The Brutal Truth at Last: An Interview with Reid Paley
One of America's best -- and most underrated -- songwriters talks about life, liquor, Pittsburgh, and what it's like to write songs with Frank Black.
"I'll see you again ... when the sun begins to shine", Reid Paley belts in a rough-hewn growl that falls somewhere south of guttural. With his black-suited, minimalist band -- just Paley, Jim Murray on drums, and Eric Eble on Czechoslovakian upright bass -- Paley has been known to tear the roof off any number of dives, even, one night last year, at the Hammerstein Ballroom, opening for long-time friend and songwriting collaborator Frank Black's band the Pixies. His songs, infused with liquor and failure and glistening-edged sarcasm, are as true as pulp fiction and twice as gory. Think of him not as a peer of Ryan Adams or Nick Cave or Tom Waits, but as a latter-day Bukowski or William Kennedy, a dive-bar poet whose lopsided, gin-soaked grin just might hide a hint of tragedy. "There's people gonna tell you / That your life can go to hell / But how you gonna get there / When you've got no soul to sell?" he sings on the 9/11-influenced "Everything Is Going Wrong (& That's Alright)," paradoxically, one of his most upbeat sounding songs ever.
Paley's third solo album, Approximate Hellhound came out this May, self-released after a long and fruitless battle with indie label indifference. Paley says he started on the current album in 2004, and hoped to have some backing with it. However, as the months slipped by, he resigned himself to doing it all. "The actual recording took about two weeks," he said. "It was getting to that point that was difficult." But he adds, "That the usual (and unusual) obstacles were somewhat more numerous this time was a little challenging, but I'm glad that it turned out just fine. It pretty much always has."
The result, however long in coming, is a barroom brawl of a album, full of braggadocio, venom, and the occasional moment of bleary tenderness. Its stand-up bass comes from jazz, its bent and sliding vocals from blues, its lyric lilt from country ... and yet it is none of these things. "Of course, it's rock 'n' roll," says Paley, when asked. "It may not be run-of-the-mill rock. I hope it's a little more intelligent than that. But what else would you call it?"
Born in Brooklyn, Paley says that whatever jazz creeps into his metier comes from his father, a clarinet and saxophone player, or his mother, also a music lover, who "saw me as their little research project". Even in before he was born, Paley says, his dad would hold up a tuning fork to the womb, hoping to inculcate little Reid with an innate sense of perfect pitch.
Paley left Brooklyn as a teenager, heading to gritty Pittsburgh for college. There he formed a punk band called The Five, still fondly remembered among punk archivists. (Maximum Rock and Roll called them "One of the great undiscovered American bands".) "One writer said we were a band that had the feeling of blues without any blues progressions," says Paley. "It was rough. It was brutal." In Pittsburgh, Paley would get gigs for the band by paying afternoon visits to deadbeat bars, telling owners he could pack the place with 300 people within a month, then hauling Pas and equipment in for shows. "It would take a couple of weeks," he says, "before the owner would figure out that he could put his guy at the door and make all the money." At that point, it was time to find a new bar.
The band moved to Boston in the late 1980s, a compromise move that still befuddles Paley. "Most bands, when they want to make a move, will go to a city like New York, Los Angeles, or London," he says. "We went to Boston." They encountered a scene where nearly every band called itself "gargage" (this was during the Lyres' heyday) and it was not unusual for bands from suburban Newton or Westwood to show up for gigs in cowboy boots and silver buckles. The hard-living Five, Paley observes, stood out. Yet they built a following, and sometime in the late 1980s became large enough to offer an opening slot to another emerging Boston band just starting to make some waves. That band was the Pixies, and it was around this time that Paley entered into a long and mutually beneficial friendship with Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black).
By the early 1990s, the Five split up, and Paley headed back to New York. Still writing songs, but with no one to play them with, he took a series of odd jobs, mostly in set construction for ads, cable television, and music videos. This period of his life included work on sets for Salt-N-Pepa, INXS and others, he comments. One day, he ran into his old friend James Murray, then working at a recording studio. Murray urged him to come into the studio and get the songs he was working on down on tape. "Mostly we were archiving songs that I'd already written," Paley says. "Pretty soon, I had a whole shelf full of tapes with my name on them."
Lucky's Tune, Paley's first solo album, recorded on "one 1955 Gretsch, one '65 Fender tube amp" and produced by none other than Frank Black himself, came out in 1999. It won fervent underground praise; Village Voice called Paley the owner of "a voice to turn good girls bad" and Pittsburgh City Paper hailed his "Reduce-you-to-tears razor wit". Revival came next, in 2000, this time produced by Eric Drew Feldman, and again reduced a circle of critics and fans to putty. One obscure zine writer (okay me), called the album "Brutally honest and quite funny ... Simple forms hit so hard by passion, intelligence and humor that they stretch into something surreal".
Yet mainstream success continued to elude Paley. He spent the better part of a year and a half in negotiations with an unnamed label before his deal fell apart. Although he refused to talk details, the experience seems to have been ugly. "I just know that every time I ask a label for anything -- and with few exceptions, anytime I get someone else to drive the bus for me -- I end up in a ditch on the side of the road with my legs cut off," he observed.
Paley kept busy in the interim, writing songs, playing shows, and reconnecting with his old friend Frank Black. Black chose a Paley song, "Take What You Want" as the b-side for his "Everything Is New" single in 2003. Later, he included "Another Velvet Nightmare", a song co-written with Paley, on his 2005 album Honeycomb. Fast Man Raider Man included four Paley/Black collaborations, written during a few days of what Paley calls "songwriting camp" in California.
Asked what was different about his songwriting process and Black's, Paley pauses to reflect. "I'm a lot more instinctual about the whole process. He'll want to know what's going on in the song, and what the rhyme scheme is..." he says. "I say, m'Man, you make me feel like a fucking hippie by comparison.'"
Paley says he doesn't write songs with anyone else, and he's still not sure why the process works so well with Black, but he likes it. "Sometimes the original idea of the song will come from him, and sometimes the original idea comes from me, and sometimes it just happens," he says. "And there are some that sound more like him, and some that kind of stink of me. You could probably tell 'I'm Not Dead (I'm in Pittsburgh)' was one of those."
After numerous tours supporting Frank Black throughout the US and Europe, Paley and his trio were invited to open for the Pixies at one of their revival shows in NYC at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Asked if he ever thought the band that opened for The Five all those years ago would become this huge, he says, "I always thought they were a great band. And they were huge in Europe almost right away back then" But then he adds, "It's not so often that good things happen to good bands. Watching it happen was like watching the metal ball travel through one of those mazes where, incredibly, it drops through the right hole every time."
Paley's path has certainly not been as smooth or as well-timed ... but at least the struggle has given him material to write about. His third solo disc, Approximate Hellhound came out this spring, and it's another installment of boozy brilliant, uncategorizable rock/jazz/blues songs. "Better Days", a mid-tempo survivor's stomp, swings with belligerent bravado, perhaps best capturing the Reid Paley experience in the verse that goes: "Hangover sunrise Sunday morning / Half-dead on Bedford Avenue / Some people say / These things happen every day / And I think it might be happening to you."