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photo flag US - Massachusetts - Full Moon 60 - 09/02/01

Pernice Brothers

Happy sad - A conversation with Joe Pernice

This article was supposed to feature a 700 word intro, but I scrapped it. Because quite simply, you don't need me to talk about The World Won't End, the new album by Joe Pernice and his eastcoast gang, you need to get the album. RIGHT NOW. So take a break, go to your local record store and buy it. Then come back and read what its creator himself has to say about it...

Hey, you're still here? I wasn't kidding, go get the album NOW! You won't regret it. Okay, okay, so before we hand you over to Joe himself, here is a plain fact: With the possible exception of Ken Stringfellow's upcoming solo album, The World Won't End is this year's most immaculatly hand-crafted pop recording. It's as simple as that! Although it definitely owes a lot of inspiration to just about every good act starting with "B" (Beatles, Bee Gees, Beach Boys, Bacharach, Big Star and, ahm, Elvis Costello), it sounds very much like itself. And it's every bit as good as Overcome By Happiness, the Pernice Brothers' stunning 1998 debut. In the meantime Joe Pernice - former mastermind behind the Scud Mountain Boys - has made two more albums with similiar line-ups, but a different feel, Chappaquiddick Skyline's self-titled effort in early 2000 and his solo record Big Tobacco (featuring songs slated for an never recorded fourth SMB album) later that year. The Pernice Brothers will hit the road in Europe in September, followed by yet another US jaunt pencilled in for October and November. Before that though, we called Joe in Brooklyn to find out - amongst other things - why he chose all these different names to release his recent albums.

Joe: "To me the albums are all completely different. They are different projects. I don't think releasing Chappaquiddick Skyline or Big Tobacco as the next Pernice Brothers album would've been really representative of what the band does. Okay, a few of the people on those records are the same, but not all of them. To me it's material more than anything. And those two records sound nothing like the Pernice Brothers."

Lu.Ka.: If you say it's mostly the material that makes you decide whether it's the Pernice Brothers or some side project, how do you write these songs then? Do you write ten and decide afterwards what band is gonna play them? Or do you write with a specific project in mind?

Joe: "It depends. Sometimes songs are right for the band and sometimes they aren't. Oftentimes I write four or five songs and maybe one of them will just get put away somewhere and I'll do the rest with the band. There's really no method to it, except that it becomes obvious pretty quickly which songs are for the band and which ones aren't. But I'll tell you right now, I'll go on record, I'm not gonna make another side-project record for a long time. To be honest with you, that's just because I get tired of answering the same question over and over and over again."

Lu.Ka.: I recently told Ken Stringfellow of the Posies that I was pretty amazed how seemingly effortless his new songs sound. He replied: "There is a skill in making things sound effortless... but do you or do you not count the 12 years leading up to that song? Plenty of push/pull to get to that point." Would you say that's similar in your case as well?

Joe: "Yeah, I think so. It takes time. This new record took about six or seven months just to record. We really spend A LOT of time doing it. It just doesn't kinda happen in a single day. As far as songwriting is concerned.... I'm doing it for a little while now and hopefully I've gotten to a point where I kind of know my footing."

Lu.Ka.: The arrangements on the new record are pretty impressive. Is that actually what takes up most of the time? And what's your favorite part in the whole process from writing to releasing a record?

Joe: "I guess it's the songwriting. Some of these songs I've been writing for a while. It's hard to say. For this particular record, we probably spend more time recording it than anything else. But I think I like writing the best. Followed by recording. You have a new idea and you develop it, that's the most exciting thing. Each part of the process is different, though. Luckily I like all of them, but if I had my way, if I could do nothing else, I'd write songs!"

Lu.Ka.: Robert Smith once called The Cure a one-sided democracy, in that he'd allow the other band members to make suggestions, but that nothing would end up on the record, that he didn't approve of (or words to that effect). How democratic is the process in the Pernice Brothers?

Joe: "Ultimately, it's my say, you know, but I have people who are really good players and I trust them to do their own thing on the songs, but if I wasn't into it, I'd have the final say in how things go."

Lu.Ka.: Is that why a couple of songs by the Scud Mountain Boys are featured in the Pernice Brothers live set as well?

Joe: "We do one of them [, the other I was thinking of is actually a cover first done by the SMB, Please Mr. Please - Carsten's note]. And that's a song that I always felt the Scud Mountain Boys never did well, we never played it live and I think we didn't record it well, so that's the only song from the Scud Mountain Boys' records that I have any interest in resurrecting."

Lu.Ka.: A couple of live reviews of Pernice Brothers shows that I've read mention the fact that while the lyrics could be kinda depressing, everybody in the audience is still smiling, just because the music's so upbeat and with that you seem to have a license to make the crowd happy. Is that what it is?

Joe: [laughing]: Well again, to be honest with you, I just write songs. I don't sit down and calculate, like: 'Let's make this really sad, but make this really happy.' It's not like that. If I had to think that way to make music, I'd be so depressed I'd probably hang myself, cause I'd be having such a terrible time. The thing I like about music is that I get to engage in writing songs, I get to really lose myself in the process and if I'd be sitting around calculating every step and manipulating stuff so much, hell, I should work in a bank or something instead of making records!"

Lu.Ka.: One of the things that makes the Pernice Brothers so special to me is their sound. Unlike a lot of other bands every instrument seems to sound just about perfect, as if you'd spend more time on finding THE right sound than most other bands. Do you go into the studio with like old records in your hand (or your mind) and try to take it from there? I know a lot of bands do it like that, how does it work for you?

Joe: "On a certain song we might say: 'Oh, it would be great if this sounded like something off London Calling' and then we'd aim for that, but sometimes one's memory of a sound is different to what it actually was. There's a perfect example: On this record, there's a part where I was trying to cop an Elvis Costello vocal technique of a harmony. So we went and tracked the song and we did it and then afterwards Thom Monahan, who was recording it, came to me and said: "I listented to the song by Elvis Costello that you were talking about and that part's not even there!" So in my mind I had always thought of this part being in a song that wasn't even there! [laughs]"

Lu.Ka.: You're not bringing the strings on tour, is that only because of financial restrictions, or are you quite happy to keep it to a slightly more "traditional" Rock N Roll format for the live shows?

Joe: "I definitely want to play a few shows in the future with strings. We were supposed to play a show in London a while ago with strings, but we couldn't get it together in time. Obviously it would be a pain in the neck to do it every night, to be honest with you, and the logistics of it would be crazy, but I'd really like to try it every once in a while. As far as a fulltime touring unit is concerned, the band I have together right now - we're all very close and we all get along and we have good dynamics, throwing in a fulltime quartett or something might disrupt the balance."

Lu.Ka.: You have started your own label, Ashmont Records, as well... Before that there were rumors of you talking to major companies?

Joe: "Yeah, I talked to a couple, but not very many."

Lu.Ka.: Do you think this record would have been suitable for a major company?

Joe: "Probably not. [Pause.] Definitely not! Not in America at least. The climate in America is pretty different than Europe. If you're not in a really, really heavy metal-type of band or a boyband you basically don't have a chance. Unless you are a 15 year old girl!"

Photo © Norm Demoura

Copyright © 2001 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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