As the name of his EP, Tales from the Travelling T-Shirt Salesman, suggests, Aymen Saleh is the kind of artist who will let his love for music lead him down any road. His indie pop band, Holy Pinto, originally was formed as a duo between him and his friend Ryan Hurley. In 2016, the two released their debut record, Congratulations. The lyrics posed an important question: Is it better to take root and stick with what you know or throw yourself headfirst into your passion? Saleh would eventually answer this question by stripping out the backseat of the band’s passenger van to install a mattress and embarking on a journey across the United States. Now, Holy Pinto is more of a solo endeavor, but Saleh’s still living the DIY touring lifestyle. His adventure has taken him to all kinds of places, from the wintry highways of Iowa to a one-person town in Nebraska.
Recently, we had the chance to chat with Saleh over the phone. He talked to us about his favorite tour memories, his relationship with smoking, crazy metalcore videos, and more.
TYF: Your new EP is called Tales from the Travelling T-Shirt Salesman. What are some of your most interesting tales from the road?
Aymen Saleh: I should have prepared for that… I’m not sure, entirely. (Laughs) I’m in a drugstore right now. That’s kind of a lot of my life. I think one of the funniest ones that comes to mind is… I’ve had several times where I’ve run out of gas while driving, and it’s ended up with me riding with a police officer in Iowa to pick up gas and go back at, like, 2 AM in January. It was freezing. I was with my friend Connor, and that was quite funny. That happens to me a lot. I once ran out of gas in the entrance of the gas station, but not near enough to actually pump it while I was there. I had to go in and buy one of those carry tanks. (Laughs)
TYF: That’s pretty funny. Where was the photo on the cover of the EP taken?
Saleh: You know, I’m not actually 100 percent sure. My friend Cody Furin directed and shot the video for the “Gold Leaf” single, where we went to Nebraska. And he’s actually a really, really good photographer, and I was just having a look on his website because he’s a friend of mine. And I saw that photo and I was like, “Wow, that’s really, really cool.” Where that person is, there’s a rainbow, and then it looks kind of miserable elsewhere. He’s from Las Vegas, but I don’t think it was shot there. I think it was shot somewhere in Colorado or in the West, somewhere around there. I’ll have to ask him.
TYF: What was your experience of Nebraska like?
Saleh: It was pretty wild, actually. It was right in the heart of winter, so when we were driving, we kind of skidded off the road at one point. (Laughs) It was cool. I read on the BBC about that town with a population of one, and I thought it’d be really fun to go there and do a show there, ’cause with DIY touring and stuff, you never know who or how many people you’ll play to. I’ve played to very, very few people in faraway places, so I figured I’d take it to an extreme and go to a town with a population of one. So we went there, and there were actually, like, 10 people there. And I’ve played for less on several occasions, so it was actually a really fun show, and they were quite happy to have me. I think that town was maybe a bit more of a touristy place than I thought. I mean, it’s not like it’s set up as a tourist place, but they have a guest book, and I think they’ve had people from over 60 countries just swing through. A few people every week, that small handful, stop by. So yeah, it was really fun. Everyone was pretty nice to me. The locals bought me a few beers. I had to hand over the driving to Cody so I could drink with the locals. It was really, really genuinely fun, and probably the best thing I’ve done in the last year.
TYF: Speaking of DIY touring, I’m guessing that you’ve played at a lot of really interesting venues while traveling across America. What would you say is the most memorable location you’ve played?
Saleh: There’s been so many. There’s been so many. I remember once, on the first tour I did with my old band mate Ryan [Hurley], we booked a show in Valdosta, Georgia. Being from England, Georgia is so different, you know? It’s like, “Where is Valdosta? I’ve never heard of Valdosta.” So we drove there, and there was a tropical thunderstorm on the way, and we were like, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We showed up, but it was at this wakeboarding park that some people had just built, so there was a little manmade lake and they had, like, one of the only cable systems in the world that’s overhead so people can literally wakeboard and do that style of surfing without a boat. It was wild! There was a skate ramp and stuff. It was bizarre. That really sticks out for me. I always remember that one. I don’t know why, but it’s certainly not the only very different experience.
TYF: For sure. In “Gold Leaf,” you sing, “If I visit the Grand Canyon…” Have you visited the Grand Canyon since writing that lyric?
