Interview: Oxbow

We’re fully committed to doing this more, to having encore performances. This was just the beginning, and I can hear that. We can all understand that this is one rehearsal of us and Peter becoming comfortable with that set-up. To do it more would be a joy.

San Francisco art rock quartet Oxbow have been around for 34 years now, releasing seven studio albums of steadily increasing quality and embarking on sporadic tours of Europe and North America whenever their busy work schedules have allowed in that time. They have been playing together under their current line-up of vocalist Eugene S Robinson, guitarist Niko Wenner, bassist Dan Adams, and drummer Greg Davis since 1995, when previous drummer Tom Dobrov left the band shortly after the release of their third album, Let Me Be a Woman. Ahead of the release of their eighth studio album, Love’s Holiday, next year, Oxbow recently released An Eternal Reminder of Not Today/Live at Moers, a recording of their explosive collaborative performance with legendary avant-garde jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann at the 2018 Moers Festival in Germany. The band very kindly take time out of their day to take me through what preparing for and playing that show was like, as well as the stories behind the making of some of the songs they played there. Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.

Regarding the conception of set-opener ‘Angel’, from second Oxbow album King of the Jews (1991), Eugene explains that that record and debut album Fuckfest (1989) “were created in the same initial time period where I foolishly picked up a bass and drums and was thinking that I was going to do a solo record. Prince did a solo record, but then of course I have got zero musical skills. So I remember asking Niko to come and help me to finish this record that I had started with Bart Thurber, who was actually [Eugene, Niko, and Dan’s previous band] Whipping Boy’s last guitarist as well as the guy who started House of Faith studios and the house where we recorded Fuckfest and King of the Jews. And lyrically, of course, it will be manifest in the memoir that I’m writing right now. It was part of this extended suicide note for a relationship that had gone foul … something completely mundane like that, now it seems.”

Niko then reminds Eugene that “that’s actually not completely true, because by that point, you had given up on the idea of that first record. Bart had talked you out of it. I don’t know if you remember … the conversation that we had was, if you remember, ‘Let’s make a record.’ Only later, Bart kind of mentioned in passing, ‘Oh, there’s all these other recordings that we’re not going to use.’ (Laughs) So I came to it fresh. It was like this thing we were going to start. Later, I learned that there were some previous recordings that I’ve never, ever heard. Actually, maybe I listened to them a little bit one afternoon or something. So, yeah. It was presented afresh.”

Eugene responds to this by saying that he doesn’t clearly recall Thurber saying that, “but I remember definitely, tentatively going to you and saying, ‘Hey, could you help me with this?’ Then I remember you going, ‘Yeah.’ But the suicide aspect of it – I think, by the time we had gotten to King of the Jews, I had decided clearly not to kill myself. [Backing vocalist on King of the Jews] Gabriel Ferreira was also largely instrumental in mocking me out of that as a life choice, because I think I was open with him about it as well. And he did this great, great (laughs) imitation of me and it successfully jogged me out of that bitter, ridiculous, overly dramatic, ‘young man’ feeling.”

Niko says ‘Angel’ was chosen as a set-opener at Moers because “we felt that we wouldn’t screw it up. It was something that we could actually do well (laughter) … and it’s got a lot of space in it. We weren’t sure what the stage was going to sound like, so that was probably also [a factor]. It gave us time to kind of figure things out and figure out how the saxophone was going to integrate on the stage. It’s slow and quiet enough.” Greg explains that Oxbow typically “write our setlists within about ten minutes of going on stage. We don’t really know what we’re going to play beforehand. In this case, because we only had one short rehearsal the afternoon before, we ran through a few different songs, and that was obviously one of the ones that we ran through that we thought was going to work.”

