The four-piece Atlanta DIY staple is living what they wrote
“Pretty messed up that Playboi Carti decided to drop his album on the same day as us,” jokes bassist Sarfaraz Syed as he sits down with his three bandmates and I on a bench at our old high school coffee shop in Roswell, Georgia. The four members of Pinkest, who call themselves “Pinkies,” are Ethan Smith (guitar and vocals), Gabe Patterson (drums), Jason Blackett (guitar), and Sarfaraz. Their second studio album, From Dust To Man and Back Again, came out on Christmas day, roughly two years after they first planned on releasing it. At eight tracks and about 36 minutes of runtime, it’s easily their most mature, cohesive, and precisely produced work to date. “I feel like we finally found the sound we’ve been working towards on this album,” says frontman Ethan Smith.
I grew up in the same neighborhood as Pinkest and attended nearly every show one of their shows until they graduated high school in 2017, making sure that the PA system didn’t topple in Atlanta’s deceased DIY venues like the Mammal Gallery, nearly empty sets at Georgia Tech’s student space, and concerts-turned-ragers in my own basement alike. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m crashing a Pinkest reunion because of how giddy they are to all be together again. It’s an event that has become rarer and rarer during the past two years because they have each attended different schools, lived in different states, and of course had to isolate due to the pandemic. At the same time, it feels like my entire history with them, and theirs with me, is coming full circle.
Before Pinkest was Pinkest—the engine of adolescence that fulfilled just about every fantasy a highschool band could conceive—they were King Pest, a trio of eighth grade boys who owned the instruments required to classify as a rock band and shared an admiration for Nirvana. Their first ever recording was a cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop,” played by just Ethan and Sarfaraz, tracked onto a first generation iPod touch. They showed Gabe the recording on the bus. Luckily he had also just gotten into Nirvana, and bought a drum kit because he “wanted to be like Dave Grohl.” So at that moment it was decided—they were a band. Gabe was on the drums, Ethan was on the guitar, and Sarfaraz was on the bass—well, kind of: “I didn’t have a bass. I just had a guitar that I ran through a bass amp, and it sounded really fucking bad. We played like that for two years.”
From 2013 on, the trio started manifesting their reality by working on their musical abilities, getting drunk in suburban basements after parents fell asleep, and writing songs of their own. King Pest was short lived, however, as they became Pinkest after desperately trying and failing to outsource a lead singer. Ethan was too shy and unsure of his voice at the time, so they auditioned a handful of hopeful highschoolers. One sent them a nervous, eyes-cast-down acapella recording of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” another awkwardly crooned to Coldplay songs, and even I tried out, singing a cover of “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals painfully off-key. These short-lived, somewhat saddening renditions of what Pinkest could have become caused Ethan to assert himself at the microphone. The trio found new life in Ethan’s singing, solidifying this evolution by changing their name to Pinkest.
The minute one of them got their driver’s license, the bandmates started frequenting shows in the Atlanta DIY scene at now fallen-but-not-forgotten venues like Wonderroot, the Rowdy Dowdy, and the Mammal Gallery, where they met show promoter and Michael Cera Palin frontperson Elliot Brabant, who booked them for their first “real show” at Wonderroot.
Once they got their feet in the water, Pinkest didn’t look back, solidifying themselves on the Atlanta DIY circuit. In true Velvet Underground fashion, they cranked their amps up enough to incite tinnitus, and ended each set with Ethan removing his guitar and launching himself directly into Gabe, splattering the drum kit across the stage. After playing a few shows, they released their first official EP, Space and Other Amphibians. An energetic, fuzz-heavy, Ty Segall-inspired effort, the four-track EP resonated with moshing scenegoers both veteran and novice. At first, their setlist was limited but precise, playing the tracks off Space and Other Amphibians and throwing in covers of “Tired of Sex” by Weezer, “Turning Blue” by Jay Reatard, and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges.
Pinkest’s first EP introduced the scene to them. With their second, they created a scene of their own. Live performances of You Are a Camera became a drug for young showgoers. Each weekend after its release, the crowds got a little bit bigger. The audience’s vocals of “So Feline” began to overpower Ethan’s PA system; the intensity of the mosh pits incited by “El Vira” became dangerous. As a result of the buzz You Are a Camera garnered in the city and suburbs alike, Jason Blackett approached Sarfaraz in their AP music theory class to tell him he really enjoyed the project. Sarfaraz mentioned they were looking for a guitarist, and the rest is history. “It was kind of crazy,” says Gabe, “Jason tried out, we had one practice with him, then literally two weeks later he played with us at the EP release show.” That show was the wildest of their career. I vividly remember two to three hundred people stuffing the old Mammal Gallery. The lineup, featuring the Antarticats and The Callous Daoboys, conjured up a mosh pit that didn’t subside until the lights turned off, and one of Pinkest scorched through one of the most rambunctious sets I’ve ever witnessed.
“That show was quintessential 2017,” remarks Jason. “Most of 2017 was just really fun shows for us,” adds Gabe. That year they started headlining and throwing their own shows more and more, as well as opening for decently popular touring bands like Post Animal and Diarrhea Planet at the larger venues like the Drunken Unicorn. But as their senior years in high school came to an end, their future became uncertain.
