It’s not news to any genre fans that horror films and electronic music go hand in hand. From the soundscapes that Goblin plastered across films like SUSPIRIA and DAWN OF THE DEAD, to the career-spanning scores of John Carpenter, and even more recent revival-styled scores as featured in IT FOLLOWS and STRANGER THINGS, the musical genre defined by expressive blends of keys, synthesizers, guitars and electronic drum kits has always paired well with images of monsters and masked killers. But the artist we’re examining today has, as of this writing, never specifically composed any music for film or television; the terror and thrills he elicits come solely from his audio artistry.
The musician in question is Thomas Fec — also known as Tobacco (a handle he took from a character of the same name in the film REDNECK ZOMBIES). Fec, originally a founding member of the group Black Moth Super Rainbow (whose music is equally heavy, yet more pop-ish and hip-hop inspired), started his solo career with the release of his 2008 album FUCKED UP FRIENDS.
Right off the bat, we feel taken to a dark, dirty place by the opening track, appropriately titled “Street Trash.” The tape-hiss tinged drum beat, mixed with the droning low-tone keys, creates an immediately charged atmosphere. One can imagine being dragged into a grimy alleyway to watch a brutal fist fight that’s just erupted. As the track progresses, additional layers of key riffs create a more melodic, harmonious head to the song, almost as though we’re being granted a glimpse of some kind of paradise that lies just beyond the nasty, soot-and-blood-speckled setting we’ve been thrust into.
Going further down the album, tracks such as “Hairy Candy,” “Pink Goo” and “Grease Wizard” support this, and we can see this loose walking-through-Hell-to-get-to-Heaven sonic narrative is the thesis of Tobacco’s discography.
The man himself corroborated this: In a 2008 interview with Kotori Magazine, Fec explains: “With Tobacco, I wanted to embrace my beats and get darker and sleeker with it all. I want to make you feel paranoid in a good way. There’s something seriously fucked about workout tapes from the mid 80s, and just about everything obscure on Beta tape. They make me feel awful, but really good and curious at the same time. With this Tobacco stuff, I’m trying to translate that feeling.”
One way in which Tobacco achieves this lurid lo-fi sound is through working almost exclusively with analog instruments — although he has admitted he’s begun incorporating more digital effects into his work.
Fec’s next release, MANIAC MEAT, came out in 2010, and further developed his signature sound, featuring a heavier incorporation of vocoder-drenched vocals. The barely-intelligible lyrics — usually little more than one or two lines repeated multiple times over — have a way of permeating the listener’s mind and evoking all sorts of confused yet energized emotions; songs like “Constellation Dirtbike Head” and “Six Royal Vipers” manage to nest inside your mind and heave you hearing them vividly long after you’ve taken your headphones out.
While almost all of Tobacco’s work — both solo and with BSMR — is engaging and engrossing on some level, in this writer’s opinion, the musician hit his stride with release of his 2014 album ULTIMA II MASSAGE.
I first stumbled upon the album’s deranged single “Streaker,” thanks to an article highlighting the work of Eric Wareheim (of TIM & ERIC fame) as a music video director. You see, Wareheim directed the music video for the song, and it is truly a perfect marriage of sound and image. This video is a testament to the value of music videos as their own unique hybrid medium. Building upon a concept inspired by the album’s title, the video pushes the viewer into a depraved, hedonistic massage parlor, where naked, masked patrons run around causing all kinds of hallucinatory chaos.
[NSFW Alert: Contains explicit nudity]
In the minimal amount of press he does, Fec isn’t big on explaining the concepts behind individual songs; the only person who can really decide their meaning is you. But even as we hold that subjectivity in mind, it’s impossible not to visualize all sorts of grotesque and bizarre imagery as you listen to ULTIMA II MASSAGE. His penchant for tuning the instruments up and down mid-song, changing up tempos and time signatures without notice to deliberately create a stunted, off-putting vibe in songs like “Lipstick Destroyer” and “Blow Your Heart” leave you feeling on-edge and disturbed — your eyes widen and suddenly you find yourself taking a more thorough look at your surroundings. Even slower songs like “Creaming For Beginners” manage to create a sense of dread; the slow, sleepy keyboard melodies gradually pitching down, as though you’re sinking deeper into a dark zone, a netherworld populated by the beasts that haunt you while you slumber… seriously, how has this guy not been commissioned to compose a horror movie soundtrack yet?
Tobacco’s most recent release, 2016’s SWEATBOX DYNASTY, again solidifies his sinister style, managing to feel equal parts creepier and more transcendent. The album’s first track and single “Human Om” is a perfect representation of this — as is the creepy-as-Hell video below, which Fec himself directed and produced.
His use of strange, digitally-composed masks set against what appears to be amateur home video footage creates an oddly meta sense of voyeurism; We feel as though we’re seeing something we shouldn’t see, and these hideous faces are the guards of this forbidden realm, staring right back at us. “You can be my light ‘em up in the morning/I can be your spiral step down,” Fec sings through his vocoder. As text, these words seem soothing — but heard in context of the song, they betray an underlying danger, alluding to a monster that is hiding behind the sunny surface, one that you must travel below to confront… if you want to truly see the morning again.
As you can see from my own wild interpretations, Tobacco’s music is highly evocative. It awakens something dark and primal in the listener, while also hearkening to the better angels that are presumably, hopefully out there.
I urge you to seek out his music… and on that note, I leave you with a live video of Tobacco performing with some of his BMSR cohorts at the KEXP studios: