Justin Pinkerton is a musician’s musician. Playing in bands as diverse as Golden Void, Planes of Satori, The Roots of Orchis, Eyes, The Finches, Moholy Nagy and with such artists as Rafter Roberts and Scott Pinkmountain over the last 20 years, Pinkerton has built a reputation as a go-to collaborator. Firmly entrenched in the California psych scene, his presence has been an integral part in creating the southern California psych sound in the last two decades.
On his own, though, Pinkerton has released two amazing albums completely on his own. First was 2018s Futuropaco(self-titled), a groove-heavy nod to Italian scores from the late-60s which he released with El Paraiso Records. Then just recently Justin released his debut release as Glass Parallels. Aisle of Light is a psych pop record filled with haunting vocals, tasteful drumming, and ethereal guitars. All of his solo output he recorded by himself in his basement studio, which makes those great albums all the more impressive.
I recently sat down with Justin(figuratively speaking) and we talked about his influences, his music projects, growing up listening to classic rock and jazz, and his recording process. We also find out about what’s coming next for Justin, album-wise. Enjoy.
J. Hubner: Do you remember the first album that truly rewired your brain? Or at least a record that put you onto the path that led you here.
Justin Pinkerton: That’s tough. I feel like the path that led me to the glass parallels songs is just my musical journey as a whole. I feel like everything I’ve ever listened to and enjoyed has influenced me in some way or another, only I pull from certain things for certain projects. I listened to (and still do sometimes) a lot of hardcore/punk stuff, but obviously that has no place in the glass parallels songs; or any of my projects for that matter – but I still consider it influential in some way.
J. Hubner: So what were your formative years like, musically? What did you hear in the house growing up?
Justin Pinkerton: I grew up listening to a lot of Beatles, Neil Young, Rolling Stones, etc. and also a lot of jazz; because that’s what my parents listened to. Friday night was classic rock/pop (and tacos) night and Sunday was Jazz (and burgers – veggie for me) night. But, I’m not a single-vision type of composer, hence the multiple solo projects and other projects I’ve written for, so it’s hard to pick one album. I was actually thinking about this, if there was a record that I could say I drew a lot of inspiration for these songs and I couldn’t really pick one. I think just a lot of music from about 1965-1975, psychedelic and non-psychedelic. Whenever I’m doing a solo-project it’s sort of a concept that I start with and it goes from there. This was just supposed to be a mellow-ish psych record with vocals. I probably accomplished that.
J. Hubner: When did you start playing an instrument? Did you start out with drums?
Justin Pinkerton: The first instrument I played was actually the alto saxophone in 5th or 6th grade. I’ve recently picked that back up, only the tenor this time. But back then, I was watching a lot of YO! MTV Raps and I wanted to learn how to play a Marva Whitney sample from a Mark 45 King song, that was used for the Ed Lover dance. I didn’t know I could never actually achieve that since the sample was pitched down and I was playing the alto on top of that. But, I played that for a couple years and then eventually foolishly sold that to buy a guitar. I really wanted to play bass but my best friend at the time already was playing bass, so having two basses didn’t seem right. Fast forward 5 years later when I started a band with two basses. I didn’t start playing drums till that two bass band formed. Drums quickly became my favorite and primary instrument. Drumming just came to me more naturally. But, I’ve actually been playing guitar the longest of any instrument. That’s probably way more than you wanted to know.
J. Hubner: Not at all. I welcome all the info you want to share! Speaking of share, tell me the inspiration behind your Futoropaco project? Was it Italian cinema or music? Or both?
Justin Pinkerton: Probably more music but I definitely had a cinematic theme in mind. It started as a novelty idea to sort of write a follow-up to the album Distortions by Blue Phantom; which was basically an Italian library record by film composer Armando Sciascia. Once I started writing I sort of threw that idea out the window but there’s definitely heavy influence from that record in there. I was sort of thinking about the music in a cinematic context while I was writing but no direct link to film music.
J. Hubner: With having that connection to drums like you do, is the rhythm something you start with when writing/creating?
Justin Pinkerton: No, not really. Drums/rhythm are definitely on my mind while I’m composing but I don’t typically write based solely off of drum parts. For the Glass Parallels stuff I was definitely thinking less about drums but they’re always on my mind while I write, unless there aren’t any in the song of course.
J. Hubner: With rock and jazz being such early influences on you, who are some of your favorite drummers?
Justin Pinkerton: Elvin Jones really blew my mind when I started playing drums. I always wanted to be a jazz drummer so when I was starting to play I was getting more into jazz. My dad had the John Coltrane record “Transitions” and I remember dubbing that record to tape and listening to it on repeat in my walkman in high school. I had just never really heard jazz drumming sound so powerful and aggressive. We didn’t listen to a lot of Coltrane on “Jazz nights” at my house, or at least anything where Elvin really let loose; it was mostly more mellow stuff. But, when I dug through my dad’s records I found that album and it was life-changing.
