Buzz bands come and go with a quick refresh of your Facebook feed. And Tom Fec, AKA Tobacco, the creative force behind Pittsburgh-based group Black Moth Super Rainbow, seems to be just fine with that. Since breaking through with their 2007 opus, Dandelion Gum, Fec (along with his crew of mask-wearing merry pranksters) have released consistently great records of mind-altering, sugar-coated, vocoder-heavy psychedelic pop. But they’ve never quite rocketed out of the cult-group ghetto.
Maybe that will change with the band’s terrific new set Cobra Juicy, out October 23, which finds Fec showing off his sharpened gift for gooey hooks — not to mention some pretty sweet guitar. Working without the help of a record label, Fec raised funds through Kickstarter to raise money to put out the album.
At first, though, the attention-shy frontman (who wears a mask and performs while sitting on the floor during Black Moth live shows) was nervous he couldn’t pull off putting out another LP. “It was pretty discouraging when you’ve run through every option [of finding a record label] and everyone turns you down,” he says. But Fec is content with what he has. “Being a rock star is not what I want,” he says. “I didn’t want a big label to become some big fucking superstar. That’s never gonna happen. [Releasing this album on my own], it has made me feel new and fresh again.”
SPIN rang Fec at his home outside Pittsburgh to talk about the frustrating experience of recording, his unexpected inspiration from Bob Seger and why he’s obsessed with making prank phone calls.
One of the best tracks on the record is “Hairspray Heart” and the sort of pseudo-arena rock guitars you’ve incorporated.
That’s probably my favorite song I’ve done under the Black Moth name. It’s one of those moments where I thought everything I was doing was so Black Moth sounding, but when I wrote this song I was like, “Fuck, I could totally get into this.” It got me excited about making music.
Any records or sounds that got you inspired this time around?
This is gonna sound crazy, but Bob Seger. I try to absorb things like Seger because he’s pretty awesome. I don’t know if you can hear it at all [on Cobra Juicy] but I was looking to him more for arrangements, just the way you flow from a verse to a chorus. Something that simple.
So is there a song that’s your own version of “Night Moves” on Cobra Juicy?
No “Night Moves.” But there is a “Main Street.” The song “We Burn” is like “Main Street” in a way. I copied the vibe of that high guitar part that he uses.
Did you labor over the making of this record?
It actually came out of the ashes of summer of 2010. I got hired by this guy, who manages an artist, and I was asked to remake his artist’s record. I can’t say who it is, but she’s not very big. You might not have even heard of her.
What happened to the project?
I finished my part and it got, well, they said, “This isn’t going to work. We don’t like this.” I had this skeleton of a record and I stripped it out completely and I had rewritten this thing. So at this point, they were my songs. I changed the chord structures, everything. So I took the skeletons of three or four of those tracks and they became the basis of me working on my own stuff again.
Do you go back to old Black Moth records and listen to them?
I don’t. I’m not the person who made Dandelion Gum anymore. All the shit that happened with me redoing that artist’s record in 2010, I was just like, I dunno, I had this epiphany: I’m not tied to a label. There’s nothing forcing me to do anything. There was a mental block I had to get over. I’m a little less naïve these days, I think. Before it was about being wide-eyed and now it’s about pushing myself into places where I’m a little more uncomfortable and seeing what comes out of that. It’s almost like boot camp or something. It’s weird.
Is it true you like to pass time making prank calls?
What’s the secret to a good prank call?
Doing a good prank call is more intense than making music. Many people can’t do it. It’s like the only thing I’ve been blessed with, being able to do this. But the true art of a prank call is to not treat it like a skit. You have to understand the character that you are channeling. And how the character would react in every situation. You have to be able to think in that character. And you have to have a conversation with the other person. It’s like a tug of war or something.
What’s one of your favorite characters to use when pranking someone?
Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh and everyone I was around was a “yinzer.”
Yeah. It’s a Pittsburgh redneck. Because everyone around here, instead of saying “you guys,” they say “yinzer.” If you really want to understand it, look up clips of [Former Pittsburgh Steelers broadcaster] Myron Cope. He’s one of the most famous Yinzers ever.
How do you prank someone as a yinzer?
If you use that accent with people from Pittsburgh, they’ll talk to you about anything. They’re instantly comfortable with you. So I have this one character called Steed. He’s essentially a centaur — half man and half horse. But he’s really special. He’s really erotic. And he can grant wishes. It sounds really stupid. But I don’t know why people talk to him! I can keep people on the phone for 14 minutes and they’re buying it.
You’re notoriously private about your personal life, but you just recently got married, right?
Yeah. About a month ago.
Who’s the lucky bride?
I’d rather not say. People would get the wrong idea if I said.
Well, how was the wedding?
It was cool! We had a costume party on a yacht. No ceremony or anything because we’re not religious. I was dreading it for a long time, but it was the most fun I’ve had in a while.
What was your costume?
Well, I was trying to get under my mom’s skin a little bit. We’re Italian. So I went as a real Italian. I was covered in flour and had bad sunglasses and a bad moustache. I felt really comfortable. I could see myself growing into that. In 20 years, I think that’s what I’ll be.