics. So I have to embrace it from a different emotional place. And like the original band from which it draws its inspiration, Black Flag, Black Face is also born in a certain kind of chaos, ill will, and breakdown. I mean Black Face is the face of how my life has gone wrong. Oxbow provides the reasons why.
As somebody whose young mind was pretty thoroughly blown by my first experience with Black Flag, I consider the prospect of previously unheard Chuck Dukowski-penned songs from that era to be akin to rock music's Dead Sea Scrolls. What's been involved with the process of developing that material?
Chuck playing, me listening. It’s eerie. It’s unmistakably Black Flag, but you feel like you woke up from a head wound or something since the lyrics and ultimately the music might be unknown to you. Seemingly forgotten though in actual fact never heard. But these songs died in the agita of Chuck leaving Flag and they’re born again in Black Face with the same kind of agita. I love Chuck but this project has been as difficult for me as almost anything I have ever done.
Black Face's music was written decades ago but do you provide lyrics or were those previously written as well?
Previously written. If we make it into any long-term territory I would like to write as well, but Chuck’s worldview and mine are not very similar. I mean, I will tell you a funny story. When they had that Jesus Lizard reunion I went to it and afterward I was backstage talking to [Jesus Lizard singer David] Yow and he asked me if I liked the show, and I said yes, and that what I thought was funny was that everyone in the audience was so HAPPY after they played. I said that it was my impression after Oxbow played that NO ONE was happy and THAT made ME happy. And Yow got this look on his face and said, “what’s wrong with you Black people?” hahahah…I mean I am the nicest bad guy you’ll ever meet. This should confuse no one though, since in the end the fact that I care more about this ART than the audience it is intended for might be a justifiable cause for alarm.
Given the historical connotations of blackface performance, has anybody taken umbrage with its use as a band name?
Yes. According to Chuck, Ian MacKaye did. Spooked - pardon the pun - Chuck to death. I suggested we change the name to Guilty Of Being White. But Chuck was serious. In the end it was sort of the way that this was handled that caused Hydrahead to decline to release records number two and number three. In the end, it seemed to make sense to everyone, though I am unsure about Mr. MacKaye, that if the only Negro in the group was not bothered by it, it was something we could live with. My attitude is that it has less to do with race than the song Ian and I argued about in Tesco Vee’s backyard many years ago: “Guilty of Being White.” In fact I think of dead people and robbers in ski masks before I think of Al Jolson. I also LIKE Al Jolson. And you know H.L. Mencken was a racist, sexist prick. And T.S. Eliot was an anti-semite. So was Ezra Pound. Racism is all part of the fabric of at the very least THIS country, and Black Flag AND Black Face are unapologetically American it seems to me.
The various permutations of your music, your involvement with fighting, and much of the subject matter of your writing might seem like disparate forms of expression, but are all linked by their extremely visceral character. Does each endeavor possess a different cathartic quality?
Yes. And I disagree with the visceral take as a sole defining characteristic. The somatic, the visceral is part of it but it’s a large crazy machine with a lot of parts under the hood. And catharsis is too easy as well. IF only…if only I could get rid of that which causes it, hahah….
Do any of these mitigate or amplify the aggression with which you pursue any of the others?
Like John Henry, it is clear to me that there’s maybe only a few ways for this to end. And maybe that’s like it ended for Jackie Wilson. But the kind of shape I have to stay in to make sense to continue fighting like I do also make it possible for me to push the edges of what my soul needs and wants my body to do when I am doing it. But your question was does it mellow or aggravate, and I have to say in total that fighting nine times a week, usually seven times a week now, has a paradoxical effect of making me less prone to violence while being much more capable of effectively exercising that violence. Of course this skirts your real question, which has to do with not the propensity for this kind of action but the willingness, and in total I would have to say I am a pretty mellow guy with a sunny disposition but I have dealt with assholes for so long that my willingness to suffer fools, even if it is the first fool of the day, is ZERO. Absolutely. I mean, because of Fight I have spent time around truly tough guys and it seems to me that the way of making it out of these places and situations unharmed largely has to do with how polite and respectful you are. Not brown-nosing, ass-kissing, or fawning but just being DECENT. And you’d be surprised how many people think this is unnecessary because they don’t hang around people who will call them on it. And keep in mind I do this on BOTH sides of the fence. I mean I’m just not bullying non-fighters - if I am hanging with fighters, even fighters that are better than me, and I hear some wack shit, you have to speak up because in the end nobody wants to have to die because of a poor word choice, you know?
Eugene performing with his pre-Oxbow band Whipping Boy, at Benny's, Richmond VA, 1983. Photo by Thurston Howes
Despite remaining adamant about not entering into any sort of physical altercation with anybody undeserving, it seems like fighting is consistently tied to the way that many people perceive you and your body of work. In some cases - Fight for instance - it's understandable, but is it ever frustrating to have that reputation carry over into your other creative endeavors?