Jaki Liebezeit was/is also a major influence on me. I remember first hearing him and Can and just thinking how so far ahead of their time they were. Jaki’s feel is just crazy and I was immediately hooked. Hearing Vitamin C for the first time was again, life-changing. Then once i dug into the catalog they quickly became my favorite band.
I can’t say Jaki and Elvin “were” influences, just because they’re no longer alive, because I’m still influenced by them every time I hear them. There are definitely more drummers I’m influenced by but I don’t want to go off on a long list.
J. Hubner: With jazz being such an integral part of your formative years, is it something you have any desire to delve in creatively? Or is it just something you love as a fan? And man, Elvin Jones was incredible. A powerhouse. Him and Tony Williams are probably my favorite drummers, jazz or otherwise.
Justin Pinkerton: I’ve always had the desire to play jazz, it just hasn’t panned out. Though I was into jazz and into “trying” to play jazz early on in my drum exploration I sort of had nowhere to go with it. Jazz is such a performative art to me. It’s about playing with other people and feeding off of other people. I basically hobbled through playing along to some coltrane records and that was about as far as it got. I never had anyone to play with basically. The people I grew up playing music with weren’t jazz people, or at least weren’t taught that way, and neither was I. I never have taken lessons for any instrument and while I feel like I could get by on the drums playing jazz (no way could I do any other instrument) it’s just not something that ever coalesced.
I actually didn’t really discover Tony till later on. For some reason he didn’t have the impact that Elvin had. Right guy at the right time I suppose. I also feel like Tony was maybe more subdued in his earlier stuff, I mean he was 17 playing with Miles. Maybe that had something to do with it, maybe Miles didn’t allow him to let loose as much as he could’ve. I mean, when I discovered Elvin it was post “A Love Supreme,” at the beginning Coltrane’s more “out” period. Transition was recorded right before Ascension which, well, shows you where his head was out in terms of exploration. And coming from listening to hardcore and stuff like that I think the ferocity of Elvin’s playing felt more similar to that of the more aggresive types of music I was into. Not to say that I wasn’t listening to mellower music and hip hop and whatever else. Elvin and that period of Coltrane just came to me at the right time. But, don’t get me wrong, I love Tony too, just in a different way.
J. Hubner: With the newest project Glass Parallels, you’ve dived back into heavy psych waters. This is more of a melancholy pop album, though. Who or what were some influences on the new album ‘Aisle of Light’?
Justin Pinkerton: Again, I can’t really pinpoint specific influences. I could say everything from the Beatles to Lo Borges, to Gandalf to Curtis Mayfield; and even more modern stuff. It’s not that I set out to make a record like any of those artists but I’m influenced by so many that it’s hard to pinpoint.
J. Hubner: I know the whole influences question is a bit of a drag. Let me ask it a different way. You have so many musical inspirations in your life, from 60s jazz to hardcore to Italian soundtracks. When did you first get into the psych music world? It seems to play an integral part in your creative output. Was it a Nuggets compilation? Or Roky Erickson? For me it was hearing the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album, then the little touches on Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, and then probably the Lips in my early 20s.
Justin Pinkerton: I really first heard “psychedelic music” probably from the Beatles as well; “Sgt. Pepper,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” etc. Jimi Hendrix also was in there. Again, music my parents listened to. But, it didn’t really change the way I heard music or anything at the time. It sort of just sounded tame compared to the punk/hardcore stuff I was listening too. I didn’t pay too much attention to the “trippiness” of it. Jimi fell more in line with where I was at musically, simply for the feedback stuff and more “noisy” vibe that was given. But, I did always enjoy the cliche “psychedelic” sounds and just weird sounds in general. I’ve always love experimenting with sound.
But, I don’t think I really started to get heavier into psychedelic music until college, and not because I started doing drugs or anything. I carried over my “straight edge” lifestyle, for the most part, since I started being straight edge in junior high. I still don’t drink or do drugs or anything. Just never was something I got into. But, I’m getting sidetracked. I actually got more into psychedelic stuff when I started making beats and really just digging for records that I hadn’t heard or seen before. That’s how I acquired so much of my record collection. I’d hit up the record store in Santa Cruz sometimes twice a day. I was just buying a bunch of stuff that looked cool or interesting. Or, looking for stuff that people had sampled that I liked. But, college was when I really started to just open up my musical world more.