Regarding the writing of the song, Niko reveals that “‘Angel’ is actually a song that was part of a group of songs, music that I had written before Eugene and I had this discussion about making a record (laughter). ‘Angel’ was supposed to be this song from the Bible’s story about Absalom getting killed by his father’s army. So that song existed with lyrics and I never finished it, then Eugene put lyrics to it and it became ‘Angel’ … and then interestingly – I don’t know if we did this on purpose, but we’re talking about the second Oxbow record – on the record, ‘Angel’ is the last song on the first side of King of the Jews. The first song on the second side is ‘Cat & Mouse’. We played that live, and those songs … because these records are built as palindromes, side A to side B and then record one to record two, there’s all sorts of relationships. Specifically, in ‘Angel’ and ‘Cat & Mouse’, there are mirror-image relations between those songs. For example, the chord progression is backwards in one and forwards in the other. So it’s fun to play those songs together live as well.”

Regarding ‘Cat & Mouse’, which the band played back-to-back with ‘Angel’ at Moers, Niko and Greg say the considerable sonic differences between the live recording of it on An Eternal Reminder… and the studio recording of it on King of the Jews are the result of the song having “evolved” over the course of having been played live by Oxbow for over 30 years at least as much as they are the result of Brötzmann’s involvement. Greg explains: “We play it differently just from it evolving live. Also, our recordings – especially those early recordings that Bart did – have so many layers of overdubs that it would be virtually impossible to recreate them live. So we’re sort of forced into changing the song for a live environment no matter what. That’s true of virtually all of our songs.”

When I say that on third song ‘Skin’, from fifth album An Evil Heat (2002), it sounds like Niko’s guitar and Brötzmann’s saxophone are having a heated conversation with each other, Niko confirms that this was certainly how it felt when they were playing the song at Moers. He is keen to emphasise that “Peter is someone worth venerating … so I was looking forward to doing that, to having some interplay [with him]. I’ve been wanting to play with Peter since, I think, 1990 when we met in Wuppertal, and it just didn’t happen. So yeah, I was looking forward to an opportunity to do it. That song has the opportunity.” Greg adds: “I think all of us were listening to Peter. We were all trying to focus on him, for a lot of reasons. One, it was a new experience. Also, it was unique. It was a unique live performance for us, just like it was for anybody listening. I know I was focused on him … we went into the setlist assuming that we were going to play songs on the list and leave room to open things up, to leave space to let the improvisation go where it might. So I think everything we were thinking about [concerned] how to give those opportunities space.”

Dan expands on this point by saying that he doesn’t “remember consciously processing that other than feeling like the whole reason we were there was to see what happened when it was a band of five rather than a band of four. We knew that it would be super-fun and spiritually rewarding to do what we could to do just that: meld our playing with Peter’s and let it go where it would. So I think the only option there was for us was to step away from what we knew worked for us as a band of four and just sort of open it up and see what happened. There were certainly times when we were playing very, very structured Oxbow songs, and there were times when we almost stopped in the middle of stuff and went into improvised playing. Fortunately, a lot of it was a combination of both those things, where there was some give-and-take, some straying around, and a great kind of mixing that happened within the structure of the songs. But I think yeah, a situation like this, about the only thing you can do is say, ‘Hey, we know that this is going to be something interesting and different,’ so we have to just leave room and let it happen as it rolls out.”

Eugene has previously talked about how he views Oxbow’s music as functioning like the superego in Freudian terms. I put it to the band that at certain points on An Eternal Reminder…, most prominently on the performances of ‘A Gentleman’s Gentleman’ and ‘Host’ from seventh album Thin Black Duke (2017), it sounds more like the saxophone-playing is functioning as a kind of id. I ask them if it ever felt like Brötzmann’s very unpredictable and improvisational playing style was coming into conflict with the pre-planned and premeditated aspects of these songs, or if it felt like it was contributing additional qualities to them. Eugene responds by saying that he “felt very much along the lines of what Dan just said, that we were moving from a band of four to a band of five and were largely open and embracing of any sort of zig or zag that might make things cooler or difficult or more compelling, because it was cool and difficult. So it never felt like we were at loggerheads with the process, because the process as it stood was to fully embrace a certain element of chaos and be prepared for it. And if you’re prepared for it, is it really chaos in the end? It was not.”

