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Rick Froberg

Frontman for smart-ass punk acts Obits/Hot Snakes/Drive Like Jehu/Pitchfork in a rare conversation on his art and inspiration

Interview By Chris Thomson, September 6, 2013

Photos: Alexis Fleisig
Images: Rick Froberg

When it comes to punk rock bonafides, Rick Froberg has them in spades. Growing up in a beach town (San Diego) not exactly known for adventurous music, Rick and musical partner-in-crime, John Reis, would repeatedly join forces in a series of pioneering bands that combined post-punk driving basslines with heaping helpings of angular guitar riffs and vocal skronk all of which proved increasingly rewarding with each realignment. In 1986, Rick started singing for Pitchfork, who a few years later begat Drive Like Jehu and Rick’s guitar debut. Their musical partnership culminated with the Hot Snakes, originally formed in the late '90s and sporadically active in the mid-aughts and even today. Relocating to New York City in the late '90s, Rick launched his latest musical endeavor, Obits, in 2008. 

As a visual artist, Rick has pursued a restless artistic path that’s taken him from glass blowing and etching to painting and animation. To date, Rick has created album covers and posters for all his bands—often under the name "Rick Fork," worked at Funny Garbage (Gary Panter’s interactive design company), contributed illustrations to the New York Times, created a line of T-shirts for Altamont Apparel, and shown his art at galleries across the country.

Rick's work makes you pay attention. On first glance everything feels familiar: people, animals, objects rendered in a bold '50s illustrative style. Upon closer inspection what appeared mundane becomes surreal, humans shown as bizarre creatures in scenarios that beg you to create a narrative. Every detail offers a twist and is worthy of exploration. His addition of text and copy adds another layer depth and meaning to his work, resembling bizarre advertisements from a bygone era. 

Just in time for the release of Obits's new album Bed & Bugs (Sub Pop), Froberg spoke to Nothing Major about punk rock flyers, finding inspiration, and Gary Panter’s approach to creative directing.

When did you first start making art on a regular basis?  Did it predate your guitar playing?
I've been drawing pictures since I could hold a pencil. Art, not sure. For others to decide. It does predate the guitar playing, yes.

You’re from a family of accomplished athletes, wondering if that had anything to do with you getting into music and art?
My youngest brother played football for USC and won a couple Rose Bowl rings playing special teams. He's it though. They're all much younger than I am and I'm not particularly athletic. Raced BMX when I was a kid. Wasn't bad.

When did you start making fliers and designing record covers?
High school I guess for the fliers. Had to wait until I had a band for the record covers, starting with cassettes.  

What were your first flyers like? Was there anyone you were influenced by at that time?
Crap. I was influenced by other crap. Good stuff! 

A lot of people making art these days cite sleeve art from classic records as their jumping off point. What records completely captivated you?
Sure, lots. The first one I can remember was that Septic Death record. Pushead. A girl in a bikini with big tits and her face partially eaten away. Apart from the timeless and compelling subject matter, it was the style that I found inspiring. His drawings had real rhythm, good blacks, good strokes. Raymond Pettibon, Gary Panter, all those, too. 


In every band, there’s that one member who purposely or by default takes on art duties, was that you and was it a role you wanted or was it by default?
Both. This is a jealously guarded position. 

There’s a big difference between the Pitchfork artwork and the Obits, do you think its fair to compare the two?
Sure, why not? Lots of downtime in this life. I try not to do the same thing over and over. 

Promo postcard for Yank Crime

Was working with major label art departments in Jehu a hassle or a joy? I’m thinking of that amazing poster for Yank Crime. 
Well, technically they're supposed to be working for us, right? They gave us no trouble, ever. We could do whatever we wanted. We got it in writing. When I asked for a big serigraphed poster, they said great and they had it made just like I gave it to them. I don't even recall if they had an in-house art department, they probably just farmed it all out.

I wonder if becoming more technically proficient influenced your work?
Becoming technically proficient is the work. 

