Niko Wenner: The Indie-Life Interview

 

Vice has called them “the greatest art rock band of all time.”  Their new record, Thin Black Duke, has already found its way onto numerous year’s-best lists from Pitchfork to Business Insider. “Watching the band is no less than a religious experience,” announces CLRVYNT. “You MUST go. And you’ll never forget it.”

Oxbow defies genres. Loosely categorized as an experimental rock band, their sound is a riotous wave of noise, reined in by incredibly sharp and deliberate musicianship. Angular melodies and jagged drums split the mind open. The deep sliding wail of the fretless bass pulls the stomach’s tide. Tortured naked groans wrench the heart.

The San Francisco quartet has a cult following, built up over nearly three decades. Remarkably, they’ve maintained a steady lineup for 28 years, avoiding the drama, fights, egos, and other destructive forces that all too often rip apart brilliant bands.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the band members all credit their success and longevity in part to their joint decision not to pursue the band as a career. The choice has been integral to the group’s approach and their power, freeing them from commercial constraints to take risks and explore new artistic realms. These legends have full-time day jobs.

Niko Wenner of Oxbow“I think our goals were clarified by the choice to not try to make a living at it,” explains singer and composer Niko Wenner. “Our artistic goals are sky high and our living goals are sky high too, and the way we’ve handled the living goals is to have real jobs and families. When I say clarified, it was always compatible with what we really wanted to do, but we perhaps didn’t fully understand that. And what we really wanted to do was make pieces of music, long-form pieces of music, that last. So that’s what we try to do, and that allows us to successfully be happy with what we’re doing outside the pressure of commerce.”

 

Singer Eugene Robinson is by day a Stanford-educated journalist, something he has referred to as his “Clark Kent identity.” Drummer Greg Davis builds race cars, and Dan Adams, when he’s not playing bass, is a mechanical engineer who once worked in Hollywood animatronics (remember Anaconda?).

Wenner is a bit evasive about his own day job. “I have chosen to get a job that has nothing to do with music. It’s a classic sort of musician’s job, so I can go home and not think about it, which is great, and I end up being the one in the band that spends the most time on the recording stuff.” The job may be necessary, but: “I think of myself as composer.” He pauses for a moment, mulling it over. “It’s been a… there’s always that back and forth, you know.”

We were lucky to share a bottle of wine with Wenner on an early autumn evening at Indie-Life HQ. After a few months in Philadelphia, he was preparing to return to the West Coast in a couple of days. The 53-year-old is a little reserved but warm, thoughtful, and sharp.

Wenner takes inspiration from American composer Charles Ives, who graduated from Yale School of Music and went into the insurance business. Supporting himself in this notably non-creative field allowed Ives “to make advances in music that were monumental and create art, sound art, to make music that changed music,” Wenner explains.

“Where we’ve arrived fits the model even at the beginning,” he says. The group originally came together to record some songs as a one-off group led by Robinson and Wenner, who had played together in Whipping Boy along with Adams.

“As a one-off, there wasn’t financial pressure, and I just let my creativity run wild. This is a record that I want to hear, which I think is the best way to make things. What do you want to see, what do you want to perceive? What do you want to share with other people? And we’ve kept that. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not going to worry about selling records. Let’s make something that we want.’”

While it’s clear now that they made the right call, I wondered if this had ever been a point of contention for a group of young, driven musicians. Didn’t any of them want to be a rock star?

“Well, yeah, I mean we all like the life on the road of creating every night and playing every night. So we enjoy that, but what we came to through our torturous, democratic decision-making process was that we couldn’t.

“Making the last record, Thin Black Duke, we just couldn’t have done it. There really were six years that we made that record within, and because of deaths in the family, divorce, and remarriage, and moving all over the place, we couldn’t have done it with any sort of pressure to support ourselves. It just would have been nuts. So I think that’s the way it has to be for us.

Niko Wenner of Oxbow“But there is a part of me—I do want to talk to people. The interest for me in making art and music is the communication, and I think that maybe that’s the fundament, the beginning of all this. And I’d like to talk to a lot of people doing what we do, but also there’s an excitement that’s generated when you play the O2 Arena in London, you know, and so I do aspire to that, partly out of ego, yeah, but also because I want to provide that experience, the way I love music. I want people to share that. ‘This is what I love, isn’t this cool?’”

Oxbow’s first album was self-funded and released on Eugene Robinson’s CFY Records in 1989. The LP made it to Rough Trade in London where it caught the ear of Kevin Martin, head of Pathological Records. Fuckfest was re-released in the UK, and Oxbow played their first ever show in London. Then they played CBGB’s — and didn’t play again for three months. “So we just had this organic thing because of the physical copy, because of the rarity perhaps,” Wenner says. “We didn’t play in Europe again until 1995 and didn’t play in London again for 10 years. You know, extremely slow, glacial, [and only] because of the opportunities that were presented.

“For bands like us, sort of like middle or lower class”—he laughs at the phrase and revises it—“lower-selling bands like us, it was impossible to make any [money]. We never toured very much… So here we are making very, very few physical copies, but people know us more than ever, and that’s gratifying. And in the end, we’re making things we want to live on after us, and that’s probably fine.”

by Indy Shome

photographs by John Ndicu