26 Dec 2021 - Thorsten
When we started brainstorming which bands we would like to interview for this end-of-year-marathon, our head honcho quickly came up with one band that he has been following for a very long time, which means for a long, long time. Then he wanted to dig deep to come up with some questions the band might have not been asked before - and thus we are very proud to present this interview with the one, the only Oxbow!
Interviewing someone like Eugene Robinson is every interviewer’s wet dream, as the singer of legendary San Francisco-outfit Oxbow is outspoken, witty and talkative. Thorsten talked with him about the band’s past, Eugene’s life outside of Oxbow, their upcoming record and much more!
Hi man where do I catch you doing what?
Sitting in my front room cramped with merch, jiu jitsu medals, books and knives. I plan to clean it someday but there’s only so much I can do with the space I have in the house I own.
I am sitting here because I am working, it should be noted. It’s the warmest room in the house and as Assistant Vice President of a human experience company called WONGDOODY, I’m trying to justify them having hired me as an Assistant Vice President.
How are the promos for the new record going?
I am unsure what the question means. But I tend to be tunnel visioned here. Next up for me would be some more vocals. If your question refers to when you’ll be able to listen to anything I’d round it out in years and say this time next year.
Talking about OXBOW one should not forget the predecessor Whipping Boy – to what extent was the name of that band a reflection of yourself?
To what extent is Eugene a reflection of me? You give a person, or a place or a thing, a name…and hope that the name easily and readily embodies the spirit of the thing in question.
But to be historically accurate Whipping Boy was the name thought up by band co-founder Steve Ballinger. Who was like 6‘6“ tall and weighed 265 pounds. Was the name a reflection of him? I don’t know. But I liked it as an idea.
OXBOW is a name I came up with for OXBOW and it still pretty correctly embodies me with its focus on the dual nature of our engagement with our lives, and times.
Eugene, you definitely are not a whipping boy – as one can see with your fighting background – which events led your interest in fighting?
Being beaten up and not liking being beaten up.
Was there any historical role model you had when growing up?
I was fond of Hercules. And Kato from The Green Hornet. Also known as Bruce Lee.
Whipping Boy was much punkier than OXBOW has ever been, you had strong connections to the Dead Kennedys and toured across the country in the early 80s. Which other famous bands did you share the stage with?
Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Effigies, Husker Du, The Minutemen, JFA, Dead Kennedys as you say, MDC…and after that the memory starts to fade….
On the other side, Whipping Boy consisted of members who were at Stanford, one of the most elite American universities. What did you study there, because it surely had not been playing football or basketball for The Cardinal?
All of Whipping Boy were Stanford folks…and Steve played Football for sure. Was headed to the pros before injuries changed all of that around. I played rugby before injuries changed that around. Dave and Sam were not athletes. I studied communications and religious philosophy, Steve and Sam studied human biology, and Dave studied engineering.
When listening to the OXBOW debut Fuck Fest from 1989 the hardcore roots are still clearly audible and I have heard people call it the foundation for what would later become Noise-Core (a la Blood Brothers) or Math-Core (a la Coalesce). Are those connections or rather comparisons which embarrass you which make you proud looking back on it?
I’m kind of a pastoral guy, an unsophisticated sort so I’m unsure what those genres means or in total what bands like that might sound like even if I know the bands you reference. Music is music is music to me. And as music I love Fuckfest. As a document of my life and times, degraded as they were then for a series of unfortunate emotional reasons, it makes me uncomfortable, still. Which I guess is what I was hoping it would do to listeners who were not me.
But much closer to pride than embarrassment.
I went and had dinner at a girlfriend’s parent’s house in a loin cloth once to make a point. THAT was sort of embarrassing. Not my near nudity. But it was just a super shitty thing to do. To make a point.
Over the years you have released on a number of really famous labels like Crippled Dick Hot Wax!, Hydra Head Records, Neurot Recordings or SST Records. It is interesting that in some ways you fit with all those labels and still were the outsiders on each of them. Is that a place where you like to be, inside and outside at the same time?
I don’t know. All of these labels were apt homes because of fellow travelers that while not musically aligned always, were at least spiritually so…but it’s where we end up. Liking it or not liking it doesn’t change that that’s how we end up. More a product of the music we make then anything else. But we’ve always been glad to be where we are when we’re there and we’ve been lucky enough to still be able to count some of these folks as friends.
