You never know when you’ll discover some indescribable drumming. Just such an experience awaits the listeners of the intriguing San Diego band Pinback, however, especially on the group’s fifth studio album, Information Retrieved.
The drummer on this deliciously mysterious indie-pop collection is Chris Prescott, who provides an unpredictable rhythmic core for Pinback founders Zach Smith (bass) and Rob Crow (vocals) to play off of. From behind his kit, Prescott has developed a very diplomatic role in helping the magic to unfold in a Pinback creation.
“Every song is different, and every song is a negotiation,” he explains. “Rob and Zach are opposites, so when a song comes together, it’s like a truce between their perspectives. What you hear is them negotiating their views on music, and struggling with that — that’s what makes the band interesting.”
But that’s not the only thing that makes the band interesting: Prescott has a sizable share in that effect as well, and it’s plain as day on “Proceed To Memory,” the opening track of Information Retrieved. The muse of a calmly beautiful solo guitar leads off the song like a lucid dream until 0:19, when Prescott appears with a kick/rim-click pattern that’s lovely to listen to — but devilishly hard to duplicate.
“There are several songs on the record that have this two-against-three feel,” Prescott says. “This is one of those rhythms where you have a strict quarter-note on the rim, but the kick is playing a pattern that’s based in three. Things are pulling against each other. It’s actually very simple: an almost metronomic rim, with this contrast underneath it.”
Prescott continues the pattern with almost no variation clear to 0:58. It’s a characteristic of his playing that shows up again and again throughout Information Retrieved — and there’s a reason for that. “It’s about finding a good rhythm that’s not fighting what’s going on, with a hypnotic repetition,” notes Prescott. “I’m a drum teacher as well, and now I’m telling students things I didn’t want to hear when I was a kid: ‘Play simple; don’t show off all the time; just keep a good groove.’
“Repetition is powerful — it creates an entrancing effect, and it provides a foundation to the song, instead of being the song. I find repeating parts to be really interesting, like in the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, and it’s a cool element in pop music.”
At that aforementioned 0:58 mark, Prescott kicks off a rock beat that pulses without being aggressive, providing a good backbone for the chorus but with a lighter touch. “With the hi-hat coming in, the rhythm progresses and gets a little louder,” he observes. “There’s a sort of accent on the & of 2 and 3. The hi-hat cymbals come in to create this almost linear feel — there’s an empty space, but it’s going to the cymbals, which are taking on that weight. The result is the same dynamic for the chorus as the verse, but a different color.”
At 1:34, Prescott plays what may be the first fill of the entire song — a single open hi-hat strike that leads to the slightly harder version of the beat he was just playing. “I think it sort of serves as a punctuation,” he says of the subtly effective transition. “A lot of times my role in the band is not to overdo it, trying to say what you need to say without too many flourishes. It’s almost like an anti-fill, but it marks the section and that’s the point. It’s says, ‘We’re going somewhere new.’
“And honestly, a lot of times certain things are played simply because they’re instinctual. I may talk about something and give a reason for it, but sometimes it’s just what’s happened.”
At 2:07, “Proceed To Memory” enters an energetic clearing of sorts — a bridge that’s quietly charged by an influx of skipping ghost notes on the snare. “That’s always a good feel!” Prescott enthuses. “Attention to dynamics is very important so that you don’t get those parts too loud. Instead, sections like that are more textural. I don’t want them to pop out as part of the rhythm; I want to keep the rhythm going, but if I add the ghost notes it won’t change the foundations of the rhythm.
“And also, when those ghost notes appear, it means we’re into the song. Things are loosening up, and that’s a comfortable feel for me. It’s not, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to play ghost notes now.’ It’s, ‘Yay! I’m going to play ghost notes now!’ It helps the rhythm fit together and flow.”
Presumably, Prescott gets downright ecstatic at 2:23, when the bridge blows up into a powerful surge, driving forward on rolling toms and single-stroke roll shots on the snare. “That’s the trickiest part of the whole song, for sure,” he acknowledges. “My right hand is playing eighth-notes on the floor tom and my left hand is playing quarter-notes on the hi hat. During this I’m filling in all the offbeat sixteenth-notes with my bass drum — the effect is a sort of quasi double-bass rhythm. Each pattern ends with a sixteenth-note fill on the snare drum. When the rolls resolve to the downbeat you have to quickly move your left hand back to the hi-hat from the snare in consecutive sixteenth-notes without it sounding sketchy.
“It’s a big contrast to the part at the beginning, where it was just a rim-click and bass drum doing almost a drum-machine feel. Since that’s the peak of the song, that’s where I’m doing my fills and flourishes: There’s room there to get a little crazier, and help bring the excitement up.”
The uplifting jam continues until 3:27, when the action culminates in a big cymbal crash that leads Prescott back to the simply spare rim-and-kick beat he began with. For this drummer who deftly blends intellect and instinct, “Proceed To Memory” adds up to a winding musical adventure.
“It definitely feels like a journey,” he agrees. “Obviously, there are places where it’s not totally moving in a straight line. One of the things that brings that element out is Rob’s singing — he goes from whispering to belting it out, and as a more experienced player I’m trying to follow that. When I started out I’d think, ‘Am I playing something cool?’ But now I think, ‘Am I playing something that supports the vocalist?’”