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In Extremis

"We Set Our Own Agenda": Obnox's Lamont Thomas Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , August 4th, 2015 14:43

Meshing hip-hop and garage rock, Obnox are, as their main man says, finding a way of moving punk forward in the 21st century. Before their third album of 2015, he talks to Julian Marszalek about rock, racism and politics

"You know what I call fun?" asks Lamont 'Bim' Thomas of the expectant crowd at Café OTO in Dalston last week. "Smoking weed and playing music across your land."

A mighty cheer is raised, but the frontman and instigator of Cleveland punks Obnox just shakes his head. "I'm not nearly baked enough but I'm gonna do my best," he says. And with that, he knocks back his tumbler of whiskey, nods to his bandmates and the barrage begins. An intoxicating and breathless mix of punk, down-tuned guitars, garage rock and hip-hop, Obnox - essentially a solo vehicle for Thomas' formidable talents - are a sharp kick in the pants for anyone wandering whatever happened to their rock & roll. Instead of sitting around bemoaning the state of guitar music and harking back to some golden age, they'd do well to be right here, right now because this shit is happening. Hard.

On paper, at least, this shouldn't work, because Obnox are such a disparate group of people. Bim is a man who drives his guitar with his foot fully pressed against the metal. To his right is drummer John Daniel, a ferocious time-keeper who also has a parallel career as a producer of haunting ambient music. At the rear is DJ Alive, scratcher of records and manipulator of all manner of sinister noises. Yet the chemistry between the three of them is palpable. As displayed on the coruscating 'Everybody's Fault But Your Own', Obnox effortlessly fuse their talents to the degree that you can't even see the seams. This isn't so much a collision of styles, but a fusion to create something altogether new.

'Mecca Son Shine' takes things even further as Obnox's influences are transcended altogether and their finale, a reading of Andre Williams' 'Only Black Man In South Dakota', sees the trio flip the blues-noir of the original into a sonic onslaught that threatens to overwhelm tonight's crowd. By the end of the track, Thomas is coaxing all manner of unholy noises from his guitar as he plays his instrument with a pair of drumsticks, while Daniel pummels his kits to near destruction.

Thomas has serious form behind him. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, he lived in Philadelphia and Georgia before returning to his home state and playing on the scene in Columbus. His turning point musically was when a friend gave him a mixtape of first-wave punk. "Stuff like Black Flag and other SST stuff, Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, Bad Brains and The Misfits," Thomas recalls, "I was never the same." To say that he's prolific is an understatement. As well as drumming with variously V-3, Bassholes and This Moment In Black History, Obnox alone have released six albums since 2011 and two of those, Boogalou Reed and Know America, have come this year, with a third, Wiglet, slated for an autumn release. With such form and an uncompromising arsenal of music, the Quietus settled down with Thomas over a beer to find out more.

Let's talk about Know America. It's a concept album, right?

LT: It is a concept album. But it's not filled with skits to drive a point home. Basically, [the concept is] we take over a radio station to play our records because they won't. Once we actually get to the location and in the booth then we play our best friends' records, which is what we do on the finale.

Is there a political subtext to the record?

LT: Well, I miss good radio. Cleveland's got good college radio, but the things that people have to listen to and seek out… you know, you've got a lot of satellite radio and shit like that, and there's no programming, there's no hiss and there's no frequency anymore. There's a lot of streaming and MP3s and shit like that. But I love the idea of radio and calling in and making a request. I guess I'm old fashioned and then it's like: "Why the hell would you take over an AM station?" And yeah, why not? AM radio, y'know? Hot singles, variety and that. It's just a dream, I guess, a dream of how it used to be.

Do you think that rock & roll is in a state of flux?

LT: No, there's a lot of stuff out there but it's just different channels now. The old record business is on its ear as they're trying to figure out a way to get the technology back so they can make the kind of money they were used to making. The fans are sharing shit and streaming and so pressings are a little smaller now, but at least it's getting to the people that really enjoy it; it's all organic, man. We don't have a publicist; we are our publicist. We're selling records but we're not going about it the way people used to. We're on the third pressing of our debut album. I ain't saying that we're popular, but it's great that some people are giving a damn.

The old record business liked to compartmentalise things: this is soul, this is this and this is that and so on. With us, we do whatever the hell we want to do and it's a feeling and it's a movement because people listen to all sorts of shit. Now, especially with the internet, you've got kids listening to funk and dub and all kinds of stuff they'd never have given a shit about, but they check it out and go, "Oh, this is great! The weed makes this music sound awesome!" Some people are into everything and I'm into everything, so fuck it, I'm going to put everything on the records and there's a certain amount of continuity with it, because of the voice and the sentiment of it all, which deep down inside is punk rock. I'm still pretty much "fuck the world".