Greg adds to this by pointing out that “our setlists have a little bit of chaos normally, anyway. It’s like I said: we pick the songs right before we go on, and we have a tendency to draw any song from our catalogue. Sometimes, we may not have rehearsed that song in a while and for some reason, we still decide we’re going to play it. So sometimes, there’s all kinds of improvised chaos, even on a night when it’s just the four of us, a normal show, you know? So that wasn’t that alien.” At this point, Dan says: “I think that if we had been able, we probably would have enjoyed taking it out even further. We kind of had to constrain it to only one rehearsal, and then we had to put some songs on the list … I kind of remember feeling, ‘Well, it was great, we had some moments where we let things go, but we sure played an awful lot of songs, and it would have been cool to play a lot more improvised music with Peter.’”

“So in a way, one of the challenges was: ‘How do we get to the point where we can take enough advantage of having Peter there?’ One thing that was so great was that, even when we were playing Oxbow songs, he added so much. Even when we were just playing sections of the songs the way we always play them. So even when we couldn’t be sort of playing freer music, it still added such a great element that was really nice.” Greg says he concurs with this view “100%”, before Niko reveals that “we’re fully committed to doing this more, to having encore performances. This was just the beginning, and I can hear that. We can all understand that this is one rehearsal of us and Peter becoming comfortable with that set-up. To do it more would be a joy, so we hope so.”

In terms of the experience of working with Marianne Faithfull on the studio version of ‘Over’, the fifth song on An Eternal Reminder…, Niko says that her “contribution to that was a little bit of an afterthought. Eugene and I went to Dublin to record her. This was Eugene’s idea to get her on the record [fourth album Serenade in Red (1996)]. We brought our friend to engineer, Gibbs Chapman, and she worked for a long time on the cover that we ended up calling ’Insylum’. Which turned out great, and I wanted Marianne to sing on another song, ’The Killer’. And she demurred. She said, ‘I need to rehearse that.’ So, if you can imagine the woman’s voice on ‘The Killer’ – which was actually sung by Karen Schub, who did a wonderful job – but that should have been Marianne Faithfull.

“She said, ‘Nope’, and so instead, we asked her to recite the lyric for ‘Over’ completely separately from the music. She did it slowly, fast, and sort of smiled and said, ‘Well, it’s not Milton, is it?’ (Laughter) You know, she has the right to speak that way, I guess. So we ended up using the slower one. I wish she had done it even slower, but she wanted it to be a little more peppy. So that’s how she got on there.” Of the experience of having Serenade in Red recorded by Steve Albini, Niko says: “We did that in San Francisco at a brilliant studio. It was this huge, brick … I guess it was a foundry at the turn of the 20th century, so [it had] gorgeous sound. We set up the drums in the middle of the room. The bass and guitar were open, so everything swirled. All the sound was mixed, and so there was this lovely, open sound. We asked Tom Yoder, a trombonist who had built his own amplifier, to come in. On one side of the recording, you hear the trombone amplifier, a little bit distorted. On the other side is the acoustic sound of the trombone, again in that gorgeous room.

“We might have done two takes, but probably not. I think we cut out one of the guitar riffs because we screwed it up, but other than that (laughs) … Steve just physically cut to the tape. That’s what you do with analogue recordings, and it’s on the floor somewhere. I overdubbed that feedback guitar, Eugene did his vocal, and voilà … we did a bunch of cutting on that song. We had two takes … we did a fast one and a slow take and we cut in the fast parts, the faster take for the fast parts and the slower take for the slow ones, so we accentuated the difference between the two … we left it overnight, thought about it, came back, and were like, ‘Steve, let’s go for it. Let’s push it (laughs).’” Greg adds: “I do remember that fantastic studio, and how great the drums sounded in there. I remember thinking what a perfect place that was to record that song, you know? It was just luck of the draw, but it worked out nicely.”

