Products Of Hysteria: An Interview With Oxbow

As they return with the decade-in-the-making Thin Black Duke, revered quartet Oxbow meet Kiran Acharya to discuss ageing, money and hitting the Goldilocks level of success

Oxbow portraits by Phil Sharp

It’s not the artifact – it’s the art. And the fact of the matter is no-one does what they did for the money.
Eugene S Robinson, ‘Letter Of Note’

The hat’s a Homburg, 100% wool. Shannon Phillips collection. Wearing heavy coat and with limited edition Thin Black Book in hand as red stagelights spin, Eugene S Robinson resembles a preacher. Until you notice the black leather gloves, at which point he looks like a killer. A roaring pillar of menace and conviction to this day.

But if Oxbow albums are snapshots of the lives behind them, it’s clear that Thin Black Duke – the band’s first album since The Narcotic Story in 2007 – finds Robinson and bandmates Niko Wenner, Dan Adams and Greg Davis in very different skins than before. The music suggests composure, and, as far as you might find in Oxbow, a kind of elegance. The kind that comes only after accepting that life is made of fifty shades of entropy and more or less perpetual disarray.

Lyrically, Robinson is pursuing a stand which he says runs all the way from Fuckfest, in a process of accrual. “Without King Of The Jews,” he says, “without An Evil Heat, without The Narcotic Story or Let Me Be A Woman you don’t have, lyrically, a Thin Black Duke that makes sense. I’ve talked in other interviews about it being like a book. And I think largely it is, if you take the lyrics and set them from end-to-end.”

And musically there’s the grandeur of strings set across ‘Cold & Well-Lit Place’ and ‘Ecce Homo’, which bring competing measures of horror and grace in contrast to what Wenner calls the ‘terrorist dynamics’ of 20 years ago.

“Compositionally the songs have become a lot more real,” says Wenner. “The acoustic guitar is how the songs begin. In a weird way, aged 53 now, and 43 when we finished our last record, this is far more who I am than Fuckfest was even though they’re both passionately sincere records. That’s been a journey.”

Thin Black Duke has been in the making for a decade. What’s the most radical thing to have happened in your own lives since releasing The Narcotic Story in 2007?

Niko Wenner: I ended a very long relationship – got divorced, and my mother died after a very long illness. But, y’know, that’s life, and we all have a lot of life. There’s a lot of joy that’s maybe not as headline-worthy, but the record reflects that life. That’s the simplest thing to say.

Greg Davis: Ten years is a long time and I can’t think of any one specific life-changing event, but like Niko says, a lot has happened. We’ve gotten older, for one thing. And it’s impossible for those things not to influence the music you make.

Dan Adams: Age. Three of us have kids, and the age ranges are such that a decade is, what, twelve universal experiences. So my youngest kid was three – two or three – and the older kids also have gone through huge transformations. But that means that… our worldviews change very significantly through kids, and parents, and grandparents – which are mostly gone. It’s a time where your perspective in life is very different, as somebody in your fifties, compared even to your forties. You start to think much more about ends, starting to think about the younger generation taking off and doing their thing, and you’re kind of left, marching out your journey. In the way! Just a burden on the planet.

Eugene S Robinson: I’ve been kinda thinking about this idea that records made early in the careers of people who make music, a lot of the time and especially in the idiom in which we’re working, they’re a product of hysteria. They’re largely akin to somebody rushing in and screaming, ‘Your apartment’s on fire!’ or ‘Your car’s on fire!’ or some variation thereof. Most of the time, if you live life beyond the initial records, in your actual lives, you could functionally say, ‘Take it easy. Things are going to be OK.’ And then they go on to the next record where they try to duplicate that experience of hysteria from the first record. The difference is that if you look at 30 years of record-making, eventually you evolve into a non-hysterical orientation about life – but it’s no less crucial… because it all ends the same fucking way. I don’t find that joyful at all. I don’t find the prospect of it, just because it happens to everybody else – I’d like to recall Yossarian from Catch-22 – how can that possibly make a difference, that it happens to everybody else?

Which particular records illustrate the idea of earlier albums being the product of hysteria?

ESR: You could take Fuckfest, or you could take any record by any band ever. I remember once when I was… I had been abusing performance-enhancing drugs, but what’s important here is that I went and put my arm down on the armrest of a chair and discovered for the first time that I had elbows. Because it really, really fucking hurt. I’d hurt myself. This is the same sort of thing. The hysteria of early records tends to be the kind of thing where people discover that they have feelings. And most bands of any significance don’t last seven records. Name a single band that’s put out more than five good records. The numbers start to winnow. The people who make it beyond clearly switch their orientation, somehow, from the music they made when they were 17. Or, like AC/DC, they do the exact same fucking thing. Which is OK too, but it’s not what we do. Insofar as you might want to get a fix on what Thin Black Duke means, it comes at the end of a ten-year cycle but it’s also part of a thirty-year cycle. Insofar as we’ve ever been able to do anything, it’s to chronicle our lives very specifically.

