The many faces of Eugene S. Robinson
Sometimes, you get what you ask for. When our request to speak with Eugene Robinson suddenly became a reality, there was a sense of great excitement followed quickly by a sort of terror. For those who may not be familiar with the many facets of his work, Eugene well and truly lives up to the definition of a renaissance man: Not only is he the vocalist/frontman for the avant hardcore band Oxbow, he is also a tremendously engaging author as well as a renowned pugilist and martial practitioner.
This is deep water for anyone and as the realization set in, my mind began to race. It would not be enough to simply meet this challenge. The only way out would be to step up and make the most of it. The question was “HOW?”. Fight fire with fire and call for backup.
Enter Aesop Dekker. Ageless and enigmatic, Aesop is one of the “wise old owls” of all that is heavy. His contributions to the heavy go beyond his work as a drummer with Agalloch, The Worm Ouroboros and Ludicra. He is also the curator of the revered Cosmic Hearse and a brilliant mind in his own right.
“What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Fasten your seatbelt, motherfuckers. You’re about to find out.
Our journey begins with our two intrepid heroes engrossed in a discussion about high art and the pitfalls of going beyond the call of duty into, well… let’s the boys take it from here. Enjoy.
Eugene: The pictures were supposed to be, you know, look the guy (Jock Sturges) was being lauded as a persecuted artist. But the person who turned him in and worked at the photo place was like, “Yeah, I know the dude’s an artist, but the photographs I called the cops over were not right. The guy was not right”.
Aesop: It’s kinda weird that this guy is doing “high art photography” and then having it developed at Walgreen’s or something, you know?
Eugene: It wasn’t Walgreen’s it was…
Aesop: A professional photo lab?
Eugene: Yeah, that’s how we knew the person. It was a high-end place where you go to get your stuff developed. This person said, “I appreciate his art, but this stuff that came in was different”. So that guy got a bye.
Terry Richardson, you follow that guy long enough… (laughs) You know… The only one of those guys that’s really straight is a friend of mine, Richard Kern. He’s a pursuing a singular vision.
Aesop: I don’t know that Richard Kern has ever claimed that he was doing this magnanimous feat for the art world. I don’t think he over-thinks it. I know women that have worked for him and they’ve said that, “yeah, he’s just kind of a perv that takes pictures”.
Aesop: He’s really good at it, but I don’t think there are any pretentions.
Eugene: But even then, I think his perv days are past. I think now, it’s about rent, you know? Not to take anything away from the guy’s artistry but I think that whatever obsession that he was working on when he was starving and 24 is probably different than the obsession that he’s working with now that he’s 52.
Aesop: I wonder how much of it is, “This is what I know and this is what I do and now I’m really good at it”.
Eugene: “I like pipes, I’m a plumber”.
Aesop: Right, right. I imagine it being like a really good plumber and then plumbing sort of takes on this sort of comfort, I guess.
Eugene: We listened to this interview with a truck driver on the radio. Like man, I can’t escape this… the guy clearly just hates the life he’s chosen. The guy’s been a trucker for 32 years but nothing in his voice would indicate that it gave him any pleasure. (laughs) But when you’ve been on the road for a period of time, alone… you know that can change a person!
Aesop: Yeah, I think it’s maddening.
Eugene: With a band, it’s cool. I did the book tour alone? Very different experience.
Aesop: Oh good. I was going to ask you about what the experience was like between the two. Also, dealing with publishers versus dealing with labels, did you find that there were a lot of similarities where you were struggling to get your pay and making sure that everything was on the level?
Eugene: No. With Harper Collins for the Fight book (Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking) it was pretty cut and dried. As art projects go, it was probably the least painful thing ever. They gave me a check for $10,000 and said, “Get writing”. There was some confusion about when it was due – which was probably my fault – but I don’t start writing until I have a contract and they figured, “We’re talking about it… That’s kind of a contract. You should start writing”. But you know, I got a call one day: “Where’s the book?” I go, “It’s not finished. I haven’t got the contract”. They go, “Yeah, but it’s supposed to be due four months from…” and I go, “No. It’s four months from when I sign”.
So then I deliver the book, I had one editor, one copy editor, one legal guy. They changed one thing that made me unhappy. It was one subhead that I had over the wrestling section that he changed to, “Grapple This”. I had originally written, “It’s Only Gay If There’s Eye Contact” (everybody laughs) …which came from some popular fight meme. So he changed it and I said , “Why’d you change that??” I didn’t catch it until after. He says, “Well, Jonathan,” the guy who took over Harper Collins after they fired Judith Regan over the whole OJ Simpson thing…, “is gay”. And I said, “He, of all people, would have appreciated the humor”.
Aesop: Did he ever see it?
Eugene: I met the guy in the hallway for five minutes.
Aesop: …and at that point…
Eugene: The book was done, yeah. So they paid and when the book was delivered, they gave me the other check for $10,000 and that was beautiful. Everything that happened after that was miserable. (laughs)
Aesop: Was it just going on the tour?
Eugene: No, no. Their whole approach to marketing, I mean this is where indie labels, which was where my only experience has been. I had one major label thing through Lisa Palac who used to do Future Sex magazine, which was some sort of binaural, audio reading of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”. Some weird project that I got called into. That’s the closest I’ve come to any major label deal. I showed up, sang and left.
