Pardoner Laughs at Life’s Absurdities

The S.F. band known for its frenzied, volatile performances mixes the spiritual with the profane.

A quick glance at the track list for Pardoner’s debut album, Uncontrollable Salvation, reveals how this San Francisco band has a penchant for balancing the profound with the mundane — an understanding that sometimes, deep spiritual anguish isn’t all that different from being stoned and bored on the couch.

Slayer-esque titles like “Blue Hell” and “Carousel of Punishment” sit alongside “My Sorry Ass” and “Pivot Fakie,” names that might better fit a Blink 182 release. That dichotomy reflects the impertinent character makeup of the band: These guys know that life is so fucking ridiculous, all you can do is laugh.

“We try to find the happy medium,” says Max Freeland, singer and guitarist for the four-piece group, which plays at Thee Parkside on Friday, March 9. “Sometimes, that’s the only way we can deal with stuff. I think when we’re talking about a not-funny topic, I try to approach it with some levity. We try not to be so sullen and self-serious.”

Like a modern day Mark E. Smith — the late, great leader of The Fall — Freeland brings a smirking knowingness to his songs, letting the listener know that existence is a joke, but at least he is in on the gag. The rest of the band — guitarist and vocalist Trey Flanigan, bassist Will Mervau, and drummer River van den Berghe — share his irreverent approach. A conversation with the boys from Pardoner results in plenty of group chuckles, with the band struggling to expound on song conceits beyond simple explanations. You get the impression they’d rather be swilling beer and playing music than deciphering the meaning of their songs on a granular level.

But their impish manner should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition. The foursome met as students at San Francisco State, coming together over a shared love of DIY and indie bands like Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr., Slint, and Polvo. They honed their craft playing house shows around the Bay Area, earning a reputation for their frenzied, volatile performances. After releasing a few EPs, the group was contacted by Jessi Frick of the venerable San Francisco label Father/Daughter records, which subsequently offered to put out Uncontrollable Salvation.


Pardoner’s debut, which came out last September, is a relentless, rewarding listen, offering a glimpse into the band’s deceptively intricate winning formula. Layered underneath waves of dissonance and sludge are legitimate pop hooks, giving the songs a verve and accessibility that belies their ostensibly heavy sound. Precursors to Uncontrollable Salvation can be found in the classic Pavement album, Slanted and Enchanted, as well as Parquets Courts’ second album, Light Up Gold, two releases that managed to push the bounds for what could be described as pop music, albeit in a bastardized form.

“We’ve always been interested in meshing really ugly sounding things with really pretty things,” says Flanigan, who shares lead vocal duties with Freeland.

Songs like “Blue Hell” and “Uncontrollable Salvation” are perfect examples of that finely tuned blend, shifting seamlessly between punishing riffs and crystalline guitar interludes. Other tracks, like “Hint” and “Labrador,” are vehicles for Freeland to trot out his Mark E. Smith sing-talk mechanism, with “Hint” containing the best lyric on the album (“I belong in hell / It would be more fun there anyway, probably.”)

That tune is just one of many to reference religious iconography — the band’s name is reference to one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — but the group doesn’t consider themselves to be connected to the church.

“We get asked that question a lot, and I don’t really know how to answer it,” Freeland says, referring to inquiries about religion. “It is all just dealing with spiritual anguish in one way or another. I feel like, when you’re dealing with that topic, it’s pretty hard to at least not reference God, or whatever that is to you.”

Regardless of the motivation behind the lyrics, it is undeniable that Pardoner’s songs have touched a nerve. Uncontrollable Salvation has garnered glowing reviews, receiving nice write-ups in several national blogs, most notably Pitchfork, which gave high praise to “Blue Hell.”

The group is poised to seize on that momentum. They recently wrapped up a tour of the Pacific Northwest in support of Shamir, a highly regarded singer-songwriter (and label-mate on Father/Daughter) and they’ll play SXSW as part of a national jaunt. The group is set to hit the studio in May to record new material, which they hope to release sometime this year.

While only Mervau is a native of the Bay Area — he was born in San Jose — the group says they intend to remain in San Francisco for the near term, although they do concede that the cost of living — an ever-present impediment to artistic survival — does play a factor in how long they remain in the city.

“We have a great support structure here,” Flanigan says. “From Jessi at Father/Daughter to all our friends in other bands, we really feel at home in the city.”

Things are going quite well for the band, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly start writing hopefully cheery records that ignore the obvious discordances of life.

“I think we are still interested in talking about how fucking messed up stuff is,” Freeland says. “It’s all messed up. But we don’t want to completely depress people. That’s the kind of sucker punch with our music — we try to do as much of both sides without doing too much of either.”

Pardoner with Pllush, Dumb, and Modern Needs, Friday, March 9, 9 p.m., at The Parkside, 1600 17th St. $8;

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