Tin Men

Gang of three: Patrick Selvage (from left), Sean Merrell and Neal Williams are Tintin.
John Johnston

There's a very little-known installment of the Shaft movie series where Richard Roundtree's funky detective gets sent to bust some pimps and pushers on a space station circling Alpha Centauri. Artificial gravity hasn't been invented yet, so our man Shaft floats weightless with a fishbowl over his head while he cracks the skulls of Neptunian wise guys and knocks boots with some ultra-fine astro-foxes. His karate chops hang like slow-motion ballet in the zero-G atmosphere; the sex scenes look like they were filmed underwater. At the movie's end, the ideal of racial equality is rather graphically illustrated when it's discovered that all men, regardless of color, turn purple when pushed out of an airlock into deep space.

As much of an artistic triumph as the film was, though, the soundtrack was a bit of a problem. Apparently the portrayal of alien races in Shaft Blasts Off! clashed with Isaac Hayes's hitherto unknown Scientologist beliefs, and he refused to let his signature theme song adorn the credits. Scrambling, the film's producers opted for a track called "Science Generals," by an obscure Boulder group named Tintin.

Really, it wasn't all that much of a stretch: "Science Generals," like Hayes's more famous theme, starts out deceptively sparse, with just a hovering ghost of guitar spattered with light splashes of cymbal. Then the first bass notes punch through the hush like the low end of an orchestra, tubas and trombones and tympani all balled up into a fist. As the verse lumbers and billows majestically, a voice that sounds like it's been inhaling interstellar gases gasps, "It was so large it blocked the trees/It blocked the streets/It blocked the sidewalks." Whether these words refer to the launch of Shaft's tricked-out space shuttle or something else entirely is unclear, but one thing is sure: With a macrocosmic scope and a running time best measured in eons, the song is fucking huge.

"A friend of mine and I started a band in high school. It was just two of us, but we would record at home on a four-track and make it sound like five people," says Neal Williams, bassist and lead singer of Tintin; guitarist Patrick Selvage and drummer Sean Merrell round out the group. "Our senior year, we ended up releasing an album that just our friends bought. Every song was a ripoff of a different band. We had our Modest Mouse song, our Sunny Day Real Estate song, our Dinosaur Jr. song."

With such epic-sounding influences, it's no surprise that Tintin has managed to make its meager three-piece lineup echo and swell like a phalanx of ax-slingers, an entire battalion of instrumentalists. On the group's recent self-titled debut, most of the tracks clock in at over eight minutes, twisted into neat melodic helixes and set adrift in seas of sighs and whispers. Not that the shit is wimpy -- there are filaments of grim stamina wired into Tintin's music, ligaments of tension stretched taut throughout the songs' puffy, amorphous structures. Such towering sounds are usually made nowadays by massive ensembles like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and the Polyphonic Spree, sporting up to two dozen players on stage at once. That Tintin can pull off even a fraction of that magnificence with just three instruments is quite a feat, and it harks back to another trio whose whole is way bigger than the sum of its parts: Built to Spill.

"My first band in high school in Boise, Fusaine, basically started because of Built to Spill," says Selvage. "They were the big hometown heroes; they were a huge influence on me to start playing." Fusaine, a guitar and drums duo, sounded a bit like a junior auxiliary version of Doug Martsch's celebrated group and toured and released records intermittently from 1998 until earlier this year. "Boise's not the most interesting place, so there are a lot of bands there. But I started playing guitar before that, when I was growing up in Salt Lake City; I'd play Guns N' Roses and Metallica and Led Zeppelin. I tried taking piano lessons and guitar lessons, but I couldn't do it. It was too structured."

Williams, too, graduated from high school bands -- though not before earning a coveted fourth-place prize for a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" at a talent show judged by Def Jam Recordings -- and relocated from Atlanta to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, where Selvage had also just moved. "I met Patrick at freshman orientation," remembers Williams. "He had a Satisfact shirt on. I didn't really know who they were; I just knew that someone from Modest Mouse was in that band."

From there, the two clicked instantly, and they soon began writing and rehearsing songs while looking for a drummer. Meanwhile, Merrell, who was also studying at CU, was about to cross their path. "I started playing in a band called the Gash Cats when I was twelve," he recalls. "We started off as a pop-punk band and then just kind of evolved into sort of a prog, space-rock band. We were really influenced by Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine. After the Gash Cats broke up, I joined another band called Panic in Year Zero. Then I saw this flier at Wax Trax that said 'Looking for a drummer into Sonic Youth, Mogwai, June of '44.' So I gave Neal and Patrick a call.  

"It was pretty much instantaneous," he continues. "I just went over and sat down behind the drum kit, and instantly we had these huge rock songs."

