Picture this: A young Ice Cube without a scowl. Prince without his icy gaze. Elvis Presley politely curbing his curled lip. In other words, a faceless icon. It is nearly impossible to conjure, which makes the deliberate facelessness of Pittsburgh's psych-pop auteur Tobacco all the more unnerving. Even as his star has risen, both as a solo artist and as leader of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco (born Thomas Fec) shuns personal publicity. He prefers to keep his image as blurred and warped as his fuzzed-out, synth-driven music. This, of course, flies in the face of the modern concept of the celebrity/artist in the age of social media. "It's cool to have that line of communication, but too many people are oversharing," Fec says via email. "I don't know if we need to know as much as we do about some artists. I like it for myself, but approach it cautiously."
The aforementioned legends (Cube, Prince, Presley) developed their personae in tandem with their creative works, allowing the two currents — image and body of work — to inform one another. It's what allows them to retain a super-heroic stature, as recognizable as the "S" on Superman's chest. Their voices instantly conjure images of their likeness.
In Tobacco's music, words are divorced from a personality. Vocoders and talk boxes are the aural equivalent of the masks Tobacco wears in pictures, wringing the inherent humanity out of the vocal sound. The texture of the voice is woven into the larger tactile experience of the music, a heady marriage of distorted drum machines and warped keyboards.
Between his solo output and that of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco has released eight albums over the last 10 years, plus a liberal smattering of EPs, singles, DVDs, and collaborations. On Tobacco's latest album, Ultima II Massage, the versatility of this willful distancing of the self is impressive in its range. On the lumbering opener, "Streaker," Tobacco channels a monstrous presence, growling threats and taunts. On "Eruption," three songs later, the menace in his voice is gone, replaced by a sexually ambiguous coo. Perhaps as a means of establishing consistency, the language remains charmingly foul throughout. Disturbing images are expressed with a technological coldness, and his true voice remains a mystery.
Where Tobacco's true self remains elusive, the music is totally effusive. The sounds of Ultima II Massage spill across the songs like thick paint. Tobacco credits his rotating collection of all-analog gear. "Modular stuff is where it's at and it's cheap," he says. "It's so easy to find garbage in the digital keyboard world, but it's actually tough to find anything that's not at least good in the modular world."
Whereas digital equipment has become widely adapted for its relative ease of access and durability, Tobacco is still an analog loyalist, despite its finicky nature. "I used to worry about [gear dying on me]," he says. "I had a few things that I thought were essential, but recently I realized I don't use any of them anymore. With modular the way it is now, it's finally gotten to where it needs to be and I can find new stuff that actually sounds awesome. I'm thinking now that it's a good thing to have to rethink things each time."
Focusing his efforts on existing as a technician, rather than a personality and character, has allowed Tobacco to be prolific. His lack of presence has no relationship to his need to express himself, even though his true self is seemingly too amorphous to be concisely expressed.
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