Oxbow's Violent Art Rock Is a Meta-Commentary on Masculinity

The experimentalists return with 'The Thin Black Duke,' their first album in a decade, still as weird and aggressive as ever.

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05 May 2017, 8:44am

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

Misunderstood by the world at large, yet celebrated by critics and a devoted fan base, Oxbow is nearly thirty years into a career of stirring things up. While the band's reputation for transcendent, often intensely physical performances alone could occupy paragraphs upon paragraphs,their very sound itself is engaging and captivating in ways that defy description. From the sparse, pained chords of "The Valley" on their debut, Fuckfest, to the walls of strings, wailing, and cacophonous percussion that made up much of The Narcotic Story, Oxbow has never been obvious or predictable, opting to remain in a constant state of growth and change rather than settling down on a formula.

This restlessness isn't just a creative process, however. It runs through the fibres of the band members' own activities, inside and outside the band, and bleeds heavily into their new offering, Thin Black Duke. It's been damn close to a decade since their last record, and while the band never really dropped off the radar, the wait for Oxbow's finest and most focused work nearly became a thing of Chinese Democracy status for those waiting patiently. It's easy to hear the time, frustration, and passion behind these songs. From the swelling opener, "Cold Well Lit Place" to the rollicking tension in "A Gentleman's Gentleman" all the way into the climactic close of "The Finished Line," the record plays like a car crash in slow motion and the ensuing aftermath.

For all its indescribable moments, it's still a record made by humans, all of whom I was fortunate enough to chat with in anticipation of Thin Black Duke's May 5 release on Hydra Head Records. While waiting for the whole band to show up in our Google Hangout, singer Eugene Robinson explained why the whole band gives interviews as a collective.

"There's a great story by Lord Dunsany called The Three Sailors' Gambit," he explains."It's about these sailors who are the world's greatest chess players but they only play all together. They never separate. It turns out they do that because they've made a deal with the devil, and the devil sends them chess moves. They play together so that when they die and go to hell, they won't go alone. That's why we do these interviews all together."

Noisey: The first question, and it might be obvious, is what made Thin Black Duke take a decade to record and release?
Dan Adams (bass): That's a good question. Where has the time gone? Part of it is that everybody's got a lot of stuff going on in their lives. The other part, I think, is that it just happened this way. Eugene had his lyrics about a decade ago. We had some song ideas we were working on, but distractions happen. Everybody's been living their lives. It took some time to evolve in certain ways. We recorded over three years ago. Since then we've actually been working on this record, but there have been long gaps between when tracks were recorded and when we had time to record the lyrics with [producer] Joe Chiccarelli. Then it took time to find time when we could mix. Then, in terms of getting the production together with artwork and all the hard goods… it took time.

Eugene: The miniaturisation of music recording has created this illusion that this shit is easy. To quote Nina Simone, 'It is absolutely not easy.' Yes, we do have a penchant for spending four months on thirty second segments of the songs, but there are a lot of moving parts to a record like this. The tale is not fully told by the forty minute running length of the final product. The producer, Joe Chiccarelli, he's got a schedule. We all have schedules. Between the four of us, we have seven Oxbow kinder. We've been married. Some of us have been married and divorced and remarried. Life occurs parallel to practicing and recording. We recorded Songs for the French, so we have recorded songs and toured in that time. We just didn't have a new record.

Dan: A lot of the songs really did take a long time to evolve. This is true for The Narcotic Story as well. A lot of the songs took their sweet time to become what they needed to be. That process is just one of us needing to play it a certain number of times. We need to react to what we're hearing. Everybody's got their own ideas of what they could be, but really they can't be until they are. Eventually everybody plays and plays and plays until they mature into something that everybody can agree upon and say 'Okay, let's go.'

Niko Wenner (guitar): I'm gathering the question was something about 'ten years?'

Greg Davis (drums): Has it been ten years? It didn't actually take ten years. We just stretched three years into ten years.