Before going their separate ways—Gabe and Ethan to Middle Tennessee State University and Jason and Sarfaraz to schools in Atlanta—they recorded and released their debut album, To The Land Of The Electric Angel, in just three weeks before they went to college. Gabe said that To The Land Of The Electric Angel was recorded “in a mad rush in my basement with producer Bennett Kane. We did a lot of live tracking which was really fun.” “We decided that if we didn’t get it done before we went to school, we probably just weren’t going to do it,” adds Sarfaraz. Thankfully they did, as it received praise from Immersive Atlanta, with Lee Adcock labeling it as “a short film with a cinematic vision that few other debuts can claim.” To their immediate following, To The Land Of The Electric Angel felt like the bittersweet end to an irreplicable era that was bound to dissipate once they went off to college.
When the four met again in Atlanta during their first break in the fall, changes in the city’s music scene were already becoming permanent. The majority of the venues that raised the bands who made up the DIY scene in Atlanta were shutting their doors to make room for lofts and coffee shops. Live music was becoming digitalized, with a DJ set at a visual art exhibit becoming more common than a four-piece band roaring into a crowd of purple-haired self-aware eccentrics. From early 2018 to now, Pinkest was quiet. The four-piece band was on their way to becoming a relic in the eyes of their once devoted following. Their only release during this time was in 2019 with the two-song single Here Leaves Today & The Heartbeat of America. The band agrees the single was a good idea, but poorly executed. Soon after the release of Here Leaves Today & The Heartbeat of America, their drummer, Gabe, departed for Utah to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, spending “six months in ‘the bush,’ 3000 miles away from everyone.”
Through it all, Ethan continued to churn out demos, and the four bandmates practiced, wrote, and recorded whenever they were in town together. They intended on releasing their second album in 2018, then in 2019, but it finally came to form in late 2020. “I feel like this whole process [of recording the newest album] has been as much about getting our own stuff together as it has been about getting the album together,” says Sarfaraz.
The first drafts of what was to become “From Dust To Man and Back Again” can be traced back to 2017, as the first song that Ethan wrote after the release of their To The Land Of The Electric Angel was “Infinite Fantasy,” which became the opening track. The rest of the writing process, according to Ethan, was scattered, sparse, and largely improvised.
Ethan: “The whole writing process was weird because we had nearly no comments or critiques about the songs since we couldn’t play most of them live.”
Jason: “It’s kinda like it was made in a vacuum.”
Ethan: “For ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Pinkest’ we had a demo made and just tracked over it. Then for ‘Infinite Fantasy and ‘PYG’ I was like, ‘alright, I have these songs,’ then I’d bring them to practice and we’d learn them. But I showed them ‘Market Crash’ and ‘Dust To Man’ right before we went to the studio. We had never played them all the way through until a couple hours before we tracked it.”
Gabe: “That’s true with ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Pinkest’ as well, you sent me demos that I had kind of played along to, but I didn’t have the drum parts for those songs finalized until I was literally in the studio and mic’d up.”
Ethan: “Sometimes I listen over the album and think, ‘this is so weird. Who is this for?’”
Jason: “It’s a lot more cohesive than I thought it was gonna be. During the whole process I had no idea what the totality of the album would sound like. That also happened with ‘Electric Angel’ though.”
Sarfaraz: “It’s really nice how we’ll do so much stuff randomly then it’ll somehow come together cohesively.”
The first seven songs on From Dust To Man and Back Again are what the band agreed was the cementation of the sound they’ve been working towards for years. It’s tamer than the many energetic crowd-pleasers that highlighted their past works, but it’s also wiser and truer to themselves. Ethan’s lyrics are more narrative and auspicious than ever, Jason’s guitar licks are more tactical than explosive, Sarfaraz’s bass lines flow seamlessly through each transition and time signature change, and Gabe’s hair continues to flop behind the kit, meshing flawlessly with Ethan’s vision.
On the album’s opener, “Infinite Fantasy,” the band starts off an intro fit for Broadway. Incorporated phased-out vocals with dramatic, crescendoing instrumentals, topped off with Ethan’s fourth-dimensional lyricism: “Radiate and pose and twirl / And kiss the ground and kiss the earth / Wait around and turn to soil / We’re made of bones we’re made of oil.” On “Kaiser,” Pinkest glides underneath Ethan’s slew of ancient Rome era references, which remain remarkably omnipresent in 2020: “Well maybe I’m just like Ulysses on the island trapped in time / Making pennies out of mind / And maybe when they sing my song they’ll rhyme my name with / How I, ‘was doomed to survive.’”
The last song, “Pepsi Colored Skies,” is completely out of place in the best way possible. At eight minutes and 49 seconds, it sounds like five different acid flashbacks happening at once, as Ethan croons paraphrased fables over autotune and hypnotic breakbeats and piano melodies. When asked about the production of “Pepsi Colored Skies,” he said that “most of it was MIDI, then we tracked Gabe, I chopped it up, then I sent it over to Grant Lepping, who mixed the whole album.” The two of them sent the track back and forth, texting about miniscule details in it until it became a whirling cacophony of stimuli. “Pepsi Colored Skies” just goes to show that even though Pinkest has found the sound they’ve wanted since high school, they’re gonna keep pushing and exploring.
The band told me that they see Pinkest as different beta versions, i.e. Pinkest 1.0, 2.0, and 3.9, so I asked them what the next version of Pinkest was going to be.
Jason: “I have no idea what we’re gonna do from here. I guess I didn’t really know what we were gonna do after ‘Electric Angel’ either.”
Sarfaraz: “I feel like that’s my favorite part about Pinkest. There’s never any pressure, we just let everything flow.”
Jason: “Yeah, we don’t sit down and say ‘let’s do this sound for this album.’ It just happens.”