This is where indie labels – at least the ones that I’ve dealt with – have it really dialed in. They know their market. They know what they’re doing. Harper Collins was like shooting a circus cannon over the nation and just hoping.
I mean, “Are you guys gonna take any ads out?” and they said, “Nah. The best ad is a good review”. “Are you guys gonna send any review copies out?” and they say, “Well, we found that magazines don’t really convert to sales”. I go, “Who are you gonna send it to?” (pause) ”Radio”. Well, I started to think, “Have I ever bought a book that I heard about on the radio?”
Aesop: Hmmm… actually… maybe.
Eugene: Yeah! OK. I’ll buy that. So I did a lot of radio interviews. They didn’t bother to get to magazines. I got to magazines. They had some ideas that I thought were crappy at first and then I came around to thinking, “Yeah, those are probably pretty good ideas”. But they don’t communicate with you. They communicate with you about as well as they would with the guy who designed the dust jacket.
Aesop: Right. “We’ve got the book, it’s our thing now and we’ll sell it how we wish.”
Eugene: But they don’t do anything else.
Aesop: I’ve had that same encounter with labels – even smaller labels – and you find yourself wondering, “Are you an employee or are you mine?”. But at the end of the day, I always think, “We made this thing together. We both have a vested interest in getting it out there”.
Eugene: I’m completely OK with the collective aspect. With music, we do this thing, you do that thing and we come together to make this thing happen, but mine was an unusual situation.
Fundamentally, I’m really happy that it happened the way that it did. It could have gone a lot worse. When Judith Reagan went, they could’ve flushed all her projects down the toilet and just said “Good luck to you”.
So they did the book. The woman who was head of PR worked on the book and quit soon thereafter. The guy who was my editor quit soon thereafter. If that stuff had happened two months before, I wouldn’t have had a book out, you know? As things go, it’s very typically Oxbowian. (laughs) But still, I got further than the guy who never got (an opportunity) to begin with. I sold 9,475 some-odd copies.
Aesop: That’s not bad!
Eugene: But it’s a failure in their minds. For the book to be a significant thing of interest to them, it has to sell over 10,000. It won’t be pulped, but it wasn’t what they were hoping for. In actual fact, I was really happy with those numbers, but I know the numbers could have been a lot better.
Aesop: Contingent on promotion…
Eugene: Well, the MMA community is like the music community. If you give me a thousand dollars, I could probably advertise to every single MMA website out there. Or alternatively, I could have gotten a copy of the book and done interviews with them. But I don’t wanna be one of those guy, like the guys in bands that complain, cause I did the label side of things too.
Aesop: I’ve always found that…
Waitress: Some more coffee??
Eugene: Could I get some more syrup?
Aesop: I’ve always found that you never meet anyone in a band that says, “Our label is great”, you know?
Eugene: Hydra Head is great. I got zero complaints about Hydra Head.
Eugene: Zero. Guys at labels think that when you talk accounting, you’re talking about, “You get me a check”. No. I mean, for the stuff we do, the recompense is small.
Eugene: Thank you. We just wonder if people even like us. The cash is the last of our interests.
Aesop: Yeah, I was in a band that floundered on a label where the big issue was that they were really dead-set in this mentality that you have to tour to sell records.
Eugene: I got that. Right.
Aesop: I think that’s kind of an outmoded model because it’s almost like (the label is saying) “You go door to door and YOU sell these records”. Meanwhile, they’re not taking out ads, they’re not sending them to people and all they while they’re saying, “Look! We lost a nut on this record”. Well, “Can we have some tour support so we can go out and sell these records door to door?” and the answer is “No, we don’t have money to give you for that. We spent it all on you recording a record”.
Eugene: Right, right. And that’s the thing: People listening to 44 megahertz, listening to things on their hi-fi… they don’t care. I did a project with a guy who recorded it all on his laptop and nobody can tell the difference. He put hours and hours and hours into it but he’s an unemployed student. The labels are perfectly happy for that to be the case.
Aesop: I think a lot of the problem is that a lot of the people running labels are struggling to keep up with what kids want or what the technology is.
Eugene: It’s a terrible situation and I find it interesting that is happening to porn, but they’re fighting back in a way that the music industry and the RIAA can’t. (chuckles). They’re suing people and saying, “We’re not only going to sue you for $200 for stealing “Gummy Grannies” but we’re gonna put your name in the paper as someone who ordered “Gummy Grannies” and people are like, “OK! OK! OK! I’ll pay!!!” (laughs)
Aesop: I remember reading you said something about Oxbow wasn’t going to release records because you guys were upset about people downloading?
Eugene: We’re gonna release records, we’re just can’t release them the same way. The days of releasing a record on a Wednesday? Thursday, everbody’s file trading it.
Eugene: We’ve decided, “We don’t care how you get the music, whatever. I’m not going to argue about whether it’s stealing, you know? Some guys are like “What if you’re poor?”
Waitress: Are you guys doing OK?
Eugene: Yes, thank you. “What if you’re poor? What am I supposed to do? Deprive myself of music?!?”
What this is is returning the emphasis to the artifact where you can get some sense of wonderment and the like. Unless you live in your car, the issue of reducing your mass is insignificant. Do you really say, “Oh my god! If I didn’t have all those CD’s clogging up my aisle, I would be able to…” What? You know? So the issue is not mass.
