by Ian Thomas
Hundreds of pinball enthusiasts have converged upon Pittsburgh to test their mettle in the Pinburgh 2013 Match Play Championship, held by the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) from April 11-14. With a prize package of $60,000 and a portion of proceeds going to charity, the championship is among the premier events of the pinball community. Although the 400 person tournament is currently waitlisted, Pinburgh is open to the public. Per the event site, spectators “are welcome to browse and play the 200+ non-tournament pinball machines (2 tokens per play), meet other players, and watch the tournament.”
Pinburgh attracts players of all stripes and skill levels. Among those players is musician Dave Hartley, of Philadelphia. Hartley is probably best known as bassist in The War on Drugs, but he is also the mastermind of Nightlands, whose dreamy, experimental sophomore effort, Oak Island, could mellow even the most nerve-wracking silver ball session. Hartley's Pinburgh pilgrimage is proof that the path to high-score glory holds a special allure, even to those already living the Rock n’ Roll lifestyle. In this interview Hartley talks about the roots of his love of pinball, the makings of an interesting table, and the aesthetic pleasure that can be found in stepping up to a pinball machine.
How far back in your life does the pinball enthusiasm go?
I liked it as a kid, I remember playing it a lot at the boardwalk in Maryland growing up—but it wasn't until I started touring constantly that I realized, hey, I love doing this, it's totally different from video games or gambling or billiards or any other pastime.
How much of your time does it take up?
I play every day at a little taco joint a block from my house, called Loco Pez. It sucks because they only have one game at a time, but they cycle them out so there is some variety. I don't own any machines but want to desperately.
Will this weekend's PAPA event be your first competitive event? How much have you prepared in the run-up?
This is definitely my first competitive event. I'm not very good at pinball, let's be clear. I will get a high score here and there on a machine, but I'm no wizard. I've prepared by, um, playing pinball at the beach…I expect to be soundly defeated, but also educated. I really just want to see how great pinball players play. This is something I plan on doing for the rest of my life, and I want to get really good at it eventually.
Do you prefer solid state/circuit-driven displays of the 70's to the electro-mechanical reel-scoring setups that preceded them? What is your favorite era of pinball? Do you find yourself drawn to the designs of any particular manufacturer?
As a child of the 90s, the 90s machines really tickle my nostalgia bone. Funhouse, Road Show, Medieval Madness, Theater of Magic—these games just take me back. Honestly I haven't gotten to spend TONS of time with some of these great machines, but the one machine that I've spent a lot of time on and totally LOVE is Family Guy. [It has] great design: the raised separate playfield, tons of shots and different multiball opportunities, and just [an] awesome feel. It's a Pat Lawlor-designed game, and I've found that I really love lots of his machines. I would love to own Twilight Zone or Addams Family some day. I've played those and am just blown away by the complexity. You could spend years trying to unlock all the different modes.
I gotta say that some of the new Stern games are pretty solid—Family Guy, Spider Man and AC/DC are all solid, playable games, although I was pretty disappointed with Avengers.
Do you try to get out and play when you're touring?
Touring is what hooked me on pinball. The War on Drugs did a tour with The Hold Steady years ago and, for whatever reason, lots of the venues we played had machines. We'd get there, load in, and then have a few hours to kill between our soundcheck and the showtime. There's nothing as calming as having a beer and just smacking that silver ball around, waiting for your bandmates to come find you and maybe join in.
When you play a new machine, do you size up the field and read the rules, or do you learn as you go?
Oh, I definitely just dive in. I probably should make a strategy but I am generally just getting a feel for the game and seeing what happens.
Pinball and rock are inextricably linked. Do your pinball memories and your music memories share any overlap? Which came first for you?
Music came first for me because it's my first love and my job, but pinball does fit in nicely with it. I foresee pinball making a comeback, aided by a coalition of pinball-enthusiast musicians. Pinball machines are to video games what analog recording (reel to reel, etc.) is to digital recording. It's tactile and comforting in the digital age. Every damn thing we do is on a screen or digitally archived somewhere, it's nice to put your hands on something physical.
Do you supply your own music when you play or do you prefer the sound effects of the machine? If you supply your own, what do you find to be a good soundtrack? Do you want something that will pump you up and get you focussed or something that will keep you cool and calm?
You know, since I don't own a machine, I generally am just hearing the sounds of the machine in the bar or arcade wherever I am. But when I get my collection going, I'll definitely switch off the sound on the machine and just pump music. Probably something not too dynamic, something droney and motoring, but upbeat. Maybe some Neu! or Spacemen 3.
Maybe I'll take my iPod to Pinburgh to get in the zone.
Is it wrong to nudge or is nudging part of the game?
Are you kidding? I'd be nothing without nudging. Nudging is everything. Live to nudge. Nudge life.