Contrary Opinions: An Interview with Rob Crow

Rob Crow
He Thinks He's People
Temporary Residence

The first time I actually talk to Rob Crow, his wife has just gone into labor with the couple’s third child. In fact, I’m pretty sure she picks up the phone when I call, because there’s a gasp, then a click. Maybe ten minutes later, Crow calls, explains the situation in about one sentence and suggests that we reconnect in a couple of weeks. He is remarkably calm about the whole thing. And I remember my own lost year of all-night feedings and diaper pail emptying, and think, oh sure, we’ll talk after the baby … when you’ve got some time.

But the fact is we do talk, three or four weeks later, and Crow seems completely unperturbed by the arrival of a new baby. There are things that bother him — lots of them as it turns out — but he’s an old hand at multitasking, never without a half-dozen or more projects going. Disruption is his element. If it’s not already there, he’ll create some, right there, while you wait.

For instance, I ask him about the cover art for He Thinks He’s People with its stick-figure man splayed out in a dog house, the title phrase something that sentimental pet owners often say about their animals. Were you thinking about dogs, I ask. “Kind of. I guess so. I don’t like dogs,” he responds. His answers to questions are often short, but unexpected, nudging the conversation in a completely unexpected direction. “I was probably just thinking about being alienated.” More so than usual?, I counter. “I don’t think that’s even possible,” he replies.

Alienated, yes, but also really, really busy. Crow is best known for his work with Zach Smith in Pinback, but he has been involved in many other projects. He started with Heavy Vegetable in the early 1990s, before Pinback, and has, since then, been part of a dozen or so other bands including Optiganally Yours, Thingy, Advertising, Alpha Males, Altron Tube, Cthugha, Fantasy Mission Force, Goblin Cock, Holy Smokes, The Ladies, Other Men, and Remote Action Sequence Project.

He also keeps thinking of new ones. In the four years since his last solo album, Living Well, he has worked on new recordings for Pinback, Optiganally Yours, Thingy and Goblin Cock, as well as launching two new projects, an Evil Misfits tribute band (with film) and the soundtrack-influenced San Diego Music Awards. By the time you finish reading this, count on Rob Crow being in at least one more band.

Crow was born in New Jersey, where he learned early on that music “was the first thing I ever really wanted to do.” He remembers banging on pots and pans as a young child and trying to construct guitars out of cardboard boxes and rubber bands. His family moved to Southern California when he was in sixth grade, and he began to connect with punk rock.

His first real band was Heavy Vegetable. “That was the first band I ever wrote songs for. And I just immediately tried to cram every kind of music into it at the same time and make it way too fast,” he says. “After a while, I calmed down and started writing good stuff. We put out two records and it’s still some of the best stuff I ever did.”

By the mid-1990s, Crow’s Heavy Vegetable had broken up. His friend Zach Smith was also at loose ends, as Three Mile Pilot was also on hiatus. The two had known each other for some time and had even roomed together briefly, but they had never played music together. At the time, computers were just beginning to offer the capability for making music. Smith and Crow began experimenting together. ” We tried to figure out how to make music using a crappy Mac like a four-track ,” Crow remembers. “Eventually we got a Soundblaster soundcard and just started working from there.”

That was the beginning of Pinback, still Crow’s best-known band. It was, then as now, a partnership of opposites. “We’re completely 100% different,” says Crow. “It’s easier to say what’s the same about us than what’s different.” Such as? There is a pause. “We both like Star Wars.”

Pinback thrived, however, throughout the early 2000s. Its first album This Is Pinback came in 1999 on the Ace Fu label, followed by Blue Screen Like in 2001. Summer in Abbadon, considered by many to be the band’s best so far, was described by the NME as “The stuff of jagged, ornate artistes living in a weird pop monsterland with defiantly anti-wacky lyrics.” The band’s most recent album is Autumn of the Seraphs, which came out on the late Touch & Go label in 2007, though Crow says they are working on another and are close to finished.