(Some people say) “Well, I don’t wanna carry all those CD’s around in my car”. OK. It’s easier to listen to them that way. People now are coming to me and saying, “I really like you guys, but I have no idea what you’re singing about”. I go “It’s cause you’re stealing my music”. They go “No no! I got it through iTunes”.
Of course, somebody with an mp3 turntable can put it up online, but you know a 7” is cool. So we release eight songs on a full-length record, which would have come out before on a Wednesday, everyone would’ve stolen it on the Thursday. Now, we’re coming out with a 7” and the whole thing is non-sequential. So it’s not like, “If I buy four of these 7”s, I’ll have the whole record”. No, you won’t have the whole record because they’re all out of order and it requires a certain discipline or focus for us, because we have to, at the same time, have like a director amassing a b-roll (alternate takes) for a movie.
I’ve gotta remember, what was that guy shooting that day? What was the emotional tenor of this whole project so that at the end, when the year expires, because we haven’t decided if it’s going to be released every three months or four months because it has to be tied into a playing schedule. And Niko (Wenner, guitarist for Oxbow) is pushing for it to come out on BluRay with a bunch of extras from the studio and a nice package. If you add it up, the numbers don’t come out to be remarkably worse than just releasing just one CD.
Aesop: So it’s four 7”s that will be releases that will be released in sort of a staggered schedule?
Eugene: Yeah and of course, because unless every single song on that record is going to be less than 5 minutes, these are not the final versions because you lose 1 dB…
Aesop: In other words, they’re essentially bootlegs. You’re essentially bootlegging your own records and selling it in a cool package bit by bit by bit.
I think there’s kids now who are interested in physical product. I think records are selling better than CD’s in most cases.
Eugene: Somebody told me cassette tapes, which I don’t know if I’m ready to deal with.
Aesop: They’re weirdly back because you don’t even need a pressing plant. You can just dub ‘em off at home so…
And then you get old timers who are just like… I’m 40 and I have this weird phobia about parting with physical media.
Aesop: Because I don’t like this hypothetical thing. I mean it’s great for lost recordings, things you might’ve wanted to preserve as a teenage – It’s good for archiving. That’s the upside. You guys are re-thinking the way to put out records, re-think artwork and packaging to make it interesting and make it enticing.
Eugene: Hydra Head has a less serious thing that they do, which is to have tchotchkes. So they had the Oxbow beach towel and coffee cups. It’s not wrong-headed at all. For an insignificant cost, what’s wrong with an Oxbow beach towel? It’d be really nice to have one but we sold ‘em all. There are no more.
Aesop: You should have a beach towel release party. On the beach!
Eugene: (laughs) That’d be great!
Aesop: I wanted to ask you guys about the fact that there’s a pretty good distance between you guys now, or…
Eugene: Emotional or physical? (laughs) No, Greg lives in Sunnyvale. Niko lives in San Francisco and the bass player and I live in Palo Alto.
Aesop: Oh! I thought that Niko lived in Germany.
Eugene: No, he was bi-city there for a while between London and here, but that’s not happening now.
Aesop: Do you guys practice regularly?
Eugene: Every Tuesday and Thursday. Of course, I’m late Tuesday and Thursday because I’m fighting two times a day both days.
Aesop: OK, I wanted to ask you about fighting questions. I’ve got a lot of questions about that, but I want to make sure I’ve got all of my Oxbow questions out of the way first. Actually, tying into this series of 7”’s, something about the previous records… definitely with Narcotic Story, there’s a theme and a linear story that’s very clear, but you said these aren’t really sequenced in any certain order.
Eugene: No, they are! Going forward, the Thin Black Duke, the next one, the 7”s will not be released sequentially. So you’ll have song one and four. The second one, you’ll have cuts two and six. It’ll be harem-scarem in order to keep you from having the first half of the record.
Aesop: I see. Essentially, you’re beating file sharing by giving the record a little at a time and making put in a lot of effort to get it online. Interesting. OK, I get it.
Eugene: …and of course, all of it is limited edition, too. So if you’re just one of those people who’s going to wait and file share it, if you’re just half-assed committed, you’re not going to hear the record for another year. Of course, when you do hear it, it’ll be on BluRay with a bunch of extra stuff, if we can convince them to do it.
Aesop: So was there a theme running all the previous Oxbow records?
Eugene: Of course. I mean, if you laid them end-to-end, it was probably the most significant form of diary keeping that I’ve ever done because I’m way too paranoid to keep an actual diary.
Somebody wrote me the other day, cause I was joking about all the guest spots I’ve ever done, I want to put them all on a few CD’s, she said, “There’s a lot of songs about killing women”. I said, “In actual fact, if you listen, I’ve got a lot of songs about killing people”. (laughs) She named a couple and I go, “You’ve misidentified. Those two songs are actually about a couple – a man and a woman – killing the woman’s husband. Actually, two of those songs that you’ve misunderstood…
Aesop: These songs are on?
Eugene: I did a song with Ultraphallus, the Belgian band, called The Red Print. I think she had misidentified songs off of King Of The Jews. “Angel” is the song where of course, the husband is the one that gets killed. So she said, “I don’t want to condemn because it’s obvious that you love women so much. It just seems strange that you’d be pursuing this”. I go, “No, it’s more about murder. Less about gender, much more about murder”. (laughs)
Aesop: I was going to ask you about the DVD, the movie about the European tour. I think I’ve explained it to people that… Oxbow’s been a band for over 15, 16 years…
Waitress: Is everything OK?
