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However Living Better Now: An Interview with Rob Crow

Photo: Bill Perrine

Rob Crow of Pinback talks with PopMatters about the music industry, getting in shape, sleeping at night, and returning to the road with new group Rob Crow's Gloomy Place.

Is there a point at which an entertainer lives so well that they lose ground to complain about their lives? There seems to exist some resentment towards celebrities that gripe about the realities of their chosen careers. Sometimes, in a number of seconds, an artist in the spotlight can develop a reputation for speaking out of turn, as Fiona Apple was said to do at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Her well-intentioned warning, that the world of celebrity was not a world to be trusted, was widely received as ungrateful.

The mythology of Kurt Cobain is that of an immensely famous rocker that sought fame, received it in abundance, and wrestled with it, to his death. Just a few months before his suicide, he told David Fricke of Rolling Stone that he "would give up everything to have good health." Last year's Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley's documentary profile of Marlon Brando, implicitly suggested that Brando, so vocal and unafraid to alienate others across decades, still toed some sort of line in sharing his misgivings. For Brando, this meant directing his most intense existential ponderings to a tape recorder and not to another person or the public at large.

But how does an artist of modest means navigate such waters? Rob Crow took to social media.

Crow is the prodigiously talented and prolific musician responsible for Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Optiganally Yours, Pinback, and many other group and solo projects. About a year ago, in March 2015, he posted a statement including the phrase "i think I'm gonna finish up & release all my current records & give up," which seemed to signal a departure from his profession. This and other messages caused speculation amongst fans, followers, and press. Was this the end?

Then an explanatory post on Facebook provided frank answers: "I have just come to the realization that making music in this climate is financially irresponsible to my family and ultimately humiliating to my psyche ... My kids are growing and my downstairs studio would probably be put to better use as a bedroom ... Also quitting Facebook and Twitter and using that energy to concentrate on writing in my journal. Chucking the booze as well will help with that. I just trying to make a mature decision and be a responsible husband and father." This post was liked, shared, and/or commented on hundreds of times. Music websites used the retiring-from-music angle to write mostly complimentary stories about Crow's career.

By the end of the year, Crow was back on Facebook to explain the causes and effects of his "flipping out" or "manning up". In summary, his life as an artist was destroying him and so he quit or dispensed with destructive things, including alcohol. He started exercising. And then, as a musician, he intended to come back for "a first chapter in a new life, or last hurrah" called You're Doomed. Be Nice., an album of solo material performed with a full band called Rob Crow's Gloomy Place.

Thus Crow's stepping away from music was measured in months, not even a year. The press materials that accompany You're Doomed. Be Nice. lead with a reference to "his heavily publicized withdrawal from music," so there's no attempt to steer away from the narrative of having temporarily retired. Despite all of this, no air of resentment has surrounded his turnaround. For comparison, consider the damage control James Murphy recently managed to justify the five year retirement of LCD Soundsystem.

Nor has Crow ever been a musician so commercially successful that his description of financial difficulty would seem unwarranted. So while the everyman status is likely what allowed his admission, withdrawal, and return to be received with tolerance and understanding, Crow says that same quality was part of the trouble. "How can I put it? Part of my... I really hate everything about the idolatry of artists or so-called artists or anything to do with that. I'm the worst self-promoter in the world and I really have this thing against people that just go off and try to sell themselves, whether their doing it is worthy or not, they're just doing it to do it.

"And sometimes, something is good that they're doing," he tells us. "Sometimes, or usually, it's not. And in life, that's the kind of attitude that I've veered 180 [degrees] against. I mean, I try not to be -- it's really reactionary -- but sometimes I end up being that way. So I've always tried to just be in a hole, you know? Just do what I like to do, and hopefully people will like it. I would love for lots of people to like it [laughs] ... but that's always been kind of a thing."

Crow presumes that over time, the avoidance of self-aggrandizement produced another sort of hole he didn't anticipate. "Part of that for me was, okay, I'm going to do this. I have to perform in front of a bunch of people, but I don't want to ever give off the air of being superior to anybody that I'm performing for. I'm performing for them, you know? For me, the idea of the Everyman was very important.

"And you know what? I'm just going to be a fat, I'm going to be an overweight, alcoholic father of three and do this because I just want to be like everyone else. I don't, A> want to feel superior, and B> don't want to be perceived as somebody who thinks they're superior to anyone else. But in doing so I kind of dragged myself down too far, to where I just became too muddled in everything and I needed to stop drinking and just stop doing too many things."

I ask if the content of You're Doomed. Be Nice. is inherently connected to those experiences. "Everything's connected," he says, "but the withdrawal thing was something I needed to do -- well I didn't really have a choice. I needed to withdraw from everything for a while and just become a normal person or something."

We see here that self-actualizing as a "normal person" can be both problem and solution. Crow explains that thinking beyond the self is necessary to survival. "When you're a kid you don't have a family, you can throw yourself in front of all the buses in the world for art and that's great. And it's still great. But now I have people that depend on me. I can't do that anymore.

"Then things start drying up. And I'm doing more things that cost more money. I mean, I make tons of things. And Pinback's pretty much been the only thing that ever made any money. And that became, not making enough money for me to do anything else that I was still pouring money into just creating, because I thought it needed to be done. Let alone, take care of my family. So I'm like, I just gotta stop everything. Stop drinking. Be a better person. Not that I was an angry alcoholic or anything like that or a violent person or anything even like that at all. I just got too happy and stupid."

This realization of responsibilities in the face of career circumstances has proven pivotal to his personal choices. Yet he doesn't recall a particular moment of realization that the commercial prospects of his music were beginning to dim. "Well, I don't know because I purposely tried to be oblivious to anything about the commerciality of whatever I was doing. I would be playing in front of, you know, a lot of people one day in one band and three people the next day in another project and having the same sense of accomplishment. If I did it right. At that time when everything just turned around I thought that, I need to be a better person. I can't just be a slob on purpose. I should maybe try to be a better person than some people. In at least some ways. At least healthier."

Does the commitment to being a better or healthier person include increased pressures to be commercially successful? "It's not like I'm doing anything I've never done," he continues. "I mean I'm touring on this album because that's what I'm supposed to do with my life. My family has been like -- even since I first said I've got to stop doing this just so that we don't end up in the poor house. They're the ones that were like, 'But we love what you do. We want you to keep doing that.' I'm like, I want to but we can't afford to do that. And even right now, I don't know how I'm going to pull off this tour, like I can't afford to buy shirts so that other people might buy shirts so that we could afford a hotel room every three days, to sleep in, and at least some of us sleep in a bed. Let alone restock CDs for people to hopefully buy so that we can afford gas."

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