Zack Keim can find inspiration nearly anywhere. The Pittsburgh singer-songwriter hatched the hook for his new single, “Canyon,” while driving around Washington, D.C. making food deliveries. “I was delivering Uber Eats, and I wrote that on my phone—just a voice memo,” Keim recalls. An insistent vocal refrain (“Can-yonnn!”) was all it took; Keim started strumming the melody on his guitar, and pretty soon the song blossomed into a buoyant folk-pop gem of a tune. Keim’s first solo single since his 2017 debut First Step, “Canyon” is both a monumental leap forward and the first taste of Keim’s forthcoming sophomore effort, Battery Lane.
At 25, Keim—whose musical background bridges the gap between garage-rock scuzz and kaleidoscopic folk reveries—has done enough performing for several lifetimes. Born and raised in the factory town of Blawnox, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, Keim first picked up a guitar at age 13, when he enjoyed pretending to play along with his dad’s Beatles Anthology CD. He formed his earliest bands in middle school, performing Strokes and Arctic Monkeys covers to pubescent classmates. His life changed when he started sneaking out of the house to catch indie-rock concerts, particularly the acclaimed Pittsburgh group 1,2,3. “Seeing 1,2,3 definitely had an impact on me as a musician,” Keim says.
Keim’s father started taking him to local open mics around Pittsburgh. It was at one open stage that Keim met Bob Powers, a veteran slide guitarist 40 years Keim’s senior who introduced him to garage-rock staples from the Stooges to Black Lips. Keim and Powers hit it off and, after working together on blues standards, formed the garage-punk outfit Nox Boys. Keim was just 16 when the band was signed to Get Hip Records, and his life became a whirlwind. Nox Boys rose through the local underground scene, released two gloriously scuzzy albums with Get Hip, and toured nationwide and—more recently—Europe.
By 20, Keim yearned to create something of his own. His debut solo album, First Step, arrived that spring on Get Hip’s Folk Series sublabel. An aching and sparse work of sixties folk classicism, First Step wore its vintage influences on its sleeve: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake. “A lot of artists, when they start out, their first record takes a lot of inspiration from people they listen to,” Keim reflects. By comparison, “Canyon” finds Keim expanding his musical parameters and locating a voice all his own.
Keim wrote “Canyon” at a low point in the spring of 2020. His band’s West Coast tour had been canceled as the coronavirus swept across the country, forcing him to drive from San Diego straight back to Pittsburgh. Soon their first European tour was canceled, too. “That was a turning point, an epiphany for me,” Keim says. During that eventful spring, Keim became entranced by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine and Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Goon LP. He also broke up with his longtime girlfriend, who wanted him to become a postman. “I didn’t want to give up on my childhood dream,” Keim says.
While living in Washington, D.C. and saddled with credit card debt from his canceled tours, Keim began delivering for Uber Eats to pay the bills, playing the occasional gig on the side (even at an abandoned subway station). Inspired by the lush textures of the Hamilton/Rostam album, he began pushing himself musically—taking piano lessons, experimenting with a sixties organ, playing synths and keys. He built a home studio in his room, and began buying new gear to stimulate his creativity. One night, while down and out in D.C., Keim performed some new songs on Instagram Live, which caught the attention of musician Josh Sickels, formerly of 1,2,3. Keim began sharing his demos with Sickels and his ex-1,2,3 bandmate Chad Monticue. In a surreal culmination of Keim’s teenage obsession with 1,2,3, the two musicians (who now comprise the duo Animal Scream) enthusiastically agreed to produce Keim’s new material.
On “Canyon,” you can hear this creativity entering full blossom. Keim’s new songwriting revels in a new sonic complexity, full of winks at acoustic psychedelia and rustling piano that recalls vintage Walkmen records. “Canyon,” which Keim playfully describes as his “summer roadtrip single,” will be released on 45 this fall on Action Weekend Records out of Europe.
Now based back in Pittsburgh, Keim is currently at work on his second solo album, titled Battery Lane after the street he lived on in the D.C. area. Produced by Jake Hanner (Donora) and Animal Scream, the album will be out in 2023.
Keim describes “Canyon” as a way of reintroducing himself as an artist. “I grew up listening to lots of indie rock and 1,2,3, but then I shifted into the hardcore garage direction,” Keim says. “Now I’m finding my voice as an artist.”
“Canyon is as perfect a pop song as it’s possible to conjure up. From the whistle that kicks the song off, it’s simple and stripped-down, seemingly effortless, joyous and yet steeped in a kind of bittersweet nostalgia. Imagine the best pop hooks Lou Reed or Jonathan Richman ever managed overlaid with Zack’s singular, plaintive voice and you’re close.” – Shindig! Magazine
“Opening with a pounding percussive stomp followed by joyous layers of jangling guitar and buoyant melodies, “Alice” feels both heartfelt and endlessly charming, crafting jangly folk pop with lush complexity.” – Under The Radar Magazine
“Fresh from touring Europe with his band Nox Boys, Zack Keim releases a brand new solo single of Laurel Canyon-inflected country psych.” – Louder Than War
“If you’re looking to indulge in some sunburnt desert-psychedelia this summer, then look no further than “Canyon.” – Look At My Records Blog
“New single ‘Canyon’ represents Keim’s first solo work since, emerging from some major life changes as well as the usual global turmoil with a newfound freshness and confidence. A bright-eyed refusal to back down from his passions and will to create, and perhaps the first time he has really started to develop his artistic voice.” – Various Small Flames (UK)
Keim’s voice is unique and pitched up in this jaunty track that seems like it should be laid over a road trip montage. It’s got a vintage rock feel and is full of blazing instrumentation… “Canyon” is an impressive show for Keim as someone in the midst of a redefining moment.” – Pittsburgh City Paper
“We’ve heard Zack Keim in garage-rock mode with The Nox Boys and stripped-down folk mode a la early Dylan on his Get Hip solo album, but “Canyon” is something new.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette