On a recent Monday evening at Hockey Haven, middle-aged men hunker over juicy-looking steaks, occasionally glancing up at the football game overhead. The old-school sports bar -- which has served San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district since 1949 -- might seem like an odd place to meet up with the San Francisco post-punk band Pardoner, but they come here all the time.
Max Freeland, the band’s charismatic singer and guitarist, briskly leads me through the narrow kitchen, where a woman lines up rows and rows of steaks. "They said we can hang out on the patio for an hour if we don't go in and out," he assures me.
Freeland and his bandmates sport the normcore uniform of dad hats, beanies, vintage jeans, and thick-framed glasses. They post up at a picnic table, chit-chatting cheerfully as they light up cigarettes. Clearly, they're are at home here even though they’re about 30 years younger than the rest of the clientele.
The members of Pardoner -- which also include guitarist-vocalist Trey Flanigan, bassist Will Mervau, and drummer River Van Den Berghe -- first met at nearby San Francisco State University, where two of them are still undergrads. Like fellow punk band Toyota, which also formed at S.F. State, they’ve made a name for themselves in San Francisco and Oakland’s house-show circuit, slowly getting buzz that’s led to some pretty big opportunities.
The influential San Francisco indie label Father Daughter Records, whose roster includes rising pop singer Shamir, recently put out Pardoner’s excellent debut LP, Uncontrollable Salvation. The record -- which combines tight, punchy song structures with heavy distortion and comically dark lyrics -- caught the attention of well-known indie rock producer John Vanderslice, whose production credits at his Tiny Telephone recording studio include Spoon and the Mountain Goats.
Vanderslice recently booked Pardoner for the Tiny Telephone 20th anniversary party, where they shared the stage with Toro y Moi, the Berkeley-based indie multi-instrumentalist and P. Diddy collaborator. Pardoner recorded new material at Tiny Telephone the following week when a Canadian sound engineer booked the studio for a weekend to learn the ropes of recording; the engineer invited Pardoner to lay down some tracks for free per Vanderslice's recommendation.
"The reason I chose Pardoner was because they're a really, really good band worthy of being recorded," Vanderslice says in a phone interview. "They're really creative and they do this post-punk thing that I have in my blood. One thing I like about them is that they have a really strange harmonic language: It's pop music, essentially, but there's an angular weirdness that doesn't stray into nonsense-ville but is flirting with that."
The opportunity to record at Tiny Telephone came at short notice, but Pardoner impressed Vanderslice with the fact that they wrote five songs in a week and recorded them over the course of two days. "They ended up recording all five tunes and they were really, really good," Vanderslice confirms enthusiastically.
"It was pretty short notice. We had to get work off and practice real quick," Flanigan explains.
"I was really happy with the way it turned out," Freeland chimes in. "I don't know when those will be seeing the light of day but, someday they'll be available somehow."
Though Pardoner have been climbing the ranks of San Francisco’s indie scene, the bandmates still have the most fun at scrappy house shows full of familiar faces -- like Hole Fest, an all-day mini-festival that took place in a musty, dusty West Oakland basement a few weekends ago.
"I like that kind of shit way more. It's way more fun," says Flanigan.
"We're able to be ourselves more," adds Mervau. "It doesn't feel like we're performing, it just feels like we're playing."
Packed with 20-somethings with unwashed hair and tall cans, the show felt like the polar opposite of when Pardoner opened for dance-rock band !!! (pronounced chk! chk! chk!) at the Chapel in July to an audience of clean-cut, well-to-do San Francisco hipsters.
The bandmates chat among themselves about how strange it is to play for an audience of people they don't know, then turn to me and say how grateful they are for the opportunity nonetheless. "We played to like 500 people and they gave us free fried chicken," Freeland recalls happily of the !!! show. "I don't think I've ever been more set. And then at the end, they gave us money. I was like, 'Wow!'"
Despite the bandmates’ endearingly goofy demeanor, plenty of elements in Pardoner’s work conjure images of Christian guilt: The band’s name, the title Uncontrollable Salvation, and lyrics like “I belong in hell” from the song “Hint.” But the theme seems to be more subconscious than intentional: Van Den Berghe, an English major, came up with the band’s name after studying Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, in which the titular character tricks people into paying him money to absolve them of their sins. The theme was a fascinating one for Freeland, who, as a lyricist, spends a lot of time thinking about morality.
“I'm not religious at all," Freeland explains. "I went to church once when I was a kid and had an allergic reaction to nuts and had to leave. ... Mostly, I just think about punishment and doing bad things and getting punished for them and cosmic law."
"A lot of our lyrics deal with spiritual anguish, but none of us are Christian," Flanigan adds.
"Not all of us believe in a higher power per se, but we believe in love and stuff," says Mervau as the other bandmates giggle. With the sudden uptick in attention from the music industry (NPR and Pitchfork both gave tracks from Uncontrollable Salvation rave reviews), they seem unsure of how seriously they should take themselves when journalists ask them about the religious overtones of their name and album title.
"I think one of us was literally like, 'Pardoner' sounds cool," says Van Den Berghe with an eye-roll.
Pardoner performs at Balboa Theater on Oct. 19 with Unity, Sirena Victima, and Share. More info here.