J. Hubner: You stated in your interview with It’s Psychedelic Baby that the vocals came last and that you don’t consider yourself a singer. After listening to the album several times I’d beg to differ. You know how to use your voice well within your songs, and color them in just the right way. Do you feel like you might have a better hand at your strengths as a vocalist now than you did before?
Justin Pinkerton: When I first started singing it was sort of a train wreck. The only time I had really vocalized before working on these songs was for hardcore bands of my youth – which had no “singing” in them. I do music for advertising for work and I started trying to sing on stuff for that but it was not good at all. I had zero confidence in my ability to sing and not sound awful. I kept working on it and eventually got to a point where, after 50 or so takes, I could produce something listenable. The more I sang the better I got and while I still don’t consider myself a singer I’m at a point where I can get something decent in less than 10 takes, maybe. I also think I dug myself into a hole by layering vocals. It’s much easier to miss some pitch issues when it’s just one vocal, once you add a doubled, or tripled vocal it becomes more noticeable. One thing that surprised me was my falsetto range. I never would’ve thought I could get up there but I feel like that’s sort of my stronger point at times. I also love doing vocal harmonies, even though mine are a bit rough.
J. Hubner: Tell me about your basement studio. For it not being a normal studio(your words), the album has a lot of character and sonic depth. You’ve done a great job of giving the songs a vastness to them. What were some key ingredients to making the album sound the way it does?
Justin Pinkerton: The secret is in the 5’9″ ceilings. I say that jokingly but it definitely does play a role in the sonic potentials of my studio; in that it limits them pretty significantly. It took me a while to figure out how to get decent drum sounds because I have very little room to work with when it comes to overhead mics. My studio is pretty small and dead; and also pretty cluttered so mic placement can be a challenge sometimes. Any sort of atmosphere you hear is not natural. It’s been a learning process but I’m in a place where I know what I can achieve and what I can’t. So, that’s helpful and at times frustrating because I wish I could do more. But, at the end of the day, it’s a basement and I’m happy to have the ability to record myself because none of these albums would’ve ever been made without that option. I can’t imagine doing any of this in a real studio.
J. Hubner: It took your 7+ years to finish ‘Aisle of Light’. Do you think recording alone was a factor in that? Or just time constraints? Or just searching for the perfect sonic touches?
Justin Pinkerton: It was a combination of things. A lot, honestly, had to do with vocals. I really don’t like writing lyrics and then throw in having to labor over vocals, it just made finishing these tracks take a while. Then, add to that I was, and still am, figuring out engineering/mixing. I ended up doing a lot of different mixes, some re-recording and then yes, performing everything took some time too. I never sat down and spent a whole day working on any of these songs. I just sort of squeezed it in when I could. So that played a role as well.
J. Hubner: What’s life like been in lockdown? Making the most of it? Working on any new projects?
Justin Pinkerton: I have two young kids who, within a matter of a week, were no longer in school/daycare. I quickly became the primary daytime caregiver, since I work freelance, so that’s how I’ve been spending lockown; managing a 6 and 3 year old. I get in music when I can but it’s not a lot. I’ve got another solo release, a mellow synth record, coming out in August so it appears as if I’m doing stuff, but it’s all older material at this point.
J. Hubner: Six and three, yeah you’ve got your hands full. My youngest is 15, so I’m in a whole other level of parenting. So about the new album in August, are you self-releasing? Is it coming out under your name or another project name? Mellow synth album sounds like something I need in my life right about now. Details, man.
Justin Pinkerton: Yeah, the kids are exhausting, to say the least, but you’re probably more mentally exhausted, ha.
J. Hubner: You know, it’s great because my son and I are into a lot of the same things. He’s into comic books, music, and horror movies like me. We get along great in that regard. But yeah, the teen years are definitely mentally exhausting. My daughters weren’t nearly as draining.
So about this new album?
Justin Pinkerton: Anyway, the album coming out has a label and it’s coming out under just my name but there hasn’t been anything announced so I won’t divulge anything other than that. But, yeah, it’s something I had been working on, basically at night, sitting in bed with my laptop. It’s a “synth” record but I didn’t use any of my actual synths; just did it all on my computer, usually while my wife and kids were asleep. So that’s sort of the vibe it has. That’s as much as I’ll tease it. You’ll have to ask me more after it comes out!
J. Hubner: Well I’ll hold you to that! So what’s next?
Justin Pinkerton: I’m trying to get a new Futuropaco record going. I’ve got most of the songs written, but now I have to find the time to record them; which is tough when I’m not able to do much recording these days. But, hopefully I can get that done before the end of the year. That’s probably wishful thinking though. I’ll do more Glass Parallels tracks too, eventually, once I get back into writing/recording more regularly. Maybe I’ll play some of this solo stuff live, assuming live music returns at some point.