by Steve McPherson
Back when I was living in Northampton, my band briefly considered calling our next album Western Massachusetts, but nixed that idea when a friend informed us that Joe Pernice’s Scud Mountain Boys had already put out an album called Massachusetts. “Nuts to them,” thought I, and never even gave it a listen. A few years later, my band’s “next album” had become our “last album,” and looking at the remains of a band and a relationship I had put a lot of work into, I had my second encounter with Joe Pernice in the form of the Pernice Brothers’ third album, Yours, Mine and Ours. It seems that things don’t always work out the way you intend them, and are rarely what they seem.
Download an mp3 of the Pernice Brothers' song, "My So-Called Celibate Life."
is the case with the Pernice Brothers. You may have heard “One Foot in
the Grave” at the mall, and most of their output wouldn’t be out
of place on the poppiest of pop stations, but these apples hold razorblade lines
like “There’s a train wreck picking up survivors from a plane crash,”
or the one from YMaO that got me through some tough times: “I hope
this letter finds you crying/ It would feel so good to see you cry.” Popular
music has always trafficked in turning heartbreak into head bobs, but how does
Joe Pernice make it quite so deliciously vicious?
“Lyrically, I tend to gravitate in a darker direction, but musically,
my ear responds to upbeat stuff. I like classic pop melodies, so I want to write
the kind of music I like to listen to, but I don’t have the feel-good
vibe of the Association or the Turtles,” he explains via phone. “It’s
just not me to be all smiles.”
That’s an understatement. Pernice has been mining that vein of darkly,
shiny obsidian pop as the Pernice Brothers for four studio albums now without
too much deviation. “The last couple records we did the same way,”
he replies when asked about working in the studio with bassist/producer Thom
Monahan. “We’ve been working together for so long [10 years], it’s
almost uneventful, making a record. Early on, it would be this big thing like,
‘Yes, we’re about to make an album,’ and it was very monumental.
And now we just record songs. It’s very comfortable and a pretty relaxed
way to work, but every time we make a record, we’ve used different technology
to some degree. There’s always new equipment we’re going to add
into the fold, to try new things every time. There is a method, but we try to
Stretching it really means pushing the sound of the records, more than the content.
Pernice’s latest—Discover a Lovelier You—retains the
leaner rock sound of YMaO but here and there a backwards sample pops
out, or the ping-ponging delay of “My
So-Called Celibate Life” launches it into the territory of Bowie’s
“Modern Love.” “A
lot of those [sound effects] I did myself at my home studio. This record had
a lot of tracks that were recorded in different places. We did some in New York,
and then some in Canada, and then we went to Los Angeles, and the whole band
wasn’t there for the whole time. Different people would come in and out
and we kind of worked on it like the Manhattan Project, so that nobody would
know too much,” he laughs. “Otherwise, we’d have to kill them.”
Given this response, it seems a bit fishy that Thom Monahan won’t be joining
them on the road this time around, but Pernice has assembled a steady cast to
help him out and confesses loving getting on the road. “That’s the
thing about the band: everyone really likes to play live music and we love traveling
around and seeing things. It’s a pretty unique experience and one I didn’t
think I would love as much as I do. When I’m home I’m like a hermit:
I don’t go out much. I’m a creature of habit. But when I get on
the road I just absolutely love it. I miss my wife, and I miss certain things,
but there’s nothing like it. When the band is clicking and it’s
kind of effortless to play songs and people are enjoying the show, it’s
a really amazing experience.”
His isolationism no doubt serves him well in his other profession as a writer/poet.
A lot is made in reviews of his MFA in Creative Writing, both positively and
negatively, but I was mostly interested in how he approaches his different mediums.
“Writing music is immediately pleasing because there’s sound attached
to it. There’s just something inherently pleasing about hitting a chord
on a guitar; it just feels good. Writing songs is more forgiving; there’s
a melody and other aspects that can help bejewel a song, whereas writing is
nothing but your words on the page, so every word has to be precise to get your
meaning across. With music, one person might like the words, one person might
just like the beat, but for writing prose or poetry, it’s much more naked.
It requires more precision.”
impressively, he gave precise answers to just about anything I asked. I wanted
his take on the Boston Red Sox in their first post-championship year since 1919.
“They’re good; I don’t like [their chances] as much as I did
last year, but we’ll see. I’m not so worried about the Orioles as
I am about the Yankees. They could be two games in front at the end of this
weekend, but they’re just as streaky as anybody.” Living next to
a bakery was tough during the intense liver-cleansing diet he undertook a couple
months back: “I’d be awakened at four in the morning, you know,
they’re cooking bread, and I’d start hallucinating. Like, looking
at my wife and she’d turn into a loaf of bread like in the cartoons.”
Plus, it looks like his Hollywood career might be taking off: “I wrote
a little novella about the Smiths [“Meat is Murder”] a couple years
ago and an actor from New York got in touch with me and wanted to write a screenplay
for it, so I’ve been working on that. So hopefully next year we’ll
shoot a movie on hi-def video.”
His other outlets seem to serve him well. He’s no latter-day Jim Morrison,
writing bullshit lyrics and calling it poetry; he has actual poetry to write,
and so his songs can just be themselves. His lyrics don’t try to avoid
cliché, but rather embrace it as the linguafranca of pop sentiment. He
admits to having little desire to branch out into electronica or try something
really experimental under the Pernice Brothers’ name, although he’d
still like to go back to the stripped-down country aesthetic of the Scud Mountain
Boys someday. For now, he seems happy to be turning out sweet, candy-coated
pop nuggets with bitter, acid-filled cores. ||
Pernice Brothers perform on Sat. July 23 at the 400 Bar with Dressy Bessy
and Royal Gun. 8 p.m. 21+. $10. 400 Cedar Ave. S., Mpls. 612-332-2903.
on over to our mp3 page to download hundreds of tunes, including the Pernice
Brothers' song, “My
So-Called Celibate Life."
Find out more about Pernice Brothers on their official
website at www.pernicebrothers.com.