In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
When Rob Crow announced his retirement from music, it was the type of thing that headlines are made of. Active for 20 years in various projects such as Pinback, Heavy Vegetable, and Goblin Cock, Crow was adept at many styles, but he was even better at finding ways to make them his own. Thankfully, the retirement was short-lived, and less than a year later he’s back with a new album with a new band to boot. Functioning under the moniker Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, he’s reunited with Heavy Vegetable member Travis Nelson and created You’re Doomed. Be Nice., an album that sees him pinging between styles and sounding totally rejuvenated in the process. Here Crow talks not only about a song from You’re Doomed., but a track from one of his solo records as well as one from Pinback’s final album, Information Retrieved.
Song: “Yie Ar” from Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place’s You’re Doomed. Be Nice.
Influence: The video game Yie Ar Kung-Fu
The A.V. Club: What are your memories of the Yie Ar Kung-Fu game? Did you play the arcade or the console version?
Rob Crow: My first good job, my first real job that I liked at all, was working at a health-food store. That’s where I met Travis Nelson, and we started our first band together, which was Heavy Vegetable. And he plays with me again in this band. But we had that game there so on every break I would spend it playing Yie Ar Kung-Fu. I kind of wanted to write a song in the mode of this. I started writing a song that was in the mode of the music from that game, like [sings video game music]. So it’s similar but it’s not ripping it off.
AVC: Video game music from that era was so simple but also incredibly distinct and memorable. Was that something you tried to achieve with this song?
RC: It was just something that was stuck in my head. I tried to do a little research on it and all I really got was that Yie Ar means “One, two” in Japanese. So it’s “One, Two Kung-Fu,” and I guess that works for something. I did have the console versions, though. I had it turned over for the NES [Nintendo Entertainment System]. People don’t turn games over anymore, which is a shame.
AVC: Had you rediscovered the game around the time you were writing the record?
RC: No, it was just kind of happening. It was just what was going on while I was writing the song. It was sort of reminding me of that and I figured I’d call it that, but without the “Kung-Fu” part. Whenever I do something like that I’m always like, “Well, it’s obvious why I called it that. It sounds like the video game.”
AVC: For people of a certain age, it’s a pretty obscure reference. Did you keep up with fighting games like this after Yie Ar?
RC: I guess so. Not so much as a coin-op, more in the NES realm of it. During a lot of years I would write music while playing video games at the same time. Pinback used to write music while playing [World Of] Warcraft for the first few records. Well, first it was Diablo, then it was Warcraft. And then when we stopped doing that we got slower. I remember I wrote a bunch of Heavy Vegetable songs while playing the Mega Man series.
AVC: Pinback certainly made a fair amount of video game references, which is kind of rare in the music world.
RC: It was a refreshing thing to do in our five- or 10-minute breaks. Instead of going out for a cigarette or something, trying to see if I could make my break go longer than it was supposed to be.
AVC: To be clear, you didn’t steal a cab and drive it away, you just snagged someone else’s by mistake, right? How did that happen?
RC: I was pulling a late night with some friends, going bar to bar and all these other places, but I was just not into it at all. I just wanted to go home, and nothing was really working out to get me home. It was one of those things where we’re like, “We’re all gonna go home in a minute,” but nobody ever really goes home so you don’t know whether to call a cab or not.
This was before Uber was around, and I was having just a drag of a time. I was standing on the corner and I was like, “Screw it. I’m going to grab the first cab that comes around.” I was trying to get these cabs down the street and one stopped, and my friends are all like, “Go get it!” They kind of work at the bar that the cab stopped in front of, so I was like, “Yeah! I’m gonna do it!” So I ran across the street, and I was so tired, but I was finally gonna go home. And the guy that works at the bar was yelling over to me, “Hey, man! Don’t take that. That’s Pat’s Cabs.” And I was like, “I don’t really care what company it is, I just want to go home.” I got in the car and about two blocks later realized he meant, no, it was the guy next to him, whose name is Pat, that called the cab. Because he was so fucked up and they were trying to get him out of there. And I texted [my friends] going, “Did I just steal his cab?” And they were like, “You sure did! We’re still laughing at you!”
When I do something like that I get deeply embarrassed and never get over it. And if I do something that’s stupid and it only harms myself, then whatever. But if I do something that actually affects another person I can’t stand to live with myself.
AVC: It’s one of those little mistakes that just gnaws at you.
RC: Yeah, and that’s why its called “Pat’s Cabs.” But people keep referring to it as “Pat’s Crabs,” which makes no sense. I guess it might be on the iTunes that it’s called “Pat’s Crabs.” I don’t know where that would come from, which is also embarrassing! I try to do something personal, and mine something emotional, and it turns into something about shellfish.
Song: “Denslow, You Idiot!” from Pinback’s Information Retrieved
Influence: W.W. Denslow, the illustrator of The Wizard Of Oz
AVC: W.W. Denslow is famously the illustrator of The Wizard Of Oz and many other children’s books. Then, after he made some money, he bought an island and declared himself the king of it. Is that egotism what inspired you to go after him?
RC: I like to read to my kids before bed. With my first two sons we went through every Wizard Of Oz book, every original, Frank Baum Oz book. The first one was the only one illustrated by this dude W.W. Denslow. Before I was even reading the Oz books I was reading these other books that I found, these books of Denslow’s that were children’s fables and things like that. Except he would change the meanings of them so that they would have happy endings. It was really dumb, and some of it was incredibly racist. I was like, “What is this?” I was just trying to read my kids old, interesting books with original ideas and it would often backfire.
Then reading about his life, he was somebody who made all this cash off the first Oz book and then kind of went crazy. Nobody could stand him so he bought this island, which he never left for the rest of his life, and he became the king of it.
AVC: He illustrated all these grand fantasies and then basically tried to live his own version of that.
RC: Yeah. I mean, first he was doing interesting things, and then he started changing things in age-old stories for no reason just to bend to his will. Like Goldilocks And The Three Bears, they’re all great friends by the end of that book. That is a pretty weird, narcissistic thing but he takes it to the ultimate level. He’s like the ultimate narcissist. I mean not the ultimate one, obviously, but maybe artistically. I just thought it’d be a funny way to call somebody like that out.
AVC: Do you think this song made more people get on the bandwagon of hating Denslow?
RC: Well, I would love that. But I don’t expect it.