Second Banana Blues
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."
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.
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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."
Kannberg stands his ground: "They had the chance to make more [money], but they didn't want to commit to touring. I have to say, they are great musicians, but I get the feeling they had the wrong impression of what kind of band this was going to be. I respect and value everything Jon and Andy contributed to All This Sounds Gas and feel the credits, written while they were still in the band, reflect their part in the recordings."
In the end, Borger and Erickson were paid only as session musicians on an album they assert they engineered and co- produced, and they'll receive nothing from the album's profits. Kannberg "kind of just changed his mind" about how he was going to pay them, says Erickson. "So I asked him, 'You mean to say you honestly believe that you came to me with your songs and that I did not improve your songs by 1 percent?' And he said no."
At best, the problem stems from Kannberg not knowing what he wanted from PSOI or, at least, not conveying his wishes very well to the rest of the band. "Scott wants things to be good," says Erickson. "He's just bad at communicating."
Kannberg is clear about one thing: "This band was around before they entered the picture, and it goes on without them," he says.
But if much of All This Sounds Gas's greatness is owed to the contributions of the former musicians, then it will be interesting to see where Preston School of Industry goes from here.
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