Of the decision to play ‘Over’, one of Serenade in Red’s slower songs, as opposed to the fast, punchy song from that album that Oxbow play live more frequently, ‘The Last Good Time’, as part of a collaborative set at a jazz festival, Niko says this was done with the aim of “leaving room for Peter. Peter’s an incredibly amazing musician. He can play anything and step right in, but I think ‘Over’ leaves more room for him.” Greg then explains that “we also had that maybe two-hour rehearsal the afternoon before in that big, wooden room with a big, bolted wooden ceiling. I remember ‘Over’ in that room was just amazing. In fact, unfortunately, at that rehearsal the day before, everything was better. It’s too bad that wasn’t recorded, because there was something happening that day when it was just the five of us and there were one or two other people hanging around. That was a pretty exciting rehearsal. Yeah, it’s too bad that hadn’t been recorded as well.”

Niko adds: “The festival was so wonderful, we’d love to come back, they were such lovely people, and asking us to play with Peter was astounding. We’d asked them to help us record that day, but that was the only thing out of all the amazing things – we didn’t have a recording set up, as we’d discussed.” Greg reflects regretfully that this was “unfortunate. That’s a moment in time. So yeah, whatever.” At this point, Dan recalls that there “was another element of the festival not quite doing what we want, which I think was a huge contributor to the set. We had, or at least I had, assumed that we were all going to be playing on the main stage in that big room. I think before us, there was a mostly acoustic duo setting up chairs and playing on the big stage, and we learned pretty soon before we were going to play that we were going to be on this weird, small stage in the middle of the room, which would have meant that half the audience were to our backs.

“So in a way, it was almost enraging. It was in the round, but the stage didn’t face around the way. It was very small, it was not even clear how we were going to fit, but for me it just injected this tension, chaotic energy, and strife. It was almost, ‘Okay, well, here’s a big challenge. We’re going to have to sort of scramble through this.’ Somehow it was a really great, energising element that just took us out of our normal mode and put all this focus on, ‘God, how are we going to pull this off? How are we going to physically set up?’ It was a great way to take our minds off what we knew we were going to do and put us in a little bit of a different frame going in. At least, that was very true for me.” Greg says he remembers “feeling the presence of all the people sitting behind me. There was a huge amount of people sitting behind us. I liked it.” Niko agrees that it was “very cool. I have to say, in that context … we’ve been playing together, the four of us, for a very long time. Since the mid-90s.

“We did something that we had arrived at never doing. Talk about [set-ups] contributing to chaos and making you begin everything differently. We always set up with the bass and the guitar very close to the drums. At Moers, we separated the guitar, so I was physically far away from the drums. It turned out the monitors were non-existent (laughs), so my guitar was very loud, I had no monitors for the keyboard. You can hear that. There were no keyboard monitors or drum monitors, so that was chaotic (laughs). Not good for playing together. Greg, I think you said afterwards, ‘I could tell that you couldn’t hear me.’ So if you listen closely, you can hear the drums helping the guitar out (laughs).” Greg recalls “figuring out that you couldn’t hear me, so I just tried to follow you, stay with you.” Niko laughs that it was a “crazy” feeling and thanks Greg for his assistance. Greg adds that this was not the first instance of something like this happening to Oxbow, reflecting: “Stage sound is always a roll of the dice, you know?”

I tell Oxbow that the studio version of ‘The Finished Line’, the final song on Thin Black Duke and the main set-closer on the band’s Moers Festival performance, has a feeling of “finality” for me in terms of bringing the story of that album’s title character to a full conclusion. I ask them if the song has that feeling for them, and if so, whether Brötzmann’s saxophone-playing enhanced those aspects of it when they were performing it with him. Niko says that this was the band’s aim for the studio version of the track, because they “wanted, of course, to have a fitting finale for that story and for the sounds before. Peter can have that apocalyptic finality to his playing, of course (laughs). We’ve never played that song like that before, and we sometimes think about going out on it, but there was a moment where, in the chugging middle part where the saxophone goes out, it was so exciting to just go for it and not know what was going to happen. ‘Maybe this won’t work. Oh my God, we flew all the way here and we’re recording this. We want to make a record of this. It’s such an important thing. Fuck it, we’re just going to go for it and see what happens.’”

