Perfect Sound Forever


left to right: Cris, Stephen, Matt

Drudge-rocking with Pinebender
by Wes Freeman (June 2002)

Between the first opening band and the headliner, my friend and I were supposed to do something. It didn't matter what, we were just waiting for J Mascis to take the stage at Chicago's Empty Bottle and we had to kill time with something besides our sixth Pabst Blue Ribbon (you can taste 'em after five, but you sure can't feel 'em). We decided to make our way to the stage and wait through the next act.

The band brought out what looked like an orange Danelectro (actually Jerry Jones) guitar, a small drum set, and another electric guitar. "Aha," I told my friend. "This is a honky-tonk band or maybe some kind of '50's band. They're called Pinebender, like 'High As A Georgia Pine,' see? They'll bring out the stand-up bass any second."

No bass was forthcoming. Pinebender brought the drudge. Chris Hansen, a tall-blond crew-cutted fellow, strummed loosely at his Telecaster and a young teengenerate-looking guy named Stephen Howard fell thickly in behind him on the drums. A very slow, very loud groove coagulated on stage between the two musicians as some guy who looked like a Fiennes brother strapped on the Jerry Jones and stood there. This went on for a few minutes as tension built in the room. It wasn't a gimmicky tactic for live shows, this is the way their songs sound on their CD's, too: the steady thump, snap, crash of Howard's drums against Hansen's minimal chord-strumming, which sounds appealingly like something halfway between a chime and a drone.

"It's not '50's," my friend said. I would have replied, but then Matt Clark, the man with the orange guitar, started to play and no one could have heard me over that.

Clark's instrument,­ a baritone guitar which is tuned a fifth lower than a regular guitar, ­ sounded nothing like any guitar I'd ever heard. Both he and Hansen count Dinosaur Jr. as an influence, so perhaps the loud swathes of white noise issuing from Clark's amp were just nods to J Mascis' occasional use of non-tonal effects, but it sounded more like something Merzbow would do than anything from the strings of the slacker father. Pinebender was perhaps six minutes into "There's A Bag of Weights In The Back of My Car" (the first cut on its debut album, Things Are About To Get Weird on Ohiogold Records) and everything was perfect. The music was full, organic, and bristling with energy. The sound was more than the sum of its players and that made it challenging, but it was also simple in its construction, which made it easy to swallow. The band was already impossible to ignore, and Hansen hadn't even started singing yet.

When he did send his voice out over the churning sonic swamp, the band was pouring on those of us below the stage, it was just as impressive as the sound of his guitar. They both share a firm, but crystalline sound; they both exhibit an unwavering yearning.

I left the show after Pinebender played many songs better than that one, with the image in my head of a band possessed of sheer aural charisma. Clark had gone on to out-Mascis the master (who was playing solo that night) on "How It Will Happen," his eyes closed and rolled back in his head as he pitted his stair-step riff against Hansen's plaintive thrumming. Hansen hammered his strings with the palm of his hand to produce a sort of squelching comp for Clark's splattering leads. Howard kept it all rolling with his Bonham-on-barbiturates appeal.

"We call it the drudge," Hansen later told me when discussing the highly distinctive sound the band produce with a seeming minimum of effort. "I don't know if we started out with a goal or a sound in mind, but in writing new songs I think we have found there is way that our music turns out which is slow, noisy, and loud," he added. "And the songs tend to be long. All three of us know how we like this band to sound. If there is a goal it's probably to try to be powerful and pretty at the same time."

The day after the show when I ran into Clark at a local record shop (I was actually buying Things Are About To Get Weird), he was self-deprecating.

"You guys really blew my head off last night," I told him.

"Oh," he said, sparing half a smile, "that was probably just the amps."

"Matt and Stephen went to high school together," Hansen told me when I caught up with him later for an interview. "I met both of them through a mutual friend that I went to college with. I got to know them well when they both moved to Madison for the summer of 1995 to play in another band they were in together at the time." 1997 found them all living in Chicago. Hansen had written some songs, which he played for Howard, who is primarily known in Chicago as a bassist.

"I knew Stephen would be interested in playing drums so I played him the songs," Hansen explained. "He liked them and suggested we ask Matt if he would be interested in playing with us. So I played the songs for Matt and he was into the idea, too. Matt had gotten a baritone guitar in a trade with a friend and was excited about playing it in the band. That worked well because he was able to play the low end role as well as play it as the lead guitar."

Clark, also a bassist for Joan of Arc, plays several instruments in Pinebender. The liner notes for Things Are About To Get Weird list him as playing baritone guitar, 12-string guitar, 16-string guitar, bass guitar, and the B2.

"The B2 is just a single note ­ I think it must be a B­ on some old synth at Electrical (Audio Engineering, where Things was recorded)," Hansesn said. "The sixteen string guitar is some strange instrument Steve (Albini, the album's producer) had. It's a guitar with sixteen strings all of which are tuned to the same note. I don't remember which note. Matt played it on "Bag of Weights." When that song gets really noisy at the end, he was playing a solo of sorts on that instrument."

