Tobacco Road: Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Frontman on Merging Lo-Fi and Hi-Fi

Most musicians don’t enter a recording studio for the first time to collaborate with Dave Fridmann, the producer known for his work with The Flaming Lips. But that’s the unlikely scenario that Tobacco, enigmatic frontman and songwriter for the sugary but sinister Black Moth Super Rainbow, encountered when he entered Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios in Western New York last November to record his new album, Eating Us [Graveface].

A certain amount of mystery hangs around Tobacco and his band’s true composition. Mostly a vehicle for music he writes and records at home—which is augmented with other musicians when touring—Black Moth Super Rainbow is known for warm, overripe synthesizer lines and hazy, vocoded vocals that exuberantly burst into multiple hues, and yet maintain a creepy, paranoid undertone. On Eating Us, Tobacco—along with bassist Ryan Graveface and drummer D. Kyler—trekked out to Tarbox with home recordings that would form the template of the new album. Tobacco had already recorded a complete version of the album at home on his Akai MPC2500, and he wanted to fuse his lo-fi style with Fridmann’s lush production.

“I was too scared to make the full jump into hi-fi, spend a month tracking everything, and then have Dave produce everything,” Tobacco says. “We wanted to see what we could do by mixing our two styles. He was the perfect guy to do things I never was going to do myself, but as it was him doing it, I was able to trust it. If I had done some of the things he did on my own, I would have been constantly secondguessing myself.”

In addition to maintaining the sound of previous albums Dandelion Gum and Start a People, Tobacco wanted to challenge the perception of people who think his music is “just hippie music.” In fact, when Tobacco started performing in high school in Pittsburgh, he was more entranced by the music of Boards of Canada. The Scottish band’s album, Music Has the Right to Children, and its use of warm analog synths, was a major influence. A similar arsenal of oldschool synths saturate Eating Us. Old mono synths are used throughout, an Omnichord is featured on “Twin of Myself,” and a Yamaha CS-60 from Tarbox gets a lot of play—especially on the opening two tracks, “Born on a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” and “Dark Bubbles.” But one of Tobacco’s key pieces of gear is his “secret synth”—a monophonic synthesizer he’s loath to identify. He’s so protective, in fact, that he doesn’t bring it on the road—he programs the synth’s notes into an MPC. The secret synth also plays a key role in Tobacco’s signature vocal treatment—a heavily altered speak-sing process, which he originally adapted because he’s “embarrassed by singing.” He runs his MXL 960 Tube Condenser mic through his secret synth, an Electrix WarpFactory vocoder, and a Maestro Echoplex tape delay.

“Even when I was making really happy stuff, I always like to have that undercurrent of creepiness and paranoia,” he says.

Fridmann’s main contribution to the album was his work with the drums and bass. They used an old Fender Musicmaster bass that Fridmann got in a pawnshop for next to nothing, and the drum kit was a leftover item used by Stephen Drozd of the Lips. Fridmann also introduced Tobacco to the Korg Kaoss Pad. There’s a breakdown in the middle of “American Face Dust” that utilizes the device, as well as a part during the bridge of “Gold Splatter” where the sound starts bubbling.

“The Kaoss Pad throws your sounds all over the walls and splatters them and bounces them,” says Tobacco.

The music on Eating Us suggests Tobacco and Fridmann discovered common ground, and merged home recording and studio techniques without sacrificing style or sound.

“Dave has a lot of stuff in his studio that’s pretty good stuff, and a ton of stuff that’s pretty crappy,” Tobacco says. “But I think what makes Dave so awesome is that he knows how to find that one really awesome thing in the bad gear.”