Pickwick: Universal Motown

Pickwick started out playing the music everyone else does. Now it’s playing the music everyone loves.

The residential neighborhood squeezed between Northgate Mall’s sprawl and Lake City Way is a sidewalkless lattice of narrow streets and traffic circles. At 9 p.m. on a Thursday, not much is going on. So little, in fact, that the bass thumping from one modest, low-slung ranch house carries across and down the dark, lamp-lit street.

On the house’s front step, sounds of electric guitar, live drums and amplified voice make it clear: A rock band lives here. Scotch-taped to the front door of the house is a note hand-written on a piece of typing paper:

So sorry if we’re too loud. If you’re annoyed, leave us your phone number + we’ll work something out. —The Loud Jerks Next Door

Inside, just beyond the entryway, stairs lead down into a basement lit by Christmas lights. Here the six guys in Pickwick are rehearsing.

“TTB,” Galen Disston called it earlier that day. “Tightening the belt. Building muscle memory.”

Thursday nights like this broke Disston’s band out of the basement—where they’ve met twice a week for three years, despite complaints from neighbors—and gave it a career.

Pickwick is a band on a mission. After languishing for years in a self-imposed creative purgatory, Disston and Pickwick now answer a higher calling. It’s the same call that Sam Cooke and Otis Redding answered 40 years ago: soul. As Disston puts it, “the best kind of music that exists.”

“You don’t have to be someone to interact with it,” he says later over lunch. “You can just be who you are and it makes sense.”

Born in Orange County, Calif., Disston was raised alongside his dad’s Bob Dylan records. In junior high he fronted a Grateful Dead cover band; in college at UC Santa Cruz, a quiet singer-songwriter band. In 2006, he followed his then-girlfriend/now-wife to graduate school in Seattle. He launched Pickwick with guitarist Michael Parker, Parker’s brother Garrett on bass, drummer Matt Emmett and keyboardist Cassady Lillstrom. They were a folky Americana outfit—a dime a dozen in Seattle, then as well as now–and they knew something was wrong.

“I was sabotaging our folk stuff because I felt like it wouldn’t measure up to anything else,” Disston says. “I knew it would get pulled apart because there wasn’t anything inherently us or unique about it.”

KEXP provided Disston an epiphany. Working one morning as an insurance rep at Valley Medical Center in Renton, he caught Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” pumping into his cubicle over the radio. He was a fan of Oliver Wang’s Soul-Sides blog, a repository for the LA musicologist’s investigations into hip-hop’s roots in soul, funk and blues. His wife’s favorite song is Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” But he’d never heard the 1963 classic, written by Cooke in response to Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and adopted by the Civil Rights movement.

I was born by the river in a little tent/and just like the river I’ve been running ever since…

“I’m sort of sick of playing to a room of white people nodding their heads,” Disston remembers thinking. “I wanna diversify. I wanna play something that feels the way I feel when I hear Stevie Wonder. I wanna start making real music that everybody can connect with, with their bodies and their hearts, not just their heads, which is the way I had interpreted most of the music I listened to in Seattle up to that point. I totally was inspired by that song and wanted to take that risk.”

The first risk was taking his epiphany to the band.

“Michael started on a riff one day, and I was upstairs taking a shit, heard it through the floor and went downstairs to the micro- phone and started singing,” he says, laughing. “That’s ‘Hacienda Motel.’ It just came out.”

Named after the $3-a-night South Central LA flophouse Cooke was killed in, “Hacienda Motel” is Pickwick’s first would-be hit, in line with indie-soul favorites like Spoon and Cold War Kids. It opens with simple, thrumming bass and breakbeat drums and courses over

hard-syncopated electric guitar and churchy organ, all of which fall into a deft, metered groove after the first chorus. Disston’s voice strains righteously on the lyrics, the sound of a 28-year-old “post-Christian trying to figure out what to make of all the baggage,” as he describes himself.

“Talk about self-imposed religious or non-religious boundaries… I feel like I set those boundaries: This is what I want to do. This is the kind of music I’d rather be making,” he says. “Once we allowed ourselves that confined freedom to give it a shot, it started working. In a way that was effortless, where before it was very calculated.”

The band soon entered the studio to record with friend and Grammy-winning sound engineer Kory Kruckenberg. They released “Hacienda Motel” as a vinyl 45 about a year ago, the same time they recruited Kruckenberg as Pickwick’s sixth member. (“It helped that I had a vibraphone and they wanted that in the band,” Kruckenberg says.) Like other band members, he will soon quit his day job to focus entirely on the group.

This past June at Columbia City Theatre, Pickwick surprised a packed house with a song delivered a capella doo-wop style, finger-snaps and all, spotlighted on the venue floor. Two months later at Doe Bay Fest, at Parker’s suggestion, 60 or so audience members rushed onto the stage and cracked its foundation. In August, Pickwick led a Mural Amphitheatre crowd of a couple thousand in a full-blown dance party.

Momentum continues to build. Last month they signed to the Billions Corporation, a Chicago-based booking agency with a roster that includes Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Death Cab for Cutie and Fleet Foxes. They record their debut full-length with an undisclosed bigwig producer this fall and begin their first national tour next spring.

“It’s important that people understand that we’re not a soul revivalist band and we’re not attempting to do what Otis or Sam Cooke have done,” Disston says. “We can’t touch that. That stuff is perfect. But we’ve interpreted that genre through our modern Seattle indie rock lens. That’s what we do. We’re able to do it effortlessly. Everybody has their part. And if people aren’t into it, fuck ‘em. We’ve found our sound.”

Pickwick plays Oct 21. with Boxer Rebellion, Yuni in Taxco and Canon Blue at Heineken City Arts Fest

Photography by Nate Watters