Interview: Erik Petersen of Mischief Brew

mischief brew, interviewAt home in Philadelphia, just before the last show of their Rhapsody For Knives tour, Surviving the Golden Age’s Raymond Lee sat down with Mischief Brew‘s Erik Petersen to discuss God, radicalism and salvaged drum sets in the digital age.
MP3: Mischief Brew “Catch Fire”

Tell us about wrapping up this recent tour for the 7” “Rhapsody for Knives.”
It was our first time playing in Canada and it was great. We heard horror stories about getting in, but we had no problems. And when we got there it was the warmest welcome we’ve ever received. People were so appreciative and gracious. At shows people kept telling us, “Thank you so much for coming. We’ve been waiting five years for this.” It was a short tour too, ten days, which is a nice length. Long enough to really get into touring mode but not so long we’d get bummed out. We’ve been doing these shorter tours lately, and it’s all about keeping the energy and excitement up.

Over the last decade Mischief Brew has evolved from a singer-songwriter format–a single person with a guitar recording on tape or reel to reel–into a full touring band. In a lot of ways that alone could be considered a success story. Tell us about the progression from just you in a basement to this recent tour, and your company Fistolo Records.
It was kind of the plan all along. Back in June of 2000, no one really got what we were trying to do. Now it’s much more common to have a punk band with acoustic instruments, or at least doing acoustic tracks. Fistolo kind of evolved as a vehicle for the band, it’s always been my partner Denise and I, we started dubbing the demo tapes and it grew into a label. At the time, people knew the Pogues and stuff like that, but when I’d show up at basement shows with just an acoustic guitar, people were pretty confused.

Especially on the American side. The Pogues, groups like that were more informed by balladry or else Anglo folk traditions.
Exactly, so we started solo because it was easy. We started touring in our cars. And we had to, it was hard to find people to play with who got what we were trying to do. But little by little, we found a way to make it work and we’ve gone through a lot of changes, but here we are.

Most groups tend to mellow as they age. But if you look at the latest full-length recording, “The Stone Operation,” you’ll find more teeth than previous works. Why are you guys going in the opposite direction? Is it a response to anything?
I think its two things. Number one, better production. We did our first record in an amazing studio, but with time you find the right people to work with, people who get it, and you learn more about recording the more you do it. We wanted everything to sound loud and intense – the way we play live. To me, “The Stone Operation” was how we really wanted to do our first record, if we had more time and knowledge of the process. The other thing is, in the beginning, I was writing songs and teaching it to everyone else in the band, but now we’re writing songs more together. I come in with skeletons and we work through it and add to it. Naturally, if you have loud bass and loud guitar, it’s going to sound a bit more rowdy than anything you could do acoustically.

On early Mischief Brew records there was this real marriage between punk and folk. Many music historians will tell you that punk was a reaction or else an anti-thesis to the whole folk music scene of the late fifties and sixties. Where do you draw parallels between the two?
What we’re all about is taking different genres and throwing them all together, and not getting pigeonholed into any specific genre. If you look at it one way, we’re lying to everybody. If we say we’re one thing, like a folk band, then we turn around and write a song with fuzzed out black metal distortion, or a straight up punk song with a vibraphone solo. From hippies at the Newport Fest to freight hoppers out west, we’re really just trying to bring people together and give them something to sing along with that’s not just mindless pop space-filler lyrics. What we’ve always been about is the unity of the live show. And the greatest reward of it all is seeing the variety of people that come to see us. It’s been our goal the whole time. If a side effect of that is some people think we’re a folk band, some people think we’re a punk band, we’ve been called a cow punk band, which I don’t even know what that means, that’s fine. But we don’t want to be limited by anything.

When asked I say we’re a punk rock band for simplicity. That’s how we operate, that’s what our ethics are, they are our roots. From that we add the pots and pans, folk instrumentation, the protest. The devil’s in the details, all the little things that might add some confusion to the average listener.

With potentially larger markets elsewhere NY, LA, Chicago, what keeps you here in Philly?
I don’t want to say I would never move somewhere else, but it would take a lot. We were all born in Pennsylvania. My wife’s from NY but she too has caught the Philly bug. For a metropolis it’s relatively cheap and it’s close enough to all the surrounding cities I would never want to live in. I think generally the Philly area is very provincial, a lot of people who are born here tend to stay here, so there’s a lot of good traditions here, and I love this city for all its lurid faults. I love the reputation it has for being gritty and working class. At the end of the day it’s home.

Guitar oriented rock has carved out a dominant market for the last sixty years. But over the past decade with the rise of the digital age we’ve seen a real threat to rock’s dominance. Do you think rock music will go the way of jazz? It there a future for the three piece format, guitar/bass/drums?
Oh absolutely. I don’t think that’s changing. I mean, I can’t speak for how it’s all going to evolve. I don’t know. Who does? We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing. There’s always going to be an audience for this, whether there’s a market that’s a different story. I mean, there will always be people looking for music made by musicians, without a middleman or advertising or hype or whatever. You mention digital, if it’s a question of the format, there’s always going to be new innovative ways for music to spread. And if you look at it, it’s great what’s going on with vinyl right now. If a by-product of the digital age, and if we need to include a download card with our records then so be it.

