Pinkerton & the Brinks have been together less than a year, but the Charleston quartet has already developed a tight-but-loose blend of acoustic folk, bluegrass, and country music. Their songs bristle with rock 'n' roll energy, mostly courtesy of propulsive percussionist Cameron Johnson, but it's the raw, aching harmonies of guitarist Joe Wheaton and banjo player Cory Schwartz (of Cory's Grilled Cheese) that truly set the band apart. Virtually all their songs feature a dual-lead-vocal approach that provides an emotional anchor within the band's acoustic dustups.
The tightness of the vocals makes sense when you speak to Schwartz and Wheaton. They pick up where the other leaves off during stories, carrying each other's thoughts forward when one of them is at a loss for words. The story of how the duo founded the band earlier this year, for example, almost comes off like a call-and-response song:
Cory: Joe and I played in a rock band together for four or five years ...
Joe: ... called Forty Fl. oz. And when that died off, I started an acoustic solo thing, Cory started strumming the banjo to it, and we pieced it together from there.
Cory: Joe's always played acoustic guitar. He takes it with him wherever he goes, so the banjo just seemed like a good accompaniment ...
Joe: ... because you can take it anywhere, too.
The band describes their sound as front-porch folk, and they don't mean that as some sort of name for a new genre of music — it's a lot more practical than that. "Because we stripped it down to acoustic, we can play anybody's front porch," Schwartz says. "There's no setup involved — we can just walk up and play. We do a lot of front-porch strumming and a lot of couch playing and a lot of street-corner playing."
Both men credit Johnson with bringing a more rock-style energy to the group using minimal percussion. In fact, most of the time, all he's playing is a cajon, which is a six-sided, box-shaped instrument that the player usually sits on while playing it. "You can imitate the sound of a drum kit with it," Wheaton says. "You get a bass-drum sound when you hit the middle and a snare drum sound when you hit the top. It lets us rock out a little more while keeping things on the acoustic side. And Cameron brings so much energy to the band — he's almost like our frontman."
"It's a folk sound, but we can get a little raunchy with it," Schwartz says of their rock-meets-folk sound. "It's very Violent Femmes-influenced. It's a sound that anybody can get down with."
Initially, the band, which also includes mandolin player Billy Seasharp, planned to play both string music and full-tilt rock 'n' roll. But the response to Pinkerton & the Brinks was so strong right out of the box that they didn't have time for anything else. "I still miss rockin' out electric, but when we started, it took off quicker than we expected," Wheaton says. "It seemed to be the way to go."
"Suddenly, a lot more places were asking us to come play our acoustic set then come melt their faces with our electric set," Schwarz says. "It's a little more contemporary, I guess. There seems to be a lot more banjos in bands these days. But they're all sentimental, and we don't do that."
"We're definitely fuckin' rock stars at heart," Wheaton adds. "We make it as raunchy as we can, with pretty instruments, if that makes sense."
The old-time sound is popular now, but the band's calendar is so full of local gigs because they're excellent self-promoters. Their thinking is that, in an increasingly music-heavy marketplace, letting people discover them on their own is not an option. "We've hustled like hell," Wheaton says. "We owe everything to the hustle. You have to get out there and you have to be heard, and you can't do that without putting yourself out there and talking to people."
"People aren't really looking for bands," Schwartz says, once again picking up his bandmate's train of thought, "so you have to find people and tell them that they need your band."