The Fightback: Rob Crow Interviewed

Sean Kitching talks to the cult Pinback, Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Optiganally Yours and Goblin Cock musician Rob Crow about returning to the fray

‘I never listen to the radio/But if they want to play our stuff/That’s o.k. with me…/They don’t play Slint on the radio/They don’t play Sentridoh/They don’t play Zappa/They don’t play Beefheart/They don’t play Can/They don’t play The Residents/They don’t even play/Renaldo and the Loaf/the Velvet Underground…Sometimes they will play Devo. (Devo)’
‘Radio’ by Heavy Vegetable, 1995

New Jersey born, San Diego resident, Rob Crow, has been making music in a multitude of guises since the mid-90s. Although Pinback, formed with Zach Smith of the band Three Mile Pilot, is the most successful of his musical projects, Crow’s own bands, Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, Optiganally Yours (named after a 1970s electronic keyboard which utilises pre-recorded optical soundtracks, called the Optigan) and his doom metal outfit Goblin Cock, as well a number of solo albums released under his own name, are where the quintessential Crow tunes are to be found. Crow’s penchant for pretty melodies rendered with a restless kind of instrumental complexity, combined with his distinctive voice make all of his work instantly recognisable, the best of it occupying a more genre fluid, poppier take on math rock.

The Heavy Vegetable and Thingy albums exhibit a roughly hewn, nervous energy-fuelled charm, and a lyrical line in cool pop culture references, such as Wesley Willis (‘Song For Wesley’), Henry Mancini (‘Henry Mancini Goes Surfing’), and Jackie Chan (‘Jackie Chan Is A Punk Rocker’). Whilst the relatively epic 6.05 closer to 1995s Frisbie, ‘Going Steady With The Limes,’ emits a sustained off-kilter instrumental intricacy and loveliness of intertwining male/female vocal that resonated sympathetically with music being made by UK contemporaries, The Monsoon Bassoon, who in due course became fans. The 2007 album Wake Up Swimming, released under the Other Men moniker, is a mini-masterpiece of elusive quicksilver melodies, tunes without choruses, yet filled with more hooks and harmonies than would seem possible within its succinct 37-minute duration. Ex-Monsoon Bassoon guitarist and vocalist, Kavus Torabi, chose the album for his 2014 Quietus Baker’s Dozen, saying: “You play it a hundred times and keep finding more in it.”

More recently, Crow returned from an eight month break from music making, with his strongest album for many years, You’re Doomed Be Nice, under the name Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place. With a short UK tour planned for late August, backed by Torabi (Knifeworld, Cardiacs, Guapo, Gong), Craig Fortnam (North Sea Radio Orchestra), Cheb Nettles (Gong) and Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti, Prescott), Crow spoke to tQ, (with additional comments from Torabi), via email, about naming bands, influences and current musical favourites, mutual appreciation between cult musicians and grindcore protest songs in the Trump era.

Having appeared on over 50 albums since the mid-90s, are there any particular recordings that are favourites of yours? Any that you feel might represent good entry points for people unfamiliar with your work? Personally, I consider the Other Men album, Wake Up Swimming, the Pinback EP Offcell and your most recent, You’re Doomed Be Nice, as your best work.

Rob Crow: Thank you. I also consider Wake Up Swimming as the best thing I’ve ever released. Although it might be my least selling! In truth, the best record I’ve ever made is Optiganally Yours – O.Y. In Hi-Fi, which has been done for years, but will hopefully surface some time this year via Joyful Noise! I’m also not too ashamed of Heavy Vegetable – Frisbie, The Ladies – They Mean Us, and I’ve been up to my eyeballs in these Anal Trump records I’ve been pouring out (mostly straight to charity). Also, there is an unreleased Thingy album that is pretty charged up fast stuff with no acoustic stuff, hopefully out the someday called Morbid Curiosity.

Can you shed some light on the kind of names that you picked for your bands? I always wondered if it was because you spent so much time recording this lovely, intricate pop music, that the band names (like Heavy Vegetable and Thingy) were a little silly, almost throwaway, but perhaps there’s more to it than that?

RC: The Residents, and their "Theory of Obscurity," have always been a huge influence on me. I only wanted to make music for the most pure of reasons. The way they did it was by disguising themselves so that people would drawn to the music for its own sake and no one could find them to warp their personal artistic view. The way I tried to pull it off was by making a rule that I would "never name a band something that anyone would ever want to have a tattoo of". The idea being that, if the music was good enough, no one would care WHAT it was called. Most bands are looking for an angle to ingratiate themselves to the populous. I have never wanted a part of that. I thought, "No nerd would ever be punched in the face during recess by a jock wearing a Heavy Vegetable shirt." The only time I wavered on this rule was by with Pinback (though, the name is extremely geeky if you’re aware of the reference) [a character played by writer and director Dan O’Bannon in John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star]. Consequently, It is by large margin, the most popular thing I have ever done. Also, there are Pinback tattoos all over the damn place.

The Heavy Vegetable track ‘Radio’ really made an impression on me when I first heard it. It’s a bit like your ‘Losing My Edge’ in the sense that it lists a bunch of seminal artists for you personally.

RC: Well, I’ve never heard ‘Losing My Edge’ (I’m listening to it right now). It’s funny, when I wrote ‘Radio’ I was a Zappa guy that listened to a little Beefheart, and now Beefheart is my hero I can only handle a little Hot Rats every now and then. Other older stuff i’ve been spinning quite a lot of lately: Rudimentary Peni – Death Church/Cacophony, Nino Rota – Giulietta Degli Spiriti, Bernard Herrmann – Beneath The 12-mile Reef, and I got really back into the Moody Blues ‘core seven’ (minus Days Of Future Passed and Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour which I could never get down to). And I still listen to a lot of Crash Worship.

