Fifteen minutes after finishing the interview, the lead singer of OXBOW has me pinned to the ground backstage. I struggle to get up, to get out of his grip, but his heavily muscled, intricately tattooed frame won’t budge an inch. As the carpet beneath me rips the skin off my elbows, his forearm begins to slowly crunch into my windpipe.
But for some reason, I can’t help but smile. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen going to my brain, but I find myself taking a mental step back from the scene to arrive at one of those “How the hell did my life get here?” kind of moments.
So let’s rewind. Here’s how my life got there.
“You must be a singer!” Eugene calls out as I emerge onto the third floor of the Brooklyn Bazaar. It seems I have arrived just after I was needed, just in time to NOT help the band lug their gear from the van, up the stairs, and onto the stage.
Solid first impression there, Jeremy. I bet they love you already.
“Sorry man! Anyway, I’m Jeremy. Good to meet you.” I walk past the bar toward stage left, where Eugene, the frontman of experimental art rock band OXBOW, is coming to meet me. I extend my hand and give his a confident, friendly squeeze. He winces.
“Watch the hand, I’ve got a broken finger.”
Why am I like this.
We somehow get the conversation back on track, and soon Eugene and I are sitting side by side in the green room, where he tells me all about his hobbies, his family, and his day job at OZY. Eugene speaks with the careful consideration you’d expect from a Stanford man like him, his brow furrowed as each thought transforms itself into language. He’s got a tightly sculpted head of hair, plus a thin mustache that pulls upward into a gleaming smile and a ready laugh.
Soon enough, it’s time for the interview, and we head back downstairs to the bar area to get some food. There I start chatting with the rest of OXBOW as well. Bassist Dan Adams is one of the friendliest and most forthcoming musicians I’ve met in a long time, as he asks about where I’m from and seems ready to connect on more than just an interviewer-interviewee level. Drummer Greg Davis speaks in a straightforward, clear, down-to-earth way, translating OXBOW’s high-concept artistic choices into language that even a non-musician like myself can understand. And guitarist/keyboardist Niko Wenner has a sagelike gentleness about him, which comes out in both his voice and striking blue eyes. But once he hits the stage, his raw energy perfectly captures the entrancing dynamism of OXBOW’s unique sound.
As we sit down at a table to wait for our catfish sandwiches, we each sip a beer and begin the interview.
We start by talking about OXBOW’s new album, Thin Black Duke, which is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. It’s unnerving and soothing and grotesque and gorgeous, and I ask them how their fans have been responding to it. Rather than trying to cater to a specific audience, they tell me, they made the record as an honest expression of who they are. And sure, a lot of bands talk about trying to be authentic, but as Eugene points out, “There’s trying to be authentic, and being authentic.” Each member of OXBOW feels that for them, writing and playing music is a purely organic process. Nobody is trying to be anything they’re not, or do anything they can’t. “We all are sort of moving along the path together,” Greg says, “and the music happens the way it happens.”
There’s some wisdom to be gleaned here: maybe putting pressure on yourself, trying hard to be something that feels real and true, only gets you further from who you actually are. If you wanna find yourself, maybe it’s as simple as just chilling out and doing what feels natural.
Thin Black Duke may be a gritty, honest album, but that doesn’t mean its message is clear. In fact, with its sometimes whispering, sometimes shrieking vocals and its terrifying orchestral swoops, listening can be a downright perplexing experience. I have to ask: can the guys explain the record’s message or intended emotional impact?
Niko shakes his head. Not in a simple conversation, he says. “Music is something that existed before language, and serves a purpose and has a communicative function that is different than words . . . Music can say things, does say things, that words don’t.”
Taking pity on a journalist who lives more according to words than pure sound, Dan leans forward to offer a nugget of non-musical meaning. He says the record is “pointing out the various ways there is discomfort in the human condition.” That certainly makes sense to me, as the record left me feeling intrigued but uneasy.
It’s no surprise to Eugene that the listener may get a bit uncomfy. “It always feels slightly uncomfortable if someone’s having a conversation with themselves,” he says. “Because that doesn’t involve you, and you feel you’re invited into some sort of intimacy that you don’t know if you want to accept . . . But to me, that’s the most compelling kind of art.”
