Eugene S. Robinson: The Hellbound.ca Interview

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By Kevin Stewart-Panko

Author, writer, singer, fighter, actor, father, Eugene S. Robinson is the inspirational everyman for those of us choosing to follow the loves of their life. He’s also a pretty good poster-boy for those for whom the notion of getting a full-time, square job makes their skin crawl and testicles and/or ovaries shrivel up and retreat into the adjacent nether regions. Coming off the HarperCollins defined failure of his first book, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking, Robinson strikes with his first novel, A Long Slow Screw which chronicles the tale of a fictional jewel heist gone right, but where the subsequent attempts to fence the ice go terribly wrong.

Set in 70s New York City, A Long Slow Screw is all crime novel grit with scenarios playing to the moral chestnut of money being the root of all evil. It’s a treatise to the sociopathic behaviour that evolves and revolves around the potentiality to get-rich-quick, legal or otherwise, and the lengths audacious characters like Joe “Bag O’ Donuts” Baggo and Bloom D’Blue will go in search of what they believe to be the ultimate prize. Along the way, people are fucked, killed, fucked up, lies and half-truths are tossed around like candy canes at Christmas and Robinson invokes the deus ex machina plot-driving technique as effectively and improbably as Tarantino.

A Long Slow Screw is unique in that it’s being released by Hydra Head Records’ Robotic Boot imprint. Hydra Head is also concurrently releasing the reissue of Oxbow [the avant-garde, noise blues band Robinson has fronted since 1988]’s Fuckfest debut and the band’s new half-live mini-LP, Songs for the French which is both a precursor to the next Oxbow full-length, The Thin Black Duke, and an experiment where the band willingly gave control of the mastering and sequencing process to a third party.

Hellbound.ca figured with all this going on for our man Eugene, his larger-than-life personality and wealth of outlandish experiences, that we’d do a comprehensive three-for-one interview. We tracked him down one morning somewhere in the Bay Area and nabbed an hour of his time between the disparate activities of dropping his kids off at school before heading over to the gym to crack heads with Brazilian ju-jitsu.


Was Fight lucrative enough that it drew you back into wanting to write another book or was A Long Slow Screw something you had in you for a while, regardless?

[Laughs] If you look at the long history of Oxbow and my involvement in music, you’ll know how ridiculous the word lucrative is in the context of anything I’ve ever done. But it’s almost like there’s an evil satanic genius guided all of this because to be considered a success at HarperCollins, the book had to sell 10,000 copies. It sold 9,475 in its first year, making it a failure, in their eyes. So, now you can buy it at barnesandnoble.com for like $8. In addition, had I crossed 10,000 in sales, I would have gotten some kind of royalty payment. They gave me $20,000 upfront to write the book, but out of that I had to buy the rights to the photos, pay the photo editor and that put me $2000 in the hole because at the last second they used a photo I hadn’t okay-ed. It was a photo I hadn’t bought and the guy who took the photo held me over the barrel and said it was going to cost me $2000 or he was going to sue me and all this. By that time, the book was already out, so I had to pay. I am technically $2000 in the red on that book. How’s that for lucrative?

Well, I knew it was kind of a dumb question, but I had to ask.

Well, A Long Slow Screw it also had a tortured providence. It initially had been at Random House, then it was at Penguin Putnam, then there were lawsuits involved and my agent fighting with the editor at Penguin Putnam. After I saw what wasn’t a very cool scene with the Fight book – all the press I got on that book, I got on my own – I figured if Hydra Head wants to do it and they think it can sell, who am I to say no? Outside of the prestige factor, there’s no difference. Right now, they’re doing just as good a job as HarperCollins and I’m not $2000 in debt.

Most of the stuff I’ve seen of yours has been interviews, lifestyle pieces and stuff that doesn’t involve the highly descriptive style that’s required in fiction writing. Was it difficult to move to that style of writing?