Perhaps you could also name some current music that you’re listening to?

RC: Gladly! Spray Paint are a guitar/guitar/drums band from Austin, Texas that all sing together in a sort of This Heat through catchy psychedelic monotony sort of way. Driving, depressing, and hilarious. Palm from Philadelphia are like watching the gears of a giant gorgeous clock lurch and weave as time folds in on itself. There’s a band called Tiala from Japan that has a song called ‘Dirty Floor In Bright’ (from the album of the same name) that is my go-to for getting hyped up at the gym.

I know you have spoken about your ‘semi-retirement’ from music before, but could you briefly outline it here for tQ readers who may be unfamiliar with the story?

RC: I was just too poor, drunk, fat, depressed, and wasn’t able to express myself artistically as freely anymore. The little money I had been making dried up and we almost lost our (very modest) house. Most of the reasons I always wanted to make music all changed. I just wanted to make records, play shows, and raise a family. Bottom line is that I’ve been sober and healthy for over two years and lost 100 lbs through a manic diet and exercise regimen – of which the music of Cardiacs have been a huge influence on.

How have the US Gloomy Place shows been going? I see that you’ve also started doing solo sets too. Is that going to be something you can see yourself doing more of?

RC: I’d love to do more solo sets. The band shows are all over the map, attendance-wise. All I can say for sure is that we play our guts out every night.

You have a UK tour coming up in August, backed by a transatlantic supergroup of sorts, featuring Kavus Torabi, Craig Fortnam, Cheb Nettles and Rhodri Marsden. How did that come about?

RC: I’m still not sure I’m just being pranked. It was all their idea and it seems like a dream come true. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it!

Kavus Torabi elaborates: I became aware of Rob’s music in the late nineties. My band, The Monsoon Bassoon, had been playing gigs with Rothko and a couple of the guys seemed incredulous that we hadn’t heard any Heavy Vegetable ("But they’re the American Bassoon!"). Certainly they had an equally clunky name. The next time I saw them I was given a cassette with Heavy Vegetable’s Frisbie on one side and Thingy’s Songs About Angels on the other. I was hooked instantly. One of those rare moments for me akin to hearing Cardiacs or Shudder To Think for the first time where I felt as if the entire band’s existence had been cooked up solely for my benefit. Since then I’ve kept up with most of Rob Crow’s output, in as much as is possible, he’s so prolific. Rob is one of those auteurs where, regardless of what genre he’s working in, everything sounds like his stuff. He’s such a terrific songwriter, to me his work has been just as important as Syd Barrett or Andy Partridge.

Because we’re the same sort of age I can hear the similarity in our influences too. Hearing the song ‘Radio’ for the first time just confirmed that. As with everything that gets its teeth into me, I’ve been on a pretty evangelical trip of turning most of my friends on to his music too, one of whom was Tim Smith [Cardiacs]. I did him a compilation Minidisc called "Rob Crow Stuff" in the late 90’s but didn’t list the separate bands, just the songs. Tim said he couldn’t hear any difference, he loved it all.

As you may know, since his accident in 2008, it’s very hard for Tim to get out to gigs anymore. It’s heartbreaking for so many reasons but particularly because Tim is a guy that loved going to see bands, when he wasn’t doing it he loved being around other people doing it. We have this annual convention in Salisbury where we put together a bill of artists that Tim loves, while it is a fundraiser, it’s mainly so Tim can get in amongst it and watch all his favourite stuff. We thought how brilliant it would be to get Rob over to play, especially since he had become such a fan of Tim’s music. Realising it would be financially impossible to get his whole band over, I had the idea that we could be his band. We really weren’t sure if Rob would go for it so it’s so exciting that he has. I saw Pinback a couple of times in London in the early 2000’s and chatted to Rob briefly, as far as I know he hasn’t played in the UK since.

Since you’re headlining the Alphabet Business Convention in Salisbury on the 26th August, I have to ask, will there be a Cardiacs cover in the set? Also, which of your own material are you planning on playing on this tour?

RC: As I was saying before, Tim Smith and Cardiacs music were a huge part of my recovery.

I went deep down that rabbit hole. I actually sent Tim a gushing "fan letter" over Facebook (and I fucking hate Facebook) and I was so nervous. I can tell you that there will be at least one cover, but you might not know when it has happened. I don’t do straight covers. I appreciate interpretations. As for my own material, there’ll be a little of everything, excluding Pinback.

Finally, do you feel that the best art, music, literature etc can sometimes come in opposition to a repressive, unpleasant government such as the current US one? Perhaps it’s a kind of desperation, trying to find a positive spin anywhere in this depressing situation, but it does seem as though Trump is galvanising the opposition in a way not seen for some time.

RC: It’s just so fucking awful. The idiots and bullies are in charge and are trying to sit on our chests until we say uncle. I believe we are all in the world together, but others believe they deserve to be a little more in it than anybody else. I haven’t heard any galvanising protest music since Nation Of Ulysses (and they were mostly protesting things like sleeping and not having enough candy). We need Fugazi right fucking now! The problem is that the 60’s just became an ad experiment on how to profit from pseudo-revolution. All "protest" music right now is self-involved and fucking BORING! I’ve been putting out a grind-core band called Anal Trump, in which I write and play all the instruments and Travis from Cattle Decapitation sings. He’s amazingly talented at what he does. So far we’ve released a 7" (30 songs), 3 5"s (10 songs each), and are working on the full length (120 songs). The profits from all the 5"s go to charities such as Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place UK, plays: A live session for March Riley on BBC Radio 6, August 22; The Deaf Institute, Manchester, August 22; Stereo, Glasgow, August 23; Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London, August 24; Salisbury Art Centre at the Alphabet Business Convention, August 26

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