Sometimes the story behind the music is scandal-free. Take local band Three Mile Pilot, who'll be playing their first San Diego shows in nearly a decade as part of The Casbah's 20th-anniversary celebration. The fact that the three consecutive gigs are sold out proves that fans have missed them, but 3MP wants to make one thing clear: This isn't a reunion tour. They were just taking a rather deep, rather extended breather.
Two weeks before their shows, Pall Jenkins (guitar / vocals) and Zach Smith (bass) are sitting in Smith's home recording studio before yet another grueling practice. Sheets of paper hang along the top edge of the wall, scribbled with tentative titles and lyrics to new songs. Drummer Tom Zinser is running late, so his bandmates decide to go on without him.
“We were so young when we started,” says Jenkins, who also fronts The Black Heart Procession and Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects. “It was '88 or '89. We'd been friends for a couple of years. Tom and Zach played in Neighborhood Watch. I was in a band called Dark Sarcasm. We played garage shows together. We were, like, 18 then.”
“Half my life ago,” sighs Smith, also the bassist for indie-rockers Pinback.
After high school, Jenkins, Smith and Zinser lived together in Del Mar, and following a couple of years of noncommittal musical fooling around, the trio decided to make it formal. The band's name, they admit, was random, as was their early sound.
“We did have this weird funk thing going on when we first started playing,” Jenkins recalls. “Then we decided no more funk—we're more experimental. We knew we wanted to go in a different direction.”
Going into the studio was a new experience for the three musicians, and both Jenkins and Smith say it wasn't until the middle of their second album, Chief Assassin to the Sinister, that they started to hit their recording stride. Yet, touring turned out to be unexpectedly rough.
“There was no Internet back then,” Smith adds. “They either knew you by your CD or they didn't know you at all. There might be 10 people at a show.”
Not only that, but Three Mile Pilot didn't exactly fit into the local scene, which at the time was “guitar-driven and power-chords,” as Smith explains. “We were on a different trip,” Jenkins says. “We had distortion and we were loud and rock-y, but it was in a different way. We weren't your traditional rock band. But we were still a rock band.”
Local crowds soon began to take notice, though, as did a scout from Geffen. Around 1994, the band signed to the major label, adding three songs to Chief Assassin, which Geffen then re-released.
“Geffen killed us,” Smith claims, point-blank.
“Over the course of the next two years, we wrote our next album and did a little bit of touring,” Jenkins adds. “Then we spent forever in the studio with Another Desert, Another Sea. Finally, we got to this point where we felt it was done, and the label wanted things their way. We decided, you know what, this is our record; if they want it, fine. If not—.”
The label didn't want it, actually, but because of a contractual stipulation Geffen had to hand over the tapes.
“We got a $170,000 recording back for free,” Jenkins laughs, “and then we sold it to Cargo [Records] for $15,000. Then they put it out and it became another obscure record lost to the vaults of time.”
“We went through the machine,” Smith says. “We were exhausted.”
The band decided to take some time off. Jenkins went on to form The Black Heart Procession with Tobias Nathaniel, who'd sat in with 3MP on piano. Smith says he couldn't even think about music for months, but within a couple of years he and Rob Crow would create Pinback. What Jenkins and Smith went through with Three Mile Pilot gave them the know-how and easier success with their new endeavors.
Explains Jenkins: “We learned that it's important to do exactly what you want, not compromise creatively. Make your artwork, make your music, don't get caught up in major-label stuff.”
“My philosophy became, ‘Let's just play music,'” Smith says. “I'd forgotten what music was about. After [Geffen], it was always, like, let's do everything ourselves that we can. The actual term was ‘Fuck the middleman. We'll do it ourselves.'”
And now, older and wiser, Jenkins says it's time to “settle the score” with their old band. They're working on a still-untitled album for stalwart indie label Touch & Go (also home to Black Heart and Pinback). They hope to turn it in by April, and they'll be debuting many of their new songs at their upcoming series of shows, which, again, is not a reunion.
“We never felt like we broke up,” emphasizes Jenkins. “We were always friends and involved. But I did always feel like we were never as good as we could've gotten.”
Now's their chance. Better late than never.
Three Mile Pilot play with various opening bands Jan. 18 through 20 at The Casbah. www.threemilepilot.com.