Broolyn’s Guignol & Philadelphia’s Mischief Brew “Fight Dirty”
Towards the end of 2009, Erik Petersen, frontman for Philadelphia’s very own gypsy punk trio Mischief Brew, teamed up with Brooklyn’s instrumental gypsy jazz quartet Guignol for a rather impressive collaboration of musical efforts titled “Fight Dirty.” Taking into consideration songs like Mischief Brew’s “A Liquor Never Brewed” from their first full-length release “Smash the Windows” (2005), to which Guignol contributed quite a bit, this is certainly not the first time the two have come together for such an endeavor. It is the first time to my knowledge, however, that the two have worked together to such an involved degree, recording and releasing an entire album under one all-encompassing umbrella of carnivalesque gypsy punk, wild klezmer, and red wine-soaked Romany jazz. The overall result is unquestionably something that stands as a rather unique presence among other such projects…triumphant, uncompromising, and free of the artistic shackles in which too many bands and singer/songwriters are hopelessly bound.
In other words, the collaborative sound that has resulted from the musical partnership between Mischief Brew’s Erik Petersen and the gents of Guignol is wholly unclassifiable. Really, whether it can be pinned down or not is irrelevent. Instead, consider it a big old melting pot of skill and style, both old-timey and modern, rustic and urban, traditional and unconventional, culturally rich but inescapably domestic, complete with anthems for the working class proletariat and hymns for the constitutionally different and instinctively defiant. “Fight Dirty” is a diverse album that should appeal to a diverse audience, a unique album that deserves unique responses from its listeners. “Fight Dirty” is an album whose sixteen songs would be just as welcome at a Renaissance Festival in northeastern Pennsylvania as any one of the cramped and sweaty punk venues throughout the world, at an Eastern European gypsy encampment as a down n’ dirty house show in Jersey, at an anarchist rally in Portland as a hobo gathering near a ramshackle rail yard in New Mexico or a bizarre circus sideshow (this last event Guignol actually did, believe it or not).
Guignol & Mischief Brew’s “Fight Dirty” is an exotic dish, to be sure, with the somewhat Middle Eastern flavor of Hess’s clarinet, the oompah ingredients of Rush’s tuba, the circus dish of Nicolay’s accordion, the steamy helping of distorted punk chords and note-play from Petersen’s guitar, and Bollinger punctuaring each with every tap, crash and boom of his drum kit. In some of the songs we have Petersen’s raspy, from-the-gut vocals, while others are purely instrumental. All in all, the “Fight Dirty” menu is home to a sixteen course feast of sound, one that’s not likely to leave people wanting afterward…except perhaps a second helping of the same.
When it comes to Erik Petersen of Mischief Brew, it can be observed through his lyrical content that his musical message and personal lifestyle are one and the same. Though Mischief Brew is internationally recognized as an underground favorite, and though Erik owns and operates the radical independent label Fistolo Records, he is first and foremost part of the American working class that rises with the sun each morning, sweats it out during the long hours of the day, and returns home early in the evenings to rest the over-active mind and tired eyes and aching muscles. That’s right, Erik is a carpenter. Presumably a rather good one, too. After all, he’s been at it for some time now. Of course, he probably could have thrown that towel in a few years ago and made a living from both Mischief Brew and his record label. As it turns out it’s not about hierarchical ascent on the ladder of capitalist greed and watching one’s bank account swell. It’s no doubt about a number of things, but above all it’s about the music.
As a Philadelphia native myself, Mischief Brew’s songs embody the city in a way that I both recognize and appreciate; which is to say that I can feel Philadephia in Erik’s songs, both in the music and lyrics, and it makes me homesick. It makes me realize that I’ve been a transient for too long, going from state to state, city to city, crashing on friends’s couches or staying in rundown pads, making new friends, taking on temporary lovers, and then moving on. Right now I am in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Last year I was in Allentown. A short time before that I was in Birmingham, Alabama. And before that, San Francisco, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and so on.
