A Couple Days In the Life of Oxbow
March 21, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau
It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon on the campus of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California; the modest layout of the school’s 120-acres is situated 50 miles south of the Bay Area and 15 miles north of San Jose. Founded in 1957, the mostly single-level buildings retain their mid-century design and sit on a hill surrounded by distant pines and firs. The school’s motto is all of two words: “Upgrade, advance.”
The winter afternoon sun is warming the air as I make my way across campus, the only people around are a handful of art students standing in a line drawing a latticework structure outside their classroom. Almost smack-dab in the center of the campus is building 6200 that houses the school’s radio station, KFJC. Typically, its hallways are cramped with albums, CDs, and cassettes giving off a wonderfully claustrophobic sense of record collecting and broadcasting: old promo posters tacked up in the wall, some with graffiti, some without; perhaps the best decoration isn’t a promo item but a velvet painting of Raw Power-era Iggy Pop hanging above the steps leading to the far side of the broadcasting booth.
“Radio that’s weirder than you, but not much” goes the saying and they’re not kidding. Variations of avant-garde, metal, rock, jazz, which commercial radio won’t touch — simply put — KFJC is the equivalent of the celebrated New Jersey independent station WFMU.
Take right now, for example: The station’s 110 watts are broadcasting a song called “The Stabbing Hand” by San Francisco’s Oxbow, a slow creep of a number buried deep on their 1995 album, Let Me Be a Woman. The first two minutes are closer to a Grygory Ligeti composition than anything else with its deliberate fade-in of Georgian-like chants, a minimal strings, organ. Finally, the rhythm section goes to work followed closely by droning, feedback-bending guitar and moaning vocals. That this song is being electronically propelled into the blue sky some 30 yards from those quiet drawing art students and among the silent trees and tranquil campus is worth noting. You won’t hear this on terrestrial radio and you may not even hear it on most other college stations.
Oxbow is like that: too hot and too weird to handle for most people. After 30 years of forward creative momentum, they’ve remained a mystery, a musician’s band, a band for those with discerning tastes and patient ears. While that may look good on paper, this cult-like status is often limiting for artists as it comes along with a stigma, one which says: “They’re respected but no one will ever understand them.” This is especially perplexing considering their hometown. When they play bigger venues, it’s while opening for other bands; when they headline, it’s in much smaller venues. If, after 30 years, you can’t get any traction in a culturally advanced city, then what’s the use? As we’ll see later, it really doesn’t matter and doesn’t have too much to do with Oxbow, whose popularity is much greater in Europe — the continent forward-thinking American artists go to breathe easier. San Francisco isn’t what it used to be.
Anyway, as “A Stabbing Hand” unfolds its nine-and-a-half minutes for whomever is out there listening, the show’s DJ’s, Dominic and Mark, are inside the booth conversing about what to play next. Sitting opposite are three of the four members of Oxbow themselves, also trying to decide what to play. They’re here to promote their upcoming show at The Chapel in San Francisco with an interview and a few acoustic numbers; it’ll be their first hometown show in some time and their last for who-knows-how-long as they’ve started work on their next record. I’m standing behind them observing, trying to remain inconspicuous.
Still off the air, Mark looks over and says, “Here’s something fun to read,” and hands them the station’s original copy of their first record, 1989’s Fuckfest. It has handwritten notes on the cover, a typical trait for radio stations where DJs write short reviews for reference. Oxbow vocalist Eugene Robinson takes it with a smile. “Sometimes tedious,” he reads flatly, which is followed by his trademark laugh — a huge, warm sound emanating from deep within and tends to take up the whole room. “’Tedious but interesting. Soundgarden meets Urge Overkill.’”
Bassist Dan Adams, tall and thoughtful, reads over his shoulder with a wide grin as soft-spoken, determined guitarist Niko Wenner tunes his acoustic guitar and conversation goes back to what they want to play. A few titles are thrown out, someone suggests they play the last track on their latest album, the critically acclaimed Thin Black Duke. Robinson takes little time to consider this. “’The Finished Line’ would be one of my last choices,” he says quietly. Adams suggests another option as Wenner, head down, effortlessly plays a flamenco run which turns into a descending batch of notes reminiscent of Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World.” Wenner is the kind of guitarist who is so good you don’t even notice until it’s almost over. Above it all, playing over the studio monitors, “A Stabbing Hand” has come to an end with its clack-a-clack drumming and frothing vocals.
With an experienced ease, Dominic fades the mics up: “89.7 KFJC, Los Altos Hills,” he says almost hypnotically, “It’s amazing, we’ve got three quarters of Oxbow in the studio.”
“It is amazing ‘cuz we hardly see each other,” says Wenner in his gentle manner. “We’re amazed to have three of us here.” Drummer Greg Davis is sitting out this performance more for practicality than anything else, though he does make his presence known with multiple humorous texts to Robinson’s phone, which the singer periodically reads while on the air.
