SOUNDTRACKING: Exchanges On The Road With Pterodactyl, En Route To Electric Owl

by Daniel ColussiPterodactyl are three guys who’ve gained a reputation for playing a kind of brainy, seizure-inducing style of rock that’s hard to categorize. And they’re OK with that. But with their newest longplayer, Spills Out, the band embraces the cornerstones of classic 60’s pop: sunny harmonies and poppy piano lines set atop a vibe of brooding melancholia. It’s a turn that serves the band well. Still present are the jerky rhythms and left turns hooks, but never before has the band ever sounded this focused or aurally digestible. I chatted with singer/guitarist Joe Kremer about the new album, the audacious homage to Superman in their home made video for School Glue, and whether the kids these days think it’s cool to be in a band. Dig in…

TOUR

Where are you guys right now?

We’re just outside Portland. We’re driving up from Redding, California. It’s kind of a long haul. Not too long ago we – my folks live outside San Francisco in Pacificit. And we were there for Thanksgiving which was nice. It was real comfy.

And the tour has been well, the shows have been good?

Things have been going really well. We’re excited to be back in Vancouver, it’s been a little while. This show is going to be good. We’ve been traveling around with a piano and organ player for the first time, just because a lot of the songs have got keys in them. And even the songs that don’t kind of have a backbone of chord progressions in a way that they never have before. So having the keyboard live in the band makes a huge, huge difference. Yeah, the album has got a fair amount of keys on it, and I was reading that you guys used this this weird Kawasaki keyboard that has since been discontinued.  Yeah, we…um…unfortunately had to leave it at home because it was a little bit too rickety. We took it on tour once down to South By Southwest and broke two of them. We thought “Um, this is not sustainable.” But, you know, we may figure out someway to still get those sounds. The thing makes some amazing sounds, it’s awesome.

I’d never heard of this particular keyboard before, but I read that it folds in half somehow?

You can find pictures of it on the internet. Actually, it’s featured in the video that we made not too long ago. I’m like holding it and it’s folded in half, but like, you can unfold it so that it’s got all the keys on one side.

GENERAL ZOD

I didn’t catch that in the video. It was a subtle touch! But I wanted to ask you about this video because it’s pretty insane. It’s based on the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie from the 70s. And one thing that really struck me is how much your drummer Matt Marlin resembles the actor Terrence Stamp in his portrayal of General Zod in that movie. Was that part of the inspiration or what?

Oh yeah. It was a large part of the inspiration for why we decided to go through with the idea in the first place. It started out as – we were just watching the move and I was like, “We could totally do this! We could totally make this!” And we thought it was going to be pretty straight forward. But it didn’t actually end up being straight forward. But I was right that we could do it! {Laughs} But like, when we were going down the list of why this might be a totally awesome thing to do, Matt’s uncanny resemblance to General Zod was at the top of the list.

POP SPILLS OUT

So Spills Out is your new album and I keep seeing the album described as “pre-acid Beatles.” Is this how you guys conceive of the album?

I know that Jesse in particular has for a while now has been a huge Beatles fan. Not just in the way that we all are but in a particularly obsessed way. Not of the absolute earliest stuff but the stuff around Beatles For Sale and Rubber Soul. The stuff that is kind of darker, where it does the same sort of thing as the Beach Boys do where it sounds pretty and there’s all this lush harmony going on but it’s actually pretty dark underneath the surface. And especially just John’s stuff from when he was dealing with bad alcoholism early on. So that and many other things are the inspiration for wanting to make a set of songs that stack up against a more traditional body of songwriting. All our stuff in the past you would hold up to a different kind of standard and make different kinds of comparisons. But we wanted to take on the challenge of making songs that sound more like songs. I’m not saying that previous stuff we’ve done weren’t songs. But using chords and bridges and harmonies in a way that we haven’t done before.

I can see what you’re saying. You guys have definitely turned a corner on Spill Out. And it makes me wonder: do you think that it’s in a way kind of inevitable for bands to return to the 60s pop song archetypes? Does it sort of seem fated in a way?

Um, yeah I kinda think so, especially for people in our generation. There’s a whole lot of backwards-looking approach to music. Even if it’s not just pure revival stuff, which there’s plenty of also, people just kind of — I mean this is the music that we grew up to listening in the car that our folks were into. This era has a certain special nostalgia that nothing else does. And it’s also just that there’s an energy in rocknroll from that era that doesn’t really exist in any other time period. I guess I’m saying it is tempting to call on those spirits. But at the same time, we’re always trying to make something that’s ours. Spill Out was never supposed to be a revival project. It does seem that there’s a lot of music that is more about recreating stuff specifically, as the goal.

Do you feel like your band fits into any kind of scene? Do you feel like you have kindred bands?

Our roots are definitely in this scene of like post-post-punk, art noise-rock scene, with bands like Parts And Labor, who are trying to combine this noisy stuff into a pop song structure. Like trying to take sounds that are unfamiliar and squawky and make them fun or beautiful, or just make them into something else and tame them somewhat. And so there was a time when it was easy to put a bunch of those bands together. But we’ve kind of diverged from that basic kernel, that centerpiece, and it’s become pretty different than that. And so it’s become harder to place the band. I mean, I just know from the experience of seeing people try to put a bill together or try to put a record review together, It all seems pretty confusing, especially if they have some familiarity with what the band has done previously. They seem little puzzled about why we’re doing what we’re doing now. But to us it seems perfectly natural.

I read that you’re a physics teacher? What did you tell the other faculty about your band?

The first year that I was teaching I tried to keep it a secret, especially from students. I just didn’t want my relationship with them to be anything but teacher-student. But that made it way worse! Because people knew that there was something that they didn’t know, but I wouldn’t tell them what it was. And so the fact that I made it a secret made it way, way worse! And then when I finally told those kids they were like, “What?” And it was not even that big a deal, and not even that cool to them, because they just listen to Kanye anyway.

THE VAN STEREO

I always like to ask bands what they listen to on the stereo during tour. What are your van stereo picks?

We always listen to a lot of Tom Scharpling’s show of WFMU called The Best Show On WFMU. And it’s basically a talk show/call in show. Most of it is him just rapping with folks, people call in and giving him shit about stuff. He’s generally a surly character. The drummer for Superchunk, Jon Wurster, he calls in regularly. He has a bunch of weird characters that hey plays with different voices. So there’s this whole alternate universe. Like one of his characters is this guy who calls in from his computer repair shop called the Jock Squad and they work at a place called Radio Hut. And calls and says he’s hosed at his computer and that it’s running fast like a cheetah and so Scharpling how’s him two grand. I can’t do it justice – you’re going to have to put in the hours and hours. But this is some of the way that we use our drive time. We listen to it again and again. And it’s great because our keyboard who’se new on this tour doesn’t know this stuff so we get to listen to all of it again!

Pterodactyl play the Electric Owl this Thursday, December 1st.

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Zulu Records veteran and tunage aficionado Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine.

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