Aesop: Everything is great, thank you. Twenty years. I’ve been aware (of Oxbow) since the early ‘90’s. I’ve explained it that the band is relatively obscure and a lot of people who are aware of the band are musicians who are digging a little bit deeper. It always comes up that I’m explaining to people who don’t know about the live show and that there’s this element of fear…
Aesop: …and I have this anecdote that kind of goes with it where I was watching you guys play at The Eagle and there weren’t many people there. I think maybe twelve or thirteen people…
Eugene: (laughs) Yeah, that sounds about right!
Aesop: …and I was sitting and watching you guys play and I was sitting on a keg in the front and I was engrossed and I had seen the movie and I’d seen what happens sometimes with the audience participation aspect and I remember getting this weird feeling where we made eye contact and I had this dread, where like, “I think I’m about to be attacked”
Eugene: (laughs) “I don’t know… my spider sense is tingling”
Aesop: It was absolutely that. It was like maybe of years living in cities, being street-wise. It was just like, “I’m the guy. I think I’m the guy tonight”
Eugene: “I think I’m in the show tonight”.
Aesop: I think I’m the guy tonight. And I just remember scrambling and grabbing my coat and heading out.
Eugene: (laughs) It was probably a wise move!
Aesop: Has it ever happened where the other people in the band ever come at you and said, “Can we not do that tonight?”
Eugene: No! And this is where Oxbow has this sort of Grateful Dead-esque kind of symbiosis thing happening. I am frequently triggered by them (the other members of Oxbow).
Aesop: Because they want this claim to fame?
Eugene: No, not that way at all. It’s really strange. There’s a video where I attack some guy in Washington DC – a guy from the band Amplified Heat.
My mind is always at work – it’s not just a physical process – and as I’m working, I’m caught in this discursive loop of like, “Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not entirely sure what’s happening” right? So I’ll look around me for the most reasonable person on stage. Maybe it’s my bass player… the drummer’s pretty oblivious and focused on something else, but I’ll look to another band member. More often than not Niko, and Niko triggers it. (laughs) Because if Niko looks annoyed, then something is really transpiring that needs to be dealt with.
So in the case with the Amplified Heat guy, I’ve seen the video, which is weird ‘cause I’ve never seen videos of myself fighting unless I’m losing usually and I don’t have any videos of those competitive fights. Not that I haven’t won, but nobody’s been taping those. So the (Amplified Heat) guy is chattering away and Niko looks over and I kinda go to the edge of the stage to quiet him – physical presence to quiet him – and just as I turn back around, the guy starts talking again. And you can see me shoot a glance to Niko and Niko goes and kind of looks at the guy… and then I go, that’s IT! That was the trigger.
I mean, in another situation, I was at a party and some biker guy stood in front of me and wouldn’t move. The police had come and I was trying to get out of the way. I try to move to the left, the guy steps to the left, I move to the right…he moves to the right, I realize this isn’t accidental.
Eugene: So I look at him like, “What are you doing? I’m just trying to get out the way. Could you move?” So I’m like “Okay…”
What do you do? I’m faced with this random and inappropriate hostility. So I do the same thing: I look around and see this friend of mine, like, “What do I do with this guy?” My friend just goes (makes a punching motion) and that was the trigger. Boomboomboom! Knock ‘em out, knock ‘em down!
Aesop: So it sounds to me like in this strange way, you’re using people that you’re close to, you rely on them to gauge whether it’s appropriate.
Eugene: Yeah! As a sounding board, yeah! I’m seeking the community’s take on what’s happening. I would not attack somebody at a live show without this unless I’m physically attacked, you know?
Some guy in Bristol… There’s a group of women standing at the front, stroking my genitalia. Fine. And it was gentle, you know? I don’t know if one of them was his girlfriend – and the only reason I know about it was that he wrote a blog about it. He goes, “I don’t know what came over me…” (laughs)
Aesop: That’s regret. What’s come over him at that point is a deep-seated regret.
Eugene: (laughs) A deep and abiding sense of regret. He says, “Maybe I had too much to drink, but I reached up and I grabbed his cock and his balls and I just squeezed as hard as I could”.
And I remember this because I remember what I did next… Bupbupbupbupbup!! All the photographers were right by the photo pit and they just scrambled like “Eugene’s going crazy! CRAZY!” The craziness happened when he grabbed me, you know?
Aesop: I think any man would react in that manner.
Eugene: And that’s when I felt some sense of obligation to the community of people who were excited about Black Face. Rollins was a friend of mine and I talked with Chuck about this as well he goes, “Henry had such a hard time…” Henry, to a certain degree, invited that, you know?
He and I share certain qualities of masochism. Right now, lifting my left arm is very difficult, because I’ve been training ten times this week. But the staged kind of masochism that he exhibited, curling into a fetal ball by the monitors so people could spit on him, kick him… No way!
If you’re thinking that Black Face is going to be a Black Flag redux, to the point where you can hurl full cans of lager at my head and not suffer repercussions, you’re crazy!
Aesop: You know, I saw Black Flag probably ten times between 1984 and 1987 and he (Rollins) had no problems with brawling people and throwing a punch.
