Saturday, May 2, 2015

Interview with Lamont Thomas of Obnox

We're five months into 2015 and Lamont Thomas has put out two full-length records as Obnox - Boogalou Reed on 12XU Records and Know America on Ever/Never Records and guess what - they're both good as fuck. While many bands are complacent with putting out a new album every year or every other year, Lamont is already prepping his third album of 2015 called Wiggling in a Cannon on Ever/Never, not to mention being featured on the upcoming ONO record Spooks. Let's face the facts - Thomas' output has exceeded any standard measure of prolificacy. Now he's just showing off, and we're all gloriously better off because of it.

Lamont's been making music for more than twenty years, having been a part of bands like Bassholes, Puffy Areolas, and This Moment in Black History, but his solo project Obnox just released its fifteenth record in its relatively short four-year lifespan. Obnox is a master study in chimeric music, weaving in noise, punk, soul, hip hop, blues, and rock n' roll, the result of a roving, curious mind. I can't help but think that a less-driven artist would be tired, but Lamont, ever the anomaly, seems to be revving up for DeathRace 2015.

I got a chance to catch up with him after he landed in Austin, TX to play with Barbara Lynn and debut his band Blaxxx with Orville Neeley and Tom Triplett of OBN III's to discuss his work ethic, the state of the music industry in 2015, and cowboy hats.
Jordan Reyes: What brings you to Austin?

Lamont Thomas: I got flown down for a couple shows with Barbara Lynn. She did soul-influenced rock, and in the sixties the Rolling Stones covered her. So she’s in the books for sure. Now they’re reissuing her catalog from Atlantic. I’m privileged to play with her. Her voice sounds better than anyone on the radio right now. I don’t know how she’s maintained that level all this time, but it’s a gift.

JR: How old is she?

LT: Man, that’s a good question. I don’t know exactly. She’s definitely in her sixties. I’m playing with this other Bricktop Blues band with Randall from Beerland. He’s an amazing harp player who’s been playing for ten years and I’ve only known him for eight years.

JR: You’re playing a Blaxxx show tonight too, right?

LT: Yes sir. It’s kind of our debut. We were supposed to do our first show at the Atlanta Mess Around next weekend, but I got the opportunity to come down here, rehearse, and possibly make some stuff for a follow up. But yeah, we’re playing tonight now.

JR: How’d you link up with the guys from OBN III’s for that project?

LT: We’d been palling around the last few Southby’s and they suggested that we jam when I was in town. They played in Cleveland and crashed with me. We jammed when we had time off at Southby. I ended up just going over there during the last few hours I was in town and we made the record.

JR: I actually started my blog three years ago because I loved their first record and wanted to know what was next. I thought they wouldn’t answer me unless I had a good excuse so I made this blog to find out.

LT: Damn! So that was the jump off?

JR: (laughs) Yeah. It’s so funny. I totally could have asked them, but I somehow felt the need to make this elaborate backstory.

LT: Yeah, but it’s still pumping too. So do you have the Blaxxx record?

JR: Yeah, I do. I got it probably two or three weeks ago. I bought that and a couple of the Obnox 12”s I didn’t have from somewhere in Cleveland. I can’t remember exactly.

LT: You’re still doing the label [Moniker Records]?

JR: Yeah, I just started working with Robert. We’re mostly operated out of Chicago even though I just moved to Miami. I’m still fresh to it, though, so there’s a lot I need to learn.

LT: I got it. Robert’s a good dude. ONO and I crashed over at his place. I had a couple shows there. When I was last down there, I went over to Electrical Audio to do some tracks with them.

JR: How did you guys get together?

LT: ONO and Puffy Areolas had played shows together and when I started doing Obnox, they were supportive immediately. The Owl put them on a bill with me on one of those Sunday night things. They came out to Cleveland not long after. So when I was out on tour, I stopped over at Electrical Audio. Wild troop, man. Tons of talent in that room. P. Michael is a genius, but it’s really about the tribe. And Travis, of course, shit. (laughs).

JR: He’s a trip.