Not surprisingly, Franz Nicolay, accordionist for Guignol, is also involved in New York City’s eight-piece cabaret gypsy punk oufit World/Inferno Friendship Society, as is Peter Hess, clarinet player for Guignol. Formerly a multi-instrumentalist in the successful rock band The Hold Steady, Nicolay has moved on to focus on Guignol his other projects…well, that and continuing to cultivate a kick-ass waxed handlebar mustache. Hess and Nicolay also write and perform for an underground chamber music collective called Anti-Social Music. George Rush, who plays tuba for Guignol, has written songs and shared the stage with several other notable artists, such as The Raymond Scott Orchestrette, Zagnut Cirkus Orchestar, with Steve Bernstein in Sex Mob, and more. Last but certainly not least, John Bollinger, drums and trash percussion for Guignol, has been a part of Antony and the Johnsons, Amy Kohn, and Blaise Siwula Trio. Evidently, all four members of Guignol are rather accomplished and more than capable musicians.
A while back I did a piece on Mischief Brew following the release of the Mischief Brew & Joe Jack Talcum split “Photographs from the Shoebox.” For the sake of this piece, I am including the interview I did with Erik Petersen in its entirety.
As is customary in my interviews, I like to begin with introduction to the band or singer/songwriter, something a bit generalized before we head into the specifics, in order to get to know the artist as, in your case, not just a singer/songwriter but a human being of this mad City Earth in which we all live.
I’m just a musician and a carpenter. You said it…not just a singer/songwriter but a human being. All the hype is a little hard to grasp, especially at the relatively small level of the band. Basically, I live in a very ethnically diverse working class neighborhood just west of West Philadelphia, and build kitchens and do carpentry as a day job.
How did the Mischief Brew sound come about? I mean, if one researches the “folk punk” community, one will undoubtedly find other gypsy-esque folk punk bands and singer/songwriters—the World/Inferno Friendship Society, Balkan Beat Box, The Barons of Tang, Gogol Bordello, the Circus Contraption Band, and so forth—but nothing in the same vein as Mischief Brew.
I don’t know exactly how the sound came about, or if it even can be narrowed down to one sound. “Folk punk” is a convenient way to describe it, and there are definitely elements of everything from Gypsy/Romany music to circus music to straight up punk rock. I guess it all comes down to casting away your template of what your band should sound like. Then nothing is too folky, or too weird, or too punk, or too jazzy. I listen to all different kinds of music, so naturally the band would incorporate all those styles, all played in the spirit and energy of punk rock. And that’s essentially what the other bands you mentioned do as well.
My first experience with your music was with your split with Robert Blake, “Bellingham & Philadelphia,” which I got from Alex from Art of the Underground Records. In fact, it was that record that really sparked my interest in your music. Your half of that split was mostly just you with an acoustic guitar belting out folk punk tunes and protest songs. Do you ever plan on putting out a strictly acoustic record, and perhaps not even under the Mischief Brew moniker, but just as Erik Petersen. Now, I know many of the songs from “Songs from Under the Sink,” Mischief Brew’s second full-length release (to my knowledge), are acoustic, but there’s a lot of accompaniment on those recordings, varying instrumentation and all that. Can Mischief Brew fans expect to hear anything else along the lines of what you did on the “Bellingham & Philadelphia” split in the future.
I can’t really say either way at this point. It’s just not on the agenda. Mischief Brew has a bunch of demos for the next full-length, and there’s a lot more 7″s and random songs we want to tackle as well. Once all that is done, I’ll probably want to do some stripped-down acoustic shows. Maybe a live record. Who knows? It’s not something I’d rule out, that’s for sure.
That split with Robert is a funny record…that and the “Bakenal” EP were recorded all at once, then diced up for two different records. I played all the instruments on the early Mischief Brew recordings, even drums. Denise (my wife) sang and we did junk percussion on some songs, but that’s about it otherwise. The only reason I went by my name on the split was, “Robert Blake and Mischief Brew” looked weird, like it was one band. Plus, the idea was to do a folk record by two friends and fellow songwriters, so at the last minute I opted for going by my name.
The first time I saw Mischief Brew live was at the Millcreek Tavern in West Philly. Honestly, I couldn’t get over how great your live show was. It definitely possessed more energy than the recordings, but a bit more stripped down in a sense. Do you think that you sacrifice a bit of the overall “carnivalesque gypsy folk” sound to embrace more of straightforward “punk” sound in your live performances?
