Second Banana Blues

Scott Kannberg shows the world how to win fans and lose friends

Sometimes it's hard not to root for the rock 'n' roll second fiddle. Take KISS. Sure, Paul Stanley gets to stand in the middle of the stage with his shirt off and sing most of the songs, but wouldn't you rather be Gene Simmons? You'd get to play a bass that looks like a medieval executioner's ax while burping blood out of your nose and mouth. You'd also get to dress up like a futuristic Kabuki space demon and sing "God of Thunder" while floating above the audience on trick cables. It makes you wonder if Simmons really is the second fiddle.

San Francisco Bay Area musician Scott Kannberg is no satanic fire-breathing rock 'n' roll space clown in a codpiece (yet), but the guitarist and Pavement co-founder certainly brings more to the table these days than the more famed Stephen Malkmus, whose solo album sounds like Pavement outtakes. Kannberg's band, the Preston School of Industry, has just put out an amazing album called All This Sounds Gas. In the process of this debut, however, Kannberg has alienated himself from most of the musicians who worked on the album.

The question is, does Kannberg want PSOI to be a band or his solo project? "The same time that I wanted to do something musically different from Pavement was when Steve decided to quit the band," recalls Kannberg. "I've always wanted to do something like this, but I was kinda scared."

To his sidemen, Kannberg's All This Sounds Gas emits a foul odor.
To his sidemen, Kannberg's All This Sounds Gas emits a foul odor.

With a head full of songs left over from his Pavement days, Kannberg has delivered an astonishing album of post-punk-influenced power pop, replete with twangy tones and kinetic rhythms. All This Sounds Gas is such a refreshing surprise that one can't help but marvel at how this "second fiddle" has prevailed in originality. The album gives Pavement fans something Malkmus's solo debut couldn't: a remarkable new direction.

Sure, there are murky vestiges of the Pavement style, but the central sound here is the result of a new chemistry between the PSOI band members. It's this chemistry that makes the album, though Kannberg is reluctant to call his new ensemble a band. "Now, I'm not so into the idea of PSOI being a band," he says. "We did the record with Jon [Erickson] and Andy [Borger], and there was a bunch of people doing some stuff, but it's still more of a project than a band. A band is all about finding the right people."

In the future, the "right" people likely won't be bass player Erickson and drummer Borger, and that's fine with them. Working with Kannberg, they say, was not a positive experience. Not only did he skimp on paying them, they say, but he also refused to give them proper credit on the album.

"When we were doing the final mixes, [Kannberg] put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me and said that I was going to be credited [as producer] on the album, and I wasn't," says Erickson. He and Borger have played with the Moore Brothers and the Kinetics, and Borger has also played with Tom Waits, among many others. The two record and produce bands for a living at Erickson's Berkeley studio, Casa De Eva, where most of All This Sounds Gas was recorded and mixed. Yet when the album was released, Erickson and Borger were credited only as contributing musicians, not as producers or engineers.

"The crediting thing is important," says Erickson. "To Scott it may not be important, but to Andy and me it means everything."

Kannberg says that he didn't view the musicians as engineers or producers. Borger and Erickson "were the drummer and bass player and members of the band," he says. "I didn't see them as engineers, and I definitely didn't see them as the album's sole producers. Yes, they helped in numerous ways, and I'm sorry they feel they haven't received enough attention or credit, but they're in the band bio and the liner notes, and most interviewers ask about them, too. In the end, I wrote all the songs, incurred all the costs for recording, took all the risk, and I paid these guys what I thought was fair."

PSOI certainly doesn't sound like a Scott Kannberg solo project. While much of All This Sounds Gas reflects Kannberg's love for Television and the Clean, there are equal reflections of Erickson's and Borger's soulful influences and resources. They also called upon other down-home dignitaries: The production dips into psychedelic backward tape loops and snappy '60s guitar fuzz provided by Tom Ayers from Persephone's Bees. "A Treasure @ Silver Bank" segues into some lazy country-folk dressed up with astounding pedal-steel parts picked by Dave Phillips, a twang genius whom Erickson brought to the session. Erickson's former front man Bart Davenport (Kinetics, Loved Ones) wrote and sang some buttery backing vocal parts. Erickson also brought in Marc Capelle (Kinetics), who wrote and played impressive horn parts on a handful of songs. "We banged that shit out like a real band," says Borger. "That's why the publishing issue really surprised me."

Erickson and Borger also express bewilderment that Kannberg reneged on his original deal to give the two of them a specific percentage of the album's profits. "Our agreement was a verbal one. At this point we were bros, so I just assumed that his word was solid," says Erickson. "The truth is that I thought that we were friends, and I feel used."

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