Where did you find your art inspirations, was it band art, comic books, or proper art world?
All of these things, but in general representational art. The Proper Art World mostly inspires contempt, which is absolutely inspiration. I like Mary Blair, The Germans, Goya, Burchfield, etc, more than most comic type stuff. 

When you look at another artist’s work, do you ever try and figure out how they did it?  Have you ever borrowed techniques from another illustrator?
Yes, all the time, but this normal. If you are learning to paint, draw, sculpt, whatever, any art instructor worth a damn will sit you down in front of a masterwork and make you copy it. I didn't go to school, but I did go to museums and copy paintings by Velasquez, etc. You do this with simple materials, charcoal and newsprint, to get a concrete idea of how something like this is done. Copying, stealing, borrowing—all normal. There are lines you aren't supposed to cross, especially if you are presenting something as your work, but I have in the past as have others. We don't live in a vacuum. 

I find a surreal quality to the art you’ve been making recently, particularly the Obits artwork, there seems to be a real interplay between the visuals and the text?
Yeah, maybe. It just happened that way. I don't know much about surrealism, or why certain things are called surreal. These things for me are a combination of appetite, materials, whim, and, in the case of a cover, required information. I always want to do the titles and the copy—the whole thing, always. If you don't do this, you often get something that just looks waxed down and out of place. If you want the thing unified, it's best to do it all yourself. 

Do you have any thoughts on design? Anything you’ve seen that’s blown your mind?
Yeah: it's all design. Drawing is design, painting is design, arranging your room, cleaning out your car, etc. Any place/time you have an aesthetic choice to make. Blown mind? Yeah all the time. Maybe not blown, but yeah. Recently saw a few cerámicos in Madrid that did that. 

I get a really organic vibe from your work, you mention going to a pottery exhibit and I know you did glass blowing. What do you like about making things by hand compared to doing things with the computer?
Actually what I meant by dibujos cerámicos is these tile murals, often advertisements from antiquity, that are painted onto individual tiles with a special glass-based paint, fired in a kiln, and then reassembled on walls, floors, wherever. Some of them are pretty breathtaking. 

I like things that get you out of the house and away from a computer. Way too much of that going on now. It's nice to feel like you've used your hands. It's nice to feel like you've earned a beer.

Why pen and ink? Do the limitations become advantages?
Actually, I rarely use ink and I never touch pens. Paint for me. If you mean black and white, yeah, I dunno. I've always liked that. It's simple, fundamental. That's good. Limit your pallet. I've always liked work that is graphic and that means simple.

You worked with Gary Panter at Funny Garbage, anything from you care to share from that experience? Did you learn anything directly from him?
Keep your own schedule; follow your own weird; get out of East Texas. 

Did you work directly with Gary and did he ever critique or help push your work?
Nah. Gary doesn't critique. He draws something, often on a napkin or a post-it: "Here is the Penguipuss. He is attacking an iceberg..." If he doesn't like the results, your take, you fix it. He's easy going and he lets you do your own thing insofar as it is feasable. 

Are you a friend of the computer?
Right now, no. 

I feel like your work starts in the analog world and computers are used to refine it, does that change your process?
Computers are pretty necessary if you're doing anything that's going to be reproduced. When I have one that's working, which is about half the time since these things are goddamn pieces of shit, I use it, but I would hesitate to credit these things with anything other than convenience. Yes, they change things, but give yourselves some credit people. It is true that it is nice to be able to work from home.

Beach culture an influence?
I like the beach, but no, probably not. 

Rick Froberg for the New York Times

Do you do much design work or work on projects outside your bands?
Yeah, a lot. That's how I scratch out a living.  

Do you and Sohrab [Habibion of Obits, a graphic designer] do much work together?
On art stuff, not a lot. I ask him a lot of computer questions. We both worked at Funny Garbage, but he was in sound and I was in animation.

X-acto knife or scissors?
Depends. Sometimes I just tear.

Obits album Beds & Bugs is out September 10 on Sub Pop.

Rick Froberg can be found on Tumblr.