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Zak Smith
hard earned bravado
by: Mike Levine - June 29, 2012


As anyone who's spent some time on the Garden State Parkway knows, people from New Jersey come out a bit differently from the rest of us. There's a particular blend of hometown pride and hard-earned bravado here that few states can match.

For Zak Smith, this posture defines his world view, as much as it does his music. A man sympathetic to unifying causes like Occupy Wall Street, Smith has brought together his own unified front with his powerhouse band. Stocking a tight five-piece with soaring harmonies and thunderclap guitars, he's created a unique blend of rock Americana that's just as much a family as the colorful characters pointed to throughout his new album.

Over a voice coated with as much honey as it's covered in grit, Smith has just released his debut full-length, collecting together a signature batch of tunes reflecting his outlook, both personally and politically. 

Tell me about occupy wall street. Sounds like it had an effect on you...

Old protest music was always really powerful to me. Songs like “Which Side Are You On”, or Woody
Guthrie’s song “Lindbergh”. That spirit of calling people out as corrupt and greedy and calling for their heads is something that has always moved me. I felt like Occupy Wall Street had that same kind of spirit. Going out on the street, getting beaten up by cops, it felt real. The music is different obviously, but the first Clash and Sex Pistols albums are partly so powerful because they come from that same spirit. That feeling of “things are bad and dishonest in the world and everyone’s pretending they're not but we won’t.” Music can be stifling, bad and part of the problem if it’s not communicating a true picture of the world. I think that’s why pop music can arouse such anger in people, because it’s not always just an innocuous song, at some point it’s a part of the weight that’s crushing and alienating you from real life. If everything's not alright and you're saying that it is then you're no better than Katy Perry. To me Occupy Wall Street was one of those pure expressions of "it's not alright".

A lot of your lyrics appear to mix the personal with the political. You write about people from your life like Cynthia, and wax political in album opener 'Brand New Party'. Do you see these two areas as separate points of discussion, or do they come together in some of your work?

I think they can come together for sure. A song like “Which Side Are You On” is an example of that. It's an old song about the union movement, but one that asks you a direct and personal question about where you stand. It’s a song that won’t let you be on the sidelines, it very effortlessly shows you how the personal and the political are not something you can separate. If you live in the world than you will be affected by the world. A ton of Irish music has that theme, of people coming into contact with the outside world and being profoundly shaped by it. There's an old Irish song called Kitty that the Pogues covered on their first album that we play live a lot, where a guy is saying goodbye to his girlfriend because he’s gotten into trouble with the law somehow. It never explicitly states what he did or why they’re after him but the whole history of Ireland and the British empire hangs over the song palpably. I love songs like that, it makes saying goodbye to someone you love that much more powerful if the whole weight and history of British imperialism is also being inferred by it. That being said, I don’t think anyone should try purposefully to write a "political song" if what they’re really thinking about is how their girlfriend is cheating on them,. The be-all-end-all is always going to be to write the way you feel. If you force anything it’s going to be hollow and lifeless, no matter what the subject.

I'm a Jersey boy myself! (Freehold) Tell me how the Garden State has influenced your music. I know from my own experience that 'heartland' music was required listening while growing up... was this
part of your musical diet?

Haha yeah, for sure. I’m a Springsteen fan like everyone else. I guess that his influence hangs heavy on everyone starting a band in Jersey in one way or another. Even if you’re not musically similar, if you grow up in Jersey, right away you have someone that you can look at and say “that’s what I want to do, I can do that”. Whether that’s misguided or not I think it’s kind of the same thing as when people from his generation would talk about the Beatles as just being four guys from Liverpool, and that if they could do it so could anyone. I think musically growing up in Jersey had an effect on me in that that type of Jersey, “working class” sound, whether it was wholly authentic or not, inculcated a value for simplicity in me that's hard to shake loose. I grew up hating progressive rock and long drum solos and anything that I thought sounded pretentious. I still feel basically the same, that ‘heartland’, ‘working class’ ‘one of the people’ thing is something that I, consciously or not, probably have looking over my shoulder to some degree whenever I write songs. The danger of that worldview though is it can make you tame if you take it too far. Too much loyalty is a bad thing in art, having a conscience and having a censor can easily become the same thing.

I've noticed you've adopted some 'pay what you like' and even free downloads of your record. This sounds very generous! Tell me a little about your marketing strategy and how you're getting the word out.

My feeling is that I want as many people to be able to hear the album as possible and the less roadblocks I can put in the way of that happening the better. Charging people $10 to hear the album seems very short sighted at this point to me. People download stuff for free now anyway, it feels like an ancient business model. People will always love music, I'm sure some businessman can figure out a new way to monetize everything, but it won't be that old model of making money off of selling albums. I write a lot so I've often had this idea of putting a steady stream of new songs out on my website or through a mobile app or something every week. I love how in rap music people can make mix tapes and immediately respond to other rappers and current stuff in the news. With rock music there's never really been that immediacy, but with the internet especially now there's no reason that you couldn't have that. Anyway, the point that started me on that tangent was that the old model of making money off of records seems outdated to me, and that sticking to the old forms of things feels counterproductive and short sighted.

Tell me how your live experience has differed from recording. There are some big moments happening on the album, do these translate in the same way live or do you approach the two with separate goals in mind?

I think the main thing when you play live is that you want to strive for some sense of intimacy. If it's not more intimate to see you live than it is to listen to the album than people may as well just listen to the album. So I think that, yeah, they're separate goals in that when I record I kind of want a level of clarity above all, and when you play live that type of clarity is not going to come through. So I think the way you have to compensate for that is by being in the moment more, which will always be the difference between a record and a performance, one is like an artifact and the other is like a conversation.

" I think musically growing up in Jersey had an effect on me in that that type of Jersey, “working class” sound, whether it was wholly authentic or not, inculcated a value for simplicity in me that's hard to shake loose. "

Zak Smith
"Self Titled"

what it is

Familiar and colorful Rock Americana.