Over the next hour and a half, the entire 50-mile range of KFJC gets the Oxbow treatment, and there’s plenty to talk about. The band’s relationship with the station goes all the way back to the mid-1980s when Robinson was the singer in Whipping Boy, a hardcore band based out of nearby Palo Alto and appeared on the air here years ago. The line separating the two groups is blurry as Wenner took up guitar duties in Whipping Boy in time for the group’s last few years and Adams was the drummer for one of their last singles. Either way, Oxbow was the logical next step for anyone looking to move beyond hardcore. Upgrade, advance.
Adams switched to bass and Greg Davis joined as second drummer, along with Tom Dobrov who would eventually leave in 1995, thus creating the quartet we now know. While Fuckfest was mostly a studio project, each successive release was another step into the unknown, pushing the listener’s idea of song structure and performance. Their live shows quickly became a stunning display of force and creativity.
For their first on-air song of the afternoon Wenner begins “Ecce Homo” from Thin Black Duke, and Robinson deftly adapts his vocal performance to the confines of this intimate radio environment. This is one of Oxbow’s special gifts — the part which makes them so unique — their ability to adapt. Acoustic or electric, onstage or on floors, outside, inside, and as a duo, trio, or quartet, they morph, rearrange, and still sound like themselves. When playing acoustically, they burn any notions of starry-eyed Crosby, Stills & Nash styled sing-a-longs and hold the same teeth-gnashing intensity of a full, 100-watt band. Stripped down, there’s more room and nuance; Robinson whispers, speaks, and growls without competing with electricity, and the other three’s musical chops become even more defined, especially when Adams switches from bass to cello. They are not afraid.
After gracefully bringing the song to an end, Dominic asks the band about their hard-to-define sound, which is not an easy question. After Wenner and Robinson give it a shot, Adams pulls Wenner’s mic towards him and boils it down succinctly. “If anything, it’s a lineage to the blues,” he says in his level-headed manner. “It’s about the human experience, it’s about stuff that’s going wrong or the ‘why are we here’ questions. The point is, we do try to play what needs to be expressed and draw from that pool as much as we can and play what we’re hearing at the time.”
Then Robinson makes an interesting comment when musing about their career: “You have bands like the Melvins who, through sheer force of will, have actually managed to make it pay, but we stopped thinking that way a long time ago. We’re full-time employed, and it’s not musical necessarily, and we don’t really have a perception that what we do is super widely appreciated but for the people with the right ears who are in the right space to enjoy what we do.”
For their second on-air song, Wenner begins the opening track to Thin Black Duke, which also gains new life when stripped of the album’s stings and brass. The only additive during the song is supplied by Adams who bangs on the back of his folding chair for percussion.
“89.7 FM KFJC and you’ve just been listening to Oxbow live in the studio,” says Dominic, “a very nice live acoustic set, thank you very much.”
“That was called ‘A Cold Well-lit Place,’ kinda like this studio,” announces Robinson with a grin.
“And the mortuary you guys are going to be playing,” says Dominic without missing a beat. “A death-like chill will come over you on Tuesday.”
Robinson laughs partly because he’s prone to superstitions. “I’d like to report something creepy has happened to me there before,” he says, “but it has not.”
“I’ve heard stories,” chimes Wenner almost tentatively.
This grabs Robinson’s attention. “Really?”
“Yeah,” confirms Wenner, who then quickly adds, “there’s something happening at The Chapel, not just Oxbow.”
That line may be the best of the afternoon because, on stage, Oxbow’s performances, even the acoustic ones, are often trance-like, hard-hitting seances with each member traveling into their own musical void and casting a pall upon whomever is bearing witness. That their upcoming show is in a reputedly haunted venue makes for an interesting situation. But the interview is over, the sun is getting low behind the surround trees, and the art students have left. Dominic and Mark have another few hours to work here though they fill the next 60 minutes of airtime with selected Oxbow tracks as we small talk in the sidewalk outside the studio. Plans are made for the band to return in full quartet mode for a possible performance outside on the campus here.
That’d be something: Oxbow in nature.
Two days later, a white van pulls up to the curb at precisely four o’clock in the afternoon. Behind the wheel is a smirking Greg Davis who effortlessly parallel parks the extended vehicle as Adams guides him into place. It’s a typical afternoon in San Francisco for this time of year: overcast skies, fog billowing over the distant, freshly green hills, cool air. The clatter of Valencia street is also typical, the presence of artisan coffee shops and high-end mid-century modern furniture stores continue to grow as new tech money besets this once working-class neighborhood.
