MAGNET Classics: Pernice Brothers’ “Overcome By Happiness”

PerniceBrothers

The Making Of Pernice Brothers’ Overcome By Happiness
By Michael Pelusi

The trinity ball is a 56-year-old tradition of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. During the celebration, held after the last day of classes, thousands of students don formal wear, enjoy live music and unwind to commemorate the end of a long school year.

In 1999, Northampton, Mass., group Pernice Brothers played the ball, along with Supergrass and others. The band members have very particular memories of the event. “The cream of British society sends their children to this school,” says guitarist Peyton Pinkerton. “And there were people shagging up in trees. All dressed to the nines, mind you.”

“We were playing ‘Wait To Stop,’” says bassist/producer Thom Monahan. “We’re standing in front of 1,500 to 2,000 drunk Irish kids in formal gowns, all dancing wasted-as-fuck to that song. We always said that was the make-out song.”

When reminded of the event, frontman Joe Pernice can at first only say, “Oh my God.” He continues with a memory of the song’s creation. “When the lead guitar comes in on ‘Wait To Stop,’ we really wanted it to have a ’70s slow-dance vibe to it. We were imagining it being in Carrie. Real ’70s slow-dance sadness. And it was really fun when it happened. There were kids slow-dancing to it. It was awesome.”

How many of those soused, swaying, spit-swapping Irish kids knew that a year prior, that band onstage had released that song on one of the most masterfully, sadly beautiful albums of their—or any—age, 1998’s Overcome By Happiness (Sub Pop)? Or that beforehand, the band’s frontman was doing most of his performing at a kitchen table?

“I definitely think Joe is one of the most underrated, incredible songwriters,” says Monahan, now an in-demand producer (Devendra Banhart, Vetiver) in L.A. “He’s fucking amazing. I do not think that that guy has gotten his due.”

“Anybody who creates such quality material in such a short amount of time, it always astounds me,” says Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman. “And Joe was really on a roll.”

Pernice shrugs off this kind of talk. “I don’t feel like, ‘Oh this record is so great, it should be heard by millions of people.’ I promise you, I’ve never felt a sense of entitlement.”

Before the Pernice Brothers, there were the Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice’s prior band. They specialized in an especially moody brand of alt-country. They played Pernice originals with titles like “Fiery Coffin” and “Grudge Fuck,” as well as irony-free covers of Glen Campbell’s “Where’s The Playground, Susie” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Mr. Please.” They were initially a rock band named the Scuds, until they started informally gathering around a kitchen table to play country songs. Once rechristened, they started bringing the kitchen table up onstage.

“The Scuds were these dudes who were always playing these late-night jams at this house ’round the corner down this really shady, wooded little road,” says Monahan, who had just moved to Northampton in the mid-’90s. He wound up recording their 1995 album, Dance The Night Away, ushering in a 10-year collaboration with Pernice. “I happened to have an eight-track, and I just dragged it into (guitarist) Bruce Tull’s house, and we did Dance The Night Away,” he says. “It was fairly romantic, I gotta say; windows open, rainstorms blowing through in the middle of takes.”

Monahan found about Pernice’s prodigious writing ability when the two became roommates. “He was always writing,” he says. “Joe and I were living together in this apartment. Joe would always be playing songs in the kitchen. It was just ridiculous. He was just churning them out. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d be playing some song he’d written. I’d be like, ‘God, another one!’”

For their final album, 1996’s Massachusetts, the Scud Mountain Boys had landed a contract with Sub Pop, thanks to the enthusiasm of the label’s East Coast rep, Joyce Linehan, who lived in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. But Pernice was already a little restless. “We were a certain genre of music, just by what our skill sets were and what we all liked to play as a group,” he says. “And I just wanted to do more than that.”

Enter Bob Pernice, brother of Joe. While not a professional musician, he still played guitar and occasionally sat in with the Scud Mountain Boys. Pernice Brothers first joined forces as a band to record a handful of songs with Monahan and some other musicians at Bob’s house. Two songs, “Jimmy Coma” and “Monkey Suit,” came out as a Sub Pop seven-inch in 1997. These songs, Bob Pernice says, were “straightforward rock.” It wasn’t quite the sound Joe Pernice had in mind. “I think he was gravitating towards something a little bit more complex and refined,” says Bob. “Maybe (the seven-inch) was a stepping stone.”

According to Joe, “I wanted to do something that had a full orchestra, a lot of piano-based stuff. I wanted the guitars to have less of the country twang.”

The seeds of the Scud Mountain Boys’ demise had been planted. Not that it was a decision that came easy to their soon-to-be former frontman.