Eugene: That’s what Chuck said and I said, I’ve seen those guys play a lot and I’ve seen it more the other way then where he’s actually hit somebody. Or he’s hit somebody but not enough so that the guy knows that he’s been hit. So then he’s now fighting whereas I‘m not going to fight with you. I’ll hit you to stop you. (Black Face has since been disbanded by Chuck Dukowski according to Eugene Robinson on account of “’feelings’ according to Chuck.”)
(random female obviously swoons, waitress comes by…)
Aesop: Do you have any advice for bands that…
Waitress: Would you like some more coffee??
Aesop: Yeah, I’ll have one more cup, that’d be great.
Do you have any advice for bands who encounter these sorts of situations but are comprised by total pussies?
Eugene: I think that, look… guys in bands have been talked out of thinking that what they do is artistic. There’s this weird kind of nether purple zone of like, “OK, I’m a loser with a band, some friends, we hang out …we’re just here about fun…
Aesop: But the glut of terrible bands sort of reinforces that.
Eugene: That’s true, but for the ones of us that are spending the time improving the quality of our playing and getting our music to meet the dictates of our souls, as arch as that may sound, these are the ones who say “Look, I’m fundamentally here to produce an artistic event and nobody threw a can of beer at Picasso’s head. You’ve paid for this. If your desire for this is collectively that we leave, that’s fine.”
All these clubs though, the question that I have is, “Where are the bouncers?” Every time I’m attacking somebody, where is the security that is mentioned in the contract that is supposed to be here? I’m supposed to take tickets at the front and then defend the band and then do the sound and then sing?!?
Aesop: So what you’re saying, you think a lot of bands just sort of accept this because they’ve devalued their art?
Eugene: Right! You know? I’m plugging me! I get paid no matter what!
Aesop: Yeah, I’ve been in bands where you get paid half when you show up and half when you leave. Especially if it’s bands that have been in that are known for hijinx. I’m sorry but whether you throw us out or dislike our band or not doesn’t negate the fact that we drove here and paid for the gas.
Eugene: Right right right.
Aesop: But you raise an interesting point in that one of the reasons that I think that Oxbow is successful – whatever that means – is even though you guys are one of these cult bands because you guys don’t play that often, you don’t release records that often so when you do, it’s an event. By doing so, you’ve set the value very high versus bands that take any show that’s given to them, do any dumb compilation of any split record that’s offered to them, devalue their band.
Eugene: But you know what? We have said, we used a have an idea of “anytime, anywhere” but the process is so rigorous that people end up, from our end, end up falling by the wayside long before we do. Our level of quality and endurance, it’s like… There’s this woman in France who’s going to release this DVD. She followed us around for two years and recorded stuff and she said, “I want you guys to be involved. Could you write something?”
I was thinking these chords because they recall the ethos and the vibe of Narcotic Story and this should mark a departure – this is post-Narcotic Story. So she’s like, “Okay. What about this illustration?” And we said, “That doesn’t speak to the soul of the stuff that’s on it.” So top to bottom, the audio stuff, the music, the art to the way the credits are listed, we pay attention to it. Niko said, “That’s one thing you need to remember about this: It’s going to last longer than you do”.
Aesop: That’s right. I absolutely believe that. I mean, I think a lot of bands are torn between, “Do you play live shows forever?” You know, I find that as I get older, I become more interested in records because you’re creating something that wasn’t there before and now it exists. You know people always make the analogy that a band is like a marriage or a relationship you have and the records, I think, are your children. Whereas a live show is like a party you attend.
Eugene: Could be. It came up recently because we have a show coming up in New York and somebody asked if they could record it. I said, “What kind of camera do you have?” And the guy says, “Just a little flip thing” and I said, “you know what? You asked for my opinion, I’ll tell ya, I don’t like the idea. I don’t like looking into the audience seeing this sea of red lights and people behind their phones. You’re experiencing the recording of it, you’re not experiencing what’s really going on. Only lunatics do you see in a hurricane with their cell phones up.
Aesop: And also I think that half the time, these people never even watch this footage again.
Eugene: So you put it up on YouTube so you can do what? Reward the people who were too lazy to show up?
Aesop: Or to say like, “I was there. You weren’t. Haha.”
Eugene: Maybe. But then I complained about it at practice on Tuesday and Dan said, “You know what? I was on YouTube…” Wait a minute… I need one of your French fries here.
Aesop: Yeah, go ahead man.
Eugene: I really want to get the poison going, you know what I mean? And he said, “I was online at YouTube, lookin’ up some stuff and I saw some Eric Dolphy…
Aesop: One of my favorites.
Eugene: Yeah! Anyways, it’s also a documentary artifact of music and art created by us. From my point of view, it makes it harder for me to get away with stuff.
Aesop: It’s made me, I think, a better live performer because now I’m like “Shit! We suck!” and then tomorrow, everyone sees it.
Eugene: (laughs) I’m gonna eat all your French fries, by the way.
Aesop: Go ahead man. So in a weird way, it’s the things you love and hate about technology – even people – it’s often the same things. You find that you’re embarrassed about something that goes up but if your reaction is to crumble, you’re not in the game. But if your reaction is to get better…
Eugene: My concerns are much like people who come to Oxbow shows, I don’t really have any succinct idea of what’s going to happen at any given show, but I do know if someone’s there recording and it goes up on YouTube, it will make it hard for me to get a job. (laughs) This much I know for sure. So until Oxbow is paying me enough money so I don’t have to worry about people being freaked out by me throttling some guy or putting my thumb in his eye or doing whatever…
Aesop: You know, that may be a selling point in some fields.