The sliding side door of the van pulls open and out climbs Wenner dressed in black; he spots No Recess! with a smile and a bright-eyed “Hey!” Adams opens the van’s back doors revealing a well-organized arrangement of amps and black instrument cases, which are marked with intercontinental scuffs and dents. Your reporter hasn’t hauled gear in quite some time, so this is a welcome endeavor. Wenner, Davis, and Adams take to the task with zero emotion but are happy for the help if not a little bemused by my enthusiasm. There are no roadies.
The Chapel was, in fact, a mortuary at one time and is located in the center of the 18th and 19th streets in the Mission District. Once past the entryway, you’re treated to large open space with hardwood floors and a gabled ceiling which must be thirty feet high. A stage at the far end, a balcony opposite hanging over one of the two bars allowing perfect sight-lines; the walls are soaked in a warm, deep red. The most distinctive quality right now, however, is the overwhelming smell permeating the room, that of old smoke seeping from the hardwood floors that thicken the air. There’s a heaviness to the room, an otherworldly sensation making it hard to doubt any claims of a haunting.
With an efficacy that comes along with years of experience, the equipment is piled in front of the stage and the three begin the contemplative task of setting up in the cold, echoey room. The band is excited tonight’s soundman is an old friend, and things relax as they know they’re in good hands — a common worry for a band who puts as much thought into quality of sound as they do with song structure. Out of their seven albums, multiple EPs and singles, the band can play 55 songs at any given time, but the setlist isn’t figured out until 20 minutes before showtime. So, that keyboard they’ve just hoisted onstage may not even be used tonight.
An hour later the room has grown colder as the afternoon dies out and that smoky air has been pushed out by Oxbow’s sound check. It’s a meticulous process done with a stern concentration and they run through “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” three or four times, each successive run becoming less defined, the finer points dulled with repetition and yet the songs still carries itself. Robinson — who arrived about 30 minutes earlier wearing a dashing black suit and red oxford that matches the walls — abandons the mic stand and walks to the side of the stage listening intently while the other three figure out the right levels.
Once soundcheck is completed, the band retreats up the flight of stairs on stage right, which leads to two dressing rooms with chairs, couches and a bathroom. There are a few hours to burn before the opening band’s set, everyone relaxes, food is made in-house and laid out for the two bands. A few friends are here, and your reporter has found a spot on one of the two couches.
Wenner pulls up a chair next to a table and begins doing runs on his unplugged black Les Paul. Robinson remains lounging on the other couch in the corner checking his email on his phone, Adams leans against the wall hands in pockets and Davis sits on another folding chair taping out rhythms. Conversation turns to ticket sales; each member of Oxbow has their own self-deprecating take on their hometown popularity, or lack thereof, but there’s a thoughtfulness as well. Robinson asks Davis if there’s anyone downstairs. “Eh,” shrugs the drummer, “not really.”
“This is the one,” jokes Robinson with mock seriousness, which gets Wenner to chuckle.
“There’s been lots of ones,” says Davis, “apparently there were 100 tickets sold?”
“One hundred fifty” says Robinson looking up from the couch.
“There is not 150 people down there; there’s, like, 25,” says Davis.
“Not yet,” says Robinson.
Davis shrugs, “But it’s kinda early.” Wenner keeps warming up.
Seeing an opening here, I wonder out loud: “Don’t you think there should be a line around the block? I realize you’re playing uncompromising music, but this is your hometown...”
Robinson let’s out a guffaw and dismisses my optimism. “No, no. The French guy who saw us play in front of 6,000 people moved here and, as luck would have it, we played The Eagle [a small gay bar on 12th street in San Francisco’s SOMA district] about three weeks later and came up to us and he’s like [hold up arms in disbelief] and I knew just what he meant.”
Davis chuckles, “S’like a cold fish in the face.”
Robinson laughs, “Yeah, exactly right.”
“Is that something that’s easy to get over?” I ask.
“No,” says Wenner with quick comedic timing, making Robinson laugh again.
“But we have,” adds Adams diplomatically.
“It’s a shock,” says Robinson still lounging in the corner on the couch and Adams quietly agrees. “Yep.”
“I’m not shocked,” claims Davis.
“Not anymore,” says Wenner with a bemused grin.
Robinson perks up: “It’s a shock to the system, you gotta admit. You’re setting up your drums, I’m sure you’re looking around: ‘Oh yeah, we’re back home; I forgot for a second who I was.’” Wenner chuckles as Adams stares at the floor deep in thought.
Robinson then mentions how someone has offered take control of their social media sites, to keep them current. Most bands need to be active online in order to remain visible in an ever-changing industry. Like it or not, if you’re in a band, you’re also running a business and it’s no secret that social media is one of the major forces driving the success of most companies no matter the size.
