Rob Crow and Zach Smith
Earth to Pinback (come in please)
Rob Crow is standing outside the Bluebird Theater in Denver, Colorado, looking up and down the sidewalk expectantly. His girlfriend is flying in from San Diego tonight to see his band Pinback play with locals O’er the Ramparts and the experimental Threnody Ensemble. She’s supposed to meet him in front of the venue, and she’s not there.
Unfortunately, the band arrived late, missing soundcheck, snarling the band’s pre-show dinner plans and generally frazzling Mr. Crow. He can’t reach his girlfriend on her cell phone because he’s holding it in his hand. He doesn’t know where his counterpart Zach Smith is with their van full of equipment. And he certainly wasn’t expecting two bespectacled indie rock kids to confront him the moment he arrived at the venue, asking about an interview.
“No, no one said anything to us about it,” he replies when my friend Paul and I ask him if he knew Sponic was interviewing him tonight. “They never tell me anything.”
He laughs, shifting his weight from foot to foot, running his hand over his closely-shaved head and scanning the myriad posters that plaster the wall of the club. “We could do it right here if you want, outside. I’m just waiting for my girlfriend. It would give me something to do.”
I look at Paul uncertainly. Both of us are huge Pinback fans. We had hoped for a more intimate setting, a place where we could pick Crow’s brain for the nuggets of musical genius that consistently tumble out in his songs. We wanted a controlled environment, at the very least. Not here on the sidewalk, with people already lining up for the show, Crow in shorts and a Public Enemy T-shirt (temperatures in the low 40s at this point), cars and emergency vehicles whizzing by, obscuring Crow’s voice for our minicassette recorder.
Paul shrugs, unfolding a list of questions he scrawled before we came to the show. “Okay.”
I nod. It’s not an ideal setup, but I won't quibble over that which is outside our control, especially in an interview. And besides, how often do I get to talk to a guy that's been in more good bands than I have fingers on my hand?
Crow, also a member of San Diego-based groups Optigonally Yours, Heavy Vegetable, Alpha Males, the recently-deceased Thingy, and others, is a seasoned workhorse of the national underground scene. Unlike many of his faux-apatehtic contemporaries, his thoughtful introversion compels him to stay constantly busy as writer, performer and producer. Recently however, he’s been focusing his gaze on Pinback, a band that is by far the most successful of any of his former or current projects.
Like Guided By Voices, Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emporer! and others, Pinback have been saddled with the “critic’s darlings” tag due to the paucity of negative press their first couple albums received. Listening to these (1999’s self-titled debut and last year’s Blue Screen Life, both on Ace Fu Records) one is hard pressed to disagree.
Deftly mixing math rock, lilting indie pop, complex electronic samples and a rhythmic sensibility that recalls early Police records, Rob Crow and Zach Smith (a.k.a. Armistead Burwell Smith IV) create exciting, hypnotic soundtracks for the intelligent listener. Simultaneously mellow and aggressive, familiar and groundbreaking, their appeal is broad, allowing atmospheric elements that stir feelings of nostalgia, fear, giddiness and hopeful anxiety.
Named after a bearded stoner astronaut in John Carpenter’s bizarre 1974 sci-fi movie Dark Star, Pinback are also reclusive and mysterious (Zach Smith is reputed to not own any CDs or listen to music, and rarely gives interviews). Their recent signing to Chicago’s venerable Touch & Go imprint reportedly prompted uneasiness with some of their former industry contacts. However, as Rob readies a new Pinback EP and a host of side and solo projects, and Zach readies his own solo LP, the future appears bursting with possibilities for a band that speaks softly and carries itself like a burning torch.
SPONIC: Since you’re in so many projects, Pinback must obviously be an avenue for a specific type of your songwriting. What kind of things is it influenced by? I know there are a lot of Dark Star and sci-fi movie samples in your songs...
Rob Crow: It’s just influenced by Zach and I getting together. He doesn’t listen to any music at all, and I have a more or less encyclopedic knowledge of music.
We read that you guys actually watch sci-fi movies in the studio while recording. How does that contribute to the end product?
Yeah, we do that. It helps. Some people do drugs and write music, and I’m definitely not into that. It just helps to have something to fix your mind on.
