Deriving as much influence from Pink Floyd as it did from Primus, Smitty started off in 2004 as the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist/bass virtuoso Matthew Mackle and ace ax man Brian Liebman. Rounding out their funky, ethereal sound with a regularly changing cast of drummers over the course of a decade, Smitty has played every venue South Florida has to offer, sharing the stage equally with punkers, headbangers, classic rockers, hip-hoppers, and every genre in between, perpetually the square peg in a round hole.
"I would say that our biggest strength is that we're unique -- and maybe any band would say that -- but I think that, even to a fault, we've always done what felt good, and we always tried to play beyond our abilities," says Mackle, who serves as the band's sole lyricist. "I've always tried to play things that were harder than I could comfortably play, and that's made me better as a player."
Almost ten years later, the band is in the best place it's ever been. Mackle and Liebman's dedication has been matched in full for the first time by longtime local drummer Paul Pino, and they've just released their first full-length album, The World I See. The product of a year's worth of songwriting and recording, the record runs practically the gamut of classic, funk, and hard rock while never adhering solely to one.
"The first few songs of the album are more classic-rock-sounding, and then you get into the middle of the album, and it's probably where, musically, our best works are," says Pino, the only married member of the three-piece. "I think we cover a lot of genres of music that people are going to dig because people want different, and the whole album is different -- it's not just the same thing over and over again; we've got something for everyone in there."
The first sound we hear on the album's opener, "The Tide," is Pino priming Mackle and Liebman -- and, effectively, the listener -- with, "Alright, here we go." Four drumstick clicks later, a driving bass chops in, frantically descending and climbing a scale. It's soon overlaid with a steady, muted E power chord and, shortly after, Pino's drums, joining the bass' journey with rolling toms, all announcing their potency with full aplomb following the sharp snap of a snare drum. The song's lyrics, like the lyrics of much of the album, are purposefully written in a way that intersperses the cryptic with the inclusive, containing odd lines like, "Wonderful, freaky imagined eyes/Oh, yes. Oh, yes" and "Oh, if your mind/Goes in and out with the tide/Forgive and forget." By the end of the song, a couple of things are clear: These guys have chops, and we're not in musical Kansas anymore.
"I think when you get somewhere really interesting in an art sense is when music, sound, ideas, colors, and things like that turn into storytelling," says Liebman. "You can be really skilled, but if you have no story to tell, no emotion to convey in a circular sense, I don't think you really have anything there. Music gets confused. I hear things from other bands that come across as vacant or confused, and I want our audiences to feel like a story was told."
The next two songs will leave listeners agog. "The Chicken" and the titular track, "The World I See," both begin with blistering bass lines (in the lyrics, Mackle is almost self-referential when triumphantly declaring, "I can move faster than a disaster") flitting, deft drum work, and minimalist guitar licks, opening progressively wider through choral twists and clever dips until Liebman drops the hammer with murderous guitar solos.
Similarly, the subsequent couple of tracks -- the crisply hypnotic "Reaction" and the primal, damp, and funky "Rubber Man" -- initiate with the bass and grow gradually, though there are no redundancies; every song on the album is melodically distinctive, often with foreshadowing inflections woven into their fabric.
"There's something interesting that happens when you play with somebody for ten-plus years, and especially under the same brand -- under the same band name," Mackle says of his musical partnership with Liebman. "With our eyes closed, we can read each other when we play, and it was a total luck of the draw that we found somebody that was open-minded, at a very high level of talent, and superambitious to play with us. It completes the triangle in a very solid way."
"I consider myself the heartbeat," says Pino, continuing Mackle's sentiments. "I basically wanted to bring something to this band that I thought it needed more of. I really wanted to put the emphasis on energy in this band, and that's really what I give. That's basically my instrument: power."
