Five (or Six) Questions: Preston Smith
Preston Smith is the heart and soul of PMS Artwork. He’s a painter (who most notably has had work commissioned for President Obama's inauguration), a musician, a writer, a poet, a former actor and stand-up comedian, and a podcast lover. We had a long, insightful conversation at his home and studio in West Los Angeles. Meet Preston.
Preston: I listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m sure you do, too.
Me: I don’t. It’s funny, I was talking to my friend last night. I don’t like listening to people talk, but I want to talk all day. [Laughter] So I feel like I should just do one because why not? But I don’t really listen to them.
Preston: Interesting, interesting.
Me: Do you have any good ones that you…
Preston: Yeah, I got a couple really good ones actually that I think you’d like. Tim Ferriss Experiment...
Me: Oh my god, my friend last night, she’s fucking in love with him. She refers to him as her husband.
Preston: Yeah. Me too! [Laughter] But Tim Ferriss is great. You know him?
Me: Four Hour Workweek.
Me: It changed my perspective.
Preston: It did? Nice! Great book, great content. He’s one of those guys who gets right to the meat with everybody. It helped me be able to get better with what I do in the business side of art. Another one on the same level which you might dig is Chase Jarvis who’s a friend of Tim Ferriss, but he’s a world famous photographer and now he does similar stuff that Tim does. But he gets it more from the artistic angle. Tim’s more of a business start-up guy, but Chase also created Creative Live which is basically alternative learning. You can do classes online for very cheap. He’s got a bunch of free content, so if you want to be creative and you want to learn on your own, then yeah, his stuff is great. He knows everybody, so he gets great guests. Those two are my favorite that I think you’d like.
Me: OK, cool. I listened to one recently by Pete Holmes.
Preston: The comedian? Crashing. It’s great!
Me: Yeah, on HBO. Which is really good! I play in a band and one of my best buddies’ band… Like, if bands were dudes, our bands would be buds. So they’re from Massachusetts and they went to college with Pete Holmes. So Pete asked my buddy Phil [Jamieson] from Caspian to be on the show and it was released on Wednesday. So if you have a chance to listen to it…
Preston: I didn’t even know Pete Holmes had a podcast.
Me: Yeah, dude and it’s popular. It’s called You Made It Weird and it’s on Nerdest. So I listened to it because I want to do a podcast, and I listened to Phil's with Pete—and it’s like 2.5 hours, so buckle up. But it was fun to listen to. I’ve listened to podcasts before, and I’m like, “I can do it. I just need to do it.” And I don’t know if I’m going to be good, but I know I can hold a conversation or drive one; hit the bullets.
Preston: And you don’t have the annoying ums, likes, and pauses.
Me: It’s funny because I’ve been leaving some of those in with these interviews, because I like reading it as…
Preston: …more of a conversational…
Me: Yeah, exactly. Irvine Welsh writes in that vibe. [Charles] Bukowski. It isn’t “correct,” but it’s real.
Preston: It has an immediacy to it, which I like.
Me: Yeah, exactly.
Preston: But you also don’t want someone to sound like an idiot.
Me: I’ve interviewed a handful of folks who don’t speak English as their primary language and I don’t want them to sound, or have it read, as if they’re stupid, to a native speaker. So I want to be respectful of that. Because I don’t really say that this person’s from Ukraine or Italy, you just have to get the vibe. I’m working it out, the editing, the grammar.
Preston: It makes sense. You gotta fill in those gaps.
Me: Yeah, I want to be respectful of that person but I don’t want to edit.
Preston: It’s a delicate balance. I always find it funny when you’ve got a well-known celebrity who's been around for many years, and it’s not like it’s their first interview, and every other word is like or um or uhhh. Like, “Your publicist didn’t tell you anything about this problem?” [Laughter]
Me: Especially actors, like, you gotta know. Hone in. Fuckin turn it on for a second.
Preston: A little bit is fine.
Me: We’re human! I’m probably doing it right now! Uhhh...It’s natural!