What do you think was the best fit, if it’s possible to say so?
Really pretty happy with Ipecac right now. Hydra Head and Neurot were great too. SST for legacy reasons naturally. No nightmare stories with the exception of one label I haven’t mentioned the owner of which ghosted me when I asked for an accounting. And then I threatened him. And I’ve seen him once since then. And he fled before I could speak to him about my original threat. This happens sometimes.
Your next record is called Love’s Holiday and it will be released on Ipecac Recordings. How did that happen?
Like usual: we sent a song. They liked the song. Hands were shaken, contracts signed.
I love the ambiguity in the title – something you have always been known for – how do you come up with things like that?
Glad you got that. If you’ve been paying attention since Fuckfest you can see that our entire body of work has to a certain degree been a meditation on love…so this is the total ambit it seems. So it was logical. To me at least.
Another highly noteworthy ambiguity and important record title came with your second full-length King Of The Jews with Sammy Davis Jr on the cover. Do you think a band without an Afro-American singer would have gotten away with it?
Why not? It’s just Sammy. And he’s Jewish. Like me. I love Sammy.
Was that in any way a reflection of the band in itself back then?
Of course it was. Maybe even more so than my name is for me. But you’ve read the use of Sammy all wrong. But that’s is a common mistake. The assumption is always that OXBOW uses hammers. But we’re using scalpels. That slice very fine. Which means if your take is too simple, it’s not the simple take we’re going for.
How are you getting through these times nowadays when many of the things you tried to address with your songs are still not overcome yet? When many people still don’t see the deeper meaning behind King Of The Jews?
Well you’re not seeing the deeper meaning behind King of the Jews, hahahah….so we’re doing fine I guess. I mean what seems to be significant to you is that he is Black. What’s significant to me is the way in which he works as the Christ idealogue. And what that means about our value set.
You are running away from classification or labeling like the devil from the holy water – yet I guess that your own style of eclecticism (which works like a red thread through your oeuvre) is not intentional in the way that you set out to write an array of songs that do not fit to each other?
The songs DO all fit each other. If you were to take all of the lyrics and put them in order from all of the records a story would very clearly emerge. A narrative. With a beginning, middle and as we’re now in the midst of Love’s Holiday, an end. I’d like to make it easier for you but then I remember/know that OXBOW I make for me and we for us. It’s an honor to have others participate. Even when their takes vary so wildly from ours.
How must we envision OXBOW’s writing process? Is it a more spontaneous, flowing or rather clear-cut and carefully laid-out process?
The lyrics, which is my portfolio in the main, is ordered and backward. Taking the sense world and crafting from it eternal ideas. Versus the way it usually works which is to take from the gallery of eternal ideas and create a sense world from it.
But with Love’s Holiday, it is a lyrical explosion. Kind of an overture of 30 years of OXBOW in lyrical form with a heavy emphasis on now. Or at the very least 2018 when. Last recorded the lions share of vocals.
In regards to music? Well let’s let Niko/Dan/Greg answer that one.
Does it take more time nowadays to come up with new ideas or are you more careful laying out your records?
All of our ideas are OXBOW ideas at this point. So that’s not what takes the time. My guess as a passive participant to the production work that goes into making our records sound as they do is that great care is taken to get everything to be the most/best of itself at every and any given moment. So that will always be painstaking. Despite the fact that most people who don’t know think this can be done quickly. On a laptop.
The time in between records surely has increased a bit from the early days. But that is presumably more because of the fact that OXBOW is now not the centripetal point of every band member’s life. Eugene, your endeavors are well-known but what about the other band members?
I’ll let them answer but it’s not our outside activities that slow things down. I’m doing the vast majority of what I do outside of OXBOW because OXBOW can only do things the way OXBOW does things and I am largely panic-fueled and not able to wait for much since I know for sure I don’t have any clocks around here that run backward. Which is to say in my mind time is not to be wasted.
Not saying OXBOW’s tardiness is about wasted time. I’m saying, to quote David Lynch, that sometimes there’s a buggy and how many drivers does a buggy have? The answer is one. Niko is OXBOW’s co-producer with Chiccarelli. Joe Chiccarelli is used to working on schedules. Niko is not just a producer but also a musical creator and there are no schedules that work for the process of creating, it seems.
