Rusty Pinto strikes you as the kind of guy who knows exactly what he wants – he’s got a discerning ear that can sort through bullshit at rapid pace. This innate tendency, along with a passion for all things blues and rockabilly and a voice that is robust and flexible, has led Pinto on a kaleidoscopic career path, taking his blend of blues to the other side of the world and back again.
Perhaps it was a natural outcome for a guy who grew up within arm’s reach of an old acoustic and exposed to a steady stream of Mum’s favourite country numbers. But Pinto’s musical inspirations were entirely his own. “You always tend to avoid what your mum is into,” he says, and instead a hybrid diet of blues, rock and jazz nourished his sensibilities. Little Richard holds a special place for him, as well as the usual gems: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley. The result was an eclectic blend of styles.
Internationally recognised as a top-tier blues and rockabilly wailer, Pinto has been doing his thing for quite some time. He originally fronted Perth rockabilly sensation Rusty And The Dragstrip Trio before breaking off to pursue a solo career. The band’s earlier records like I Ain’t Ready are vibrant, no-nonsense rockabilly, but they’re not exactly emblematic of Rusty’s individual sound.
“I was 18 when we started, and the guys I was playing with were a lot older than me … [they were] saying, ‘This is what you should do, this is what you should sound like.’” Pigeonholing music wasn’t Pinto’s strong suit, so he went it alone. “I don’t really see the need to play just one style. Being a solo artist gave me a lot of direction and a lot less restrictions.” As Pinto says, it all comes down to knowing what you want.
His solo ventures have seen him haul his guitar around the globe, from Las Vegas to Sweden, Germany and Italy. In all these places, Australian rockabilly has fared pretty well. Pinto puts it down to an act of tacit rebellion. “Since we’ve had so much Americana in our face, Australia has kind of had to react to it and create their own sound,” he says. It’s an element that comes on strong in Pinto’s own music.
In late 2012, Pinto formed a brand new trio, Shotdown From Sugartown, with fellow Perthians Jon Matthews and Jay McIvor. The band took to busking in the streets to develop its style – a return to traditional rockabilly and honky-tonk blues roots. The most important concern for the group was to have fun doing it, and it’s worked wonders. Pinto says there’s “a completely different energy” these days. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength, no-one has a go at each other,” he says. It can be hard to fall into sync after six years as a solo artist, but in Pinto’s words, “It’s my favourite project so far.”
And what about the quiffs and Dickies that the fashionistas have eagerly snatched up in recent years? There have been a few moments of confusion, laughs Pinto. “Sometimes someone looks like a rocker and you go up to them and say, ‘Hey man, what do you think about this band? And they reply, ‘I actually don’t like that kind of music at all.’” Pinto chuckles at the thought – he doesn’t mind the fad, as fashion will move onto something else in a few years’ time, but he’ll still be hanging around, doing his thing.
In the meantime, Shotdown From Sugartown are recording their debut album. It’s hard work for Pinto, as he maintains the autonomy that has defined his career, right down to the mixing and production. A project’s only worth doing these days, he says, if “it’s all on you”.