No, because usually the stuff you see that’s strict reportage and strict journalism is stuff that’s been raped by editors [laughs], though sometimes for good reason like space restraints. Even with the internet, it’s been figured out that people aren’t going to read things beyond a certain length, so at some point every single piece I’ve ever written has had that sort of shit in there and at a certain point you get tired of them cutting it out. At a certain point, you say I have an idea: “I’m going to put it all in a place where no one is going to cut it out.” And you can call that place a novel. I mean, Hemmingway developed that short, staccato style of his as the result of being a war correspondent. That completely framed his writing; short communiqués over whatever ham radio or whatever the fuck they were using back then. The different sides do influence one another, but I gotta tell you, writing fiction is a lot more liberating. One part I really enjoyed about the book process was that I was only dealing with one person, usually an editor. Even when a copy editor shows up, usually they’re so over-worked that they only catch a few things. [For Fight] I had to deal with a lawyer – they make you hire a lawyer in case you libel someone or something – and they made me change three things and it was pretty effortless. Compare that to a screenplay in Hollywood, of which I have brief experience with, and you’re talking about everybody getting their cock in there. This was incredibly satisfying because it was just me, basically.

I’m going to ask you where this book came from, influence-wise. I’m going to guess Mickey Spillane. I say guess because I’ve never read any Spillane, but when I was a kid I remember watching Mike Hammer every Friday night and assuming the narration was lifted.

No, it wasn’t at all man! Actually, I love Stacy Keach, but I love him because he got busted for pot like 18 times! The show was a fucking…if you were a hardcore Mickey Spillane fan, that show was fucking sacrilege! I don’t know how true this is, but the guy who wrote the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, was a secret agent himself and was highly disturbed at some of the stuff he had done in the field. He sought psychiatric help and the doctor said, “It might really help you if you write this shit out.” And that’s how James Bond started and if you read the early James Bond stuff, it was so heavily psychotic and super-violent. Early Mickey Spillane, before he got famous, like I, The Jury and My Gun is Quick, these things were intense man. You’d get through a page and you’d be like, “Fuck!” That’s the spirit I was striving for; when you read something and you can’t believe that you just read it. It was clear that Mickey Spillane, as a post-World War Two guy, was just as traumatized as the guys who came back from Vietnam, except they had parades for them. The big social movement started by those guys were the Baby Boom, the GI Bill, then the Hells Angels. These are the things that came out of post-WWII and it’s no accident; the trauma was there and it was all poured into the pages of Mike Hammer and shit. I think that in terms of being a literary critic, Spillane’s writing is pure pulp and for what it is, it’s great. It’s not Nabokov, but it’s great. I don’t attempt to do Spillane in my book because in my mind I’m aligned with Nabokov [laughs]. But that just goes to show how deluded I am.

Some of the stuff Hydra Head/Robotic Boot has been pointing out in the promotional material is how much of this book comes from your experience. How much of that is true?

Well, when I started writing for Hustler, we all decided that it’d be too boring for me to write about sex for a sex mag. So, I became the de facto, tough-guy chronicler, whether it was steroid abusers, collection thugs, drug smugglers or special forces guys, those were all pieces I did. Some people are of the mind that it cheapens the fiction to claim that part of it was non-fiction, but I remember some writer once said that the most truthful thing he had ever written was fiction. A lot of times, you’re doing interviews and guys are telling you stories and they don’t have enough sense to say “off the record” when they’re telling you stories they don’t want repeated. But you know they mean “off the record.” Presuming that you’re going to keep being a chronicler of tough-guys, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation like Hunter S. Thompson, where you’ve said something you shouldn’t have and you find yourself surrounded by guys with pool cues. That’s the problem: Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t a tough-guy; he was a writer. If you’re a tough-guy and a writer, you know what to write about and what to leave out.

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Writing this set in 70s New York, and being a native New Yorker in the pre-Guliani days, was it difficult to take yourself back to that time in creating this or was it a story that fit that time?

