Monday, July 3, 2023

Rick Froberg - 1968 - 2023

I'm sure it goes without saying, but trying to write about someone whose art has affected you is very difficult at times.  When that person passes and you want to sum up what they meant to you in a few paragraphs, that task is even more daunting.  Within the past few years I've tried to let the world know what artists like Sam Jayne from Lync and O from fluf have meant to me.  I'm not sure I was successful, but it was important to me to try.  With the news this weekend that the world has lost Rick Froberg, I'm really struggling with how to explain just how important his music and art have been in my life.  Needless to say, he has had an outsized impact on me.

My initial introduction to Rick was the first Drive Like Jehu album.  No, I wasn't ahead of the curve and a fan of the band from their earliest beginnings or anything like that.  I just happened to buy their debut album first.  I was a pretty huge fan of Rocket From The Crypt and by 1995 or so I was really starting to dig in and hunt for anything of theirs I could find.  I had heard that John Reis was also in another band called Drive Like Jehu, but he didn't sing in it.  As this was the mid 90s, there really wasn't an easy way for me to check out this band to see if I would like it.  You kind of just had to commit to buying something.

What I ended up doing was something of a scheme to try to minimize my financial risk.  There was a record store in Montclair, NJ called Let It Rock.  It may not have been the best store in the area, but it was another one to check out.  They did the old 90s gimmick of opening all of the CD cases, leaving the cases on display and putting the CDs themselves behind the counter, to help deter theft.  They had the first Drive Like Jehu CD there.  My friend Joe had a birthday coming up and my master plan was to buy the Jehu CD and listen to it since the CD was already unsealed.  If I didn't like it, I could just give it to Joe and no harm, no foul since Joe knew that's how Let It Rock rolled.

I listened to that CD and I did enjoy it.  It didn't change my life at that exact moment or anything, but I definitely liked it. I don't actually remember if I ended up keeping that exact CD or if I gave that one to Joe and bought my own copy anyway.  I think I kept the one from Let It Rock, but some of these memories are lost to the sands of time.  Regardless, I did become a Drive Like Jehu fan in that moment.  Fast forward a few weeks or months later and I saw the second Drive Like Jehu album at my usual record store, Flipside in Pompton Lakes.  I picked it up having enjoyed the first one.

I was absolutely, completely unprepared for Yank Crime.  The opening, rolling bass line of "Here Comes the Rome Plows" started and the moment that the chaotic ferocity of the rest of the band kicked in, I knew something in my life had changed.  I had never heard anything like this before.  The jagged, screeching guitar riffs swirled around a propulsive and driving rhythm section.  And then there was that voice.  Rick sounded like he was trying to claw his way out of some type of confinement using only his voice.  As if the sheer power of his vocals could knock down any door or wall impeding him.  I liked what I heard from Rick on Jehu's self titled album, but this was a revelation.

What hit me more than anything else was how the intensity of his vocals varied based on the needs of the song.  He showed a surprising amount of vulnerability and in the next breath eviscerated what stood before him.  Combine that with the absolutely magical connection he had with John and it's no wonder that to this day Yank Crime is one of my favorite all time albums.  Top five of forever, desert island whatever.  No matter the gimmick you want to use to categorize it, Yank Crime is as important to me as just about any other record I can think of.

We're in 1995.  Jehu was essentially done at that point, so the years went by with no new music and no shows that I could see.  They were a band frozen in amber, one that I just barely missed but had such a monumental influence on how I felt about music.  This brings us to the year 2000 and the rise of Hot Snakes.

I don't remember the first time I heard about Hot Snakes, but there's pretty much no way that it wasn't on the old Rocket From The Crypt message board.  That thing was where I've met so many people that are important to me to this very day.  At the time, it was the number one news source for Rocket related information.  When word got out that John and Rick were making music again, it is hard to explain just how excited I was to hear it.  When Automatic Midnight was released, my jaw hit the floor.

This wasn't Drive Like Jehu, this was something different.  Tighter, with more economical songs.  Hooks and passion and everything you want rolled up into one perfect, Wipers influenced band.  Yes, you could hear echoes of Jehu.  You could also hear bits of Rocket and Pitchfork, there was something special happening with this band, the sum of its parts reflecting all of the member's past triumphs.  It was magic again.

