The Great Beyond
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.
"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 Amazon.com'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.
However, few of today's legions of would-be Brian Wilsons are able to coax such evocative and accomplished sounds out of their Tinkertoy home studios. Pinback recordings often recall the orchestral giddiness and helium buoyancy of the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin or Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs. They have an edginess, though, that aligns them more closely with the spring-loaded barbed-wire hooks of Modest Mouse or even Fugazi's more recent expeditions into arctic, deconstructed pop.
As for musical influences, Crow cites "old Dischord punk, really fast math metal, Japanese noise, the first Roches album and old kraut rock -- not that new fake shit." The Minutemen must surely reside somewhere on that list as well. Pinback has a song called "Hurley," ostensibly named after George Hurley, drummer of that apocryphal punk-funk agit-prop group of the early '80s. The programmed drumbeat is a hit-for-hit mimic of the Minutemen's "It's Expected I'm Gone." Crow also has certain aesthetic prerequisites that any potential bandmate must meet. "I usually make sure that they've heard Slint, the Shaggs and Captain Beefheart," Crow says. "If they don't understand the beauty of those things, they'll probably just hate playing with me."
Apparently there are a lot of musicians in the San Diego area who abide by this strict regimen. Crow has about a half-dozen side projects going on at any given time. Currently, he's working with Thingy, a group he began with his ex-Heavy Vegetable partner Elea Tentuta that's perhaps even quirkier than Pinback; Optiganally Yours, a vintage keyboard duo; Physics, a loose conglomerate concentrating on heavy minimalist improvisation; Snotnose, a troupe Crow describes as "metal haiku guerrilla street theater"; and Fantasy Mission Force, which he christens as "punk fucking rock." And yes, he's also a solo artist, with two acoustic-oriented albums in circulation in addition to the two full-lengths, two singles and one EP he's already got under the Pinback belt. Crow doesn't take his Gordon Lightfoot proclivities that seriously, though. "I can't believe that anyone but me likes this stuff, but I find it very therapeutic," he says.
Pinback remains Crow's primary focus. The band is touring now as a quartet (which includes Brent Asbury and Three Mile Copilot Tom Zinser on drums), and its diligence and ubiquity have left it poised on the cusp of indie stardom. "All I've ever wanted to do is play music I like and record records, so much so that I don't have much time for anything else," Crow says. "I'm broke all the time. It's very depressing, but it's not like I have any choice. I know that this is what I'm supposed to do with my life, and I never expected anything from it."
Some of this resigned depression spills over into the subject matter of many of Pinback's songs. In "Tripoli," Crow's breathy tenor peals with a singsong creepiness, "Sad I'm gonna die/Hope it's gonna happen later/Later than I think." In the self-fulfilling "Concrete Seconds," he waxes prophetic that "Everything I say to you will probably come out wrong anyway," while the narrator of "Crutch" confesses, "Something's wrong with my soul/My heart beats from the outside." The third-person detachment of "West," however, is perhaps the most hauntingly resonant: "Girl looks so sad/Hair slicked back with raindrops from her walk outside/It's good to be sad sometimes."
Not all of Pinback's oceans are filled with tears. Some overflow with the plain ol' ichor of death and horror. One too many late-night viewings of The Poseidon Adventure seems to have fueled such ghastly aquatic phantasmagoria as "Boo," wherein a drowning sailor laments, "Inside this leaking submarine/The hull is closing in/The water is above my ankles/And I still can't get you off of my..." In "Lyon," a distraught lover coldly pronounces sentence on a failed relationship: "We'd drive a cop car into the lake/And hold our breath for two long boring days."
So do Crow and Smith harbor some deep obsession with the sea? "Yeah, we like water. We like to spend as much time in the ocean as possible," Crow says. Hopefully not as much as the characters in their songs.
In many respects, the dark, briny deep is analogous to outer space. No air. A lack of gravity. The last frontiers. The loneliest of deaths. Pinback explores both of these backdrops unflinchingly, as well as that unconquered emotional dystopia of inner space. The band's music mirrors such imagery. Its songs are warm, organic messes armored in icy digital precision, much like a deep sea diver in a bathysphere or a space-walking astronaut in a pressurized suit. Still, that leaves a big question unanswered: Are the members of Pinback truly such huge science-fiction fans?
"Oh yeah, totally, we both love science-fiction movies," Crow says. "There's just so few good ones. Star Wars, the Aliens movies, maybe Silent Running...and of course Dark Star. We'd watch it over and over again while we wrote and recorded." Crow backs this up with documentation: The song "Rousseau," off the band's eponymous debut disc, samples a line of monologue spoken by Sergeant Pinback, portrayed in the movie by a young film student named Dan O'Bannon who would go on to become the acclaimed screenwriter of Aliens and Total Recall. His character, a janitor mistakenly sent on a twenty-year voyage across the galaxy to demolish unstable planets, wails in listless desperation, "I do not belong on this mission, and I want to return to Earth!"
But why Pinback's particular affinity for such an obscure, sketchy, low-budget rocket flick? Crow sums it up best: "It's just a bunch of bored people in space...kind of like we are."
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