The band honed its sound in the home of its drummer's parents in northern Chicago. They played their first show in 1998 on April Fool's Day "in a bar in the back room of a taquerria" (the band's earliest recordings are available on their March 2002 EP Too Good To Be True, also on Ohiogold).

The tempo of the band's sound gradually slowed down and its sonic palette widened as Pinebender matured. "I think we all wanted Pinebender to be a big rock outfit from the beginning," Hansen said. "We were very loud from the start. Matt was getting great sounds out of the baritone, especially cool was the way guitar solos sounded. He also started conjuring plain old noise out of it, which began to work its way into the songs in spots. I think we always have been pretty down tempo, although we have definitely become even slower over time."

When asked about "the noise" that is a major feature in the band's solos and often offsets the melodies during their songs, Hansen was direct. "The noise is something that we go after intentionally," he answered. "Some songs seem to ask for the noise, or maybe it's our gag. Loud and noisy. I think the squalls and screeches add to the songs they are in. They make you pay attention. You'll probably listen for some strange sound you liked to come around when you listen to the record again. I don't know if we overdo it or not, but I like being melodic and noisy within the same song.

"I think we do reach for a melodic aesthetic, if not throughout every song entirely," he continued. "We want the songs to be songs, not just periodic noise. Though it's really fun to turn Matt loose.

"Part of the reason we have always played loudly is that at lower volumes, it is hard to get the amplifier to spit out those strange noises. When you stand before your amp with it turned up a bit and you step on a couple of distortion pedals, if you mute the strings or let the notes ring out you get feedback. That is what's happening when I'm chopping at the neck or swinging the guitar around up close and then away from the amp. It sounds like big, swooping, angry birds attacking.

"We started noticing unplanned outbursts when we recorded (Things). We'd be listening to playback and hear these strange ghost squeals and chirps. We definitely feel like those things are a part of what we're going for, or what we're good at."

Clark's tastes in effects are even more varied than his tastes in instruments, Hansen said. At least as far as Pinebender is concerned.

"He's got like thirteen or so when he plays with Pinebender, he's got distortion, octave/distortion, fuzz, delay, tremolo. He's got one that works like a Theremin with a copper plate attached that changes the tone with the proximity of his foot to it. On the new record, he gets some noises that don't even sound remotely like a guitar to me. It sounds really cool. When we first started playing together, he was jamming spackling knives between the strings and rolling hand percussion instruments over them. On "Bag of Weights" he uses a chrome vibrator. He's got a lot going on over there."

In February 1999, Pinebender recorded its debut album with Steve Albini. "Working with Steve was great," Hansen said. "His studio is super nice. He taught me how to play billiards. He makes great coffee, really strong. He told us what it's like to have a heart attack. His gear and microphones are top notch. Mostly though, he is just great at what he does. I think the way he records was a pretty perfect match for us. The record really just sounds like our instruments do. The songs are the songs, but the record sounds incredible. He did a great job for us. Sweet guy, as is the rest of the crew at Electrical."

Hansen said he enjoyed recording and feels the record capture Pinebender's sound well. "I really like recording. Being in a studio with all of the cool microphones, and outboard gear, the tape machine and mixing console is fun to me," he said. "Truthfully, the only part that is frustrating for me is tracking vocals. That is not my favorite part, but I am the singer so you'll have that. I think it is fun also because you are committing your creations and ideas to a permanent format. They will never disappear. Proof of our existence. Fake immortality.

"We tracked the new record (The Price of Living Too Long With A Single Dream, due out in late spring or early summer on Ohiogold) in Champaign, Illinois at Pogo Studio. Also a very nice studio. Great gear and lots of it. Nice folks as well. Mark Rubel and Gary Strater engineered the session there. We mixed in Chicago at Kingsize Sound Labs with Mike Hagler. That whole process was great fun also."

All the members of Pinebender are involved in other projects also. "Matt played in Joan of Arc for the tour behind Live in Chicago and played on The Gap and the last EP (How Can Anything So Little Be More) and on those tours as well," Hansen said. "Matt has a new guitar and drums duo called Rabbit Rabbit." Rabbit Rabbit features fellow Chicago musician Kim Ambriz. The duo released the EP Riddle Riddle last year on Honk If You're A Moose.

"Matt and Stephen also played in The Love Of Everything before our pal Bobby Burg took his show to Brooklyn," Hansen continues. "Stephen plays bass guitar in some Chicago blues bands and a great rock and roll band from Iowa City fronted by our friend David Zollo. He also writes songs of his own and has played out a couple of times as the Sick Boy. Pinebender is my first band. I am working on songs which I plan to release under the name Paletazo someday, actually my friend Bobby and I recorded three songs together and a tiny label here in Chicago called Plainfield Elementary released it on a CD-R called the Love of Paletazo."

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