Eugene: You know, it could be. I was Editor In Chief at EQ magazine for like three years.
Aesop: That’s right because I played in a band (Ludicra) with John Cobbett who had a column there really briefly…
Eugene: Oh yeah! So I mean, “Editor In Chief” at a music magazine and two weeks after I accepted the job, I was on tour with Oxbow playing in Chicago at the Adventures In Sound And Music thing sponsored by Wire magazine and I got a call from the marketing woman and she goes, “Do you have anything so we can put out a press release announcing that you’re here?” So I sent her one of my really pro-forma press releases but in this day of Google, she was like, “I need to beef it up a bit”. So she types “Eugene Robinson music” and the Oxbow stuff comes up and it was the trailer for Music For Adults. So she took it to the CEO…
Aesop: So now she seeing you in your underwear pummeling a guy.
Eugene: …and they take it to the group VP and they’re all talking about it. I found this out later because I became friends with all of these people, but they’re like, “What do we do?” … “I don’t know? What do we do?? Is this going to be bad for the company?”
Finally, the CEO decided that she was going to sell me and she said, “You know what? The fact that he’s in a cool band… this is a plus.”
Aesop: Yeah, that’s a selling point, I would think
Eugene: So she had to go to the guy who was the big boss in London and says, “Look, I just want to let you know the situation: We’ve got this guy. He’s edgy”. Edgy! They’re all sitting in this big meeting room looking at this video clip and they’re like, “…I think it’s OK. Let’s just give it a month”.
So the VP comes to me later and says, “I’ve seen your movie”. And I say, “Which one? I’ve been in a few movies.”
Eugene: …and she says, “The one with your band.” So I said, “Oh, cool”. And she goes, “Don’t worry. Everybody around here has interesting lives”. I go, “I wasn’t worried until you said ‘Don’t worry’” and she goes, “No, no – it’s fine. …but I was like that close”.
This was a music magazine so if you add in a computer magazine and some of the other magazines. I used to work for a defense magazine…
Eugene: At a certain point when I was doing a thing with Barry Adamson, I realized that at a certain point, given the way that information has changed and flows around the world, a lot of us are going to be forced to live from our heart. I’ve maintained this kind of kept existence for a long time, working the straight, corporate Silicon Valley job and then doing music but it’s getting harder and harder to do that.
I was at Mac Life magazine, I’m walking through the hallway going to the toilet, leaving my desk, some guy goes, “What are YOU doing here?!?” and I’m like, “Where should I be?”
Aesop: Get a face tattoo or you hands tattooed, you’ve sealed the deal.
Aesop: I encounter weird things like, I have a kid in school and parents are often younger than me and know about bands that I’ve been in or doing and I always come around to thinking, “Fuck it”. The best way is to just not do anything that you’re ashamed of.
Eugene: Yeah, and see the thing is, you’re sitting here perfectly comfortable talking to me and we’re having a decent conversation, but you DID leave the Oxbow show. (both laugh) So I mean, nobody wants that in their workplace.
(both cracking up)
Actually, it was at EQ magazine and I was disagreeing with a co-worker… now, keep in mind, if you go into any corporation the first thing you do, if you‘re a smart guy is to look at the org chart so you can see who can boss you around. So I look at the org chart and this guy is telling me to do something and I know from the org chart that it’s a parallel thing – we’re equals. But he’s just trying to snow me into thinking something else. I said look, nobody told me to do this and he goes, “You need to…” and I disagree. That’s not what I’ve heard and I want some confirmation and the guy’s really trying to drive this point home. And I finally push back from my computer and sit there at the desk and I kinda laugh and I say, “Look. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna beat me up?”
Eugene: Of course, I would say that to my friends, I would say that to the guys that I train with but I could see, his face got really red he was really upset and he says, “OK, OK – I’ll deal with it later” and he walks away. In that context, the guy was feeling threatened but I was using it as a turn of phrase. But unless you’re gonna start slapping me around? Well, that’s not gonna work either… but he was like upset and the thing is if you joke, I don’t know… if you’re joking about being a crazy killer and you’re a crazy killer, it’s not a joke. (laughs) I might joke about fighting the guy and I can actually fight, so maybe it wasn’t so funny to the guy.
Aesop: I need an org chart for life.
Eugene: That’s perfect! If a guy is naked on the street, on the org chart, he outranks you. (both laugh).
I saw a guy, I was driving with one of my kids and she said, “Look dad! There’s a guy jogging… naked!’ And I look out the window and sure enough, there’s this guy jogging naked. I go, “He looks pretty happy” and she says, “Yeah, he looks really happy”. I go “Oh look, the police are there. Let’s see what the police do”. So both cops look up, they look at each other… and they look away. (laughs)
It’s like “We know he doesn’t have ID and I don’t want him in the car naked”. So clearly, the cops knew. They saw the org chart.
(both crack up)
Aesop: I used to work with Scott Kelly and we’d have this bicycle ride from the shop we worked at in Emeryville to the train station and there’d be this gauntlet of people throwing garbage and rocks at us.
Aesop: We always used to joke that if we were just naked, people would just be like, “Let ‘em go”. Because no one wants to fight a naked guy.