What I always loved about the last releases OXBOW was the way that your music works like a “trojan horse” - on the outside one can only guess at how much lies behind its seemingly nice facade. Is that your 2021-way of showing people what is going on? Can we expect the same from Love’s Holiday?
Well part of the issue is going beyond Thin Black Duke but in a way that is wholly OXBOW….we recorded 18 or 19 songs for this. Which for us is crazy. So now another issue emerges: which order of those songs best serves our reality. Is it two records? Or one? Or one and several singles? Lots of trojans. Lots of horses.
On Serenade in Red you had a feature by Marianne Faithful. How did that came into fruition?
I was obsessed with what she was doing on Stormy Weather I think was the name of the record…so I asked. It was a wonderful experience/experiment and still my favorite side thing she’s done. Sorry Metallica, Nick Cave.
If you could get the one feature (person dead or alive) you always wanted for the record after Love’s Holiday – who would it be an in which song would you embed it?
This was the first record that vocally/lyrically there was no room for anyone else. Bowie we had been bothering for Thin Black Duke. We didn’t know he was sick. But we had enough friends in common to make a reasonable approach. Same with Lou Reed on The Narcotic Story. Though after that abortion of a record he did with, again, Metallica, I was glad this hadn’t happened.
But recently I’ve gotten obsessed with singing with Melody Gardot. Or Sade. I would gladly go back and record something with either/both of them on it.
Your band originated in San Francisco, so I figure you have an opinion on the gentrification that is taking place in the city by the Bay? Are the tech-companies killing the city or a necessary evil?
Tech companies have put my kids through college. And put me in a house. And spent thousands of dollars funding OXBOW records. So It’s not the companies. It’s the zeroes that they hire who then hire other zeroes so that eventually anywhere there was anything interesting in San Francisco all starts to sound, if you listen not so carefully, like staff meetings. And they don’t even realize they’re doing it. HOWEVER if you live in a place for more than 10 years and you haven’t been able to figure out how to own your space, you’re flotsam and jetsam and can expect little else. And I’ve been here long enough now from my home city of New York to remember when the artist types were fucking things up for minority communities in San Fran sooooo….lots of tears to go around. But on Planet OXBOW there’s not a lot of pity to be spared. For anyone. For lots of reasons.
Are you still living in the city? Or did you do it like Neurosis and moved completely away from the Bay?
Niko is the only one who lives in San Francisco proper. Dan, Greg and I live in surrounding suburbs. So more Silicon Valley.
Have your musical projects ever influenced your prose writing, Eugene? Or vice-versa?
Yes. Always. My play The Inimitable Sounds of Love: A Threesome in Four Acts has leaked into lyrics over time.
Will the next record also be produced by Joe Chiccarelli?
How strange was it for you to be included on a list for the Grammy Awards when Joe was nominated?
Strange. Not at all. If you had any idea of the grandiosity that fuels our vision and our senses of self you should know my response was probably very much along the lines of “well it’s about goddamned time.”
When looking at photos of you, one cannot but help your sense of style – who comes up with these ideas for that uniform yet non-formative style?
Well I used to be editor in chief of a men’s fashion mag. And so I have clothes I was given for free and clothes that speak to different tones and timbres. But the suits suit me well I think.
What was the last record that really got you going? That really hit bull’s eye with you?
Scatterbox. Really wonderful quintessential hardcore. The way it used to be.
”Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” or ”San Francisco”? ”Dock of the Bay”.
Marvin Gaye or Buffalo Springfield? Marvin Gaye.
Isis or Dead Kennedys? Isis.
It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Straight Outta Compton? Nation of Millions
La langue française or the English language? English.
The Color Purple or LA Crash? LA Crash
Communication or confrontation? Communication IS confrontation.
Touring – smaller venues or big halls? BIG GIANT HALLS. To fit our balls.
Wine – red or white? Red. For the health benefits.
Roadburn Festival or Roskilde? Roadburn. A festival we’ve actually played
Converge or Coalesce? Converge. Just wrote about them for Decibel and have played with them a few times.
Snapcase or Sick of it All? Sick of it All….looking to write up them soon too.
Thank you for doing this, guys, we really appreciate it and wish you all the success you can get for the upcoming record. Would be awesome to see you at some point here in Europe again!
Thanks for asking!!! Hope this helps!