It's not often that music grates your ears and puts you in a meditative state at the same time, but that's exactly what Tom Fec, aka Tobacco, was going for with his new Ultima II Massage. Whether the Pittsburgh-based electro nonconformist succeeded is up to the listener, but Massage, Fec's third solo full-length, does contain some of his most abrasive music to date, while parts of the album lend themselves to more reflective moods. That is, of course, if you're on Tobacco's channel to begin with.
Known best as the mastermind behind Black Moth Super Rainbow, Fec has been busy staking out a parallel career releasing albums under the Tobacco name. It's a subtle distinction, considering the fact that he's made most of BMSR's music entirely on his own, and that two BMSR touring mainstays — keyboardist Seven Fields of Aphelion and drummer Iffernaut — also tour with him for Tobacco shows. In both cases, Fec's alternatingly miasmic, dreamy and/or beat-bumpin' synth embroidery creates an emotional space that falls between sinister and playful.
"It's such a fine line between something that's energizing and something you can zone out to," Fec tells the Scene. "For this, I wanted to push the crazy aspects as far as I could to get into that zone-out state. A lot of the lo-fi black metal stuff — I'm sure in person it's probably insanely crazy and heavy, but the way it's recorded, it's almost ambient in a way. When I made [previous Tobacco album] Maniac Meat, I was out jogging around the neighborhood and would listen to the demos at the gym. So the music made sense for that setting. Making this record, I was just zoning out to it."
And what's the album title all about?
"We have a dying mall in the area," says Fec, "and they had this place called Ultima II. I was looking for a theme that incorporated that late-'80s/early-'90s infomercial hotline vibe from when people were really getting into tanning and body products and shitty chemicals that everyone thought would make them look good."
Fec also insists he's not joking when he says the title reflects his newfound happiness and ability to relax. Never mind, then, if suggestive lyrical collages made of dated junk-culture flotsam wrapped in an impenetrable gauze of irony don't exactly make you want to kick back. (Not to mention that this time around the synths and vocals growl like never before.) Being a fan of Tobacco's deceptively flat affect and irreverent cut-paste shtick isn't required in order to groove on the music. In fact, you need only look at the imagination on display throughout his body of work to expose the recent Daft Punk hype for the sham that it is.
With all due respect, it doesn't take an ounce of creativity to have Nile Rodgers play his masterful disco guitar lines on your album. Nor does it take creativity to graft a bunch of meaningless throwaway shit from the VHS era onto your music and visual aesthetic, as Tobacco does. The difference is that a group like Daft Punk and its ilk are celebrated simply for shuffling contexts around. Tobacco messes with context, but he also innovates sonically — without innovation, one is left with style over substance. Of all the people who have ever filtered their voice through a vocoder, for example, how many have turned the effect into a bona-fide instrument complete with nuance, shading and texture? How many artists are capable of elevating novelty into art? Fec has certainly found his own balance, and with Ultima II Massage he pushes his sounds further into, well ... comfortably uncomfortable terrain.
"For the past few records, I'd just been working with samplers," ways Fec. "But for this one I went back to working with cassettes, doing things like heating them with a hair dryer and seeing what would happen. It was how I made music in high school, playing with the elements and the final result, just seeing how much I could destroy it. There's a song named 'Creaming for Beginners' that's pretty soft. It sounds like a Black Moth song and probably would've ended up being one. But I loved it so much that I wanted to see how I could ruin it. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I just damaged it as much as I could until it wasn't pretty anymore."
Speaking of not pretty, audiences who attend the Tobacco live show can expect more of the same slightly monstrous gross-out visuals that unify all of Fec's catalog. Take, for example, the clip of a woman fellating an extraterrestrial, which points back to Fec's pre-career pastime of emulating crank-call icons the Jerky Boys.
"Honestly, it's a giant foam fun tube that you'd use in the swimming pool," Fec says reassuringly. "It doesn't look anything like a dick, and this girl has it in her mouth. But that's what's so fun about it. People walk out feeling so dirty without having actually seen anything."