Do you do that with any of your other projects?
It all depends on what I’m writing for. It’s definitely not a thought-out thing, and I hope it never really is. You do it because you have to. You gotta eat. You gotta do something.
How important is it to accurately recreate your recordings in concert?
Not too important. We rehearse a lot, we play a lot, but it usually sounds different live. When it works, it’s a lot more high-energy live. Everybody’s pulling in different directions…
How’s the tour been so far?
It started out pretty good, then Zach got really, really sick. We played all these shows with lots of people there and him not being able to sing at all, which was kind of hard. But he’s getting better. Hopefully by tonight he’ll be fine. Last night he was almost fine. I can take over for him in parts, but there’s a lot of times where we’re singing together and I have to be into the guitar playing. It’s hard to notice where he’s not coming in and sing all his parts, especially never having sung them before. I mean, it isn’t that hard, but to listen for them instead of tossing myself around (on stage)…which is what I like to do...I like to play as hard as possible.
Is the live lineup the same as on the liner notes for Blue Screen Life?
Right now it’s me, Zach, Tom Zinser from Three Mile Pilot, and Brent, who plays whatever Zach’s not playing.
You guys all seem like consummate multi-instrumentalists.
Something like that…
I know you program a lot of drum beats for the records, but do you play a kit too?
Not on anything that made it onto the records (starts laughing). But damn it, I do! We just play whatever. We sit there and make the bare bones of the song then say, “I think it needs this,” or “I think it needs that.” Sometimes there’s two basses, sometimes there’s three keyboards, sometimes there's five guitars. It all depends. We don’t think about it as a math equation.
Are you guys pretty into gear?
Zach was getting into equipment for awhile but he’s not anymore, thank god. We just want to concentrate on the music.
Do you have gear you use specifically for certain sounds?
I like to make up sounds, you know? I like to try to do things on my own instead of buying it.
Yeah, because you’ve said in interviews before that you try to create sounds you’ve never heard before…
So your girlfriend is flying in for this show…does she do that a lot?
She’s got a lot of other stuff going on so unfortunately she can’t tour with us all the time. She’s in school, working…
How old are you?
And your girlfriend?
I know you guys record almost everything to personal computers, in your bedrooms, in people’s garages, wherever. Do you have computers set up in these various places?
We each have one in our room, and sometimes have to drag Zach’s along to the garage.
Do you guys use ProTools?
No, no ProTools. It’s too much like Photoshop or something. Zach likes Nuendo and I like Vegas. He just bought a pretty cool board that’s automated when you use Nuendo, so we’ll probably have to make the new record on Nuendo. But I still like Vegas, it’s way easier on me. Plus the company that makes my soundcard has gone out of business, so I have to buy a new, really fuckin’ expensive soundcard if I want to use Nuendo.
So you’ll probably end up using Zach’s equipment?
We’ll see what happens. I need to be able to work on stuff at my house. The new record will be different too because we’ll have our own studio. Zach’s dad is an architect and he’s pretty much leaving space for (a studio) underneath this building he’s working on right now.
Does Zach not get interviewed that much? We haven’t really read any with him.
He doesn’t like interviews that much, but he does them sometimes. (Rob looks away, squints his brow). More or less, I’m not “allowed” to do interviews, but I do them anyway.
Why aren’t you "allowed" to do interviews?
It’s a long story, having to do with people that I don’t have to work with anymore. So it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll say whatever I want to whoever I want and nothing’s going to stop me.
Were these limitations placed on you by your record company?
They tried. But I don’t really want to get into it. I don’t want to spread too much bad stuff. But needless to say, it’s not something I ever have to deal with again.
How do you deal with bad press?
I’m kind of bummed that we don’t really get too many bad reviews. I want bad reviews so they can tell me exactly what I did wrong.
We read one that was really bad.
Really? What did it say?
That “Blue Screen Life” was emo and boring.