Preston: I’m going to channel Eckhart Tolle and just be silent. [Laughter]
Me: You’d be the Buddha now.
Preston: Exactly! “He was floating when I interviewed him.” [Laughter]
Me: All right, well let’s hop into it then. When I came in we talked a bit about success, but…
How do you define failure?
That’s interesting. Well, success, like we said, is all subjective and it depends on how you define it. And I guess failure would be too. Failure, for me, is not following your heart, not following what you set out to create—as a creator—or whatever your thing is, whatever lights you up and you want to do. If you’re not true to that and you don’t honor that, that would be failure. You can be very successful monetarily and be a failure.
Me: Do you have experiences where you feel like you’ve failed in your life?
Preston: Sure! I tried a lot of stuff. My dad always called me—he said, “You don’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none.” So even though we live in this world now of everybody does everything, which is great, I was in a band, I tried acting. Acting would probably be the closest thing—I was basically a double major in college with theater and fine arts, so I came down here [Los Angeles] to be an actor and a painter. I was very stubborn about it. My professor’s from Boston, very old school painter, and he sat me down at dinner one time and was like, “You’re going to be a painter.” And I was like, “Nahhh I don’t want to hear that!” But two years into it, he was completely right. So I came down here and it was failure, but it was failure by choice. I didn’t like what I was doing. I didn’t like being anxious all the time waiting for my phone to ring. Terrible. On the surface level, I’m a failed actor.
What is your greatest fear?
Fear is debilitating. It’s funny you bring that up because I think the reason I was finally able to do art full-time was because—well, I didn’t conquer my fear, but I got closer to conquering it. My year last year…I call it the Year of No Fear because I just realized how much it was holding me back in everything I did. When it comes down to it, we’re all human beings and I think people have these manufactured barriers where they’re like, “I can’t talk to this person because they’re on this level.” Or on social media for example, “I’m pushing too much. People are going to think I’m annoying.” And I just decided this is my career, this is what I want to do, and I need attention for the art to be successful, so I just had to break down some of those fear barriers. And a lot of people just don’t care in the end. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t have time. They’re inundated by—the whole social media animal is on them all the time, so I think a lot of people just don’t see it, or they’re like, “I’ve seen him posting stuff about his art” and then they find a little bit more of a connection. It’s a little bit safer to relate to the everyday moments. Like, “I have a family too!”
What's the most difficult thing you've ever had to do?
Ongoing. [Laughter] It was this idea of “poor me, tortured artist, struggling artist” person. That was my biggest thing to overcome. I really played that up for many years. I was drinking every night, I was going crazy. I was creating art too, but it was completely holding me back and I had these demons from my past and I just wasn’t dealing with them. I was just out drinking all the time and playing the tortured artist. That’s something that, over time, a decade plus, I started to come to terms with. Like, “I’m not going to get anywhere with my art or my life without turning this corner.” I think there’s this tendency as an artist to go for the Basquiats or the Jim Morrisons or the Kurt Cobains…that’s a really sexy idea, the artist who burned out quickly or released all this great content but then died young. I just realized that I don’t want to die young. [Laughter]
Me: Life is cool!
Preston: Yeah! I want to be able to create and to be able to do that into my nineties. And once I started to realize that I could be a happy artist, everything changed for me. Opportunities changed. It was interesting. Eventually I want to do a thing where I help other artists see that they can be happy and be successful as an artist. There’s a major stigma regarding that.
Me: So can you remember a day when you were like, “Fuck it” and you switched or was sort of like a sunset?
Preston: I don’t thing it was moment, like a rock bottom moment or anything. But it was a series of those where I was just going down. I think it was that I just stopped seeing hope. Hope no longer existed for me. Like, “This is the direction my life is going. I’m going to just be this artist who creates a lot of work, nobody sees it, and I end up partying myself to death.” Or I’d just end up an unhappy, bitter person. So yeah, that coupled with a few bad experiences personally involving alcohol, I just started to go, “I need to change this around.” And then it was a process. It didn’t happen overnight. My wife helped me out with that, of course. And becoming a bit more spiritual. I started meditating more, I started just trying to have a little more fun. Because when I was younger I wanted to be a stand-up comic, too.
