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Last February, a user named Lorolyon created a thread on Pinbackfreak, Pinback's official forum, with a compelling title: "Any strange effects from Pinback? Supernatural properties of Pinback music [sic]." The writer, whom we'll assume is male, revealed he was in a motorcycle accident a couple of years ago, and "listening to Pinback helped with the pain almost as much as the morphine did." Because of amnesia, he'd been unable to determine what led up to the accident, but absorbing the San Diego indie rockers' material gave him more puzzle pieces to work with. "The morphine, pain and music of Pinback sort of twisted together for me, and sometimes when I listen to certain Pinback songs, I get flashbacks from the accident, and memories come back to me. It has also helped me to remember certain things from my childhood."
"Lyon," a track from This Is Not a Pinback CD that sports the enigmatic refrain of "Pave the way for the Manta-Ray," holds particular meaning for him. (Not coincidentally, "Loro" is another song from that same 1998 debut full-length.)
Lorolyon ended his post with a question: "Does Pinback hold any supernatural properties for anyone else, or am I just imagining it?"
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Asking Rob Crow, the guitarist/vocalist who co-founded Pinback with Zach Smith in the early 1990s, if he's received similar feedback from other fans yields a surprisingly quick and casual response. "Yeah, of course," he says. Trying to get Crow to detail what exactly he's heard from other Pinback fans, however, is futile. Not only is Crow skeptical of these ideas in the first place, but also, when I call him up, he's not particularly talkative. Interviewing him is a roll of the dice: One day, he'll be revealing and spit out incisive quips left and right; on others, he's impenetrably wary. During our conversation, he's polite but very reserved, using "I don't know" and variations thereof in most answers.
While Crow isn't forthcoming about analyzing supernatural experiences, it isn't hard to understand why the band elicit these associations. Their music is in serious pursuit of trying to understand the self as intricately and deeply as possible—so much so that it can feel like it's extending onto a whole other plane. They abstain from melodramatic explosions, instead embracing contained, precise movements and pained, half-smiling melodies. Crow and Smith's work is enchantingly secretive, providing sparsely arranged stories for lyrics and leaving ample room for listeners to color in the spaces. At a fundamental level, Pinback's songs serve the same function as many pop tunes by fitting desperation, confusion and other messy emotions into palatable, digestible packages. Feel free to hum along here, but do pay mind to all the goddamn sadness buried under the surface.
Pinback's beginnings were shrouded in a similar sense of uncertainty. When Crow and Smith originally met, they weren't instant BFFs. "We sort of seemed to avoid each other," Crow says with a soft chuckle. Both had bands and ended up as roommates for about two months, bonding as musicians who decided to work together. Crow is circumspect when assessing anything he might have wanted Pinback's formation to accomplish. "The only ambition I ever had was to try to make something that I'd be interested in and would make me happy," he says.
He later revisits this idea by noting he wanted to make "something that would be challenging to the listener and the artist, yet would somehow be inherently catchy."
Music is constantly bubbling in his head. Crow's résumé includes a boatload of non-Pinback projects, including Thingy, Heavy Vegetable, the Ladies, Goblin Cock, Physics and Team Sleep. Smith, meanwhile, has been in several others, such as Three Mile Pilot. Pinback's last major release was 2007's Autumn of the Seraphs, and their fifth full-length, Information Retrieved, should follow in early 2012. Crow isn't able to articulate what keeps his attraction to this project afloat after so many years behind them and so many other distractions available. "I honestly don't know," he says. "If I did know, it would probably ruin it."
Not surprisingly, attempting to squeeze details about Information Retrieved out of Crow does little good. "There are ideas, but they can't be talked about until they're all done," the guitarist says.
"You're very cryptic," I say, and his response is five words that speak volumes about why all the smoke and fog exist in Pinback's world:
"That is exactly the point."
This article appeared in print as "This Is Not a Crow Interview: Pinback make the most out of forlorn mysteriousness."