There was a time, maybe 30 years ago, maybe longer, when a guy like Joe Pernice had a chance. He didn't need a big label, didn't need big money behind him. He didn't need a sure-thing single that the boys in the promotion department could take to radio, didn't need to call shotgun on whatever bandwagon was passing him by. All a guy like Pernice needed was songs, good ones, with lyrics that said exactly what was on the tip of his listeners' tongues and melodies that set up base camp in their heads. Which is exactly what Pernice has. Maybe 30 years ago, he might have even had a big label's big money behind him.
Of course, in 2003, the only thing behind Pernice is his own back. The 35-year-old singer-songwriter is fine with that; he's not someone who longs for the good old days or is even convinced they were all that good to begin with. He knows he's not the musician labels are looking for, knows that he doesn't write the kinds of songs radio stations want, knows that he's better off that way in the long run. That's the way the business works these days, for Pernice and plenty of other musicians. After all, hipsters prefer Radiohead, and just about everyone else favors radio hits, which leaves someone like Pernice stuck in the middle with whom? A dozen other guys just like him.
"There's a lot of great songwriters, you know, I think," Pernice says. His voice, smooth and fragile as blown glass when he's singing, has a surprisingly heavy New England accent. "But you won't hear a lot of them on the radio. And that's not me, that's not..." He pauses, not wanting to sound as though he's complaining. "Anytime you hear musicians talking about the state of radio, they always come across as being bitter. I have no place on the radio. Commercial radio will never, ever go near me. And I have my own record label, so I don't need to sell a million records, and I don't need to be part of that to have a good career and maintain a certain musical integrity."
The Pernice Brothers; Chasmatic and Blake Hazard are also on the bill
Proletariat, 903 Richmond
Tuesday, December 16; for more information, call 713-523-1199
Pernice certainly has proved that over the past few years. His band, the Pernice Brothers, released its last two albums, 2001's The World Won't End and this May's Yours, Mine & Ours, on Ashmont Records, the label he runs with his manager, Joyce Linehan. Before that, he had put out three albums on respected indie label Sub Pop: 1996's Massachusetts, with his former band the Scud Mountain Boys; the Pernice Brothers' debut, 1998's Overcome by Happiness; and a self-titled disc by side project Chappaquiddick Skyline in 1999. None of them did as well as the two on his label.
"We charted in the first week, which is unbelievable for us," Pernice says, referring to the release of Yours, Mine & Ours this year. "We made the Billboard indie charts and the Heatseekers chart. I've never been anywhere near any of that ever...In our first week, we sold about 3,000 records almost. And that's insane for us. When I was on Sub Pop, my biggest record was about 300 in a week."
By either accounting, Pernice has never sold a ton of records, but like he says, it's more than enough to count, more than enough to let him make another one. That's all he needs. That's all he's ever needed. Pernice doesn't even need good reviews, though he gets more than his share; throughout his career, he's enjoyed more favorable press than Private Jessica Lynch. (Though it should be noted that a stack of nice press clippings results in little more than a kick-ass scrapbook.) It's not that he doesn't appreciate them. It's just that he doesn't always see himself in other people's words. Such as when someone calls him a "songwriter's songwriter," a description that shows up often when discussing Pernice.
"I'm waiting for them to say I'm a 'songwriter's songwriter's songwriter,' " he says, laughing. "I have no idea what that means. I think my songwriting is simple. You know, I write melodies and choruses and bridges. Maybe people just don't do that. I demand a lot from songs, listening to them. And I'm not saying I'm a better songwriter than other people; I just demand certain things, and I try to deliver certain things, too."
He's done much more than try. Pernice is at his best when he's at his worst, writing sad songs that come with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, marrying classic pop highs with last-call lows. In Pernice's world, it's best not to let a song title such as "Overcome by Happiness" fool you; it's short for "You don't feel so overcome by happiness." On The World Won't End, he mentions suicide twice before the halfway point. The first line of the first song on Chappaquiddick Skyline? "I hate my life." And so on. But there's always a melody that makes it all better, a rainbow following the storm. This may have something to do with some of the sources Pernice calls upon when writing music.
"I'll stop and I'll take out a piece of paper and I'll write, like, the number of beats or something, or I'll write how the melody sounds," he explains. "This song up to here, that song up to there. You know what I mean?" No, not really. "I have some strange references to some other music. I don't even know. I remember doing a song and saying it sounded like this Doris Day song up to the first whatever. Then when I went back and picked up a guitar and I started this Doris Day song, the track that I was writing kind of came back into my memory."
Pajama games aside, Yours, Mine & Ours follows a similar sullen strategy as Pernice's previous efforts, at least lyrically. He begins by admitting that he's "lonely as the Irish Sea" ("The Weakest Shade of Blue") and ends by hoping "that this letter finds you crying" ("Number Two"). Pretty standard stuff for Pernice, really. But musically, instead of letting cellos and violins string up the songs (as he did on Overcome by Happiness and The World Won't End), Pernice scaled back his approach. Yours, Mine & Ours finds the band (Thom Monahan, Peyton Pinkerton, Laura Stein, Mike Belitsky and Joe's brother Bob) too busy listening to New Order records (check "Sometimes I Remember" for the not-so-subtle shout-out) and too tight from touring to bother calling the symphony.
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"On the other two records, the strings usually won out," Pernice admits. "The guitars are buried. And I think there's a lack of energy on the other two records. I wanted to make something that had more of a punch, that sounded, really, heavier in a way. Strangely enough, when you peel away the number of instruments, the sound actually gets bigger because there are less instruments competing for the audio landscape. The idea was to make guitars more prominent than we had in the past. Personally, I played a lot more guitar, a lot more, like, melodies and -- not leads but, you know, certainly more melodic playing. In the past, I'd just kind of strum. I wouldn't say I got confident." He laughs. "I did it, but I won't say I got more confident."
Though it's brawnier than past releases, and the closest thing to a straight-up rock album Pernice has ever made, Yours, Mine & Ours is still not enough to shoulder its way onto the radio dial. And again, Pernice is fine with that.
"The days of a DJ liking something and breaking it are dead and buried. Radio is just advertising for record labels now. And maybe it's always kind of been like that, but I think there was a day when you actually heard something that was okay. Speaking out against radio and the status of radio, it's tempting to look at someone like myself and say, 'Ah, he's just an old guy who doesn't know what's good anymore.' "
No. It's everyone else who doesn't know what's good.