Pickwick returns with a fantastic, disco-flavored second album. But that doesn’t mean everything’s all right.
There he is on the stage: the lead singer, strutting under the spotlight, making love to the crowd, so very good at his job. One hand handles the microphone, the other pushes forward toward the audience, as if holding back the fervor radiating from below. His voice is a piece of himself he offers to everyone in the room.
There’s the band of stylish young people behind him, hair perfect, jeans skinny and black. They’re providing this experience to you—you bought the ticket, they play the part, everyone has a good time. That’s entertainment—a feedback loop of performance and recognition, production and consumption, giving and receiving. A ritual, a celebration, an institution. Local band, local crowd, crashing in a wave of good feelings about the place and time you occupy together. Seattle is profoundly lucky because this kind of thing happens here every night.
If only it were that simple!
Truth is, scenes like this are under pressure as life in American cities—Seattle especially—becomes exponentially more expensive. As cost of living rises, fewer musicians can afford to make a living making music. Some get priced out of the very places they helped make desirable, some trade risk-prone creative careers for more conventional, stable pursuits. Others continue the hustle, determined to persist, writing the songs they want to write, playing the music they want to play and for the most part expecting nothing in return. They perfect their craft while keeping a day job. They hang on to the belief that everything will be OK.
Of course that’s not the whole story. Beneath the working artist’s dedication and forbearance lurk other forces, acerbic ones like anger and fear, unseemly ones like ambition and ego. We watch the performance, the transaction, but we rarely get a glimpse of the darker motives at work. Those often stay hidden because they can be bad for business, and business is already tough enough.
Galen Disston cannot abide that plan. He’s the lead singer onstage this particular night, and the band behind him is Pickwick, playing to a sold-out crowd at Neumos in Capitol Hill. It’s been four years since their debut full-length, Can’t Talk Medicine, the soulful indie-rock album that launched them toward the top of Seattle’s local-band hierarchy and onto national tours and festival-headliner stages. This show is the start of a comeback—by five guys at a much different stage of their development, in a city that’s a drastically different place.
Not long ago a viable, midlevel-band economy existed in Seattle. Today, thanks to the whiplash upscale in cost of living, it’s almost gone. Bands like Pickwick— immensely talented, exhaustively rehearsed, career-oriented—are becoming rare.
Along with the music, the thing to know about Pickwick is their tendency toward radical honesty. Disston specifically: The music is a cool, collected outlet while the rest of his life is a political act. Every episode of his podcast, “From the Green Room,” wherein he interviews luminaries of the Seattle music community, inevitably arrives at a conversation about surviving as an artist in Gentrification City. He seems to get off on personal revelation in public and, as seen between songs at recent Pickwick shows, enjoys needling his audience, especially Seattle newbies. The general message is Don’t fuck up my city. Invest yourself. Make it better. Though it doesn’t always come through so clearly.
Four years is a long time in band years, and it’s been a struggle for Pickwick almost the entire way, a series of unmet creative and financial expectations. Through that period they were powered by stubborn commitment and a lack of other options. They lost two members and a manager and wrote, recorded and scrapped 30 songs for a lesser album before arriving at their latest, Lovejoys, which they’re playing in full tonight. This all-ages audience may or not be ready for the new Pickwick, but Pickwick is ready for them.
As you’ll hear when they self-release it July 7, Lovejoys is fantastic. The music shimmers and beckons like a mirage, pairing the psychedelic soul and slinky disco of ’70s giants like Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations and the Bee Gees with complex, of-the-moment rock and woozy, blunted pop. Live, it hits like an amorous embrace—pleasantly humid and pliant and tactile—and tonight the band is delivering on the music’s every promise.
Lovejoys has already put Pickwick back on their upward trajectory. Several songs are in heavy rotation on KEXP and they’re headlining July 4 festivities at Gasworks Park. They’ll tour the album this summer and fall, playing first at small clubs on the West Coast and later theaters across the country. They’ll reclaim their hometown-hero throne at home and midlevel cult-band status abroad. But given the challenging atmosphere for artists in the city right now, that might not be enough to keep the ship afloat.
Toward the end of the Neumos set Disston introduces “Hacienda Motel,” a song about the violent death of Sam Cooke, by saying, “Here’s the song that pays for our health insurance.”
He’s smiling while he says it—Disston is almost always smiling—but he isn’t kidding. Since its release as a 7” single back in 2011 and its re-release in 2013 on Can’t Talk Medicine, “Hacienda Motel” has taken on a life of its own, mostly online. On Spotify it’s been streamed more than 4.4 million times (!), and there’s actually a little money in that. “Hacienda Motel” is Pickwick’s meal ticket, one of the practical reasons they’ve stayed together. If you’re in a band, health insurance is its own reward. Disston’s pronouncement is both an admission and an accusation: This is how we live. What do you think about that?
Hard to say how the audience interprets the remark, but everyone goes nuts for the song.
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Galen is a street preacher on stage,” Erik Blood tells me a few days after the show. “He talks about that shit all the time.”
