A great pop song has an intangible magic about it. It echoes in your head as if the riff were already there, waiting for someone to make it melody. It’s an effect akin to that old Michelangelo quote about how when he was sculpting, the sculpture was already there and he was just getting it out of the block of marble. Many a musician has been lucky to write a single hook, which is why it’s remarkable and notable that Joe Pernice has spent the past 10 years, whether with the Scud Mountain Boys, the Pernice Brothers, or various side projects writing classic pop songs that have an air of familiarity to them, where they sound like the prettiest song that you’ve never heard.
Then again, the lofty heights of Michelangelo don’t always apply to something as ephemeral as pop music. Really, music can just boil down to the story of boys, girls, and sex, as summed up by Pernice: “Most bad poetry, there’s no chance that it’s going to get you laid. But with bad music, you might. At the end of the day, whether you’re 21 or 19 or 17, you opt for the chance of sex. 19. What am I talking about, 30? Same thing.”
“My ex is 30 and he’s still in two bands,” I add.
“There you go,” answers Pernice. “He’s a bad poet.”
In an April interview, he mentions that his music career started as a side project while out in Amherst, Massachusetts, pursuing his MFA in poetry. He was on track to be an English professor, and mentions that “there was a poet at UMASS, James Tate, who was really encouraging and I saw how he could do it [be a poet and professor] and I thought ‘Wow, you can be a teacher, write new stuff, work for 25 weeks, 35 weeks a year.’ But being a professor was really not my main goal—it was to write and to figure out a way to live.” Speaking of his time in grad school, he says, “I really started to write songs and it’s my medium. It’s the one that speaks, it’s immediate, and it happens for me. There were a lot of bands out in western Massachusetts at the time and it was a pretty vibrant music scene. There was also a lot of crossover between people in the writing program who were also musicians. My main goal was to finish school and I just got into songwriting kind of feverishly and that sort of took the front—I made three records while I was still a student, actually.”
His reputation as a depressive American Morrissey precedes him—while the Pernice Brothers sell a shirt on their site that says “I hate my life” and his Morrissey inspiration extends to the 33 1/3 book he wrote about the Smiths’ album Meat Is Murder—his lyrics can be dour but the music is always achingly pretty. They’ve even received shout-outs on the most musically discerning of television shows The Gilmore Girls, where Alexis Bledel’s Rory has a Pernice Brothers poster in her dorm room.
Fitting the pretty yet dark dichotomy of Pernice’s work, we talked on a gray spring day in Massachusetts, where the budding trees tried to look good in the dead light. The release of the Pernice Brothers’ fourth album, Discover A Lovlier You, was looming; however, Pernice was more into talking about his book Meat Is Murder. It made sense, as we were meeting in a Borders in Braintree, across the way from Meat Is Murder‘s “St. Longinus” Archbishop Williams.
Meat Is Murder is a short novella—the only fiction book in this recent and engrossing series of critics and artists (Daphne Brooks, Colin Meloy) writing on major albums (Grace, Let It Be)—on how the Smiths will save your life when you’re distractingly horny, haunted by death and virgin suicides, and trying to survive the horrors of a working-class co-ed Catholic high school. Pernice is nails a certain Massachusetts culture, the working-class Irish Catholic “townie” prototype, and he gets the poetry out of the gray days (which isn’t a surprise when you meet Pernice, who is an affable mix of Red Sox devotee and fan of Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer). The pleasant surprise about the book is that it stands up next to or betters the recent glut of Smiths-themed novels like Steven Chobolsky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Marc Spitz’s How Soon Is Now. While he had already published a book of poetry—“We made it, published it, you can get it through our site, and we sell it at shows”—Pernice describes finishing Meat Is Murder as “a surprise.”