Me: No way! Add it to the list, man! That’s awesome!
Preston: Yeah, yeah! I was class clown in my school, so I just wanted to get back in touch with having a little more humor, not taking myself so seriously, because it’s like as an artist you take yourself soooo seriously. “The work!” And now it’s funny when I go back to my old stuff which I thought was, “This is going to make me famous! Why are people not paying attention to me?!” Now when I go back to that, I go, “This is why they didn’t pay attention to me…because it wasn’t any good!” [Laughter] Or it wasn’t worthy. I hadn’t put in the time yet. Once I realized that, it deflated my own ego and things got a little better.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know?
Wow. There’s a lot. I think the older you get and the more you search, the more you realize you have a lot to discover. That’s a major problem with our society in general—that people feel like they know everything already. More specifically, I guess I’m just searching for peace. I want to know that more and more every day. I want to be content and peaceful with the process. I find myself struggling, going back and forth all the time between being successful and getting noticed, and being true to myself and doing the work and being peaceful. That’s a battle every day. One day I’m on top of the world, the next day I’m like, “I’m quitting.”
Me: Like a day later and you’re just like…
Preston: Sure. I had an interview recently and I was like, “This is it! This is great! This is one of those things that is going to help me turn a major corner.” But you just realize that it all just kinda goes away. And it settles. And you have to be OK with the settling. It’s a blip. The Obama thing was the same thing. It was like, “I’ve made it!” And then…pfffffft. Nose dive! [Laughter] So I think it’s important to realize that that’s just part of life and that you have to be OK with the process. And continue to just do your thing, do the work, and be OK with that. I understand it, but I haven’t understood it enough to where I’m living that every day. That’s something I would like to do.
How do you define being “in love”?
You’re going to get me in trouble! [Laughter] I’ve been in love four times in my life. I consider that a lot. I was kind of a hopeless romantic when I was younger. I’ve seen all different types of love. I’ve seen the love that’s border line lust, or obsession. Where you’re just jealous all the time. I don’t know if that’s—I think it is love. I think there are subtle variations of love, but I think love for me is probably when you want the other person to be happier than yourself. I think that’s the key to peace and happiness in general, it’s being able to go outside yourself and want things for other people. I want my wife to be happy. That’s first and foremost. And if I can do things to facilitate that, then I’m going to. And I think that’s why we work because she’s that way with me and I’m that way with her.
Me: I appreciate that. I feel like that’s the way it should be, right? You’re both really rooting for each other to succeed. And there’s no jealousy in that success. I’ve been in relationships where I’ve had small successes and there’s a bitterness in my partner. And I was like, “Wha? Shouldn’t you just be fuckin happy for me?”
Preston: But that’s also human nature. To an extent.
Me: Sure. I feel that with music. I’m in a band and my buddy’s band does something rad and I’m like, “That’s great. Harrumph. What about me?”
Preston: Yeah, like a sarcastic, “Good for youuu!” I’m the same way!
Me: And I see them and I’m like, “I love you guys!” but I get that little moment of resentment.
Preston: I think that’s how everybody feels. Every other artist, every other actor, is secretly pissed off that you got the break. But that’s the other thing, too, that’s really interesting, and it’s made a huge difference for me, is understanding that their success means that you can be successful. And there’s enough of it to go around. Our egos are like, “Oh they got that gig and there’s nothing for me anymore!” But there’s a lot out there. There’s so much money out there, there’s so much success out there. It’s just being able to know that there’s an abundance out there. Because once you close yourself off, you’re closing yourself off to opportunity.
Me: And that ties directly into the relationship. You’re talking about your wife and that idea of sharing and we all have such a high capacity for love and caring…so it sounds like you recognize, with your wife, that you can give constantly and you can receive constantly. As long as you’re open.
Preston: Right! But it’s also a more mellow—rather than being these huge peaks—
Me: Yeah, yeah, it’s not like, “I LOVE YOUUU!”
