With their dreamy guitars, exhilarating percussion, and infectious lyrics, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have crafted one of the most memorable discographies in the indie scene. Since their debut in 2009, with their self-titled album which featured the anthemic “Young Adult Friction”, they have consistently put out effortlessly great indie pop. In a way, their way of making music, and their fresh reliability, resembles Tom Petty’s approach to creating. For decades Petty made music that wasn’t letting people in on how great, or transcendental, it was. And yet his legacy can be found in contemporary pop-rock, his “I Won’t Back Down” even making its way unconsciously into one of the biggest hits of the decade.
It makes sense that the Pains were asked to record a cover version of Petty’s solo debut record Full Moon Fever for Turntable Kitchen’s Sound Delicious subscription series. Pains’ founding member Kip Berman took on the project almost three years ago when Petty was alive and well, but life and work pushed the project so that it was released one year after Petty’s unexpected death in 2017, shortly after he’d wrapped a 40th anniversary tour with his band, The Heartbreakers. In the meantime Berman became a father, the Pains released the astonishing The Echo of Pleasure, and their take on Full Moon Fever took on an even more adventurous soundscape by becoming a reinterpretation rather than a reproduction.
PopMatters spoke to Berman about taking on a project that had him covering some of the most iconic rock songs of all time, how Petty was the kind of star everyone should aspire to be, and how he deals with the death of his idols.
One of the first things that struck me was how many of the songs in the album I actually knew. In what ways have you seen Petty’s music, work itself into the collective unconsciousness?
It’s strange, I don’t think I ever owned this record, but it’s one of those things where you hear the songs so often that you know them. My stepdad was a big Tom Petty fan so he had this record on a lot at the car, and weirdly of all the Petty records he played this was the one that sounded most ’80s to me, it didn’t sound at all like one of those good rock records of the ’90s. The production was clean, crisp, and at the time in the era of Nirvana and grunge, it felt a little bit dated. But the more I got into music the more I liked that he’d done something this ’80s sounding.
Also what you point out about the album being present in the American public consciousness, where you listen to “Free Fallin'”, “I Won’t Back Down”, “Yer So Bad”, on the radio, or the grocery store. They’re good songs and I can see people who don’t even know they’re Tom Petty songs, know the lyrics. My experience with the record was going from a passive listener and listening to a lot of the tracks out in the world.
The record came out in 1989 and it had this jangly guitar undercurrent, almost an opposite world of the bands that inspired the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, which were ’80s and early ’90s Iggy Pop, shoegaze … and the Tom Petty album is that done in a different way, under a big label, rather than indie studios. And yet the ideas in that record are not that different from the ideas in a Pains’ album, it’s sort of like an interesting, ultimate reality to bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, or anything guitar driven inspired by West Coast American ideals.
One of the wonders of the album is how much you’ve made the songs your own. Was it a humbling or intimidating process to give Petty the Pains’ sound?
The hard part was in choosing the artist we tackled for this project where we had to cover an entire album, because there are records we love and mean a lot to us, but for instance you can’t make a record without Courtney Love’s voice, or something as iconic as Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, there were other things where we had technical limitations, like we can’t sing Nirvana without Kurt Cobain unless you have a radical vocalist. Tom Petty songs have three chords and I can sing them, so it wasn’t easy, but it weirdly made sense for the kind of music Pains play. They’re straightforward songs you can play with guitars.
Petty’s vocal range is similar to mine, he has a high, nasal, kind of Neil Young voice. So it was very natural for me to sing the songs, as long as I wasn’t falling into Tom Petty impersonation. It also helped the album has all good songs, at least ten songs on this record are really good, with a bunch of them being all-time classics. It’s hard to find a record to cover where you don’t find you’re recording songs you don’t like.
Are there any songs, in particular, you were surprised to discover you maybe didn’t know as well as you thought?
Off the bat, we were originally going to make “Free Fallin'” with Kurt Feldman as producer, he used to play drums in Pains and went off to make his own music, so we made the first three songs together, then I got busy, he got busy and we finished the rest of the songs in a different way. Kurt even pointed out “Free Fallin'” is only three chords all the way through, but there’s so much going on in terms of production, layers, rhythm and ideas happening in the song. Almost like out of a commercial: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. If you’ve been playing guitar for two months you can learn it, but if you’ve been playing guitar for 30 years you might never be able to write it. The nuance, subtlety and obviously the lyrics are incredible. I think he’s underrated as a lyricist. Seemingly simple with a lot actually going on and without a lot of showy effort, that’s the hallmark of Petty’s music even beyond this album.
