Rob Crow: Interview
I've exercised restraint thus far, but Rob Crow is someone I really want to hug. He stands on stage wearing his signature black t-shirt with pants rolled up mid-calf, exposing sparkly, mismatched Halloween socks. A "What Would GG Allin Do?" sticker is on the amp behind him, as he steps up to the mic. "So, I've played here before. I came as a solo act by myself. I don't know if any of you were here for it." A sizeable amount of people holler in confirmation of their attendance. "Uh-huh. So there was a big poster out on the quad," he smiles, looking around the audience. "It said ‘Rob Crow of Pinback' beneath a big ol' picture of ZACH!" "I love my school!" someone cries from the crowd. Rob laughs, "Go, HSU!" and Zach nods in sympathetic agreement.
An hour-and-a-half ago, I met Rob in the wholly substandard and mostly empty lounge area of the campus commons. Littered with uncomfortable chairs and dirty tables, an idle barista clicked her plastic nails against the Formica corner-counter, waiting to sell terrible coffee, expensive beer, and pre-packaged vegan cookies. A handful of twenty-something occupants were dispersed amongst the billiard tables lining the back wall.
Late, sweating, and out of breath, I jogged in to find Rob staring down into his amber ale. "Rob? Hey, sorry to keep you waiting," I babbled. I tried to catch my breath, choking on a few god-damn-I'm-out-of-shape inhales as I explained, "Bike ride -- longer than I anticipated," but Rob just sat there, appearing not so much put off as generally glum.
I sat down at the table and pulled out the tape recorder as The Gorillaz' Demon Days played loudly over the stereo. Skimming the pages of my notebook, I figured we would ease into business with some warm-up questions, like a good conversational stretch before a jog or a sprint. After all, we only had 45 minutes and Rob didn't appear to be up for a single one of them. He held his pint glass between both palms, staring into it with eyes wide open as I began:
So how long have you all been on tour?
We've been going since early September, but we had a month-and-a-half off just before this, and then we have a couple days off again before we go to Japan.
Are you guys planning on just relaxing?
I'm having another kid so, I'm gonna be dealing with that. This will be my second boy.
[I took this as an opportunity to show my enthusiasm. I say something along the lines of, "Nice! Way cool, man!" rather than the more articulately hard-hitting, "Birth and fatherhood are unparalleled in their beauty, but with those gifts come immense responsibility. How do you feel about preserving and nurturing the innocence of a child in the turbulence of such an uncertain and cruel world?" Plus, I would never say something like that to anybody for any reason. In the silence that came next, I scanned my list of questions for something more intellectually stimulating.]
Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently stated that music had become, for him, too much of a one-way communication, that he couldn't connect with his audience on a meaningful level or they with him for that matter. Do you ever feel like you have trouble connecting with your audience?
Um, not really.
Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to put any sort of message out?
No, but I do anyway.
[At this point, Rob had yet to quit frowning into his beer glass, so I began to pout too. The score was 0 to 0 and we were both losers. Last chance for a new approach...]
Are artists these days doing anything dynamically new or different than they have been?
There's always somebody somewhere doing something, but there's not a whole lot of new interesting things being developed. I don't buy a lot of new records. When people ask me to do a top ten of the year, it's almost impossible.
"We don't really have a desire to be famous, just infamous."
What are your favorite older artists?
Captain Beefheart, The Shaggs, The Residents, Snakefinger, Meshuggah -- they're still around.
The Residents, they did The Commercial Album right?
That's an awesome one.
It is. That one in particular is a huge influence.
[I smiled, waiting for him to explain further and, perhaps sensing this, he busied himself with a long sip of beer before resuming his hard stare at the glass. I was momentarily distracted by the barista turning on the whirring espresso machine to make some yuppie sap a latte. I thought about how a latte sounded pretty good, but didn't dare excuse myself lest I lose Rob completely.]
Musically, do you feel that innovation is more important than self-expression?
Yes, because a person can be pouring their heart out, and if it sounds boring, I don't give a shit. That's what coffee houses are for.
[Definitely not getting a coffee.]
What's the last greatly innovative album you heard?
Well, every Meshuggah album seems innovative to me. I also like what Genghis Tron is doing.
What are you reading right now?
I read a lot of comics. Right now, I'm reading "Closing Time" -- that sequel to "Catch 22," and "Dishwasher," which is an autobiography of this dude who made it his life ambition to travel and do dishes in all 50 states. He took his time and it's really... fuck, what's that word? INSPIRING! It's super inspiring, because he just goes into a town and tries to hold up a job for a few days, and it doesn't matter if he gets fired or anything. He can just walk out the door because he's bored -- it's great stuff.
Is that an option you ever wish you had -- to walk out the door if you wanted to?
Well, it's not something I can do now because I have a family. I mean, I have to travel now, but I try and take them with me everywhere I go. But I can't always do it and... that sucks. It's just weird -- supporting my family by being away from them is really difficult. Like, they just left today and I'll see them next week, but I already miss them terribly.
You did a lot of your own recording in the past...
We always do.
And why is that?
It started out with our whole idea of "fuck the middle man." We don't want anything between what somebody hears and what we decide to be doing, and that meant getting all the equipment ourselves, writing songs, mixing songs, mastering them, which is a stupid idea -- mastering them. We printed the discs and all the insets and then tried to distribute them all ourselves.
That's a lot of work.
Yeah, it was a good idea but totally impractical.
So do you think that MySpace allows artists to effectively fuck the middle man and take a lot more control?
