When it comes to Pinback’s ambiguously addictive music, you can throw out the rule books and the news cycles. Like all great rock, Pinback’s work—especially its latest release Summer in Abandon—sticks to you long after the first listen. It refuses to let you out of its seductive grasp, because although the arrangements are crystalline and the vocals lilting, there flows a dark undercurrent beneath everything they offer. Weaned on the angular rock of Slint, Pinback sound pretty, but they’ve got a hate machine humming and they know how to use it.
They’ve used that machine to manufacture their music from the comfy environs of their homes or garages. Which is cool, because the San Diego natives live around the way from each other. Armistead Burwell Smith IV—known to his pals as Zach—and Rob Crow may have more than ten bands between them, including Zach and Pall Jenkins’ unclassifiable art-punk outfit, Three Mile Pilot.
But for now, Pinback is Rob and Zach’s baby. And it’s a menace.
PopMatters: Let’s talk about your bass work, which is among the most distinctive in rock. When did you start playing?
Zach Smith: I started when I was 15, so it’s been about 19 years now. I picked it up because I was really into reggae at the time, and I was going to form a high school reggae band with my soccer friends. There was already a guitarist—which was cool because I didn’t want to play guitar anyway. And there was already a drummer, although he was using a drum machine. So I picked up the bass. If you think about it, a lot of rhythm guitar is played in the low range, which is the bass’ specialty. It’s a great instrument to mess around with that way. But a lot of my style just came from being bored.
PM: It gets boring playing simple notes after a while.
ZS: Exactly. I love traditional bass though. I love to keep the bottom end going when I’m laying down a rhythm track. But there’s much more you can do. It has a distinctive sound you can branch out from. And I do think that it triggers something different in the listener, because most are used to the guitar doing everything. So it does give something unique to our sound.
PM: When did you and Rob first realize that you had this chemistry?
ZS: It pretty much happened right away. Maybe it was just a good period in time to do it, because we used to be roommates long before we ever worked together in Pinback. We had always talked about getting together and doing something just for fun, but I was busy with Three Mile Pilot and Rob was busy with Heavy Vegetable and his other bands. But when I was taking a break from Three Mile Pilot, we started playing and recording. And around that time, the computer was becoming just good enough to record music, although in a shitty way. So I said, “Hey, this will work. Let’s just record into this thing! We don’t have to go into a studio.” The next thing we knew, we had 11 songs that weren’t too bad, so we put them out. It worked out well. Timing, as with everything, is always important. And that was a good time for us to get together.
PM: What do you think about the changes in the industry since that period, the mid-‘90s?
ZS: I’m glad the major labels have dwindled to a few, because they still to this day turn out music that’s more or less all about the money. But whatever—I understand their job is to sell product. That’s what they do. There are some good bands that come out on major labels, but the majority of it is crap like Ashlee Simpson, shit like that. She’s fabricated, but she sold a million records, because there’s a machine behind her. But it’s not disgusting if you realize that it’s not about the music, it’s about selling something.
PM: The sad part is that there are people who don’t understand it’s product.
ZS: That’s the idea. But that’s also why Touch and Go is a great label. They let us be ourselves, and they’re a bit more visible than other independent labels. It’s nice to have more people hearing something different, and not have it pushed on them. Our stuff is played on the radio here and there, which isn’t normal in the slightest. But, in a sense, it’s nice to expose people who wouldn’t normally hear Three Mile Pilot or Pinback on the radio. Whether they hate or like it, at least it’s different. If you turn on the radio now, you hear the same song over and over again.
PM: They’ve enjoyed a longevity that other indies haven’t had.
ZS: It’s the way they think. They have a good way of looking at things; that’s why they’re still around. I’ve wanted to be on that label ever since I was 19, and the same goes for the other guys in Three Mile Pilot. We loved the bands on that label, so that’s where we sent our stuff. Although we never did hear back from them! But it was unsolicited. They were probably like, “Who the hell are these guys? Fuck them!”
PM: What Touch and Go acts were you into when you were starting out?
ZS: Everything they put out, whether it was Jesus Lizard, Slint or whatever. They were just so off to the side of the indie world.
PM: I think of Slint every time I listen to Three Mile’s first two albums.
ZS: They’ve influenced so many bands, but a lot of people still don’t know who they are. But there are a lot of big bands that know who they are, and they were influenced by them. When Spiderland came out, it was totally new, different from anything else that was going on. A lot of bands have copied them.
PM: Was Slint’s music partially behind the idea to abandon guitar on Three Mile’s first album?
ZS: No, we didn’t know about Slint at that time. I think they came out later. That happened because we were all in different punk bands down in Chula Vista. Tom was in Neighborhood Watch, although he played keyboard. Pall was in another called Dark Sarcasm. We all constantly played shows together. So one day I asked Pall to cruise over, and he didn’t play any guitar. He just sang. So we decided that I’d play bass, Tom would play drums and Pall would just sing. And we never really thought about it, because it seemed at the time that the bass filled out the sound well enough. We didn’t feel a need to have anything else going on.
PM: It’s awesome that Three Mile Pilot is doing another album.
ZS: We’re really looking forward to it. But I don’t know what we’re going to do! Back then, it was a bunch of young guys who loved playing and experimenting with music. I’m hoping that it’ll have the energy that Three Mile Pilot is known for, but now with additional facets and sounds that we picked up from our time in Black Heart Procession and Pinback.
PM: That’s pressure. The one thing that stood out about Three Mile Pilot is that the albums sounded nothing alike.
ZS: Yeah, I’m worried about it being too mellow. That is something I don’t want. I want it to have edges, I want it to be loud. Pall actually has to sing loud again! Right now, he doesn’t know how to do that! Actually, he does hit higher registers in the background of some Black Heart Procession songs, but he was mostly singing in that register on Three Mile Pilot’s stuff.
PM: Yeah, he’s screaming his fucking head off throughout Chief Assassin. But he’s mellowed a bit with Black Heart.
ZS: Exactly! We gotta snap him outta that.
PM: So what about Rob? I know you’re all friends, but how does this work? Is he cool with it?
ZS: Oh yeah, he’s always got another band! Every day, he’s forming a new one. But we know we have responsibilities to Pinback. And there’s time to take care of that. We just have to figure out when.
PM: Corey at Touch and Go must be stoked. He’s got all three bands. He can’t lose.
ZS: Yeah, he gets all three, even though he denied us when we were 19. What the hell is up with that?