Saleh: I haven’t. So here’s the thing. I wrote that song when I had quit smoking for four years, and I promised myself, “If I go to the Grand Canyon, that’s gonna be the one time in my life where I have a cigarette again.” And I was driving through Arizona, and I was on quite a tight time schedule for a show, but I had the choice—like, “Do I just go for 15 minutes?” And I drove past Flagstaff, which is quite nearby, and I actually decided not to, because I was so glad to get rid of smoking for my life. I haven’t been since, but six months ago or so, maybe a year ago, I started smoking again. And then I quit again recently, but it’s just been on/off. So I kind of just should have gone, honestly. (Laughs) If I start smoking again, I’m going to go there to make sure I fulfill that promise.
TYF: Your artist bio says that you’re often inspired by “the bittersweet taste of nostalgia.” What do you often find yourself being the most nostalgic for?
Saleh: I think friends and relationships—like, relationships in general, not just romantic. You know, friends and family and all that stuff. A lot of songwriters have a very different relationship with songwriting. I feel like they say [that] if they’re having a hard time or if there’s something going on in their life, they write about it, and it makes them feel better. I find that I can’t write stuff unless it’s a year or two after the fact. So I kind of always write when I’m looking back at certain things and piecing them together. I guess that’s maybe why nostalgia comes up so much—because I’m writing in retrospect. Like, if I’m in a bad mood because something bad in my life happened, I’m not gonna be like, “Oh great, I wanna play some guitar now. This could be fun. I’m going to talk about this thing that I want to avoid.” (Laughs) But yeah, [I like to write about] all the times growing up—school, teenage years, past relationships… I find that, you know, I could write about my relationship with an uncle, and then it will remind me of the relationship I had with a girl or a friend, and I’ll be piecing all these elements together. So I think [my writing process is] really nostalgic in general.
TYF: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Saleh: Oh my God. Yeah. I would attribute that to the first song I wrote for Holy Pinto, which was “Tooth,” which is on our first record.
TYF: Did you ever write songs when you were really young?
Saleh: No, actually. My first instrument is drums, and I really picked it up and fell in love with it when I was 12 or 13. Then I idolized Dave Grohl, so I was like, “Oh, I can play guitar too,” even though I couldn’t. I wanted to be him so badly that I was like, “Great, I’ve gotta learn how to play guitar.” So I learned that, and then… I never really wrote songs, because I was all about the flashy drum stuff, like Travis Barker, and I really liked guitar solos… I was just drawn to that kind of stuff. And then, I think when I was 16 or 17, I started realizing that all my favorite bands wrote these storytelling songs or concept records. I think Dog Problems by The Format was one of the first records when I was like, “This is almost a story from start to finish.” I was like, “Whoa, that’s what I want to do with music.” But I didn’t really have the competence to sing for another five or six years, so I really started writing songs when I was 22, I think—quite late in life. But thankfully, I did have a bit of grounding with guitar and drums to make it not the hardest thing in the world when I started.
TYF: For sure. Imagine that you had the chance to make a video for any Holy Pinto song that you do not yet have a video for. You have unlimited resources, and no idea is too extreme. What kind of video would you make?
Saleh: Oh my God! That’s such a good question. I actually have a concept for the next Holy Pinto video that I don’t want to share right now because, you know, if I say what it is and then I don’t do it, I’ll look like a fool. That’s a really good question. The budget element makes it really, really interesting. That would be incredible… I’m not really into metalcore, but I watched this metalcore video the other day that my friend was showing me, by a band called Parkway Drive, and it was madness. They’re playing at this mini airport thing, and it’s a quite generic performance video. And then halfway through, they’re suddenly flying the plane up in the air and doing an unassisted skydive and linking hands in the air the while free falling! It’s like a real life James Bond video! The budget must have been so high. I just want to recreate that video. (Laughs) It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
TYF: That’d be fantastic. What are your favorite movies?
Saleh: Oh, I’m not a big movie person. Can I answer with TV shows?
Saleh: I really enjoyed The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad… And I’m a huge fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm as well, which I find really funny. So I’m going to go with that. But my friends know I’m not a big movie person. Whenever they put on movies, I just complain. I think it’s my attention span. I think an hour and a half’s too much of an attention commitment for me. (Laughs)
TYF: Got it. Are there any books that you particularly like?
Saleh: Oh my God. I haven’t read novels in a while, which I should do. Actually, I’ve been really meaning to get back into it. I have this trap where I tend to get books on my phone—iBooks or whatever—but I don’t like being attached to my phone all day, so it’s kind of pointless doing it. So I’m trying to get back into novels, but at the moment, there is a book I really like a lot. I like a lot of stuff about creativity and performance and music. There’s a really good book that’s been in every single bag I’ve packed for the last two years called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. At the moment, I’m also trying to get back into this book my friend reminded me about yesterday, which is Effortless Mastery [by Kenny Werner]. He’s a jazz musician, and it’s about creativity and centering yourself and performance, getting into that zone.