Joe Pernice has been making a lot of music lately, and keeping relatively quiet about it. Since Overcome by Happiness, the 1998 debut album from the Pernice Brothers, was met with nearly unanimous acclaim (and comparisons to Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach), his voice and songs have been heard on two more full-length albums. But neither Chappaquiddick Skyline nor Big Tobacco has been credited as a Joe Pernice album?a situation he seems to like just fine, thank you very much. Surely he can't lay this low for long: the long-awaited second Pernice Brothers album is due early next year from Ashmont Records, the label Pernice has started with manager/friend Joyce Linehan. We recently sat down to talk in the kitchen of his girlfriend's Brooklyn apartment.
Your first band, Scud Mountain Boys, was started with friends from graduate school. What were you envisioning doing after you left?
I was going to be a professor, actually. I taught for a couple of years while I was there, and it was okay, I enjoyed it for a while. I mean, although the idea of writing and reading is a blast, academia is much more glamorous as an idea than in practice. It just got kind of dull and isolated. You'd think it's a place of ideas, but I've learned a lot more just traveling with the band and going all over the world and meeting people. I'm just not a scholar. You have to jump through hoops, and I don't think I was cut out for it. I'd rather teach adults at night in some community college, you know? Just regular people.
It wasn't even a thought that you'd be a full-time musician?
Nah. You know, when you're a kid, you always have those kinds of rock star dreams, but I lost that pretty soon. It's really strange?it was a fluke. You know, that band really happened as a mistake. Or not as a mistake, just without the idea of really ever making records or being a serious band. It was just for fun. We did this four-track thing, and this guy who had a label said, "I wanna put it out." I think we only pressed 1000 of them. Somehow they got around, and record companies just came out of the woodwork for a while. It was pretty strange. We released our first two albums within about a month of one another, and when we signed to Sub Pop we'd never toured and we probably played about one show a month in Northampton, where we lived. It was very casual.
With Scud Mountain Boys you started your oeuvre of chemical dependency tales. Why all the songs about pills and booze?
I like them. [Loud sounds emanate from the floor below us.] There's a band downstairs.
How do they sound?
You're gonna hear it. They're recording, so they fire up every once in a while.
You've done a lot of press for the Pernice Brothers, but I don't know much about your side projects. You released Chappaquiddick Skyline last winter.
It was either gonna be that or Fear of a Clint Black Planet.
Why wasn't it credited to Joe Pernice?
I'd done a separate contract with them to do this side project. After we had discussed it, negotiated it as something else, I made the record, I delivered it and they said, "Oh, we think this should be the second Pernice Brothers record." And I was like, no, it isn't. That's not the record I would have made if I knew that's what we were doing. The idea for that record?the record that I've just been completing now?was brewing. We made the Chappaquiddick Skyline record in my basement on an eight-track machine. It's a very dark record, empty of any kind of hooks at all. And they started to get kind of funny in a way that made me feel very uneasy, in a way they had never dealt with me before. I knew the record commercially was going nowhere anyway, just under the radar, and I kind of got stubborn about not allowing them to put my name on it at all. Whether that helps my career or not, who cares, but it was a power thing going on and I just drew a line in the sand and said that's it.
So you got out of your contract and did Big Tobacco. Why aren't you selling it in the U.S.?
I am going to, but...when I put Chappaquiddick Skyline out, there was just this rash of, "Oh, he's doing this Palace Brothers thing where he's doing a different project every other week." And it's really not my intention. I don't know why Will Oldham does it, and I'm not knocking him, but it really seems to bum a lot of people out. I wanted to release the next Pernice Brothers record before I did anything else, just so I didn't have eight million releases in between what I feel is my main project. I will put it out [domestically] for sure, but I think I'm gonna wait until after the next record. I might just do it on my own small label and make it available to people who are interested, rather than try and push it as a record to sell.
One song on the album really stands out, because it's not the usual melancholia?it's mean. "Bum Leg" reminds me of Randy Newman and his very unlikable characters. If it was the only song I'd heard from you, I probably wouldn't want to come here and interview you.
That song just kind of fell on me, in literally five minutes. I was stranded in a crummy train station in Boston, and my mind just started to race. That was a few years ago, but I remember the circumstances. It wasn't a particularly safe, uh, place, or safe, kind of, uh... [mumbles unintelligibly] minor altercation. That's about it. Nothing worth reporting to the police, you know. [He laughs nervously. The band downstairs gets really loud.] Shit, we should have done this on the street where it's quieter.
What can you tell me about the new Pernice Brothers record?
We just put the strings together with this woman, Jane Scarpatoni. She put a quartet together, and they just kicked fucking ass on it. The strings just make everything go through the roof. This record sonically dwarfs Overcome by Happiness; I think it makes that sound like a demo. Really indulgent. There's a lot of guitars, a lot of drums, way more vocals, more strings, the whole shootin' match, really.
[The band downstairs makes it difficult to continue talking.]
Maybe you should go down there and see if they'll let you do a piece on them.
The Pernice Brothers play Sat.,Oct. 21, at Maxwell's, 1039 Washington St. (11st St.), Hoboken, 201-798-0406.