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