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Rick Froberg was the perfect punk vocalist

Rick Froberg performs in Drive Like Jehu at Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., in April 2015. Froberg died on Friday.
Matt Cowan
/
Getty Images
Rick Froberg performs in Drive Like Jehu at Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., in April 2015. Froberg died on Friday.

Rick Froberg's voice was the ideal mix of snarl and shrill.

Among male punk vocalists, some had the back-of-the-throat resonance of a Joey Ramone or the guttural depth of numerous hardcore bands.

But Froberg's voice was unmistakable — not trying to sound tough on purpose, it just ended up that way. The voice that somehow always sounded like a skinny old man who smoked too many cigarettes and drank too much whiskey.

Froberg died Friday of natural causes, according to John Reis, his musical collaborator of more than three decades. He was reportedly 55.

His first collaboration with Reis was the late '80s San Diego post-hardcore band Pitchfork.

But it was a few years later, with the '90s band Drive Like Jehu, when Rick Froberg's voice arguably first came into full form. The screams were there. So were the occasional melodic choruses. "Atom Jack," on the band's self-titled first album, showcased the disparity. On the band's second album, Yank Crime, the nine-minute-plus dissonant epic "Luau" saw Froberg shout against imperialism while breaking the discord with "Aloha, aloha. Suit up. Luau, luau. Luau, luau."

From left, John Reis, Mark Trombino and Rick Froberg of Drive Like Jehu perform during the Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., in April 2015.
Matt Cowan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
From left: John Reis, Mark Trombino and Rick Froberg of Drive Like Jehu perform during the Coachella festival in Indio, Calif., in April 2015.

It was in Hot Snakes, however, where Froberg's vocals reached their zenith. It was Froberg and Reis' third major collaboration.

Gone were Reis' long, winding, guitar leads from Drive Like Jehu — songs were shorter, sped up, more garage-rock influenced, straight to the point. It was aggressive punk but smarter. Time signatures opted for the occasional skipped or extra beat. The guitars interplayed with abrupt staccato leads and rhythms.

Froberg's vocals — now harsher with a higher pitch — had found the music to match.

It was evident on "If Credit's What Matters I'll Take Credit," the opener on Hot Snakes' first album, 2000's Automatic Midnight.

Hot Snakes released two more studio albums in its original run in the early 2000s, the mellower Suicide Invoice followed by the up-tempo Audit in Progress.

The band re-formed to release its first album in about 14 years in 2018. NPR described Froberg's voice as "high and serrated." When it came to his lyrics, reviewer Andrew Flanagan put it at the time: "Froberg's lyrics aren't comprehensible most of the time; they operate as a kind of expressionist splatter of spittle, a fragmentary philosophical rage, across the band's relentless, bubbling-hot canvas."

Aside from his bands with Reis, Froberg's most notable music came with Obits, a more bluesy take on punkish garage rock. His "vocals strain with bitterness," NPR said, even as the music took on a more subdued hue. The band released three studio albums between 2009 and 2013.

A poster featuring Rick Froberg's art for Hot Snakes' 2018 tour.
James Doubek / NPR
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NPR
A poster featuring Rick Froberg's art for Hot Snakes' 2018 tour.

He played guitar, too, in most of his bands. But that never seemed to be Froberg's primary focus. "I have news for the world, I'm not a good guitar player," he said in a recent interview.

Froberg was also a successful artist, having created art for many album covers and posters.

In remembering Froberg, Reis wrote: "His art made life better. The only thing he loved more than art and rock n roll was his friends. He will forever be remembered for his creativity, vision and his ability to bring beauty into this world."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
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