“You Don’t Have Rock & Roll Without Blues, Gospel, and Black People”

The Black Tones and Eugene S. Robinson talk their musical upbringings, the erasure of Blackness in rock & roll, and more.

Cedric Walker and Eva Walker are the twin brother (on drums) and sister (on guitar) that comprise The Black Tones; Eugene S. Robinson is the author of A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight into Murderer’s Row: A Memoir, and member of the bands OXBOW, Buñuel, and formerly, Whipping Boy. Here, the three talk their musical upbringings, the erasure of Blackness in rock & roll, and more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Eva Walker: Me and Cedric and our other siblings were born in Seattle. We’re first-generation Seattleites. Everyone else is from New Orleans. I think quite naturally, music is in our blood. Our dad was actually a bank robber, but he had a funk band in prison. He played keyboards in “the joint,” as he calls it.

Cedric Walker: Much better than his basketball team, who was terrible.

Eva: But everyone in our family are music lovers. There was always music around, and I always heard music in anything… Car engines, leaf blowers. At an early age, knew I had a musical brain. 

Eugene S. Robinson: It’s funny, because I remember my father picking up an acoustic guitar and me soundly and roundly mocking him as he sat there and played and sang. He never at any point told me that he had been a jazz bassist for a trio that toured Europe. He never mentioned it. He was an intelligence officer in the US Air Force and spoke five languages — the Air Force figured, “Well, we’ll put this guy in the Eastern Bloc.” This was in the ‘50s, during the Cold war. [He played] in jazz trios, in clubs near West Berlin, East Berlin, traveling through what used to be Soviet Bloc countries, and he was supposed to report back. So maybe it was a habit of secrecy, or maybe it was our crappy relationship, but even when I was there mocking him for playing the guitar, he never, ever let me know, “Hey, I can actually play this. I’m a bass player. I can read charts.” Even after I started a band, he never mentioned this to me.

Eva: Wow.

Eugene: OXBOW was at the Grammy Awards with Joe Chiccarelli, who got nominated for Producer of the Year. He produced OXBOW’s The Narcotic Story, the Shins, and Kurt Elling all in 2007. I think, Oh, my sister’s [Maya Azucena] been singing with all these different artists, I’m going to blow her mind and call her from the Grammys. So, I call her and say, “Hey, guess where I am?” She goes, “Guess where I am? I’m at the Grammys.” And I say, “Hold on, where are you sitting?” And she looks around and says, “Oh, I’m sitting next to Dave Grohl.” And at that moment, I knew she was going to win a Grammy. I just thought I would surprise her that I was there, and she actually won a Grammy! She put that thing up in her living room, and I’m proud to see it. She’s phenomenal. I didn’t take her seriously as a singer as a kid, even though she went to that “Fame” high school. 

Cedric: I think Eva does herself a little disservice, because she’s really talented, to the point where — and Eva knows this story — sorry, Eva, but I’m going to go ahead and say it again. I first heard her sing 10-plus years ago, and I didn’t even know she could sing. And I’m her twin brother! I’m thinking I should know everything about what Eva can do, and she pulls out her acoustic guitar at this Folklife Festival we have up here in Seattle every year; she starts singing, and I have one little tear of joy going down my eye. You know, I’ve always been a musical fan, too, but from that moment forward was when I was, “OK, yep! I need to help!” I already knew through high school that Eva was also a really awesome drummer. Better than anybody else — guy, woman, animal, whatever. I asked Eva to teach me how to play drums, and she was like, “Sure, I’ll kind of mold you into the drummer that I’m looking for.” It’s something really fun to do with my sister and watch her grow and see how the fans respond to her. It’s been wonderful. My music journey was inspired by my sister’s talent. “How can I lift you up as high as you can go? I want to be a part of this.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Eva: I’m self-taught on the drums and guitar. I did lessons for only about two months or so, and then we couldn’t afford them anymore. But the guy who ran the drum school here in Seattle said, “I don’t want to discourage you from playing drums. So anytime there’s a free room open, you can come in and practice.” And then that’s where I taught Cedric, too. Having that access while being poor was awesome. 