Eugene: It's what we call 'The Oxbow metric system.' The reality of it is that there's not a clamour out there. You don't meet people at malls going, 'Oh my god.' People are more concerned about what's happening with the Kardashians than anybody gives a crap about what's happening to Oxbow. So, fundamentally, Niko has had a marching order that I think of quite often. 'No one waits longer than we will. We should make it good.' To the point that Greg was trying to make earlier, as we made before, it took exactly as long as it should. It's like when somebody asked Abraham Lincoln once how long a man's legs should be and he said, 'As long as they need to be to reach the floor.'

So working in Ox years is just a different thing.
Eugene: I mean, yeah some people with commercial motivations might say, 'Oh my god, we've got to put out a record every six months.' A label might demand it. There is no label demanding we do that. There's no label even wanting us to do that. We barely have twenty-five people who would actually want that to happen and will purchase the record, so they'll wait comfortably because they know that we will spend time to make something that is nonpareil.

Niko: I guess it should be pointed out that we work on a lot of music and the intention this time was to get the good music. Not just the good music, but the best songs that we've ever done. That's what we ended up with and it's the best sounding record. It's the best songs. It's exactly where we're at. It's where we began and where we ended up. We never wanted to just make a record to go out and tour, to rock out and get on the bus. It's about making absolutely the best thing we can. We waited for it to happen. When we had the songs, we worked them to be right. We did the arrangements to be right, the recording to be right. We went to Los Angeles, to New York, just whatever it took. We're very proud of this. Because we wanted to please ourselves, but also because we want to make good records for people that like good records. It's for people that give a shit, because we really care. That's why, you know.

Greg: It took ten years because we really care.

Eugene: I've got friends who are tattoo guys and they routinely throw people out of their tattoo parlours. I go, 'Why? That's money!' He goes, 'No. Money's got nothing to do with it. I don't do bad art, that's why. You can take that picture of a skateboarder with a keg and a naked woman smoking a bong right the fuck out of here. I'm not doing it.'

Greg: That sounds like a pretty cool tattoo, honestly. I don't know what you're talking about.

Eugene: He was right on the edge! It was so bad it was good, but that he just couldn't bring himself to do it.

On this album there's alternately more space and more energy than on other Oxbow albums. To what, if anything, do you attribute this dynamic shift?
Niko: Tell me more about this. Talking about sound is not a verbal thing, which is the great thing about music, but when you say 'space,' what do you mean? When you say 'energy,' what do you mean?

As a listener, things seem to breathe a bit more, there's a tension. On The Narcotic Story , there's a density, but this isn't dense. Things stretch out, but there are also moments that are some of the most efficient, punchy moments I've heard in your work.
Greg: That's an interesting comment. Somebody else made a comment recently about this sounding like it had more energy. It's a comment I find a little bit surprising. We certainly didn't set out to make a more energetic record. I'm not sure if I totally understand, maybe Niko can help here. Part of it maybe comes from that we spent so much quality time in the studio with this record. Maybe what you're hearing is the fruits of those efforts. A record that's both dense and has enough space for you to experience what's going on and still capture it all, I think it's what we were always after.

Dan: If there's space, but you fill it well, then you have more time to hear that energy. Or rather, the energy isn't occluded by this huge wash of sound. One of the challenges making this record was that there is a lot of space and we had to figure out how to choose a few elements to fill the space and still make it sparse. The things we settled on are well placed and tend to be efficient in terms of the energy we were aiming for. As I was trying to figure out bass parts, I felt there were tons of things I could play and that I wanted to play, but it was a tremendous effort to try to settle on the things that were essential. It was about fitting that need and striking out the intensity of the music while still honoring the space.

Greg: I think that all three of us did that on this record quite a bit. Like you say, there's a lot of efficiency here.

