Light acoustic music with ties to bluegrass, country, old-time, and folk is more popular than ever in indie circles. But the flipside of this trend is far more compelling. In San Francisco, the leaders of the darker, rowdier, underground acoustic movement are the Pine Box Boys, a motley combo of players whose twisted vision mashes dirty American roots, B-movie horror, and a deep respect for all things Slayer. Independent from day one — with no interest in toning down its R-rated sound for family access — the Bay Area murdergrass quartet has managed to defy the odds, plowing its own DIY path for a full decade.
Band leader, guitarist, and singer Lester Raww attributes the group's longevity to kinship: "I actually like these guys," he says of his bandmates. For the other boys, it's about having fun with Lester's tunes — pitch-black, fetishistic tales of Americana gone awry, equal parts rock and bluegrass with a molten core of avant-garde freakishness. (In a previous incarnation as the Zag Men, three-quarters of PBB performed soundtracks to silent horror films.)
In "Stab," a hoppy singalong, a father schools his son on the fine art of razor-wielding a la Sweeney Todd. In "The Gravedigger," originally a haunting ballad that's evolved at live shows into a dusty boot-stomper, a fella who feels like a friend promises to bury you in the Arkansas clay ("I've dug 99 holes...") for an even 100 count. In "Pretty Little Girl" — a theatrical Victorian-Gypsy rollick with accordion, fiddle, and Tuvan throat-singing — a psycho pedophile doses children at a tea party.
Drummer Steven "Your Uncle" Dodds says he's a PBB lifer because "Lester's writing keeps it interesting." He's talking about the stylistic range of the band's sound, which shovels bluegrass and country into a punk meat grinder, barbecues the shredded flesh in a thrash-metal hole in the ground, and amply seasons it with art-rock dramatics and spit-from-the-mouth moonshine. Dodds says he gets into "the severe rhythms," arguing that he and the other bandmates — banjo player Alex "Possum" Carvidi and upright bassist Colonel Timothy Leather —are simply "the gasoline on Lester's songs." Carvidi deflects the charge, saying, "I'm feeding off of what I'm being fed." Raww calls all of this "the Nuremberg defense" (just following orders, ma'am).
Indeed, during our interview over beers at Doc's Clock in the Mission, it takes the boys a while to admit the obvious. Colonel Tim Leather comes around first, saying he's stuck with the band over the years, in part, because it's a great way to "channel negative energy." After which Dodds fesses, "If anyone in this band would commit [the atrocities fictionalized in the lyrics] ... it would be me." So there's the key to their solidarity: these guys are one with the darkness, and they laugh in the face of the Reaper and his pestilential antics. It's gallows humor, to be sure, and a stiff middle finger to those who'd prefer we go gently into that good night. "Civilization's falling apart," says Raww. "I'm writing about the world, from headlines on murder and mayhem, with a little laugh. We're all really fucked up."
Such sentiment resonates with PBB's fanbase. It may not be legion by Mumford and Sons standards, but the group's cult following spans continents and an age range from 10 to 80. In the Bay Area, the band built up its audience in the early days with a series of quarterly gigs at Cafe Du Nord. A half-dozen self-produced albums, regular tours of Europe and the U.S., and a number of summer festivals later, the band will celebrate its 10th anniversary this weekend at the Independent.
While their hardcore approach to bluegrass will likely keep them on the fringes of the mainstream roots-music scene, the Pine Box Boys continue to draw new fans around the country via creative partnerships. Locally, teaming up with bluegrass promoter Shelby Ash (notably, at the S.F. Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival) has helped lure open-minded folkies into the fold, and collaborating with burlesque dancers (Salacious Underground at Slim's, Hubba Hubba Revue at the Uptown) has raised awareness among the Bay's bawdier hipsters. Sometimes the latter approach can backfire, though. At a gig in Portland opening for the Suicide Girls, the band was heckled to get off the stage. Boobs and tattoos versus banjos and blood? You can see the problem.
Of course, a huge part of staying together as a band is bonding like family in the face of adversity — and laughing at the absurdity of what happens along the way. Like performing in Belgium under fluorescent lights for old ladies watching a volleyball tournament. Or playing an Athens bar twice the size of Slim's, and after the show starts, two of the club's three patrons leave. Or having to flex gangsta-style with a venue owner who balks at coughing up the band's guarantee. Power through that, and you get to groove with a couple thousand best friends at the renowned Folkwoods Festival in the Netherlands. But, as Raww puts it, such is the lifestyle of "rock musicians masquerading as bluegrass."