His band was also made of really good musicians who actually never led on that they were. There was a real simplicity to your rock; they just did what needed to be done with each song. There’s no theatricality to his music, which is why I think he’s overlooked, he’s not as theatrical as Bruce Springsteen, he doesn’t have that hip charisma, he’s not a grandiose lyricist.
My favorite song in the record is probably “Yer So Bad”, which has wonderfully concise storytelling. “My sister got lucky, married a yuppie / Took him for all he was worth / Now she’s a swinger dating a singer / I can’t decide which is worse,” it’s such a classic Tom Petty lyric. He’s singing about this but going “I’m not any better than that.” He could be as bad as the characters he’s describing. I love the wit. You get a sense that Tom Petty was the rare rock star you could hang out with.
Also, just look at the people who played with him: George Harrison and Roy Orbison made cameos in Full Moon Fever. All these iconic people, who were more famous and revered than him, loved hanging around Tom Petty. I love Prince, the Beatles, Patti Smith, and all these people with larger than life ideas, but Petty was the kind of person who we know his songs, but don’t know him.
I’d like to talk about how you subvert some of the content of the songs. “Face in the Crowd” as sung by a woman, in this case Jen Goma, reveals a sexier, less creepy layer to the song. And you bring out even more of the Bob Dylan-isms in “Yer So Bad” to the surface.
Tom Petty relies on the phrases “baby” and “little girl” on the lyrics as a rock trope, so there’s a bit of talking down to women so I changed some of the lyrics in the album. He sings “You used to be such a sweet, young girl / why are you trying to be something else?” and I just changed it to Yyou don’t have to be a sweet, young girl / You can be something else.” I also changed “hey baby” to “hey now”, I wasn’t rigorous about it, but I changed a little bit to change the sentiment. With a song like “Face in the Crowd” having Jen sing gives it a different vantage point, a woman’s voice gave it different meaning. I tried to balance out this record as radical reinterpretation of music as opposed to just a Pains-y version of Tom Petty. Eight songs are basically the Pains playing Tom Petty songs, the rest are different sounding.
“Face in the Crowd” sounds like a song by Garbage now, and Jen is such a great singer, I don’t wanna take credit for being the mastermind, I basically asked her to come sing the song, and all the delivery was her. She’s an artist in her own right, she did a duet in one of Kurt’s albums with Ice Choir, so they gave a good rapport. The reason I even met Jen was she was doing some recording at Kurt’s house, he’s a perfectionist and after their session he was like “she’s the best soloist I’ve ever heard”. In Pains at the time we needed someone to collaborate with us and she was great.
So Jen would definitely be part of your Kip and the Heartbreakers setup?
Definitely, and Pains is like that in a way. People romanticize our classical lineup, some people have been involved longer than others, but it’s basically a world of people that want to be involved in the band at the time they can be. Kurt was in the band for five or six years, no one storms out of the group, people just do other projects, they don’t wanna travel as much, and that’s fine. I’m so grateful at how many people bring so many different elements to the group, otherwise, it would become stale. Drew [Citron] from Beverly also came over to do some backing vocals for a bunch of tracks, a friend of mine who is a professor at Princeton sang too. It’s a fun collaboration, where my friends, who are more talented than I am, can come over and do their thing.
The record came out great too, it’s not for superfans only, or that thing where if you wanted to know the Pains you’d listen to their weird Tom Petty covers record, but it’s an interesting insight into the kind of band we are, what inspires us and the kind of ideas we can bring to a different artist’s work. It’s a vinyl only thing so it’s not that easy to hear either. I need to get a copy soon, even my in-laws asked for one and I didn’t have one yet. [laughs] Covers are also such an ego-less thing, where no one is going like “I wrote this song so it needs to sound like this,” with the release of authorship the worst people can say is they don’t like our interpretation of music that already exists. I don’t think any of our versions are better than Tom Petty’s songs.
When you recorded The Echo of Pleasure you talked about how David Bowie’s death had influenced your mood during the recording, Tom Petty died last year as well. How do the deaths of your icons influence the way you see your work?
