Pickwick Abandons Folk for Gritty R&B

Kyle Johnson

The debut album from Seattle's Pickwick is a shot of gritty, soulful rock 'n' roll, with sharp guitar stabs, light organ fills and a groovin' rhythm section, all hung out on the line of Galen Disston's passionate vocals.

But it wasn't always so for the band.

Pickwick's first incarnation was as a mellow acoustic folk project, on the heels of Fleet Foxes' breakout success. But the music, with accordion and pedal steel, felt derivative, and Disston and his bandmates nearly gave up before jumping off in a different direction. It turned out that finding the band's true sound led to a creative explosion.

"Changing up the sound and writing collaboratively was very new to us, and we try to preserve that feeling as we continue. It really aids in the creative process," Disston says. "In the previous incarnation of the band, I was relatively comfortable strumming an acoustic guitar, and now we're pushing ourselves and using instruments that we're not as familiar with. And I'm screaming a lot more, which is totally new to me."

The self-released Can't Talk Medicine, due out on March 12, follows the Myths project, a series of three 7-inch singles that caught the attention of Seattle's influential KEXP radio station. But where Myths was essentially a set of well-formed demos, Can't Talk Medicine finds Pickwick fully formed, a brilliant collection of songs dynamic in their musical construction and raw with emotion. The band describes themselves as garage R&B.

"Sometimes the soul tag gets a little bit misappropriated. We revere soul as a genre and don't claim to be able to emulate anything actual soul artists do," Disston says. "We play the way the '60s British rock 'n' roll bands like The Spencer Davis Group and The Animals and, here in Tacoma, The Sonics interpreted soul music. Those reference points are more appropriate to what we're doing and to where we're headed than saying soul or neo-soul."

The sound grew out of everyone in the band having their say, carving out their own personal style and tossing it all back together.

"Unknowingly, it's been a process from the beginning of this new formation of the band, where everybody's equally contributing in the songwriting," says Kory Kruckenberg, the producer and multi-instrumentalist who joined the band recording the first Myths release.

Kruckenberg, who won a Grammy in 2011 for best engineered classical album, was the missing piece for Pickwick, which also includes Cassady Lillstrom on keys, Garrett and Michael Parker on bass and guitar, and Alex Westcoat on drums.

"As a band, we were looking at getting ready to do some touring and put a little bit more of our lives into the band so a bunch of us moved into this big house together and we have a practice space and that's where we made the record," Kruckenberg says. "We made this house our world when we jumped into preparing for the record."  

Recording in the living room to half-inch tape on an eight-track console, Pickwick used the unconventional setting and setup to refine the band's unique sound.

"We really started recording in April 2012, and we made the final decision to record at home and do it on our own equipment and in our own living room because we wanted the freedom and the flexibility to try things out," Disston says.

"Hacienda Motel," the first song Pickwick wrote collaboratively, was a distinct new step for the band and the song that broke the band to KEXP's wide audience. Later, songs like "Halls of Columbia," "Santa Rosa," and "Brother Roland" came when the band felt more comfortable in its own skin.

The first single from Can't Talk Medicine is "Lady Luck," a Richard Swift cover the band recorded with Sharon Van Etten.

"We were just thinking it would be a B-side and just an extra song we'd have in the bag, just because we all love Richard Swift," Disston says. "We were all surprised and impressed by how she made the song her own and added a new element to the song none of us could have predicted."

Among the hottest bands in the Northwest (Is 2013 the Year of Pickwick? asks a headline in the Seattle Weekly), Pickwick is embarking on its first major national tour, working out new songs on stage and letting the Can't Talk Medicine songs evolve as well.

"That's along the same lines of wanting to always grow and challenge ourselves and expand and reach for things beyond where we are now," Kruckenberg says. "It keeps it interesting for us and for listeners. Things will always keep changing and evolving."

Pickwick is scheduled to perform Sunday, March 10, at Crescent Ballroom.

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