Of course, social media is also one of the most clichéd fallbacks of our current society, so here’s Oxbow who’ve spent their career going against the grain (not just to thumb their collective noses at what’s “normal,” but because that’s how they naturally operate) and yet needing to keep people aware of upcoming shows and releases. Seeing how they’ve been working at a necessary slow pace, it’s easy for them to get lost in the flood of information. “If we can get another record out pretty soon it will be interesting to see how that builds,” Adams was telling me before soundcheck. “Of course, with a 10-year period between releases, there’s a whole change in who’s listening and what people are listening to. It’s a different climate.”
Given this, Oxbow is seemingly caught between the need for basic promotion and their natural instinct for Cultural Outsiderism. Of course, I don’t say that while sitting in the room with them. No, instead I lamely ask, “Is Oxbow worried about an online presence?”
“None of us like doing the administrative shit,” says Robinson, “and for 10 dollars a month, if somebody says it’ll make a difference…” Adams, who has been leaning against the wall listening, finally says deadpan: “Our website is pretty pathetic at this point.”
“[He] hasn’t figured out how to read his emails yet,” jokes Robinson.
“I figured it out just a few minutes ago,” responds Adams with perfect timing making everyone laugh. The room goes silent again except for Wenner’s un-electrified runs and Davis’ quietly tapping out rhythmic patterns.
Of the four, Davis is the most dismissive, seemingly unaffected by any larger aspirations than whatever he’s doing at the time and tends to answer questions with jokes first and then, after some prying, gets serious. When I ask him about preparing for a show he thinks for a few quiet seconds. “I dunno,” he finally says, “I guess I just kinda walk out there cold. I mean, the real preparation is when we do the set list and that kind of focuses the brain.”
“Maybe it’s best you don’t even think about it?” I suggest.
“It is what is it. No matter how I think it’s going to be, it’s not going to be like that. [Shows are] all different.” Davis is the one who gathers everyone up to construct the set lists and, once onstage, is the anchor, keeping the music pushing forward while tying together the other three member’s work.
Wenner continues to do his warm-up runs, Adams leans against the wall looking at his phone, Davis leaves the room, and Robinson continues to lounge. The sound of the opening band rumbles through the floor. Oxbow is quiet.
Twenty minutes later I’m out in the crowd, it’s racially mixed, heavily male, and looks to be consisting mostly in the 30+ age group. The lights are low, which makes the red walls ooze; music is playing over the PA system and the gathered seem anxious. After a short wait, Adams walks out with a bunch of lit incense sticks; he places a handful on either end of the stage. This is part of the Oxbow ritual. “I don’t even notice it now,” Wenner told me a few hours earlier, “it started way before Oxbow. I used to do it in Whipping Boy. I think was [guitarist, Steve] Ballinger’s idea. We experimented with other flavors, Nag Champa is the only one that works.”
“The idea in ceremonies is that it’s supposed to carry your prayers to heaven,” furthers Robinson. “I think Ballinger also got tired of smelling me on stage. [laughs] Truth.”
Adams goes back upstairs allowing the gray smoke of the Nag Champa to curl upward and gets lost in the darkness beyond the lights only to drift back down onto the audience. It’s a blessing and heightens both the anticipatory element of an Oxbow show and cues the uninitiated that something unusual, something special is about to go down. Now would be the time for any spectral entities to make themselves known; the gray smoke in the air, the dark lights, chills.
They walk onto the stage with zero fanfare, all dressed in different configurations of unassuming black, Davis in a t-shirt and shorts, Adams in a t-shirt and jeans, Wenner in black pants and red tie tucked into the buttons of his oxford. Robinson’s attire is more defined; his ear-plugs are kept in place with the customary strips of black duct tape each about four inches long; it’s a jarring image, almost appearing as gashes on the side of his head, adding to his unhinged stage presence, especially when they begin to peel off as the set continues. He’s wearing the same black suit and red shirt he arrived in, but has added a long black leather coat and has a black backpack slung over his right shoulder, which immediately comes off and is set on the stage next to Davis’ floor tom. He slowly edges out of the coat while Adams, Davis, and Wenner work their way through some prelude noise, another ritual.
“Dan is the process guy,” Wenner was telling me earlier. “He knows we need to fool around before we play a song, we need to have some noise before we get there. One time we didn’t get there; we were playing the ICA [Institute for Contemporary Art] in London and I wanted it to be really clean and forceful and theatrical to come out and actually play and it was awful because none of us were there yet. Sometimes it takes 40 minutes, sometimes you never get there. [laughs]”
Tonight the band gets there by jerking into the opening number “Cat and Mouse” from their second LP, King of the Jews. With his unmatched stage presence, all eyes are on Robinson at first as he casts himself into the role of whomever, whatever he needs to make his lyrics work. Behind him, the musical engine of Davis/Adams/Wenner is already locomotive strong.