Eugene: Nobody! (laughs)
I got into a fight naked once having that very same idea in my mind that I had a better chance against this guy who was like the third best wrestler in the state, naked because he’d be more squeamish than I would if I had clothes on. I mean, I got out of the shower and we start arguing. He was a roommate of mine and we were arguing over the phone.
Eugene: I go, “It’s my phone! You leave it in my room”. He goes, “I’ll do whatever I want”. “No you won’t, you leave it in my room or I’ll take it and hide it”. He goes, “You hide it and I’ll kill you!” “Now that I know that, I’ll kill you first!” So he says, “Let’s go!” and I mean… I was naked! I just got out of the shower and you do that calculation in your head: “This is the best chance I got”. (laughs)
So I fought him and that’s when I was not so much of a good wrestler and he got me with that smother that I use all the time now actually.
Aesop: So you learned a couple things.
Eugene: This was 1983. I was just taking Karate, weightlifting and boxing then.
Aesop: I wanted to ask you a few things about fighting. So like, the professional, semi-professional competitive fighting…
Eugene: Something else I don’t make money at.
Aesop: I know nothing about the world of organized fighting.
Eugene: You know what it is? It’s kinda like where Punk Rock was at in 1982, ’83 when some people were starting to make real money but it’s still largely unaffected by the money and driven by passion, you know? You got a few guys driving around in Rolls Royces but that’s 1%. Most of the guys are fighting at county fairs and driving up in Hyundai’s.
Waitress: Together or separate?
Aesop: Is it like a league? Is it an independently run thing? Is it your goal to get up into the ranks…
Eugene: Naw, I’m an old man. I compete. My last fight was two months ago. I took third place. It was out in Antioch or someplace. There’s a circuit for guys… we’re all hobbyists. More fight enthusiasts but I need more than a Tap Out t-shirt. You wanna test yourself.
The worlds (championship) are coming up in LA in I think November (2011) so I’m gonna go do the Worlds (winning a silver medal after getting injured and losing the gold). I’m doing submission fighting, I got offered an MMA thing yesterday but we’re talking $500 maybe. But I’m training for MMA and I’m doing submission fighting all the time and it ties in really nicely. There’s no way I could do an Oxbow show if I wasn’t fighting. No way.
Eugene: Dukowski said something to me funny about Black Face. He goes, “You know what would be really cool? If Black Face toured with Oxbow”. And I was like Mr. bass player, are you fucking kidding me?
Aesop: Yeah, right. You don’t wanna do that.
Eugene: Just think about me as a singer having to sing for two and a half, three hours. I’m in shape, but… not only that, we’re talking about the type of psychic… What I’m going to put into Black Face is going to be well beyond beyond! I’m not going to be able to bounce back to do anything else after that.
Eugene: Yeah! Oh yeah!
Aesop: How did that come about? Was that something that he asked you to do or did you reach out to him?
Eugene: We had been friends for years and Chuck was always my favorite guy in Black Flag.
Aesop: I’m a huge Black Flag nerd. That’s the band that sincerely changed my life and my vision. I think that time has told that he was the most grounded and centered person and also a major creative force. Writing songs later on in their catalogue…
Eugene: I stopped listening to Black Flag after Slip It In.
Aesop: I like all the records. Even come around to the instrumental stuff.
Eugene: That stuff was cool. But Who’s Got the 10½, to me, lyrically and musically, I found less interesting.
Aesop: The problem was, at that point, after Bill Stevenson left, was my thing. They did that one tour where they had the two kind of like “rock guys”, you know, I don’t think got it.
Eugene: Not Emil but C’el.
Aesop: C’el and Anthony Martinez on drums. But a lot of bands break up long before they stop playing shows and touring and making records. You’ve seen the Dave Markey movie Reality 86’d? The documentary about the last Black Flag tour? You could just tell that the passion was completely gone a that point.
Eugene: The problem now that I’ve gotten to know these guys better is – and this is what Oxbow has embraced – despite whatever personal issues we may have and in Oxbow, there are very few issues at all, we’ve understood that everybody’s contributing something valuable. We feel perfectly comfortable having our decisions being made by consensus and not democratic warring. It’s not like three of the four people think something should be done one way, it gets done – nope. If you’re willing to submit to that process, that means you’re also willing to talk.
The artwork for Let Me Be a Woman, we fought over that or talked about that for longer than we even worked on the record. From lyrics to last note recorded, we spent more time discussing the various merits of the artwork than we did on anything else.
Aesop: And that’s good because you have a situation where everybody’s happy and no one’s going to come back two years from now and hurt about it. I just went through a situation where a band that I was in dissolved because after 12 or 13 years (Ludicra). We could not make that work because we had five people that wanted to do vastly different things, so it was impossible. I don’t believe in democracy, I believe in meritocracy.
Aesop: It’s like, if you’re the best artist, then you make the art. If you’re the best songwriter, you write the songs. If you’re the best at dealing with people on the phone, then you book the shows. But if you’re not, that person, get the fuck out of that person’s way and let them do their work, you know?
Eugene: After talking to Chuck about Black Flag I felt really so lucky that Oxbow and Whipping Boy before it was relatively smooth comparatively speaking. I’ve only been in three bands, you know? Al and the X’s, I played sax and then Whipping Boy and then Oxbow.
