Synth-Punk Misfits Pow! on Breaking Genre Rules and the Appeal of Three 6 Mafia
You already know about Byron Blum, frontman of San Francisco's serrated and synth-laden rock trio Pow!. He explained the inspiration (read: anger) behind "Hi-Tech Boom," the tech-industry take-down and title track of Pow!'s recent Castle Face debut in a recent post on this very blog. Head Thee Oh See and label honcho John Dwyer penned his own screed towards the changing city in the form of Hi-Tech Boom's press release. So you know that Pow! is indignant about San Francisco's stark economic divide, even writing songs about it. But for all of the attention paid to Blum as a frustrated local, little was given to his music. Since Pow!'s unnerving, circuit-fried live fury spurned our interest in the first place, we sat down with Blum to discuss his fervor for electronic sounds, busting genres, and a couple formative thrift store partnerships. Pow!'s release show for Hi-Tech Boom takes place this Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Make-Out Room with Warm White and Mane. The show costs $5 and begins at 7:30 p.m.
How did Pow! form back in 2010?
I was working at Afterlife, a vintage store at 21st and Valencia, which was cool because the owner, gave me an opportunity to start my own record label. She wanted to do this marriage of music and vintage clothes, so when she was first starting up the store, I said we should start a label and call it Afterlife Records. We ended up doing a 7-inch for White Fence, and that's how I ended up releasing the first Pow! EP.... [Then,] we just parted ways. Our relationship wasn't working out.
In the beginning, it was just Melissa [Blue] and I. She played shakers while I played guitar with a tambourine taped to the kick drum. I had the Kaoss Pad [effects processor] then, too, so it had a bit of a Quintron feel. Then I taught her how to play drums so that we could stand up, and we found a synth to replace the bass.
Why did you opt for synthesizer instead of bass?
There's a wider variety of sounds than with stringed instruments. I loved the idea of bringing electronic music to rock 'n' roll because it felt new and refreshing to me. I found a Quintron CD at the library and checked it out because I loved the album cover. It was weird electronic shit but when I heard it, I thought it was punk at the same time and decided to mix electronics with angular rock.
So that's how you got interested in synthesizers?
I've always been interested in hating genres. I feel like music's either good or bad and who cares if it's hip-hop or country. Some people get really particular about only liking psychedelic blues or something, but, it's like, okay that's cool, but what about this fucking ghetto-ass Three 6 [Mafia] shit? This is tight, and punk as fuck. So I've always felt like, fuck genres, let's just destroy that shit.
You imagine Pow! as a genre-defying outfit. Does it annoy you when people peg it as something?
That's how I like to carry it, but everybody feels the need to label things. People want to feel like they know it. People aren't comfortable with uncertainty.
At first I was surprised to see you remixed a track on the B-side of Cold Beat's recent EP, but now I'm not.
Well, Hannah asked us to destroy her songs. That was a fun challenge. Electronic music opens up new perspectives on a song, which allows new ways of feeling towards the song.
Your guitar often sounds more like damaged electronics than guitar. How did you develop that tone?
Link Wray was the one who taught me how to play guitar. I would play along with his CD to learn. I had a visceral reaction when I heard it. I want it to sound like someone is taking a pencil and stabbing the speakers in my guitar cabinet. That said, I actually don't know how to play guitar that well.
You tend to play these improvised noise sections live.
Yeah, and we never play with set lists. I never know what we're going to do, I love that feeling of spontaneity. Sometimes people start too slow or don't know what to do and over time it becomes a new part in the song.
Do you think other bands look too rehearsed or predictable?
There are too many bands that play all of their songs. The audience usually doesn't want to hear all of your songs. It's better to not punish the audience. Not having a set list allows me to not fill the allotted time if I don't want to, and just leave it up to the moment instead.
Does your early negative experience with money make you weary or intimidated by the music industry in general?
It's shitty that nobody wants to buy records and prefer streaming because Spotify doesn't really get bands paid. But working with a record label shouldn't be intimidating, because we're living in a time when you as an artist have to take care of the business side in addition to being creative. I've accepted that challenge. I'm not afraid to be business-oriented.
Tell me about recording the album.
We recorded it at Engine Works. We bought a [Tascam] 388 and set up shop in the basement. I didn't know anything about recording. Before, I recorded six songs with Ty [Segall] but they weren't mixed the way I wanted them to be, so I decided to take it into my own hands. We set up in my kitchen. We used to rehearse there actually, because the kitchen sounded better than my bedroom. In addition to being business-oriented, I think bands need to know how to record themselves.
Is there a song that doesn't ream the tech industry from the new album that you'd like to talk about?
"Sugi Walks" is about this very special lady. She's this very eccentric woman in her 80s or 90s named Sugi, but she goes by Sun. She's Vietnamese, and always at the Goodwill picking out clothes. She's there every day and has the best fashion style. She puts on a mountain of makeup, very glamorous. She tends to hit on the younger dudes. One day she wanted to take to lunch so we went to sushi. She's a magical lady.