An interview with Rob Crow
To call Pinback a supergroup is a bit of a stretch, and it isn’t. Both founding members had extensive success with previous outfits in the always roiling San Diego music scene. Guitarist Rob Crow made a mark with Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Optiganally Yours, Physics, and others, while bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV (aka Zach) rumbled on the low-ended Three Mile Pilot, a band known not only for its ominous yet melodic double-bassed songs but also for steadfastly hanging on to the pilot.com domain for years against what surely must have been an onslaught of offers and threats from the Palm Pilot folks.
Crow’s songwriting style is reminiscent of what might happen should King Crimson decide to play death metal on folk instruments, while Smith’s stint with Three Mile Pilot clearly established his predilection for haunting bass melodies and a complex mix of musical emotions that made the music simultaneously appropriate for a death march and a relaxing evening at home.
Forming almost casually, with a set of home-recorded songs in their portfolio, Pinback quickly outgrew any side project fans may have placed on the band, setting out on tour with road-exclusive EPs in tow and a sound that blended Crow and Smith’s musical quirks into something unique and arresting, without losing track of the members’ particular tonal predilections. Years later, Pinback is more successful than ever, with the band releasing Autumn of the Seraphs earlier this month (their second full album on the iconic label Touch and Go) and heading out on tour to support it.
I recognize the names of your supporting musicians from a long time ago, from the San Diego scene of 10-15 years ago. Is that still going on? You don’t hear much about it outside San Diego.
There’s some good bands here, but there’s not that many. But there’s really not that many good bands anywhere, so that’s not heartbreaking.
You always seem to have a lot of projects going on, not only Pinback but Thingy, the Ladies, Optiganally Yours. Do you feel that Pinback is just one of these, or is it your main outlet at this point?
Pinback is like the mothership.
Is it a natural pairing between you and Zach?
I don’t think so at all, and I think that’s why it works.
Do you find yourselves at odds over songs?
I don’t know… I’m not sure.
When you said “I don’t think so” what kind of incompatibility did you have in mind?
If people are simply compatible, it makes for a boring thing when they get together. The idea of people who are different getting together makes something interesting.
One thing that I’ve found interesting about Pinback is how clearly your influences and Zach’s influence come through, but it’s still a thing of its own. Do you think of yourself as having a distinctive style?
I would hope so, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to think that I did.
You come up with a lot of non-standard melodies and rhythms. Is that a difficult process for you?
Whatever I do is natural. I wouldn’t try to be something I’m not.
You’ll just hear music in your head with an odd time signature or key change?
It’s not up to me… [laughs]
How does the song writing process go for the band? Do each of you contribute individual parts, or is it a collaborative thing?
It’s pretty much every possible way two people can collaborate together without one person writing everything.
What’s the most unusual collaboration you’ve had to date?
Well, with Zach, or someone else. The most unusual way a song has come together for you.
Ummm…. sometimes I’ll write something in my head on the way to lunch, and track it all in a couple of minutes, then Zack will come back from his lunch and be finished, done.
Are you fast at this process then, or are Pinback songs grown over a period of time?
They’re very labored.
What is the hardest part?
Mixing. Well, ummm… the hardest part might be the structure. Like what goes where when and for how long.
So do you find yourself with a bunch of musical ideas to string together?
Sort of, but we usually end up with songs sounding absolutely nothing like the original intention. They sound like remixes of the original idea, which is cool.
You’re happy with that process?
I’m glad that it gets weirder all the time.
I’m not sure what to expect from Pinback on tour. Your songs don’t sound like they were written for live performance but I’ve been wrong about that before.
I think our live shows are usually far superior versions of the songs. On the new album, we made a point to mix the songs [to sound] as much [like we do] live as possible.
Was that difficult?
It just meant a lot of … using a real drummer, and learning how to record real drums better. Because we do everything ourselves and we always have, and that’s the reason why we didn’t have real drums on the majority of our stuff. We don’t know how to play the drums that well, so we never had the time to figure out how to record them.
The general lore is that you and Zach put together Pinback in your living rooms…
…bedrooms, even better, and it went from there. Did you have any expectations for the band when you were doing this?
You mean playing live? We always wanted to play live.
It seems to have become a long-term project at this point.
I’ve never gone into a project thinking about when it would be done.
Are there projects that you feel went past their time, or were cut short?
Almost every project I had that ended got cut short.
Is it frustrating? You seem to have so much music coming out of you.
The only thing that is frustrating is when I can’t give everything the attention I’d like to give it. I’d like to make more Ladies records, but it’s really hard for Zach [Hill, manic drummer for Hella, Nervous Cop, others] and I to get together to do those. Also, I’ve never been able to tour with the Ladies, never played a show with Other Men [project featuring members of Heavy Vegetable] yet.
