For the last two decades, Rick Froberg has been the driving force behind some of indie rock’s most popular guitar-driven bands, from Pitchfork to Drive Like Jehu to Hot Snakes, and not just as the primary singer/songwriter/riff shredder—he’s also caught eyes as the graphic artist on all of those bands’ records. Now, as the lead singer/guitarist of Brooklyn’s Obits, he’s cleaned things up a bit, turning the face-melting, dissonant guitar sounds into cleanly played chords, without losing any of the angst and cynicism he had in his former bands Just in time for an Obits performance at The A.V. Club and Brooklyn Brewery's CMJ party at Knitting Factory, Froberg spoke with The A.V. Club about listener fatigue, Creedence comparisons, and the notorious Cake Shop bootleg.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been doing graphic art for your bands since you were in Pitchfork.
Rick Froberg: If you can call that graphic art. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think your career as an artist shapes your music career or vice versa?
RF: When I first started working on graphic art, it was when I first started in bands. I was making flyers, using whatever skills I had to promote the band. Why would I do one without the other if they can help each other?
AVC: What’s with the “listener fatigue” disclaimer on the cover of I Blame You?
RF: I put that on there as a joke at first, but the whole industry, our friends included, wants [records to be loud]. When we got the first version of the record mastered, it was mastered with [loudness] in mind for a digital format. I’m not disparaging the mastering guy, but it came out like that. We listened to it against records we like—like stuff by The Kinks—and the difference was so stark. It was obvious how inferior that approach sounds, how unforgiving and awful it is to music.
AVC: So you don’t like the way records are mastered now?
RF: Before we had even mastered the record, I’d read a lot about format differences, compression, and what people were doing to sound loud. People were making songs and records to compete with digital formats. People don’t listen to full records, they listen to playlists—so people want their songs to be louder than other peoples’ songs [on the playlists]. You can make it louder, and everyone else is making everything louder, and it’s literally squeezing the track. It takes out all the space and the comfort that you used to have listening to a record.
AVC: So the disclaimer ended up being true?
RF: Yeah. [Laughs.] It ended up being true. We got it remastered though. Next time we record we will be looking out for that. The whole thing is tricky—it’s a real issue. If you want a song to be louder, just turn it up on your stereo.
AVC: That makes sense.
RF: If you listen to a jukebox in a bar and one song is quiet and one is loud, people think the louder one is better. I wish people took this into consideration. It’s killing music. People should make records for vinyl. Doesn’t matter what it is, even a Birthday Party record. It has space. It isn’t battering your ears.
AVC: There is a dynamic to those records that you don’t hear anymore.
RF: It’s like looking at something with one eye.
AVC: What brought you out to Brooklyn after spending so much of your life on the West Coast?
RF: Originally, I needed a change. And also I had a girlfriend of many years out here and we didn’t want a long-distance relationship. The relationship ended, but living here did not. [Laughs.]
AVC: You got a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival comparisons after that live bootleg of Obits' first show at The Cake Shop surfaced. Did you ever hear anything about that?
RF: I don’t think we’re that Creedence-y. Some of the red flags were there for Creedence, though. It’s a simple, cleaner sound. We use smaller amps and we try to write songs that are more three-chord-based. Bands that we were in before were much more different; they were dissonant and riff-oriented. That’s why it’s more Creedence or Yardbirds [now].
AVC: So it wasn’t necessarily intentional?
RF: It’s what we’re playing through and things we kind of default to and like, and trying to do those things instead of things we aren’t comfortable with. Drive Like Jehu was a riff band, but I’m not a super riff guy. To me, most songs I like are built out of chords, including ones by Creedence.
AVC: Why did it take so long from your inception and the Cake Shop show to that first 7-inch?
RF: We were starting from scratch. We wanted to do something different. It took a while to solidify the lineup and we were in no hurry to play. We wanted to make sure we had something we liked before we played. It’s no big deal. We all have musical handicaps that we have to fucking work around a lot.
AVC: What do you mean?
RF: We are not great players. We kind of mess around and figure out where it’s going.
AVC: Most fans of Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, and now Obits would probably beg to differ.
RF: That’s cool, and I understand that, but I’m there. [Laughs.] We are just trying to hack our way through something with the talents we have.
AVC: Will we be seeing more from Stint records, or is that just a clever record label name made up for the first 7-inch release?
RF: If we didn’t have a label [releasing Obits records], we’d be doing stuff on Stint. We will definitely do that [in the future]. There are a lot of people that can help us. The only thing is, running a label is a thankless job, so if we do it, it would just be our stuff. We’ve thought about doing other people's stuff, but we don’t want to be responsible to them. [Laughs.] It’s probably better if we don’t.
AVC: Do you ever see Jehu or Hot Snakes doing what a lot of bands from that era have done lately, which is to reunite and play a “classic” album from start to finish?
RF: No one has ever asked us to do that. We have had offers for one-off shows—Hot Snakes got an offer. The thing is, its all good and I like money and stuff, it’s just not what I want to do any more. I want to do something new. We’d have to learn those songs all over again. We’d have to do it a bunch of times to make it worthwhile. I kind of doubt it. I’m leaning toward no.
AVC: You’ve spent many years in bands with John Reis. Do you ever see yourself reuniting with him?
RF: In a band again? I don’t know. It's like, if you’re in a marriage and someone is asking if you’ll fuck someone else. I’m in a band with these guys now. I like John. He’s a really good guitar player. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be cool to play again with him. But there are no plans for it.
AVC: What’s next for the band after these shows with Pinback?
RF: First we’re going to Europe for bit, then we come back, do CMJ, do the shows with Pinback, then South America and then Europe again.
AVC: Sounds busy.
RF: We like to go to as many places and do as many fun things as we can. We are looking for interesting things to do. We can only tour a little bit at a time, a couple of weeks here and there. It’s hit and run. We do what we can—we’re just going to do more of it.