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Interview: Joe Pernice (The Pernice Brothers)

2 June 2023

Photo by Dennis Kleiman (circa 1998)

Joe Pernice needs no introduction to Big Takeover readers. Jack Rabid did an extensive cover story for issue 87 (Fall 2020) and the Big Takeover Instagram did a great job of documenting the Pernice Brothers show at Racket NYC on May 19 to commemorate the release of 1998’s Overcome by Happiness on vinyl for the first time ever.

A few weeks prior to the show, I was able to chat with Joe for the first time about my favorite record from 1998 and cover some stuff that’s not in the 52-page hardbound book that is part of the deluxe version of Overcome by Happiness.

After the Scud Mountain Boys broke up and you started something new with The Pernice Brothers, was Sub Pop ready, willing and anxious to continue working with you?

JOE: Yeah The person who signed the Scud Mountain Boys to Sub Pop was Joyce Linehan. She was the head of A&R at Sub Pop, and it just so happened that her office was on the East Coast. She was in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which is very close to where I grew up. And we had a lot in common because we were Bostonians. We both went to Catholic school. She’s Irish. My mother’s side of the family is Irish. So she signed the Scud Mountain Boys, and then she was still our A&R person when I wanted to do something else.

And to Joyce’s credit, from day one, from when she showed up at a Scud Mountain Boys show, she said, “We want to sign you guys.” I was like, “You haven’t heard anything else.” And she said, “Well, I just heard your set, and I just heard this seven-inch you made. Those songs you did tonight, have they been recorded yet or have they been put out?” I said “No.” And she said, “Well, we want to sign you.” That was just off of a show. To chase the chronology of it a little, she left Sub Pop, and became my manager. Then she was no longer my manager, she became my partner. And she and I then started a record label that we still have together to this day. So I’ve been with Joyce for 28 years. And in all of the time that we’ve made music together, that we’ve put out records, at first, she financed them. I didn’t have the money to make the records, and she did. And she never once said to me, even when she was with Sub Pop, she never once said to me, “Let me hear some songs.” I never jumped through any hoops. She’d say, “What do you need to get it done?” And I’d say, “I need X, Y and Z.” And she’d say, “I can do that” or “I can’t do that.” She never ever held my feet to the fire and made me prove anything. She just trusted me.

Would you have ever believed in 1998, when you were making Overcome by Happiness, that you would be talking about it again 25 years later?

JOE: No. I’ve said it in tons of interviews, and it really is the truth, I don’t really think about the music much when it’s done because the thing I love to do is write songs and make recordings. That’s how I like to spend my time. So even when we were making Overcome by Happiness, I already had a list of songs that I was thinking of doing next. I always say that I cleared out the pipes as soon as that record was over.

So no, I would never have thought that I’d be talking about it 25 years later because I probably didn’t want to talk about it even at the time. Not that it was frustrating or anything, my mind was somewhere else.

I tried to interview you in 1998 but when I called, I got your answering machine. So, personally, I’m happy that we get to talk about this record even though it’s 25 years later.

JOE: Yeah, it’s cool. I’m glad the record is coming out in vinyl, too. Back then, we made it to be on vinyl even though CDs were the big thing. We recorded on two-inch analog tape and our dream was to go A to A to A – record analog, go analog master, and then go right to LP. It didn’t happen, although I do have two test pressings. Sub Pop did test press the vinyl in ’98, but I think by the time they were going to do it they were in a bit of a money situation and they decided never to do it.

So I actually have an LP of Overcome from 1998. I’ll probably sell it (laughs). You know what? I bet you I’ve heard it one time. I wouldn’t even doubt it if I’d never listened to the whole thing. I don’t even have a turntable, so I definitely haven’t heard it in the last 20 years.

Was the impetus for Overcome by Happiness coming on vinyl driven by Brady Brock at New West Records?

JOE: Yeah. I wasn’t even thinking of this record. He got in touch with me and, at first, I was super skeptical because to me it’s ancient history. And the more I talked to him, the more I liked what he was saying.

To be fair, that Sub Pop owns that album and New West licensed the record from them. I don’t own the album. So in a sense, they could have made a deal without even talking to me. That’s what happened with one record. One time after I had left Sub Pop, I got an email from some label in Spain that said, “We licensed that Scud Mountain Boys sampler and we’re putting out, and we’re wondering if we can set up some interviews with you.” And I was like, “What?” So they went and licensed a bunch of the songs to this label. And, to be fair, that label only did it because they were fans. But I’ll tell you, the last thing I was going to do was do any kind of press for that. I had zero to do with it. But New West could have just made the deal.

Brady got in touch with me and said, “We want to do this, and this is what I have in mind for packaging.” He sent me this whole big thing that he had done for Pylon. And he said, “But I don’t want anything to do with it if you don’t want to do it.”

I was cagey and I took a little while to warm up, but he was legit. And I got more and more into the idea of it, so much did I get into the idea of it that my partner, Joyce, and I just licensed our whole catalog to that label. New West is going to be the stewards of my catalog, and I’m going to do a couple of new albums for them. It was a good fit. It took about a year for us to put that deal together but after almost a year of talking, it all came together. I’m glad I did it. And when I finally saw the finished product of the Overcome by Happiness Deluxe Box, I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I was like, “Holy smokes, this is a lovely artifact,” and I’m so happy I did it.

