Interview: Oxbow

I've been sort of chagrined in the past that nobody had figured out that all of our records were love songs

Oxbow have just released their truly brilliant new album Love’s Holiday and it is another captivating record from the band, full of songs packed with the eclectic and powerful nature that Oxbow are known for. Gavin Brown caught up with all four members of Oxbow (vocalist Eugene S. Robinson, bassist Dan Adams, drummer Greg Davis and guitarist Niko Wenner) to discuss all aspects of Love’s Holiday as well as talking about memorable Oxbow live shows, the band’s long history with Supersonic Festival and memories of the late, great Peter Brötzmann.

E&D: Your new album, Love’s Holiday is out now. Do you explore themes of love on the album, and is that something you’ve wanted to do for a while?        

Eugene: I’ve been sort of chagrined in the past that nobody had figured out that all of our records were love songs haha, and specifically, I remember a friend of mine describing the music that Neurosis made and said “I love Neurosis, but I listen to them and I feel like I’m being talked to by an angry ex boyfriend”. I started thinking about this idea and these songs, at least lyrically speaking and I don’t know how I could have been more direct about it. Like The Departed, the Martin Scorsese movie, I wanted to have that moment where at the end, the rat runs along the balcony, and everybody goes, Oh, I get it. That really irked me, it’s like, well, you didn’t think we would get this. Are you fucking stupid?! But of course, that was the one that he got the award for. So clearly, people wouldn’t have gotten it. So I think with Love’s Holiday, at least lyrically, I didn’t have any preconceived notion about how I was going to write these lyrics. As it turns out, they all cohered around the theme of love. Then I started to think, well, you know, how could you have a record like Fuckfest and not know that fundamentally, despite the use of the word fuck that these were love songs! I just figured to put a finer point on it. Just call it as it is, and to indicate that yeah, not only are these love songs, but they’re  love songs as we’ve always imagined that we’ve done love songs in the Oxbow purview. So now you can’t say you didn’t get it.

E&D: It’s been 6 years since your last album The Thin Black Duke. When did you start working on Love’s Holiday and was the creation by hampered with the pandemic at all?

Dan: The new songs, probably were coming along pretty soon after we finished the last record, because typically, we’ll start improvising or working out things in detail, or Niko will be working on new ideas, and so on. We actually recorded the basic tracks right before the pandemic. So we had a few years prior to that in developing music. Some of the songs are older songs, recorded at the same time. But during the pandemic, about a year and a half, we did nothing really. Then we started working when we were able on the processing and overdubs and adding parts and so on. So it’s been in the works for five for those six years.

Eugene: Also, what you hear when you hear Love’s Holiday, the 10 cuts we did, we recorded about 21 in total. We’ve been very busy with a magnum opus, of which now it seems like there’ll be 2 parts, at least with the 11 songs that weren’t used.

E&D: Have you got an idea when that can be expected?

Niko: To be precise, it ended up that we recorded seventeen and then added another so we had eighteen songs, as Eugene said, we put out nine songs plus an interstitial, that makes 10 cuts on Love’s Holiday. There’s 9 songs in the can. Excellent question. Thank you, midway through 2024 maybe.

E&D: This line-up has been together for over 30 years. Do you still get together to practice and record or is any of it done remotely given how things have been over the past few years?

Niko: It’s actually 36 years! Oh, my God, we all look pretty good!

Dan: I can’t imagine rehearsing not in the room, this band and this music. I just don’t know how, I know people have tried to make that work over the internet but immediacy seems very important, so yeah, we’re all in the same room to practice.

Niko: You know, Gavin, I had a conversation recently with a guy about guitar systems and completely changing the way that my guitar system works. It’s very complicated, and I love it but I realised in the middle of trying to talk to this guitar gear guru, trying to explain what we do and how we do it, and how different that is for most of the people that he’s talking to. It’s weird, most bands on earth could probably do some sort of distant rehearsal, and maybe we could but it just crazy. The combination of technical stuff and feel and eyeballing that we do when we play, the technical demands of Dan and mine’s gear. It’s in the complexity of the songs themselves. It boggles the mind, we got to get together in person. We forget that, is my point. We forget how, after 36 years, yes, we’re the same dudes. We’ve just refined, refined, refined and arrived at a place that I think not many bands are, the visceral attack, the volume, the loudness, and the complexity of the songs themselves.

E&D: How was it working with Roger Joseph Manning Jr on the track ‘1000 Hours’ and what did he bring to the track?