“I struggled with it,” Joe admits. “The Scud Mountain Boys, those guys were my closest friends. These guys are your closest friends, the music’s pretty good, and you just made a record that’s been really critically acclaimed, and you could probably build on that. I contemplated not doing it, because I thought, ‘Jesus I’m giving all that up, just for what?’ To take a crack at making this kind of record when I don’t even know if it’s going to work? At the end of the day, I just had to go with what I really wanted to do and not worry about any of that other stuff.

“And I’ll tell you what: It was not only a turning point in my musical career, it was a big turning point in my life, because I grabbed my balls, as we say, and I did it. I just thought I had to do it. And I risked this other thing, and I risked friendships, and my friendships certainly suffered for a long time. So, it was a big risk, but I had to do it because I knew I wouldn’t be happy just doing the Scud Mountain Boys anymore.”

So, with the enthusiastic support of Poneman and Linehan of Sub Pop, Pernice Brothers began assembling a band for their first album. Monahan was in, of course, and he lobbied for Pinkerton, who was a guitarist/singer for another Northampton band, New Radiant Storm King. “Thom suggested me since I was not going to bring the same kind of country background to the music,” he says. Pinkerton was tasked with supplying “some more angular playing. Which is funny because it was Overcome By Happiness, which by no means was an angular record per se. Also I got different sounds. I played around with effects back then.”

Michael Deming, another collaborator from the Scud Mountain Boys days, signed on to help produce and engineer, as well as play keyboards and write string and horn arrangements. Aaron Sperske (later of Beachwood Sparks, Father John Misty and others) was brought on as drummer. It’s no coincidence that Monahan, Deming and Sperske had all just helped make the Lilys’ acclaimed 1996 effort Better Can’t Make Your Life Better, even if that album’s crazed take on the Kinks circa 1966 was very different from what Overcome By Happiness would become. “I think it appealed to Joe that they captured this sound they were going for, the ’60s sound, at a time when people were trying for certain sounds and missing them,” Pinkerton says.

Joe Pernice and Monahan had already demoed the songs, and had a general sense of the arrangements they wanted. Deming got to work on writing orchestral arrangements. The musicians convened at Studio .45 in Hartford, Conn.

Joe admits that at the beginning of the sessions, “I was a little bit nervous. The Scud Mountain Boys had a real vibe and a rapport. So, now I was concerned we might not get it. I didn’t know what the chemistry was going to be like. I also knew that we didn’t have a ton of money, and when you’re in the studio, you don’t know if you’re gonna have the time to do it. If you run out of money, then you get what you get. Luckily, when we started, things started to fall in place really well.”

“Everybody in that whole scene was like a machine at that point,” says Monahan. “That’s all we did was just play shows, then you just record and you record and you record. We were always in work mode.”

“The first time I walked in the studio, Deming was playing the beautiful keyboard part to ‘Dimmest Star,’” says Bob. “That kind of set the tone for me. It’s such a beautiful song and beautiful part. It really set the path for me what this is going to sound like. I had known Deming, but (I remember) seeing him bent over with that shiny head over a keyboard and just hearing those sounds come out.”

Joe summarizes the experience with, “The recording started out tentatively in my mind, only because I’m a freak. And then it loosened up really quickly, and stuff was happening. And it was very, very exciting.”

Though Overcome By Happiness mines a general ’60-’70s orchestral-pop vein, that doesn’t mean the musicians spent a lot of time trying to nail down specific sounds. “You think of the Zombies and the Bee Gees,” says Monahan, “but it wasn’t like we were putting on those records and trying to make it sound like that.”

Pinkerton remembers conversations about the Carpenters and Badfinger, but says those influences wound up “in the fringes of what Overcome By Happiness does.”

Deming says the biggest influence on his arrangements were Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff: “I’m 52, so I grew up listening to Philly soul. That becomes your orchestration vocabulary. It’s kind of a cross of Brahms and Gamble and Huff.” At the same time, he also says, “In those days, we didn’t really go at recording any of those records with the feeling that we wanted to emulate any sound or time period. It would just kind of unfold.”

Joe is even more succinct about the album’s sound: “Honestly, what you hear is what we were hoping for. It was one of those records where you get it.”

The real goal was to capture the spirit of Joe’s songs. “There’s a particular mood, and especially with Joe, there is a kind of extended moment,” says Monahan. “One of his real gifts is that his songs create a moment that just doesn’t break. It starts and it keeps going, and you’re just immersed in it. Most of the production and focus on the record was: How do we make sure that that moment isn’t broken?”

When the string and horn players came in and recorded their parts, it became even clearer how special the album was becoming. “When we did the string sessions, which were the last few days of recording, oh my God, then it just went into space,” says Joe. “It was so thrilling.”

Pinkerton concurs. “That was a magic moment, because I never thought I’d be a part of something that would sound like that,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, my parents are going to love this.’ But I also knew my friends would like it at the same time. It just had this quality that would appeal to a lot of people on a lot of levels.”