Niko: I would say that we arrived at that. I like that you heard the proper amount of energy and the proper amount of space. That's not by accident, of course. I think about the mother of a friend, who is a painter. She would do space pictures and she brought up an idea which is true in music as well. She wanted to do points of white for stars and she said, 'I can't go and add a white point later and have it really look right.' The idea is that you have to start with good spaces. You can't really change and have it be fundamentally correct after the point. That's part of what took so long to arrive at the correct songs. We had to start out with really good beginnings. You can polish a song and make it turn out okay. We've never really done that, but particularly this time we started out with songs that could hold up their power and have a good amount of space. Then we worked really hard and had great help. We took help. We asked for help and received it, but we started with songs that could take that kind of space and kind of energy and fit the parameters we had for this record. To work with shorter music, be more to the point, and to maybe have a couple melodies.

On The Narcotic Story, we were presented with the character of Frank Johnson, who was a composite of a few people. So who is the Thin Black Duke? What does he mean? The lyrics aren't always easy to parse, so what does The Duke embody?
Eugene: Well, that's why we sell you the book. It's like the old Marx Brothers thing where you have to buy the guide to the guide to the guide to figure it out.

Niko: We get asked that question a lot. Eugene writes the lyrics and I think it's his vision for that character. I have to say that as someone who works with those lyrics, we all make the songs together and we arrive at this beautiful conglomerate mess. I've thought a lot about it, too. Have you seen No Country for Old Men? It's a Cormac McCarthy story and a great Coen Brothers film. The character of Anton Chigurh, if you see the movie or have read the book, he's not a real person. It's sort of this stand-in for the concept of evil, that's my take on it. It's just this evil thing. It's not a real person, so I think it's possible to have this idea to address this concept. It's an interesting idea.

Eugene: It's really nice and respectable that Niko is trying to save me from myself [laughs]. No, I mean, as with a lot of these things, without real world corollaries, they wouldn't exist. Have you ever seen a cow and wondered whether it was a cow or not? I'm not just making this stuff up, you know. Life's meandering crossroads puts you in places and spaces where you might meet a wide variety of people and characters. You might have the occasion to come up with characterisations based on those characters. As a journalist, you know that you end up being involved with people who under normal circumstances you wouldn't necessarily be involved with.

So, it is a force but in my mind it is largely like a force like electricity. It's involved in your daily interactions, but when you have occasion to actually be there with it, it can be incredibly powerful and useful or incredibly powerful and damaging. So if I were to say, 'Oh, of course The Duke is John Wayne,' that wouldn't really explain to you what it is that I mean or what I've said in the lyrics, in the book describing the lyrics, or in my vocalisation of those lyrics. But, as a background, something that I share with you, you should know that it has a lot to do with life's meandering crossroads and maybe a little bit about how the last ten years have been spent.

That makes sense, cryptic as it may be.
Eugene: It's not actually cryptic at all to me because it's autobiographical. It's easy. It's a one to one correlation. Just because you don't understand [laughs].

So I have to bring up the fact that there was supposed to be a bit more follow-through on The Narcotic Story . There was a film planned, if I recall. I see you're doing a Thin Black Book and I'm wondering if that all fell by the wayside or if it's still kicking around.
Eugene: No. Sometimes we over-promise and we over-deliver, and sometimes we over-promise and then, you realise that things get lost in stranger locales. Then the guy who had been filming some of this stuff, he sort of lost his mind and I couldn't get it from him. He was also a guy who was involved in inspiring large portions of The Narcotic Story. He just disappeared with the film. It is by no means finished, but we get to things when we can. We're over-promising and we're hoping to over-deliver. Right now we've got this gold edition of Thin Black Duke as well, but these are attainable. I think that finding out our targets and meeting goals is a bit of the magic that we're trying to work on now.

Niko: I think it's interesting the way all these different mediums overlap. Everybody wants to be a filmmaker. Everybody wants to make records. Everybody wants to be a movie star and an artist. Everybody wants to be a porn star. We are pretty good at making records by now. We should be, and I think we are. It takes us a while, it's just a different trip to make a record. It's a different thing to write a play or to act. They're really similar, but I think we make really cinematic records because we really like films.

Eugene: But I'd still like to reserve it. I do think about that as something that we should get around to but there are only so many hours in the day.

Greg: If we'd have done that it'd have been twenty years before Thin Black Duke.

