Music

Interview with Pete Hoffman of the Mendoza Line

Matt Gonzales

'We like the Replacements and getting drunk' is Pete Hoffman's description of his band, but he's got bigger things to say.

The Mendoza Line used to live in Athens, Georgia.

You know all about Athens. You know about R.E.M., and maybe even Pylon. And you know how in the nineties, something called Elephant 6 took the whole scene over. Indie kids would refer to it reverently as "The Elephant 6 Collective."

"We were not part of that collective," Mendoza Line guitarist and singer/songwriter Pete Hoffman said to me.

Despite its reputation as a place where young artists in the south can find a nourishing, likeminded community, Hoffman had this to say about Athens:

"It was not a place where we were loved."

I asked Pete why his band didn't gel with the Elephant 6 gang.

"They were into the Beach Boys. We like the Replacements and getting drunk."

And with that the Mendoza Line -- which along with Pete includes co-singer/songwriters Tim Bracy and Shannon McArdle, bassist Paul Deppler, pedal steel wizard John Troutman and drummer Sean Fogarty -- picked up their wares in 1998-ish and moved to New York City, where they are ever-so-gradually building a reputation as one of the best grudgingly-alt-country-Replacements-esque-not-to-mention-heavily-Dylan-and-Chilton-influenced rock bands in the world.

Peter Hoffman talked to me from dowtnown New York, where he was working his day job at a production company ("We do a lot of PR bullshit," he told me), and "recovering" from the previous day's protest of the Republican National Convention. We chatted a bit about what makes a good placard slogan, and then I asked him what he thought about the argument that protesting is futile -- maybe even worse than futile -- because it alienates would-be swing voters who don't want to be associated with a bunch of nuts.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," he allowed, "but I think, in this case, being from New York, and on September 11th having looked down my block and seen the buildings on fire -- and now to see how incredibly poorly they've managed the war on terror, and what a disaster it is -- I feel like you can be shrill. You can be a nut."

The new Mendoza Line album, Fortune, documents a band growing out of its comfy, insular world of 3.2 beer and languid relationships. Now it's a band who has Something To Say, and that's arguably cause for concern. After all, one the best things about 2002's raggedly exquisite Lost in Revelry was it's time-and-placelessness. It was a languid litany of jealously, drunkenness, and twenty-something ennui, and easily one of the best albums of the '00s so far.

For the most part, smart people with good taste gave up on political music after the colossal fade-out and failure of '60s. They have left it, for better or worse, to two-chord scream-core punk vegans, who churn out an endless blur of blinkered agit-prop that makes no difference in the world whatsoever. Fortunately, Fortune is not pointless, ear-splitting propaganda. But when Pete explained to me why the band finally decided to get political -- now THAT sounded like propaganda (not that there's anything wrong with that):

"We have always consciously tried to not include politics in our songwriting, but it is at such an outrageous level right now -- what incredible bastards these people are -- we couldn't not say something about it."

He went on, "I don't think we really understood how much America was hated until we went to Greece and saw signs all over Athens saying things like 'The World's Most Dangerous Terrorist: George Bush.' I mean on every street corner. And locals would tell us stories about how two years earlier there were 25 McDonald's, and now there's only two, and there are protests in front of them every day."

Having just returned from Asia, where a new McDonald or KFC sprouts up literally every month, I earnestly asked Pete why he thought McDonald's was doing such bad business in Greece.

"Because people don't want us importing our horrifying culture into their nation," he said plainly. "And we're trying to say something about that on our level, and a lot of other people are trying to say something about it on a lot bigger levels, especially like the protest yesterday."

When speaking, Pete doesn't bother with the restraint that characterizes his singing. He's brazen, droll, outraged. And he's willing to go along with my rather obnoxious request that he interpret the words to one of his songs.

"Pete," I said earnestly, "You say that the new album has a lot of political stuff on it, but I don't really see it. Can you give me an example of a song you wrote that's political?"

"Well, take 'Let's Not Talk About It.' That song is actually about having a conversation with someone who is very near and dear to me, but who basically has only the Fox News view of the world. And it's basically saying 'I'd rather stay friends with you than have to talk to you about something that you essentially know nothing about.'"

"I thought it was just a love song." I said meekly.

"I think in some ways it is a love song," Pete said, magnanimous in his effort to help me not to feel stupid. "But it's sort of a different kind of one. It's saying 'Let's not talk about the issues that we are on such different ends of the spectrum so that we can remain friends,' essentially."

Those kinds of politics -- the kind that exist between friends and lovers -- are no stranger to the Mendoza Line, who have endured the kind of personnel changes you'd expect to lead to shoving matches in the studio, if not outright collapse. To wit: the band had been the exclusive songwriting vehicle of childhood friends Hoffman and Bracy for years when, in 1998 or so, Bracy gave his new friend and eventual romantic partner Shannon McArdle a guitar and told her to write a song.

"It was strange," Hoffman conceded. "It was at a time where we weren't doing very much as a band, and Tim met Shannon, gave her a guitar, and she started playing."

"The next thing you know, we just kind of decided Shannon was in the band. And the first song she ever wrote, 'A Bigger City,' was on our next album. And I mean it was the first song she'd ever written in her whole life. She's really good at it, too."

I agreed with Pete. She is really good at it. But, I told him, her songwriting seems to have gotten more mature on Fortune, and I wasn't sure I appreciated this new maturity. I liked the rawness and venomous quality of her more emotionally revealing songs.

"Yeah, she definitely has some venom there," he agreed heartily. "I think that Shannon had a couple of pretty bad years, and now she feels pretty -- she's pretty much the greatest person I know - so maybe she's cutting back [on the venom] a little bit. These songs on the new record are about different things other than the fact that she wants to, you know, kill her boyfriend or something."

Toward the end of the interview, Pete and I talked more about the Replacements. We debated about which album was the best. I told him that I've always thought Let It Be was their finest.

"Tim has the best songs," Pete countered, "but it sounds like shit. Tom Erdelyi was basically going deaf while recording it. It's one of the worst-sounding records I can imagine."

Then I suggested that Tim Bracy borrows a lot of his singing style from Paul Westerberg,

"I think so. He's just such a huge Mats fan it's retarded."

"That's why you guys are good," I said. "You have good taste, and you can play your instruments."

"You think we can play our instruments?" Pete shot back.

"Reasonably well," I said. "The lead guitar on Fortune is terrific."

"Oh that's JT," Pete said.

JT?

"John Troutman. We call him JT Hotlixxx. That's with three X's. He's responsible, in my view, for a lot of why I think the record sounds really great. At least when it comes to all of the loud and pedal steel guitars."

"So if you like ripping guitars," I said, trying to be sly, "then how is it that you don't like Let It Be the best of the Mats' albums?"

"I can understand why people think it is there best one. It has all of the elements of what really made the Replacements so great." He paused. "And then it's got 'Gary's Got a Boner.'"

Exactly!

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.