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by Matt Dornan / pictures by Maike Zimmerman
I really liked that show a lot, says Joe Pernice when I remind him of a Scud Mountain Boys gig at London's Powerhaus in '97. Perhaps even more memorable than their stellar set was the off-stage performance of two English beer-swilling die-hards singing every word to every song, no matter how obscure, dancing as if their lives depended on it during those rare 'up-beat' numbers.
That's what I remember most of all, concurs Pernice
. The night before we had that horrendous show [the Camden Crawl] - we were on a bill we just shouldn't have been on - another sparkling achievement by the record company! And I really thought that I was gonna get beat up. I felt unsafe and so the next night I was just dreading it. I was like 'oh, fuck.' And I guess we played with Mogwai that night and the band Eska - I've become good friends with one of the guys since that show - and I thought 'Christ, we've gotta follow on the heels of these acts, it's gonna be terrible,' and then we started out with the smallest song we had in our repertoire, the quietest. And I'd seen these two big guys before just slugging beer the whole time and I thought 'Christ, they're gonna kill me.' Then I look out the corner of one eye and they're singing all the words! And then they practically picked me up after the show! One of them even had Pine Box [the Scuds' unfeasibly scarce debut], I was amazed.
The demise of the Scud Mountain Boys must have hit those guys hard. Massachussetts, for me at least, was the album of '96, a wonderfully rich collection with Pernice's disquieting lyrics atop a sublime melodic canvas. Yet despite the foundations being laid for a fourth album, Frank Padellaro having filled the bass playing slot vacated by Stephen Desaulniers, Pernice's songs were preparing to return in a new set of clothes.
I thought I could do both really, Joe admits, referring to the project he had begun with his brother Bob
. But then it got to the point that I was writing more songs for [Pernice Brothers], you know. And stylistically [Scud Mtn. Boys] kinda parted and it was just time to do something else. I just got bored, in a way. If we'd made another record it would have just been repeating Massachussetts, the same formula.
In its place, Overcome By Happiness was as much a stylistic shift as Pernice's songwriting would allow. Despite an almost Bacharachian feel, orchestrated and lush, songs like Chicken Wire, for instance (a none-too-distant cousin of Massachussetts' In A Ditch) retained the levels of macabre beauty intrinsic to much of Pernice's output.
Were any of the songs on Overcome By Happiness written for Scud Mountain Boys? Because something like Ferris Wheel, were there's the piano break, you can imagine a BruceTull pedal steel part there. I guess you were sick of that sound.
Right on. It got a little tiresome. I don't mean to knock pedal steel so much, but...
You needed to distance yourself from that sound.
Yeah. I still write country songs, you know.
The songs are still there, unmistakeably yours. They're just dressed differently.
Yeah, when we finally put strings down [on Overcome By Happiness] it was unbelievable to me to be in the studio and hear an orchestra playing the songs. And the grand piano. So it was the right thing to do for me, for sure.
When you named the band after yourself, was that a way of saying 'I'm in charge, and if I want to change the line-up I can?'
Not really, because the original idea was with my brother. We'd played music together for a while but we decided to just do a project. It wasn't about being a dictator...but there definitely is more creative control with this band and I can't say I don't like it! How's that for a couple negatives? Sort that one out.
Ironically, despite the step away from the traditional country sound of Scud Mountain Boys, Joe continued to attract the attention of a now thriving alt.country community. One of the first Pernice Brothers interviews was for No Depression magazine and Crestfallen, one of the album's most uplifting, least country tunes turned up on Uncut magazine's alt.country CD.
When [No Depression] called me about doing that interview he was thinking it didn't fit their format but they wanted to change their magazine, explains Joe
. He was like 'we want to spread out and not just be a country magazine.' So I said 'what the hell' he's always been a decent guy to us. And that Uncut thing, that was kinda funny. But then I looked at all of the other [adopts sarcastic tone] 'alt.country' bands on there like Silver Jews and The Replacements. I mean, Jesus Christ, if those guys are alt.country then so am I!
Despite the, at times, pure pop arrangements, Pernice's lyrics continued to mine an altogether darker vein...
It's pretty dark, sure," he agrees
. I think there are songs that work better than others and I think the prettier, dark ones are those particular tracks. I've tried writing a 'happier' song and it always sound bad and insincere. What are you gonna do? There's something uplifting about [death], I mean who doesn't think about their own mortality? Dogs my every step, he laughs
You've said that you live a fairly solitary existence, does that go hand in hand with your songwriting style?
I do spend a good amount of time alone and I just love to write, so maybe one feeds the other. I don't write with other people and I love to write, so I'll be alone, you know? I don't really think about it too much but, I guess, looking back it does turn out that way. I write every day.
What do you think about when you're fishing.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one thing.
Is that your time to unwind?
I guess so, yeah, it's nice to be outside. I find writing dark songs, I mean I hate to say cathartic, but I do feel pretty good afterwards.
And how do your songs differ from your poetry?
Songs are so much easier than writing poetry. You can always piggy-back something stupid on a catchy melody, people let it slide. But [with poetry] if you write something ridiculous it's right there, naked, there's nothing to hide behind.
Have you had any published?
Yeah, I published a good number of poems in America. I don't have a book but I've published a good handful [in University magazines]. I haven't for the last year or two because I've been so busy writing songs. I've, maybe, written two poems in the last year and a half.
Any plans to compile them?
I do have a book because when I finished my Masters that was my thesis, to write a book. So it's in progress for sure. One of these days I'll take it out and start revising it and editing it. I'm not really ready for that. I'd like to write a book sometime but I'm not in any rush. I'd rather write one that's half decent than just squirt something out.
What can you tell me about Charles Simic who apparently inspired Wherein Obscurely?
He's a great poet. He moved from Yugoslavia, he's American now. He's one of the first people to, I guess, inspire me to write poetry. I just stumbled upon him by accident and was just blown away. Up until that point I had the same kind of experience that a lot of American students had. You read all this old stuff, some of it's good but it's not very timely and sometimes you have to be on line to figure it out, you know what I mean? But he just opened things up incredibly for me, changed my life really.
At the time of our conversation, Joe's most recent project was the Chappaquiddick Skyline album that surfaced in the States and Japan at the tail end of 1999 and arrived on our shores earlier this year. Here's how Joe described the then unreleased album.
We just made an album that's a side-project, it's not the Pernice Brothers. It's a completely different project and yeah, it's a pretty stripped-down record. It involves all the people here, actually [the Pernice Brothers touring unit - Thom Monahan, Peyton Pinkerton, Laura Stein and Mike Belitsky]. A bunch of other people, there's maybe upward of fifteen people playing on it. John Crook, from the band Jolene, sings on the record. Jeffrey [Underhill] from The Velvet Crush plays guitar and, you know, just tons of people. It's really, really mellow. I mean there's a lot of space in there. We didn't use any strings, it's just a different feel. The songs have a different mood to them. To tell you the truth I wrote most of those songs with the idea of it being a record, you know? I had them done and it was something I didn't really want to push to hard I just wanted to put it out there and let it go. Songs to get out of my system, not particularly ones I feel good about playing live.
Even at that point, however, there was another Pernice Brothers album in the pipeline.
Yeah we're gonna hopefully make that in July. I have a record written.
After Chappaquiddick Skyline will the new Pernice Brothers have a bigger sound?
Oh yeah, it's going to be over-the-top!
CWAS #5 - Summer 2000