Eugene S. Robinson (the S. is to distinguish him from the political pundit) has been writing, performing, and making music for three decades. He got his start fronting the arty hardcore band Whipping Boy, and formed Oxbow with guitarist Nico Wenner, who’d been a member of the final Whipping Boy lineup, in the late 1980s. Oxbow has released six studio albums and several live releases, DVDs and EPs between 1989 and 2007. Their music blends the blues, hard rock/metal, noise, contemporary classical music and more, with Robinson’s vocals extensively multitracked and layered, and frequently mixed in such a way that makes his lyrics more impressionistic than explicit.
In addition to his musical work, Robinson has acted in films and written extensively—he’s published a book on fighting (Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking) and the crime novel A Long Slow Screw, and has written articles for Revolver, Decibel, GQ, the LA Weekly, Vice, and many more websites, magazines and newspapers.
He’s just released Last of the Dead Hot Lovers, a collaboration with French producer-musician Philippe Petit. It’s the second of three planned collaborations—the first one, The Crying of Lot 69, came out in 2010, and the third, as yet untitled, is currently in the works. Oxbow is expected to re-enter the studio soon, and Robinson will continue to write and perform in various contexts pretty much wherever or whenever he’s invited.
Stream an excerpt from Last of the Dead Hot Lovers:
Below, 10 questions and answers with Eugene S. Robinson.
Last of the Dead Hot Lovers is the second release in a trilogy—what will the next one be? Has it been recorded yet, and if so, when will it be released?
Hitler once said that there were three types of secrets: ones you and I share, ones I keep from you and ones about future events as yet unknown.” This will be the first kind. Mostly because I have no answers.
I have the music. So that has been recorded. But that’s it. I need to write the lyrics, and after much reminding by Petit I will do this.
When and who are going to release it? Future events as of yet unknown. Also filed here is what I will write about and how I see the vocals playing out. I think about it all the time though, and as far as I have gotten with the planning is it involving me singing with some voices that I like. Fuzzy thoughts to the guy who sings for the Tindersticks…I would love to have the guy who used to sing for US Maple on it, but he has refused this request from me before and I have no reason to expect he won’t do it again. Maybe makes sense for him and where he is in his life. I am unsure. But I do know I want to have other men singing on it…and then the hope is that it sounds nothing like Hall & Oates.
Are the individual records connected—thematically, sonically or in other ways? Will the third release be the big finish to some larger narrative?
Everything I do is connected and more than just by the sinews of me. They’re connected because they follow a linear progression…through my life. So my preoccupations emerge as leitmotifs, but like the Alexandria Quartet, they sometimes show the same thing from different angles, or when I have left that circle of darkness and deception, the next one up? Or possibly down. Some ambitious and insane art project might emerge where someone does this…some of the work digs down deeper…I mean Serenade in Red to An Evil Heat was precisely this type of two step…and some extends the story, as will The Thin Black Duke. This Petit trilogy, like my work with Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, involves a musical puzzle that needs to be solved by me using only soul. Mine specifically. But my preoccupations these days have gotten heavy with heavy…and are all about both surrendering and giving up and divorced from a religious concept, it’s not nearly so nice and neat and not even leavened by any sort of healthy self-abnegation. It’s all about the last chapters of Dante‘s Inferno. Or something like that.
You’ve worked with Petit quite a bit—how did your artistic relationship begin, and what makes him a good partner?
Well, he booked an Oxbow show in Marseille…we got raped at that show by an unscrupulous club owner but stayed connected to Petit. Mostly, if truth be told, because I was trying to figure out if the club owner ripped us off with his connivance or not. I figured I would figure this out in the long run. In any case he started his own record label and asked Oxbow to participate. Oxbow moves very slowly. And this is good for Oxbow. I, personally, am much faster. So while the split record with Guapo never happened (that’s what had been planned), Petit and I kept in contact. and eventually he had me sing on his first Strings of Consciousness record. This, also aided by the stern tutelage of photographic great Steve Gullick, resulted in me singing for Barry Adamson at the Royal Albert Hall for the London Jazz Festival. The reviews were great and so we continued. But Philippe is a great partner because he’s provided me with great artistic challenges and totally trusted that I would make the right choices even when I was not sure myself that i had made the right choice. This is when I knew he was a fantastic artist/collaborator. This does not always happen.
My dream is to tour on this….we have a great stage show planned for Last of the Dead Hot Lovers but thus far finding an agency on the basis of two 22-minute songs has been tough.