But that isn't his only instrument, evidently, because on the very next track -- the oddly signatured though aptly named "Scrambled" -- it's Pino's voice at the forefront, and for the first time in the band's tenure, it isn't just one person assuming mic duties. A steadfast member of the local Miami music scene, he'd only ever contributed musically as a percussionist; this is the first time he's sung on anything. Sharing the microphone was a direct result of Pino's enthusiasm and participation -- past what was required of him -- during the album's production, which all took place at Mackle's home in South Miami.
"I remember when we finished the drum tracks saying to Paul, 'Well, you're done for a while; now it goes into mixing, and this is my thing,'" he recalls. "A couple of days later, he's texting me, 'How's the mixing going? You want me to come help?' So he would come over and help me mix, and at that time, there were still a lot of vocals that needed to be recorded, and I had planned on pressing the button myself, walking into the closet, and doing my vocal takes. But I had him at the computer, and through that, we decided to thicken things up, put more vocal tracks on it. And the next thing was me saying to him, 'Well, why don't you sing some?' Through that, we discovered that his voice complements mine well, and that's how Smitty is a double-headed dragon now, with two singers. That's completely new -- I never had a drummer who wanted to sing, or could."
The vocals on The World I See join the rest of the record's elements in being distinctive. Sometimes choir-like, occasionally hushed and murky, and, at other times, almost a wall of sound unto themselves, there is little about the singing on the album that could be described as traditional or ordinary.
"I personally like irregular vocals," says Liebman. "I like when vocals are obscured, jump levels and create a further puzzle piece to it as far as the listener goes. I've been really heavy into Nirvana lately at work [Liebman is director of the Miami Music Works Rock Ensemble, an independent Miami-based youth music program], and I love the fact that you can't make out what he's saying half the time. It's more interesting, and it's definitely a little more deep than just having all the vocals sit at one tone, one level. That works for some bands, but for us, we have to do it per song, and I think Matt and Paul did a great job."
The seventh and eighth tracks on the album are instrumentals, and they couldn't be any more different from each other. "Hero" is a soaring, triumphant, and dynamic Celtic rock piece written by Liebman and enhanced by the accompaniment of classically trained international violist Carl St. Jacques, whom the band met while attending an open mic at Fox's Lounge. The song that follows, "Airplanes," is a meditative, whimsical piano solo that wavers in and out of sorrow and elation, suspending listeners aloft throughout. Recorded with a three-decades-old Wurlitzer (they stopped making them in 1984) that Mackle and his older brothers and sisters took lessons on, its aged imperfections serve only to enhance its beauty.
"If you listen to that track, there's all kinds of shit on it," says Mackle. "You can hear the mechanics in the piano -- the microphones were too close inside -- plus it's old and creaky. You can hear my dampener pedal. I had to really EQ it to make sure it wasn't too muddy. It's not the greatest-sounding piano, but there's something really warm about it, and plus, it's personal to me, so I'm glad we used it."
"Mercury" is arguably the record's most commercial offering. A melody-driven work of tenderness that ascends progressively higher until it reaches its crashing conclusion, the song features some undeniably pretty bass and vocal melody matching. Next up is "Tomahawk," a groovy romantic number featuring poetic lines such as "There's a cornerstone holding a place where the echo of my footsteps were heard long ago, where she spoke into my eyes and kissed the merchant of my soul."
The following song could be considered vintage Smitty. "The Golden Sunrise" skillfully intertwines crashing funk with Middle Eastern harmonies. Like nearly every other song on the album, it uses the air, ocean, and earth as metaphors for describing the human condition, asking: "Is there room for the sky where I am dreaming?"
The final and longest track, "Turbulence," makes use of all that came before, closing out the album with heights and depths previously glimpsed upon and explored while still remaining independently listenable. Its conclusion, a final snare strike, puts a period at the end of a phenomenal first album.
Visit Smitty's website for information on show dates and to order the album, which will be offered in a multitude of formats, including vinyl. You can stream select songs from The World I See on their Soundcloud page or listen to it in its entirety on their Bandcamp page.
Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.