What are some collaborations you would enjoy?
I don’t even know… people I would have liked to play with… I would have loved to have played with Captain Beefheart, in the Magic Band or something. Or Snakefinger’s band, or the Residents or something like that. Any of that would have been awesome…
Did you listen to a lot of that music at one time?
Yeah, it’s mostly what I listen to.
That makes a lot of sense. Do you think there’s anything these days remotely like that?
I love Hella and all that. Me and Zach have four records to get together. And we’re going to make more.
Do you think that type of music will ever cross over and sound like something more than a complicated mess to people?
I think some of the Ladies songs work that way, in that they’re complicated, but they’re still accessible.
Your previous album was Summer In Abbaddon and now you’ve released Autumn of the Seraphs — is there something going on with the seasons? Can we expect a quadrilogy?
Nah, they’re just black metal references. The first one was a reference to a storyline involving a summer cruise with Venom as the ship’s band and a secret affair with Abbadon, the drummer. And the new one is just a play on words for the Mayhem song “Fall of Seraphs.” Which is why there’s a bunch of dead angels on there.
What are your plans for the stage on this tour?
We always make a conscious decision to make it as minimal as possible, as non-distracting as possible, so it’s just a bunch of guys and not guys that want to be something they’re not.
No fog machine?
No fog machine, no fancy lights. Unless we don’t get to the lighting guy in time. A blue light, and the band playing, trying to make the best-sounding music they can with what they’ve got.
What was the most outstanding show on your last tour?
I don’t even remember… most of the time I’m just trying so hard to pull off each night.
Is it difficult to perform these songs live?
There’s a lot of work that goes into them, but the most difficult part for me is to not blow my voice out before the show’s over, not to get so excited that I just lose it. There’s a lot of crazy range stuff going on. If I get even a slight cold then it’s all over.
You recorded this last album, Autumn of the Seraphs with Mario Rubalcaba [drummer for Thingy, Rocket from the Crypt]… he’s someone you’ve played with before, right?
Yes, in Thingy.
Are you working on anything with Optiganally Yours?
Yes, a third record. It’ll be out on Robcore, my label, and I’m not sure when. I’m traveling a lot, and Pea [Hix, OY collaborator] does a lot of hiking. Most of the songs are written, we just have to record them well.
I’m always curious about the process for those songs… are there a bunch of Optigan discs and you just play with them to see what comes out?
For the first album it was like that. For the second album we did a similar thing, but we used a thing called a Talentmaker, there were only maybe a handful of prototype machines for it. For the new album, the people that recorded all the original sessions that became Optigan disks gave us all the master tapes from every session they ever did, and we set them up into basically disks that were never made, then we made songs from that.
Have you found yourselves become the center of Optigan knowledge in this day and age?
My partner Pea, he’s more knowledgeable than I am about it. I know my fair share, I know more than the average person about the history.
If you had the original Optigan disk session musicians tracking you down, or you were able to track them down, that’s a good sign.
Not many people have put as much work into the archiving of Mattel toys from the ’70s.
How do you feel your solo work is different from the work you do with other people?
Pretty much the only real difference is that when I work with other people we want to go for a certain kind of sound. So we’ll have some kind of guidelines, for the songs to all mesh together. But when I’m by myself, I don’t have to collaborate, so they can just be anything. Sometimes that means that it’s a bunch of different-sounding things that don’t really, shouldn’t really, be put together. Unless you feel like listening to a compilation album that’s all by one guy.
How was your solo record received?
It did really well. I think it did better than any… I think it’s my best-selling non-Pinback thing.
Is there more material lined up for another solo record?
Not right now. I have two Goblin Cock [death metal project] albums, and I’m trying to finish this new Thingy record. I was almost finished with the new Thingy record, but then my hard drive crashed and I lost everything.
Betrayed by technology!
Yeah, I deserve it.
What’s your outlook on technology in general?
I don’t really have a standpoint. It’s something that will be decided long after the human race is gone, whether it was a good idea or not.
Do you find yourself limited by it?
I feel a lot more unlimited by it, but I feel there’s no end to what someone could accomplish with technology… except all the mistakes that are made on the way to unlimited things are sometimes deadly.
I’m fascinated by how simple some of your work sounds, but how complex it actually is when you try and reproduce it. The trick is that you’re making it sound natural, and if it’s sounding natural to you as it comes into being, maybe that’s what’s being passed along.
I hope so…
Would you ever write just something in 4/4, in a major key?
I think Pinback does that.
Maybe. But it doesn’t sound like it. It’s the reverse of that coin, where things sound complicated but are simple. Do you feel that complexity in music is important?
I don’t think I need to hear “Louie Louie” again.