Two years ago, I was invited into a small independent radio station in San Diego to co-host a program they called "Coup de'tat." The idea was great-invite music types into the studio to play whatever the hell their tender little hearts desired.
It was only two hours-a lunch-and-toke break for real deejays-but I saw it as my opportunity to influence rock radio, which I thought had been marginalized to the brink of obsolescence. It was my mini-revolution, and I was DJ Castro, with CDs stacked in my backpack like artillery.
I flipped on The Gossip, and that bluesy little lesbian girl shouted her yowly righteousness to drivers on I-5. I cranked up the Drive-by Truckers for all them 18-wheelers far from home. I tossed on Talib Kweli to prove that I am white, not deaf. And, of course, I pimped my favorite local music-the elegiac sadness of the Black Heart Procession, the art-thumpery of Kill Me Tomorrow, the mathy drones of Goodbye, Blue Monday.
But I saved my secret weapon for last-the single greatest song I had heard in a long, long time. A peppy, saccharine indie-pop number that bowed at the alter of cute by using the word "dropsy." It alone embodied what I believed was wrong with FM radio: Here was an amazingly catchy tune from a well-respected duo of San Diego musicians, and not even the radio in the band's hometown was playing it.
Yet Green Day would be heard 12 times that day because they have a built-in audience, which means radio sales people could claim they have a built-in listenership by association.
When the first delicate guitar chords of "Penelope" trickled out of the studio speakers, I didn't think I had simply pushed "play" on the control board. I had pushed "why not?" I had forcefully pressed my finger down on "what the fuck?!"
And I was ready to make my claim as the first person to play Pinback on commercial San Diego radio.
"Man, this is such a phenomenal tune," I said to DJ Scott Riggs, bobbing my head a bit in a manner I alone considered rhythmic.
"Yeah," Riggs replied. "Tim Mays was in here last week and he played it, too."
Damn Mays. At 50-something years old, the owner of the Casbah retains his enviable habit of beating people to the punch.
Turns out, at the time, Riggs wasn't even playing play "Penelope" on his local-music show, "Go Loco."
Crime! Shame!, I thought.
But then he explained why-neither the band nor its record label had sent the radio station a copy of the album, Blue Screen Life. With Riggs in studio, I e-mailed the band's publicist and asked him to send a copy to 92/1-Riggs dug the tune and wanted to get behind it. A few weeks later, the DJ told me he still hadn't received anything.
In the age when major labels were paying tens of thousands of dollars to "independent promoters" to land single songs on mainstream radio (a practice that has since been frowned upon as payola-in-disguise), Pinback didn't even send a promo copy of their album down to local radio.
In the business, we call this "not giving a fuck."
This isn't surprising for those who know Rob Crow and Armistead Burwell Smith IV (known as Zach, for the syllabically challenged). Two of the most gifted musicians in San Diego, both have an ipecac-type reaction to mainstream media.
When asked how "Penelope" was picked up by FM radio, Crow says, "People liked the record, so they started playing it. People heard it on the radio and liked it, so they began requesting to hear it more often. I understand that's how it works, anyway. I only listen to NPR and Air America, myself."
Smith is as equally aloof. "I don't understand the workings of radio much. I mean, I guess most of the time its about money," he says. "But every once in a while you will hear somethin' cool on the radio... something unique. I'm not saying that is Pinback. I'm just hoping it is. I hope we give listeners a breath of fresh air."
Crow, especially, is known for sticking to his independent ideals so strictly that it occasionally pisses people off.
Five years ago, I assigned a writer to cover Pinback in SLAMM magazine (San Diego's music publication that became CityBeat). Near the end of their interview, the writer asked Crow what he thought of our publication.
Crow said it sucked. He despised it. We muttered self-consciously to ourselves and ran the story anyway.
At the 2002 San Diego Music Awards, a friend convinced Crow to attend the ceremonies and collect Pinback's award for Best Alternative Album for Blue Screen Life. Grudgingly, I'm presuming, he agreed.
Ray Argyle of San Diego band Plastic Explosive was in the audience that night. He recalls, "Rob went up and was mocking the whole affair with his acceptance speech. He basically spelled out his contempt for the voting system and the playing of favorites, etc. I had mixed feelings about his attitude, but I have to admit that part of me thought it was hilarious. Especially since their music is so easily consumed by the masses and they have been such local darlings all along. In spite of this, here's their front person being the most legitimately "punk rock' personality at the awards."
Yeah, Crow pretty much dissed the event. He also urged people to form their own bands, start their own magazines and operate pirate radio stations.
A musician once relayed the story to me about seeing Crow at a local rock dive. To make small talk, he told him he had heard "Penelope" on the radio, and really liked the song. According to the musician, Crow simply replied, "I don't listen to commercial radio."
Again, it's the truth. He doesn't.
So now Pinback finds itself in a strange situation. The mainstream media loves the band. 94/9 FM is playing songs from Summer in Abaddon, their new album on Touch & Go Records. 91X has it in rotation. NPR has focused on their music. They were just added to the second day of the 2005 Coachella Music & Arts Festival, and this week they play two sold-out nights at Spreckels Theatre downtown.
All this new interest from the mainstream, Crow admits, makes him nervous. "Best-case scenario is that we're creating a link for people to discover more subversive stuff. I hope I'm not just adding to the problem," he says.
Fans familiar with Crow and Smith's work probably aren't surprised with the success. Smith was in a band called Three Mile Pilot (along with Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins), who signed a deal with major label Geffen Records. Crow has been in a slew of bands considered among the best in the underground, including Optiganally Yours, Thingy, Heavy Vegetable and Physics.
"I can remember going to see Heavy Vegetable at Club Megalopolis, which is now a Pearson Ford Parking Lot," recalls singer-songwriter Gregory Page. "I thought way back then that Mr. Crow was an avant-garde genius. Hearing Pinback now proves that I was right."
So did it just take this long for the mainstream to recognize genius in its midst, or is Pinback a more accessible inroad into what Smith and Crow are capable of?
"Most of the music I write and listen to is usually challenging to the ear," Crow suggests. "I enjoy difficult, noisy and botched stuff. Pinback, on the other hand, is pretty easy for anyone to follow."
And following it they are. Because of Crow's wariness of mainstream media, very few would have predicted the band would sell out shows across the country. Many insiders have said that a similarly talented band-San Diego's No Knife-kept itself from larger fame thanks to vocalist-guitarist Mitch Wilson's unwillingness to join the mainstream parade.
But, for now at least, Crow and Smith seem warily gracious about it all. Even when it comes to "Penelope," which new fans have been shouting out requests for, as if Pinback is a hit-single type band.
"I like playing those songs, so there's no problem there," says Crow. "We usually play pretty long sets, so everyone leaves happy."
"Something I've learned about playing live and writing songs is never turn your back on any one of them," adds Smith. "I enjoy playing "Penelope,' and always will. But we're not gonna stop playing some of our more obscure songs just to appease people.
"Hopefully, we can continue to do both."
Pinback plays at Spreckels Theatre on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26. Both shows are sold out.