Just call him Mr. Pitiful. Much like the late great Otis Redding, it seems that Joe Pernice has a unique talent for writing sad songs. Until now that is. With his latest effort from his group the Pernice Brothers, The World Won't End, Joe shows that he can at least put on a happy face, albeit one with a cynical smirk.
The Pernice Brothers first disc, 1998's Overcome By Happiness, was a lush piece of depressing pop, swirling in the deep end of emotion. Mr. Pernice delivered his trademark vocals softly, barely above a whisper. He had two "solo" discs following soon after, Chappaquiddick Skyline and Big Tobacco, a duo of bare-boned discs that were reminiscent of his alt-country days in the Scud Mountain Boys, brilliant in their sheer simplicity.
But not so with this latest album. Pernice takes his penchant for depressing pop and adds a beat to it, creating a wonderfully complex and neurotic atmosphere. His melodies are hard to shake, from the driving beat of Working Girls (Sunlight Shines) and 7:30, to the smart and catchy hooks of Our Time Has Passed, his songwriting has never been better. About halfway through the disc, he slows it back down again, reminding us that yes, he still is the king of the beautifully depressed on songs like Cronulla Breakdown and Endless Supply, which seem to suck the life right out of you. (Who else could get away with a line like "Our summer years are nothing as they're Freudian slipping by?")
How did this double-edged sword of pop come about? Joe Pernice himself has the answer.
MISH MASH: My first impression of the new disc is that much of it seems more musically "up-tempo" than your previous work, either with the Scud Mountain Boys, your solo stuff, or the first Pernice Brothers disc. Was there a conscious effort to pick up the pace a little?
Joe: I think so. I had set these songs aside for the Pernice Brothers; they just felt like they needed the band's treatment. I had been asked a few times when Chappaquiddick Skyline and Big Tobacco came out, why they were not Pernice brothers albums. When I listen to this record next to Chappaquiddick or Big Tobacco, it seems musically miles away.
MM: I agree. I hear a lot of 60s pop influences, Brian Wilson and "Pet Sounds" comes to mind---lots of hooks and harmonies, even more than "Overcome By Happiness." Were you shooting for a pure pop sound in that vein?
Joe: To be honest with you, Thom Monahan, myself, and the rest of the band wanted to make the kind of record we'd like to hear. I was thinking more Smiths, Cure and Green Mind era Dinosaur. I pretty much listened to Mudhoney non-stop through the making of this record. I'd drive around in the mornings before tracking and blast "Touch me I'm Sick" over and over. Helps one make a nice soft-rock album.
MM: Even with the upbeat sounds, the depressing lyrics are still there, but they seem to be more tongue-in-cheek than usual: "Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree." Are you having a little more fun with the "depressing" tag you've been handed?
Joe: I'm having a ball. That lyric was something someone actually said to me. It was pretty funny to me at the time. But to answer your question, yes. No one loves a good joke or gag more than me.
MM: Around song 7 ("Shaken Baby") the album switches gears into a slower pace. Any reason, or is that just how it worked out?
Joe: The album was too up-beat. It would not have been right to keep it up for the whole record. I think we were also thinking of the sequence with vinyl in mind. I don't really like sequences that are up-down-up-down etc. through a record. At least not for this one.
MM: You left SubPop to form Ashmont Records. Is it going to be a "real" label with other acts, or is it a front for your own projects?
Joe:I think we're going to be a label, but if it get's in the way of me making records and playing shows, it will probably just be my own label. My partner and I are kicking around the idea of a couple non-Pernice releases next year. There are some records I'd love to do, but I'd never put out a record if I couldn't do the right things with it. That would be a tremendous disservice to the people making them. It's tricky.
MM: How important is the freedom to release your own work?
Joe: It's as important as anything else. I work at my own pace, which is fast by some standards, and slow by others. My writing and recording pace simply did not match up with Sub Pop's release schedule, and, of course, it wouldn't. For me, it was like I was constantly stuffing my mouth with food, and never swallowing. It was very frustrating at times, having the songs ready, the band and studio, and being contractually prohibited from releasing records. When I originally signed, I had no idea I would be working so much. As soon as I saw a way out, I marched. And i have to tell you, it feels great.
MM: You seem to be getting more attention in Europe than the States, and you guys are heading over there first. Any plans to do more touring over here?
Joe: The reason we get more attention over there is because there was simply a better mechanism set up for me/the band to tour. And Europe kept asking us back. I love it there, but I want to play this country. This band has never been to California, but we've been to London six or seven times. We are planning a full US tour in July, and another full US sometime in Sptember/October. Hell, since I own the label, this record does not have an always closing window of opportunity. What a lot of people might not realize is that a record label gives an album a finite period of time to be successful, and if that doesn't happen, they pull the plug. I'm no longer part of that machine.
MM: Any more "side projects" on the burner?
Joe: No. Though I did just finish an acoustic EP that I will give away free to people who buy the record from our Web site before June 5 (Too late! The deadline was up the last week in May, kids--MM). Outside of that, I'm going to tour this record and write more songs for the next Pernice Brothers record. But I can't make any promises.