Maybe people got tired of beating dead horses. Maybe some people just grew up a little. What is rock and roll besides the willful denial of maturity? Or according to graphic novelist Chris Ware, the “tempting thesis that adolescence is not just another hormonal change but a fun lifestyle that you can willfully perpetuate.”
As much as I dissed emo back then, I couldn’t keep away from Pilot To Bombardier shows, ...In my defense, I did review one of [Pilot To Bombardier's] shows with just three words: “Brilliant and majestic.” And I stand by that.
The music became more considered and deliberate and less disheveled. This is exemplified by the rivalry of the two biggest-selling punk magazines on newsstands: the old guard Maximumrockandroll and the new emo kid Punk Planet. Some called this nu-punk or prog-punk. Me and my trashy rock ‘n’ roll-loving pals called it (not without a little derision) emo.
In its way, early emo was just another expression of punk. Please note that I stress “early,” not what it became a few short years later: a copycat style masquerading as genre, and badly at that. Right from the start, emo moved away from choppy Johnny Ramone riffs and returned to the multifaceted invention of pre-alternative bands on labels like 4AD and Merge. It expanded on these loud-soft-loud origins with diatonic call-and-response progressions in major keys.
As much as I dissed emo back then, I couldn’t keep away from Pilot To Bombardier shows, which indicates I may not have been entirely kind or accurate with them back then. Miguel Villarreal played bass and guitar for Pilot, one of the finest Burque bands of the day and one that obliquely fell under the emo label. In my defense, I did review one of their shows with just three words: “Brilliant and majestic.” And I stand by that.
Villarreal says, “Liam [Kimball] and I were wanting to do something a little more complex than power pop, and [Pilot To Bombardier] presented that outlet.” Musically, I’d known Villarreal and bassist Liam through Fever Hot!, a good-time power pop band that had just dissolved. Concurrently, drummer Travis Williams and ultra-axman Sean McCullough (Sad Baby Wolf, The Oktober People) were calling it quits in proto-emo band Roman Candle Choir.
Pilot To Bombardier was fronted by the hard-driving Williams, who was completely in his own world onstage. The way he crouched over his kit and pounded the skins, it was hard to believe he wasn’t whacking himself in the head with those sticks. Guitarist McCullough commanded a heroic array of effect pedals. I recall counting about 11 of them one night, and they weren’t for decoration; he used them all. At first listen, McCullough seems questioning, searching for the right riff but soon circling back to his first impulse, pouncing on himself like an anxious wolf biting its own tail.
Before long, Kimball took off for Chicago, and his new band South of No North was cut from the same emo cloth. Villarreal shifted to bass with a markedly syncopated style. Pilot soldiered on as a trio and pulled out all the stops. It got pretty tumultuous onstage with all three of them bouncing around like mad scientists in the throes of (un)holy creation.
The thing about a three-piece is that no one can fuck around. There’s nothing to hide behind and no shield from your bandmates. A band of three is pretty damn naked—even more so than solo because if you lose it, everyone else goes down in flames with you. Not Pilot. They were dynamic, and that’s not a glib description but per definition: “Various forces operating in any field [and] the way [they] shift or change in relationship to one another.”
This falls in line with something Villarreal recently told me, “What distinguished us was our treatment of the musical progression with sometimes three different melodies (two guitars and one vocal) which were often layered with effects.” As with many contemporary indie bands, things got more melodic but also quite angular. Loud guitars get me dancing, and I was sure I’d throw my back out trying to keep up with all of Pilot’s unusual changes and time signatures.
And lucky you—Pilot To Bombardier convenes for a reunion show this week. The only thing I’ll be rocking is a rocking chair by the family fireplace in rural New England, but that’s no reason for you not to go. In fact, I insist because I’m pretty damn sad to miss it. You might even say I’m feeling emo.