The end result was an album where sympathetic players and soaring arrangements came together to bring Pernice’s amazing songs to life. From the sharp-yet-sympathetic wit of the title track to the nine-to-five lamentations of “Monkey Suit” to hauntingly stark suicide narrative “Chicken Wire,” the album indeed casts a captivating mood. Pernice received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the lyrics to each song create a precise mood and sense of place, without it ever seemingly like he’s showing off, or being clever for clever’s sake.

Deming in particular cites “All I Know,” where Pernice’s whispered vocals are accompanied by piano and strings. The song’s lyrics are simple, but they strike right to the listener’s heart. “All your friends may go/And your luck may go/But you never feel as bad as when she goes/It’s all I know.”
“That song speaks to everyone. You’ll remember a friend that that applies to,” says Deming. “It’s a powerful song.”

An altered lineup was assembled for touring purposes: Joe, Monahan, Pinkerton, Laura Stein (now Mrs. Joe Pernice) on keyboards and Mike Belitsky on drums, with Bob occasionally making an appearance. (“I’ve always have been and continue to be a sort of tacit member of the band,” he says. “I’ve never done a full tour with them. I typically would jump on the first five or last five shows.”)

Playing live—and not just for drunk college students—the band could see the effect of the songs on audiences. “The fans, at first it was definitely a lot of guys,” says Pinkerton. “And a lot of guys in the front row who looked like Joe. It was pretty funny to have this cult of Joe.”

But Bob also detected a new element. “When we would play ‘Clear Spot,’ I think there were women ready to throw their underwear on the stage for some reason,” he says. “It doesn’t come across like that on the record—it has a nice little bop to it. But live, it was as close to a dance number as Joe’s ever written.”

Overcome By Happiness garnered favorable reviews and a cult following. Record sales, however, were less than perhaps expected “The label was in a real state of flux at that time, and I think the record would have done better if the label had been in better shape,” says Joe. “But that’s not to say that they fucked it up.”

Jonathan Poneman agrees. “In our kind of tongue-in-cheek corporate mythology, we refer to those years as the dark years,” he says. “All kidding aside, they were years filled with struggle and trying to figure out what we did as a company.” A few years earlier, Sub Pop had sold 49 percent of its shares to Warner Bros. “We had done this deal with Warner Music; there was a big infusion of cash. There was a predictable collusion of corporate cultures. They found out that they’d spent a lot of money on something they didn’t know what to do with. We found out we got a lot of money and didn’t know what to do with it.”

The era of grunge that Sub Pop was so frequently identified with was over by 1998, and it wasn’t clear yet what was next for the label. “We thought Overcome By Happiness was something that would take off more than it did,” says Poneman. “It’s not to suggest that we were disappointed. We were so used to being disappointed, because we thought we were releasing some truly extraordinary records, be it by Zumpano or Six Finger Satellite.”

And yet, the smart lyrics, sweet melodies and careful production of Overcome By Happiness in some ways predicted the Sub Pop of the 21st century, when albums like the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World (2001) and the Postal Service’s Give Up (2003) helped the label forge a new identity.

Joe Pernice would release one more album on Sub Pop, a self-titled effort in 2000 from Chappaquiddick Skyline, an outfit that featured many Pernice Brothers players performing music that was much sparser than Overcome By Happiness. Shortly thereafter, Pernice and Joyce Linehan both left Sub Pop to start their own label, Ashmont Records, which released Pernice Brothers’ subsequent six albums. More recently, Linehan has become a key figure in Massachusetts politics. She helped with the campaigns of Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Boston mayor Marty Walsh, for whom she now serves as chief of policy.

Pernice Brothers would cycle through assorted other players in the ensuing years, including the likes of James Walbourne (Pretenders, Rails), Ric Menck (Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet) and former MAGNET contributor Patrick Berkery (Bigger Lovers, Danielson).

Looking back at the making of Overcome By Happiness, Monahan says, “We definitely knew that there was a weight to the music that, when you got it right, you could just tell it was there. It was just pouring out of the speakers. We all knew how to get there. Everybody who was involved with that record knew what the hell was going on. There wasn’t a lot of searching for it. Right when Joe would play the acoustic guitar and sing, you’d be an idiot not to know that there was something, what it should be. It was just right there right in front of you.”

At the end of the day, perhaps part of what makes Overcome By Happiness such a classic is that its seeming naturalness was achieved with plenty of inspiration and hard work, but little to no fuss.

For his part, Joe begs off any game plan behind the album’s amazing songs. “I think I was just naturally writing a certain kind of song,” he says. “I was listening to a crazy amount of music. And I know I was writing a ton of songs at the time. And stuff just surfaced. To be honest with you, you hear a sound in your head and you write a song, and almost never am I trying to write a certain type of song. You just take what comes, right?”