Unpinnable

Pinback can fight pigeonholing, but it can't fight popularity.

"I'm sorry I'm drawing so many blanks," offers Pinback guitarist Rob Crow, en route to a show outside of Cleveland. "I woke up at 3:30 this morning and didn't fall back asleep." He sounds tired — of getting little rest, of being on the road, of humoring inquisitive journalists over the phone. Reticent to talk about the band's vision, its new album, or any details that make an interview an interview, Crow is as speechless as beguiled listeners are upon hearing his music. The thought that he and Armistead Burwell Smith IV (AKA Zach) would one day form a quietly great pop band might never have crossed anyone's mind, least of all their own. But his aw-shucks effect can't obscure his role in shepherding Pinback's ascent into the indie limelight. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Pinback may tread softly, but it carries a big stick.

The San Diego band was conceived as a side project, but it soon eclipsed other obligations, becoming a full-blown gig after its eponymous debut album in 1999. With pedigrees reflecting hours whiled away in other SD outfits like 3 Mile Pilot, Black Heart Procession, Heavy Vegetable, and Thingy, Pinback is an unlikely iteration of itself.

"We're not metal, not hardcore, not noise," Crow explains obliquely as he spouts off influences such as Captain Beefheart, the Shaggs, Black Flag, and Venom. Introspective and even pastoral at times, Pinback is a far cry from Smith's and Crow's roots. Their other bands bear the impression of San Diego's long-standing hardcore scene. Pinback is essentially the sum of all these parts, slowed down and tunefully fleshed out. And though Crow claims that "we're not really going for anything," their incessant touring and prodigious output suggests otherwise.

Pinback's Rob Crow (second from left) and Zach Smith (third from left) aren't much to look at.  Or talk to. But they make great alt-pop music.
Brad Miller
Pinback's Rob Crow (second from left) and Zach Smith (third from left) aren't much to look at. Or talk to. But they make great alt-pop music.

Sure, the title Summer in Abaddon carries the biblical connotation of destruction, but Pinback's 2004 album is hardly a dark, foreboding affair. Complex, yes, and lyrically morose at points. But the record is life-affirming; With its aural ebbs and flows, it mirrors the vicissitudes of day-to-day life. Recorded in their homes, its layered vocals and harmonies are at times assertive and confident, other times contemplative. It's punctuated with subtle keyboards, alternating staccato and extended vocals, plucked guitar chords, and minimal bass lines. Conundrum-ridden songwriting notwithstanding, the record feels familiar but inexplicably so. "If anything, we're trying not to have an aesthetic," Crow claims. "We try to avoid dictating — we want to be interpreted by each individual person."

A couple of EPs — Some Voices in 2000 and Offcellin 2003 — complement the two other full-lengths: Pinback and 2001's Blue Screen Life. Pinbackis a lush yet spare affair. With song titles allegedly nicked off a history map on Smith's wall ("Tripoli," "Rousseau," "Montaigne..."), it sounds young and vaguely self-conscious. Blue Screen Life sees the duo testing its traction. A Modest Mouse-esque, jangle-fueled job, it emits a homegrown-in-Cali vibe. Given the time and luxury — like in the recording studio — Smith and Crow play nearly all the instruments on their albums, though they travel with three other musicians for shows.

Who would've known they'd one day be on MTV? After all, according to Crow, the duo has "very little in common." But, he reasons, "The things we do have in common we try to use. So we're constantly yinging and yanging over what to do." This push-and-pull is Pinback's winning formula: melodic indie dissonance paired with the alluring trappings of pop composition.

Try to corner Crow into describing Pinback and you'll be faced with an answer of the art-for-art's-sake garden variety. "We're obvious guys," he starts, almost defensively. "Every obvious answer to why we do anything is why we do it. We play shows because we like playing shows. We listen to music because we like listening to music. You might as well ask anyone why they got up this morning why they ate whatever they ate for breakfast." Given the music Crow crafts with Smith, it's just too simple an argument to buy.

Then Crow brightens when asked how his opening act, Blowfly, came on board. Clarence Reid, the self-proclaimed "original nasty rapper, porno freak, and inventor of the Miami Sound," seems an unlikely fit for Pinback's thoughtful indie pop. Blowfly's MySpace page boasts, "After Rob from Pinback stalked us at CMJ, SXSW and San Diego — we're opening up for his Goblin Cocked ass in Fort Lauderdale for a really, really weird bill that will make you eat Helium!"

Crow laughs and counters, "Clarence likes to say stuff like that, but we didn't lobby. He asked us, and we said, 'Oh that'd be funny.' But I do go see Blowfly every chance I get. I saw him four times this last year. He's a 70-year-old, little dirty old man. It's totally hilarious. I don't think if anybody else was doing what he was doing, I would like it nearly as much."

Fans would probably say the same thing about Pinback. This is a band comprised of guys unconcerned with image or explanation, driven purely by the need to create. In fact, Crow's taciturnity is a pointed example of someone who'd rather play music than yammer about it. But he'll ultimately have to come to terms with one big development: Pinback is poised for attention reaching far beyond the protective walls of its home studio.

 
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