Preston: Yeah, yeah! It’s like a steady stream that’s unwavering. Which is nice.
Me: I use that analogy for life. I used to go to Agape, are you familiar with it?
Preston: Yeah, yeah.
Me: I used to perform meditation music there for a while. It was awesome.
Preston: Awesome! Sorry, so you’re a meditator?
Me: I was. [Laughs]
Preston: You stopped or lost interest?
Me: It’s not a loss of interest, it’s a lack of trying. It’s all my fault. I should be meditating but I’m not. That’s it. And I know I should. It’s good for me. But the idea was you’re lying in a stream on your back with your face up, your arms to the side, and your feet forward. Just keep your feet forward. Because you’re just going and when you’re too close to the side, you can stick out your arm and gently nudge yourself back to the center of the stream. Or you feel a rock on your foot and boop, same thing. But you’re not going to hit your head, and you can always pull over to the side and take a breather when you want. I love that thought. Because it’s such a peaceful, constant movement.
Preston: It is. But also, don’t you think we’re learning to be a little bit calmer on the stream? Whereas in the past, you’d crash into the stream. And you’re fighting it.
Me: Like, “I want this to happen!” And then you hit your head. Absolutely.
Preston: Yeah! There are so many parallels with this. Love, success…it’s balance.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
Wow. This is the Ekhart Tolle moment where you let the peace take over. A couple things came to mind. One is completely superficial. And the others aren’t. For some reason I thought, “I’ll miss movies!” [Laughter] I love movies! My parents were in the movie business, I grew up watching movies, but that’s not my answer.
Me: OK. It’ll be in there though. [Laughter]
Preston: I obviously would like to say my wife, and other people. But it’s something deeper than that. Those are all true. They’re all true things. But I think the thing that I’ll miss the most is creating. In whatever form that is. Creating art, music, whatever. Laughter. I was going to say laughter, too. But I think it’s really that surprise and immediacy of the moment that I’ll miss. Because you tap into something. You tap into something that’s not you. I’ve written a couple of books—a compilation of poetry and paintings inspired by Buk—
Me: The Buk!
Preston: One of the best things about it, my friends and I would get drunk at the bar and come home and do this writing poetry exercise. I’d say, “We’re sitting down and we’re just going to write! You’re going to write a stanza, I’m going to write a stanza, you’re going to write a stanza.” And we would do that all the time and we ended up cowriting a book after that. But it was that exercise of, first of all, getting rid of the inhibitions so you could actually tap into that. And once people stopped questioning themselves, and it was more of an automatic process, something was flowing through you. You’d read it later and go, “I wrote that?” There was something that flowed through me. So that feeling, I will miss.
Me: For sure. People have asked me about music. Like, “How do you write the things you write?” Sometimes I don’t feel like I do. I feel like it’s out there, I just heard it in the ether, and I happened to be able to play the guitar. It’s that feeling of being a conduit. It comes through me. Do you know DJ Shadow at all?
Preston: I don’t.
Me: He’s a DJ, but he cuts through records and samples tons of stuff. But there’s one sample he got of a drummer and he says, “It’s not me who’s making music, the music’s coming through me.” And that’s exactly what you’re describing.
Preston: I think certain people who don’t understand that—it almost comes across as you’re being more egotistical, but you’re not. You’re actually saying it’s not me.
Me: Exactly! It’s out there! I just heard it a certain way.
Preston: Almost the flip side of the question is how do you know you’re writing bad music.
Me: Right! Oh, Jesus. [Laughter]
Preston: Or how do you know when you’re creating bad art. For me, it’s when I’m too cerebral. When I’m too in my mind and I’m trying to do something clever and then it’s bad. It’s always bad. It’s the times when I chill the fuck out and take a deep breath and I just create.
Me: For me I just let the music write me. And that’s hard to do because you’re giving up control. And as humans, we want control. As much as I say control is an illusion, which I believe it is.
Preston: I believe so too.
Me: But I fall into the pattern because I’m just a dude.
Preston: I think that might be it, too, because it’s the one time that I’m not trying to take control in my life.