Too often, when faced with the task of conjuring words to describe that bliss to which an impeccably crafted pop song can send us, we writers start dancing about architecture. Dearborn sextet Pas/Cal’s hook-laden, deceptively complex, bittersweet-romantic misfit music — as evidenced by their just-released debut EP The Handbag Memoirs — is the stuff of which verbal paroxysms are made.
Over drinks recently, Pas/Cal explained their beginnings.
It was the Millennium New Year’s Eve and Dearborn sound scientists Casimer Pascal and LTD/Little Tommy Daniels met a gentleman named Gene Corduroy.
“I thought he [Corduroy] was a keyboardist,” says Pascal. “I like hanging out with musicians, just not keyboardists. But eventually, I thought: ‘This keyboard kid, let’s bring him over, maybe we can have some fun.’”
“But he wanted me to play bass,” deadpans Corduroy.
Pascal and LTD had secured the opening slot for an upcoming show at a local rock haunt. But there was just one hitch:
“We didn’t have a band and our one song was an elaborate piece. I’m not kidding — it had brass and strings and multiple vocals, bass guitar, organ, drums and it was only me and LTD. So we had to get someone to play bass. I thought the bass part was really complex. But Gene comes over and he totally had it on the first try.”
Thus was Corduroy introduced as the catalyst that sparked Pas/Cal. But first, Pascal and LTD would have to ditch their space-rock past.
“Gene challenged us,” says Pascal. “We came out of a band called Asha Vida that’s totally anti-pop. Anything that was the norm we tried not to do it.”
“I think [Pas/Cal] sprung from trying to do something different with music that’s real formulaic,” continues Pascal.
“So we started improv-ing pop music, the same way you’d improv far-out music,” says Pascal. “If you do something once, it’s improv. If you do it twice, then it’s a song.”
This process proved fruitful from the get-go.
“So then we’d say ‘I dare you to write something tonight, rehearse it, record it and finish it,’” says Corduroy, finishing Pascal’s thought.
Since Pascal and LTD had already built a home studio, this was A) possible and B) the beginning of Pas/Cal’s relentless pursuit of the perfect sound (forever).
The saying goes that what’s begun is half done. But too often “half-done” means “half-assed.” Pas/Cal wasn’t having any of this. The trio — with the help of vocalist-keyboardist-percussionist Bem and others — goaded each other on, documenting the process, then poring over the tapes, picking them apart and doing it all over again. But, as with anything musical in Detroit, word gets around. Eventually Pas/Cal had to leave the insulated world of the 8-track recorder and hit the stage.
Enter Nathanial Burgundy IV. He knew how to play Serge Gainsbourg. That got him the gig.
“I took out an ad. And I didn’t want some big hair guy,” laughs Pascal. “And he looked great.”
With the lineup in place, Pas/Cal starting to spread its gospel to a cheap beer and overdriven guitar-saturated audience. It would seem they had arrived. Kids started coming out of the woodwork to not only see Pas/Cal, but to participate in the shows. Pas/Cal’s third show was at the Museum of New Art as part of a fashion show. Four hundred kids were there. It opened the band’s eyes to the possibility of making their shows an event, an outlet for not just band, but audience too.
“We have an amazing group of friends that help us with every show — either by passing out food or wearing chicken suits or whatever. It’s great because they’re just people who have no outlet for their stuff and just want to perform,” says Pascal.
“Our attitude is ‘Let’s make the performance at least as exciting as listening to the record,’” says Pas/Cal.
Everyone in Pas/Cal (which also now includes keyboardist Richard Panic) has a day (or night) job. But you’d never know it to sit and talk with ’em. They are with their music, if nothing else, creating an escape hatch from the dull ache of 9-to-5.
“There’s something really misfitty about all of us — well, not Panic, because everybody loves him. We know everybody, but nobody loves us,” says Pascal.
Whether slinging barbs about Slim Fast consumption or extolling the virtues of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, it’s hard to imagine this sextet doing anything but creating three-minute masterpieces culled from imaginary worlds where boys and girls pursue other boys and girls, followed by the inevitable heartbreak and giving way, of course, to sugar-coated bitter pills of harmonies.
“I think bad times necessarily produce great art,” says Burgundy. “And romance doesn’t necessarily have to be sunny, either.”
People are always saying ‘I normally don’t like this kind of music, but I really like you guys,” adds Bem. “And that’s great. Cuz I want our music to be enjoyed by everyone from little kids to grandmothers. And I think it can.”
To be fair, Pas/Cal’s concoctions do have a universal appeal.
Musically, few bands dance through the DMZ between pop music’s reverent and revelatory camps as effectively as Pas/Cal. You’ll hear echoes of the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, Brian Wilson, David Bowie, the aforementioned Gainsbourg et al. But Pas/Cal manages to keep the overly familiar at bay by playing these sonic reference points off one another. A Gainsbourg bon vivant wandering through a Tyranosaurus Rex world; a Wilson naif takes to the streets with all the young dudes; Morrissey finds himself in a Detroit-flavored breakdown.
“We love music. We’re pulling from everything. Like, from when a guy hit a rock together — have you heard that record? — all the way to 2003. We’re trying to blend everything together to transcend genre,” jokes Pascal.
And their enthusiasm spreads to other media too — from their Web site (pascalgoespop.com) to their fanciful liner notes, Pas/Cal adds layers of dimension to the parallel universe.
“I look at music like through the eyes of really obsessive fans,” says Pascal. “I have to buy everything a band’s ever put out — and then buy stuff that they didn’t. And every little detail of their life is important. So we’re giving people that might come to our music the same information I’m always looking for.”
With their debut EP released earlier this month, production on a full-length wrapped and due for spring release on Le Grand Magistery, and a song on a movie sound track featuring a who’s-who of the indie world (including Brendan Benson, the Walkmen, Yo La Tengo, etc.) it looks like Pas/Cal may just find itself delivering its message of bittersweet romance to a wider audience very, very soon.
Pas/Cal will have an in-store performance at Neptune Records (503 S. Main St., Royal Oak), Saturday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. For information, call 248-586-0519.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]