You should be thinking about the music you’re making, why you’re making it, and emotionally, what it does for and to you. If it’s not accurately reflecting who it is that you are, you’re fucking wasting your time...I want to do music that’s reflective of right now, what’s happening in my head. I think everybody’s been receptive to that.
Italian noise rock quartet Buñuel were formed some years ago by One Dimensional Man bassist Pierpaolo Capovilla as a supergroup of sorts comprising himself, Oxbow vocalist Eugene S Robinson, Afterhours guitarist Xabier Iriondo, and Snare Drum Exorcism drummer Francesco Valente. In the pre-production stages of the band’s latest, third album, Killers Like Us, the climax of a trilogy that began with A Resting Place for Strangers (2016) and The Easy Way Out (2018), Pierpaolo left the band. I was curious as to the sort of ramifications for the writing and recording process the loss of a band’s founding member would have, so I ask Eugene about this when he takes time out of his day to talk to me. He says: “I’m responsible for lyrics – I’ve titled all the records – and vocals. The songs for Killers Like Us were partially written with him, and my understanding is that when he left, he said, ‘I’m leaving, and I’m taking my basslines with me.’ So Andrea [Lombardini] played on everything anew. The process to me, for me, has been pretty occult. I mean, I’m sitting 6,000 miles away, and I record the vocals very much the way I do for Oxbow. But I record the vocals in no way dissimilarly to the ways in which I’ve done it for A Resting Place for Strangers and The Easy Way Out. So musically, artistically, professionally, it’s been completely invisible. I have no sensation of anything being different at all. Personally, Pierpaolo’s a good friend of mine, so I miss him dearly, and I’m sad that things played out the way they did. None of it had anything to do with me. I’m in East Palo Alto, Northern California (laughs). But my understanding is that you’ve got to be present to be present. That’s how it was explained to me. So if you book several studio days and then people don’t show up on the studio days for whatever reason, then that’s a message that should be understood for what it is.”
Andrea, Pierpaolo’s replacement, is ostensibly primarily known for his work as a solo artist. However, from Eugene’s standpoint, being in a band with someone less used to being a band member than he and his bandmates hasn’t been an issue. He explains: “If I’m going to be involved in any project that’s successful, what we have to do is to be able to communicate, and I can’t really spend a lot of time thinking about your feelings. After a certain point in time, if you’re in, you’re in, and you have an understanding that I’m coming from a ruthlessly kind but direct place, so that if I’m offering an opinion, it’s just that. It’s an opinion based on what my ears are telling me about the music. It’s got nothing to do with egos. I read all these biographies about The Beatles, and it just gives me a stomach ache to read it, you know? Just outside of the musical aspect, how can you be an adult walking through life and be able to do this? What is that great line from that David Lynch movie: ‘How many drivers does a buggy have?’ ‘One.’ ‘Okay, well, let’s say that I’m driving this buggy, and if you fix your attitude, you can come along with me.’ In this instance, the buggy is the record.
“The record speaks to us, and if you can’t hear the record, then you don’t play the music. So fortunately, I’ve not detected any weirdness at all, or any problems at all. There was one addition to a song that I remember saying about it (laughs), ‘Where’d that part come from that sounds like it should be played on a Chapman Stick by a band opening for King Crimson?’ I was just being me. I mean, yes, I did not like it, but I wanted to know who contributed it, you know? Andrea kind of raised his hand and went, ‘Ah, that was me.’ I said, ‘I don’t really like it, but if you want to keep it in, go ahead and do it, that’s fine.’ The fact that he took it and we came up with something even cooler, in my mind, that’s pro. That’s how Oxbow works, and that’s how I’m used to working. It was completely cool for me. The true, harrowing test, how you separate the wheat from the chaff, is in any touring situation, which we have coming up, so we’ll see. But in general, I don’t have negative musical or artistic relationships. If I do, they end very, very quickly. I don’t have clocks at home that run backwards, so I really don’t have the time.”
