News of an impending (imminent might be the better word) reunion of Western Massachusetts’ finest ’90’s alt-country band, the Scud Mountain Boys, got me thinking how many times I’ve interviewed, reviewed, and gushed over singer-songwriter-bandleader Joe Pernice’s various outfits, which began with the Scuds and has continued unabated through several incarnations of the Pernice Brothers. I think I’ve talked with him at length — for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Stuff@Night — four or five times since I first chatted him up around 1998. I believe the only other artist I’ve interviewed as many times — and liked just as much, as a person and as a performer — is Bob Pollard of the Ohio indie-rock band, Guided By Voices. Both of these thoughtful, articulate, engaging songwriters have always been a treat to talk music with. In preparation of possibly another chat with Joe about his new Scuds’ album (the first since 1996’s “Massachusetts”), here’s a story stemming from a unique set of circumstances: Joe had just puked , or at least dry heaved, before he got on the phone with me. Note I said ‘before’ — not after. Now, THAT I would have taken personally!
Joe Pernice is getting carsick. He and his congress of his namesake musicians, the Pernice Brothers (a sextet that, curiously, includes only one of Joe’s siblings — older brother Bob), are driving through heavy traffic in San Francisco, headed toward the night’s gig in Berkeley, when Joe instructs his mates to pull over so he can quell his queasiness and complete his cell phone interview. He apologizes for the brief interruption and a momentary flare-up of his temper. Pernice’s unnecessary apology is met with relief: hey, I’m just glad it’s not me who’s made him ill.
The singer-songwriter’s nausea is only a temporary setback in what has otherwise been a successful U.S. tour in support of his band’s new album, *Yours, Mine & Ours*, which came out last month on Pernice’s Dorchester-based Ashmont Records label. The disc even cracked the *Billboard* “Heatseekers” charts for new releases last month – the first time that’s ever happened in the band’s five-year, three-album history. (As fans of the onetime leader of the Northampton, MA.-based Scud Mountain Boys know, the famously downcast singer-songwriter has also recorded a slew of side projects, issuing them under various obfuscating names like Big Tobacco and Chappaquidick Skyline).
So far, the response to the band’s performances – sold-out shows, celebrity attendees in the audience – has been heartening. Later this summer, the group plans to jet over to Europe to play a full slate of shows. “We’re gonna tour pretty hard up until the beginning of winter, but it’s nice to travel – it’s fun and it beats working, really,” says Pernice, whose outfit headlines the Paradise Rock Club July 24. The band has been getting tighter every night, he says, and the new material is fun to play live: “There are a lot of guitars.”
Indeed, the album opener, “The Weakest Shade of Blue”, blossoms full bloom into a gorgeous gush of electric guitars, rumbling bass, and multi-tracked vocals stacked as sweetly as a mountain of marshmallows. That *Yours, Mine & Ours* is another incandescent pop pleasure from the Pernice Brothers, suffused with the lustrous wonder and gently ravishing anguish of Pernice’s watercolor words and poet’s eye, isn’t anything new. What *does* sound different this time around, however, is the silver streak of hopefulness, the tactile thrill of a heady – and perhaps terrifying – promise, that spangles so much of the material.
Where Pernice once sang sensually of car-exhaust suicides, plummeting planes, and quiet crackups of the soul, he now seems to be exploring the possibility of finding love among the ruins; of carving a secret world of safety and beauty, however fragile that creation may be. Where we previously found the singer always at the end of something – a relationship, a life, sanity – here we encounter him at the start of a story, offering an invitation: “Won’t you come away with me, and begin something we can’t understand,” Pernice implores in the first verse of the first song.
Although the title of the group’s first disc, *Overcome By Happiness*, was in fact a supremely ironic, bitter broadside aimed at the world, *Yours, Mine and Ours* feels like something shared, precious and private. When I mention this, Pernice tells me that he and companion (and Pernice Brothers’ keyboard player) Laura Stein are getting married next month, but that he’s unaware of any correlation.
“It *could* be about that. To be honest with you, no bullshit, I haven’t really thought about it,” Pernice says. “I don’t doubt it – I bet your read is probably good, but I never really thought of (the album) as having a kind of theme. I don’t think any of us listen to the music in that way, you know? I don’t think any of us have ever put the records on and thought about them outside of a very technical sense. You don’t listen to it for fun – you listen to *other* people’s stuff to make those kinds of (observations).” Dissecting his own work, sifting for symbols, he thinks, would be “a little self-indulgent.”
In fact, Pernice is too busy brainstorming new projects to fuss over old ones. Right now, he’s thinking about doing another Chappaquidick Skyline LP. He also wants to do another Pernice Brothers album and is even contemplating writing a musical – something he’s always wanted to tackle. “I haven’t attempted it, but I’ve been circling around it and I think I’m gonna start one soon.”
One project he recently completed is a book based around the Smiths’ 1985 album, *Meat Is Murder*, which is scheduled for release in September. Pernice, who holds an MFA in English from UMass-Amherst and already has one volume of poetry to his credit, titled “Two Blind Pigeons”, says the book is not a critical, song-by-song analysis of the Smiths’ disc. Rather, it’s a work of fiction that attempts to illustrate how the record resonates in the life of its main character. *Meat Is Murder* has resonated with Pernice for nearly as long as he can remember.
“There are a lot of memories that I drew from and embellished, and some I just made up,” he says. “There’s a wealth of memories and a wealth of feeling that comes whenever I listen to it. And it hit at a very impressionable time for me. It was a perfect record for that lost age, when you’re still fumbling your way around, trying to figure out what the fuck’s going on. It really hit home in a way that’s inexplicable.”Anyone familiar with the melancholic languor and fatalistic surrender at the heart of Pernice’s work will likely not be shocked to discover Morrissey’s influence on the artist as a young man.
Just how easy, or difficult, is it for Pernice to summon the frame of mind required to sing his back catalog of songs night after night with conviction? When so much of Pernice’s life seems to be going so well – critical adulation, record sales, marriage in the offing – what does it take to emotionally connect to the flawed, miserable characters who reside in his narratives?
“Not much,” Pernice says. “It’s a lot of fun. Even playing the dark, sad, low songs, I always come off the stage feeling better than when I went on. Always. You heard me get a little testy (when car sick) a few minutes ago, and that’s the kind of stuff you put up with during the day. You’re getting sick moving around, you’ve got a list of things a mile long to do. *Those* are the things that are tedious sometimes. And you look *forward* to the show. That’s what you live for.”