It’s one of those things where there are certain times that change you in ways that are pretty permanent. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was a hardcore kid with me back in 1980 and he was going on about feeling like a sell-out because he had bought a house and had a straight job. I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is like the apotheosis of all that shit we talked about back then.” He started his own business, money from that business bought the house…I don’t see anything sell-out about it. We are the hardcore success stories.

Being a part of that scene has also permanently affected me in a way that’s definable for me because of my fucking skin colour, y’know? I was at 7-11 last night and there were these kids there in leather jackets and dyed hair. I had done a reading for the book last night and I’m wearing a suit and these kids with their lip rings and shit are looking at me like, “Who is this fucking guy?!” If things work right, they permanently affect you. On the negative side, New York in the 70s had a permanent lasting fucking affect on me. It wasn’t like it was journey I had to take to get to this place to recreate; this is a place I live with. Like, I still get my keys out and look around before I get to my house even though nobody does “push in” robberies anymore. You could stand there and fumble with your keys for hours, nobody’s going to rush up behind you, push you while you’re there, knock your head in and steal your shit. But routinely, I still fucking do this shit. I went to a Queens [presumably he means Queens of the Stone Age] show at the Covered Wagon in San Francisco. I was standing outside on the sidewalk talking to some guy by a parking meter and this other guy starts running towards me and right away I go to attack him. Everybody stops and they’re looking at me like I’m crazy so I stopped. The guy was actually running towards a cab that was behind me. The guy I was talking to was like, “You need to calm down.’ I was like, “Fuck you, man! This guy was running towards me. I don’t need to calm down, you need to pick it up a bit.” Writing that book was a way for me to get it out and try to deal with it, so I don’t attack people by parking meters.

In doing so and choosing the characters you chose – characters that have been described as “homicidal homos” – making them gay and putting them in scenarios like that one scene where the guy shoots the gun off inside the other guys’ asshole, is that something you do to be provocative?

No, no, no, no. There was no agitprop involved in their inclusion. I look at the book at being a philosophical meditation on the nature of ‘filthy lucre.’ Philosophically, it was necessary for those guys in the book to be gay because….I’ll give you a film analog. Do you remember the movie Psycho?

Yeah.

So after Janet Leigh’s character disappears and Anthony Perkins is at the front desk of the hotel when John Gavin comes in as the sister’s boyfriend and is quizzing him – they’re mirror images of each other. There was something about the civilizing influence; you have to go further to explain these characters if they’re all healthily heterosexual. Now, these guys [in A Long Slow Screw] are homosexual, but by no means is Joe Bag O’ Donuts healthily homosexual, clearly. And that unhealthy homosexuality was a good analogue for the fact that his relationships were primarily defined by power and money is just a symptom of that power relationship. If I have him being healthily heterosexual I have to then reconcile his complete love of cash and his amorality with the fact that he goes home and is nice to somebody. This is sort of a love story too; it’s just that what we choose to love is different. Bloom D’Blue loves what cash can do for him. It’s all about cash, so the characters are perfectly chosen. I like the idea of Bloom D’Blue being one of the most dangerous characters in the book, but also being a complete swish.

Did that sort of thing exist in 70s NYC – gay crime gangs fighting for a piece of drugs, turf and whatnot and going around killing each other?

No, there were no gay gangs, but you have to realise that the only sanction against gay people at the time were two guys walking down the street holding hands. This was before AIDS, mind you. In fact, New York Magazine at the time was writing articles on bi-sexuality chic and it became a fashion choice. My mother and a girl I used to go out with got their hands on the book and were like, “There’s a heavy homo element in this. Are you trying to tell me something?” but it never even dawned on me.

As far as the Fuckfest re-issue goes, I actually found a different version of the official reissue about a year ago in a record store.