Despite what one might think, Eugene being based in California and the rest of the band being based in Italy hasn’t thrown up any logistical problems, he says. “From my vantage point as a singer, it looks exactly the same to me. Usually, the way I record vocals is I have them lock me in the booth and I don’t come out until I finish. I start with the first song and I get to the last song and that is the record in its entirety. I’ll take a cup or a bottle or some such thing in to piss, because I don’t want to leave the room, and I’m in for the count. I don’t see the rest of the band until I’m done, except maybe talking to people on a talkback mic. So again, the experience for me has been exactly like it is for Oxbow or anything else, except when I finish the vocals in this instance, for Buñuel, I come out into the studio, and I don’t see the band. I see Monte Vallier, who used to be in that band Swell, who’s done all my vocal styling for Buñuel, and I grab my bag and tell him I’m going home. That’s that (laughs). It has not been strange for me.” The way in which Buñuel have managed to fit the band in among their other bands and musical projects, he adds, “starts, I think, with how you understand it in your mind. In my mind, in Freudian terms, Oxbow is the superego and Buñuel is kind of like the id. I value projects because of what they let me do with my voice, and typically reviewers will hear the difference.
“Somebody just reviewed it recently, and they were like, ‘It’s not as theatrical as Oxbow. It’s much more straight-ahead.’ That goes right along with it being the id. It is less nuanced and, in my mind, purposefully uglier than – I’m speaking vocally, primarily – Oxbow. It’s a part of a conversation that I felt was too adult to continue having with Oxbow. Because I’ve evolved as a person, you would hope. This project’s borne of hysteria, you know? What does a 60-year-old Trent Reznor sing about (laughs)? If Trent Reznor hasn’t gotten his act together by 60, what does he sing about? So in my mind, Oxbow’s like a documentary, but Buñuel – hence the name – is really much more like a film for me. I think about the first three records as a trilogy. I think of them as all connected. Godfather Part I, II, and III.” Despite this, Eugene says he does not know whether the next Buñuel album will constitute part of a new album cycle. “I don’t know. You know, I’ve expressed an interest to pretty much everybody that I make music with about what I’m hearing in my head musically, and about what I’d like to have happen with my voice. So yeah, I’m hoping people are listening to me (laughs), and I’m hoping that that can happen. But it may happen that people say, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I think that’s boring.’ Or ‘I hear what you’re saying, but we don’t think that sounds like Buñuel,’ or ‘That doesn’t sound like Oxbow.’
“I think we’re all comfortable and happy to be engaged in this process of creating these various musics, so I don’t see that as being a problem, but I’m hearing my voice do different things. I like to do those things, and I just have to be articulate enough to be able to explain those things to the people who play the instruments. I’ve been doing that largely for the past couple of years. It’s a shortened cycle with Buñuel. I remember having a conversation with Xabi, the guitar player. I said to him, ‘Let me just tell you before we start: this is what I’m hearing, and this is what I’d like to do.’ It was really effortless and really responsive, you know? Oxbow is a much longer-going concern, so the way we communicate with each other is a little bit more sclerotic (laughs). It takes a little bit longer. I think, with Oxbow, I’ve been able to explain it in a macro sense. That being: you should be thinking about the music you’re making, why you’re making it, and emotionally, what it does for and to you. If it’s not accurately reflecting who it is that you are, you’re fucking wasting your time, you know? If I wanted to be in a ska band, I’d be in a ska band. I don’t want to be in a ska band (laughs)! I love The Specials, but whatever. I want to do music that’s reflective of right now, what’s happening in my head. I think everybody’s been receptive to that. I’ve seen some big bands who I really liked, and I kind of watched the singers – and I think it’s okay mentioning who the bands are – I saw Faith No More, with Mike Patton, who runs the label that Oxbow’s on in America, open up for Metallica ages ago.
