Music & Clubs

All Systems Go

Indie icon Zack Smith of Pinback reinvents his sound for new project Systems Officer
UNPINNED: Zack Smith started out in Three Mile Pilot, famous for spawning Pinback and the Black Heart Procession.

ZACK SMITH HAS co-written a lot of songs for his popular indie bands Pinback, in which he collaborates with Rob Crow, and Three Mile Pilot, with Pall Jenkins. With his newest project, Systems Officer, he wanted the chance to go it alone.

"The point of this band is to let me write without having to compromise, always double-checking things and rethinking songs. That's what we do with Pinback and Pilot," Smith says.

But something changed a few months ago. Smith enlisted Pinback drummer Chris Prescott and former Pinback member Kenseth Thibideau to accompany him as his backup band on what would be his first West Coast tour for Systems Officer. During rehearsal, something clicked, and he didn't want it to be a solo project anymore.

"I want it to be considered more of a real functioning, working band with three people contributing to it. I'm 41. This is probably the last band I'll do before I realize I'm too old and don't want to do music anymore," Smith says.

He had already recorded one album in 2009, Underslept, for which he wrote all the music, sang all the vocals and recorded most the instruments himself. The album has a similar sound to his two other groups, which are known for being intensely emotional, darkly aggressive rock bands, while still incorporating pretty instrumentation.

According to Smith, that first album doesn't exactly reflect how the trio sounds now. They have a harder edge, though the band is still actively creating their sound. "Right now it's in that transition moment where it's breaking free from being my solo project and having that sort of signature sound," Smith says.

One thing that has given all of Smith's bands a unique quality is his approach to playing the bass, which in some ways more closely resembles how someone would approach a rhythm guitar.

In high school, Smith saw New Age guitarist Michael Hedges play and was fascinated by his unusual techniques. "I remember kind of going, 'I bet there's more things I can do on the bass than just the traditional kind of thing.' I wanted to play chords. I wanted to tap. I was just trying a bunch of different things. That's sort of how I formed that sound," Smith says.

He first got noticed for it on Three Mile Pilot's debut album, Na Vucca Do Lupu, a moody rock record driven only by drums, bass and vocals. Smith filled in all the gaps and made a surprisingly interesting record.

A few records later, Three Mile Pilot developed into one of the best indie bands of the early '90s. Their talent for mixing dynamics with heart-on-the-sleeve emotions and well-crafted hard rock was clearly ahead of their time.

The band's career was cut short after it signed to Geffen, for whom they recorded Another Sea, Another Desert. "It was a weird time for us. We had a major label behind us and there's all these toys we can play with, but it was like they put chains on us, too," Smith recalls. They were dropped before the album came out. It was eventually released on Cargo Records, a small indie in San Diego to little attention, and the band broke up and splintered off into the Black Heart Procession and Pinback. "We were just exhausted from going through that whole procedure of going through a major label," Smith says. Three Mile Pilot reunited for a show in 2007, then toured and put out an album last year, The Inevitable Past Is the Future Forgotten.

Smith's creative approach to music has enabled him to maintain a long 20-year career through multiple bands. He hopes that Systems Officer will have a long lifetime and will be ready to record a new album next year. "I think a new record will hopefully bridge that a little bit of laying the foundation of getting a new sound vs. Pinback or Three Mile Pilot. It's getting built as we speak. It's in its infancy," says Smith. "It's really exciting to me."


Friday, 9pm; $10

The Blank Club

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