Niko: I knew Roger from maybe 1990. In San Francisco, he and my girlfriend at the time were buddies. In fact, Michelle was good pals with Lesley, Roger’s friend. Roger was starting a band and he was looking for a guitar player. So I got together with he and his friend Andy. They ended up hiring the other guitar player that they tried out and had a band called Jellyfish, which was more or less a power pop band. Awesome, truly inspiring records that they made and I stayed friends with those guys and I did about 10 gigs with them later on, and then worked on demos for their second record. So Roger, has always been on my mind for someone as an awesome musician and creative person and composer. God, let’s get him in with Oxbow. And, oddly enough, of course, Joe Chiccarelli, the guy that we make records with knows Roger, they’re both in LA a lot. He said, Hey, why don’t you get Roger to do something on the record? Why don’t you have him sing? It was this wonderful serendipitous moment. I was thinking of Beach Boys harmonies with Roger, but I thought it would just be too crazy! ‘1000 Hours’ is like this strange Oxbow pop song. Or maybe it’s a Van Halen pop song! We roughed in a demo and send it to Roger and he agreed to do it and thank God he did. It’s unbelievable to me when I listened to the perfection and yet human sounding. It doesn’t sound like samples to me. It’s all Roger doing those complex harmonies. So he took what I sent him and ran with it and did a bunch of stuff on his own. And all those words that I just said to you mean that I’m so amazed and proud of what he did.

E&D: You’ve had an array of guest musicians on Oxbow albums like Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Jarboe and Klaus Flouride. What have been some of your favourite memories of working with them?

Eugene: We flew over to to Dublin to record with them Marianne Faithfull because we had tried twice to get her into the States, and because of the old heroin bust or whatever, she just couldn’t get in, and never one to accept a non answer. We said, okay, screw it, we’re gonna come to you. So we booked some time over at Windmill Lane in Dublin, which I was guessing, based on the amount of U2 gear that was set up there had something to do with U2! We showed up spending what at that time, was for us huge amounts of money to get there. Albini recorded Serenade In Red, the record the song would appear on but he didn’t seem to be so down to make the road trip. So we got Gibbs Chapman, this guy who did An Evil Heat later for Oxbow. We flew over, Niko, and I went over, we show up in the studio, and Marianne shows up, the first day, we’re getting ready to record. And she says, Yeah, I don’t know, I’m not feeling it today. As a guy who was paying for all of this, I’m just really gripping. I know I can’t force you to do it. I can’t do anything to upset the process, so you do this kind of Buddhist thing of just, okay, whatever is gonna happen, happens. She shows up the next day, and she’s kind of struggling with the songs and she says, screw it. Why don’t we sing it together. So we step up to the mic. And I don’t know if it was the inherent nature of the song, which was ‘Insylum’, the Willie Dixon tune about a man losing his mind or the tension that was built up but the first couple of lines, we stand at the mic and I sing. I could see her, like, seize up the way somebody does who has PTSD. She pauses and she goes, You know what? I’m gonna let you do this alone. She leaves the mic, she goes off and I finished. I think well, whatever happened, somehow I fucked this up. I finished my line, then she comes back in and she fucking kills it. And that was like, okay, all right. Anything that happened after that, I didn’t care. That was probably my favourite moment. In terms of professionals, Lydia Lunch just came in and killed it. I mean, we didn’t even have to be there. She just murdered it right out right out the box.


E&D: Who would you love to have feature on an Oxbow record in the future?

Eugene: PJ Harvey for me.

Niko: You know, remembering working with Marianne. I think again about Peter Brötzmann who just died. We planned something. We had a song picked out on this record we’re working on now. It’s not finished yet, for Peter. So it’s tragic that we weren’t able to get into him into a studio with us. Just to quickly say, Gibbs Chapman in fact, recorded two of the songs on that record, on Serenade In Red with Marianne and Gibbs continued to record and the funny thing about that when I think about working with Marianne, which was a total trip as Eugene outlined. I asked her to sing another song, the other song that Gibbs Chapman did the engineering on and she didn’t so that, but we got another wonderful singer to do that. But I think sometimes about what if she’d sang that song.

Dan: ‘The Killer’, the last song on Serenade In Red

E&D: You mentioned Peter Brötzmann there. What are your favourite memories of working with with him and playing with him, and what did you learn from playing with him?

