For local singer-songwriter Mike Pinto, the decision to go west four years ago was one of measured impulse.
“I booked a 12-date tour myself, and I got the best reception in San Diego,” he says. “Then, I went down to Texas to visit my friend and I found out there that my biggest show in Florida had fallen through. So, I just called home, told them that I wasn’t coming back and headed to San Diego.”
Pinto had been crafting a brand of reggae-influenced acoustic fare with West Coast tendencies even while back in his hometown of Philadelphia. The light-traveling musician’s lifestyle suited Pinto, but after his first taste of San Diego, he knew he’d found a home base.
Pinto wasted no time making waves in the local beach-music scene. Even though he grew up far from California, he had ingested a steady diet of Fat Wreck Chords bands. To come up with his full-band sound, he would eventually fuse this no-nonsense punk-rock with classic reggae sounds and the storytelling style of artists like Jimmy Cliff.
He took to playing every open-mic night he could find and was soon getting regular gigs at surf-jam havens like Winston’s and gaining the respect of local reggae stalwarts like Tommy Dubs and The Devastators.
“I was expecting California to be a little more cutthroat,” he says. “I’m very East Coast, and I was used to trying to hustle and being a hard worker, so coming to a laid-back place was something to get used to. But it was really great to be accepted so quickly.”
He certainly was accepted here in San Diego, along with places like Hawaii and Guam, where island music is embedded in everyday culture. His acoustic debut, Little District, got radio play across the country.
“I was just working extremely hard at that time when I first got here because I didn’t have anything else,” he says. “No family or friends. I mean, I came here for music, so it was an everyday thing.”
The hard work Pinto put in and the connections he made soon started to pay off. In 2007, he hooked up with producer / studio musician extraordinaire Chuck Treece (Bad Brains, McRad, Urge Overkill) and recorded a self-titled album, his first backed by a full band. The sound was distinctly southern California, not necessarily breaking new experimental ground but just laying down a solid groove on which Pinto’s relatable stories of the peaks and pitfalls of the drifter’s partying lifestyle could be told.
“I think you have to find where your music fits,” he says. “Playing country in the middle of Compton isn’t the best idea, and rapping in Nashville probably won’t be very successful, either. I was lucky because, frankly, even though I work hard to say something with my lyrics, the music I play has that party vibe that is always going to connect with a younger audience.”
Early December will mark two new milestones for Pinto. He will release a single called “Cool and the Deadly,” a cautionary tale that reminds the listener to always be on the lookout for people who are up to no good, whether it be violent transients, drug pushers in the ghetto or cops on the take. The song’s release will be celebrated with one of Pinto’s biggest shows to date, a headlining slot at House of Blues in San Diego.
But the well-traveled troubadour is modest about his successes and seems an eternal realist when it comes to the state of making a living as a musician these days.
“There are so many people who play music and travel out there right now, it makes it tough,” he says. “But it’s the same thing with any other job, really. If you want to be successful at what you do, you have to set yourself apart somehow. When you hear a really great song, it’s still electric.”
Mike Pinto plays with Stranger, B Foundation, High Tide and Hi Roots at House of Blues on Saturday, Dec. 4. myspace.com/littledistrict