“It’s only 24,000 words. It’s not a huge book and I wrote it in about five weeks. I just finished recording an album, I was kind of scorches; I’d been working with people. I literally wrote it in a closet in my old apartment in Brooklyn. I just sat down every day and said, ‘I have to write 1000 words a day,’ and I did it. It was in the first wave [of the 33 1/3 series]. I was one of the first people so I had a bit of license. When David [Barker, editor of 33 1/3 series] got in touch with me I didn’t want to get too critical. That album was really big to me and he said go for it and then he just left me alone. I showed him it when I hit about 5000 words and just sent it into him to read. He said ‘Oh, this comma’s out of place,’ and then said, ‘Go to it. So at that point I knew ... that the eagle will soar so I put it where I wanted and at that point I was thinking, ‘Jesus, this guy’s going to lose his job!’ I had a feeling that in the context of everything chances are good that if it was half decent it would sort of stick out and people would say it’s refreshing. They don’t have to read another book of criticism if anything. [adopting funny voice] ‘You know, it’s horrible writing, but it’s refreshing.’”
Currently, Pernice and an actor from New York are working on adapting Meat Is Murder for film. The idea behind the film is: “Let’s do it ourselves, we’re going to be writing it and shooting it. We’re going to sell it. That’s the next step. I’m going to write all the songs for it, it’s just too perfect. Not the quality, but I own the book, I own any and all rights to the film, I have a record company. It just seems too right not to do.” On the subject of whether the Smiths will stay in the film, Pernice adds, “I might change the angle of it. You might not hear any of the songs. Back then the Walkman was still pretty new, and you could always hear the tinny-ness of it. You could hear it through the phones, hear it through the foam.”
In addition to working on the script for the film, there’s also the new album, Discover a Lovlier You. It’s Pernice’s tenth album in ten years, and he describes his daily creative process as being full of writing and music: “Historically I work all the time. Sometimes I write two songs a day. The other day I was working on this script and I just thought of a song and I sat down and wrote it. My wife came by and said, ‘How did it go today?’ and I said, ‘I wrote two scenes and a song!’ she said, ‘Jesus!’ To me, I felt like I was screwing around.”
Pernice sums up the pleasures of Discover a Lovelier You as “a duet, an instrumental, and two waltzes.” The duet features songwriter Blake Hazard who “had a big Cadillac she toured in.” The title track—Pernice says, “It’s cheery!”—is the instrumental, where he “recorded my initial vocal melody as a guitar line on the demo. Then we ended up keeping the guitar track from the demo and I realized that I had kind of painted myself into a corner because I had to come up with an entirely different melody to sing. It had the potential of getting to be a bird’s nest. I hardly ever finish anything completely before. Maybe I’ll record it as an acoustic and sing it at some point. There you go.”
Music as pristine as the Pernice Brothers’ doesn’t come through rigorous studio time, however: “I usually get to the point where I know that’s as far as it could go. I don’t really slave, I’m not even a stickler for detail. For me when something’s in the ballpark, I’m in the zone and I’m good. I’m not even crazy about gear; I don’t care. Getting good sound is good but I think some people work in this minutia that nobody else can hear so it’s sort of lost. Growing up, my favorite songs were on AM radio in a station wagon. Was the fidelity good there? No, it was horrible. But I loved it so it didn’t matter.”
Pernice doesn’t have a concrete answer to the mystery of catchiness, the pursuit of the perfect pop song. While he’s written a ton of them over the years (for example, Scud Mountain Boys’ chestnut “Grudge Fuck” sounds as if it could’ve been recorded by Otis Redding or Elvis Costello) he “tries to write things that I imagine I’d like to hear. I know when I started writing poetry back when I was in grad school or back before that and I really discovered contemporary poets who I’ve never read, poems about the flag or the American revolution. I was floored by it. It was electric. I started getting into writing because I wanted to affect myself the same way as someone else’s work did. I learned very quickly that it’s impossible. It’s like trying to tickle yourself, you can’t do it. But as a happy kind of byproduct I realized it was the process along the way. It really engaged me and I enjoyed the process. When it’s done you let it go and do it again. That’s one reason why I write so much, too, I love the process. Like that little rat in the experiments who, every time you press a button he gets a shot of cocaine, so that rat will keep pressing that button. I am that rat. If I liked, uh, klezmer music I’d be writing a lot of klezmer pieces, it’s alright. It’s our next record.”
“Klezmer,” he replies, with perfect smart-ass relish.