NW: Talking about translating life into what we do, and translating life into art in a larger sense, I haven’t been paying attention to Nick Cave lately but I did watch his last film, One More Time With Feeling, and he says something very true. He’s talking about the death of his son and he says that great tragedy is terrible for making things. You stop. Everything becomes too real, and that’s not art. The life events that we’ve had, the trick is to make something of it. When you have space, and when you have distance. Not too much distance, but enough.

ESR: Even if it’s like Giacometti, who said he was so affected by the face of his mother on her deathbed that he spent the rest of his career trying to duplicate the sensation in sculpture. If you look at his sculpture after that he clearly doesn’t have old women dying in bed, but something about the desiccated figure recalls maybe what it is that he felt, in maybe the same way our music is informed.

GD: And on the other hand – to lighten the mood a little bit – it was not our intention to take ten years to make this record.

Were there long periods of inactivity between recording sessions for Thin Black Duke?

GD: Absolutely. All the life experience we’re talking about gets in the way. I mean we don’t make our living as Oxbow. We all pursue other financial pursuits, and recreational pursuits. There were big chunks of non-activity in those ten years. There were big chunks of non-activity today. I mean it’s not like we toiled over the mill for ten years to put this thing out. If we were being paid to be in Oxbow, this record could have been made in three years.

ESR: Well, well – there’s this Sicilian apartment-building crew that my friend knows, and they spent 17 years building an apartment building. It doesn’t take 17 years to build an apartment building. But the guy said succinctly, ‘If we finish the building, we don’t get paid.’

GD: That’s interesting, but somewhat non-applicable. We don’t get paid either way.

ESR: But if we got paid, it could make sense for us to take ten years.

NW: There is another point, though. All the life experiences we’ve talked about, it’s not like we tried to accumulate these and turn them into a record about those experiences. It’s a parallel thing. Yes, we’ve been living our lives – and working on the record. They’re destined to affect each other but this isn’t a record that’s exactly about each of our lives, or songs about our experiences over the last ten years.

GD: There’s a reason men in their fifties make different records to men in their twenties. Or at least they should make different records.

NW: Would the twenty four-year-old me who made Fuckfest like this? Yeah. But not as much as this present-day me does, and what do I think about that? Is that OK? Who am I making this for? But I think it’s the most honest thing we can do and the best thing we can do.

What is Oxbow doing today that the band couldn’t or wouldn’t do 20 years ago?

ESR: Spend money like we have it. 20 years ago we didn’t spend money like we had it, because we didn’t have it to spend. It’s a functionally different thing. I mean we spent a lot of money on this record. Like a lot of money. More than people think is sane.

Did Thin Black Duke cost $40,000 to make?

ESR: More than that. More than that.

GD: Spread out over a long period, obviously.

DA: From my perspective – and I joined in slightly after Fuckfest was recorded – there was a broader scope of possibilities that this record could have become, I think, because of what Niko just said. As soon as we opened the doors and asked what this record was going to sound like we were looking at broader possibilities than in the early days of Oxbow. It didn’t have to be a rock record. We were asking the question, ‘What kind of music are we going to make?’ But of course it didn’t stray into a completely different place, because we’re still the same people.

GD: On the other hand we don’t ask that question out loud very often. It hangs in the room, but we play music the way we play music. We don’t’ sit around and go, well, we need to play like this or that because we’re older gentlemen now. We play the way we play.

DA: Yeah, I’d make that point more that we were essentially removing constraints. On the earlier records we knew it was going to be jarring and noisy and abrasive, and these things that were getting to a certain tension. We didn’t go into this saying, ‘No, wait a minute, that’s not going to be an Oxbow song.’ Not just stylistically but the whole band philosophy, we have the liberty of saying, ‘This doesn’t have to be anything like what we’ve done in the past.’ We don’t have to hold it up and compare it and say that these characteristics aren’t an Oxbow song so we can’t put it on the record.

GD: It’s very freeing.

ESR: It’s very freeing, when no-one cares what you do.

NW: The funny thing is I feel like this is the most true record to our personality for this reason. I don’t talk about this very often, but Fuckfest in a way was sort of like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the way of, ‘Hey! Let’s create this thing, and what could it be like?’ It was completely mechanical, in one sense – there’s a lot of raw emotion and sincerity on that record – but in another sense it was like ‘Let’s have these blocks of ideas, and manufacture music and sound that way.’ So that’s why you get the sort of terrorist dynamics of loud, soft, loud, soft. In utter contrast, now, we’ve learned how to get louder and to get softer and to play with a lot more sensitivity.

