Is Bobby Conn for real?

What is the Chicagoan glam-punk-metaller really about? Nick Hasted attempts to pin down a very slippery customer

The first great Iraq protest record is a glam-metal concept album made by a polyester-wearing, constitutionally ironic, 5ft, 4in Chicago freak, Bobby Conn. The Homeland is a musical Frankenstein's monster, stitched together from Seventies off-cuts of David Bowie, Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Yes and a hundred forgotten bubblegum hits and heavy-metal shrieks. And floating out of this stew come lyrics of dark satire, taking you in- side the minds of a drunkenly raving George Bush, frightened, fully-armed survivalists, Botox-numbed socialites, and the secret cabal of alien freemasons who Conn imagines pulling the strings of the world.

Is Conn for real? It was a question often asked when his previous record The Golden Age was released in 2001 to acclaim from David Bowie and Badly Drawn Boy (who called it "the best album I've heard in a decade"). Conn's UK tour that year saw him jump on people's laps and stroke them with fake- fur paws, while his interviews included fantasies of jail-time and Satanic possession. It's not the normal behaviour of a spokesman for a generation. But the 36-year-old, one-time Robert Kohn, reveals himself to be a deeply vulnerable soul, serious about everything he does. It's just that, in a world where the President talks as simply as Superman, and Osama bin Laden leaves taunting messages as if he thinks he's Lex Luthor, Conn's may be the only sane response.

"I think Bush and Bin Laden have a lot in common," Conn considers. "They're both super-righteous products of extreme privilege. They are like comic-book characters, because they're disconnected on a personal level from the world that the rest of us live in. I have always had a problem with irony, and now we have an unelected President telling us we're a great democracy. It's a sour, hysterical comedy for me.

"I'm far too complicit, too much of a cheesy consumer of plastic, shiny crap myself. It's easier for me to point out the absurdity and comedy than be the guy with the bandanna. But I sort of view everything as a joke. If I didn't have humour in my music, then I would be a sobbing puddle on stage. And trust me, no-one wants to see that."

But is that sobbing puddle a large part of who he is? "Oh, yeah. Probably the greater part. But it's a real effort to even keep..." he pauses, suddenly a dangerous distance from irony. "I don't actually even want to continue this line of questioning. This is making me too uncomfortable. But you know," he side-steps, "I think the world as it is is just too absurd to be taken straight. But in finding stuff funny, I never find it of less import, or meaning. In "Home Sweet Home" [a piano ballad in the voice of a paranoid survivalist], there are lines that when I see people laugh, I don't really think there's anything funny. But it's that nervous laughter that comes with not knowing how else to react. And I think that people should be allowed to laugh like that. People have been laughing through war and famine and death and despair ever since the dawn of time. And I'm continuing that tradition. I don't have to add a cheap literary gloss to it."

The distance in Conn's lyrics, and the impatiently scattershot pastiche of his sound may come from the same psychological source. Robert Kohn was born in 1967 to a father who was "an international sort of guy" and moved with his job through North and South America every couple of years, leaving his son with the wearing task of reinventing himself in town after town, never putting down roots. The only constant was the diverse weirdness of Seventies radio, which put Free next to Funkadelic, in the days before demographics. Conn let its undifferentiated sounds wash deep into his brain.

"The reason why my sounds are from the Seventies is because that's when I was a kid, so it snaps me back to my key emotional memories. That's what I like about nostalgia, that it forces you to respond based on personal circumstances."

The movement that gave Conn's music's focus, though, was Chicago's Eighties punk scene. The likes of Henry Rollins's Black Flag, with their monotone musical ferocity and unsmiling seriousness, may seem a long way from The Homeland. In fact, the dismay Conn caused when he dressed up as a punk, Black Flag's hardcore politics, and their desire to drag their audience into the performance, helped define his maverick act.

"At my high school, if you were a punk, no one really knew what that was," he remembers. "I'm a little guy, so I got trampled a lot. I decided to be in a band because people in a band got respect. No one ever attacks the guitarist, because they don't want the music to stop. But also, in the old days with punk, there was very little difference between audience and band. The performance was everywhere, not just on stage. I try to create that sort of chaos now, by getting off the stage as much as possible."

Conn's sense of pop theatre doesn't, though, end when the music stops. He walks the streets of Chicago in his stack-heels, make-up and plastic pants, like a bargain basement Bowie. "One of the things that keeps my fashion sense, or lack of it," he explains, "is that I'm incredibly cheap. Whenever people see me wearing snazzy outfits, they should know I haven't spent more than $15 on any ensemble. My style is, when you wear stuff that is disposable, you'll always be out of touch."

The question of whether Conn is "for real" as he protests the war more directly than most rock acts, may not be important, in the end. Fantasies are often so much more powerful than the facts they hide, anyway. "Oh absolutely," Conn agrees. "I don't care to meet my heroes, because they're so perfect in my mind, like the latest Playboy centrefold. People keep asking me all the time, 'Are you for real?' And I'm like, 'Here I am! Stick a pin in me'."

'The Homeland' is out now on Thrill Jockey

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