Joe Pernice Interview
of us at Fufkin.com like to think we have the answers as to
the who, what, where and why of the music and artists that
matter. Straining for comparisons and analogies, one makes
every effort to avoid the cliche. You try to get it just right,
so that it does the artist and his or her music justice. As
Joe says in this interview, "...it's rare that anyone
gets it right anyway."
When the subject is Joe Pernice, that's probably true. Combining
Robert Frost-level imagery with majestic, sweeping, airy melodies
and harmonies in a compact format, Joe Pernice and Pernice
Brothers merge rock, pop, country, classical and almost every
popular music genre into something that defies categories.
Adjectives like beautiful, moving, literate, simple and breathtaking
are just a start. Like he says in this interview, his influences
are numerous and varied, and it shows.
his beginnings with The Scud Mountain Boys, his art has been
marked by stark, vividly beautiful sonic snapshots with simple
embellishment. His reputation became and is one of a songwriter's
Pernice Brothers' last effort, Overcome by Happiness,
stunned those that really listened to what they were doing.
The compact string arrangements brought out the majesty in
the prose set to beautifully written and arranged pop songs.
Their most recent effort, The World Won't End, comes
out in a few days. It is a recording that speaks to you as
if you were the only person in the world that was meant to
hear it. It is the Record of the Year. Click
here to read my review or click on the CD cover below.
The World is an amazing, breathtaking maelstrom of
lyrical and sonic beauty. Buy
this recording. Listen to this record. Just once, really
listen to a record. The World Won't End will move you,
I guarantee it.
is my great privilege to present my interview with Joe Pernice:
You have one of the most expressive, emotive singing voices.
Your vocals are incredible. What type of vocal mic do you
JP: I've used a few Neumanns. I've sung into an SM-58 [Shure].
DF: With your voice, you could sing into a Realistic [Radio
JP: I don't know about that. (laughs) But one of my favorite
vocal tracks I ever recorded was off of The Scud Mountain
Boys CD Massachusetts. There is a song called "Grudgefuck"
which was done all on 4-track.
That song has a great lyric: "I promised I would never touch
you. No one could ever touch you." It is one of my favorite
lyrics of all time.
Do you have a favorite lyric?
JP: This might shock you, but one of my favorite lyrics is
Bob Seger's "Against The Wind" where he sings: "I wish I didn't
know now what I didn't know then". It kills me every time.
I'm a sap for it.
a million lines.
"Galveston" by Jimmy Webb as interpreted by Glen Campbell.
The line: "I am so afraid of dying..." When I hear that, it
rips a hole right through me.
When I read and hear your lyrics, I am convinced that you
JP: I have a Master's Degree in Fine Arts in Creative Writing
from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
DF: There is a particularly moving line off of the new CD,
a track called "Shaken Baby", where you sing: "Please don't
leave. Will you stay until I'm sleeping. I'll wake up tomorrow,
still I won't feel alive." The image is so powerful that it
seems you make a conscious choice to take the listener with
you to share that moment. Is that true?
JP: I think I do. For me, I just try to be honest with myself
first. Then, I hope that other people will get the same kind
of kick out of it. I try to make something that is beautiful
in a way that first speaks to me or satisfies me. Then, hopefully
the music goes out there and takes on its own life. I try
to tap into my feelings. Sometimes, you hear a song and you
know that its insincere. To me, I can't stand being a witness
to it. I don't enjoy songs like that. I like hearing things
where I can really believe that the person singing to me is
behind it 100%. I always try to do the same thing.
Your work is often characterized as melancholy. I see it as
far more than that. It may have a melancholy tone overall,
but there's hope there if one listens to your work.
JP: If someone wants to say it's melancholy, maybe it is...but
I meant every word of it.
I've read that you don't listen to your work once it is recorded.
What I really love to do, the real kick, the real jolt, the
real pleasure is in the making. It's in the process. I always
want to be in the process. If I want music to affect me in
a heavy way, I'll listen to other people's music. You can't
It's all about the process. The creative process. Once it's
done, it's done. Then, it's on to the next song, the next
JP: You've got it.
Talk about the labels people put on your music. I say it's
a lazy way out.
I don't know what the label is for my music. I've said I write
"pop music". But The Backstreet Boys are pop music and I'm
not according to that definition. I would say that Elvis Costello
is pop music. He is...but he isn't. I think what you say is
true. Sometimes people don't pay attention. Their historical
references are wrong.
I call The Pernice Brothers' music popular music in a classic
sense, a real merger of traditional folk, country, pop and
classical. Is their much classical influence?
JP: I'm not a giant listener of classical music. Classical
music affected me more second hand through The Beatles. I've
gone through phases, but I have never thought of it as a heavy
and direct influence.
You are often compared to artists like Brian Wilson and Burt
Bacharach. It's the label thing again.
You have to wonder why people do that. But the whole idea
of reviews, to kind of encapsulate something for a fan who
wants to read anything about the music, is to fill up space
in a magazine or a webpage. It is kind of fucked up in a way.
It's rare that someone gets it right anyway. If you are writing
about someone like me who is influenced by so many artists,
there's probably 100 artists you could use to label me. I
don't really think about whether the comparisons are accurate.
Your new CD, The World Won't End comes out on June
5 on your own label. It seems to take Overcome By Happiness
one step further in that the arrangements are even denser
than Overcome in spots, and there seems to be a keen
understanding of where the instruments should lay sonically
in the songs. For example, not that this was the case on Overcome
at all, but I don't hear cymbals competing with strings competing
with piano competing with acoustic guitar on any particular
note so that the result gets mushy. No sound frequency is
overcrowded, giving the songs a hugeness. Would you agree
with that? How much time did you take making sure the denseness
maintained the airiness?
