The Great Beyond

San Diego's Pinback moves from science fiction to oblivion without getting lost in space.

Imagine yourself an astronaut adrift in space. Your ship just blew up. You've been jettisoned into emptiness with only an eggshell of oxygen between you and eternity. After that first sunburst of panic, an icy resignation washes over you. You look down at the spacesuit enshrouding your body. You read the nameplate attached to your chest. You're already bagged and tagged. Then a voice comes over the headset. It's another member of your crew! But hope collapses as quickly as matter in a black hole as you realize that he's sunk in the same ethereal quicksand as you. So you both just...float. And you talk, simply because there is nothing else you can do.

What would that last conversation be like? What is there to say? What is the sound of two disembodied voices locked in eulogistic fugue, asphyxiated by infinity, stammering out a tandem syntax of confession and mortality?

Such are the questions raised in John Carpenter's 1974 debut Dark Star, a ramshackle sci-fi farce that uses sloth-paced humor and stoner philosophy to illustrate the abuses of technocracy and the moral ambivalence of boredom. The fact that San Diego's Pinback is named after a character from this movie is, of course, no coincidence. Besides being fans of Dark Star, Pinback core members Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV (aka Zach) craft songs that could pass as soundtracks to space, isolation and the murmured acceptance of oblivion.

They lifted up the sun: Pinback's Armistead Burwell Smith IV and Rob Crow.
They lifted up the sun: Pinback's Armistead Burwell Smith IV and Rob Crow.


Wth O'er the Ramparts
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 19
$10, 303-322-2308
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue

"I kind of identified with the character of Sergeant Pinback. He was always just a goofball that no one ever really paid any attention to," explains Crow as he navigates sidewalk obstacles along a busy New York City avenue. Filtered through cellular circuitry and satellite relays, his tiny, vaporous voice seems to trickle in from halfway across the solar system. "It's like when I was a kid and went to see a sneak preview of that movie Flash Gordon. It didn't actually come out for another year or so after, and nobody at school would believe me about it."

People are paying attention to Crow and company now. An effusive review of Pinback's most recent full-length effort, Blue Screen Life, was broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered last year. Almost instantly, the disc popped up on's top-ten bestseller list. However, even after high CMJ chart positions, a "Featured Artist" spotlight on Napster and numerous tours of North America (not to mention Europe), proportionate hometown recognition seems to elude the band.

"Not too many people around San Diego know or care that we exist," Crow says. "I think I've done a pretty good job of pissing a few people off down here, which I'm proud of, but the stupidest people always have the biggest influence. I think I have more success everywhere but here."

Pinback's history stretches back to two semi-legendary Southern California indie-rock bands of the '90s: Heavy Vegetable and Three Mile Pilot. In their own way, each group created mutant strains of the chromosome-bent, post-punk pop pollinated by the likes of Archers of Loaf, Pavement and Drive Like Jehu, San Diego's own champions of melodic dissonance.

"Jehu was amazing," Crow recalls of the mythic outfit that would one day launch Rocket From the Crypt. "I was very fortunate to have seen them as many times as I did. I even sang with them once, though I was scared shitless and probably sucked."

When both Heavy Vegetable and Three Mile Pilot fizzled out around 1997, Vegetable's Crow and Pilot's Smith decided to consolidate forces under the name Pinback. (Smith's former bandleader, Pall Jenkins, went on to form the successful hayseed-noir combo Black Heart Procession.) They then got down to the business of writing and recording some tunes.

The first things that register when listening to Pinback are the voices. Euphonic, aching and ethereal, they sound both indifferent and entranced, as distant as interstellar echoes yet as close as a whisper. When asked to elaborate on his and Smith's complex, interwoven vocals, Crow offers an offhand reply: "Whoever wrote whatever, sang whatever." But how does one separate the intricately crisscrossed threads of counterpoint and harmony that stitch up these already richly embroidered compositions? "You can tell who wrote which lyrics because in the CD booklet, mine are handwritten and Zach's are all typed out on the side." Right.

Such unassuming virtuosity, however, is a cornerstone of Pinback's sonic construction. "For the most part, I try to make a sound I've never heard before or present something in a way I've never heard before -- which makes it hard to figure out if anything works for anyone but me," says Crow. "We use our computers, but we also like to experiment and try out new things. We usually try to have the song first and then build everything else up around it at the same time so that it becomes an organic thing."

"Everything else" in this equation consists of tensely chiming guitars, taut arpeggios and nerdy Dr. Who synthesizers densely superimposed on simple, almost silly, drum-machine sequences. Melodies bubble, burst and dissipate as others move in underneath to take their place. Such harmonic convection can be almost intoxicating. Keeping in character, Crow humbly downplays his prowess with ProTools arrangements and digital draftsmanship. "We just use the computer like a glorified four-track," he says.

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