See, that’s not bad, that’s just wrong. It could be boring, but if they would have explained WHY it’s boring that could help me. I’m totally into bad reviews that explain what’s wrong. I want to only get better but I don’t have any outside criticism. It’s not like I have some guy there while we’re recording telling me what’s wrong. I do occasionally like to check in with some kind of watchdog. Someone that’s like, “Dude, you sound too much like The Clash today!” And I’m like, “Oh my god, you’re right. We DO sound too much like The Clash.” But if somebody’s just going to say, “You guys are emo!” then I’m like…naw, I don’t think so. Besides, “emo” to me is like Rites of Spring. We don’t sound anything like Rites of Spring. Somewhere along the line “emo” started meaning boring-ass fucking shitty rock music.
Who knows what emo is? There’s so many bands that call themselves that.
Well, it did explain bands like Rites of Spring back when that stuff was happening. I think it’s misapplied by bands on themselves. “We’re like that! Like us!” People are wrong. Just because they’re wrong doesn’t mean I shouldn’t act like them.
Do you guys both write separately and then bring the ideas to each other?
Sometimes. Or I’ll have something and I’ll take it home, work on it. (Mumbles something on the tape, drowned out by traffic. Pulls a small “Book of Wisdom” from his pocket, containing line drawings of various sexual positions). I found this at the truck stop. I’m just playing with it like “Hey!” This is my favorite one (points to rather adventurous position, legs and arms jutting this way and that). This one’s “from the time of the gladiators…” I just really like the idea of gladiators doing that to each other.
(Looking over to a porn shop next to the venue) There you go. They’ve probably got all different varieties in there.
And good for them, goddamit.
So you’re headed to Salt Lake City after this show?
Yeah, we have a day to get there. Today was a long drive too. Right now we have two vans…(traffic noise)
We meant to come see you guys at the 15th St. Tavern last summer.
Oh, you didn’t miss anything. That place fuckin’ sucks. The last show we did there went extremely poorly. They just had us waiting around while other bands played really long sets, until we had 20 minutes to play until the bar was supposed to close. And the sound people were fuckin’ terrible. Oh man…
This venue’s better.
It seems a lot better, but who knows? I don’t know if anybody’s going to be here. There’s probably a bunch of better shows going on right now.
Actually, there are tons of shows tonight. Wilco’s playing down the street.
Oh well. There will be three people here.
How fan-oriented are you guys as a band? Do you ever get on fan message boards and read what they’re saying?
Oh yeah. I almost always return my emails, unless I’m like, not in town at the time and I get the thing too late. Or I have 300 emails and it accidentally gets lost in the shuffle. People write like, “You are great. Why are you so great?” And I’m supposed to write them back and say like, “Well, I’m so great because blah blah blah.” But if people have a question I try to answer them every time. I’m pretty good at it.
What’s your favorite mixed drink? (standard Sponic question)
Well, I used to have a really bad drinking problem, then I stopped drinking for four years. Every once in awhile I’ll have a drink now and then, but I don’t know if I really even want to do that. But the other night I had Captain Morgan’s in Newcastle. It was pretty good. It’s venom…
We really like the artwork in the albums. Does it have any personal significance?
Maybe individually I’d be able to tell you, but offhand, I don’t know. That stuff is all slides I found, vacations shots from the 1940’s. It’s amazing they had color film back then. But I have this big chest of slides. It’s really nice, really beautiful stuff.
Do you guys do the drawings in the liner notes too?
We split ‘em up. My stuff is usually the stick people. The more squiggly stuff is Zach’s, and the more shading-oriented and stick people stuff is mine.
So you guys really have a hand in everything you do with the records?
Yeah. And some people try to screw it all up for us at the last minute…(inaudible, angry words). But once again, not something I’ll ever have to deal with again.
Is the problem you’re speaking of in San Diego?
No, I wish. Then we could just walk over and have it taken care of. It’s a constant battle to make sure the finished product is anywhere near what we intended in the first place.
It’s been written that you guys aren’t real big in San Diego…
Oh, we do pretty well. We sell out all our shows.
Guess you can’t believe everything you read. (car noise) Are other bands of yours more popular in San Diego?
No, not at all. Nobody goes to see them. It’s hard to get shows (there). Most bands get them because they’re either really popular, or they’re ripping off some other band’s style. And I make a point to not fit in with any other style or group, so we’re pretty outcast out there.
So we heard Thingy broke up?
It just happened a week before we left for the tour. So when I get home I gotta finish the Thingy record and work on the next…whatever band there is to work on.