In the meantime, there’s He Thinks He’s People, a diverse and fascinating collection of songs which is linked, Crow says, only by the fact that he wrote and performed them all. “This definitely is not so much a concept album,” he says, “other than a concept of one fat old guy who makes songs in his room.”

Crow says that he works continually on his various projects, often in the hours between when his kids leave for school and when they come back. “I’m always working on stuff. And a lot of times it’s like ‘Oh, I think I have enough stuff to try to put together an album.’ I have, like, so many units of songs.”

The songs for He Thinks He’s People are twitchy and complicated, occasionally violent, yet they mostly have a pop core of melody. I asked Crow what he thought about pop as a genre. “Like any music, I like it when it’s good,” he says. “I like it when it’s not just rewriting somebody else’s song.” But, he adds, “I don’t even know what pop means anymore. I haven’t listened to a radio in so many years, and I don’t have television, so I don’t know what people are listening to on television, or what’s in commercials, even though I do commercials. I don’t know what anybody else’s sounds like.”

Crow says he listens to a lot of music, most of it completely unrelated to current fashions. “I only listen to what I like and I think so many people only listen to most music because everybody else is listening to it,” he says. “I only need to hear a song once to know that I don’t want to listen to it, and I think [people who make those songs] shouldn’t be supported. “

Asked to name a pop artist that he likes, Crow makes an unlikely choice, Captain Beefheart. “Well, Captain Beefheart is my favorite band. But even then, it’s kind of like Star Wars, where you can’t really say it’s your favorite movie because it’s such a different thing,” he says. “But to me, it is pop. There’s so much going on. There’s a lot going on and all of it makes sense with each other and by itself. And I’m constantly being interested, and it’s also energetic.”

Crow also likes the Shaggs. In fact, he calls them “the greatest band ever.” Even though they couldn’t really play their instruments? “I think they played their instruments perfectly,” he says. “I think they were a total realization of intent, 100% of the way. They just didn’t know that people wanted them to play their instruments a different way.”

Still, better not to get Crow started on the Beatles, which we edge into by talking about whether he sees any common ground with similarly prolific, similarly skewed pop songwriter Robert Pollard. “Isn’t he the guy that he writes a lot of songs but they all sound like the same song and it sounds like the Beatles? ” Crow asks. “Because I dislike the Beatles, and try to make all my songs sound different.”

Really, the Beatles? “The sad thing is that I might like them if I heard them for the first time,” he explains. “But they are thought of as the peace and love revolutionary people, and John Lennon’s a junkie. It’s just all false. Pretend. I can’t trust any of it. And it didn’t really sound that great.”

None of it? (Full disclosure: I am also not crazy about the Beatles and so am rather enjoying this.) “They’ve written some good songs. There’s a lot of stuff off of the second side of Abbey Road that I like. I’ll admit it,” he says. And then the provocateur re-emerges. “It’s also just really fun to tell people that you hate the Beatles and watch them flip out.”

Watching people flip out is a bit of a spectator sport for Crow, witness his super poppy send up of the Anal Cunt song “Locking Dropdead in McDonald’s”. In the song — called “Locking Seth Putnam in Hot Topic” — he imagines the punk instigator trapped in a retailing outfit. He sets the song to his boppiest, danciest beat, an arrangement totally at odds with Putnam’s brand of confrontational hardcore. He made the song well before Putnam passed away last year, but makes no apologies now. “It’s hilarious,” says Crow, “in a totally not hilarious way.”

In the same category, “I’d Like to Be There” is a breezy, poppy song that imagines terrible ends for people who drive and talk on their cell phones at the same time. The song’s lyrics are intermittently shocking, violent, and really pretty funny. “When you’re choking on your blood, I’d like to be there,” Crow croons. “When they staple shut your tongue, I’d like to be there.” “I wrote that one so quickly,” says Crow. “It took no time at all.”

Crow and Smith are putting out a couple of Pinback 7-inches this fall, finishing their fifth full-length and getting ready to tour. Which for Crow, is the whole point. “I love it. I like playing,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if people are there or not, because I play in so many projects, most of … some of them I don’t even tell people I’m doing. I just want to be able to go out and do something.”