Hell; the bottomless pit.
In all her gates, Abaddon rues
Thy bold attempt.
– John Milton, ‘Paradise Regained’
The Pixies’ Black Francis, who was born with the very un-rockstar name Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV, would probably approve of Armistead Burwell Smith IV’s decision to go the simple route. He goes by Zach Smith. Common name; uncommon skills: as bassist of Pinback, Smith boasts one of rock’s most distinctive bass styles, playing both high and low ends of a sometimes boring four-string instrument with the effortless grace of a classical music pianist or guitarist.
There aren’t too many other modern rock bassists who you can recognize after a single listen, whether it’s Les Claypool or Flea. But his fretwork with Pinback, whose newest album is the beautifully precise “Summer in Abaddon,” or his other band Three Mile Pilot – especially on their first frenzied, guitar-free release “Na Vucca Du Lopu” or the masterpiece “Chief Assassin to the Sinister” – can easily stand alongside the noisy virtuosity of Claypool’s work with Primus or Flea’s work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mars Volta.
But enough with the name-dropping; the humble, laid-back Smith would probably kick my ass to hear his name in the same breath as the Pixies, Primus and the Red Hots. After all, he’s a guy who resisted putting pictures of himself or his prolific partner in Pinback – San Diego resident and band-maker (seven of them, last time I counted) Rob Crow – on any of their CDs.
Until recently, that is. “Normally we’re against that sort of thing,” he confides, “but we thought it would be fun because it’s different for us. We figured we’d finally put some [photos] in a couple of our tour EPs, because it’s all about making something different for each record.”
The fiercely independent Smith is also grounded enough to know that music lifers make their names in the industry by refusing to compromise their integrity. Which is why he amicably broke off from Three Mile Pilot – who have recently signed up for, at long last, a new album with Touch and Go, home label for both Pinback and fellow Pilot Pall Jenkin’s group, Black Heart Procession – when Geffen was trying to change the band’s style. Refusing to play along with the suits, Smith decided instead to pack it in and write the songs he wanted to write.
“That was right after Three Mile Pilot’s Geffen period ended,” Smith recalls, “and I was really pissed off with the way major labels try to change bands into something that they’re not. Geffen was trying to change us into a pop band, which is about as far as you could get from what we really were. And it was totally frustrating. So I forgot what music was really about, just sitting down and making music I wanted to make. So I took a break and asked Rob to cruise over in the spirit of just getting together to have fun playing music. It was never about making records or anything; it just eventually evolved into that.”
That was three measured full-lengths and a variety of tour EPs ago, so it is safe to say that Pinback has come fully into its own, having metamorphosed from an impromptu jam session into a well-respected indie rock band that has so far not made one false move. Indeed, with “Summer in Abaddon,” Pinback has crafted its most exquisite offering, a release equally packed with dark, foreboding lyrics and meticulous sonic structures, both of which seem to be the logical result of two friends who go way back locking into a vibe and riding it out as long as possible. A casual or earnest listen to “Abaddon” tracks – like the driving “Sender” or catchy-as-a-cold “Fortress” – will illustrate how tightly and easily the two dynamic musicians interact.
“We weave together well,” Smith explains. “The great thing about it is that it’s natural. We never sit and wonder what we’re going to do; it just happens. And I think that he’s got his style and I’ve got mine and they happen to work together very well.”
When called upon to define that style, Smith demurs before answering. “I don’t know. Pretty with an edge? I don’t necessarily know how to explain it. I like dark and brooding tones. I don’t ever want my music to get too pretty. I like it to have an underlying rawness. Sugar coating on the top, evil underneath. How’s that?”
That opaque definition more or less describes the entirety of Pinback’s output. Their songs, on “Abaddon” as well as on their self-titled debut and sophomore effort “Blue Screen Life,” are simultaneously bright, alluring nuggets shot through with bleak, often morose lyrics – betraying a garish skull beneath flawless skin. The title of their latest riffs on the term “Abaddon,” which translates literally into destruction, ruin or perdition; it is also the Hebrew name of the demon of the bottomless pit in Revelations – in other words, not exactly the kind of place you’d want to spend a summer. But even given the obvious contrasts of Pinback’s latest title, a juxtaposition that finds a sonic counterpart in all of their work, Smith warns against reading too much into the whole thing.
“We knew that interviewers would look it up and all that, which is cool. But Rob just came up with it when we were looking for titles, and when I read it I said, ‘Sounds good to me.’ When I first saw the title, I thought it sounded like a retreat, like I’m going off on vacation or something – and not to hell either. But these songs basically represent our vacation to a different land.”
While that answer might not satisfy the deconstructionists, rest assured that the topography of Pinback’s “Abaddon” is strikingly similar to those found on the band’s previous releases, as well as the stark but alluring environments Smith created with Pall Jenkins and Tom Zinser during Three Mile Pilot’s too-short stay on the indie rock scene. But long-suffering fans of Pilot’s poetic, incendiary and challenging output can take heart that, although the band has been talking about getting back together since 2000 – to say nothing of the fact that Pinback has just released a brand new album – this time the reunion (of sorts, the band never broke up) is definite.
“We have to do it,” says Smith. “There’s no escape now. We always talked about doing it, but we were looking for a label, and Touch and Go really wanted it. So we’re looking forward to it. We’ve written a few songs already – that probably aren’t going to be on the album, because we want to start fresh. Plus, we don’t want to lose the feeling we had before. It’s going to be interesting to see if we can capture it again, because it’s so far from us.”
It might sound strange to music fans that a group that has just released a new album will disband in order to work with its previous collaborators, but that’s just the laid-back way these Californians roll. Smith and Crow were roommates before Three Mile Pilot ever existed, and all musicians in what I like to call San Diego’s indie rock triad – Three Mile Pilot, Pinback and Black Heart Procession – are mutual friends with years of history and camaraderie behind them. In fact, that triad might be coming to a rock club near you sooner than you think.