At around this time, our catfish sandwiches finally arrive. They’re intimidatingly large, so we all start nibbling while we address a few more questions.
Check out the video for the song “Cold & Well-Lit Place”
OXBOW has always been known for their rowdy live shows. In fact, twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for Eugene to get physical with any audience member bold or stupid enough to come up on stage with him. And although their most extreme antics are now a thing of the past, their music still has the power to radically move a crowd, both physically and emotionally. How does it feel to be a part of that?
“I like the idea of music being magical and transformative, and it happening in a space where religious ceremonies used to happen,” says Eugene. After all, he points out, people convene into a small, dimly lit space. A person (or a band) stands up front at an altar of sorts. And, I might add, it’s a space where people experience sublime beauty, and a feeling of connection to something greater than themselves.
As for how it feels to be onstage in that holy moment, “It’s heady,” says Eugene. “And it’s affecting. It’s not like I’m presenting something to you . . . It’s very much like we’re sharing something, you know? It feels, to a certain degree, like sex without entanglement, which is not a bad type of sex to have.”
And it’s always a different experience, adds Niko: “We make a new set every night, a different way to group the songs to perform, because it feels right that night. Anything could happen.”
As for what’s next for the band, first they want to recognize Thin Black Duke as an unprecedented milestone. It marks the end of a musical train of thought stretching back to their very first record, Fuckfest. Much like a visual artist may spend years on a given project, “It took us seven records to make one painting,” Eugene says. I’m not sure what the next painting will look like, and it sounds as though they may not either. But however it turns out, I have no doubt it will be every bit as challenging and beautiful as the first.
With that, I stop recording and dig into my massive sandwich. After chatting with Niko and Greg for a bit, I walk back to the green room, where Eugene is waiting for me. Now, a word about the green room. Its walls are covered in scribbled names, drawings, and profanities, a crude and glorious catalog of the bands that have passed through over the years. I smile at “One in the bum, no harm done!” and “311 was an inside job!” and “She asked me to kiss her where it stinks… so I took her to greenpoint!” But at the end of the day, like ancient cave drawings from pre-history, they all say the same thing in a dazzling myriad of form and color: “I was here.”
And there’s something beautiful about that, I think to myself, as I gaze up at a drawing of a humanoid vagina, glaring and wielding machine guns.
Watch the music video for the track “Other People”
It is beneath this sacred image that Eugene and I turn a half-joke into reality. Given our respective backgrounds in martial arts, we have been chatting about practicing some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu before the show. But now, with Eugene having changed into his grappling shorts, I realize for the first time that this is really, truly going to happen.
This does not go well for me. I could blame my rustiness, my inflexible jeans, or anything else, but the bottom line is that Eugene is just damn good at BJJ, certainly better than me anyway. We roll around on the grimy floor for a good ten minutes, fighting for position as Greg looks on in obvious amusement. It has been a while since I’ve practiced, so I begin to rediscover that total awareness of my own body and that of my opponent, a laser-like focus filtered through a lens of calculation and strategy. A chess match of meat and bone.
By the end, Eugene has submitted me twice, the first through a maddeningly simple choke that I should have seen coming. We both get up at last, re-sculpting our hair and putting on our shoes. Though we have just technically been in combat, it’s nothing but smiles and compliments all around. It seems I’ve lost the match but won a bit of trust, as Eugene suggests I go help sell OXBOW stuff at their merch table. Grinning, I dash out onto the floor and do just that.
As for the concert itself, they totally kill it. With about 300 people in attendance, Eugene starts the show wearing a classy hat and suit, though he ends up shirtless and ferocious while Niko, Dan, and Greg craft an urgent, visceral performance all around him.
After helping the band load the van back up (not gonna lie, being a temporary roadie is awesome), it’s time to say goodbye. A few handshakes and even a couple of hugs later, I’m finally off to the subway. Though as I walk, two thoughts make me smile: 1) How am I going to explain to my boss that I got the interview, but also got choked into submission? And 2) I don’t think I’ve ever met a band quite like OXBOW before. In fact, I know I haven’t.
So if you have yet to check out Thin Black Duke, do yourself a favor and go pick up a copy. If you don’t, you just might have to face me or Eugene in a round of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu… Hey, it could happen. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.