The Joe Pernice Interview

All 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.

From 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 songwriter.

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.

It is my great privilege to present my interview with Joe Pernice:

DF: You have one of the most expressive, emotive singing voices. Your vocals are incredible. What type of vocal mic do you use?

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 Shack] mic.

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.

DF: 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.

There's 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.

DF: When I read and hear your lyrics, I am convinced that you read poetry.

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.

DF: 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.

DF: I've read that you don't listen to your work once it is recorded.

JP: 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 tickle yourself.

DF: 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 inspiration.

JP: You've got it.

DF: Talk about the labels people put on your music. I say it's a lazy way out.

JP: 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.

DF: 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.

DF: You are often compared to artists like Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach. It's the label thing again.

JP: 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.

DF: 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?

JP: 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.

DF: 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?

JP: 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.

DF: There's so much detail on your records. Are you really into high fidelity?

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.

DF: 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.

DF: 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.

DF: 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.

DF: 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 Monahan)

JP: 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 they are...art.

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.

DF: 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.

DF: 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.

DF: 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.

JP: There is James Tate, who I studied with.

JP: There is James Wright, a poet from Ohio.

JP: The Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, taught me a lot. More than any other writer, Tranströmer influenced my music.

JP: 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.

Click 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 .

The CD also is available from Not Lame. Click here to order from Not Lame.

Check out the remainder of Joe Pernice's music. Purchase any of his CDs directly from the artist's website by clicking here

Join the Pernice Brothers mailing list by clicking here.

Fufkin.com 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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