A FUNNY THING happened to Pinback on their way to play a show at the Crocodile last December: Riots broke out in Seattle. The band's two frontmen drove the 10 hours from the previous night's tour stop in Boise and pulled into town in the midst of Hizzoner Schell's WTO curfew. Belltown was quiet; the club clearly closed.
Crocodile, Monday, October 16
Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV—who goes by Zach and tells me he uses his full name "to keep my grandpa happy"—pulled up to the Croc, hopped out of the van, and approached the club. "They just left a note on the door saying 'Sorry, Pinback, but we had to close,'" recalls Smith. "We saw the note and said, 'Oh, fuck. Thanks.'"
No hard feelings though, because this San Diego band is leaving its sun-drenched town and heading north again for another shot at Seattle, hopefully minus the drama.
Still, there's plenty of dramatic turns in Pinback's musical itinerary. The band's little-known, self-titled 1998 debut featured a pan-scrambled mix of relaxed pop tunes and reflective, at times achingly sweet or depressive, songs. Harmonies, flowery acoustic guitar riffs, drum loops, bouncy bass lines, bedroom poetry, experimental vocal twists, the odd turntable scratch, darkly repetitive turns of phrase ("Push the little baby down the spiral stairs" sung over and over and over), offbeat samples, everything short of yodeling—heck, this is like Southern California's answer to Slanted and Enchanted. More laid back, equally hatched in a sealed greenhouse. And we all missed it.
PINBACK MAY BE from San Diego, but they didn't come out of nowhere. Rob Crow is the unquestioned busybody of rock. His career began "at around 18 or 19," he says, with the abysmally named, but beloved to some, Heavy Vegetable. That band's terse, serpentine punk-pop slithered through a couple of albums in the early to mid-90s, and Crow began to turn some heads with his twitchy melodies, attracting others with the kaleidoscopic thought process that went into his lyrics. A 1994 disc, The Amazing Undersea Adventures of Aqua Kitty and Friends, sounded peculiar at the time with its stop-start rhythms and staccato guitar and detached male-female vocals, but it stands up as one of the finer indie records of the era.
"One of the things I'm into is I don't wanna make anything that can be dated," the normally untalkative Crow tells me over the phone, sounding like he's about to launch into John Cusack's career description in Say Anything. But then Crow adds definitively: "People like it because it sounds like Now."
As with many great bands, Heavy Vegetable broke apart before their time, and Crow became a musician very much on the rebound. He started Thingy, signed on with an ambient project called Physics, recorded a solo disc, then another, and satisfied his yen for bizarre music—not one but two odes to Wesley Willis popped up on Heavy Vegetable's second full-length—by forming a band called Optiganally Yours, which plays songs entirely on the curious, carnival-recalling instrument from which he derived the name.
"One of the cool things about Rob," says Smith, "is that for every little thing he feels like he has to do, he just forms a band. Each one of these things, he has his outlet that he can fulfill."
SMITH, ON THE other hand, stuck with one project before sidestepping into Pinback. As part of Three Mile Pilot, this bassist (now a multi-instrumentalist) contributed to one of the most obtuse major label debuts ever, 1995's Chief Assassin to the Sinister on Geffen. It'd be the band's only record for Geffen, and they bounced back to the place they got their start, San Diego indie Cargo/Headhunter. Then, when his partner Pall Jenkins began concentrating on the Black Heart Procession a few years ago, Smith sought out Crow, who he'd known for about ten years. They each brought songs and ideas, and they holed up in Smith's house, recording without any intention to release the music.
Eventually, after some more label snafus (including a brief stint on Portland's ill-fated Tim/Kerr Records), the Pinback debut came out on Ace Fu, a one-man operation out of Hoboken. Though it didn't burn up the charts—college or otherwise—the album's still garnering word-of-mouth praise nearly three years after it was recorded. In the meantime, a Belgian label released the disc in Europe, earning enough attention to warrant a recent six-week tour there. Back home, Chicago's Tree label has just issued a four-song follow-up, Some Voices, that picks up where the debut left off, with a more nuanced production and the type of slow-building songs that almost taunt the listener with their subtlety.
Of course, the exquisite tension of a Pinback song is impossible to translate to a live setting, so they don't even try. Smith enlisted Three Mile Pilot drummer Tom Zinser, then rounded out the live outfit with another friend, keyboardist Donny Van Zandt. "On the record, it's kind of mellow and relaxed, while live the songs are sometimes faster, and obviously louder," Smith explains. "It's a different presentation. Sometimes it scares people."
Perhaps, but Pinback probably won't be frightening away fans the way last year's WTO debacle kept potential customers away from their gig. Hopefully, the band will drive north, arrive in Seattle, play the Croc, and everything will be all right. Right?
"Provided we don't suck," says Crow, ever the indie-rock skeptic.