Photo: Bill Perrine

However Living Better Now: An Interview with Rob Crow

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.
Rob Crow's Gloomy Place
You're Doomed. Be Nice.
Temporary Residence, Ltd.

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.”

The Production of ‘You’re Doomed. Be Nice.’

Looking at the exchange from the concert goer’s perspective, I ask if he thinks the people coming to see him play are aware of the do-it-yourself operation he’s just described to me. He says, “It’s not up to them to: they should probably remain oblivious. I want people to go to shows because they want to go to shows and have a good time, not because they feel it’s a duty to have to support somebody that decided to sing songs for a living. [laughs]”

However, there is the possibility that his listeners have developed a greater awareness of their role in the living he makes because of his openness about finances, in his retirement and comeback posts on social media. As to whether he sees any evidence of that, Crow says, “I don’t even know yet. It’s too soon to tell about that kind of thing. I act the way towards people that enjoy what I do — I’m afraid to say things like ‘my fans’ because usually when people say ‘my fans’ it seems derogatory and you want to punch those people. Like when the new Misfits say they have to keep making these terrible records because of their fans.

“No. I never want to be like one of those kind of people. I want to act the way I would want the people that I listen to, to act. Which means I want full honesty. I want to be everybody’s friend, most of the time. I don’t know. I just want to be the most honest person I can be to anybody that would care. Anyone that would care, whether they’re somebody that listens to my junk or that I see taking out the trash.”

The production of You’re Doomed. Be Nice. was more involved than other Crow solo albums, involving people and processes from the early days of his career. “I recorded the whole album in my room first and then taught it to a band and took it to a guy that I knew was good, Ben Moore, who is in fact one of the only people that have ever recorded me. Ben Moore and Mark Trombino are the only two people that have ever recorded me. And Ben recorded me before Mark. Ben did the first Heavy Vegetable demos.”

Heavy Vegetable and offshoot Thingy both released their final records in 2000, but neither group sounds fixed in the ’90s. Timelessness is a quality Crow still has in mind. “I’m hoping that this group of songs is … one of the things I want to do is to make things that are timeless. And by that I don’t mean on a grandiose scale. I just mean something that can’t be dated, that’s never been heard before, whether it’s good or not. You can’t date it because it’s never been around before.”

One recurring theme on the new album is sleep. Crow has been exercising quite a lot lately. When I ask if he feels healthier now than he did before he made lifestyle changes, he answers, “I guess so. I’m not relaxed or anything. I’ve been sleeping better lately, the last couple weeks. Finally I think I’m getting real sleep. I haven’t had caffeine or anything since the day I decided to, you know, since the day I flipped out.”

Was it his intention to have sleep be so present in the lyrics, or did that just enter into the writing process? “It probably just entered into it,” he says. “I try to write as honestly about feelings and emotions and stuff but try to not make it so obvious. Or else it would just be, ‘Uhhh I feel terrible’ over and over again. [laughs]” And yet You’re Doomed. Be Nice. is a consistently serious album, a tone Crow attributes to “trying to stay as much away from the happy horseshit that I used to do. I mean, there’s a time and a place for that but I think I already used up my card, in a big way.”

Thus You’re Doomed. Be Nice. is a album torn between conflicting things, chief among them the unhealthy past versus the healthier present. And joining the theme of sleep is a spiritual unease. “Well, that’s all tied together for me,” Crow explains, “because I’m so neurotic about having been brought up religious, and then suddenly realizing that’s not a real thing.” He says he was raised in a belief system that was “mostly Christian,” but then he began to question the religion.

“So, when you’re a kid, when you’re that way, you grow up with this, ‘Well, no matter what happens, you can basically fuck off in this life, because we’re all going to heaven, we’re all going on that cloud.’ So you can relax. You have your whole life ahead of you and then when that’s over you go to heaven. And now that I’m older, well it’s not even then, even when I was a kid and I realized, wait a second, none of this makes any sense at all, this is kind of insane. Now, I can never really relax, because even at my most relaxed, I’m like okay, what’s the other shoe? There’s so many other shoes. But I know people that weren’t brought up religious, and they don’t have any of that. They can just go right to bed.”

Though is the persistence of that “other shoe” possibly evidence of belief, on some level? Crow describes it as more of an existential crisis than a remnant of faith. “You lie in bed at night, and you want to just go to sleep but you start thinking about all the things you’ve never done, all the things you probably won’t do, how short your life is going to be, how infinitesimal your whining brain is compared to everywhere else in the universe. And then I start thinking about any other spot in the entire universe that I could be looking from, having a perspective of, and that’s infinite. So that’s one reason it’s hard for me, because it’s just about infinite all the other things you could be doing other than what you are doing.”

I point out that much of what he’s describing is consistent with Christian thought, especially a conception of man as limited, compared to God as unlimited, incomprehensible or unfathomable. “I always thought it was the opposite,” he responds. “I always thought the religious standpoint was just don’t worry about it, it’s all God.”

So it’s not worth investigating? “Well, it’s uninvestigatable from their point of view.”

Of the search for answers to the music industry’s problems, Crow believes that “Nobody’s come up with a, as far as I know anyway, a decent model for anything.” I ask him if he thinks the low opinion of selling out for commercial gain exists anymore. “I’m not sure. I think it’s probably mostly that. The concept of an independent band is so actually rare nowadays. There are tons of independent bands that are usually not putting out records. They’re just putting up a download, and that’s probably fine. I don’t know how history will see any of that.

“I do know that when I was a kid, I wanted to put out records, and play shows, and tour, and that to me is what being in a band and wanting to play music is all about. To me that’s what it is, and that’s what I’ve got to keep doing. I have at least three full, finished albums, no four, completely finished albums. And some of them are some of my best stuff that I’ve ever done. And I can’t afford to put them out right now. And I could just upload them right now. But I can’t afford artwork or to have them mastered correctly or to have them pushed for press. I don’t know what to do. But I can’t just upload it and have people look at it as a link. It needs to be a physical thing.”

In his opinion, online streaming sites/storefronts like Bandcamp cannot meet that need. “It’s kind of the same for me, it’s just a download. It’s disheartening. If your power goes out, if somebody’s hard drive somewhere goes out, and then nobody has any music anymore.”