Niko: The most surprising thing, you know the nature of these things, The Moers Jazz Festival kindly hired us and flew us over and our gear. We had a rehearsal with Peter the day before. We took a break in the middle of this rehearsal and I went out with him and he had a smoke, I believe, and we were talking and I was jet lagged and tired and nervous. We were talking and I think I said, ‘yeah, I really miss my kids’, and he said, ‘yeah, you know, I don’t see my son as much as I’d like to’. I looked at him, I said, ‘oh, yeah, you have a son? Does he play music?!’ I think it’s a testament to Peters internal fortitude. He didn’t say you idiot! He gave me this very human look and said, ‘well, I think you must know, my son Caspar, he plays guitar too’. I probably turned white!

Eugene: Hahahaha, I didn’t know that! That’s fantastic!

Niko: Peter, just like took it and said, ‘yeah, I get it, ok!’

Greg: My fondest memory of Peter is that rehearsal, because as cool as the live recording came out for that record, the rehearsal was better, and it’s unfortunate nobody recorded the rehearsal. It was in this side room of a church, like a refectory or something. It had big wooden ceilings and a wooden floor. It was really the rehearsal, I thought it was absolutely amazing and better than the performance, and it’s a shame that hadn’t been recorded. But you know, it’s one of those moments in time. It is what it is, right?

Eugene: You got to experience it.

Dan: Yeah, I was just gonna say, I mean, there was a lot to learn, you know, at his age, still, being able to create that much music was incredible, the amount of work he did on stage. How much he listened, and responded. He was a hero around Moers. He was always one of the highlights and yet here, he was willing to sit back if that was the right thing to do for the music and then lead when it was the right thing to do with the music. He was just a spectacular musical partner for that show.

Greg: Yeah, that was really amazing.

E&D: Oxbow are playing the Supersonic Festival in September. You’ve had a long history with the festival, what have been some of your best times playing there?

Eugene: I would say the time I almost lost my mind, which was where we had the choir on the stage and we had the big projection behind us. It was unbelievably,  monumentally heavy, just to look out at you know, the thousands of people. Then the images in the back and the singers ranged along the back of it, and then us playing, it had to be probably pretty close to a peak experience.

E&D: Are you looking forward to to playing again this year?

Greg: Yeah, of course, for sure.

Niko: In talking about recording Love’s Holiday, those songs, I realised how important Lisa and Jenny, Lisa’s former collaborator at the festival, how important that relationship has been for our band, for the songs we have. For me personally, Jenny and Lisa both came and stayed at my house in San Francisco before they started the festival they just out of the blue said hey, they stayed I think with us for a week in 2001. Lisa being involved in instigating and giving time and thought and resources to ‘All Gone’ which is a song on Love’s Holiday and also to ‘Lovely Murk’ in a way that I’ve been describing. I didn’t put it all together. I just sort of took individually, but again in talking about Love’s Holiday and realising the important part that that festival and particularly Lisa Meyer has played in Oxbows output. It’s pretty, pretty cool.

Greg: We played an early thing that they did. Remember, that was in somebody’s basement.

Eugene: I remember the old strip club.

Greg: Was that what it was?

Niko: We played a strip club. It was a venue at the last minute.

Greg: I remember somebody’s basement, some show they had organised because I remember hanging out with them out in  the middle of the neighbourhood, and I don’t know what that was but it was long before they were doing Supersonic.

E&D: Supersonic is part of a UK and European tour. Are you looking forward to hitting these shores again and will you be playing a lot of new material on this run?

Greg: Our set is different every night. We don’t pre-write our set lists, we write our set about 15 minutes before we go on stage. So we don’t really know what the set is going to be until a few minutes before we’re supposed to play it, which sounds insane and is but obviously we’ll be playing virtually all the songs off the new record, maybe not every night, but certainly every night there will be many songs of the new record mixed in with who knows what. older songs and improvisations. Who knows?!

E&D: Talking of the UK and Europe, what are some of your favourite things about playing  and touring over here compared to the US?

Niko: I’ll just quickly say that I’m constantly amazed at how, I think saying that we have a career is maybe far too grand, that we’re still able to keep playing. I think that was enabled by the way that the support happens, particularly in continental Europe and also in UK. It’s different than the States, in case, venues would be willing to take a chance on a band like Oxbow, we were far more noisy and far less disciplined and far less well known and the clubs wouldn’t have to be worried about losing the business if nobody came to see us. That allowed us to tour and play and get better and continue and come back. The system in the United States made us, we make the kind of music we do because we are from here. The system in Europe allowed us to continue and I think a lot about that. I’m married to someone from France, a continental European person. My answer to that is, personally, I need to go back and forth and I think Oxbow as a creative entity needed both of those systems to arrive at where we are, yes, we could have possibly done it otherwise. But, you know, it’s touching on a huge subject. I think that’s part of what I think about when you ask that question.

