Rob Crow is laughing at me.
We’re talking Pinback’s new set of songs, and after striking out again and again on my own interpretations, I’m drawing a blank on what the songs on the band’s new album, Information Retrieved, could possibly mean.
I can’t be too hard on myself. After all, at first listen, “Penelope” from 2001’s Blue Screen Life sounded like a love letter to a struggling significant other—it’s about a fish with “dropsy,” a condition that causes fluid buildup and usually causes death. “Walters,” which came years later on 2007’s Autumn of the Seraphs, is a little easier. It features some triumphant language about ascending above the land. It’s a sweet thought until you realize it’s about Larry Walters, a guy who strapped so many weather balloons to his lawnchair that he flew, and after finding little motivation to go on following his heighty goal, shot himself in the chest.
So, in swinging for the fences with these interpretations, this writer is getting everything wrong. Yes, there are familial references on the album (not on the songs I’m thinking), but no, “Denslow, You Idiot!” is not a nod to BASEketball’s Ted Denslow (who is called an idiot in the movie, thank you).
“Oh, that’s funny,” Crow laughs. He’s getting louder, fully validating those pre-interview jitters about whether making a BASEketball connection was ridiculous. “I think I liked BASEketball more than anyone who had anything to do with that movie, but it is not a reference to it at all.”
It’s in this moment that it’s clear. Maybe, even after almost 15 years of solid output including five full-length albums, it’s hard to nail these guys down. Song interpretations aside, it’s a no-brainer on how an audience draws these misunderstandings from the duo, which is rounded out by the inspired bass playing of Armistead Burwell Smith IV (Crow and friends call him Zach or ABSIV for short).
Smith plays bass like he had no preconceived notion of the instrument—that’s not a dig; it’s high praise in 2012, where crash courses in bass guitar mean leaning hard on root notes and basic scale patterns. Smith’s two hands and four strings practically make him a one-man band, blending a rock-solid bottom end with winding, complementary melodies. It’s almost impossible to totally pick it out and separate it from Crow’s interlaced guitar parts on record, and it’s nothing short of amazing to see come together live, looping behind the duo’s hooky, call-and-response vocals. It’s non-traditional instrumentation for songs with such hooky leanings, but then again, they’re still providing a convincing low end of the tonal spectrum (whether it comes from bass, guitar or keyboards) and stringing out beautiful melodies from all of the above. It’s practicality meeting innovation while politely giving the finger to tradition.
But maybe the crowning example of these misinterpretations is Crow’s five page-long FAQ that he’s requested every interviewer read before the interview. They’re questions that—as he puts it—he’s run out of interesting ways to answer in the last decade. It covers some stuff they’re justifiably tired of answering—Their recording techniques (they’ve notoriously recorded at home for years and have recently moved some projects to a local studio). Influences (Crow digs Captain Beefheart, Lead Belly and The Residents, whereas Smith doesn’t listen to a whole lot recreationally—but he does love Rush.) Videogame preferences (They don’t agree on much, but they do love RPGs). Political affiliations (They don’t put it in the tunes, so let’s move on). “Is it true that the song ‘Penelope’ is about a fish?” (Yes.)
But most importantly, one question they’re getting over and over again is on the group’s dynamic. “What’s their relationship like?” “How did they meet?” “Are they doing drugs together while making these songs?” It goes on.
You’d expect a collaboration that’s thrived for so long to be made of two like-minded individuals who completely gel in the studio, but that’s not really the case with these two. They paired up after a small stint as roommates in the ‘90s, when it originally didn’t occur to them to make music together. Those first collaborations were around the dawning of home recording, something that’s dictated Pinback’s creativity and songwriting since its inception. And like Smith’s bass playing, which was first showed off in San Diego’s Three Mile Pilot, the two did away with any outside influence and let the sounds and their own creativity do the talking.
“When we sat down we didn’t want to have any preconceived structure for anything,” Crow says. “So, we just sat down and went, ‘I don’t know, what do you wanna do?’ So we just sat down and tried to make a beat on [Smith’s] old Macintosh—that’s before there was the sound card and all that. And we just tried to make layers over it to try and figure out what we wanted to do. And then we would give up and go body surfing for a while. And we would do that everyday for a few days until we came up with the first song that we came up with that we liked. And from then on we came up with stuff that we liked.”
Musically, the two are about as Odd Couple as indie rock gets. As Crow puts it, Smith leans toward winding, repetitive songs, where he’s more a direct, cut-to-the-chorus kind of guy. Effectively, they’re a self-contained system of checks and balances that, only when they’re both satisfied, crafts the landscapes you hear on a given Pinback album.
“We have certain sounds we both appreciate but there is a lot of musical territory where we both differ,” Smith says. “I think this is vital to Pinback’s sound.”
“We’ve always been pulled in different directions,” Crow says. “Zach always likes to do the same thing over and over again. And I want to constantly change everything. So we are trying to do what we want to do while keeping the other person interested. And somehow we make that two to four minutes.”
We see these extremities on their 1999 self-titled debut with “Loro” lulling listeners over a linearly structured four minutes. “Crutch” immediately follows, and we’ve hit an immediate Crow chorus in the first minute. But as the band’s catalog goes further, that line starts to blur, starting with Autumn of the Seraphs. Interestingly enough, you hear each side seeping its way through on their respective solo albums, Crow’s latest, He Thinks He’s People, and Smith’s Underslept under the name Systems Officer. But if you say this to Crow, you might start feeling better about your future as a stand-up comedian.
“That’s funny,” Crow laughs. “I mean I just don’t know. It would be unfair to say what parts come from what but you never know. Maybe we just influenced each other—as indirectly as possible…The more I try to think about the mix between the two of us, sometimes it actually kind of gets in the way. If either of us thinks about it too much we just freak out and go into our corners.”
In any case, no matter who’s influenced who, no matter what the band’s working relationship is, Crow and Smith are releasing their fifth studio album today. Information Retrieved has been dubbed (by press releases, at least) as the band’s most fully realized, concise effort. Although they might both argue that point, and this again gets a few chuckles from Crow, a few listens will back up the PR language. It’s in a similar vein to Autumn of the Seraphs, showcasing that distinguished, time-tested sound with a glossier production and more frequent hooks, which Crow says comes from the band trying to capture the way they sound live on record.
Like it or not, this realization, this accessibility, this sound is all over the album. It’s on the time-tested “True North,” which the band has already introduced on the road, and the absolutely gorgeous opener “Proceed to Memory.” And although the band’s attitude and approach is punk rock enough to make you guess otherwise, Crow’s looking back at all of this and, if only for just a few moments, is dead serious.
“I like it,” Crow says about listening to Information Retrieved. “But then again, maybe it’s because I’m too close to it. I wish there was a plug-in you could put on your mind so you could listen to it under different time periods, like five years from now…I’m so scared. I’m terrified with how the record will be received. I know it’s cool to say that you don’t care what anybody thinks, but I care.”
And from the first chord to the final fadeout, we’d say Information Retrieved sounds like nothing other than a Pinback record. And a damn good one at that.