Do you feel a kinship with bands like Ho99o9 and Algiers, who are also mixing up a variety of styles?

LT: I've heard about them and hopefully I'll get to meet these guys. And hopefully they're brothers, because I've been looking for my brothers in the rock & roll world for years. A lot of the time you [don't] run into brothers that love rock and they love the idea of the spectacle and they definitely want to express themselves in different ways from the average brother, but they're not into the greatest rock of all time; they don't know fucking Steve Albini and all those guys.

I feel like I'm the real thing. Don't fuck with me because I'm really in the channels of rock & roll. I drummed for This Moment In Black History and I'm on the next Rocket From The Tombs record. Not to brag, but I'm in the real rock so I urge all the other brothers to get into the real rock and have Afro-punk. Motherfuckers are listening to Earth, Wind & Fire; they ain't listening to Black Flag or The Stooges or that shit. Maybe some, but that ain't the premise of that. Hell, they can call their shit 'punk', but I've been calling my shit 'punk' all day! And they do not fuck with me, let it be known! People say: "This is real punk rock. This is a real brother, this is a real n*gga." But they don't carry it like that, regarding me. But that's fine. This is real punk rock and it's about time this shit got gumbo'd up. Let's cook it all up in a pot and let it slowly roast.

How does your experience as a black person in America inform your music?

LT: Yeah, I speak on it in some songs but it's not the whole mission of the band; it's not like a Public Enemy thing. Most of my lyrics are either about life or love. I'm a father and we're always trying to understand the women, because I've got a baby girl and we're trying to describe shit like that. And regular life shit I describe and things that I've been through regarding being a black punk. Different things are underlined and all the shit that I always have to deal with as a black man.

You'd think that people in the arts are a little more educated and more aware of things that might be racist and shit, but some of those motherfuckers don't care and so I comment on that. But it's not "fight racism!" No, it's like, I'm standing with you, you're standing with me, let's understand one another, let's fucking stand next to each other and present the best music and art that we can and respect each other after that. And that should be a metaphor for life. Not just me thinking for myself but for everybody. How can we all get along a little better? Sometimes, all it takes is a good ass hook and everybody's on the floor and, at least for an hour or so, we're running. And that might sound a little hippy to you but I'm seeing this shit happen.

But it's an experiment. Every night is an experiment: sonically, racially, socially; I never know what the hell might happen. You might be standing in a fucking room full of Dutch men who don't give a shit about hip-hop, but fuck it, we'll play them that hip-hop anyway and by the end they're like: "Goddamn! That was loud as fuck! You guys are kinda angry!" They don't necessarily understand the punk of it all, but it's not ripping off anybody and it's familiar and they can relate to that.

The best rock & roll always has an element of absurdity about it…

LT: Oh yeah! Cleveland punk, especially; y'know, The Pagans, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From The Tombs. Those guys were angry and cynical and that city has always been a little weird and fucked up, so they come hard with it. It's like they're saying: "Hey, if that's what you're calling punk, wait'll you see this!" They get airborne and toss bricks and fireworks out into the crowd and then jump right into that shit themselves. I know these guys. You can have a beer and a great conversation like, "Hey, how you doing? How's the family?", but come 11 o'clock, he's on and he's bloody and it's all part of the game. It's that playfulness. That's what we mean by absurd. What someone in Providence, Rhode Island might think of as disgusting shit, we think is hilarious in Cleveland.

But there are tons of cats who have grown up on hip-hop but have never listened to rock all their lives and they're white and hopefully they'll take to my shit. And hopefully a bunch of the brothers will get into it as well. Maybe I could turn more brothers on to rock and they could see a different angle on it; everybody ain't just walking around with holes in their jeans and shit on. Nine times out of ten, a brother can't wrap his head around the ritual of it all, what motherfuckers are wearing and shit. He can't relate to that. We shower, we button our shirts, we roll our weed careful. We party just as hard as any motherfucker.

So where does punk rock fit into the second decade of the 21st century?

LT: Well, we're trying to figure it out. Everybody wants to set the agenda and keep it rooted in something in the past and that's just so they can continue to rip off the same shit. Man, it's like I heard Redd Kross play that entire riff and that bridge: you stole that. Or, that is a Seeds song warmed over with your own personal diary lyrics. I don't wanna hear what's in your personal diary, I don't think your poems qualify as lyrics, you know what I'm saying? Fuck it, I'll just go home and listen to The Seeds. Let's try to move this forward and try some different shit. At the end of the day, we set our own agenda.

Wiglet is out on October 6 via Ever/Never Records, while both Boogalou Reed and Know America are out now, on 12XU and Ever/Never respectively