Writing music has never been the hard part for Pinback’s Zach Smith (aka Armistead Burwell Smith IV). With three musical projects to serve as creative outlets (Three Mile Pilot, Pinback, and solo project Systems Officer), Smith’s difficulties have always stemmed from the business of music rather than its practice. And, with the current landscape redefining shifts that have occurred within the industry over the last decade (read: the Internet), Pinback finds itself in circumstances not uncommon for bands of a reasonably high profile in 2014.
This Monday, January 20, Smith and bandmate Rob Crow bring Pinback to Velvet Jones for a headlining gig in support of the band’s new record, Information Retrieved. We recently had a chance to chat with Smith about ongoing changes in the music business and how fans can get the most out of their music in the Internet age.
Looking back on those early Pinback records, did you ever feel like you needed to leave San Diego for L.A., for the sake of proximity to studios and things? Ehh, no, not really. Pinback was sort of at the beginning of computers, as far as music things go. We first started writing in ’96 — our first album came out in ’98 — but we were writing for a few years before that. We were right there at the edge, when you could first start recording with computers. It was really foreign to us, but it was a lot of fun because it gave us all this power. It was like, “Wow, you mean I don’t have to go to L.A. and pay $3,000 for a studio? I can just hook up my crappy PC?” I mean, yeah, it sounded crappy, but if the song was good then it’s still pretty cool. …
Do you feel like you were some of the first people doing this? I know we were early adopters because I was really geeky about that stuff. There probably aren’t many bands that were doing it when we were. I remember I had a friend that had a computer job, running the servers for some financial company. I was just trying to figure everything out. We had some issue once where something was wrong with the hard drive, and we didn’t understand what that meant at all. We were like, “What do you mean we’re gonna lose all our songs?” But that’s what happened. He was trying to fix it and pushed some button and reformatted the drive. So about half of the first album we did, This is a Pinback CD, we ended up just putting rough mixes that we had been listening to ourselves as the final versions of the songs on the record. All this is to say, we were definitely one of the early adopters of all that.
Have you ever thought about taking charge of your distribution, the way that other artists have done over the last few years? You know, that’s a really cool idea, but most of the people that do that, they’re already millionaires now. Rob and I aren’t, and our record sales matter to our livelihood. We used to always say, “Fuck the middle man,” but doing all of that distribution work was just not for us. We’re trying to write good music, but people can stream something online and not [be] paying anything for it. Everything just gets funneled to Spotify or whatever, so we have to tour more, which is fine. But I’m tired. I’m fucking 43, and I want to spend some time with my family before I have to go back on the road for six months.
I think about the way that you used to hold an album; back 20 years ago, it was this precious thing. You would hold the cover and take out the beautiful vinyl, and you got to read the booklet and read the lyrics. Vinyl is going through a resurgence now, and that’s great. Not only is it way cooler, but it supports musicians.
That’s a really interesting thought; it’s almost like owning a record is like owning a book. It’s just so much better to have a physical copy of Moby Dick than it is to have the PDF saved on your computer… Yeah, and I think that’s why vinyl is coming back, really. Because it’s way cooler to own a record than own an mp3 on your iPod. It’s a special thing, versus just information or something. There isn’t really a better way to distance yourself to music than by hoarding mp3s on your iPod.
You can see Pinback perform at Velvet Jones on Monday, January 20, at 8 p.m. Call or visit velvet-jones.com for tickets and info. You can hear the entirety of Jake’s conversation with Zach Smith on last week’s installment of The Santa Barbara Independent Podcast, available on iTunes or at independent.com/podcast.