Dan: I think, in the States, there really isn’t, besides the show, there isn’t really a connection between promoter and bands, if there’s even a connection at the show. And that includes food, where you stay, and so on. Maybe you’ll get a buy out for some food if you’re lucky, but in many cases, certainly in the past when touring in the States. It’s much less being taken care of. That’s fine, but it’s sure nice to be playing where some clubs feel like it’s an important thing to give people a place to stay, and have some meals and things like that. So generally, I think, at least in the past, Niko was kind of hinting at but I think people coming to the show in Europe are that much more accepting and kind of emotionally ready for what we’re doing.

E&D: What have been some of the most memorable shows that Oxbow have played over the years?

Niko: I think about the performance that we did in 2011 in Paris, for me personally, it was important because later on I met who is now my wife, but the concert itself was outdoors in a park, free. There was a lot of people, there was some people sympathetic, that knew Oxbow and people that were sympathetic to the sound we were making and a bunch of people that didn’t and it was super cool. It was the last time that I saw the promoter that we worked with a great deal. Christoph with Kungfuzi booking in Paris. Later that night, we played a small acoustic gig in a well known, sort of noisy improv space. Rigoletto. That was an amazing day. So I put those two gigs together, we probably played, I don’t know, 18 songs, twice what we usually play. It was a hell of a day in the middle of 2011.

Greg: It’s funny, the shows that stick in my head are always the small shows, because the bigger shows like Niko’s talking about you kind of always expect well, they’re probably going to be good. And if they are good. You go, yeah, they were good. And if they’re bad, you go, Oh, well it sucked but it’s the little shows that you have no idea what’s going to happen. Like, is anyone even going to be there? And some of those shows have started out, you know, there aren’t very many people there, but the energy and the excitement and the atmosphere of the place. Those shows just stick in my mind, and it’s funny. We were actually talking about this a little bit last night. I certainly remember one in Germany and one in Lyon in France and Prague. It’s those little shows that turn out really great when you have no idea what’s going to happen that have stayed with me more than the bigger shows.

Eugene: I remember a show we played, it was the Dour Festival, maybe the first time we played. I didn’t know a lot about festivals, right. Like, that’s not my preferred venue to see bands. I think probably the first time I went to a festival was the first time we had played one. So I didn’t realise the whole scheduling issue. The stage we had to play on was huge, and the band that had played right before us was I thought as either as well known as we were, or better known, given where we were in the world, and in a venue space that held about 2-3 thousand people they had about 20! Chuck Dukowski once told me, it’s not the fault of the people who showed up that nobody else showed up, so you go out and you do your show. So I was prepared to do that, I walked from the backstage. I don’t look at the audience at all, because I’m like, you know, whatever, I’m here to do something else. I walk to the microphone, and I turn to face the audience, and I’m looking down at my feet, and I raised my eyes, and I see 2500 people in the venue, and they were all so fucking quiet that I didn’t hear them. They weren’t talking, and so I was surprised and shocked that 2500 people had managed to sneak in without me even audibly, being able to factor that. It was a great two step where I go from, we’re gonna have 20 people here to 2500 shocked people. And the only other show that I can imagine that I had more of that realisation with was when we played with the Jesus Lizard in San Francisco and we open with a song that we do called ‘La Luna’ and I have had problems with the song before because it has the first line is “My eyes” and in the heat of the show moment, I’ll hold that line as long as humanly possible. And I passed out, right, my face hit the monitor wedge and I don’t  how long I was out for, not long, 10 or 20 seconds but when I opened my eyes. The first thought in my head was, what are all these people doing in my bedroom? Because I felt refreshed, like I had taken a nap and then I realised “Oh shit”. This is not a dream. It’s not my bedroom. It’s at a show and the first row of people were looking at me screaming, but it was more like, come on, you can do it. I was like, oh shit. Yeah, I’m doing the show. I got it. I got to my knees and I got to my feet like the James Brown Cape routine and finish the show. It was a really fun show to play. I believe that was 27 years ago, if I remember correctly. My ex wife was pregnant with my oldest daughter at the show, that’s how long ago that was.

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