LT: Smart dude. Having been down with the Cleveland punk scene in the 70s, we were kind of drawn to each other. Just seeing what they were able to do with the Chicago punk and weirdo scene is incredible. They were the blueprint. I’m glad they’re getting reissued too.

JR: So you’re originally from Cleveland, then?

LT: I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio about an hour away. I went to college in Bowling Green and then I was out in Philly for a bit. I came back to Ohio in Columbus for about five years. I ended up in Cleveland, which is where I’ve been for the last fifteen years. It’s affordable. I can get to a lot of cities within eight hours and it’s a good central location for touring if I’m going to the South or the East Coast. The West Coast I have to plan out, but I also can do a lot of weekend things here and there.

JR: And you’ve been making music for twenty-odd years?

LT: Yeah. One of the first records I was on was in ’95.

JR: Do you think much has changed in terms of who’s making punk music since then?

LT: Well, there’s plenty of great stuff out there. Many people my age will say “it’s not the same,” but there’s always been people trying to suck on the industry’s tit and now they’re kind of on their end trying to figure out ways to take back the internet or better use technology. Some star is saying, “Shit, I’m only going to make six million this year. I’m used to making twenty-five-fucking-million a year. This is bullshit.” (laughs). But the game has changed. The fans got older and the technology has changed with your generation - it’s taking twenty-five years to get their dollars back with Beats and Jimmy Iovine and Neil Young who’s promising better quality mp3’s. At some point you have to sit back and realize that, no, you guys just want to get paid! Nobody had a platinum rap record last year. That’s fucking unheard of. It’s one of the biggest cash cows in the game.

LT: Part of it is what they’re selling, too. Part of it is having to treat your customers right. They were making a product for less than a dollar and selling that shit for fifteen or sixteen dollars for years, which eliminated all other formats. It is what it is. They’re not exactly selling the best shit in America. Like there’s better stuff so why not just put out quality products? It’s for fans. It’s the same thing now. People are doing the numbers that the fans indicate. There’s a lot of file-sharing going on and free downloads and streaming, but ultimately that gets the word out for shows. The quick, instant listen is a new phenomenon. It’s not like back in the day where you’d have to get a 7”. People are doing great things now that they couldn’t have done in the old system. Shit, I’m happy. I’m having more fun than ever and it’s partially because of that.

JR: How do you feel about the reaction to your music?

LT: Well, as long as no one says it’s “punk rap.” (laughs). Those are just two words that shouldn’t really intermingle. There are rappers saying “I don’t want to be no punk” and I don’t want to be responsible for that. Let’s just put it that way. I do what I want. People seem to respect that and they seem to respect me. People know I’m into everything. I’m listening to Glen Campbell and I’ll put on LL after that and then the new Lump & the Dumpers single right after that. That’s how I carry it in the studio too. I’ll do a punk song and then I’ll do a love song. You can barely even get a punk-rocker to say the “L-word” anymore.

LT: It’s like, well, motherfucker, you got a mom. Somebody somewhere told you they loved you. You had your heart broken. Tell the truth. You ain’t hard. You ain’t fresh. And you ain’t raw. The raw motherfuckers can articulate that shit, which ends up making a dope song, or a good listen. You crack the gatefold open, load up the reefer, sit back and listen for half a day just flipping back and forth.

JR: I agree with you. I think diversity’s is something people are afraid of it. I think labels are afraid of it. I think artists are afraid of it. Sometimes I even think listeners are afraid of it, putting themselves in niches.

LT: Yeah, and it’s cool anyway you want it. Some people are comfortable only hanging out with church folk. Some people only hang out with crust punks. Some people are stone cold egghead indie-rock shoegaze motherfuckers. To each his own. I like to pack my shit with a little something for everybody. If you’re coming in, you can check it for the noise or check it for the beats or check it for the punk songs or pop songs, and you might turn on to some other shit and end up going off on some completely new trajectory. That’s music. That’s life. That’s learning. That’s what’s up. 

LT: Man, I can’t find my fucking joint. I just rolled it. Oh, there it is. (laughs). It’s really funky down here, you know?

