Presented by smartwater
Lars Finberg's worldview stems from being the underdog, the hard-luck bastard, the outcast. He is the nucleus and sole constant member of the Intelligence, the underground-rock outfit that made its debut in 2003 with the full-length Boredom and Terror. He keeps the songs short and to the (inevitably barbed) point—letting his bile, humor, and sardonic storytelling knife into you with exhilarating immediacy.
To understand where he's coming from, it helps to go back to his elementary-school days. He's the middle child of five in his family. "I got upstaged by two twin baby girls when I was 4, so I had a lot to prove," he says. "My first memory of digging music was listening to a vinyl LP of The Munsters soundtrack on one of those Fisher-Price suitcase record players every night to go to sleep for years when I was really little. This is probably where our 'dark surf' vibe comes from." (Mockery of critic-speak noted.)
When Finberg was 7, his family moved to New Zealand, where he experienced the misery of not fitting in compounded by the misery of feeling inadequate due to America's subpar educational system. He consoled himself with nightly listens to his dad's cassette of ELO's Time. As a high-school freshman, Finberg became obsessed with UB40's reggaefied cover of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine," but a punk-rock buddy tried to set him straight with Dead Kennedys' Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. "So for a moment, 'Red Red Wine' and 'Police Truck' were my favorite songs," Finberg says. "Which is kinda how I would describe our band."
This odd jumble of influences has made Finberg a distinctive figure in Seattle's musical ecology. But before he established the Intelligence as one of the city's most incisive groups, he suffered some frustrating experiences as a nonleader, including one with a band whose name he finds too embarrassing to mention, but who nevertheless issued a single on Sub Pop around 1997. "We fought over everything from artwork to practice times. So when we broke up arguing over a record display in Cellophane Square and the drummer stacked all of my equipment like a giant seven-foot monolith in front of my back door, I started recording on a four-track by myself," Finberg says. "It was really freeing to do it alone."
With his home recordings, "I was just trying to make up whatever came naturally, which was kinda skewed, weird rock and roll. I heard two things that year that really shaped me: first was Bend Sinister, not the Fall LP, but Erin [Sullivan] and Min [Yee]'s pre–A Frames band, and the Country Teasers' Satan Is Real Again. When I heard that stuff, my first thought was 'Oh, I'm doing it wrong.'"
For more than a decade, Finberg has been nurturing the Intelligence, maintaining absurdly high quality-control standards despite a band-member turnover rate that rivals that of a Taco Bell. (He drummed for the great band A Frames for a few of those years, too.) "It's funny, I've always avoided the horrible cliché 'Oh the weather is depressing, so you just stay in and work on stuff,' but I realize it is totally true. I've written six records to stave off winter thoughts of suicide. Some of the best things I've written were driving to work at some horrible steel mill in Kirkland at six in the morning, just to leave work in darkness again at 4:00 p.m."
You can glimpse his idiosyncratic perspective in "The World Is a Drag," the first track from 2003's Boredom and Terror. Finberg declaims over a decadent simulacrum of Serge Gainsbourg–like lounge funk, "I'm not starving/I'm not in the army/I'm not on fire/Let's sing about girls/Who gives a fuck if the world is a drag?" It's a concise condemnation of pampered people who complain about mundane things. Finberg's intolerance for inauthentic and integrity-less fools surfaces in "South Bay Surfers," from 2009's Fake Surfers: "I'm tired of fake surfing/It affects me and I'm affected/And the evil/I detect it." One of the Intelligence's most sonically chilling songs, "Meetings," a track on Crepuscle with Pacman (also from 2009—busy year), reveals Finberg's morbid sense of humor: "I left you in the garbage/And I left you in the trash/And it came as a relief/To find that nothing ever lasts/They threw you in the sewer and they left you there to mold/When you called your mom to get you/They still placed you on hold."
These tracks, along with the rest of the Intelligence's discography—six albums and several more singles and EPs, culminating with 2010's Males LP—capture a golden mean between noise and pop. The music's abrasiveness correlates with the words' witty corrosiveness, sung in a voice indebted to the deadpan of the Fall's Mark E. Smith and Swell Maps' Nikki Sudden. But beneath the surface prickliness, the Intelligence's songs often house melodies of tart sweetness, melodies contoured to stick in your brain for the long haul.
While the songs in the Intelligence's catalog are so clearly of this place, their creator now finds himself dividing his time among Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. (He recently joined badass Bay Area garage rockers Thee Oh Sees and is also in the bands Wounded Lion and Puberty.) Might spending more time in LA insidiously cause Finberg to start making vapid, highly processed music to do coke to? He scoffs at the idea.
"I can feel the vibes of LA transfusing me, but I'm only using the good ones: I'm taking the vibes from the Doors' 'Strange Days' and ignoring later-period Weezer's 'Pork and Beans.' Palm trees are my favorite sight. It's incredible what this smoggy vitamin D does for a body. It makes me like Seattle more. I was really burned out and depressed; now I relish in the things I love about it, my family and friends and coffee and... well, that's about it. I'm kidding. I would not be where I am without Seattle taking me in the year punk broke." (He moved here in 1993: "I probably saw Mudhoney 10 times that year.")
This freshly minted Genius is entering the studio in late September—with core members Dave Hernandez, Pete Capponi, and Susanna Welbourne— to cut a new Intelligence album. "I think it'll be our gnarliest and poppiest yet," Finberg says. "There is some Red Kross kinda punk stuff and some Zombies kinda stuff, too. I want it to have an underwater girl-group feel to it, so Susanna [Welbourne] and Shannon from Shannon and the Clams and Brigid [Dawson] from Thee Oh Sees are going to be doing lots of harmonies. The band is all mixed up now, too, with Seattle and LA people (there'll be 10 of us for this recording), so I want to try to make our White Album, with people switching around and hating each other's guts and lots of layers to it."
He adds, "I'm looking forward to going into the studio in my Genius robe and doing the 'talk to the hand' [gesture] any time anyone in the band speaks, and recording a shitty ragtime album that no one has the balls to tell me sucks, until I win an Idiot Award from the LA Weekly."
That Finberg had to jettison 800 Intelligence CDs two days after receiving the Stranger Genius Award to lighten his load before going to Los Angeles for a while is the sort of bitter irony that feeds his muse. And his muse shows no signs of stopping. Finberg has found over 100 ways (so far) to turn sonic causticity and lyrical acerbity and scintillating concision into enduring art—a sort of garage-rock concrète to which you can dance and think. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Lars Finberg ranks as one of rock's canniest sages.