Pinetop Seven – Toys in the attic
The band has overcome their industry aversion enough to play a few high-profile showcases (in addition to SXSW in Austin, they’ve also played the CMJ convention in New York). They attracted interest from numerous major labels who, after actually listening to the band’s music, promptly changed their minds. “Industry people, they sort of want to smooth out our edges,” says Kim. “All the elements we view as most interesting, they sort of want to smooth over. There’s a lot of kind of pop sensibilities within the group, but at the same time we’re kind of avant garde, sort of more cinematic leaning. Not that the songwriting isn’t important, but there are other concerns as well.”
The band remains signed to Chicago indie Atavistic for the near future at least. “We go to great lengths to come up with interesting arrangements and interesting instrumentation to flesh out the songs, but at the end of the day, it’s pop music,” says Kim. “Most of the songs have verses and choruses.”
Currently, Pinetop Seven figure they aren’t so uncommercial as to make a major-label deal out of the question, though there are more immediate worries. For instance, how to juggle day jobs (Kim is an intellectual properties lawyer; Richard works at a used record store) and touring schedules? Or, how to fit the band’s numerous vibraphones, violins, samplers, rain sticks and clarinets into Richard’s folks’ Suburban and a Ryder truck that’s already crowded with the three Pinetops and two additional touring members? “And don’t forget the fireworks,” says Richard. “Of course, our pyrotechnic show will just be incredible.”
Until now, Pinetop Seven have spent most of their creative lifetime in the attic home studio where they recorded all three of their records, which helps to explain their attachment to the dodgy neighborhood. The attic is an explosion of recording equipment, guitars, ’50s kitschy movie posters, Paul Westerberg CDs, a hundred dollar piano, an accordion, and numerous instruments so exotic no civilian could hope to identify them. “You always want more stuff, though,” Kim says wistfully. “I wouldn’t mind having more stuff.”
Richard and Kim, who have the pale skin and slightly perplexed air of studio creatures dragged from their natural habitats, swear they don’t want to return to the studio until it’s cold again. Earlier this year, they took only two weeks between the recording of Bellows and Rigging The Toplights, and they still seem slightly traumatized by the experience. The studio became like work: Get home from your day job, change your clothes, drag yourself up to the airless attic. For hours, for months at a time. “We’re not sure why we did it that way, but that’s a very good question,” Richard says. “We’ll probably never do that again.”
In their button-down shirts and sensible shoes, Kim and Richard couldn’t look less like people in a semi-alternative-country-but-not-really band. Both are hopelessly nice: Kim is the knob-twirler, gregarious — or what passes for gregarious as far as Pinetop Seven is concerned — and friendly. Richard is quiet, and a little grumpy.
They met in college in Nashville, though neither of them want anyone to know which one. “There was just this plantation mentality there. Our friends were always getting beaten up. We got beat up because we wore dresses,” Richard remembers. “And that was just when we went back home. That was by our parents.”
They’ve been working together almost nine years, all told: They played in the school jazz band, formed their own band for a while, and provided backup for a female singer-songwriter who hasn’t been heard from since, before moving to Chicago in the mid-1990s and forming Pinetop Seven.
Chicago, accustomed to embracing more extroverted, conventional insurgent country artists such as Wilco and Robbie Fulks, doesn’t seem to know what to make of them. They have a longstanding reputation, soon to change, as The Band That Never Plays Out. They remain guardedly popular, otherwise. They bowl with Chris Mills, sometimes collaborate with Chicago’s demi-legendary jazz improv outfit the Vandermark Five, and maintain, like most musicians in Chicago, loose working relationships with the ubiquitous members of Tortoise.
After years of living and working in sometimes excruciatingly close quarters, “We butt heads sometimes, but at the end of the day we’re almost always in agreement,” says Richard. They swear they almost always get along, but they promise to make up a good fight story if it will make everybody happy. “Darren, remember that time I pushed you down and just pummeled you repeatedly with that, um, spade?” asks Kim.
“Give us a while,” says Darren, “and we’ll come up with a better story than that.”
This winter, after the tour, Pinetop Seven plan to return to the attic for their usual period of prolonged hibernation. The next record will almost certainly be darker than the already grim Toplights, and will almost certainly bear even less of a resemblance to anything even remotely considered alternative country. “Or maybe we’ll even be writing chamber music or something,” says Kim. “Who knows?”
Allison Stewart is a Chicago-based freelance writer who continues to pray for the return of Michael Jordan and the reunion of the Replacements.