Following the release of Pinback’s full-length debut, Summer in Abaddon, the almighty twosome of Rob Crow and Zach Smith (formerly known as Armistead Burwell Smith IV) have been thrown aboard the one-way train to indie rock stardom. Between maintaining a whirlwind tour schedule, garnering a coveted guest spot on the decidedly un-indie “The O.C.” and juggling more side projects than we have room to print, the guys have built a studio – with buddies Black Heart Procession – and churned out two music videos. Never ones to slack off when it comes to keepin’ it real, Pinback maintains their delicate-yet-complex appeal by writing, recording and mixing everything at home, sans the input of producers and record execs.
In conversation, Pinback’s lead vocalist embodies the archetypal recluse-turned-artist. Happy to play his music to throngs of eager young show-goers, there is a part of Smith that seems to be just as content jamming in the basement with his buddy ProTools. Artsweek got the chance to chat with Smith as he maneuvered the San Diego streets en route to Pinback’s first gig of their current headlining tour. Follow along as we attempt to get inside the head of one of rock’s up-and-coming overachievers.
Artsweek: So you’re beginning and ending the tour here in California, are we the only college on the itinerary?
Zach Smith: I think we’re playing a school in Idaho, or something like that. Moscow, Idaho. It’s a random one, but, actually, I’m looking forward to it because I’ve never played a show in Idaho before. It just kind of worked out that way. It wasn’t really planned, it’s just sort of how it happened.
Do you find it easier or more difficult to write while you’re on the road?
Usually I keep the writing ’til I get home, just ’cause you’re too tired, or you’re just not in the right mind-frame, but every once in a while something does happen that you remember to save for when you get back.
Was the bass the first instrument you learned to play? When did you first pick it up?
Yeah, I picked up bass [when I was fifteen]. You know, guitar players [are] a dime a dozen. Who wants to be one of those guys? I just picked it up and just kind of went with it, then I started playing piano awhile ago.
Both you and Rob have played in a slew of other bands. Why do you think that Pinback was the vehicle that people took to so openly?
I have no idea. I think maybe it’s easy listenin’.
Do you feel the band’s sound differs a lot from projects you’ve worked on in the past?
I don’t know, it’s got a lot of the same style to me, but I’m kind of a one-style guy. I’m not like Rob, who can do 10 different things, but it’s kind of a choice too. I find that there [are] a lot of similarities between 3 Mile Pilot and Pinback, and Heavy Vegetable and Pinback, or Thingy and Pinback, which kind of is what the mixture really is.
I know that both of you have equally tried to keep writing with other bands and projects. Is that still true?
Yeah, well, for the rest of this year everything is going to be kind of on the back burner. But, yeah we’re planning on doing all that stuff.
Have you found your audience changing, at least at the lives shows, in the past year or so?
Yeah, it changes constantly, actually. It seems like it’s different faces and stuff all the time.
Do you think that’s a good thing?
I think it’s a good thing, yeah. [Otherwise] it’d just be the same person playing to the same person over and over. I think there is a core group of fans, but then there are a lot of new ones too.
How were you approached to do “The O.C.” spot? Was there any hesitation in putting your music out there in such a commercial way?
Yeah, there was hesitation in that, but I think it’s [about] variety of getting your music out there. Obviously, something like that – which isn’t a show I’m into – but there’ll be a lot of people who may not be aware of the type of music we play. So that was kind of the idea behind something like that, maybe exposing it to people that wouldn’t hear that normally ’cause they’re just listening to the radio or what’s on TV.
Television and film have kind of become the means of breaking into the music business. As an artist, is this a good or a bad thing? Do you think this is the death of radio?
No, I think radio is pretty strong still. But just in general, videos and TV and stuff definitely are a huge influence. I think that’s here to stay.
What was it like delving into the art of music video making? Who, of the two of you, is more involved in that aspect of the process?
Our first video, the “AFK” one, was a lot of fun ’cause we got to do it with a friend of ours here. The other one, “Fortress,” was sort of out of our hands and that kind of bummed out Rob and I a little bit. It wasn’t out of our hands so much that we didn’t want to do it or something. We wanted to do it, but the guy who did it just sort of did it and when we tried to get a hold of him to see it half way through and we never could. So it was this weird thing like, “Oh, okay, I guess that’s what it is. It has nothing to do with our song, but I guess it looks kind of cool.” The “AFK” one, we were involved and stuff. I just kind of like it more because it’s not so pretty perfect, you know? It’s just kind of garage-y. The other one is a little too pretty and perfect.
Your live shows tend to take on a very different vibe than the albums. Is this an intentional move on your part?
It happens organically because you’re having people playing your music live, and so that changes things up right off the bat. [We’re] playing with a drummer, where usually we’re [using] drum machines, or samples, or whatever. When you’re playing in front of people versus playing in your living room, it’s a different atmosphere. You’re usually more mellow and calm and relaxed when you’re at home, and you’re a little more nervous and hyped when you’re out in front of people.
Are there any live acts or specific concerts that you recall being really amazed or inspired by?
That would be a good one for Rob. Yeah, nope, not really; nothing in particular.
If you had your choice of any band or artist to tour with, who would it be?
If Captain Beefheart was together, we would love to tour with them.
I imagine that a cross-country tour gives you a lot of downtime to check out new music. Anything in particular that’s blown your mind/worthy of discussing?
These last couple questions are for the guy who goes and explores a little bit. I’m like the hermit that sits at home. I haven’t heard anything lately that has made me want to go out and buy [a] CD or anything like that. I feel like it’s the usual experience; they all sound the same and I’d like to hear something new. I’d like to do that on our next record. We’ll see.
And you plan to start recording after the tour?
We’re gonna start right off and start recording our next record, ’cause we’re takin’ a little too long. That’s normal for us though.
Do you guys plan on sticking to the formula and recording in the house rather than at a studio?
We kinda have a studio at this point. We built one together with another band – they’re really close friends of ours – Black Heart Procession, and they just finished recording a record there. That’s where we plan on doing the next Pinback and a lot of all our other projects.
Is there a comfort in that?
Yeah. It’s cool to own your own stuff and be able to do it whenever you want, but also, there’s the downside of [that]. You can’t just sit in front of a mic and play, you have to run back and forth and make sure the levels are right, then go back to the microphone, and do all that. It just ends up taking twice as long, but it’s worth it. I kind of do crave going back into a studio. I’m sure we’ll do that at some point.
Do you ever think about bringing in an outside party or producer?
Yeah, I think so. We’ve talked about it, but it’s that whole thing where we have to give up a little, not control, but have to give up sort of how we write. We write as we go, as we record. So, instead of like, “Here’s 10]songs, lets record ’em,” we’ll be writing one part and we’ll like it and we’ll record it right then and there, and we won’t have the second part. And maybe we’ll write another part that we like and that ends up being another song, and then we’ll come back to the first one and record the next part to it. It’s really a chopped-up course. Sometimes we do just write one straight. That happens a lot too, but for us, it’s kind of record-and-write as you go. It’s a hand-in-hand thing.
That’s probably the producer’s nightmare.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I’ve done that before – the producer thing – and they want to have songs to work with. [But] that would be great to have something like that, and it’ll happen sometime later.
And before you guys truly head off – anywhere in particular you’re looking forward to playing?
I’m looking forward to Burlington, Vermont. I’ve never been there before. I think Ft. Lauderdale – if we go play with Blowfly – that’ll be an interesting night. Just the whole “Miami Vice” and Blowfly thing, with Pinback. I don’t know. (Laughs.)