The packaging looks great. At the time it came out, things like iTunes and Napster were taking off and if you didn’t have the CD, and only purchased the digital files, the art was postage stamp size. What’s your take on digital music?

JOE: It’s a different way of listening to music, I guess. I don’t knock it. I really don’t. If Spotify was even remotely equitable to the artists, it would be a phenomenal thing because it’s a pretty amazing way to listen to music. And it’s just unfortunate that they’re so greedy, but that’s how it is.

You do release music on Bandcamp, right?

JOE: Yeah, we did all of our music through Bandcamp. For the last few years, Bandcamp has been even doing our vinyl. They’re fantastic. And New West does their music through Bandcamp, too, so I’m happy that we’re deserting them.

And with Bandcamp, you actually get paid.

JOE: Yeah. That’s why I’ve been able to make records. I don’t know if everyone has the same deal from Bandcamp, but boy, Bandcamp is fantastic. I couldn’t ask for a better deal than Bandcamp. I would recommend that to anybody who is trying to start their own label, do it that way. Own your stuff, own your music, and get paid a fair wage and build up your following on your own. I think we make like 80% of the money on Bandcamp or something like 85%, and you got paid the next day. I mean, it’s crazy. I don’t know how much you know about record deals, but boy, you wait a year for your royalties and then you don’t even get all of them because they withhold some.

When the album came out, reviews often cited “Monkey Suit” and “Chicken Wire” as the standout tracks and you talked about the stories behind those songs in interviews. Is there a song that you think was overlooked, that you’re particularly proud of but haven’t talked a lot about?

JOE: I just had listen to the record. I probably listened to the record five times in the last two weeks because I’m going to play some shows and I have to actually relearn a few of the songs. And there’s a song called “Shoes and Clothes,” which, when I heard it, I was like, “Wow, that came out really good.” I had forgotten all about it.

And there’s a song, “Dimmest Star,” which I thought came out really nicely too. If I remember right, that song I wrote maybe days before we were going to make the record. Usually when I make a record, there’s always like a last minute dark horse that comes out of nowhere and I’ll think, “This song is better than all of them. It has to be on the record.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel that way. And “Dimmest Star” was the song on that record. I wrote a song called “Courage Up,” which was on my list of songs for Overcome by Happiness, and I remember “Dimmest Star” bumped it off the list. I ended up recording “Courage Up” later for a record called Chappaquiddick Skyline.

I saw you twice on the Overcome by Happiness tour in Columbus, Ohio. One of those times was at a club called Little Brothers …

JOE: Oh, God. That was an interesting tour because we played with the band Jolene. Those guy left the tour and that Columbus show was our only solo show because they had to go remix a song. That show was the day after the drunkest I’ve ever been in my entire life. We went to a Chinese restaurant and, boy, we got wasted. I was blinded. I’m sure my glasses melted in a pool of my own vomit somewhere. I woke up and I was wasted and I couldn’t see because I lost my glasses, I was so drunk. I had to go to some mall to a LensCrafters and they made me some new glasses. You know how when you’ve been drinking you think you’re hungry, so you should go eat? I remember going to like a Chi-Chi’s, one of those Mexican restaurants, thinking I was starving. And I had like one bite of food and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I raced to the can and I was hunched over. I was sick and above me on this little tiny speaker was that Wilson Phillips song that goes, “Hold on for one more day.” I remember just laughing. I was like, “You got to be fucking kidding me.” It was really funny. That was an interesting show because that hangover lasted about three days.

The thing I remember from that show was you covered Dumptruck’s “Island.” It was so good and, years later, I emailed Joyce asking if you had ever recorded that song.

JOE: I’m sure there could be a live version of it someplace, but we never did a studio version of it. No need, really, because the original version is phenomenal. What a great song that is. The For the Country album is a freaking masterpiece.

You mentioned that you’re always writing music and that New West will be putting stuff out. Do you have a lot of unreleased stuff?

JOE: Yeah. More so than ever. Mostly because for about six, seven years, my son played kind of high-level youth baseball, travel and high level. And I coached for a number of years, so it took up a ton of my time, so my music took a little bit of a slowdown. But ever since he retired from high-level competitive ball, I’ve just been writing like crazy. Ever since the pandemic, I’ve just been gone like it was the old days.

You played shows in Boston and New York to celebrate the release of the vinyl. Are your days of hopping in a van and going coast to coast done?

JOE: I don’t think they are, but I don’t think I would go on tour for five weeks in a row again. But I would go and do a good sized tour. I really do want to do a solo tour. There’s a lot of America I haven’t played alone, which I really would like to do.

And I want to do a tour. I’m really into cycling. Become a fanatic. I’ve always been into bicycles and into cycling, but my mania is at an all time high. So I want to do a tour next year where maybe I do a handful of cities, maybe on the west coast, where I travel by bike and do some solo shows in just a few cities, like maybe Vancouver, Victoria, maybe Seattle, Portland, and do them by bicycle. So there’s a few things I want to do that are more interesting than just play clubs again.

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LINKS

Joe Pernice on Bandcamp: https://joepernice.bandcamp.com/music
The Pernice Brothers on Bandcamp: https://pernicebrothers.bandcamp.com/
Listen to an extended interview with Joe Pernice on the Dig Me Out podcast: https://www.digmeoutpodcast.com/episode/659-interview-with-joe-pernice
Purchase Overcome by Happines: https://newwestrecords.com/collections/pernice-brothers