Well you know part of it is the whole Negro thing too. I mean we’re supposed to have a higher propensity for violent behavior, yes? And I weigh 210 pounds so it certainly seems like if you were a prudent individual it would make sense to focus on this. But it does seem to lack imagination to ask me about fistfights when the rest of an interview might not even scratch the surface of what it is that we’re doing musically.
I really enjoyed Fight, despite having little knowledge of fighting technique, history, or the organizations under whose auspices it occurs competitively. Was it intended more as a primer for the novice or a more in-depth analysis for those better acquainted with various forms of combat?
Well, I think about it as a philosophical examination of the underpinnings of interpersonal conflict. Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence. So neither. I grew tired of feeling like I had to qualify my interests in blood sports, hahah…
Is there any part of your analysis of combat culture that has resonated with you more than any others?
No. I find it endlessly fascinating. I just fought in the IBJJF World Competition in Long Beach where I took a silver medal after being ahead on points and tearing a lat muscle to the guy who took first place. But it’s the most tension-ridden thing I have ever done, up there with fucking a really hot woman for the first time and playing in front of 6000 people, but those other things don’t make me want to stop. Pre-fight I was really going through this self-incriminating thing - “Why the fuck do I do this?” “This is ridiculous!” “I should leave!” And then they called my name and I stepped out on that mat and I felt - it's hard to describe - I felt fucking RE-BORN. And like I never wanted to be anywhere else. I hugged the ref I think, hahah…it’s great. Really great. And there’s no substitute for it. None.
Eugene Robinson being choked by Gilbert Melendez
I had read that the book ended up being banned in the UK because of the section on knives. Have you encountered any comparable resistance to your work before?
No, and that still makes me miserable. Especially when the head of Harper Collins UK said “It’s too bad, we could have sold millions.” Yeah. It rankles. Like every month when rent is due.
I had read in an interview where you had mentioned that some of the characters in A Long Slow Screw were inspired by some of the less savory characters you have encountered in your life. Was the quasi-documentary approach informed by your journalistic work?
Of course. And I mean writers are documentarians anyway. But I am done writing about tough guys now for awhile. I just published a play in France called The Inimitable Sounds Of Love: A Threesome in Four Acts, and A Long Slow Screw is being released there on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, hahah. But it’s being published there in translation under the title Paternostra, I believe. I think someone in the U.K. will release it there as well. But the play is pointing down the road of where my next novel wants to go. It’s called Love? Love! And if I could find someone to PAY me for writing it, I’d be finished with it in like three months. But it’s about a totally different kind of violence. The soft kind that occurs between and betwixt humans under the aegis of “interpersonal relationships” hahah….
A Long Slow Screw seemed to offer a tip of the hat to a noir aesthetic, the type that often has been characterized by its depiction of a largely amoral world, ambivalent and sometimes hostile to mankind's endeavors. Was there an attempt to sidestep this sort of moral ambiguity with the book?
hahahahaha….have you READ the book? If so, you tell me. My relationship to morality is a curious one. An ambivalent one. One sometimes hostile to mankind’s endeavors, haha….But the moral framework of A Long Slow Screw is sort of like The Threepenny Opera you know, it’s a broadside in my mind.
How would you define your relationship with genre fiction with a work like this? There are some noticeable similarities to and differences from hardboiled crime novels - do you feel like you're working within a genre and subtly subverting some of its norms, or working outside of a genre yet employing some of its signifiers?
I’d say the latter. I mean I didn’t write a caper novel. I wrote a NOVEL. Which, while it might be enjoyed as a genre piece, has deeper signifiers. So it’s there for the cheap seats but for those with a willingness to extend themselves it’s about much more than booze, broads, and bullets. I mean, is Death in the Afternoon just about bullfighting?
What projects do you have on the horizon?
As many as I can stand, eight or nine at last count. Oxbow is recording The Thin Black Duke in February and March, when I am on tour with my solo stuff and Scott Kelly. I also am MCing a film festival in Brussels and doing some solo stuff in Rotterdam. Black Face is looking at touring, and so is Oxbow. And this great project Petit + Robinson + Meow just got signed to Truth Cult/Southern and we’ll tour on that. Then there is the French book tour. I’m pitching a TV show on fighting called Beating Disorder. And anything else that I like that will help me make the rent without wanting to die while doing it.
Eugene Robinson performs at Strange Matter (929 W. Grace St.) on March 8th with Scott Kelly (of Neurosis) and Ben Hogg (of Beaten Back To Pure/Hour of 13). Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door.
By Graham Scala