That's great. That's a very large compliment. I have to tip
my hat to Thom Monahan, the main producer of the CD. He's
meticulous and has giant ears (not physically!). All along,
what you describe was our goal: maximum size without clutter.
We wanted maximum clarity and punch. We were unyielding in
our our goal of maximum clarity and space. Everything has
a frequency, and if two instruments competed for the same
frequency, we would decide which instrument would take precedence
and got the other one the hell out. When you make records,
people think that you keep piling it on. Less is more to maximize
your space in a finite piece of sonic lanscape.
Talk about Thom Monahan's outstanding engineering skills and
your co-producing together. This CD is the best sounding yet.
Did you make mutual decisions with Thom on arrangements?
Sure. This is our 6th album together. I've seen him learn
along the way. We've both learned. At this point, we have
a great relationship.
There's so much detail on your records. Are you really into
JP: Yes, but some of my best musical memories are driving
in an old Country Squire station wagon listening to "Please
Come to Boston" through a Philco car radio. I didn't know
anything about audio then and I didn't care what it was recorded
on. I'd listen to that song on a Close ‘n Play.
The strings on the new CD were arranged by David Trenholm.
How do you know Dave?
JP: He's a friend from Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a
really good musician with a great ear. He plays in a band
called King Radio with a good friend of mine. He's the kind
of guy that I have played a trick on where I would detune
a guitar, capo it up 6 frets and then call him on the phone
to ask him what chord it was. He'd say, that's a G sharp minor
seventh but it sounds like you have it capoed up 6 frets.
He even knows the voicings of guitar chords! When the record
was brewing I asked him if he wanted to write the strings
and he agreed. We gave him rough mixes and he wrote the strings.
Thom, Dave and I then revamped them a bit, printed up the
scores, hired a string quartet and tracked the strings. I
sat with Dave on tracks like "Bryte Side" with suggestions.
Other than my suggestions, Dave had pretty much free reign.
How long have you been playing with your brother Bob?
JP: My whole life. He is my first musical influence and inspiration.
He's a few years older than me, and has been playing guitar
much longer. He taught me my first chords and notes. He wrote
music too. I think he went as far as he wanted to go with
writing. Bob knows that The Pernice Brothers is very serious
to me and my passion. Despite the fact that he is a better
player than me and my older brother, he steps out of the way
and respects my vision.
He probably understands and respects your outstanding abilities
and is happy to share the experience of the band with you.
JP: I love him. He's a great guy and a great musician. It
makes it so much more enjoyable to play with him.
How did you meet the rest of [the] Pernice Brothers?
Pernice Brothers (L to R: Mike Belitsky, Laura Stein, Joe
Pernice, Peyton Pinkerton, Bob Pernice, Jeremy Smith and Thom
I met Thom in 1994 when he was in a band called Monsterland.
He quit that band and came to Northampton to play with a friend
of ours, Zeke Fiddler. Zeke played a Scud Mountain Boys' tape,
Pine Box, for Thom. Thom then wanted to record us.
He had a one-half (½) inch 8 track. Three days later, we had
recorded our second album with him. We've been friends and
haven't stopped since.
JP: Peyton Pinkerton I met through Thom. He plays in a band
called New Radiant Storm Kings. I think that they are just
an incredible piece of American art. They are like The Grifters
to me. They are important. Not to be lofty or anything, but
JP: Mike Belitsky and Laura Stein played in a band on Sub
Pop called Jale from Nova Scotia. Their band was dissolving,
and I pitched the idea of working with them.
I'm a big fan of Laura's. Her piano playing is sparse and
very expressive. She plays just enough.
JP: It's all about the space. She knows when to play a single
note melody as opposed to pounding the rhythm. It's tasteful
playing, that's for sure.
Mike is a tasteful drummer.
JP: Mike's playing is so much fun. Playing in front of a good
drummer like Mike is a real kick.
What authors are your favorites?
JP: My favorite writers are poets. If I had to pick four (4)
poets, I'd have to say William Carlos Williams, to me, is
the greatest American poet.
There is James Tate, who I studied with.
JP: There is James Wright, a poet from Ohio.
The Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, taught me a lot. More
than any other writer, Tranströmer influenced my music.
I always thought that poetry was very separate from music.
Tranströmer's narratives are very loose. They don't hit you
over the head. Tranströmer's subtle images are dappled with
images that are powerful and stay together in a disturbingly
beautiful way. I know I've tried to ape his style in songwriting.
DF: What do you want to do in the future?
JP: Musically, I just want to keep doing it. I've been lucky
because my last record deal was allowing me to live in a certain
way financially but not giving me happiness. I would like
to reach a certain level on my own label where I could just
keep making records and have control. It is a lot to ask but
it could be possible, I hope.
The Pernice Brothers' new recording The World Won't End
is available in a few days (on June 5) directly from the artist
through their label, Ashmont Records.
here or click the CD cover below to purchase the new CD
online directly from the artist's website. If you don't want
to visit the PB website, you can order The World Won't
End by mail (US and Canadian orders only) directly from
the artist by sending $15 ppd to: Ashmont Records, 10A Burt
Street, Dorchester, MA 02124 .
CD also is available from Not Lame. Click
here to order from Not Lame.
out the remainder of Joe Pernice's music. Purchase any of
his CDs directly from the artist's website by clicking
the Pernice Brothers mailing list by clicking
would like to thank Traci Thomas and Joyce Linehan for their
assistance in helping to arrange this interview. Fufkin.com
would also like to thank Joe Pernice for taking the time to
speak to us.
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