“Then I saw Pantera. I had a chance to interview Phil Anselmo. I asked him about it. I’ve got a friendship with Mike. I’ve never bothered to ask him about it, because I’ve sort of intuitively understood, but I remember watching them as vocalists and thinking, ‘They seem really unhappy now.’ Not unhappy in the spirit of the song or as their soul would dictate given the emotional impact of the music, but unhappy doing what they’re doing. In Mike Patton’s case, it felt like a protest. In Phil Anselmo’s case, it felt like if you’ve had the benefit of being backstage with a band, and then they have an argument and they go onstage. It felt like that with Pantera. ‘We haven’t finished this argument, and we’re going to continue it.’ In any case, whatever had happened had caused them to have a marked lack of connection to me as a member of the audience. I was wondering, ‘If you don’t want to be here, why am I here?’ In Patton’s case, I kind of understood. I didn’t understand at the time; this was 1992 or 1993. I’d been in a band since 1980, but I had never been able to approach professional music. Of course, once I’d gotten into a position where I was playing big festivals and so on, I was like, ‘Oh, I see. This is like a job, but with a microphone.’ (Laughs) I mean, if you let it, you know?
“If you let the machinery get away from you, you end up getting fucked. As it is, I’ve been doing it long enough, and now that we are playing big festivals, I pretty much have a standard modus operandi, which is: don’t fucking scream at me; if you’ve got something negative to say, say it to the tour manager and they’ll communicate it to me; otherwise, leave me alone. So I don’t feel pushed or buffeted about by the winds of caprice like maybe they were at the time. I mean, I’ve enjoyed them both as people since then, so maybe that’s affected my opinions.” I put it to Eugene that one of the over-arching themes of Buñuel’s work is humankind’s violent nature. He concurs with this, and says that for him, a major way in which this theme manifests itself in the band’s music “ties into me describing it as the id. I wonder about it. At one point, I tracked down Anton Lavey, the head of the Church of Satan, and I wanted to do an interview with him. Midway through the interview, I was completely hammering him on this point of evil. I wanted to talk to him about evil. Because I didn’t know and I wasn’t sure that he had a personal understanding of it. I felt as though I had, so I wanted to talk to him about it. That’s why I went to the trouble of tracking him down. Eventually, he said, ‘Well, evil is what doesn’t feel good.’ I was like, ‘Eh…’
“A root canal doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, right? He says, ‘Look, Eugene, man, I’m an atheist, you know? I’m just trying to make the rent.’ ‘I got it. So you don’t know. Perfect. I understood the answer completely. Perfect.’ But my exploration of violence and…I hesitate to use the word ‘evil’ because of its moral shadings, but it’s a big question, right? I take Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I take it seven days a week. I was there this morning. Some guy made a joke about a street fight or something, and he asked me if I had a tactic, if I had a street fighting tactic. I was like, ‘Based on historical precedents, I seem to have a preference for stomping.’ The guy – this is a fighter, this is a competitive guy – he stopped and went, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ (Laughs) I realised the world I exist in in my head is, largely, incredibly different from the world shared even by people who seem like fellow travellers. I mean, he just was not down with that. Maybe it was the late 70s in New York, PTSD from that, or maybe my proclivities, but it’s a violent world that we seem to live in, and there are two types. It’s ‘with evil’ or ‘without evil.’ Tigers are pretty terrifying, but they are terrifying in the commissioning of acts that I don’t consider to be evil. Humans are very different. Somebody came close by describing it as ‘a wilful delight in cruelty.’ That’s probably the closest definition of ‘evil’ that I feel comfortable with. That translates into, of course, an appreciation for violence and certain types of sadism, all of which I think are worthy of thinking about. Because if I have problems in my day that are serious, they’re probably going to be connected to those things. (Laughs) They’re not going be connected to butterflies and light and happy things.”