It took Blood several months of sniffing around Pickwick—hanging out, drinking whiskey together, listening to music—before he signed on to produce Lovejoys in 2015. Then as now, Blood was Seattle’s most sought-after producer, creative confidant and band whisperer. Having long worked with hip-hop experimentalists like Shabazz Palaces, Tay Sean and OCnotes and helped rock bands like Tacocat and the Moondoggies forge their own unique sounds, he brought a serious reputation. And as for Pickwick…
“I knew of them,” Blood recalls. “They were inescapable for a long time in Seattle. Wasn’t really my jam. But they’re these amazingly talented musicians and they’ve got taste.” He wanted to push them out of their comfort zone and his buy-in depended on them letting him.
The band was willing; they needed help and they knew it. The clout they’d earned with Can’t Talk Medicine had slipped away. Press had lost interest. The private shows for corporate clients had dried up. Fans wanted a new album. Pressure was weighing on them and they weren’t handling it well. They were stuck at a creative impasse, writing what they recognized as sub-par, regressive material.
“It was all a head game where it was like, second record, to get to 500-capacity clubs and all major markets we need to A-B-C, blah, blah, blah,” Disston says. “That kind of thinking infiltrated the songs and they sucked. And we were terrorized by the notion that if I sit in front of this keyboard long enough, a better melody will come out.”
One of the founding members, Kory Kruckenberg, quit; band life was too uncertain and unstable. A second was fired. Disston, who’d left his full-time job to focus on music, went to work as a window washer. To make ends meet, he moved his family—wife, two school-age kids—into the basement of his parents’ house. He wondered if he’d lost his chance as an artist. Was he fooling himself, refusing to grow up? So many of his Seattle music friends had moved on—why hadn’t he?
Blood is a kindred spirit. Not only is he an original musician with strong aesthetic opinions, he’s also an accomplished Pacific Northwest artist who’s long struggled with the economics of living and working in Seattle. Last year he left to pursue greater options in Los Angeles; thankfully his creative ties to the city keep him coming back often. Professionally, personally, he and the members of Pickwick have long been caught in similar straits. Still, the first time he visited Pickwick’s basement practice studio, Disston was so nervous he sang with his back to him.
“I told [Pickwick] early on that making a record with me, they’ll either love it and it’ll be amazing or I’ll alienate them and their fans,” Blood says. “I was like, I don’t give a shit about your fans, so if you’re down to get on the train, let’s go.”
Blood was unsparing in his assessment—the band that made Can’t Talk Medicine was beholden to a certain perception of soul music, one that fetishized the certified classics of Motown and Stax Records to the detriment of the music that evolved directly after. He suggested fresher sounds, more attuned to their new songs as he heard them. He sent YouTube links to Funkadelic, Switch, latter-period Marvin Gaye. He pushed them from the ’60s into the ’70s. In the process he opened their ears to a world of sounds they’d once considered corny and their eyes to the next chapter of their career. Disston says the six weeks Pickwick spent with Blood recording Lovejoys were the best recording experience he’s ever had.
“A band—especially one that finds success early on—can become beholden to an idea of what their music is,” Blood says. “No progress comes until you destroy that. Set it on fire.”
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Undergirding the elastic grooves of Lovejoys is, of all things, intense anxiety. Disston says the lyrics are mostly about his fear of losing his wife.
“Did you ever play Legend of Zelda on Super Nintendo?” he asks me. “Where you go to the Underworld, and it’s the same world but a different dimension? The whole record takes place in this other dimension where I’m searching for my wife. It’s fucking weird, man.”
To get there Disston followed a technique he picked up from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, wherein he mumble-sang nonsense words while the band played new songs.
“There would be phrases that came out, and I just preserved those phrases as they came, and they’re all like deep, subconscious fears about my wife leaving me.” He pauses and laughs. “Jesus, get me a shrink that can help with this shit, man!”
Aside from generating concern for his psychological well-being, the contrast between Disston’s paranoid lyrics and the band’s glistening melodies is powerfully compelling. The songs on Can’t Talk Medicine told stories about musicians dealing with mental illness—Cooke, Donnie Hathaway, electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack—anybody but himself. Disston intentionally kept himself at a distance. With Lovejoys, he culled every outside influence to leave only himself, and it turns out he’s wracked with fear for the continued existence of the most important relationship in his life.
Safe to assume it’s all a manifestation of the uncertainty he’s been living with as a musician for 15 years—which is only getting more acute as the city becomes less affordable for him and his family. Uncertainty apparently spurs creativity, for better or worse. That’s the struggle, hidden in the music, that Pickwick will bring to fans when they release Lovejoys and take the album on tour later this year.
The band is in a good place right now, with a couple new corporate sponsorships helping offset the costs of self-releasing and promoting the album. Creatively they’re in high gear. Disston says the sessions with Blood were so fruitful that the band has a follow-up album already written and ready to record. Given the ongoing tenuousness of their situation, there’s no guarantee it’ll come to light. There are no guarantees at all for Pickwick, good as they are, foregone as their success seems. Keep that in mind this summer as you’re dancing along to their easy beat.