Eugene: My second daughter sang “Respect,” the Aretha tune, at some school talent show when she was, like, seven. I filmed it, and there’s a point at which she hits a high note and I just dropped the phone. I was like, How could I have not known? [Laughs.]  I was about to go Joe Jackson and put her out there, but I decided not to be a fascist about it. And now she’s singing and acting a little and finding her own way while working in advertising.

Cedric: [My daughter] is six right now. At work people ask, “How do you juggle it?” And the last tour we went on was an almost six-week tour. It was crazy. Initially, I was concerned about being gone for so long, and how is her mom going to handle this, that, and the other. But I took it as an opportunity to, instead of fear what’s going to happen, be more excited about how I can get them involved. How can I bring her out and show her what I do, and get her to be part of the mix?

They came out for the East Coast part of the leg, and it was phenomenal. My daughter still talks about it to this day. When they couldn’t come out, we FaceTimed every day. I crushed a little rock before I left and she kept one half, and I kept another half. We would show it to each other every time we would FaceTime. Little small, cheesy things like that. But it shows my daughter, “My dad is pursuing the things that he loves to do while he’s still loving me.” Maybe you’re not there physically, but there’s so many other avenues, especially nowadays with technology, to be there. My daughter’s looking forward to coming out next time we go out. She’s not asking me not to tour, she’s saying, “Next time you go out on tour, I want to come.” It’s just how you spin it right, and how you decide to explain it. And then the kids see it in a different light, [instead of] if I approached saying, “I’m going to be going, you’re probably going to miss me.”

Eugene: Cedric just mentioned technology, and that’s made a big difference. I’ve got four kids total. My first two kids — it was tough, because there was no FaceTime then. And if you try to put a two-year-old on the phone, it’s just like, “This is some weird recording of dad.” It didn’t work as well. But of course, as they got older, me touring became something that was hardwired into how our family is. They’ve all worked the merch table. They’ve come to the shows and helped out. And the youngest, she’s three, she showed up to the show we just did with Lydia [Lunch] at the great American Music Hall in San Francisco. She’s got earphones, so she could participate. Then she was in New York with me at an event where I interviewed Lydia and Sophia Chang and a couple of other people. She was there just running around in the audience. So, she’s got an inkling of the fact that this is not really the standard household, but this is all she’s ever known. She’s seen the OXBOW videos. Usually when I’m gone on the road, she’s off in Poland somewhere with my wife, hanging out with family.

Eva: One of the things I think will be really helpful — and I’ve seen be helpful for my brother and his daughter — is we have a village here. [Eva is pregnant at the time of this conversation.] We’re very lucky to have a village. And the Black Tones is a family band: Cedric’s in it, my husband played bass on this last tour, my mom does backing vocals. I know everyone doesn’t have that situation. I even told my brother that I don’t know if I could do all this without them. 

During this last tour, we played the house of Blues in Anaheim, and it was the fourth House of Blues that we’ve ever played. I was like, Man, I don’t know when I’m going to play the House of Blues again while pregnant. We went out on stage, and I told the crowd, “If you guys don’t mind, I want to make this memorable for me and have something to tell my daughter later, so I’m going to take my dress off and do this show in my maternity underwear. Is that OK?” They cheered. So, I took my dress off and — I mean, you’ve seen maternity underwear. It’s the most unsexy fucking thing you’ve ever seen. I had some family who showed up who I’m sure did not see that coming, or want to see any of that coming, but I was just like, I can’t wait to tell little Hendrix about that show.

Eugene: Well, it’s funny, my mom came to see us play some show in New York. After, I asked if she enjoyed the show. She says, “Yeah, I enjoyed the show. But then every time you took off an article of clothing, everybody started looking at me like I was supposed to scold you! I know what you look like naked. I raised you!” Before I was singing on stage, I was a competitive bodybuilder. Standing on stage in posing trunks is infinitely more revealing than anything I’ve worn performing with OXBOW. 

