Locals River van den Berghe and Colin Burris met at the Teen Center behind the former site of Saturn Cafe years ago. Van den Berghe was 12 and played in the band DogBone. Burris was 13, had a mohawk, and was there to see his older brother’s band, the Lost Boys. They saw a lot of each other at shows at the 418 Project and the Vets Hall, then started their own band.
Some years later, as San Francisco State University (SFSU) students, their musical relationship picked back up. Now their current indie rock group Pardoner is set to release its third full-length, Came Down Different, on Bar None Records, to a lot of buzz from media outlets like Rolling Stone, Paste and NPR.
“We started playing music together again, jamming, hanging out, always playing music together in one way or another,” Burris says.
Starting in 2015, the original lineup of Pardoner included Max Freeland (guitar/vocals), Trey Flanigan (guitar/vocals), Will Mervau (bass) and van den Berghe (drums). The members all knew each other from attending SFSU. Van den Bergh and Freeland were playing with Burris in a punk band, but spent a lot of time listening to dissonant, angular bands like Polvo, which inspired them to write material for Pardoner.
With Pardoner, they found a sweet spot of catchy hooks, discordant riffs and punchy, groove-based beats. There’s a push and pull to Pardoner’s music that feels like it’s ripping apart and melding back together at the same time. That’s continued with Burris, who took over from Mervau in 2019. Each member of the band puts a unique stamp on every tune, which is why the songs feel so complex and layered. There’s almost an internal competition occurring within the notes. Sometimes members will hear what everyone else is contributing to the song, imagine a strange idea that shouldn’t work, and see if they can pull it off, adding something new to the symphony of sounds.
“Everybody puts their own little twist on the song, whoever’s idea it was,” says Freeland. “I feel like even when the song starts out one person’s idea, definitely everybody has their own thing in it.”
The group gigged as much as they could in the Bay Area. After a steady stream of gigs and a few DIY tours, indie label Father/Daughter took an interest in the group. They released the group’s 2017 album Uncontrollable Salvation, giving Pardoner its first dose of media attention. Given the meaning behind the group’s name (a pardoner is a medieval term for the person that grants church pardons) and Freeland making a few references to “going to hell” in his lyrics, several music bloggers defined them as obsessed with religion. But Came Down Different, which has songs about being frustrated at bosses and other topics, makes it clear they’ve got a broader range of concerns.
“It’s classic young guy stuff,” Freeland explains.
Came Down Different was written with more separation. Freeland and his wife had moved up to Canada. He and Flanagan wrote much of the material on their own in 2019. At the end of the year, Freeland came down to the Bay so the group could flesh out the tunes in the same room. In February 2020, they recorded them at Atomic Gardens in Oakland.
It was going to be a big year; they had a spring tour booked with the band Dumb. At the end of the tour, the group would drop off Freeland in Canada and then head back to the Bay Area. But with Covid-19, not only was their tour canceled, but Freeland was also stuck in the U.S. until August due to travel restrictions.
“It was probably like the smoothest tour planning I’ve ever done. It was so sick,” Freeland says. “It just all fell apart. We had a ton of really cool shows lined up and that was kind of sad.”
So, in a way, Covid-19 didn’t impact the group as much as it did others, since Freeland was already living far away from the other members, which showed them that they needed to focus more on tours and records.
“I miss playing shows,” Freeland says. “But it’s like, dude, we were playing entirely too often.”
‘Came Down Different’ will be released on May 14. For more information, check out facebook.com/pardoner2.