Two chords and the unbearable truth
On July 21, Bay Area avante-rockers OXBOW will release their eighth long-player. It’s a listen that benefits from awareness of the musical journey the band has walked since their start in 1989.
To be fair, OXBOW’s music has often been more interesting than listenable, and the San Francisco band with its roots in the post-hardcore sound of the ’80s may not be fit for the masses. However, those whose music collection has been described dismissively as “just noise” by otherwise open-minded people may find the current stage of OXBOW’s ongoing evolution worth tuning into.
Round about 1989, singer—as well as mixed-martial artist, writer and occasional actor—Eugene S. Robinson, along with multi-instrumentalist and brutal guitarist Niko Wenner, shifted attention from the pure hardcore of their Stanford University-bred band Whipping Boy to the post-punk, aggro-noise exploration that is OXBOW.
The result was a noisy, beautiful, bitter pill of a band destined to be recorded by beating-heart-of-American-post-hardcore Steve Albini—as was the case with 1995’s Let Me Be a Woman and 1996’s Serenade in Red—and housed on the label co-founded by skat-metal vocal terrorist Mike Patton. The band signed with Ipecac Records in 2021.
Whipping Boy’s straightforward, testosterone-rippling hardcore had already given some way to psychedelic exploration as early as 1983’s MuraMura. The shift in sound was none-too-appreciated by the hippie-hating boneheads who shored up the imploding punk scene under the moniker of hardcore during the early ’80s, when post-punk was already more interesting and successful, while still truer to the diverse roots of punk rock.
But being a ripped-ass singer in a punk band does not make one a bonehead. OXBOW draws on far more genres of music than can be listed in this article without becoming a total bore. In fact, if a reader has found themselves exhausted already by the discussion of genres, OXBOW is, too. While nothing may be more cliché than an artist hating being “labeled” as a musical style they helped to define, there is no doubt that OXBOW fit a tradition of avant-garde music that was once meant to create the future, but now is more than ever a remnant of the past.
The group spoke with East Bay Express about their music and its meaning, 30-plus years on. When asked about the role of the avant-garde in the band’s development, famously confrontational frontman Robinson predictably came out swinging.
“Avant-garde rock in 2023? I have never described our music as such and have never seen it in the wild outside of reviews where, after a few decades, I had hoped they would just start calling OXBOW ‘music,’” Robinson responded.
As already stated, labels generally suck. Except “noisecore”—that one’s good. It’s how OXBOW might have best been described until this album and the previous release, Thin Black Duke. So what is the music that is OXBOW in 2023?
“A studied and poised probe into the machinations of eros and erotic love and its failures,” Robinson said. “But I’m just the lyricist, so make of this what you would.”
Bassist-and-more Dan Adams added, “OXBOW has our feet firmly grounded in the modern popular music songbook and sound book, which fortunately includes a mind-blowingly broad swath of sonic content from the stunningly peaceful and beautiful to the completely insane and highly uncomfortable. So, we have plenty of room in which to work and have no urge to try to find some new wave.”
OK, so fuck avant-garde. Got it. But there’s more …
“For me,” said Wenner, “‘rock’ is the particular flavor and the ‘avant-garde’ part is the larger, more interesting category. So the Venn diagram circle of avant-garde would be much larger than the circle representing rock, and the intersection would be avant-garde rock, better described as ‘rock avant-garde.’”
Now we’re talking! Let’s face it, music geeks love these intersections and while true artists long to be unique and original, musicians so often are also fans with deep esoteric knowledge of fleeting subgenres. It’s part of the fun.
“Whew,” continued Wenner. “So what? My mindset is always more humble than avant-garde ROCK! Because rock avant-garde is really digging into a tiny part of an enormous, adventurous, by-design risk-taking, open-to-failure bunch of sound.”
Yet when pressed on the issue, the band acknowledges its situation within the bonehead/pioneer dialectic that gets assigned to other associated acts such as Henry Rollins, who failed to develop and grow in the way OXBOW has.
“We in OXBOW have found consensus for how our records sound and the music that we make, in the harder and more intense and the more quickly understandable part of the vast landscape of folks pushing into ‘new,’” Wenner said. “For me, lately the most radical avant-garde path for us is clarity in our sound and structure. And the idea that sharing what is uniquely yours makes music no one else has done. So I’m digging deeper into myself to share what moves me most right now—the love and appreciation for family—in these Love’s Holiday songs.”
Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that this article has gone on so long without referencing the musicality of the band. Since their origins in ’89, the instrumentation shreds. This band can grind with the most wicked of them. One of the benefits to punk music from the big-money alternative era defined by Nirvana and their ilk was an expectation of quality. Of course the Ramones and Black Flag were tight, but they didn’t exactly reimagine the form the way late-’90s darlings such as Sleater-Kinney and Flaming Lips did. OXBOW continues to do that with noisecore tropes in these new lush, post-meatgrinder songs.