There are clear literary allusions across Thin Black Duke, from Hemingway on ‘Cold & Well-Lit Place’ or Sartre on ‘Other People’. Which other writers or musicians have been important influences?

ESR: There’s also Nietzsche and Pontius Pilot, on ‘Ecce Homo’. [It is] why our songs are so good. During each chapter of Ecce Homo, [Nietzsche] was writing, ‘Why my books are so good?’ Or, ‘Why I am so clever.’ Some people deride it as his worst book but I appreciate the humour.

Niko earlier mentioned Nick Cave. Does he in particular have a bearing on how you write, and how you tell stories through songs?

ESR: No. Not at all [laughs]. I’m a Nick Cave fan. I kind of group him with Tom Waits and people who are doing something a little bit different. And I think that’s reflected in our books. If you read And The Ass Saw The Angel and read my own A Long Slow Screw, they’re two very different things. I think that’s reflected in our lyrics, though I’m not sure how what we do is different though I’m pretty sure it’s different. I was laughing because I was thinking about the one time Nick Cave and I actually met. I think I managed to insult him. We were doing this thing at the London Jazz Festival with Barry Adamson. Barry had me do a Tom Waits cover, and Nick had done a cover of a Jacques Brel song, ‘Au Suivant’. But he did the Scott Walker version, which is ‘Next’. We got along really well backstage and after the show, everybody’s congratulating each other, I said, ‘You know what would have been really cool? If you’d actually sung it in French, man. That would have been mind-blowing.’ And he looked at me and went ‘Heh.’ And turned on his heels and walked out and I’ve never spoken to him again.

The title ‘Thin Black Duke’ brings David Bowie to mind. What influence has David Bowie, a musician, as a cultural figure, had on yourself as a performer or the band at large?

NW: He’s wonderful. That’s the title reference, of course, which is Eugene’s title. The peace that we make with that – because we love David Bowie, he’s great, he has passed and we don’t have any more of him to like – musically he’s not influential to me personally but somebody said and I think it’s true, that what he did is relevant to Oxbow in that he took weird music and had a pop thing on it. That’s maybe what we’ve done with Thin Black Duke as far as being very Oxbow but having a shorter time span, being more to the point or having clear recordings and structure and having the guitar stay out of the way of the bass. So a more pop sensibility with the same old crazy Oxbow.

GD: Me more so than Niko, I would say Bowie is a huge musical influence on me. But I don’t know how far that directly affected the record. That would be a good question for Eugene, lyrically. I don’t know if there’s any lyrical link other than the title.

DA: I thought about this in exactly one way, which was that with a title like that – more than with the timing or with David Bowie dying – were people going to think that we were intentionally connecting this with Bowie? Because there was not really any significant intentional connection there other than maybe a little tiny link. But like a lot of bands, our influences are just incredibly broad, and how can you not appreciate certain things that Bowie did? He covered an incredible amount of ground in his career. But there’s an awful lot of people that you would say were more directly responsible for what this sounds like and it would be incredibly difficult to pick them out.

ESR: The use of the words was a conscious recall in the same way that at one point, some journalist was giving us a hard time in a minor way over An Evil Heat as a record title, as if we didn’t know it was a line in a Birthday Party song. We very specifically did. The Thin White Duke period with Bowie, a period of mania and confusion for him as is well-documented, he came out of it and realised that doing nothing but doing cocaine and drinking milk day in and day out is probably not the best thing for you. In other words it was a phantasm. It was a hysteria-fuelled phantasm. I remember thinking that except for the boogeyman that he had posited it wasn’t a phantasm at all. When you’re rich like Bowie, these are not things that you have to encounter. With Thin Black Duke these things are very much a reality, in the same way that Brecht gave it the form of ‘Mack The Knife’. This is very definitely a person and a personality. So, it was consciously playing with his personal moment of doubt and pain. We had no idea that he was going to die. We did at one point reach out to Tony Visconti when it seemed that Joe Chiccarelli wouldn’t be able to produce it – we had a series of maybe three emails – but in the end Joe came back.

This was with a view to getting Tony Visconti to produceThin Black Duke?

ESR: Yeah. I mean the record title had been chosen already, so the idea of getting Bowie’s producer to produce it seemed sort of inspired in the same way that through Joe we’d reached out to Lou Reed for The Narcotic Story. He agreed to do it, pulled out, changed his mind, and then he died. I don’t say these things are connected. I’m just telling you, chronologically what happened.