I saw Hot Snakes twice on their very first set of East Coast tour dates in 2000, which I think were among the first handful of shows they ever played.  I saw them at Maxwell's in Hoboken and also at Mercury Lounge the next night in NYC.  I don't remember how I got in to the Mercury Lounge show as myself and my friend Justin were left standing outside of a sold out show in December.  Justin was trying to convince me to try to use my Rocket tattoo as some sort of leverage to get us into the show, but that wasn't something I was comfortable doing, nor is there any reason it would have worked anyway.  I think ultimately we ended up being able to buy tickets from someone with extras on the sidewalk.  I'm just glad we were able to get in.

Those shows were amazing, they played the entire first album and one extra song, which I think remained unreleased, though I don't actually remember what that extra song was anymore.  The biggest part of the experience was that I finally got to see Rick in person.  When the band was playing, he was as I imagined, commanding the performance and just being the center of the maelstrom whipping around him.  He didn't have the natural banter or innate on-stage charisma that John has, but he had a presence and a gravitas that let you know he was the anchor and emotional center of what the band was presenting to the world.

I saw Hot Snakes countless times whenever they played the East Coast.  At least twenty times and I have so many memories from the various shows.  I remember when they played Bowery Ballroom and broke out the Drive Like Jehu song "Luau."  I was so blown away that I broke my watch jumping around like a maniac.  

It was Hot Snakes being a group that I first connected with John on a level other than just being a dude at all of the shows.  I worked at a radio promotion company called AAM and got in touch with John through a contact I had at Vagrant records.  When the second Hot Snakes record, Suicide Invoice, came out, I knew I had to help out and I ended up being able to.  We worked something out and I got to send out copies of the album to college radio stations all across the country.  This was the first Swami release we got to be involved with and it opened the door to help out with every single record until I eventually left the music industry in 2007.

That meant I got to promote Yank Crime to college radio when it was rereleased in 2002.  Talk about a dream come true.  It's funny looking back on it now.  Yank Crime felt like a record from another generation, even though it was only eight years old at that point.  Compare that to how long ago those first few Hot Snakes records came out in relation to 2023 and it sure feels like time warps the older you get.

I don't have too many personal stories about interacting with Rick.  I've always known John better.  But I have two that stand out during my time at AAM.  The first is that he designed a logo for us that we used as part of a CMJ party we had.  Someone in my office wanted a design with a wolf it and I got in touch with Rick to ask if he could make us something that said AAM and had a wolf on it. He did.  I don't even really know why as he didn't charge us anything.  

He came up with a boy scouts inspired logo that we used for flyers, put on pins and even had a couple of sweatshirts made up with it on.  My sweatshirt is up in my attic somewhere, so that's why I'm not putting in a picture of it now.  I also cannot find the actual files of the logo and was only able to find a really pixelated version using the Internet Wayback machine.  But I do have these two pins that we had made using the wolf logo.

The other story I have about Rick from my AAM days was at the Knitting Factory in 2004.  Audit In Progress had just come out and we had sent it out to radio.  I came to the show early with a bunch of album artwork posters.  The goal was to have the band sign them and personalize some for some of the college radio stations that were being particularly supportive.  This sort of promo work isn't really fun, but it means a lot to the college kids that make college radio work.  

John was writing lots of funny messages to stations, Mario and Gar were also getting in on it a bit, but Rick was different.  I'm not going to say he was annoyed or bothered by the process, in fact he was very nice and generous with his time, but when he was signing stuff he was doing so in the most exaggerated and funny way I've ever seen.  You couldn't possibly ever tell it was his signature, just making the broadest, wildest pen strokes.  The resulting signed items were absolutely unique and I'm really happy I hung on to one, even though it's been in a poster tube for almost twenty years now.

Hot Snakes would eventually called it a day (for now) and stopped playing in 2005.  A few years later, Rick resurfaced with Obits.  Obits had a lot of the styles and sounds that I expected from Rick, but filtered through a band that was not as loud and aggressive as Hot Snakes or Jehu.  These songs were a little more open, they were textural and dynamic.  It was interesting hearing Rick without John, but the ending result was three more albums (four if you count the singles comp) full of classic Froberg brilliance.  I saw Obits several times during their run.  

