The misunderstanding of Hobo Johnson

The Sacramento artist on surviving the court of public opinion and writing a musical about cockroaches

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Frank Lopes Jr., aka Hobo Johnson
Jade Ehlers

Watching the video for “Peach Scone,” the one that Sacramento-based band Hobo Johnson and The LoveMakers submitted for the 2018 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, it’s easy to mischaracterize frontman Frank Lopes. 

Brandishing a cigarette and a microphone in his left hand, the 20-something Lopes, with a cherubic face and a halo of fuzzy curls, drops an F-bomb half a second in, gives a stream-of-consciousness shout-out to Bob Boilen, introduces himself and his band and then launches into an anxious spoken word narrative of unrequited love. 

Hi, what’s your name? How are you? How’s your life?/ Oh, you got a man? Are you in love? If so, what type?/ Is it just platonic, strictly just as friends/ Or the type that ties you two together ’til tomorrow’s end?/ If it is, disregard every time I call you pretty/ Though it’s meant sincerely, it’s just my imagination drifting. 

Lopes delivers the song through alternating grimaces and grins as he shifts between the pain of loving someone he can’t be with and the genuine pleasure of being her friend. He runs his fingers through his unruly mane, his eyes moist from effort, pain, frustration… the effect is intoxicating and uneasy, like watching fire destroy a building. 

“I love the thought of being with you,” he bellows in the chorus. “Or maybe it’s the thought of not being so alone.”

The band didn’t win the contest, but the video went viral and the internet proceeded to perform the requisite vivisection of Lopes.

Some saw his lyrics as self-deprecating, introspective and sincere while others interpreted the words as a textbook example of toxic masculinity, with one young music critic at The State Hornet accusing Lopes of “making himself out to be the victim in some twisted parody of friendzone edgelording.” 

“Yeah, dude,” Lopes sighs over the phone on a day off from the band’s North American tour. “At first it was really, really tough after ‘Peach Scone.’ It was really, really difficult to, like, get such a mass amount of criticism; like, before no one criticizes because no one fucking cared, you know? And then out of nowhere it just felt really personal. … It was like they’re just attacking my character.” 

In his music and in interviews, Lopes has been open about his struggle with anxiety, about his mother leaving when he was young, about his father’s bad temper, about his run-ins with the law, about getting kicked out of his dad’s house when he was 19, about living in his ’94 Toyota Corolla and showering at a 24 Hour Fitness before going to work at a pizza shop (that’s where the hobo part comes from).

Sure, Lopes is a mess, but he’s not the poster child for toxic masculinity run amok. He’s a 24-year-old man grappling with the aftermath of a dysfunctional childhood. On his two full-length albums (The Rise of Hobo Johnson and The Fall of Hobo Johnson), songs make caricatures of his personality, pieces blown out of proportion and mocked. He lays bare his ugliest tendencies and wonders if he can change while knowing he has to in order to move forward. He yearns for love in that way young people do, like it’s the thing that will save him from himself, except he knows it won’t. His lyrics — in his off-kilter, rhythm-bending delivery — are raw but self-aware. 

And as for “Peach Scone,” it’s about an internal struggle to accept the love we’re offered, even when we hope against hope that love would take a different form. And yeah, internal struggles are ugly. That’s part of what makes the song so unsettling. 

“I’ve gotten a lot better,” Lopes says of the criticism. “I don’t even really go on social media, just for the benefit of my mental health.”

It helps that so many fans — many of them Gen Z’s, if the YouTube comment section is any indication — have rallied behind his work. Not least among them non-Gen Z Bob Boilen, who invited the band to perform at the Tiny Desk despite not winning the contest. 

Lopes says he’s doing pretty well these days, eating several times a day and drinking plenty of water. And sleeping on a tour bus is a marked improvement from sleeping in the backseat of his Corolla. 

He’s got plans for the follow-ups to his first two albums, and he’s working on a musical -— the term rock opera is a bit too grandiose — about the eventual demise of humanity and ascension of cockroaches. He wants to write short stories and score films.

We’re in the middle of talking about how neither of us has been able to finish Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace when a press representative comes on the line to tell us our 15 minutes are up. Lopes sounds genuinely surprised to have our conversation cut short. 

Maybe Lopes has me fooled. Maybe he’s a 4chan incel alpha male and this watery-eyed Big Mood is a calculated ruse. But I don’t think so. Not for a second. 

And if I’m wrong, I won’t feel so bad: He’s got Bob Boilen fooled too.    

ON THE BILL: Hobo Johnson and The LoveMakers — with Mom Jeans, The Philharmonik, Nate Curry. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26, The Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are $29.95-$30, axs.com.