"11 off by 50" from the album Autumn of The Seraphs
Like Sex and the City's Samantha with her rabbit pearl vibrator and the inmates at Folsom Prison with their fee fee bags, the guys in Pinback have learned that sometimes you've got to take matters into your own hands. If you want to do it right, you've got to do it yourself.
Pinback's Zach Smith and Rob Crow, two San Diego indie rockers with a penchant for plucky bass-lines, slinky guitar work, and point-counterpoint vocals, don't need a fancy recording studio or the meddlesome mechanizations of a label-hired producer to lay down an album's worth of tracks. Frak that. All they need is a computer and a little bit of inspirado.
"We've always recorded our own records. We always tried to do as much as we can. Nowadays it's a little harder for us," Smith says. "We used to silk-screen our own T-shirts. We used to make our own touring tees. My wife would sew them."
In 1998, Smith and Crow recorded to a computer for the first time, producing what would be their 1999 eponymous debut. Since then, they've released three more full-length albums, Blue Screen Life, Summer in Abaddon, and, most recently, Autumn of the Seraphs.
Released in 2007, Seraphs is a collection of crisp pop songs that wander from one ethereal melody to another, up and over chirpy guitars and handpicked bass-lines, conjuring up a sound reminiscent of the Pixies — although infinitely less restless and schizophrenic — and Built to Spill, absent the guitar-god theatrics and odes to Neil Young.
One standout is the album's opener, "From Nothing to Nowhere," an up tempo dance floor freak-out that would fit quite nicely on the next Franz Ferdinand disc, but it's an anomaly. Pinback favor slower fare, like "Devil You Know," which conjures up the dire warnings of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and the descent-into-the-abyss piano-lines from Pink Floyd's "Echoes."
But the real highlight of the album is "Off by 50," which kicks off with an ominous riff that's the indie-rock stepchild of "Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult before transitioning into an arena-ready anthem that has the feel of an end-of-the-world version of "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)" from the Hair soundtrack; you won't see Steve Carell and Seth Rogan dancing to this one anytime soon. "Off by 50" will give you the shivers. (And just between you and me, if Sarah Palin gets elected president, on election night you'll find me with a bottle of Kübler Absinthe listening to this track again and again and again. You've got to plan for the worst, right?)
Smith and Crow were inspired to do it themselves following rather unpleasant experiences recording under the watchful gaze of a record label. "It's always been awful. That whole kind of take control of everything you possibly can grew out of that," Smith says. "The computer really let us have that freedom to actually do that. And you know, 'Oh, we don't need a budget to record at some studio.'"
Of course, it's not all about saving cash. "It's an art, and every little thing you do for your music is reflective of yourself and what you're doing for your fans. And we're control freaks," Smith says with a laugh. "That's what it really comes down to."
And with more control in their hands, Pinback can record whenever an idea strikes them. "One of the things about computers that's sort of a downfall and a good thing, is how all of a sudden it changed how you write a song," Smith says. "I'll be sitting in the studio and go, ah, I got a little bass part. I'm just going to put it down right now instead of waiting for Rob to come up with something and wait for me to think what my lyrics are, have some drummer friend of ours come in and play with us and hash it all out. We put down things and see what happens. It just starts being this thing that gets built upon over the course of six months or something."
But as Smith acknowledges, the things you control often end up controlling you. Smith says, "We have kind of cornered ourselves into it. It would be kind of hard for us to do 10 songs and go to a studio. That's not how we've been thinking the last 10 years.
"You can be just like stuck to this machine."
That said, Smith has been stuck to a machine for a long, long time. In fact, when it comes to computers, he's been a user since the day of the Commodore VIC-20 when programs were recorded to audio cassette tape and five-and-a-quarter inch floppies. "They get all kinds of things done for you," Smith says, "and then they just turn around and drive you nuts and you kind of wish that they didn't exist."