Steve Fisk and Shawn Smith, ahead of their time since 1992. Anna Knowlden

The popular press, Wikipedia, and music authorities like Allmusic.com don't acknowledge this, but Pigeonhed very likely invented triphop before the term was even coined. Back in 1992, Seattle keyboardist/production whiz Steve Fisk and sanctified soul singer Shawn Smith huddled in the SCUD Building where the former lived and cut their self-titled debut album. These gifted musicians were buddies with Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman, who issued the work on his label in 1993. With grunge still raging in the U.S., heads weren't quite ready to digest the lasciviously funky sonic roughage Pigeonhed were dropping.

"Because of the collision of their respective sensibilities, that first Pigeonhed record has a tension that makes it an engaging listen to this day," Poneman asserts. "Brilliant stuff. Furthermore, it was absolutely the first triphop record."

"We were pioneers," Smith claims. "[But I] gotta give props to the Beastie Boys for opening my eyes [with Check Your Head]. Steve's were already open."

Poneman faced some internal trepidation and external discouragement before green-lighting the innovative project. "I was a little scared of it at first," he remembers. "It was so different from anything else. But that also made it wildly compelling. I remember kind of sneaking it onto the schedule. But [because] Steve was involved—Shawn was still largely unknown—that more or less spared me from a mutiny [among Sub Pop employees]. It's good to have friends in high places."

An anomaly in Sub Pop's vast catalog, Pigeonhed is essentially a strange dance/romance album that's distinguished by Smith's hypersensual soul-man exhortations and Fisk's panoply of bizarre keyboard textures contoured together into supple seducers, which belong in the pantheon where Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green preside. The funk here is extra thick and lubricious, and often laid-back to help you get laid... like much of the triphop that would emanate out of Bristol, England, and those early offerings on Mo' Wax and Ninja Tune. Listen to "Ain't It So" and "Trial by Sex" and try not to think of Jamie Lidell biting this steez more than a decade later. Throughout Pigeonhed, Smith ranges from Barry White rumble to fluttery Al Green falsetto with flamboyant ease, and Fisk keeps the libidinal tension at the boiling point. You can stuff your Afghan Whigs LPs; nothing in Sub Pop's history is sexier than Pigeonhed's debut full-length.

"I heard about all the fucking," Fisk responds when asked if Pigeonhed were attempting to score sexual conquests with their debut record. "Very cool, but we didn't plan it. Prince was a big influence on both records. The Beach Boys were not. The second CD [1997's The Full Sentence, which is like Pigeonhed's There's a Riot Goin' On or Sign o' the Times] was one of the last records recorded in Bad Animals Studio B, an authentic world-class 1970s studio. We had much help: Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell, Matt Chamberlain, Reggie Watts, Carrie Akre. [It was a] different process than the first record."

"I was smitten by a love that didn't love me back on the first record," Smith recalls. "On the second, she still didn't love me back, so I had to find some good in it. I had my muse and that's a beautiful thing."

Pigeonhed's two albums fuse silky R&B and gritty funk to eccentric electronic music with exuberant expressiveness. Amid the grunge explosion, the debut sounded like a true oddity—an unabashedly romantic and vulnerable yet unclichéd soul record that sprouted in a manly-man milieu of lumberjack rock. Surely, they must have felt like they were staking out singular territory in the Northwest with this sound.

"We never articulated what we intended to do," Fisk says. "It was very intuitive. Shawn and I had already worked together on some of his first solo music. Somewhere in there, the Steven Jesse Bernstein Prison record happened and Shawn liked what I did with break beats. We were neighbors in Lower Queen Anne.

"[Pigeonhed] was done at the height of the media grunge rape of Seattle," Fisk continues. "[We recorded it] in my space next to the old Cyclops on Western. I loved much of that music, but we never saw Pigeonhed as any kind of 'answer' to all of that. I think we were no more vulnerable than TAD."

"The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head was the jump-off point for me in terms of letting go and allowing Steve to be as freaky as he wanted soundwise, and then I put my pop sensibilities into the psycho soup," Smith says. "There was never a thought about the rock of Seattle at the time and where we fit in. It was being financed by Sub Pop, so we fit in somewhere."

While Pigeonhed have been dormant for 13 years, Fisk and Smith have maintained hectic careers. The former has become an in-demand producer (Low, Harvey Danger, Unwound, many others), developed into a vaunted solo artist (999 Levels of Undo is full of sui generis electronic music), played in Cut-Out, and, with Ben Gibbard, scored the soundtrack to Kurt Cobain: About a Son. Smith fronts the more conventional soul-rock outfits Satchel and Brad, and works as a solo artist and collaborator with several other area players in projects such as Fireside Gospel, Forever Breakers, and All Hail the Crown.

The good news for Pigeonhed fans, though, is that the duo have been working—sans outside help—on a third album, some of which they'll air at Thursday's Neumos gig. "It's maybe less abstract [than previous Pigeonhed releases], although there are a lot of strange details and weird signature sounds and textures," Fisk explains. "No wolves, angry dogs, or thunder. There are some ballads. Shawn did really elaborate vocal harmonies. It still sounds like us: heavy grooves, 110 bpm, vintage Arp synths."

One of the great ironies about Sub Pop Records is that the Lo-Fidelity Allstars' remix for "Battle Flag"—a track that met great resistance within the company—ended up keeping the label afloat after the track blew up on radio and in clubs, and was licensed in several movies. Poneman recounts, "I remember being lectured by a former employee who was quite adamant that our Pigeonhed remix record [1997's Flash Bulb Emergency Overflow Cavalcade of Remixes] was poseur folly. This perspective was built on saltier observations made by a then-popular local DJ who shall remain nameless. 'Battle Flag' was singled out for particular ridicule."

Ultimately, Pigeonhed were too ahead of their time to click with more people in the 1990s. Artists like Lidell and, to a lesser degree, Mayer Hawthorne have taken what Pigeonhed did to the bank. Perhaps the time is ripe for Pigeonhed to reap greater rewards now.

Support The Stranger

"If we were ahead of our time, then the time machine was broken," Fisk notes. "Postmodernism was eaten for breakfast in the '90s. If Pigeonhed's distillation of our influences was 'ahead' in any way, it's only because the 'future' turned out to be a dismal array of genre clowns. Thanks, iTunes!"

"Who the hell are Jamie Lidell and Mayer Hawthorne?" Smith asks. "Do they owe us money?" At the very least, Shawn.