Zach Pietrini, one of Milwaukee’s most established songwriters and performers, is not afraid to embrace contradiction. Take, for example, the title track off his new album Rock & Roll Is Dead, which dropped on Sept. 23. The name may imply that the genre is done for, but that didn’t stop Pietrini – who typically works in the Americana genre – from changing up his sound and leaning into an old-school rock persona.
“Making a rock ’n’ roll album, saying it’s dead but doing it anyway, is a theme of the record,” Pietrini says.
He set out to create something that sounded vintage, drawing inspiration from ’80s-era Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. He even used mostly analog equipment to give the record a warm feeling. The album is like a high-energy, emotional time machine, full of charismatic songwriting that is easily his best work to date.
Despite the genre change-up, Pietrini’s signature lyricism is still the pulse of the album. The tracks explore themes of growing up and figuring out your identity. Songs like “Seventeen” and “Dead End Town” focus on parting ways with someone or something in your life, while “What Are We Now” tackles the heaviness of responsibility.
“It’s about trying to do your best to mature and figure out who you are in this crazy life,” he says. “Songwriting is still the heart of the thing.”
The new album follows several EPs and a handful of studio releases, including 2017’s Holding Onto Ghosts and 2019’s Denver Sessions B-Sides. Recorded at Cave Studios MKE in Pewaukee, it was delayed about a year and a half by the pandemic as well as some creative sidetracking – in 2021, he released a collaborative EP with Memphis songwriter McKenna Bray called The Modern Love EP.
The extended timeline gave Pietrini more time to perfect the songs. He even finessed the percussive background noise for “I Want It All” by slapping two pieces of wood together in a 5,000-square-foot garage with Milwaukee-based Kyle White, a producer, engineer and composer for local music recording business Full Moon Productions. “We could’ve just pulled up a sample or pre-made sound on a hard drive,” White says. “It’s the little things that matter to me, and I appreciate Zach’s willingness to experiment.”
This isn’t their first time collaborating. White has also helped Pietrini land song placements in TV and film, including non-album song “When It All Goes Wrong,” which was featured on an episode of the NBC show “Young Rock.”
“He approaches life with positivity and focus,” White says about Pietrini. “I am impressed with his confidence and kindness; not all musicians possess this calm and maturity.”
Since relocating to Milwaukee from Chicago over five years ago, Pietrini is thankful for the opportunities that have come his way. In addition to working as a musician, he has gotten married, had three kids and found a supportive community in the Sherman Park neighborhood he calls home. He feels his music has an “accessible, very human, very open posture” that comes from living in this environment.
“It’s good to feel that you have a home base,” Pietrini says. “That you can go out on tour, come back and play a big show to a bunch of people who are eager for you to come and play.”
PIETRINI’S FAVORITE SONG on the album is “Seventeen,” a song about looking back on growing up and seeing life for what it was. “We actually made three versions of it before we landed on this one,” he says. “It has a very nostalgic, hazy feel that represents the nature of memory.”