So I asked Chuck, “How dysfunctional was Black Flag?” and he was like, “There is no scale to measure it!” Part of it, I think, was that they had Greg’s idea of how to work: part of his idea how he works with live was not collective at all.
Aesop: Well, yeah – he’s always portrayed as this loner, visionary guy. That’s not somebody’s going to work well…
Eugene: Well, so was Ted Bundy but we have a different name for him though.
Eugene: But I like all those guys. I like them like you do. I found Black Flag to be transformative. Along with them and the Bad Brains. Probably bands I’ve seen, I came close to having a Grateful Dead type devotion. I’d see them in DC, I’d see them in New York, I’d see them in Detroit… Literally following them around the country.
Aesop: (thanks waitress).
Yeah, that’s sort of how it was for me. I always really liked music but then when I stated seeing Punk shows where I grew up in Miami, the first thing that immediately hit me was the approachability to these people. You could pick their brain. I mean, even like we’re doing now. And that just set me off on this avid letter-writing campaign. And then beyond that, pop stars? They were paper after that.
Eugene: Right right!
Aesop: These aren’t bands. These are just people that play music. And I’m really into this idea of these working class, tangible people that you can go, “Hey man. Can I have a sticker?”
Eugene: Yeah yeah!
Aesop: As you get older and meet people in all these sectors of life, that mentality kind of crosses into all kinds of things like you said with fighting and maybe in the literary community. But when you’re fifteen and sixteen and you grew up in a bullshit town, I mean Black Flag… these are your role models.
Black Flag also came to Miami four times a year. Other bands don’t do this. You can get in a van and tour the country? How cool is that?!? I think that they were the first to really hammer that idea down: That you don’t need a lot of money to do it.
Eugene: As far as I know, they were the ones who were not on a major label. They were the first. I saw them in New York play in 1980.
Aesop: First time I saw them was ’83, ’84? Right after all the legal troubles, My War. Right before My War came out. That was the first time I saw them but I’ve seen the Necros, I saw Die Kreuzen I saw Bad Brains a couple of times at that point.
Eugene: When I put together Whipping Boy’s first tour, I said Die Kreuzen that’s a cool band. I called Dan on the phone and I said, “Hey man, Could you help me?”
Aesop: …and they were the nicest people in the world.
Eugene: Yeah! We played Minor Threat’s last tour, starting in Lansing Michigan, which has always been terrible – there were like 25 people there for Minor Threat.
Aesop: It’s still terrible!
Eugene: It’s still terrible, I know! We gave up on it a few years ago. The community was not more than 1000 nation wide? No way. It was still a pretty small community.
Aesop: Right right. I remember that too. In a short time – I started seeing shows ’83, ’84 – when I moved, one of the last shows I saw in Miami, the Dead Kennedys played and 2000 people there. But of course, we were like “Half these people are poseurs” (laughs)
Eugene: But you know, they were early adopter poseurs.
Aesop: Well, that’s the whole thing too – the argument about hipster metal this and that now. How are you going to fault them? Not everyone falls out of their mom’s ass having a cool record collection.
Eugene: Yeah, I know. So I’m happy to be able to do it. I bugged Chuck about it for years. Sometimes when you listen to bands… strangely enough, the Cro Mags, I’m in touch with Harley a long time ‘cause he fights. And he’s like, “We should do some music together” and for the life of me, I listen to John Joseph sing and I don’t think he’s the greatest singer or the greatest performer but what he does vocally, I listen to it and I go, “I don’t see any room for improvement here”. I don’t see how I could ever do what he’s doing with his songs that would sound better than what he’s doing.
Aesop: Yeah, well, I kind of feel like that one record is amazing and then they were never able to recapture that in anything they did later.
Eugene: But there’s some bands you listen to and you say they’re great bands but you think, as a singer “I could tear that up! I could destroy that!” So with Chuck and Black Flag, maybe it was the presence of many other previous singers, you know…
Aesop: So you guys are writing new material?
Eugene: Yes! As his relationship with Greg got more and more strained, it got more and more impossible to get (things done). They had one of those weird deals that big famous bands had where you couldn’t contribute more than a certain percentage (of the songs on the album). Hüsker Dü had a deal like that where they had to have a percentage of who could contribute how many songs.
Eugene: So he played these things for me that were recorded already. We’ve recorded two, we’re gonna do three more. We’re doing it here at Monte’s place, Function 8. Monte used to play bass with Swell.
You can hear My War in these tracks, but of course, the vocals were never recorded. But you can feel that 1982-83 vibe coming off.
Aesop: Well the demos they did for that record were great. The ones with Chuck Biscuits.
Eugene: Yeah yeah! Right right! So getting in behind the mic to record these things at first, I was like “Aaahhh… Easy!” ‘cause we rehearsed the whole week and I was like, “I’m gonna rip this up!” Then we got in the studio and the whole weight of Black Flag history was like…
Aesop: It dawned on you.
Eugene: …and I was like, “I need a minute”. (laughs)
Aesop: You were like running around the block, come back in…
Eugene: I had to get my head clear! It was like when I did that Barry Adamson show with Nick Cave, kinda look up and go, “Man… I need a minute here”.
Aesop: I get that. I mean, I’ve had moments where I can’t believe I’m talking to this person.
…and there it fades to black…
Thanks and praise to the most high Greg Cristman | Greg C Photography