Interview: Joe Pernice

Joe Pernice’s two decade music career has fronted Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, and most recently Pernice Brothers. The Pernice Brothers’ released Goodbye, Killer last month and in our interview I discuss with Joe the album, his career as a novelist, and the Boston Red Sox.

MP3: Pernice Brothers “Jacquline Susann”

You were in Scud Mountain Boys from 1991-1997. When the band broke up, was there ever a time you thought you were done in music?
No, because when I was in that band I wanted to do something else. I never thought I was done in music, I was chomping at the bit to do something else in music.
When starting Pernice Brothers, was there a conscious decision to make it different than the Scuds?
Yeah, definitely. Scud Mountain Boys was a pretty stripped down affair and had a lot of country stylings to it just because of the influences of the guys who were in the band. I Just wanted to spread out, use more instruments and make a different type of music than something that was pretty much bound to a country sound. That band, also, recorded pretty much live when we made records with few overdubs. After doing three records that way, I really wanted to spread out and take advantage of multi-track studios and orchestras and things like that.
Pernice Brothers first album, Overcome By Happiness contained “Chicken Wire” was named the #1 Most Exquisitely Sad Song in the Whole World by AOL Music.
Apparently so.
Did you mean for the song to be exquisitely sad?
I knew it wasn’t a toe-tapper. I knew it wasn’t a realy pick-me-up so I suppose I did. I was just trying to write a song from my heart. I don’t think about it too much when writing a song but every once in a while you sit back and think “wow, that’s pretty dark”. But when I was doing it, I was just doing it.
Do you have any favorite exquisitely sad songs that you think might trump “Chicken Wire”?
In the whole world?
Oh God, there are millions of them. It’s hard to name just one. I always liked the tune “Frederick” by Patti Smith. It just gets me as very sad but there’s millions of them, that’s just the first one that popped into my head.
Overcome By Happiness was released on Sub Pop. All kind of rumors swirled about why you left Sub Pop, is there anything you’d like to clear up about that situation?
It wasn’t all that dramatic. I kind of knew back then, which must’ve been about 1998, that I probably wouldn’t have a long future in music if I was signed to someone else’s label. I would probably always be broke if I was signed to someone else’s label. So I knew to make a better living playing music and to have control, do what you want to do, make the records you want to make, put out records on your own schedule, I knew I had to go do my own thing.
How have you seen the music industry change since your start back in 1991?
When I started there was still the idea that you really had to break a song on the radio. There was touring when your record came out. That’s part of the old school. You had to be on tour when your records hit the stores because in the stores was the only place to buy the record besides mail order which was not so big. Now things are just different. There’s not a lot of rules. When you release a record you still try to get a lot of press and all that kind of stuff. But the internet is such a big part of making music now as far as bringing people’s consciousness up to speed as to what is out right now. Also, record companies are way more in the background now. It seems like they do less and less. I think you don’t need a record company anymore. When I started playing, it was expensive to make a record. If you wanted to make a record that had a certain amount of production value, you had to spend a lot of money. Now you can buy, for a fraction of the cost of what I spent on records back in the day, you can buy all the equipment and make a world-class sounding record. And I don’t just mean a very polished record, you can buy equipment that let’s you do crazy stuff, really excellent experimental stuff. It’s easier to make music and it’s easier to get music out there.
We used to make videos. We used to spend a lot of money because we actually thought MTV2 or whatever was going to do something for your career.
Now you just mentioned touring, you don’t tour anymore. Right?
Not much. We do some here and there, but not much.
What’s the reasoning behind that?
For me, I like to play live. I enjoy it but I don’t need to be on stage. Some performers love to get up there and be on stage every night but I don’t care about that to be honest with you. So if I don’t feel like playing, I don’t do it. I’m not going to do a tour that’s going to cost a lot of money to put on and not play to a lot of people. There’s really no point to it from a business stand point. I also don’t need it to feel good. I don’t need to be on tour all the time so it doesn’t make sense to do it. Not as much as we used to, that’s for sure.
You recorded “Pega Luna Manny”, a song for then Red Sox Manny Ramirez. My question is, who on the current Red Sox would make a good muse for a song and why?
Beats me. I’m done writing songs about the Red Sox. That was a one time thing. I like the game but that was the one time a tune popped into my brain while I was watching baseball. I love to just sit back and watch it. I’ll let Steve Wynn from The Baseball Project write the songs about baseball.
In 2003, you publish a book about The Smiths‘ effect on your teenage years. What are some of your other influences?
Back then I was really into R.E.M., The Jam, The Clash, The Chameleons, The Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock, I liked a lot of bands but those were the big ones for me. I liked The Psychedelic Furs quite a bit back then. Talk Talk, Elvis Costello, those are all big bands for me.
So if you could write another book about just one record, what would you choose?
Honestly, I wouldn’t do it again. The Smiths’ record was the big one for me. If you just asked what was the biggest record for me, I’d probably say Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello was the most influential record from that period on me. That’s hard to say though, that’s not really true. That record, I was a really big fan of the Jam’s live record called Dig the New Breed. That changed my life. And R.E.M.’s album, Murmur. Those records were all super influential for me.
Most recently you have released Goodbye, Killer, how does the album differ from Pernice Brothers’ previous work?
This record is pretty spacious. There aren’t a ton of overdubs. We tried to strip it down to the bare essentials of the record, not over doing it with a ton of overdubs. If it sounded good the first time, we just left it and moved on. We tried to not over think stuff.
So you kind of went back to the Scud Mountain Boys style of recording?
Not especially, because Scud Mountain Boys recordings were mostly live. We all played together in one take and we didn’t do overdubs. This record, we did overdubs but we didn’t pile it on. If one rhythm guitar was carrying the weight, good enough. We didn’t second guess it, instead of laying another one on and cluttering stuff up. We tended to just leave it alone.
The album’s first single “Jacqueline Susann” drops several literary references including name checking authors Jacqueline Susann and Ford Maddox Ford. If you could recommend one book from either of those authors, what would it be and why?
Oh, it would have to be Valley of the Dolls cause it’s great and The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford because it’s a classic. Two classics.
Are they big literary influences on you?
Not especially. Maybe Ford Maddox Ford back in the day but I’m not like a Ford Maddox Ford freak. I was creating a character. I was just using it in the song.
Last year, you published your first novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop. Is there a plan for a follow up novel?
I think so. I have an idea that I’m starting to scribble some stuff out about. It takes a lot of energy to write a book. It’s a big commitment of time at the exclusion of other things. So I have to make sure I’m ready to say “I’m not going to do these other projects. I’m going to put everything else aside and work on this book”. You know, it’s a lot different than writing a couple songs. You actually have to spend day after day after day for months working on the same thing. For me, writing a book is not something I can come in and out of like “today maybe I’ll work for a half hour, tomorrow I’ll work for a couple hours”. I need to be in the rhythm of at least three or four hours in a row uninterrupted to make it work. I need to make sure I’m willing to make that kind of commitment and whether I want to make that kind of commitment.
So what do you think will come first: a new record or a new novel?
Probably a record just because turn around time is a lot faster. I have some plans to do some recording. We’ll see how it turns out. My hunch is it would be a new record. I own a label so we can turn around and release a record in a matter of months after its done. With Penguin [books], when I deliver the book they usually have a year of set up time. So even though you might give them a finished book in say August, they might not put it out until the following August. It’s a slower process.

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