You’re pretty damn busy…
Right now I’m working on a new Pinback EP, to get out as soon as possible hopefully. And I’ve got the Thingy record and a solo record, and I’m in the middle of an Optigonally Yours record. I’m also working on a soundtrack in which I have to do like, 20 songs in completely different styles. So I’ll be writing with like four people probably, and then having them do their parts over mine. Or whatever. It all depends on if it goes through, if the backing happens. But I’m really excited about the script.
So they haven’t begun production yet?
No, we’re just working on it in our free time right now.
Is it set in San Diego?
No, I think it’s in Athens. Wait…is that it? Where’s Martin Luther King from?
Yeah, that’s it.
Do you have any time to do anything else? Do you see a lot of shows?
I like to see bands, but there’s so few bands around right now that I care about at all. I’d love to see these guys (points to a hardcore poster on the wall) but I don’t think I’m going to be able to. I see the Champs every time they’re in town.
The FUCKING Champs? (laughter)
Yeah dude. There’s more heavy stuff around now that’s good than there used to be.
If you were in a hair metal band, what would they be called and what color would your hair be?
I’d don’t think I’d be in a hair metal band. I’d have a really shaggy, crazy mullet with blonde streaks and one big fuckin’ pink dreadlock coming off the front.
After the show we spotted Zach Smith milling around the club, packing up his instruments and talking to fans. Having met him before the show and talked a bit about Pinback, he was receptive to sitting down and talking with us. Smith is a soft-spoken, affable guy with a thin, dark crop of hair and piercing eyes. His "mystique," as my interviewer friend and I had been calling it, was his seeming absence from Pinback's press dealings.
Sponic: We’ve never read an interview with you before.
Zach: I tend to avoid them. Unless the people seem down to earth, and then I’ll do it. I actually did a slew of them this time around.
We talked to Rob before the show, but we wanted to get your perspective on how you guys write songs.
There’s all sorts of versions, there’s not one way. Usually one of us will have a part that we’ll bring, throw it in and start working on it. It’s not like the band I was in before (Three Mile Pilot), where we’d hash out a song in a practice room until we’re done. This is more like, “Oh, I’ve got part, but it’s only one part.” We’re like, “Oh fuck it, let’s record it.” Then one of us will layer something over it and we’ll be like, “Oh, we need another part…”
Is it just you and Rob participating in the songwriting process?
We try to keep it to us two. It’s nice to have it that way. I mean, it’s great to have more heads involved in it, but at the same time you have a more focused direction when you have just two people doing it.
On the record you play tons of instruments, but it seems like onstage you play mainly bass and guitar.
Yeah, that’s how it is onstage. On the record I play most of the piano songs. But then Rob will have a little piano idea that he’ll throw in, and bass is the same way. I think Rob plays bass on a few songs on the record.
So how are you feeling? We heard you were getting over a cold.
It was really bad, but I’m feeling a little better. In Louisville I didn’t sing at all, and Chicago…I barely made it through that. I could sing some of the more screaming parts.
How do you get over sickness on the road?
It’s a hard thing, because you’re not in bed. You come into a place like this…like when the Threnody Ensemble played and I was watching them, I was having a hard time with the smoke. That just kills me every night, and there’s no escape. You get a little better during the day, then all of a sudden you’re knocked out again at night.
You guys gotta drive to Salt Lake City tomorrow?
Yeah, I remember that drive (laughs)…it’s a little easier having two vans because now we have seven people with us. With one van there’d be no room for a five week tour. It would be like, “I hate you!” You need a little space if you’re going to be on the road.
Is this the main tour for the new record?
Pretty much. We did a West Coast tour earlier, without Denver and Salt Lake, right after we released the album. And before we released the album we did an East Coast tour, and then we hit Denver on the way home. That was like, at the 15th Street Tavern, and we had a hell of a time.
Rob mentioned something about that to us earlier.
Yeah, that club did not have it goin’ on. But this is the main tour, then we go up the West Coast one more time for about a month, and that’s it. Then we’re going to start writing an E.P. Then maybe another quick little West Coast tour, but no East Coast, I don’t think, until our next album.