Oh, definitely. There doesn't need to be demo tapes or discs or anything anymore. MySpace is a demo tape. A lot of the music there's the same, but every once in a while there's something amazing. The bummer thing though is that the bit-quality of the songs on MySpace is pretty crappy. In a lot of the music I enjoy, production is a big part of the songwriting process -- that's what it's like for us, but if you're hearing it with bad quality up on MySpace, you can't tell what they're doing and it loses something.
So you say you put a lot of yourself into your music, but do you ever discover a part of yourself through it?
I think in the early days when I was trying to write, I discovered a lot about myself that I quickly tried to change. I want to be an emotionally open and honest person in music, but when you do that, you find out a lot about yourself that makes you think, "Oh, I should..."
But anyway, I'm super self-critical. I'm anti self-promotion, but hyper self-critical.
Someone had a really good term for that -- "relentless self improvement."
I don't know if that makes it any better, but yeah, that in itself is the same idea. I just hope it's not being like, "Gawd, get over yourself! If you're so hyper self-critical, why are you still a fat-ass drunk!?" Well, yeah, see? There I go.
[I laughed but he grimaced and took a sip from his beer. As he swallowed, he looked back at me expectantly, honestly, and patiently waiting.]
So do you feel that Pinback's albums build on the material of the previous, or are you always trying to do something new?
We're always trying to do something new. Sometimes we'll sit around and go, "Okay, today for fun let's write a pop song," and it will turn into something completely avant-nothing. And we never end up with something we attempt or try for, so we just stopped trying to do certain kinds of things.
What album are you most proud of putting out there?
Me, personally? I think the Heavy Vegetable Frisbie album was pretty important to me, but I think that the latest Pinback album is the best one. Also, sometimes I think that the Other Men album is the best thing I've ever done -- that's one I put out last year. It's me and the guys from Heavy Vegetable switching instruments, and it's totally fucked.
Yeah. It's not nearly as dynamic as other Heavy Vegetable stuff was, but in structure it's weird. It's more... yeah. Good.
"That's the closest thing I can think of in the history of mankind as a reason to believe in a higher entity, because it made that album possible." (Referring to The Shaggs)
So where do you see Pinback in 10 years?
Hopefully in almost exactly the same place. We don't really have a desire to be famous, just infamous, which to me means anyone who wants to listen to us can easily do that. But nobody who doesn't care about it would have to.
So tell me a little bit about an album that's really inspired you.
Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart! It's much easier to talk about other bands [laughs].
What is about that album that really inspired you?
Well, every single thing about it [laughs]. He, oh god, it needs like.... I could take you though the history of what it is and what it does but, okay, I'll try and make it, you know... SO, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band started out as this weird blues band. They were like heavy, rad, really fun, rocking versions of blues, but because they're just weird people, it came out weird, which is much better than listening to real blues in my opinion.
[He starts explaining in one direction before back-peddling and re-directing himself. He takes a deep breath and looks right at me as he explains, gesturing with his hands. The pint glass sat on the table, momentarily forgotten.]
Okay! So, after a couple albums, Beefheart sequesters his band in this house in the middle of nowhere, and for eight months they only worry about this album. It's all they think about; they just practice it and write it all day. He writes all the parts on a piano and he gets the drummer, Drumbo, to write out all the parts for all the other instruments, and they don't necessarily go together, at all, but they make them both fit together. And so, while they're working on this, nobody's allowed to leave the house. Once every two weeks, one guy's allowed to leave to buy everybody some food, but mostly they subsist on a cup of soybeans a day.
Yeah way! So nobody's allowed to come over, all they do if they're not learning the songs is talking about the songs and what they mean to each other, and they're getting full-on weird till it's super, super obsessive for eight months straight. And on the last day, they go to Frank Zappa's studio and he records the whole album in four hours. The entire album, start to finish, recorded in four hours, and THAT is unheard of. You can't even get mics set up in four hours, right? And, psshh, that's it. They don't hear it again till it's mixed. They come in on Easter Sunday dressed up in suits, and they listen to it once and think it's awesome, and it is awesome. It's the greatest thing ever. It's hard to describe the way it affects me, because it's like the act of listening to so many different instruments snaking around and turning into things that shouldn't be there, it's like... Oh, man, it's kind of the opposite of The Shaggs, which are also super, super influential to me, in which a lot of what they did are beautiful accidents, like insanely beautiful, can never be repeated, wonderful accidents. They were like super thought-out and can still do it. [laughs]
You know about The Shaggs?
OH MY GOD. Okay, like, The Shaggs are these... Okay, these are the two most important albums of all time. So, The Shaggs were these three sisters from New Hampshire, and for Christmas one year -- they were barely teenagers -- their dad buys them instruments and says, "You guys start a band!" He lets them practice for three months and then brings them into the studio when they had barely any songs and they couldn't play, and the studio guys are like, "I don't...what are you... I don't think this is a good idea," and the dad's, like, shelling out all this money and going, "No no, I want to get 'em while they're hot!" and they record some of the most intense music of all time. Like, every vibration that's created through their, what some would call incompetence, is perfect. I mean, if I could find a reason for God existing, it would be that album. That's the closest thing I can think of in the history of mankind as a reason to believe in a higher entity, because it made that album possible.
I'm totally ashamed to have not heard this.
Man, it's great.
Well, damn. You could school me for hours, but that appears to be it for tonight. Anything else you want to add?
Well, what I always say is that if anybody is in any way influenced by anything that Zach and I do, we would hope that they would create whatever they created with that influence with as much honesty and integrity as possible. I know that sounds conceited, but it's true.
I think I understand what you just said -- honesty and integrity! I can live with that. Well this has been very cool; thank you so much.
Yeah, thank you, man. See you upstairs.