What is the process here? Do you write and record your parts and send them to Petit, who constructs music around them, or is there consultation between you two along the way?
Well, I am in France a lot, and was in Marseille for about a month a few years ago. But if memory serves me correctly, he sends me music and I do the rest. Lyrically and vocally. I’ve never recorded with him in the room though. But I usually never record with anyone in the room unless it is a duet.
Who is the female vocalist heard on the album? Was this your first time working with her? Did you record together, write the lyrics together, or was it totally separate?
Kasia Meow is this great Polish singer who I discovered in Poland on an Oxbow tour. Her band Terrible Disease opened the show and she did all the things that I like when I see female vocalists that I like. Her presentation was not overtly sexual. She looked the audience in the eye. And she sang with a real power and range. I had asked a lot of people to do this song with me. I had asked Julie Cafritz, Scout Niblett, Kim Gordon, Amy Pickering from Fire Party…no one ended up doing it or wanting to. And I think mostly because of the lyrics? Who knows? I wanted it to detail the collapse of a relationship, so maybe it was just superstition but I only asked singers whose work I loved. But I wanted it acidic and deeply hurtful. Just like the real thing. And I think it was more about being able to understand this on a very deep level and being able to sing it with me and not be overwhelmed by me or by what we were singing. Staying above the wave, so to speak. So this was my first time working with her.
And we recorded it together. There are pictures of us on the Petit-Robinson-Meow Facebook page doing so. And I wrote the man’s part and she wrote the woman’s part. It was perfect really. We’re going to do this project called Glacine where we have a bunch of composers who we like write music for our voices and lyrics. Could be cool. Or could be majorly misbegotten. But it will be fun and a certain kind of genius.
We’ve discussed this a little in the past, but are you particularly drawn, as a performer/artist, to the dynamic of the male-female duet? If so, why?
Well, I have four sisters and grew up with tons of aunts, female cousins and so on…only a few men were born in to my family. Most of them married in. And so despite all of my excess machismo I prefer women in general as companions and I guess artists. And women will actually sing with me. I have not been so lucky getting men to do so.
Also, women’s voices are criminally under-used in smart ways. It’s really terrible that these voices bring all these cool possibilities and are used in such a very few, limited ways. There are exceptions of course. Diamanda Galas being the first one that comes to mind. She is great. I asked her to sing and she turned me down but she was a great friend for a period of time and I enjoy her mind. But she does not really sing with other people and I can respect that. And I don’t often get to. This might explain why I want to.
Have you ever done duets live? Does that interest you, or do you prefer to be the sole vocalist onstage? Would having to take another vocalist into account and “make room for them” inhibit your performance style in any way (and I’m not just talking about wardrobe here)?
I have done duets live. Played “1000” [from Oxbow‘s Let Me Be a Woman] with Eilidh Bradley who used to sing for Solar Race. Kasia Meow for the Oxbow Orchestra…Sasha [Andrès] from Heliogabale. I had a side project with Bevin Kelley called Leisure High that we wanted to play live on but never did yet. I welcome any and all onstage complications that yield cooler art.
How has the other writing you’ve done (journalism and fiction) impacted your approach to lyrics?
Writing is writing is writing…my goal with lyrics, though, is to say a lot with a little. I mean, the best lyrics I have ever written were on Serenade in Red, but I overwrote, but that record was about a certain kind of excess, so that was fine. And, of course, writing I get paid for? Well, this improves everything.
You’ve done a lot of guest appearances in recent years, both live and on record. Do you seek these things out, or do people come looking for you? Have you ever turned anything down?
Brave people come looking for me. Brave people with cash and food and a place for me to sleep when I record.
And I have turned people down. Usually with a very nice “You know, you don’t need me.”
But they bring me something good, I get to do something better with it and everyone goes away happy. Except DJ Rupture. We did a song together and it was the worst-reviewed thing he has ever put out. I felt genuinely bad about that, but I still like the song. And I think he does/did too. And I have only gotten burned twice. Once the band used a terrible mix…and asked me what I thought and I told them. And they released it anyway. And then in this other band they wanted me to sound like a cross between Phil Anselmo and Axl Rose. That was so crazy that I thought they were joking. But after I recorded a whole record for them and never heard from them again I am quite sure they were not joking at all.
Given the imminent demise of Hydra Head, what does the immediate future hold for Oxbow? Do you have plans for a new record? Is there label interest?
There are three types of secrets…and I can tell you that we are going to record The Thin Black Duke this year. Labels are asking. But we’ve not chosen anyone yet.