The Pernice Brothers – The audience is listening
“At the time I thought I wanted to be a poet, but what I was discovering was that I wanted to use my mind to create things.”
Every writer, some writers will tell you, has an ideal reader, real or imaginary, who receives their work, who they trust, who will take them out of the mostly solitary act of putting words to paper, words to melody, melody to structure, vision to sound. John Prine and Steve Goodman used to call each other any hour of the day or night and say, “I got one,” and play the song over the phone.
Joe Pernice writes alone, in as small a space as he can find. For the fifth Pernice Brothers album, Live A Little, he wrote most of the songs with his guitar in the bathroom. “It’s all about the tub,” he says of the reverb. In this case, it’s also about a reunion with producer Mike Deming, who lent his enveloping and precise string arrangements to the first Pernice Brothers album, 1998’s Overcome By Happiness, and with his older brother Bob, with whom Joe founded the band, but who was absent from 2005’s Discover A Lovelier You.
It’s also all about finding an imaginary listener, someone who needs the music as much as he does.
“I try to write for me,” he says, “when I was at a point of my life when music was absolutely everything to me, so much so that I didn’t need people, or thought I didn’t need people. I want to write songs that that guy would enjoy. That’s really my measuring stick. A younger version of myself, maybe more idealistic, maybe more immature too. There was a time when I thought music could sustain me; I don’t think that’s a very good view, and it changes all the time. I can’t really tell you when I stopped being that guy.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “Music is a huge part of my life. I get such unbelievable pleasure from writing songs. It’s still my favorite thing to do, but I need other things in my life.”
Those other things include a recent marriage, the birth of his first child, a book of poems, a novel — published last year as part of the 33 1/3 music criticism series, about a character who lives and breathes the Smiths’ album Meat Is Murder — and baseball. Give Pernice five minutes of your time and he’ll turn four of them to baseball. “I’m a freak for it,” he admits. “Going to the World Series in 2004 was a highlight of my life.”
It also includes a recent move from his longtime New England home to Toronto, to be closer to his wife’s family so that she’s not alone while he’s on the road. “There’s a lot I miss about America. For better or worse, there’s an absence of an overt pride in the country,” he says of his new home. “A lot of Canadians don’t have a sense of history, which isn’t always a bad thing. There’s no flag waving, which is good.”
Pernice was born in Boston in 1967 and grew up in the south shore town of Holbrook, Massachusetts. His father worked in the trucking industry, managing a dealership, while his mother worked at home, taking care of six children. Pernice looked up to his older brother Bob, who was the better musician, the one more immersed in sounds, while Joe tinkered with go-karts and wondered what he had to do with the world and what the world had to do with him. “When I got out of high school, I was not in the best mental shape,” he says. “I’d pretty much checked out. The end was pretty grim. Luckily I changed my mind [about attending college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst] and had a great time.”
Pernice completed an undergraduate degree in English, took a year off, and with the encouragement of poet James Tate, returned to Amherst for a three-year MFA in creative writing. That degree yielded the poetry collection Two Blind Pigeons, and the realization that he wasn’t a poet after all.
“Writing poetry in the end is not the thing for me,” he says. “It was a great catalyst, because immediately I discovered an art form that was intimate. You could do it anywhere. It inspired me to want to create things. At the time I thought I wanted to be a poet, but what I was discovering was that I wanted to use my mind to create things.”
While in graduate school he developed the Scud Mountain Boys, a mostly acoustic country ensemble that gave him the freedom to explore the images and intimacy he loved in poetry. Eventually, though, he began to feel constrained by the band’s lo-fi sensibility.
“My brother and I were still playing together here and there, and we were much more into classic pop music than the country the Scud Mountain Boys were hovering around,” Pernice recalls. “When I started the Pernice Brothers, I said to my brother, if I can get Sub Pop to agree to do an album, would you like to do an album? We did a couple of 7-inches, and I realized it was so much more fun than the stuff I’d been doing.”
With a nine-piece orchestra of horns and strings and a deep rhythmic pulse that recalled both Hi Studio soul and the ’60s baroque pop of the Left Banke, Overcome By Happiness matched Pernice’s lyrics of romantic awakening and disillusionment with a ripe, warm sonic grace. Subsequent Pernice Brothers records — 2001’s The World Won’t End, 2003’s Yours, Mine And Ours, and last year’s Discover A Lovelier You — were more rock-oriented, without the orchestral feel of the debut.