Hmmm… we played that place twice, so I don’t know which show you’re referring to. But either way, I don’t think anything is sacrificed. I mean, the live show is pretty much the same basic arrangement as the studio albums: guitar, bass, and drums. All the doodads, the mandolins and extra instrumentation are all added later. We do our best to carry on without the carnivalesque line-up. And the songs allow for that as well. We just finished a two-and-a-half week west coast tour, and some of the shows required us to play more quietly and arrange the songs a little different. It was spontaneous and fun! Someday I’d love to bring along a second guitar player, or someone that could play fiddle or mandolin. Right now it’s easier and less hectic to tour as a three-piece. Plus we mostly play punk shows, and the sound is often terrible anyway, so we just barrel out the loud and fast, with an acoustic song or two thrown in here and there.
Being a Philadelphia native myself, I know for certain that the city of Philadelphia has unquestionably had an affect on my art, specifically my writing, as there is just something unnameable about it that eventually takes residence in those who spend enough time there experiencing the city itself, through its gray winters and sweaty, crowded summers. My question to you is: Do you think Philadelphia has had a significant impact on your music? And if so, in what way?
That’s a good question that I don’t know if I have a specific answer to. Whether you’re a transient artist (someone like David Dondero, or Robert Blake) or someone that has a concrete home base (I own my house just outside the city), your surroundings are certainly going to have an impact on your music. Most of the songs are written at home, but are inspired by things building up in travels, tours, experiences. I think there’s definitely a revolutionary fife-and-snare kinda feel to a lot of the songs, which might have to do with Philadelphia…but otherwise, it’s a love/hate relationship with the city. Yeah, it’s miserable and humid, people can get really cranky…there’s a lot of poverty and homelessness and violence as in most American cities. But as always, seek and you shall find. There are amazing things happening between the cracks, great people doing incredible things for the communities.
What are some of your favorite bands and singer/songwriters these days?
I like to highlight specific records…some that come to mind are “The Transient” by David Dondero, “Levelling the Land” by the Levellers (which is funny, ’cause it’s their most commercially successful LP, but still the best), “Streetcore” (the post-huminous Joe Strummer record), “Onwards and Upwards” by Culture Shock, and not to plug a band on our own label but Bread & Roses are probably my favorite folk punk band right now. I can listen to Sydney Bechet and then put on Finntroll.
It’s no secret that you hold some pretty solid anarchistic beliefs and live your life accordingly, which I couldn’t admire or respect more. It would seem that your music is heavily influenced by the old protest singer/songwriters such as Guthrie and Ochs and the like. When people hear me say that “punk” idealism didn’t begin with the ’70s and ’80s lot, when I suggest that their distorted power chords played as fast as possible and screamed vocals didn’t spark the “punk” movement, but instead that it began with acoustic guitars and clearly sung words well before the use of musical aggression as a mode of extreme radical conveyance, they think I’ve gone mad. Sadly, most people these days think that “punk” is a marriage of fashion and a specific style of music from which one cannot deviate lest he or she to go beyond the set parameters of the genre and therefore exist outside of the “punk” community. That’s one of the few reasons I am so excited about the gradual increase of “folk punk” and “acousticore” bands and singer/songwriters over the course of the past half dozen years or so. But…what would you say to those abovementioned individuals on the history of “punk,” from its roots to the way we know it today?
It’s funny, we were having a conversation about this in Seattle with a friend. I think in retrospect, things are romanticized and that’s when the legends and mysteries are made. The idea that punk was an invented fashion by the likes of Vivien Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren is a true enough statement. In the states, there were bands like The Ramones and The Stooges and all the bands that we think of as CBGB’s bands that might not have felt they were part of a punk movement, but just needed a place to play and only knew a few chords. Then you had Crass in the UK who were definitely aware that they had sparked a movement, and released a ton of bands on their own label. But you look closer and see that the bands we think of as peace punk legends were just fuckup kids like you and me that wanted to play music and be part of a scene. Some might not even have been as political as time has made them out to be (on backpatches, leather jackets, etc).
