The Weekly interview: Pickwick frontman Galen Disston

The Seattle band brings its cover of “Lady Luck” to Las Vegas this Friday.
Photo: Kyle Johnson

Seattle soul-rock favorites Pickwick came out swinging with March’s debut full-length, Can’t Talk Medicine, abandoning their formerly folky sound for some good old howling guitars. The band’s recent cover of Richard Swift’s “Lady Luck”—recorded with Sharon Van Etten—has been making the rounds on music blogs and should feel right at home when Pickwick plays Beauty Bar on Friday. We chatted with frontman Galen Disston about the new songs, writing murder ballads and the Pickwick’s penchant for creepiness.

Your website has these kind of mysterious black and white videos called the “Endor Sessions” from when you were making the album. What’s that about? I think there’s an undercurrent to our record, lyrically as well as in the production themes, that have a vibe that’s sort of strange. We recorded it in the house [we live in], but we wanted that surreal element that is underneath the top layer of the record to be represented in those videos. So a shot of someone coming home and grabbing a beer is augmented by a creepy video that’s totally surreal, a creepy found audio track that is totally surreal. I think that’s what we were trying to capture with those videos, while giving people a glimpse into what the house is like, because the house is pretty central to the record.

Tell me more about the house and recording the album there. It doesn’t exactly sound like a living room project. We all live there. Now we have our sound guy living there, who travels with us. It’s huge. It has two kitchens, it’s two stories and has a huge front lawn. We call the studio Endor, because the lawn is like the moon of Endor from Star Wars.

It was cool the way different parts of the house got highlighted on the record. For instance, the drums were recorded in a low-ceiling, carpeted living room, which is the opposite of what you want in terms of a studio room for drums. So that gave a sort of signature sh*tty drum sound that we all love. We practice in the house, we take our meetings there, we recorded background vocals in the kitchen. The basement downstairs is where we write all the songs. We had this old roommate who lived down the hall, and he added all the found audio, so he was represented in the record, too.

Was it coincidence that you ended up making the record there or did you move in with that intention? When we moved in we wanted a place that could facilitate all those different aspects, but we did a session in December 2011 with [musician-producer] Richard Swift, and we just didn’t have enough time with him, so we just finished the record at home ourselves. It was just sort of our only option. We thought about using some different producers, but in the end we just wanted to do it ourselves. It was within our means.

You guys also recently put out a covers EP, including a cover of “Lady Luck” by Richard Swift that you did with Sharon Van Etten. What was the process for choosing songs for that and how you interpreted them? We’re huge fans of Richard Swift, so that was “Lady Luck.” I feel like Sharon brought a whole new life to the song that wasn’t there before. Because I never really felt like we could pull off how fun Swift makes it in the first verse, but then she kind of filled it in a different way. So we were all really happy that she agreed to do it.

“The Ostrich” is a song that we cover because it’s where we got our name. Lou Reed, before he was in The Velvet Underground, was a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records, and he wrote “The Ostrich,” which is this subversive dance song that you can’t follow, which sort of sums up our band in a nutshell. We want to make ridiculous fun music that you can’t necessarily follow along to or dance to, something that has a more subversive layer underneath.

There’s a lot of kind of dark or macabre storytelling and imagery on the album, as far as lyrics go. Where does that come from? I moved up to Seattle to be in the same city as Damien Jurado and Dave Bazan and am also influenced by the way that Bob Dylan has written songs, so that’s kind of the tradition that I come from. We love making this type of music, so it just made sense for me to combine a more murder-ballad-y type of songwriting with the music that we all felt was natural.

The record deals with issues of mental illness and making art and sort of that spectrum of maintaining a normal life but also giving yourself to your art completely and what the cost of that is. It deals with all of that.

For writing these songs in a basement of a big creepy house in the Pacific Northwest, you guys have a pretty sunny sound. It’s weird, but that’s what comes out of us naturally, collaborating as friends in the basement. But it hasn’t always been that way. For years, before we wrote “Hacienda Motel,” we were trying to mimic a folk framework. I was trying to write songs on an acoustic guitar just like Ryan Adams or Jeff Tweedy, because we were in the Pacific Northwest and in the shadow of these amazing folky bands that have come out in the last five or 10 years.

We would play these shows that I could perform in my sleep. We were bored. I was just standing there strumming this acoustic guitar, and then I would drive home from work and sing out in the car. And I was like, there’s a disconnect here.

It wasn’t until I stopped playing acoustic guitar and I just started singing over guitar riffs in the basement that we started to feel more comfortable with what we were doing, to try new things, and that different sound is what came out. And that’s cool—that’s the sound of us, just going for it and not predetermining every part of it.

Pickwick has been kind of a staple on summer playlists I’ve been making. What are some of your favorite summer jams? Oh, man. Lately we’ve been pretty knee-deep into some of the influences for the record. And they’re a little bit more obscure, so I don’t know that they’re summer jams. But we’ve been listening to The Sonics a lot, who are from the Pacific Northwest, so maybe in like a traditional subversive Pacific Northwest way our summer bands are like, The Sonics, The Stooges, Tom Waits. Kind of like anti-summer jams. We’ve been listening to that guy who wrote “Wooly Bully.” That song rules. When I mow the lawn I listen to King Khan and the Shrines. Does that count as a summer jam?

Pickwick with Same Sex Mary July 12, 9 p.m., $8-$10. Beauty Bar, 598-3757.

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