JR: Yeah. I’ve never been to Texas, but I wear a cowboy hat all the time so people think I’m from there.

LT: (laughs) Oh man, I love wearing a cowboy hat through Austin. People are like “What in the hell? He ain’t from around here.” They can just tell. I’m just trying to enjoy how they get it down here. I’m going to fuck around and buy some boots one of these trips. The last time I saw Arthur Lee alive, he had on this Western shirt with fringe, some black denim, some black boots, a cowboy hat, and also a doo-rag, and some Locs sunglasses. I was like “This is the real singing cowboy. This is my fucking hero right here.” Talk about Black punk. Locs, doo-rag, Western wear? Rest in Peace, Arthur Lee.

JR: He’s a total idol for me.

LT: That reminds me of the business shit. You have Jim Morrison ripping off Arthur Lee and Lou Reed. And then it takes several decades for people to realize how heavy Lou Reed and Arthur Lee were. In the meantime, Morrison’s hammered and he fucking croaks. It’s like what the? That’s not fair. But Lou Reed and Arthur Lee also didn’t like to tour that much. It’s a workman’s issue. That’s the punk blueprint.

JR: So talking about diversity, the last track on your most recent LP Know America has an emcee on it. Is that you who’s rapping?

LT: No, that’s my homeboy Josiah Quarles who goes by Zion. He’s the emcee of the Muamin collective. Ultimately that’s the idea to kick in the door and throw on Muamin, which keeps the beats and samples, but has rock to it. Aaron "aLive" Snorton from Muamin does a lot of the beatmaking and mixing on the Nox records. It’s kind of like a feature.

JR: That’s a great record by the way. I like the concept of taking over a radio station. It’s like a pure way to put your idea of good music into someone else’s.

LT: My friend was telling me that no one really listens to the radio anymore. I didn’t really think about that while I was making the record. It’s just classic radio, a little bit of a throwback.

JR: I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the last time I listened to the radio. Maybe that’s cause I’m cynical and don’t know where to look.

LT: Yeah, but there’s a lot of options - podcasts and the music you hear from blogs. That shit’s vast. People are just turned onto music differently nowadays. Radio’s more of a commercial space now than it was in the past.

JR: You also chose the AM frequency. Why’s that?

LT: (laughs) Well, it’s like a wake and bake. You know? AM - WEDE. Little weed reference. 420 AM. Stoner bullshit really. There’s a radio station in my hometown of Sandusky, which is 1450 AM WLEC. I still listen to that when I get home. It wasn’t like groundbreaking punk radio, but it was solid programming. So I guess I’m taking it back to the beginning.

LT: Recording it at home, we were just dicking around. And I was like, “yeah, let’s call up the news and have them back us up on this.” Let’s get the thirteen year old kid Cullen O'Connor on the phone to cut organ. That’s what happens - Know America. I also think of Sue Harshe from Scrawl. Her punk band before they started Scrawl was called No America, so I’ve also morphed that a bit. It’s a snapshot of different shit you might hear from around here. A little bit of everything. It’s all together.

JR: I’ve had this running query in my mind, which is how hard is it nowadays to make a living being a full-time musician. Are you able to do that?

LT: Well, I don’t know. It’s always been an overgrown hobby or a labor of love. I’ve recently gotten some opportunities where I may be able to make a little more money than I had in the past. So I can make money from it, but a living? You probably have to do a deal where you wake up every day and consider what your role is as an artist. You’ve got to do interviews and promo tours and all the stuff that the big businesses do to sell their music. Those are the types of people making a living at it.

LT: Then you’ve got people who are just hard-working musicians, always on the road. We don’t know if they’re twice divorced and recovering alcoholics because of it, but they’ve got a great show and it’s worth going to see them. You’ve got to tour a lot because it’s all about the show. The record business in the big leagues is all fucked up so the independents are feeling it too. But it’s getting back to where it was in the past where there’s a lot of good regional activity. People are linked up as fans of one another. It’s not this big overgrown world takeover like Lady Gaga and Drake. I’m not involved in that world. If I were to make a living doing this, it would be keeping a nice internet profile, selling t-shirts, selling records, and traveling, but then I can’t be with my daughter all the time and my woman’s not happy. You have to balance it out.