It’s obviously just easier to do more West Coast shows since you’re based in San Diego?
It just takes a lot of energy (to do East Coast shows). Whereas it’s like, “Oh, I can just drive to San Francisco,” and the next day Portland and Seattle are right there. But you know, Florida, it’s like, “Oh fuck.”
Have audiences seemed pretty receptive?
Yeah, I was surprised, but they are.
Those people behind us during the show were holding a big sign that said “Penelope” (a song on the new record).
It’s nice that people know songs and ask for them, even though we may not play them right (laughs). But I really wanted to take a picture of that. When we were in Germany a girl was holding a sign for the song “June,” from our E.P., so I took a picture of that. But my camera wasn’t around tonight.
We heard you don’t own any CDs.
Yeah, it’s pretty rare when I do (listen to music). Not that I don’t think there’s great bands out there. I’ll hear something and be like, “Wow, that’s really good,” and Rob will tell me who it is. But it’s more like, when you’re at home and you want to listen to music, the piano is five feet away and the stereo is ten feet away. It’s more fun for me to play the piano and actually be involved in it, versus listening. I love listening to music, but it’s the second thing I want to do.
Do you feel your influences make a conscious difference when you’re writing?
Oh yeah, who doesn’t? I’ve said this one a million times, but I love the Police. I like the Pixies, Eric Satie. I just got some nice Jesus Lizard, some Big Black…
We were talking about how you play a bass like a regular guitar, playing chords instead of root notes.
Yeah…I love traditional bass and I try to do some of that stuff. Mostly I write stuff by myself at home, and that’s naturally how I learned to play the bass. I want to hear a fuller thing goin’ on. But there’s something to be said for just getting the backbone of the rhythm section down. So it’s just a different version of that.
We also noticed a lot of your vocal melodies are played exactly on the guitars. Do you write the melodies or the guitar lines first?
Yeah, that’s kind of how it works. We’ll have a melody on an instrument, the bass maybe, and then Rob will incorporate that into what he sings. And then maybe he’ll jump off a little bit. But the melodies for the vocals are usually after the fact, after we have them figured out on an instrument. I can’t just play a little four-chord progression, like “blang, blang, blang.” I have to go, “blang, blang, blang, boop!” and add notes to it, then all of a sudden it has a little melody at the end of it.
Did you guys decide on the band name together?
No, it was definitely a Rob thing (laughs). We were just like, “Oh we have an album? We’re going to put something out? We need a name.” It’s that horrible time where you suddenly have to form into something. So he showed me Dark Star, and we were really into that movie for awhile. We were like, “Pinback, that sounds stupid” But after awhile…I mean, any band name you say, you’re like, “That’s dumb.” But it’s just a character in a movie that we think is cool and we just leave it at that. It helps us get the music out without thinking too hard. You know, we use samples from the movie.
Yeah…we’re dorks; we rented the movie and watched it before we did this interview.
That’s cool. We use lots of stuff from it. I think we’ve pretty much scoured for the samples that we want from that movie.
(Rob walks up)
Rob, we noticed you played the songs really fast tonight. Do you usually play them hat fast, or were you doing it to get them all in before the lights came on?
Rob: We have played that fast on purpose before, but we didn’t want to play that fast tonight.
Zach: Yeah, it’s like, “Hey, you guys only have 30 minutes to play,” and all of a sudden you’re like “Oh man!” (makes fast motion sounds). But we naturally play the songs faster live. That’s what happens when you have more people. There’s times when I wish it was exactly the same, but at the same time it’s nice that it isn’t. It’s nice that there’s two versions.
You guys are probably so used to the recorded versions…
Zach: Well, plus you have a live drummer instead of a drum machine. There’s a different energy and everyone’s working together.
Your drummer is Tom Zinser, Toz from Three Mile Pilot?
Zach: (laughs) He hate that we call him that. We did it once for fun just to piss him off, and he was like, “Why did you do that?” But he goes by Tom…I better set that straight.
How do you take negative press about the band?
Zach: I take it good. Of course, anyone’s going to be defensive. It’s just a natural reaction if you work hard on something. But at the same time you just kind of go, “Well, that’s their opinion.” If everyone had the same opinion it would be a boring world.