You're drawing an obvious comparison to Bowie's Thin White Duke character. With his passing, did it signal a finish line in any way or was it coincidental?
Dan: We knew that there could be an issue with people correlating the names. On the other hand, we knew it was going to take us so long to get the record out that we thought people would've forgotten about David Bowie by the time we got the record out. [Everybody laughs]

Eugene: There was a connection other than the play on his name, obviously. You know, there were lots of reasons why that name was chosen. One of the initially people we thought about working with on it was his producer. It was named before we stumbled into saying, 'Hey, maybe he'll want to do it and we should ask him,' but you know. Then there's The Thin Man, the poem, not the detective story. There are a lot of things that inspired it, but we did not mind at all to have it as a tribute to Bowie in the same way that the title of An Evil Heat was clearly a nod at The Birthday Party.

Dan: I don't think it had any impact whatsoever on us and our timing.

Eugene: But we do have a history, you know. Lou Reed was toying with appearing on The Narcotic Story. Of course, if you're going to do 'the narcotic story,' you've got to have Lou Reed on it. When he was in San Francisco, Chiccarelli was trying to get him to hook up. At first he said he was doing it. Then I remember talking to his bass player through this job I had at the time and it just didn't happen and then he died. Seems to be a connection, maybe.

Guess you've got to get Iggy Pop on the next one while he's still around.
Eugene: No! Don't say that. Don't say that.

Don't work with anybody ever.
Eugene: Or maybe we should just work with people that we don't want around.

Greg: And for the record we aren't trying to get Iggy Pop on the next one.

Niko: Maybe you'd like it. Do you want to do something on the next record?

I may as well. It'd be thrilling. Finally, it's been almost 30 years of you performing as Oxbow. That's a long time.
Eugene: Yeah, I started Oxbow when I was like four or five. We're a bunch of young upstarts, us thirty-five year old men.

What keeps you going? Obviously the suicide intent that served as an early impetus isn't quite as present.
Dan: Oxbow is a long, slow suicide.

Niko: Much like life.

Eugene: Well, I think, some guys like golf, you know. Some guys like to fish. I know a guy who, quixotic as it may seem, he gets animal skulls and he does these beautiful things drilling holes in them. He makes all these fantastic pieces of artwork, but he didn't start doing it because he wanted to make art. He just thought it looked really cool and it filled up his day with some sort of significance. Like I said, between the four of us, we've got seven Oxbow kinder. We've got jobs. We've got things that we're doing.

Greg: For me, the answer could be just as easily, 'Why not keep doing Oxbow?' We're in sort of a spot where the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Oxbow is that it's completely commercially unviable. It exists outside all those sorts of music industry pressures. All of that sort of music industry paraphernalia are all the things that are shitty about being in a project like this for a long amount of time. Since we make zero money doing this, we don't have any of those pressures. It continues to be enjoyable on a really pure level, I think.

Dan: There's another thing I would add. Oxbow is taking on about as broad a look at what it means to be alive as you can in music. We all love music. We all love playing and making music. This is an opportunity to do it with an open slate that's as broad as it can be. It's a great challenge, and the results are really rewarding. We could have a commercially nonviable band that was just playing goofball little tunes that weren't as significant but it'd be harder to hang for 30 years. I think the subject matter has allowed this band to be a really significant outlet for all of us.

Niko: Personally, I have an embarrassingly burning desire to make music and to record it. It's terribly hard work and it takes hours and hours and I wish I didn't have it sometimes. It totally affects how I live my life. I mean, we get together a lot and sometimes it's in a casual way, but man, it's just impossible to imagine not doing this. I think everybody in the band would agree with this. It just can't be any other way. The desire to make something that satisfies me. The desire to make something that people can listen to and go, 'Holy shit.' I have that experience when I listen to music that I like and I want to give that experience to other people and I want to feel it myself. I want to be onstage and feel that. I want to listen to our records because I love that about music. I love being a part of that. I have to do it. It's this terrible, burning, crippling desire.

Ben Handelman is burning up on Twitter.