I think I started it because I got tired of leaving the stage with pants that were drenched in sweat that wouldn’t dry overnight. Then I’d have to either wear them the next day, or not. I mean, they would just get mildewed, depending on where you were playing. So I was like, I could just take my pants off. And it created such a weird sensation for audiences that I decided to explore the finer points of the sensation. For men, what venues do you have for male nudity, where it’s not weird? Like, “Thunder Down Under” is certainly a thing, but it’s camp, right?

Eva: I used to be super self-conscious about my body. I was really skinny, just awkward skinny. But me and Cedric both dealt with people making fun of us. I got to a point where I liked myself and got more comfortable with my body. So, for me, it became kind of therapeutic. I accepted myself and after a while and was like, Yeah, I’m going to take my clothes off. This is fun.

I’ve had my mom on stage, and she’s seen me take my bra off on stage and everything, and she’ll just sing and close her eyes. My mom’s a very conservative democrat, Catholic woman, but she’s also like, “Yes, my daughter is doing her thing, and I’m proud of her.” There’s a picture of me topless, high fiving my mom on the stage. She believes in what she believes in, but she also knows her daughter is an independent person. So, my mom’s been really great about it.

Eugene: [On the erasure of Blackness in rock & roll:] As long as I’ve been doing it, being Black in punk rock spaces is a complete nonissue. A Black writer asked me about that once, and I was like, “Look, when I came up, there was Buzz Wayne, there was Jean Beauvoir from the Plasmatics, there was Ivan Julian.” There were plenty of Black folks doing punk rock in 1977, up to and including Death and Bad Brains. So this was not strange or mysterious.

I went to some event at my kids’ hoity toity elementary school. We were at an end-of-season party. The kids are swimming in the pool, and some parent sidles up to me. She looks at me, and I look at her, and she says, “This must all be a bit strange for you, isn’t it?” I go, “The pool? Or the hors d’oeuvres? What do you think is strange to me? Because it’s a pool? Or because it’s a Monday night? What are we talking about?” You know, none of this stuff is strange for us. We wake up and live these existences as Black folks. It’s 24 hours. We’re here. It’s strange for you, but it’s not strange for us.

Cedric: I would echo those same sentiments. It’s not strange because it’s been happening for so long. It’s just that there isn’t the magnifying glass on it as it should be. It’s funny, because Eva used to say it from the stage, “You don’t have rock & roll without—” what was it, Eva?

Eva: Blues, gospel, and Black people.

Cedric: And Black people.

Eugene: Yeah!

Cedric: She’s not telling people something new. She’s giving people a history lesson. We’re just here to go, ”Hey, by the way, this is probably one of the Blackest things anybody could be doing right now.”

Eva: I started saying that at shows because that was something that I learned later. When I was a teenager getting into rock & roll music, I was hearing things like, “you are so white,” or “you’re the whitest Black girl I’ve ever met.” They wanted to discourage me from doing rock. We’re ‘90s kids, so we were watching whatever our siblings were watching on MTV, and a lot of the rock bands that we saw on TV were mostly white. When you hear that enough, you’re like, Well, shit, am I trying to be white? Because I don’t want to be white. I just like this music. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered Jimi Hendrix — which is why I’m naming my fucking first born after that man. He changed my life. I was like, Oh, we fucking do do this, and we do it well. That was a message that I wanted to get across to kids that looked like us because we grew up in Seattle, which wasn’t always so white, but now has turned that way. 

From Jimi Hendrix, I got into other music that came out at that time, like the British invasion stuff, but I was looking at who their influences were — the Stones named their freaking band after a Muddy Waters song, and Led Zeppelin ripped from Robert Johnson, and all this stuff that just goes back forever. The further back I went and got into blues, I was like, It’s all Black. Discovering that, I realized that in the  history of rock, I am not the whitest anything. I’m like, the Blackest motherfucker doing this shit. And that’s why the education and the history and us saying things are so important, because people like me didn’t know that I belonged in rock & roll this entire time and thought for years it was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, because the narrative changed and the Black voices were silenced and forgotten about. Like, there’d be no fucking Rolling Stones without Black people.