“And it worked out. You know, sometimes you jump off the bridge and you don’t land on your head. It’s terrifying, but fun.” In terms of how he feels about ‘The Finished Line’ more generally, Eugene says: “I think about the lyric I wrote, and I typically demur from playing that song, because I think it’s emblematic of a terrible and greying end (laughs). So it brings me down to play it, even though there’s a certain quality of beauty to it. Usually, the quality of beauty is informed by this idea of renewal, in the same way that you maybe got at the end of [sixth Oxbow album] The Narcotic Story (2007), but there’s none of that with this, so to me it always feels suffocating to play. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy it for that reason, but what you touch on when you mention it is kind of what I’m touching on feeling when we’re playing it.” Dan says that when playing encore ‘The Valley’ with Brötzmann, Oxbow all felt “a sense of, you know, ‘Okay. We know how this is working. We made it through the set. People liked it.’ In a sense, there was a lifting of a bunch of the unknowns and an opportunity to play a beautiful, lush song and just relax and enjoy it together. So to me, I think it was a combination of all those things … I think we were probably playing in a slightly different frame of mind.”

As my time with Oxbow begins to draw to a close, I tell them that An Eternal Reminder… is the best live album I’ve heard for years, with the mixing and mastering being particularly impressive. I ask them if they think the live album as a means of recreating a live performance with great-quality sound that allows the listener at home to get a feeling of what being at the show was actually like has become a lost craft in the YouTube era. Niko says he thinks it has, with Greg adding that “a lot of credit has to be given to Joe Chiccarelli, Bill Mims, and Ken Sluiter, because the original recording was not very good … the work those guys did to clean it up and pull out what you hear is really pretty astounding.” Dan explains that “in fact, the audio that we had in our hands was not as good as what you would hear on some of the online tracks.”

Greg adds: “It was so bad that I was pushing toward not doing it, because I thought, ‘There’s no way this is ever going to be good enough to put out.’ But those guys just did an absolutely phenomenal job of making it sound as good as it was possible to make it sound.” Niko states that the original recording featured “profound technical problems. There were clicks in the recording. Like, a (makes clicking sound) at random spots in the multi-tracks, so it was awful (laughs).” Greg says Chiccarelli, Mims, and Sluiter “had to go through and tweeze out those weird clicks. Yeah, they did a huge amount of work on it.” Niko opines that the process of creating an album from a recording of a live show involves “an element of … perfection. Using digital recordings now, ProTools, you can tweeze everything to be perfect, and that’s become standard. Whereas live performances for a band like us cannot be that. If you use a lot of playback, you can get pretty close.”

“So that’s one of the problems with live performances, but it’s a glorious benefit. I think the beautiful mistakes have been devalued, so that’s something perhaps that’s changed.” Dan adds that, from his standpoint, “a live recording like this, watching it, there’s a whole added element of energy and surprise. And with the lights and all, it really boosts the experience. So releasing just the audio of this – you know, at one point, I remember thinking, ‘Wow. Is this really even going to work? Is the performance enough to keep somebody engaged, listening through that much music without having the visuals?’ I think having YouTube and visuals accompanying audio as a standard now means that yeah, live music probably is going to die out as audio-only performances, because it’s just a harder thing to pull off. We’ll see.”

Niko concludes my time with Oxbow by telling an anecdote about an experience he had as a younger musician and explains how it relates to how the band felt about playing a show with Brötzmann. He discloses to me that “years ago, I was able to play with Keith Rowe, the astounding AMM guitarist. He had two young guys on stage with him, and after asking, he told me why he liked playing with younger players. He said they provided him with ‘a bit of piss and vinegar.’ The funny thing is that Peter Brötzmann, who is maybe 20 years older than anyone in Oxbow, provided Oxbow with that ‘bit of piss and vinegar.’ And we are all better for it.”     

An Eternal Reminder of Not Today/Live at Moers is available now via Trost and Sleeping Giant Glossolalia.

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