Eugene goes on to explain that the harder, faster, heavier hue of the music on Killers Like Us when compared with that on The Easy Way Out was informed by a discussion the band had “about changing emotional palates right after A Resting Place for Strangers, and I think that affected The Easy Way Out. Then we had a discussion about where the music should go for Killers Like Us. After playing all those shows with The Easy Way Out, and based on where I was in my life at that point and how I was feeling, I think that the indications in the running notes were, ‘Yeah. Something harder.’” He explains that negative experiences he had at his previous employer were a major factor in the harder tone of this album. “I’ve been in a really crazy fucking place. That, necessarily, affected the kind of music I was wanting to hear. Xabi got that right away and turned out Killers Like Us. The only problem the other band members had was, from their vantage point, they felt super-uncomfortable with the cover (laughs). I was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to know that I’m open to anything else being on the cover. But you’ve got to know that I don’t think anything else should be on the cover. So come up with some ideas and I’m willing to listen, but I’ve got to tell you, nothing’s better than this.’ They reread the lyrics and saw that. Then they were like, ‘Okay.’ There’s also wordplay there. Is it ‘Killers like us’ or is it ‘Killers like us?’ It’s similar with the gun. Is it being unloaded or is it being loaded? This is not entirely clear.”
All of the above being said, Eugene stops short of citing anything or anyone as having been a direct influence on the writing of the album. “I love to tell a story about how a friend of mine – actually, an old guitar player for the hardcore band I used to be in, Whipping Boy – used to play with Chuck Berry for a little bit. When Chuck Berry did it, he would just show up in town, right? The backing band would be on stage, and he walks on stage. The guy says, ‘Hey, what are we playing?’ Chuck Berry just looks at him and goes, ‘Chuck Berry songs.’ (Laughs) So for me, it’s Buñuel songs. However – this is something that I’ve been mindful of and been thinking about, but nobody else will probably make this lyrical connection – I have been thinking a lot about Harold Pinter. He wrote the screenplay for one of my favourite movies of all time, The Servant. I remember at one point, Joseph Losey, this American expat who was blacklisted and had to go to England to make movies, he changed some of the words for The Servant. Pinter flipped out and said, ‘You’re going to do that, I’m going to quit.’ Losey goes, ‘Well, I need to…’ Pinter says, ‘Nah, nah, nah. That’s not the way it works. Not one word. You change not one word.’ Which means, to me, that every single word that Pinter writes, to him, is of supreme importance. He doesn’t write a lot.
“If you read The Pumpkin Eater or The Birthday Party or start with The Servant, he’s not a David Mamet. There’s a super-economy to his language that feels pretty potent to me. Similarly, I was in a studio once and I was reading a lyric book for David Bowie that somebody had there. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I know the songs.’ I picked it up and read it. Reading it, I said, ‘These lyrics are shit.’ (Laughs) I mean, I love David Bowie, but ‘We will be heroes for just a day?!’ What the…? But then I go, ‘Well, there’s a certain magic that happens.’ On the Pinter side…the original four-letter name of God was supposed to be so powerful that when spoken, it caused creation: Tetragrammaton. So Pinter does this thing of reducing, reducing, reducing to as few words as possible, and it’s still an incredibly powerful experience. Then you see Bowie’s stuff, which is really reduced and simple, but when you hear it, the magic of his performance just explodes it into the entire universe as well. These were the things that I was hoping to achieve. I mean, me at my most excessive? Read the lyrics to Oxbow’s Serenade in Red. That’s me at my most excessive. You can see, if you’re following along with the record, I couldn’t sing all the lyrics in the body of the song. I was having to make editorial changes as I went along, because I was just writing and writing and writing. But then I decided on economy, economy, economy. You want to be that guy who comes out on the mountain, says that one word, and everything happens. So that’s kind of what I was thinking of trying to have happen as I was writing these lyrics, as well as being true to some sort of emotional experience of what it was that I was going through.”
