Cover Story: TOBACCO and His Quest to Keep the Human Element in Electronic Music

“I especially like doing things that are considered wrong by people who went to school for recording and engineering,” says Tobacco.

Tobacco, the stage name for enigmatic, vocoder-obsessed musician Tom Fec, is back with its fourth studio LP, Sweatbox Dynasty. Ostensibly an electronic album, what makes this LP and those of Fec’s other musical project, Black Moth Super Rainbow, so unique is its ability to sound organic in a genre otherwise dominated by pre-programmed, computer-sequenced synths devoid of all human emotion and feeling. Forcing the human element to play a large role in his creative output, Tobacco’s music retains that sense of the organic, often composed of actual live performances cut to tape and edited into cohesive tracks later on. You feel like you’re listening to actual music being played when you put on a Tobacco or BMSR album, not a group of robots coldly regurgitating ones and zeros (sorry, Kraftwerk). We caught up with Tobacco on the eve of his latest release…

Many people know you from Black Moth Super Rainbow, but you were actually producing music as Tobacco prior to the formation of the group. Thomas, how were you living in the pre-BMSR days? What inspired your music?

The Tobacco thing didn’t really start until after BMSR, but I had a couple cheapo four track projects that no one ever heard. I got inspired by the idea of no one making exactly what I wanted to hear and figured out how to do it myself.

So you’re from Pittsburgh – did you ever catch any Don Caballero or Kurt Vile shows?

No, never saw those bands. I don’t really go to many shows, so I’m actually not very familiar with Pittsburgh acts.

Let’s talk about your new album, Sweatbox Dynasty. What influenced the name, like what is a “sweatbox dynasty?”

I guess the name felt right at this point. You can’t get away with having “dynasty” in your album title when you’re new, or can you? I get uncomfortable assigning meaning to anything, but what I usually tell people is the music sounds like the title and the title describes the music.

The textures on this album are grainier and more distorted than the juicy, round melodies typically heard on Black Moth Super Rainbow releases. Why is the new Tobacco album so dark and moody? It sounds almost industrial in certain parts…

It’s just me and what I like. I like to play with sound and like things that sound wrong. I especially like doing things that are considered wrong by people who went to school for recording and engineering. I can see how it comes off as dark and moody to most people, but that’s never the intention. To me, it’s the sound of playing around.

Are you a fan of industrial artists such as NIN and Fear Factory?

NIN is cool, yeah, but I don’t know much Fear Factory [material].

What’s your favorite track on the new record?

“Let’s Get Worn Away” because it sounds like the way I hear ideas – unedited and unrefined. I’d love to make a whole record of that kind of song, but at some point I have to pump the brakes on the self-indulgence, at least with stuff I’m releasing.

Can you describe the creative process behind the new album?

My creative process with the Tobacco stuff has always been the same – play with whatever sound I’m playing with until it sounds like something I haven’t heard, then squish it into a song or something like a song. This one came together pretty quickly, a few months maybe. I’m gonna start overusing the word “unrefined,” but that’s what I was going for.

What kind of gear did you use when recording?

I don’t have a four track anymore, so everything gets recorded on a tape deck. Everyone thinks I’m a synth guy, but I have maybe three keyboards. I got a handful of bunk pedals (and a couple good ones) that I used, like Boss shit and that’s really fun because they are what they are. Lots of bass guitar that isn’t always obvious and an Akai MPC drum machine that I’ll probably always use for drums.

Tobacco

Tobacco

Are digital audio workstations central to developing your songs or do you start out with a basic melody and rhythm on a piano and drum pad and elaborate from there?

Stuff gets compiled and arranged in the computer, but I don’t use software as an instrument. It’s always the last step and I try to keep it as transparent as possible. All the development happens in the sampler or just playing along while the tape deck is running. I’ve always believed that the good shit needs to be captured in the performance, not afterwards in editing. The happy accident is the foundation of everything I do.

Is musicianship important to you as an electronic musician? After all, you’re using electronic textures as opposed to an acoustic instrument.

I may not always be using acoustic instruments, but everything gets played in real time. I’ve never sequenced anything and don’t sample other people. I like samples and sequences when other people do it, I just don’t like to make my stuff that way. It just depends on how you define musicianship, but I’m not trained in anything, so all I can do is what I’m feeling. I’ve never thought of myself as being good at any instrument, but I am determined to figure out how to get what I want out of them.

What is your opinion of guys like Squarepusher? Someone who is not only an electronic wizard, but also a musical virtuoso on bass.

I haven’t heard enough Squarepusher to know about that, but he’s cool too. Virtuosity is usually something I would make fun of, so I don’t think of him that way. [laughs]

Let’s talk a little bit about the music business – since the early 2000s, the real money has shifted from album sales to live performances, merch and music licensing. Recently, your music has been licensed for use in the HBO TV show Silicon Valley. Who set up this deal? Are you looking to capitalize on more opportunities like this in the future?

My manager put that together with some cool Illuminati dudes. I got really lucky that in the world of things I could be licensed for, I’m with something I can be proud of and that’s rare. Every time I hear that intro, I’m still tripped out that it would even be considered for a TV show. I make music for myself and a lot of the things I do with it will turn off the majority. So the idea of something like this happening seems weird as it always did.

Overall, how has streaming and digital distribution affected the electronic music scene since Napster in the late nineties? 

I really don’t know because I was just a kid, but since 2007, being in a place where people keep track of what I’m selling, I haven’t noticed a huge difference.  I’ve heard stories and it sounds like it was an awesome time to be a band with any kind of following. I’m able to have the opportunities I have because of the Internet, pirating and shit so I can’t complain. The only issue I have is when companies make way more money off my stuff than I do. I’d rather you torrent my album than help pay for streaming-company X’s office party. Because I know if people like it, I’ll probably see them down the line at a show or maybe they’ll get my record on vinyl. I have a lot of friends who could use an extra hundo on the thousands of streams they receive, but these companies would rather keep the royalty rates low so they can get that deluxe chocolate fountain…you know, the one that’s got like three tiers. [laughs]

Sweatbox Dynasty is being released on Ghostly International. You’ve been with that label the past couple years. What do you like about it?

They do it right. I don’t feel compelled to be as much of a control freak with them because I know they got it covered. Self-releasing your music is great, but it’s cool to take the pressure off sometimes and just create. This is something I’m finally learning.

Any last words for Performer readers?

Black Moth Super Rainbow lives, motherfuckers!

Tobacco Sweatbox Dynasty

Tobacco Sweatbox Dynasty

Tobacco

Sweatbox Dynasty

Standout Track: “Let’s Get Worn Away”

PRE-ORDER NOW at GHOSTLY.COM

Release Date: August 19, 2016 on CD, LP, Digital and Cassette

photos by Matthew Gawrych

What do you think of our cover story on electronic musician Tobacco? Let us know in the comments below or drop a line on the Performer Magazine Facebook page or on Twitter @Performermag. And be sure to read more artist features and interviews from Performer.

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