The shows that jump out the most to me are both shows they played with Night Marchers (John's band at the time).  The first was at Santos Party House in December of 2008.  I had never been to that venue before and have never been since, but that was one of the louder shows I have ever been to.  Both bands just killed it.  The other show was a secret show in Brooklyn somewhere at this tiny little bar whose name I do not remember.  It was the night after Night Marchers played Siren Fest in 2010.  Carlos from The PeeChees gave me the heads up that it was happening and it was a wonderful, intimate show surrounded by friends.

Hot Snakes came back in the early 2010s playing sporadic shows at festivals and some familiar haunts on mini tours.  It was great seeing them again, but I wasn't at all prepared for the mother of all reunions when Drive Like Jehu started to play again.  It began with a show at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego.  I just couldn't get out there from a money standpoint and was heartbroken to miss it.  I did watch it live on the organ's web stream and have vivid memories of sitting in my apartment at the time, hugely inspired and hugely bummed out all at the same time.

Luckily additional shows followed and I made my way out to Chicago for a one-two punch of the band playing at Riot Fest and also a club show the night before.  That club show in 2015 at the Bottom Lounge is one of the greatest shows I have ever been to.  Surrounded by Swami friends from over the years, it was a night over 20 years in the making.  

They played amazing and I left the show just floored.  Rick was unbelievable, just moving the crowd with his guitar work and unbelievable vocals.  The Riot Fest performance the next day was equally great, but lost a little something in the festival atmosphere versus the far superior club experience.  

The only other time I got to see Drive Like Jehu was the next year at Irving Plaza in NYC.  I don't know why I didn't go to the Brooklyn show on that same tour, I assume because it was in Brooklyn, which can be a giant pain in the ass to get to from NJ.  I can't say this particular show was as otherworldly as the others.  Rick didn't seem to be in good voice that night and the show suffered a bit as a result.  I mostly bring it up as it was such a bizarre outlier.  I've seen Rick play dozens of times, and this is the only time ever that something was off.  But even with that, it was an incredible experience and was the only time I got to see Jehu with my wife, so it is a night I will always treasure,

I was able to see Rick was with Hot Snakes in Jersey City in 2019.  They were coming off of their incredible 2018 album, Jericho Sirens.  An album that seems impossible to have been made fourteen years after their previous record as it sounded every bit as vital and ferocious as the three that came before.  As usual, the show was amazing and you could just feel what a special band they were.  In particular it was very evident what a special connection Rick had with John.

That Jersey City show was the last time I would see Hot Snakes and Rick.  I certainly had no idea that would be the case at the time.  Hot Snakes didn't play any shows after early 2020 that I'm aware of.  It's hard not to feel like everyone was robbed of more time with a great band.  A few weeks ago, Rick had posted online that the next Hot Snakes album was nearly done.  I don't know if we'll hear it, I don't know how much of it was completed.  I know that I hope to hear it someday, but if I do, it seems inconceivable to me that I'll never hear those songs live.  Or any of the Hot Snakes songs live. Or Jehu.

It is completely unbelievable to me that I won't see Rick again, standing on his side of the stage.  Generally inconspicuous and good natured.  Just a guy standing there.  Until the music started.  Then he became a force of nature that moved me in a way that few musicians have ever moved me.  Nothing I have already mentioned even touches on his incredible work as an artist.  I could say so much about the imagery he used on album art, T shirts, zine ads and proper gallery style artwork.  His visuals cut through the bullshit and showed the same type of raw emotion that his music and lyrics did.  But it also showcased his sense of humor and ability to engage in commerce while poking fun at it.  

I didn't know Rick personally to the point where I can comment on him too much as a person.  Though everything I have ever heard or read about him makes it seem like he was a really grounded guy with a wry sense of humor.  That shows in his art.

Rick Froberg is one of the most important musicians that has existed in my life.  Despite blathering on for far too many paragraphs, I don't feel like I've really explained just how important he has been to me.  I can rattle off and describe experiences I had over the years, but I can't really describe how his music has made me feel.  It is cathartic and hopeful, messy and meticulous, beautiful and ugly.  But more than anything, to me it has been inspiring.  I am so grateful I have had his music and art in my life for nearly thirty years.  It is so tragic that he isn't with us any longer, but the world he created will be with me forever.

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