At first it seemed odd that a group like Pinback would have seven roadies setting up their equipment—not that the San Diego-based dream pop group doesn’t deserve to have all of their accoutrements arranged just so. But when only three of the roadies left the stage, while the remaining four picked up instruments and began playing “Chaos Engine” off of Pinback’s self-titled debut, everything became clear. The fact of the matter is that the members of Pinback aren’t just perfectionists about the music they record, but the stuff they play in front of other people, too. If that means setting up your own reverb microphones and duct taping a pair of Roland keyboards to the pedestals yourself, so be it.
At the stroke of midnight, just before the audience turned into a field of beer-sipping pumpkins, perfection was had. Armistead Burwell Smith, IV and Robert Crow began their trademark call-and-response crooning through “Chaos Engine” and onto “Tripoli”, also from the debut album. Crow’s angelic voice resonated beautifully with his guitar picking, as he shouldered most of the vocal responsibilities for the rest of the evening, with Smith stepping up to the keyboard and taking over lead vocals on songs like “West”. Soon, the group’s two hour delayed stage entrance was forgiven as the crowd bounced along in, literally, every nook and cranny the room had to offer.
It appeared as though most of the concert-goers were familiar with the group’s repertoire, given the number of people singing along with the folks on stage. They were there to catch Pinback’s rising star in the shelter of an out-of-the-way place before the following evening’s performance at the larger San Francisco Great American Music Hall. An abundance of DAT tapers and their glowing blue screens floated like futuristic fireflies throughout the club, but no one seemed to mind. It only added to the band’s postmodern charm. The fans at the sold out Bottom of the Hill show, which had been previous host to unannounced Beastie Boys performances (tuning up for their arena tour in support of Hello Nasty), swayed back and forth and nodded along to the stratified, luxurious sound that the band magically realized for us on stage. Crow’s falsetto singing hypnotized us as he articulated a combination of Wayne Newton and Billy Corgan. Layers of synth samples, syncopated bass lines and complex rhythms sounded less like formative Police records than they do on Pinback’s records.
The bounty of public attention that Pinback is starting to draw marks a departure for a group that has managed to remain in the shadows for the last couple of years. Forming out of the ashes of Smith’s previous underrated band 3 Mile Pilot and Crow’s juggling act of bands that at times included Physics, Thingy and Heavy Vegetable, the duo set out to conquer the world. As the Internet/dot.com bubble swelled to its peak, the band followed suit. But a lengthy legal battle over the group’s contractual status kept their Ace Fu Records label from releasing the debut album for about a year after it was recorded. In 2000 the group earned a spot in the musical rotation of the Urban Outfitters national clothing store chain. Soon followed a featured artist spot on the now hibernating Napster file-sharing website, and music fans began to take notice. But just as the economic bubble burst, so did Pinback’s seemingly assured meteoric rise. Without anyone actively marketing their albums, all momentum was quickly lost. Now the pendulum is again swinging back for them as they tour the U.S. in support of Blue Screen Life.
As if to overstate the obvious, group members wore their collective geekiness on their sleeves. Robert Crow’s Venom comic book T-shirt hung loosely over his baggy, black skater shorts as he affirmed his happiness that Star Wars: Attack of the Clones didn’t suck. The point was driven home with the Star Wars rebel alliance insignias were cut out and hung inside each of the bands’ monitors. Crow went on to share his favorite video games of all time, dating back to the Colecovision and Atari 2600. Since this fascination with silicon-based entertainment is exactly what has germinated Pinback’s adeptly crafted brand of pop, the audience was content to indulge Crow. If not for their technophile nature, it’s doubtful that Crow and Smith would have had the know-how to record, mix, and master the delicacies on Blue Screen Life on Smith’s home computer.
The crowd at the tiny club cheered as the band began “Concrete Seconds”, carefully replicating the subtle sounds of the recorded version while injecting their live performance with a manic passion. Drummer Tom Zinser kept the pace gleefully, smiling down on his drum kit, like a child continuously unwrapping that unexpected but coveted Christmas present. When Crow stepped away from the microphone to take it to the bridge, his guitar solos were loosey-goosey, neck-bending extravaganzas full of deft technical maneuvering between Smith’s swooning bass line. The group mixed in a nice variety from their two full length albums and Some Voices EP, including fan favorites “Offline P.K.”, “Boo” and “Penelope”. With so many samples piled atop guitars, bass and drums competing in each of the songs, it would have been easy for layers of sound to slur together or sound fragmented. But instead, the elements worked well together. Perhaps this is one of the advantages of setting up your own equipment. Pinback looked surprised that the crowd did not ask so much as ravenously demand more after each song. But they were happy to oblige. They weren’t surprised at all to hear that we knew the words and were content to sing along.