Eugene: It was funny, I did a show in Portland, Maine, and some light skinned Black cat walked up to me afterward, and he says, “That was something…” And I was thinking he was going to say, “That was something great.” But then he continues, “It felt to me like I was at a slave auction.” And I homed right in: “Now, as light skinned as you are, how did that make you feel?”

Cedric: Hold up, brother! He would have been in the house!

Eugene: Because that whole tribal phenomenon is the weirdest thing. I had this at Stanford where there were these very middle-class Black folks who were always ashamed of me because they thought, What are white people going to think? And you have to understand, what white people think has never, ever been part of my calculation. I don’t give a fuck what they think. That’s me. I gotta do me. But also from the other side, too, in the heart of Brooklyn. I’m walking through Brooklyn with a Mohawk in 1979, and I was hanging out with Pete, whose father sang for the Coasters. We’re Black punk rockers walking through Flatbush. Some neighborhood people were, “Yo, punk rockers, get the fuck out of Flatbush.” And we’re like, “Hey, man, we know where you live. We’ll come and burn your house down.” Being punk rock to us never meant actually being a punk. I’ve always met hostility with hostility, because I think that’s what it deserves.

Eva: We’ve gotten some comments on the internet. One person, I guess, meant well, and said, “Oh, man, it’s nice to see Blacks playing, like, real music.” It’s weird, and I just laugh at it because this is not my problem. Whatever you think Black people should or shouldn’t be doing is your problem. I don’t take that on anymore.

Eugene: [Laughs.] Now, if you excuse me, I gotta hang out with the Jamaican bobsled team. Fuck you guys.

Cedric: And it’s not just one race that’s doing that. Just to be clear, it’s white people, it’s Black people, it’s Asian people. Everybody falls into the trap of, “Why are you doing that?” 

Eva: No one is not guilty here.

Cedric: Everybody’s got to do a little history lesson.

Eugene: Yeah, we all sure do.

Eva: My mom told me that when she heard “Rapture” by Blondie and Debbie Harry rapping on the freaking radio, she called all her friends. She was like, “Woah, woah, wait a minute. What is this white woman doing? Did you hear that white girl?” And Debbie Harry is a badass who’s done her research and has been in the underground hip hop scene hanging out the Latin quarter, and was with Fab Five Freddy learning about the culture. But yeah, that white girl can rap. But, back in the day, people on all sides thought, she’s not supposed to be doing that. As Cedric said, it comes from all different directions for anyone.

So, we’re working on a second record, finally. I’ve been really into African ‘70s rock & roll — like the funky music out of Nigeria, and Zamrock. That is influencing this next record. There’s a song we already released called “Blue Matrimony.” A really close family friend murdered his wife, and I wrote a song about it. I actually went to Mike McCready from Pearl Jam and helped me with writing that song. Then hopefully we’ll do another tour next winter and, it’s not set in stone yet, but hopefully a UK tour in 2024. 

Eugene: I’ve got a few projects. Buñuel has a record coming out on Skin Graft in the States and on Overdrive overseas in September. Buñuel is an Italian band, and I’m the only non-Italian in the band. The record is called Mansuetude. We’ll be touring on it for two weeks in November. OXBOW also goes out with Mr. Bungle at the end of June for two weeks. The European dates end with Hell Fest, which I think is June 29. So, we do about 12 days before Hell Fest, end with Hell Fest, and then back to craziness. 

Eva: I just want to say, to sum all this up, Eugene, it’s just really great to talk to you, and talk to someone who’s seasoned and who’s been out there, and just knowing that you’re out there and you’re doing this is amazing. And whether you take this or, you know — you’re still creating a path for people like us and that look like us to be able to do shit. Take it.

Eugene: Yeah, I like that. Thank you.

Eugene S. Robinson has written for GQ, The Wire, Grappling Magazine, LA Weekly, Vice Magazine, Hustler, and Decibel, among many others. He has also been Editor-in-Chief of OZY, Code, and EQ. Robinson is the vocalist and frontman for Oxbow, a rock group-cum-fight club. He is also the vocalist for the critically acclaimed punk-metal supergroup Buñuel. His memoir A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight into Murderer’s Row was published in October 2023.