Yeah, that was a special limited tour re-issue. That one that you have is something we sold on tour. It was new screened version of the original artwork with a number written on it somewhere and I think, technically, it’s a CD-R. Definitely, that is one someone bought from us at a show and sold to a used record store after they dumped it on their iPod or something.

I’ve been hearing about Fuckfest’s reissue for ages now. How long was the official reissue in the planning?

Well, according to Hydra Head, their intention is to reissue everything; they’re going to start at the beginning and go right through. So, I guess King of the Jews is next, but I don’t know because no one will return my emails [laughs]. Actually, Fuckfest has been reissued several times in several different formats, but one of my favourite Oxbow records is King of the Jews, which has been reissued far fewer times. But for Fuckfest, the tour version was what it came out in the States and it looked very much like that except that it was 12” vinyl. For the super-insane record collectors, there were major differences between the UK reissue and the US ones, mostly because the pantone colour charts got fucked up. So, the American version is kind of that lime green you see, but they read it wrong in the UK and it came out kind of blue-ish and they had to change the labels. [Guitarist] Niko [Wenner] designed the music so that it would be a mirror image, structurally; it’s not like it’s the same songs backwards on side B, but the artwork reflects that and the labels were that way. So on the CD, you lose that because they had to combine them, but if you have the actual vinyl you have a perfect mirror image of the labels on one side to another. The music also meets in the middle, at that point in “The Valley” when I sing, “Love!” is kind of the apex point of the record. Dude, we’re crazy; nobody is going to figure this shit out or care about it, but it made us happy to do it.

And you handed the sequencing and mastering power over to someone else for Songs for the French?

Yeah, that was kind of how we did all of that and it was really atypical of Oxbow because we tend to be control fanatics and are not so into letting other people contribute. But at this point, the guys who mastered it, the father and son team of JJ and John Golden, they know. When we first started, I used to write like six pages of notes to Niko about our music and didn’t have to do that beyond King of the Jews. And largely it’s the same sort of thing that we don’t have to do that with the Golden’s.

What inspired the title of the mini-LP and what’s its significance?

Well, there’s a guy playing on it who’s French, Philippe Thiphaine from [noise rock band] Heliogabale. He’s in a bunch of bands and was in a side project I did called This Side of Jordan; he’s a French music composer, but that’s not why I called it Songs for the French. At some point I was driving around France and I drove under an underpass and was looking up as I was driving and they had put all this patterned tile work into the underpass. I started looking forward to the next one to see what it would be like, but there was no next one. That one was the only one. And I thought, “What a typically curious French thing to do – you just do one.” Like in America, they might have done something like that, but it would have been a whole section of freeway where you had all this kind of stuff happening. So, I started using this idea of France and French-ness as an analogue for Eros, which I think is at the heart of art – those randomly chosen happy accidents. For me it had to be a bridge between The Narcotic Story and The Thin Black Duke which is the next Oxbow record.

How uncomfortable were you going into the process of giving someone else that much control and would you maybe do it again?

Well, let’s not get crazy! [laughs] I think that’s actually a better question for Niko because he co-produced The Narcotic Story and has been the architect for a lot of our production stuff. I think it was a bigger deal for him. I’m just the singer and lyricist, man. It’d be one thing if I brought in someone to tamper with the lyrics.

So, all things about your involvement considered, is it more difficult to sell music or books these days?

Well, you know the answer to that. It’s more difficult to sell music because you can steal it. There are places you download books, but unless you’re downloading a textbook, I don’t think people are going to go through the trouble. That’s not to say it’ll never happen. I went to the L.A Book Fair and these fucking morons were so excited and thrilled about the Kindle. I was like, “You guys are idiots. Total fucking idiots. I guess you completely missed what happened to the music industry?” Once you can digitize the stuff, people will no longer pay for it. It’s interesting though: all these music thieves I know won’t think twice about paying for beer though [laughs].

www.theoxbow.com

www.eugenesrobinson.com

www.hydrahead.com

www.roboticboot.com

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.