"Sean was a godsend," remarks Williams. "I remember writing in my journal, 'Man, Sean is such a great drummer. If we have him, we could really do something.'"

Finding a drummer that fits is always the toughest part of getting a band together, but Williams and Selvage seemed more cursed than most; before finding Merrell in the spring of 2002, they had auditioned over a dozen percussionists over the course of months, most of whom were better at sticking out like sore thumbs than at pounding the skins.

"We tried out this one drummer who told us, 'I've been pissing blood for a year,'" relates Williams with a laugh. "He was like, 'If you guys do drugs, that's okay. I just don't want to see it, 'cause I had a big drug problem. Now I piss blood.'"

"Then the drummer from Hall and Oates called us," Selvage asserts in all seriousness. "He had played drums on tour with Hall and Oates before. He said, 'I want to get as commercial as I can, as soon as I can.' We were like, "Yeah, I don't think you're going to work out.' And although it said on our flier that we were looking for a drummer, guitar players would call us anyway. This one guy called and set the phone down next to his amp and started playing this fucking Yngwie Malmsteen solo for like five minutes. Then he finally got back on the phone and asks, 'What did you think of that, dude?' I said, 'We're a little bit mellower than that.' So he puts down the phone again and plays this really slow, dark metal riff. And then he went back into the solo."

"We're actually trying to get ahold of that guy," Merrell jokes, "now that we're getting proggier."

The progressive element of Tintin's songs is one of the group's more unexpected and compelling hallmarks. When you think of rock-and-roll excess, it's usually in terms of drugs, groupies, faux-lesbian spit-swapping or twelve-year-old bunk buddies at the magic castle. But Tintin taps into prog rock's much nerdier, introverted type of excess. Luckily, the trio knows how to overdo it without overdoing it; the smooth, sculpted surfaces of Tortoise or Discipline-era King Crimson are padded with wads of cottony ambience, and Williams's bass lines pulse and seethe as Merrell works out polyrhythms like astrophysics equations.

With all the influences Tintin has incorporated, though, the group it is most spiritually and sonically aligned with is Mogwai. Like the acclaimed Scottish outfit, Tintin is all about the buildup and the payoff: Just when things feel like they're about to overflow, Selvage's squalling guitar will wither to a breathy drone, or even drop out entirely, before crashing back in with typhoon force.

"Patrick sounds like he's playing two guitars at once," Williams explains simply.

Also like Mogwai, Tintin uses vocals as more of a side dish than a main course. On the act's new record -- recorded this summer at Chicago's Playground Studio by Keith Cleversley, who has also produced such luminaries as the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Hum, Spiritualized and Denver's own Space Team Electra -- Williams' sleep-soaked voice shimmers through a fog of sound, only occasionally surfacing with vague imagery that evokes a sense of loss, disorientation and an oddly triumphant sadness.

"There's no story to my lyrics. They're just about...stuff," Williams discloses. "My ex-girlfriend comes up a few times. I don't know; things just pop into my head and then gain meaning after I sing them.

"Actually, when we were in the studio, I didn't have lyrics to some of the newer songs," he goes on. "So I spent a day on the roof of the recording studio in Chicago just writing and changing the words."

"It was like an old meatpacking building that was converted into a recording studio," adds Merrell. "There's a ladder that goes up to the roof, and from there you can see the entire Chicago skyline."  

"Yeah," says Williams with a note of wistfulness, "that was one of the best moments of my entire life."

As complex and introspective as Tintin's music is, there's no denying its sheer volume and gut-pummeling dynamism. Although most bands who make ethereal, guitar-drenched music take the "shoegazer" tag a little too literally, the threesome genuinely rocks on stage, augmenting its performance with the occasional screwdriver to the bass, violin bow to the guitar and a leg kick for good measure. A friend, Ryan Connor, even collaborates with Tintin from time to time, digitally filming the group while it plays live and then projecting filtered and manipulated images back onto the stage during the show -- an effect that only enhances the band's almost psychotropic intensity.

Besides the live visuals, Tintin is deeply involved in cinema. Williams and Selvage both studied filmmaking at CU; the two have even scored a short feature of Selvage's, and he also organizes university-sponsored film festivals in Boulder. With the scope and sweep of Tintin's vista-swallowing soundscapes, it's not hard to see why the group's tunes were chosen as the aural backdrop for Shaft's astronautic ass kicking. Of course, the guys in band modestly deny any knowledge of their involvement with the soundtrack of Shaft Blasts Off!; when quizzed about it, they feign confusion and pretend they've never even heard of such a movie.

Just don't ask them how they got screwed out of Moonraker.

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