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Call it a Pyrrhic victory for Detroit music. Last week finally saw the release of PAS/CAL's debut album, I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura, on Le Grand Magistery, a label straight out of Bloomfield Hills, no less. And with that, its mastermind, Casimer Pascal — perhaps the best songwriter to come out of Southwest Detroit since Jack White — is moving to Chicago.
It's not what you might think — no sour grapes about lack of local support or yearning for particularly grayer pastures; it's just pure economics. See, putting out what might be the best Detroit record of the year (Kid Rock may have made Rock 'N' Roll Jesus ... but PAS/CAL's I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura is pure indie rock godhead) may one day pay all the bills. But right now, helping other people get jobs in the advertising industry (Pascal's a creative recruiter, you see) is what keeps this artist, his wife and two kids financially afloat. So during a week that he could be popping the Champagne at his Michigan home with the seven or so bandmates that helped him make the genius-pop project, he and the wife are moving the kids to the Windy City.
"Well, I get to get out of the city before it burns down," he jokes. "Seriously, though, my wife and I were talking and we realized that neither of us have ever lived more than six miles away from where we grew up."
Pascal grew up just across I-94 in southwest Detroit, more accurately in the Eastern European area between Hungarian Village and the Ford-Wyoming drive-in theater. ("One of the last drive-ins left in the world," he remarks, as underwhelmed by that fact as he is proud to repeat it.) Cas, now in his 30s, had a brother 20 years older than him who played in Michigan's by-then pop-metal Cadillac Kidz and who exposed little brother to that archetypal, life-altering "older sibling record collection."
"He had Stooges records, Kraftwerk, P-Funk, Sham 69 — all that stuff," he recalls. Soon thereafter, the younger Pascal spent a summer making money by helping a kid in their "lower than blue-collar" neighborhood steal car radios. "I never actually broke into any cars; I just drove us around," he insists, although the statute of limitations has probably expired on those missing in-dash cassette systems. He made $800 for his criminal efforts, which he then invested in a four-track and a microphone, followed by an SK-1 sampling keyboard, which he soon used to record and loop sounds from those seminal records.
Pascal didn't start playing guitar until he was 18. "I tried singing in bands but nobody was writing any good songs," he sighs. "I finally said, 'Fuck it,' and started Asha Vida."
Asha Vida, his first band, was the antithesis to PAS/CAL's clean, well-lighted hooks. "We were really into improv, just trying to do whatever was the opposite of what was conventional," he recalls. What was conventional in mid-'90s Detroit was a scene dabbling in shoegazer pop and garage hooks; Asha Vida, on the other hand, was just a wall of prickly, sometimes beautiful sounds.
"Way back in the Asha Vida days, when it was cool to loathe pop conventions, I secretly held in my heart that the best art was, in many respects, the most universal and the most accessible. That was the complete opposite of what we were doing," he says, "but I knew that someday, I'd wanna write a good, well-crafted, hummable tune."
When Asha Vida disbanded in 1999, Pascal set about cracking the perfect pop code. "I put together a mix of what I thought were the greatest songs ever," he notes. "I had stuff like Bowie's 'Life on Mars' — anything I really liked. And I started doing these little transcriptions of them to see if there was any underlying formula there. I discovered that like life, the best songs are unpredictable," Pascal says, adding, "I believe in muses and all that stuff.
"I came to the conclusion that most of my favorite songs don't follow a template." But they all did have two or three little quirky things in common, characteristics that made them both great and poppy. For instance, he noticed that the chorus to Bowie's "Queen Bitch" is abbreviated the first time you hear it.
"A great song will have these little surprise moments," he says, "like the modulation between chords on the two or four. So when I'm writing, I try to get the whole song going in all these surprise moments. I never feel happy if I'm just writing some portion of the song the same way again. I wish I could write that way; I hear songs all the time that have the same parts throughout and they're perfect. Something doesn't allow me to get with that, though. I write three or four different songs within one song."
The dude ain't kidding. While the new disc's la-la-las and string-stroked melodies are infinitely hooky, reminiscent of the best baroque pop quirks of Costello and Bowie all tied-up into a breezy Sigur Ros swoon, its arrangements, if one bothered to transcribe them, can be best described as episodic. Listening to I Was Raised is akin to watching Lost (well, when it was good) just to see what happens next, even if the white polar bears and black smoke snakes don't seem at first to make much sense.
"Every song is a project," Pascal says, explaining that he writes them on a glacial timetable (which, along with working full-time and having two kids, may explain why it took I Was Raised months of to complete.
"We Made Our Way, We Amtrakked" is Pascal's "A Day in the Life," strung-out on early 20s wanderlust and the more sober specter of turning 30: "All your gray hairs have gotten you nowhere," he sings. Meanwhile, "Dearest Bernard Leaving" has a kind of Oscar Wilde/Hemingway-esque mix of wistfulness and wit, with Pascal invoking the inspiration of a former teacher, only to find himself more distracted than inspired when it comes time to produce ("Writing my novel on the train/I haven't written a goddamned thing in such a long long time, N-n-not since Spain oh no. The window seat teases me with trees, and cars and rows of houses I can not quite touch with my hands my eyes or even the pen, oh no!") If that sounds precious and pretentious, it isn't. In fact, the offhandedness with which Pascal and drummer LTD (Little Tommy Daniels) navigate the segues and time-changes to stitch together a coherent song is kind of amazing. But as Cas explains, all this "funeral-for-a-friending" has a purpose.
"I always knew the hardest thing to do was to craft a hummable pop song, but the easiest way to get props was to make it so crazy that it has to be good."
And with I Was Raised, Pascal and company have achieved just that. As for the "and company" thing, though, Pascal now notes that he doesn't "think I am cut out for the group thing. It's too much like having four to six crazy-ass girlfriends." Most of the members in the current lineup play in other bands, including Hidden Ghost Balloon Ship. Violinist Lauren Semivan, for instance, picked up the axe she'd neglected since high school to help out with the new record.
So maybe I Was Raised ... is an end to PAS/CAL, the band, as much as it is the beginning of the rest of the world discovering the group's breathlessly breath-taking charms. Hipster hangouts such as Pitchfork have been singing PAS/CAL's praises for years, with many of the local music sites following suit.
"I've learned over the years that every person has a collection of favorite bands they're familiar with and use that to compare," says Cas. "My brother tells me we remind him of Marc Bolan and King Crimson. My grandparents tell me it's the Beatles. People more in tune with, say, Pitchfork, have compared it to Destroyer" (meaning Vancouverite Dan Bejar's blue-Bowie singer-songwriter project and not the KISS album). He doesn't mind the comparison. "Dan's a great lyricist, and besides, right now, it's like the '80s: People don't care about the words right now, they just want to dance," he notes. "There's not too many great writers right now."
But with I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura, Pascal may be one of the few left, even if you're too busy humming along to notice ... or even care.
Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.