So basically there’s not going to be any wub wub remixes of Mischief Brew tracks?
We’ll listen to anybody’s pitches! Who knows!

Youtube, Spotify, Pandora, digital is also the most popular form of consumption. It’s a marketer’s wet dream. I’m sure there are MB fans in the Congo, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be seeing you on tour. Just because they have access to your music doesn’t mean it generates any capital. What’s your opinion on that? Does the availability overshadow the compensation question?
I don’t care how people get it. Whatever it takes, I’m all for it. If people want to copy it from torrent sites, go for it. As long as we can still tour and make records, I don’t care how people get it. You can take it to back when I was in high school. I’d see someone wearing a band’s T-shirt and I thought it looked cool, I’d buy the record and rip the music cassette to cassette. One band leads into another, there’s always been that same viral thing, it just takes different forms. Whatever it takes to get people to the party, the more the merrier.

You’re in a punk band. This last decade has been an amazingly ripe time for radicalism. Take the war, look at the debt crisis, the housing market, bail-outs, and in the face of all that there has been an amazing underwhelming response from both the public and a large part of the music industry. What are your thoughts?
I’ve never considered myself a protest singer, but I think there’s politics in the music, if that makes sense. {laughs} Even if I was playing a protest, I still thought that way. What musicians do is important only if it inspires people. I’m all for that, as long as it brings people together, whether it be just talking or demonstrations or sitting down in the street. I think music helps, but it’s ultimately limited in how far it can go. It becomes up to the activists to get together and organize, whatever or wherever that may be. As far as what we do, we couldn’t write meaningless fluff. Even if it is a love song, there has to be something twisted there. I’ve never wanted to be the kind of lyricist to shove things down people’s throats though. Rather than just yelling at people, even if they do agree with you, I’d rather tell a story. I think for the most part, people know our politics – we’re rooted in anarcho-punk circles, we’re not masking our views in some kind of vague pseudo-rebellious language to make it seem cooler or more appealing.

You’ve got a great sense of imagery and conflict in your lyrics. But aside from the stories, there seems to be something just beneath the surface you touch on but don’t really identify, and that’s a relationship with God. Back when you were with the Orphans you mentioned the theme with “For An Old Kentucky Anarchist,” and then “Songs From Under The Sink,” there’s a track called “Coffee, God and Cigarettes.”  It’s very popular, especially in radical circles these days to be either atheist or agnostic. But much in the same way Christian bands have a Jesus quota, secular bands rarely ever even consider the subject without condescending or involving mockery. Is there any notion of this relationship with God in your music or am I snipe hunting here?
I guess it comes from old country songs, where they mention either Jesus or God but it’s not necessarily a religious song. I’d consider those words interchangeable with hope. I’m not a religious person, I wouldn’t even describe myself as agnostic. You can call it whatever you want, in ways it makes an interesting way to write a song and get people listening. Then at times it is kind of mockery, because that’s just what we do. And it’s kinda fun for me to see a bunch of crusty kids singing along to lyrics like, “Coffee, God and cigarettes is all that I need.”

Tell us a little bit about your drum set. I’ve seen salvaged sets becoming more popular with percussionists lately. Can you tell us how that came about for Mischief Brew?
Hard to say, really. It could partially be the whole “Rain Dogs,” Tom Waits effect…

So you’re Guitar Center credit card got revoked?
I was cleaning out my grandmother’s house, and there was an old lamppost we took down that had a big metal spire on the top. It looked like the top of a castle or something. So I took down the lamppost, then I took the top off and whipped it at the trash truck. It hit the side and bounced out, and made this really cool BING! sound. It sounded really commanding, and I thought it would look really cool on a drum set instead of a cymbals. So we started collecting weird stuff. On our first record we had all these old saw blades lying around, so we put them on the stands instead of cymbals and let them just clatter together. If there’s a wider message here, it’s that music is everywhere. It makes us more free in a sense too, if there’s a show where there’ve been problems with power and the PA’s cut out, we’d just jump into the crowd with pots and pans, and we’re able to be more spontaneous and still have a flow. It makes us look like we know what were doing. {laughs}

The tour’s over, what’s in the future for Mischief Brew?
Well we’ve just released the seven inch “Rhapsody for Knives,” so we’ll see how that goes. There are a few projects brewing that it might be a little too early to talk about yet, but we’re not stopping. This tour was so great, so awesome and inspiring. Wherever they’ll have us, wherever they want us, wherever we’re welcome…we’ll play.

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