Who are the most vibrant characters you’ve that you’ve crossed paths with working through the 1980s and 1990s?

NW: You know, it’s not DIY at all though in one sense it actually is – I have family in Minneapolis, and I was in the airport when I was a teenager and this guy was walking through. Fairly small, and I’m a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. That’s what really got me into electric guitar. So there’s this black man, small, who has this thing about him… and I look at him, he looks at me and I realize it must have been Prince. That has remained in my mind. And of course he was just this kid who had this incredible talent, and they would give him access to the studio and he’d do everything. Now that he’s dead, people are willing to talk. He would go into a studio and begin a song, write it, record it, mix it and he wouldn’t leave until it was finished. The good songs and the not so good – and there’s a lot of both – he was 24 when he made Purple Rain. That’s how old we were when we made Fuckfest. A world of difference, but he did it all himself.

ESR: You should have talked to him.

NW: I didn’t realise! When you meet important beings, they could be someone that’s very smart, or talented – they radiate this energy. You just see it. But I’m not sure I knew who Prince was, at that time.

ESR: I guess my favourite would be, in a weird way, Lydia Lunch. I remember when punk rock hit New York, and I was reading about it and seeing stuff there was Patti Smith and everything happening – I’m a native New Yorker – and I remember seeing this great photo taken out in front of CB’s and it was Lydia, James Chance, Anya Phillips, there was Arto Lindsay, Rhys Chatham… people who were maybe five years older than me. And I thought they were the coolest fucking human beings walking the planet. So it took several years, after I met Lydia Lunch during an interview like this for a magazine I published – and it took a couple of years for me to kinda relax and get over the fact that it’s Lydia, at my kitchen table hanging out. If you were to ask me I’d say that was my one super-fanboy moment that actually became just part of an accepted reality. I mean, she sang on King Of The Jews, we’ve maintained a great friendship, she loves Oxbow.

As musicians now in your fifties and at a slightly later stage than many people continue with, what does success look like to you today? How has the idea of success changed for you?

NW: With people in their fifties continuing to make alternative music, I think the success is that we’re still interested to do it. I talked about Thin Black Duke being more personal in the sense of the way it’s created, but that’s why it’s still interesting. We get together and we hash out this collaborative thing – in an incredibly slow and useless way…

ESR: Not useless.

NW: Not useless. I mean that as a joke.

DA: If music is about expression, and deep internal spiritual – somehow abstract – representations, how can you be more successful than being able to keep getting at some of that when you’re playing?

GD: I was going to say, success looks a lot like this, today. One of the reasons that it took so long to make this record, and harking back to this life that we all have, I really like that other life that I have outside of Oxbow. And right now Oxbow takes up just about the right amount of my life. I don’t know how happy I would be if it took up more, or less.

DA: That’s right. So maybe it takes a whole bunch of years to make a record, but we can apportion a certain amount of time to Oxbow and we can use the time that we need at that paceto end up with something that as a product we’re all very happy with. That, again, is success. We don’t need it to be tied to a certain amount of days on the road or a certain amount of dollars coming in. we don’t have to consider that as a metric.

NW: I’m absolutely certain that if we’d had any real success it would have ruined us, our personal dynamic…

ESR: Speak for yourself. I’d be wearing even nicer clothes, driving a better car…

NW: What breaks up bands is money – and drugs. And we never got either one of those given to us except for our singer, because people always give singers drugs.

ESR: Lou Reed was at one point being interviewed by this hotshot American journalist who took it a step to far and started quoting Hume and Lou Reed paused and said, ‘Hey… I’m just trying t make the rent.’ And we’re not. We’re trying to make the rent with the jobs that let us be here, but we don’t use Oxbow to make the rent and that puts us in a different place. So, success.

NW: Clearly. And just the right amount of success, because the alternative is that over the course of making this record we sort of stopped operations and we had barely played. We hadn’t played for nine months before this tour. That was not enough success. We started to chafe against each other towards the end of finishing this record, and that was a lesson too. So not too much, not too little because that becomes painful.

ESR: It’s the third amount. It’s a Goldilocks level of success. We’ve played shows in front of two people – not recently – but it’s nicer playing shows in front of people, like I think the biggest audience we’ve had is 6,000. And that was pretty nice.

DA: And if the goal is to express, you don’t need to have that many people in the room to still have a really meaningful conversation.

ESR: And besides, I hear talk from super-celebrities that they really like the intimacy of the small crowd. Bruce Springsteen says it all the time.

Thin Black Duke is out now. Oxbow play a unique show with choir at Supersonic Festival in June

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