Despite all this though, these were all great bands, and it shows that most movements in music, punk or whatever, happen by way of evolution and not some kind of forced decision, “let’s do this or that and spark a revolution.” Go further back to Woody Guthrie, and you’ll see that he was just one guy doing what he loved, strumming an acoustic guitar and writing songs. I guess I don’t know for sure, but I would bet that he never thought of himself as being at the forefront of an acoustic movement. Yet decades later, he’s inspiring people, and that’s the beauty of the whole thing.
On a much smaller level than all the aforementioned bands, Mischief Brew started by accident too. I wanted to play music that combined traditional music with punk and couldn’t find anyone that shared an interest, so I just did it myself with an acoustic guitar.
Other than Mischief Brew and Fistolo Records, are you involved in any other artistic endeavors, musical or otherwise, that may eventually see the light of day, so to speak?
I’d love to write more. I used to write horror screenplays and make movies when I was a kid. At first it was for fun, then I tried to submit some as a teenager, which obviously didn’t work. Then I got into music and lost interest in movie-making.
Someday it would be cool to compose a book, even a small run, about our traveling experiences. Denise keeps a great record of all the stuff. I remember certain things, but with help and pictures I can remember more.
Basically, I can’t keep doing this forever, touring and playing. I’d love the music to maintain a legacy and always keep the records available somehow. I’ll fill that artistic void somehow. I used to do these sculptures made of old rusty tools and wood, burnt paper, etc…maybe I’ll take that up again!
Apparently, Mischief Brew has toured extensively. What have been some of your favorite places to play shows? And, in your opinion, what have been some of the best bands and singer/songwriters you’ve shared the stage with over the years?
Ha! Touring is funny, especially in the punk world where it’s so transient. You have an amazing show in a town, then come back next year and half those people don’t live there anymore. For Mischief Brew, NYC, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago…all the big American cities are consistently awesome. There’s some smaller cities and towns that have become regular tour stops: Winchester, VA; Asheville, NC; Santa Cruz, CA; Flagstaff, AZ; the Lehigh Valley in PA…pretty much anywhere in Jersey. Same goes for Europe—Copenhagen, Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Zurich…all incredible. But smaller towns like Regensburg and Wurzburg in Bavaria were AMAZING shows for us, both times.
As far as sharing the stage… it’s always fun to play with Citizen Fish and Leftover Crack and World/Inferno and Defiance Ohio…they are all friends as well as fellow musicians and the shows are usually off the hook. There’s good crossover with the fans, too. But aside from Citizen Fish (growing up a HUGE Subhumans, Culture Shock and CF fan), these are all bands that we were friends with first, so there’s no “hero worship” or anything going on. I mention that because there hasn’t really been anyone we’ve played with lately that I’ve been starstruck by. More honored to play with…like Danbert from Chumbawamba perhaps, being a big fan of that band.
At this point in my life, the most rewarding thing is to travel around the world and meet up with friends, make new ones, and play with bands we personally know and love. Can Kickers, Witch Hunt, Meisce. On the west coast tour we rented a van and backline from friends and I’m so grateful to be part of a scene/community where people are cool like that.
At this point, it is common knowledge that the Mischief Brew lineup is a three-piece consisting of you (Erik Petersen) as singer and guitarist, Shawn St. Clair as bassist, and Chris “doc” Kulp on drums. How would you best describe these bandmates of yours, as both bandmates and friends?
It’s funny, ’cause the lineup has certainly changed over the years. Doc and I have been playing together for years, but he hasn’t done the past three tours with us. Meanwhile, Shawn has been the most consistent bassist, and we’ve become great friends. There’s pretty amazing chemistry between us. We only play two or three times a year in Philly, so when we do play, tons of kids come and it’s crazy. For those shows, we might only practice once or twice.
We have the new split LP with Joe Jack Talcum and a new 7″, and more recordings on the way…so we’ll see what happens with that.
As both bandmates and friends, we’ve adopted the attitude that we should have fun on stage, first and foremost. Even on an off night, if we’re sloppy, at least we are having a blast. It’s not an act or anything, we ARE in fact having a blast. But it’s easy to get caught-up in little imperfections…we messed this up, we could have played this better…etc. Most of the time people don’t even notice, so our number one priority is to have fun and let it be known that we’re a bunch of clowns.