“Every OXBOW album has been a leap forward. Mostly because of what I call the Muru Muru Syndrome,” Robinson said. “… [W]hen I was in Whipping Boy, we had done a hardcore album, The Sound of No Hands Clapping. Our second album was called Muru Muru, and it was an aggressive leap forward. And aggressively not very hardcore at all. So much so not hardcore that we decimated our listening audience. I guess this was for the better, as the people who remained had hungry palates for the adventurous.”
He continued, “So with OXBOW it’s been a very careful and studied documentation of our states and frames of mind that gets you from [first release] Fuckfest to Love’s Holiday. Because, in the end, we’re striving to be understood and not so much to be misunderstood.” This from the singer who didn’t sing a discernible lyric until perhaps 2007.
Vocals in the band have generally been an outsider howl, mumble and roar, punctuated at times by spoken-word over passages of pure instrument noise. Robinson’s vocal approach is akin to a man who wanders into a crowd and insists on being heard with such force that he can’t be understood. Of course, this works perfectly for noisecore—remember, this is the label we like—but as with the rest of the band’s music, a shift has occurred in the complexity and thoughtfulness of presentation. Robinson has been impressive from the start, but on Love’s Holiday the vocals are at turns soulful, folky and even a bit pop.
“Migrating the vocals over the course of eight records has been a yeoman’s effort to have you understand lyrically and vocally what I am saying and meaning without any need for an interpreter. So that is new,” Robinson said. “The move has been gradual … from conceal, conceal, conceal to reveal, reveal, reveal.”
OXBOW’s live sets make it clear how Wenner, Adams and drummer Greg Davis come together as artists to give Robinson a platform of hip, heavy-hitting sound to leap from as he fancies. This new album brings that rock-trio foundation together with a vocalist at full confidence. Always a focus of the band’s songs, now the vocals are an equal contributor to the ebb and flow of musical styles that OXBOW left hardcore to explore. Huzzah.
“We’ve been moving always into something new, and [this current] new is massed human voices and choir, and sounding more simple, clearer, making recordings that are more sparse,” Wenner said. “Heaven forbid we will ever be bone dry and pretend to be some sort of fake ‘three chords and the truth’ purveyors. But, we do aim for the truth. [P]ersonally, I do aspire to make using fewer chords work for an OXBOW song. Hell, ‘Lovely Murk’ is essentially two chords and is more truth than I can take most days, so, ‘Two chords and the unbearable truth’ it is.”
The band has set a challenge for itself that has remained intact for 34 years now. It’s a no-bullshit team effort that must be getting something right.
“Working with OXBOW is like working in a teetering, nonprofit family business with four grown and settled brothers,” Adams said. “The years [traveled] together … continue to teach us how to work together. Life is short and this music is an important part of our being alive. There is good motivation to keep figuring out how to make the music we want and need to make.”
So much of OXBOW’s output is a kind of anti-style, an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of feedback, syncopation, power chords and screaming. Yet it all coheres into a true ensemble effort. On the new album, the group shifts together through forms and styles strenuously but powerfully. It’s that famous psychic connection between bandmates tinged with their signature playful psychosis.
“It is essential to our collaboration that we all in the band are omnivorous music, art and thought appreciators, critics, consumers,” Adams said. “All bring receptiveness and awareness and breadth into our core process of making OXBOW music.”
He added, “It is important for all of us that the output meets our needs and standards, and we all agree to keep pounding on something until it, by our assessment, is as it should be. We tend to aim for unanimous agreement on decisions and, amazingly, achieve this most of the time.”
One doesn’t have to listen too closely to hear that pounding. Each instrument clashes as if it’s being clattered against the bodies of its human counterpart, even in the comparatively mellow Love’s Holiday. This band of men has worked long and hard to bring their collaborative message to the world.
“OXBOW records are an urgent bid to connect with the world and, possibly, to be understood,” Wenner said. “The idea that the end has begun and it’s too late to fuck around is also a powerful motivator to say, once and for all, what we need to say.”
“Great appreciation for being alive and in fortunate circumstances to be able to be sufficiently content. Getting closer to death, saying goodbye to loved ones and those who raised us, living our finite lives with our loved ones, families, friends,” Davis said. “Having an older and broader perspective on the grand successes and horrendous failings of humans trying to get by, trying to behave themselves or excelling at misbehaving at the expense of others.”
Love’s Holiday is not likely the end of the road for OXBOW, but is a return, a coming to a new place and recognizing it.
One suspects it is generally wise to give Robinson the last word. “This album, and this should be no surprise, is our version of what a pop record sounds like,” he said. “So … Beach Boys, Beatles, OXBOW … makes sense to me.”