LT: Historically, clubs tend to punk bands around when it comes to the money and no one’s calling anybody on their bullshit, but the clubs are there year after year and the people are breaking up their bands and starting new shit. And it’s like, hold up, you had a great band, but somebody had to punch a clock or somebody had to raise a child, and the money for your music wasn’t coming in like it should. A rapper will kill you for his money. So why are these fucking rock n’ rollers afraid to confront a club promoter, or some motherfucker who won’t pay for the record or downloads he’s selling year after year? Maybe if the powers that be were a little more fair about their accounting, and if artists were a little more realistic about what they could sell and what they’re worth, and people had better shows, the interest and sales would justify the yearly income. But it takes a lot of time and some damn good music.

JR: I read one of your interviews where you said that even though you get critical acclaim year after year, and I see it, you end up lingering in more obscurity. How do you see it?

LT: Well, I mean, famous people turn up dead, man. I don’t want that. I’m not like “why am I not making it? Why don’t people care?” The people that are getting the music appreciate it and that’s good enough for me. If more people were to follow suit, then hell yeah, I’m down. I’m not here for the ego glow, but more for the word getting out there. It’s like art, man, like a painting at a museum. It’s a good thing. It shouldn’t be a bad thing when someone becomes popular if they’re doing the same thing they’ve done. So what? There are a couple douchebags in the crowd in baseball caps and Birkenstocks. Maybe over time he’s gonna lace up his chucks or slip on some Vans, puff down, and try to get some pussy. Hell yeah, that’s a rite of passage in rock n’ roll.

LT: Look, I listened to junk records back in the day, and then all of a sudden you hear something and your palette changes, your taste changes, and your ideas change. Some people aren’t up for that. I’m not covering this crap. So what, big deal he’s got fourteen records out - that’s too much. Like, what do you mean? That’s newsworthy if you ask me, but I’m not in it for that. As long as people are catching the records, spreading the word, turning it up, puffing down, and partying to it or hell, get naked and get in the sack. I don’t want to think about that, but I hope that’s going down.

JR: (Laughs) That’s funny.

LT: It’s a deep game, man! It’s about music and nine times out of ten there’s a dude who can’t play and doesn’t give a shit about music who’s trying to set the agenda for the game and that doesn’t work. The fans own it now. The dopest musicians are the ones on top now. You trying to get a deal? You trying to get off on a trend? You look like a fucking alien. I think of those dudes with a ton of laminates at Southby and it’s like “Dude, you look like a fucking alien! You look weird. You look like you hurt somebody.” It’s like, “I’ll talk to you if you can respect my music and you have some money, yeah I’ll talk to you, but we can’t get in bed unless we have trust.” Sometimes you have to decide what’s up, but hey, who knows? Maybe he’s going to throw his laminates in the fire, come to Nox, buy the records, and start playing punk tomorrow. It’s music. It’s a language. We speak it one way or another.

JR: I heard you’re working on even more records that might be coming out this year.

LT: Yeah, I’m working on a record called Wiglet in the can that’s going to come out on Ever/Never in the fall. I’m also working on something that will hopefully get cut in the Spring of next year. It’s expansive - it might even be a double. Nobody’s happy about me doing a double album because it costs a lot of money, but to have it all together in one package is my goal. I’m trying to make it good enough where whoever decides to put it out is undeniably behind the project. It’s tentatively titled Skywalker OG. It’s me working with a bunch of guys from Cleveland who make beats, but ultimately using that shit to make a punk record. Who says you can’t use a drum machine and make a punk record? Why does it have to be equated to rap? I don’t have to worry about what rappers have to worry about. They have to worry about being fresh and networking, which takes your mind off music, but I love the NPC. I love the beats mixing with the band. And yeah, I like playing distorted-ass guitar over it. But Rick Rubin was doing that same shit.

JR: Yeah, Jay-Z’s The Black Album sounds kind of like that.

LT: Yeah, I think he’s ripping me off. Nah, I’m fucking with you.

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