When I took on this project Tom was alive and well, I remember talking to a friend of mine who was in a ’90s band that did a Tom Petty cover, I don’t remember what band it was, but they did this super abstract cover, and Tom heard it and wrote to them, which I thought was pretty cool. So making this I kept thinking Tom might hear it and how this guy who influenced our lives would hear our music a little bit and not hate it. He died so suddenly and unexpectedly, it was the same with Prince, I thought Tom Petty would live forever like Willie Nelson, like he’d be smoking the fountain of youth marijuana or something like that.
His death makes our album of covers more significant than it should be. I can now see a blog going like “on the anniversary of Tom Petty’s death here’s the Pains’ cover of…” and I don’t want it to seem like I’m using his passing to promote my music. People are thinking this is a tribute to him done after his death, but no, we’d done most of this while he was alive. It was always more like I like Tom Petty, his songs are fun and we recorded them. We weren’t in the studio or anything when he died.
It makes for a very sad coincidence.
Yeah, I know not all these people will last forever. Some people begrudge artists like the Rolling Stones going on tour forever, and I think if you’ve made a life out of music you don’t choose that life because it’s an economically viable thing to do, some people in indie bands would probably make more money working at a 7/11, it’s so fortuitous these bands made any money. I think they’re just having fun and they love playing music, seeing people happy while they sing songs about being 20-year-olds in their 70s. I love that they do this.
I was watching a BBC documentary on Queen, I haven’t watched Bohemian Rhapsody because even if it did well I heard it was not the greatest movie, and I felt so sad thinking about how despite the band’s disagreements they were all so close to Freddie Mercury. At a time when a lot of the world demonized people with HIV, Freddie’s bandmates were so unabashedly close to him. Now when they tour they have a different singer and it’s sad they can’t all still be together. Honestly, I’m not sure of the point I’m trying to make, but if you’ve been music for decades these people become closer than family.
You mention your stepfather raised you on Tom Petty’s music. You have a daughter now, are there any records you’re dying to introduce her to when she’s older?
She’s already really into music. We don’t really show her TV because two and a half, but when I drop her off at daycare or preschool we watch some YouTube videos. There’s stuff I’m obviously trying to get her into [laughs] but she really gravitates to The Jackson 5 and The Supremes. Now she’s really into ABBA to the point where she doesn’t want to hear anything other than ABBA, especially “Waterloo”, “Dancing Queen”, and “Mamma Mia.” We listen to those songs a lot. I want her to see images of women making music and bands that incorporate women in meaningful ways as part of the creative process, so she can see people like her in music. We listen to Motown artists like the Vandellas too and I showed her some Strawberry Switchblade, I love how subversive and outrageously pop-rock they are, we also listened to Madonna music, but we come back to ABBA eventually. How can anyone resist that impeccably produced pop music?
It’s good she can see older things and a history of women creating things, and also it’s hard to play Bob Dylan for two and a half-year-old. I’ll be like this is so important and his attitude of women at the time was not so bad, but then I’m like, no let’s go back to ABBA. Also when you’re so small you’re so open-minded, it’s not like she’ll say she’s into everything but pop country. It’s fun to see a young person discovering everything for the first time. She was rapt watching The Supremes. Old fashioned doesn’t mean anything to her, she probably doesn’t understand what the difference between 50 years or 500 years means. It’s all fresh to her.
Maybe you can show her some Cher doing ABBA next. She has a new album of covers out.
I was thinking about Cher, I’m always trying to find the sweet spot of what would be good for her. Cher must be pretty good for a two-and-a-half-year-old. But wait, Cher did an album of ABBA covers?
Yeah! You were saying bands go on tour forever, Cher’s doing an ABBA world tour next year.
My daughter’s going to be three, I’d heard ABBA was doing music at some point and wondered if taking her to a concert would be a total disaster. What if she only wants to hear “Waterloo”? ABBA wasn’t as big a deal in the US as they were worldwide, they sold 380 million records so I think they did OK in life. Their music is so good and you have all these crazy things like “Super Trouper” where you have them going “sup-p-per troup-p-per” it was such a playful approach to music. Their legacy is felt in almost every Swedish band, it’s almost like it permeated the water.