When opportunity and access to the appropriate hardware of the trade allows, it’s great to go on a whim and speak with random bands and artists around the globe.
On one memorable occasion, I was connecting with an Icelandic MOR band (Dikta) and within the week their interview with me was on radio in Canberra. That led to some lovely chats with their management in LA as well.
Big Tobacco Company come from Cincinnati, Ohio and their sound has the sort of raw, rough edge that you might expect coming from people who live on the southern edge of the cold and forbidding waters of Lake Erie. Or it would be if I got the name of the city right, because that’s Cleveland that’s on Lake Erie.
Ok, American geography is not a strong suit. I have Google Maps.
I’m just guessing that if you’re that far up the country, it’s going to be colder than balls – except for maybe a week or two in July and August.
Minimal research before our interview proved to be a bonus. Some might call this ‘laziness’; the glass half-full version is: ‘living in the moment, all spontaneous and shit’.
No, seriously, it’s been beneficial in the past to not know too much about the interviewee before diving into a stack of questions, guided more by their responses than any predetermined views about the music, the genre, and the band’s ethos.
And so it was with Bobby. Any and all surprised responses from the interviewer are genuine.
Big Tobacco Company have a new self-titled album out now, and you can listen to tracks and buy them individually or en masse via their website.
On a stunning, clear, late summer lunchtime in St Marys in far, far western Sydney, Australia I pulled up a pew in the rugby league club and had a great chat with Bobby.
*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***
Text of the interview with Bobby Ullmann of Big Tobacco Company:
BQ: I’m talking with Bobby Ullmann from Big Tobacco Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning from me… no, good afternoon from me, and good morning to you, Bobby.
Bobby Ullmann: Actually, Bill, it’s night here!
BQ: See, what the [readers] don’t know is that Bobby and I spent some quality time a day or so ago working out time differences, and usually I’m on my game, but today: not so much.
So, good evening, Bobby. How’re you going?
BU: I’m doing great, Bill. Thanks for having me on.
BQ: Big Tobacco Company: you’re based in Cincinatti, Ohio. How long have you been going for?
BU: We started playing together about four years ago.
BQ: And is it people that you knew from school or people you knew from the community or was it a, ‘Drummer needed; please apply here’?
BU: Well, Bill, that’s an interesting story. Actually, the singer is my oldest son, the drummer is my youngest son, and the bass player and the other guitar player are friends of my sons that they basically grew up with.
BQ: Wow! So basically it’s the Ullmann Family and Friends Band, and people might come along expecting bluegrass, but Bobby, what sort of music do they get when they come to see Big Tobacco Company?
BU: I’ve heard our music described in a couple of different genres. We’re definitely metal, but we don’t fall in a lot of typical genres. Some songs are more thrashy, some songs are more… I’d say the best description for what we do is progressive, alternative-style metal.
BQ: Progressive, alternative-style metal. I’m glad you said that. You sent me a link and I had a listen to a couple of tracks, and I was struggling to put a genre on it. Metal’s not really where I live, but my son absolutely loves this sort of stuff. He’d be able to identify it.
So, progressive alternative metal. If you were doing a promo and said, “If you like [insert band name/s here], you’ll love Big Tobacco Company,” who are we liking?
BU: There’s a couple of interesting things that I heard, but until the album was completed and I really got to listen to everything, what struck me was Evan’s voice has a certain anguish to it that reminded me very much of Jim Morrison. He has that same style of growl-y voice that Morrison had with that same kind of almost weepy sound at certain points.
And when you look at the words: he writes the melody and the majority of the lyrics. The words are very interesting because they’re very open to interpretation. A lot of the songs the people will ask me, “What is that about?”, and I’m like, “You know what? That’s a really good question. I wish I had an answer on that one.”
So it’s almost like take Jim Morrison meets REM-style words and put it against an almost Iron Maiden-esque background.
BQ: I was trying to think of a Doors song where I’d say I get that, and the only one that’s popping up is something like Roadhouse Blues… No, no, no, LA Woman. That pining, yearning sound.
BU: Exactly. And what’s interesting is after I listened to certain songs on the album, I brought up a Doors album and listened to and realised it was so similar it wasn’t even funny. It just really amazed me how he had that same…
He obviously has a different voice, he has a unique voice, but I noticed that he had that same anguished, yearning kind of sound to it. It really struck me as being very interesting: they haven’t even, to the best of my knowledge, they were not listened to or exposed that much [to certain bands] except possibly what I listened to. It was just interesting how that was kind of there.
BQ: Some people will say, “Aw, I don’t like metal; it’s all just screaming and shouting, you can’t understand the words”. Well, no, you can’t understand the lyrics. The people that do love metal have a real connection with the words, don’t they?
BU: I think you’re very right on that because a lot of it is being able to take and draw upon various experiences from their life and looking for words to describe those experiences. And now they have a set of words that almost provides a framework as a description for them, because it may not be exactly what they’ve been experiencing, but it fits the situation.
I think it’s a combination of that and the one area that I’ve noticed in some metal, it’s lost its emotion. To me, whether we’re talking metal or hip hop or jazz or blues or whatever the case may be, it has to have emotion. If it has no emotion, it’s a series of notes. It’s not music.
BQ: [On interpreting the band’s lyrics] have you ever had people come back to you with their interpretation of the band’s lyrics?
BU: Oh, absolutely. I have a lot of people who will reach out to me and say, “This reminds me of this time,” or “This reminds me of this time”. I mean, as an example, [when I think about our songs for the first time], I haven’t even spoken to Evan; it’s what it means to me when I listen to it. And then I’ll go back to him, and I’ll say, “What was this about?” And he’ll say, “More or less, it’s about this.”
“Oh! Well, I was way off on that one!”
BQ: Something I learned on my first day of communication study: all reality is negotiable.
BU: It really is, and that’s the thing I think about art in general. As an example, I’m a guitarist and I collect a lot of guitars. One of the people who had a huge influence on me was Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick because he has an unbelievable collection of guitars, and he just appreciated the beauty and the artwork that went into building them.
And what really fascinates me about guitars is that you’re dealing with a piece of artwork that is used to make, well, more artwork.
BQ: [Story about friend Chris Johnson who collected wood from all states and territories of Australia and had a custom guitar built for him using all, as a centrepoint to his book: Guitar, The Australian Journey.
Bobby, thanks so much for joining us. If people want to find out about Big Tobacco Company, where do they go to?
BU: They can go to www.bigtobaccocompany.com – there you’re gonna find our music, you’ll find pictures of all of us, you will find our videos, as well as a lot of different press releases. We keep things pretty updated and all our social media is on the website. When you’re there, reach out to us on Facebook, reach out to us on Twitter.
BQ: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time.
BU: Thank you, Bill. It’s actually been a pleasure on our part. We’re honoured to be included.
BQ: Thanks, Bobby.
You can follow Big Tobacco Company on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bIgtoBacCocoMpaNY/
Fun fact: WordPress informs me this is Overheard Productions’s 200th post on this website. Well, break out the creaming soda and vegemite Jatz crackers! 🙂