Patrick Abernethy first started playing music the same way many musicians with siblings did: by picking up his older brother’s guitar and messing around on it.
“I was playing it upside-down ‘cause I’m left-handed…not knowing what I was doing, just like, making sounds with it,” Abernethy said of his 13-year-old self.
Eventually, he decided to get a left-handed guitar of his own and began taking lessons. Yet as he got older, Abernethy was a bit of a musical lone wolf, never really playing in bands, choosing instead to focus on bettering his playing on his own.
“I was pretty solitary about playing music for whatever reason. I think it might have been because I liked music that nobody else liked,” he recalled. “I had some friends that were learning guitar at the same time but they all liked like Poison, or Bon Jovi…I was never into that.”
Instead, he maintained that his adolescent self listened to bands like U2, the Cure, the Smiths, R.E.M. and whatever else played on college radio back in Long Island, New York.
“I don’t think I owned any records whatsoever, but I taped [music] off the radio,” he said. “[And] then, when I started playing guitar, I immediately got into Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and everything guitar-oriented, you know.”
Abernethy soon came to think of himself as a guitar player, and eventually moved to the West Coast, later going on to play in indie rock bands Beulah and Rogue Wave.
And in the midst of all this, nearly a decade ago, was when his solo-project-turned-band, Pancho-san, first began.
“It sort of started, like gradually,” he said, of his decision to write songs and record them on an 8-track.
Writing the songs themselves wasn’t much of a challenge for Abernethy; the biggest struggle in all of this came when he had to figure out how to write lyrics to the music that already existed.
“Almost all the time the music comes first,” he said. “And then the lyrics come after. So they’re secondary but they’re also like, I don’t want to just write down anything [and] I don’t ever get them perfect.”
And while he is inspired by both the good and the bad in life, Abernethy said much of his lyrical matter concentrates on the challenges he’s had to face in life.
“I think that, a lot of these songs, lyrically, have some sort of like struggle element in them. Like, sort of feeling kind of down and out, outcast or just underdog kind of feeling,” he said. “They might be like, made up stories, but they come from, you know, a conglomeration of real feelings about real things.”
But to record the songs, he also had to teach himself to sing, something he said was very much a process of trial and error.
“[You] just like, record and fail a lot and realize why, when you listen to it, why you’re so annoyed to hear it,” he said with a laugh. “And then sometimes, like, it’s not as annoying, and you try to do that again.”
Abernethy’s approach to songwriting isn’t necessarily straightforward, something he attributed to not really catering to a particular genre of music in his songwriting. He cited having an appreciation for both pop music with a catchy sound and singer-songwriters a la Leonard Cohen who are thoughtful in their approach to music. His goal is to mix the two genres together in his own music.
“I think I’ve found a way to…combine them that works for me,” he said. “It’s…satisfying to exercise and express those things that I enjoy.”
Although the Pancho-san album, “Oh, Mellow Melody,” was finished a year ago, it was, as Abernethy said, “a long time in the making.”
“Nearly a decade ago I started with a cheap crappy microphone, making songs,” he said.
As a result, some of the songs date back to the early 2000s, while others are much more recent.
“This [album] has a lot of like old-timey kind of ramshackle falling apart homemade recording kind of sounds to it,” he said. “The next one is also a little bit homemade, but a lot more upbeat and a lot more lovely.”
And while Abernethy started out playing solo acoustic shows under his own name around 2005, eventually he brought in former bandmates Pat Spurgeon (drums) and Eli Crews (bass) to evolve his solo project into a real band.
Although Abernethy has spent the past few years focusing on starting his own family, he said Pancho-san can be expected to play shows more regularly, with a few already slated for this summer.
“It’s exciting to look forward to new things…even though I don’t have the clearest picture of where this is going,” he said, both of playing more shows and of the pending release of his second album. “Maybe it’s like a puzzle or something that just like you’re always trying to complete, even though you probably never will. You just enjoy, like, taking it apart and putting it back together.”
Pancho-san plays at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill tonight, opening for Two Gallants. The show begins at 9 p.m. and is all ages. Online tickets are sold out but there may be a limited amount available at the door.