We noticed there hasn’t been much negative press about Pinback.
Zach: I’ll read one here and there, but it’s honestly a lot more positive ones. There was one that I heard recently, on a website or something…
Was it the one that called you guys “emo”?
Zach: No…but that one was fucked. I don’t know where that guy was coming from. But it was something like, “I wouldn’t pay a hundred million dollars to see them,” something like that. I was like, “Hey, that’s kinda fun.”
What do you think about your fans?
Zach: There are a few that are kind of crazy, in the sense that they follow us around and record all our shows. I mean, it’s a nice compliment that people are that into it. They take time out to do that because they feel that passionate about it. There’s one in particular I can think of in Europe that followed us around everywhere. It was kind of strange. At the end of the tour he came up to me and was like, “Zach, I’ve got some CD’s for you.” And he gave me all these live CD’s.” It was kind of weird, but cool at the same time. There’s always a few weird people, which is good.
Is Pinback your main gig at this point?
Zach: Definitely right now. We’ve recorded about four or five songs for Three Mile Pilot. We really want to do that because we have the energy to get it done. So we’re like, “Let’s just fuckin’ get it done.” I’ve been playing music for 15 years and I have about 30 songs done at this point…I like collaborating and all that but sometimes I like my ideas exactly as I hear them from beginning to end. So I have a solo thing I’m planning on doing. I have about 30 ideas right now but I’m going to take my time. I want to feel really good about it.
How similar is it to Pinback?
Zach: It’s the same kinda thing in terms of instruments. I mean, I’m always going to play my bass. There’s a lot of keyboards, and a lot more of me playing guitar parts. It’s just going to be whatever it is. I’m doing a lot more synthesizer stuff. I mean, not to the point where’s it too electronic. But I like certain aspects of that stuff. I want to venture over there a little bit but not get away from the traditional element. I’m having fun with it.
What’s your favorite mixed drink? Zach: It’s just Coke, which is pretty boring. But Juan, our sound guy, just turned me onto…what’s it called? Greyhound? Which I think is just grapefruit juice and vodka. I’m not sure. Cause Coke is just like, not that good for you. But now I can be like, “I drank some juice today!”
You got your daily dose of Vitamin C…
1997-10-22 - Ultra Zine
1999-11-26 - Ultra Zine
2002-03-19 - Sponic Zine
2002-03-21 - Comes With A Smile
2002-06-01 - Copacetic Zine
2002-06-10 - Sponic Zine
2004-10-14 - The Daily Free Press
2004-11-18 - The Martlet
Goblin Cock - Bagged And Boarded - Heavy Metal Magazine
Goblin Cock - Bagged And Boarded - Spin
Optiganally Yours - Exclusively Talentmaker - All Music
Optiganally Yours - Exclusively Talentmaker - Pitchfork
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Delusions of Adequacy
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Hand Carved
Pinback - Blue Screen Life - Pitchfork
Pinback - Offcell - Delusions of Adequacy
Pinback - Offcell - Dusted
Pinback - Offcell - Pitchfork
Pinback - Offcell - PopMatters
Pinback - Pinback - Pitchfork
Pinback - Some Voices - Pitchfork
Pinback - Some Voices - PopMatters
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - Dusted
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - Pitchfork
Pinback - Summer In Abaddon - PopMatters
Rob Crow - Lactose Adpet - All Music
Rob Crow - Living Well - Audiversity
Rob Crow - Living Well - Built on a Weak Spot
Rob Crow - Living Well - Coke Machine Glow
Rob Crow - Living Well - LAS
Rob Crow - Living Well - Monkeybiz.ca
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pitchfork
Rob Crow - Living Well - Playback:stl
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pop Matters
Rob Crow - Living Well - Pop News
Rob Crow - Living Well - Punk News
Rob Crow - Living Well - Reuters/Billboard
Rob Crow - Living Well - Tiny Mix Tapes
Rob Crow - Living Well - Toolshed
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Delusions of Adequacy
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Dusted
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Indie Workshop
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Opus
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Pitchfork
Rob Crow - My Room Is A Mess - Pop Matters
Thingy - To The Innocent - All Music
Thingy - To The Innocent - Pitchfork
Thingy - To The Innocent - PopMatters