Vocoder in the Wilderness
"I just go by Tobacco," says the cryptic leader of Black Moth Super Rainbow. "People don't really know me by my real name. It's better that way." Okay then, Tobacco it is. It's not so strange, actually, coming from a band with a Godzilla-worthy moniker and a guy who sings entirely through a vocoder.
"The first record was half vocoder and half my real voice," explains Tobacco, whose roboticized vocals are heady and hypnotic on the Pittsburgh band's breakthrough third album, Dandelion Gum. "I'll probably never go back to my real voice. I want to push the idea of the vocoder further than it's been pushed. It's taken people a little time to warm up to the fact that's the voice of this band, but it's truly not a novelty and it is my voice. I'm trying to make it as human as possible, I guess."
Again, that somehow makes sense in the context of Black Moth's spongy cosmic psychedelia, which summons a stoned Air loose in the woods of western Pennsylvania. It may appear goofy on the surface, but the lack of easily discernible lyrics simply makes the songs flow into one long, strange trip.
"It falls somewhere between instrumental music and regular vocal music," Tobacco reflects. "There's that face on every song, where you know there are vocals, but the face is like a blank mannequin face and the person listening can draw the face on."
But won't seeing Black Moth in concert ruin the mystery? "I'm trying to make it not do that. At least in the bigger shows we're doing right now, we're silhouetted onstage, and it's just the visuals that are standing out. You can see shadowy figures, but you can't see exactly what's going on."
The band's live lineup sees Tobacco on vocoder with two keyboardists, a bassist and a drummer. For those bigger shows, which just happen to be in support of the Flaming Lips, a guitarist has been added.
Still in a pleasant state of shock, Tobacco shares an anecdote about the origin of the Flaming Lips tour. "We had a show in D.C. back in June, and Bob Mould came to see it. [The band] had this talk, like, 'I wonder who else has heard of us?' And I was like, 'I wonder if the Flaming Lips have heard of us?' And the next morning, when we got home, there was an e-mail from their manager asking if we wanted to go out with them this fall."
Things seem to work that neatly as a rule in the parallel universe Black Moth inhabit, where song titles such as "Spinning Cotton Candy in a Shack Made of Shingles" and "Jump Into My Mouth and Breathe the Stardust" aren't hyper-pretentious jokes, but rather potent whiffs of imagination that actually befit each song's kaleidoscopic dimensions.
At the same time, it took three albums and a slew of side releases to earn this level of acclaim. "We weren't playing live for the first two [albums]," Tobacco concludes. "We were a little bit, but nothing like we're doing now. People maybe didn't take us too seriously at first because they thought it was me on a laptop just sequencing stuff. And maybe when we actually got out there at South By Southwest this year, they realized it was a full band. I'd say that was what kicked everything off."
With all due respect to Black Moth's live prowess, Dandelion Gum has a lot to do with it, too. It's bouncy yet creepy-crawly and pleasantly splintered, with woozy flares of psych amid homemade beats and cloudy keyboard wizardry. Even the much-discussed vocoder seems almost organic, and many songs could command a spontaneous dance party as easily as anything by Klaxons.
Bolstered by his sudden success, Tobacco is shopping around a solo album. "I finished a DVD and record this summer," he says. "It's more hip-hop [influenced]. The next [Black Moth] record is going to sound a lot more like a full band and will probably be a little less hip-hop. I'm kind of splitting the idea of what I do [with each]."
If anyone can make that work, it's a faceless robot named Tobacco.
BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW PERFORM WITH JUPITER, AUDITORY APHASIA, TODD C. & THE BIBLE CHILDREN, AND ODD NOSDAM AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA, (714) 647-7704; WWW.THEGLASSHOUSE.US . TUES., 7 P.M. $8-$10.
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