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Black Moth Super Rainbow's Kaleidoscopic Surgery

Mystery of Pittsburgh: A sextet that crafts “mind movies”

Mystery of Pittsburgh: A sextet that crafts “mind movies”

Few bands in recent memory have produced an introductory image as apt as the cover of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s breakout record, Dandelion Gum, an Iridian waterfall of glowing grape, mustard yellow, tropical orange, firecracker red and bluegrass green. The first 1,000 copies of it included a pink-vinyl version with splashes of gold and a bubblegum scratch-and-sniff cover. It was delicious.

When your eyes adjust to the cavalcade of color, however, it becomes apparent that you are looking at an oscillating ocean of hair atop a pear-shaped nose, a pair of vacant, hollowed-out eyes and a set of plump Rocky Horror Picture Show lips blowing a Bazooka Joe bubble. “The covers come first, the music comes second,” says Tobacco, née Tom Fec, the band’s lead singer and principal songwriter, who creates the images by cutting and pasting Photoshop collages.

You’d be hard-pressed to read a feature on the band that doesn’t in some fashion characterize them as “psychedelic weirdos,” but in truth, psychedelic’s the wrong way to describe Black Moth Super Rainbow: Its music lacks guitar solos, tracks typically clock in at three minutes or less, and not only does Tobacco eschew lysergic inspiration, he doesn’t even smoke weed. But the Pittsburgh sextet still manages to traffic in the idea of sound as color, putting them in the same camp as polychromatic kinsmen Caribou and Edan. And, rest assured, the narcotically inclined will appreciate the blunted buoyancy of BMSR music: It’s ideal for runs to the 7-Eleven and back.

Legendary Minutemen bassist, sessionman and Stooge Mike Watt describes the band’s song bursts as “mind movies” — a fitting tag for a crew whose stage show typically features them shrouded in cinematic darkness, attention focused on a projector reel showing gonzo clips of Richard Simmons sweating to the oldies, Ford-era interviews with women wrestlers, and sepia-toned softcore porn.

“The sound of Tobacco’s music jump-started my own songwriting,” says Watt from his home in San Pedro. “Everyone occasionally gets doubts about what they’re doing and the momentum of their own music — then you hear a cat like [Tobacco] play like this and you’re raring to go. You realize the world of music is still filled with opportunity and possibility — not everyone’s already figured everything out.”

In the past, Black Moth — specifically Tobacco — has been accused of artificially contriving an air of mystery, but the frontman explains that the opacity stems from a desire to avoid “letting our personal lives and personality get in the way of what we’re trying to do.” The self-effacing songwriter admits, “I know too much about bands these days; I’m not trying to be famous, I don’t care who knows me. The spotlight ought to be on the visuals. It’s not like we’re dancing, we’re just trying to play our instruments.”

Talking to both Tobacco and BMSR guitarist Ryan Graveface (who also runs the band’s label, Graveface Records), you sense that they feel alienated by the perception that the band is somehow lightweight or gimmicky, thanks to its bizarre visuals and reclusive personas, and Tobacco’s use of the vocoder. Or maybe it’s the band’s self-bestowed nicknames. In addition to Tobacco and Graveface, there are the Seven Fields of Aphelion (Maureen Boyle), Power Pill Fist (Ken Fec), Iffernaut (Donna Kyler) and Father Hummingbird (Seth Ciotti). Collected, the litany sounds more Brothers Grimm meet the Justice League than critical darlings deserving of respect.

But they have earned it. Few contemporary outfits can top the surfeit of honeycombed melodies and kaleidoscopic textures shading the music. Says Graveface: “Some people hear a vocoder and immediately think novelty. They aren’t listening to the nuances.”

Tobacco seconds this: “I don’t really like music that’s not accessible to me. I’ve always felt that what I was doing was extremely accessible, and made sense in a pop way.”

Of course, nothing’s more trite than experimental bands claiming they’re really just making pop music (see Collective, Animal), but Black Moth Super Rainbow actually has a case — though its screwball pop is closer to Urban Top 40 than the pabulum rock that KROQ pushes. After all, with T-Pain, Kanye West, Lil Wayne et al. smitten with autotune, and Roger Troutman suddenly as influential as anyone sub-Prince, Tobacco’s use of vocoder feels au courant — except that he’s been doing it since T-Pain was fishmongering in Florida.

Even the kingfish himself, Kanye West, recently blessed the band with his endorsement when he (or his ghost-blogger) posted the video for “Dark Bubbles,” with the terse title, “dope artwork, dope song.”

Prolific as any mixtape rapper, Tobacco has released more than a dozen albums and EPs over the decade. His most recent solo effort, the MPC-heavy, Anticon-released Fucked Up Friends, placed him more in a league with fellow genre-less producer wunderkinds like Flying Lotus, the Bug and Prefuse 73. Indie hip-hop staple Aesop Rock is such a fan that he invited the band on his None Shall Pass Tour, and later recorded “Dirt,” the lone cameo on Fucked Up Friends — a subterranean Super Mario Bros. stomp with crunchy caveman drums. That had people clamoring for a full-length collaboration.

The band’s latest album, Eating Us, is its first recorded with a full band, and the only one cut in an actual studio instead of Tobacco’s bedroom. It’s produced by Dave Fridmann, the man behind the boards for Flaming Lips, MGMT, Mercury Rev, Air and Boards of Canada; comparisons that once dogged the band are sure to be swapped for Flaming Lips analogies. Indeed, Eating Us boasts an expansiveness, symphonic majesty and idiosyncrasy redolent of The Soft Bulletin.

“I get records from bands all the time, and usually listen to a few minutes at a time, skipping from track to track just to sample the flavor,” says Fridmann. “Black Moth’s music was the first I’d listened to in years from start to finish — it was that engaging. Tobacco has written some unquestionably great songs. The sky’s the limit.” What color it will be is anybody’s guess.

Black Moth Super Rainbow performs with School of Seven Bells and James Yull at the Troubadour on Friday, May 29.