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Pinback
an interview with Rob Crow by Matt Dornan / pictures

Pinback by Four hours later than scheduled, it's clear that Rob Crow is the more disgruntled as we sit on opposite sides of a Kentish Town pub table and I press 'RECORD'. Frustrated by the intervening hours spent on British soil since arriving that morning from the continent, he looks tired and agitated, eager to get on and off The Verge's tiny stage so he can head for the airport and ponder life back home. "It's the opposite of the last time we were here," he says. "That was a great show, it was really fun. So now we're back and we're playing a smaller club, and there's zero advertising and I don't know why we're not playing at that same club [The Garage], because they wanted us back and I wanted to play there because it was really cool. Then there's the booking guy here in London who needs to be spanked publicly. Whoever this guy is, he should be publicly humiliated." But then things have run less than smoothly on this European trip. "It's been a wacky tour, but I've enjoyed playing every night. There's been a lot of just weird craziness on this tour, having to do with our label and, y'know, just stuff."
With the sudden demise of Pinback's European label Cutty Shark ("...they got bought up by another label and they got fired") and a less than lucrative deal with PIAS, this visit has been blighted by bad luck. Crow remains philosophical. "This tour... we're paying for it. We're totally in the red. We sold out a bunch of shows and there's a bunch of people and stuff and we had some pretty great shows but somehow, because of the way Play It Again Sam and those people have been running things, they're totally fucking us. So it's making everything way more expensive. Oh well."
Yet there are others who would have it that life in Pinback is all rosy. After all doesn't being playlisted by Urban Outfitters add up to dollars? "I know I haven't gotten any money because of Urban Outfitters" he snaps. "And I don't expect to. And I wish they'd stop talking about it because I've nothing to do with it and I've never shopped there. I think it's great that people can listen to our music easier, but it's not a big deal to me. Like 'Hey, yeah! Urban Outfitters!'"
Together with Armistead Burwell Smith IV (aka Zach), Crow formed Pinback at the tail-end of the last century, their self-titled debut a triumph of home recording and idiosyncratic songcraft. Describing their studio set-up as "a glorified four-track" Rob and Zach refused to fall foul of the trappings of Pro-Tools. "We try to not go effects heavy," Crow explains. "It's rare that we'll use effects other than normalization and there's hardly any effects on the vocals, I stay away from reverb even."
Limitations end there for a creative partnership that sets few parameters. As with most inspired pairings, the Pinback sound derives as much from serendipity as it does any concocted formula. "It's always different, and hopefully always will be different too, so we don't get bored. We feel that every song we do is kinda different from the other songs. We just tried to fit a bunch of them together in a way that sounded... would go into each other pretty good. And we still have a bunch of songs that aren't like anything on either of the records."
Even if the dollars did begin to pour into the Pinback purse, it's a set up that the workaholic Crow would be unlikely to change. "That's the main thing," he suggests. "We do it whenever we want. We did a radio session in Brussels... They took us to this really nice studio and it was interesting to see how our songs would sound made by a real studio guy in a real studio, a super-fancy one. And I'm so glad that we don't do it that way because it sounds completely alien and weird to me and not how I'd want to do it at all. But it was a fun experiment."
A less successful experiment resulted from the remixes of two tracks from their debut, Tripoli and Hurley. "I had no idea what to expect," Crow confesses. "I might do it again if I had a 'strictly no techno' rule." Reversing the roles, another of Crow's projects, Optiganally Yours, recently remixed some Japanese artists after a Japan-only Optiganally Yours remix project was released. "The idea of remixing to me is that it has something to do with that song but can be completely different," he suggests. "So there's a part where I'll write a completely different song in the middle of their song, using the same lyric."
Such single-mindedness and a ruthless work ethic (Crow is currently working on a variety of projects: "I'm in the middle of a new Thingy record, a new solo record, a new Optiganally Yours record and producing and playing on this band, Hertz, record and er, doing a soundtrack for some independent film if I can get around to it") means Pinback continues to channel its creativity into something more original, despite the inevitable comparisons. The press blurb in the UK considers them contemporaries of Chicago's The Sea and Cake, whilst this writer mentions their name in the same breath as Death Cab for Cutie and The American Analog Set, all purveyors of distinctive, imaginative music bereft of cliché. "I have a rule that if something can be stereotyped it deserves to be stereotyped," offers Crow. "So that's why I try to make it so it can't happen to me. Most of the bands people compare us to I don't listen to. I like the Sea and Cake, when I hear them it usually puts me in a good mood. It's not offensive. I can understand that because we both have strange chords. I've never listened to Death Cab for Cutie," he says, proving that even the most astute critics have their off days, "I played with American Analog Set a couple times, they're really nice people, they stayed at my house, but I don't remember what they sound like."
Like all of those bands, however, the studied precision of Pinback's recorded work survives the transition to the stage due to musical adeptness and the strength of the material. "There's a lot more energy when we play live, because it would be really boring if we sounded like the record anyway," Rob claims. "If we have a full band, it's usually faster. But when you're sitting around at home you have a certain heart-rate and you write to that heart rate and you listen at a certain heart rate. But at a club your heart is going faster so it makes sense. It's usually pretty different, hard to explain."
As the last night of a troubled European tour comes to a close, it's clear that no amount of obstacles can prevent Rob Crow and Pinback from continuing a gruelling schedule in the coming months. "We have a month and a half off and then we've a four week tour," he says of his imminent return to the US. "We're going to Florida, even, and I've never been to Florida because it takes forever to get there. I hope that works out and maybe in May we'll be coming back here. The main booking agent, he's alright, but whoever this London guy is..."

CWAS #10 - Spring 2002

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