The video for ‘When God Used a Rope’ was a personal highlight of 2021 for me in terms of music videos, so I ask whether the band deemed it more important that its distinctive imagery reflected the song’s music or lyrics. “Well, you know, as the guy who writes the lyrics, I got into a weird discussion with the guys in Mogwai (laughs). I was playing Supersonic, and these guys are at another table in the dining room giving me a hard look. I don’t know these guys. Somebody says, ‘Hey, who are those guys?’ Some journalist is there and says, ‘Oh, they’re the guys in Mogwai. Do you want to meet them?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’m a big Mogwai fan.’ So they come over and I go, ‘Oh, I’m really happy to meet you guys.’ Finally, after about ten minutes, to explain the hard looks, they say, ‘We’re really angry with you.’ I go, ‘Angry with me. Why?’ They go, ‘Because of some shit you wrote.’ I go, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I write a lot of stuff. I don’t remember it. What did I say?’ Apparently, I had written about jazz, and how jazz – a music which used to be really popular – destroyed itself when the musicians sort of forgot that as long as they were doing jazz standards, which incorporated a vocal element, they were okay. I love Ornette Coleman, but when they started hitting with hard melodics and it just became instrumental, it became a super-niche form. It wasn’t filling ballrooms anymore. If you listen to something like Thelonious Monk, an alumnus from my high school, there’s some great stuff he did. But then you get this live, and you hear people clapping, and you can tell there’s about 25 people there. I said, ‘You have to put a vocal element in, because it’s what we respond to.’ So I apparently said that groups like Mogwai, Pelican, and so on – there’s got to be a vocal presence somehow. It could be just a sample or a snippet. Otherwise, you’re toying with insignificance. They got angry about that. So, now, sitting with them at a table, I go, ‘Yeah, I defend that, man.’ Even if it’s somebody who runs out for three seconds during a song and says, ‘Be-bop-boop.’ It sets up an expectation. So for me, the video ties into the thematic heart of the song, as dictated by the lyrics and the vocal performance. Otherwise, it’s just music. There are instrumental bands I like. I like Bohren & der Club of Gore. Great. That’s good. But even they have at least one song that I can recall, off the top of my head, that’s got actual vocals on it. Which is a palate-cleanser. It’s nice. With the video, the way that it ties into the lyrics makes me perfectly happy. Of course, the director makes the video tie into the music, so it’s a nice circular thing that happens.”
One thing that has struck me about Killers Like Us is the religious imagery on lyrics like “And Jesus would come down to meet us/But for his own problems with the machina and the deus” (‘A Prison of Measured Time’) and “You have offended the gods” (‘When We Talk’). I ask Eugene if this is an album with a belief that the violence on Earth has some sort of divine underpinning. “You know what? Back when I used to be friends with [Henry] Rollins, I had a long-running argument with him. I kept trying to justify…I mean, in school, the school I went to, if they had given out minors, mine would have been religious philosophy, so it’s something I used to think about a lot. Rollins just drew the line and he goes, ‘No matter how you get to it, all these roads lead to the same place, and it’s a bloody, bloody place. So I don’t have any time for religion, right?’ This is Rollins telling me this. I was like, ‘Uh, let me think about that.’ Then 9/11 happened. I watched it on the news, and then I went to work. As I was driving on my way to work, I remember thinking, ‘You know, Rollins was kind of right.’ Pretty much anybody who’s trying to talk to you about religion, it’s like talking to people about Star Wars or something else where nobody knows what they’re fucking talking about. So that was probably the point at which I comfortably embraced agnosticism. But the reality of it is: real or not – and this is, to me, the heart of agnosticism – these symbols drive how we think and underscore how we approach each other and the world around us. They’re no less valid, whether or not there’s a guy on a fucking rocking chair in the sky or whatever you want to believe. But if you could take that whole file of people who said they did something because God told them to or because Satan told them to, these are pretty big files. So they do end up being motivators for human behaviour, in a certain way, that explain how we approach things. Re: ‘When God Used a Rope’ – you hear a lot of times, people who make a habit of murder will say, ‘Look, a fish swims, a bird flies, this is what I do. If God had wanted me to do anything else, he wouldn’t have put these people in my way.’ So there’s always a weird connection between religion and violence, either a symbolic one or a very real one. In other words, it exists and you believe it, or it doesn’t exist and you don’t believe it. But it still informs how you approach things.”
Killers Like Us is available now via La Tempesta International.