A Conversation With Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers)

Spread The Feeling (Ashmont) is the most accessible Pernice Brothers album in decades—not that it matters much at this point. Even bandleader Joe Pernice acknowledges that it’s hard to know what accessible means these days. One thing is certain: The group’s first LP in nine years is accessible only via Bandcamp.com. No iTunes, no Spotify, no dice.

Pernice is quick to note that he doesn’t feel he’s owed a thing—except maybe a few bucks for a vibrant piece of work that was a bit of a bear to make. At least four of the tracks were salvaged from an album scrapped by a dissatisfied Pernice a few years ago.

More recently, he went back in the studio with engineer Liam Jaeger in Toronto, reworking and remixing a handful of the old tunes and adding new ones. Given the quality of “Skinny Jeanne,” “Throw Me To The Lions” (with Pete Yorn on backup vocals) and especially “The Devil And The Jinn” (with Neko Case), that first LP wasn’t total loss. And the fresh tracks fill out the set quite nicely, at times countering the edgier approach of the other material. 

The Pernice Brothers—which still includes sibs Joe and Bob—just finished up a short tour to support Spread The Feeling. The band will be back on the road again in the first half of 2020. In the meantime, Joe’s got a few things to get off his chest.

It’s been 10 years since the last Pernice Brothers album—though you did record something you weren’t too happy with in that span.
I just wasn’t into it, so I scrapped the record. I didn’t want to put it out. Then I went back and listened to a few of the songs, gave them a little space and decided maybe I should keep a few. With my working partner, Liam Yaeger, I reworked the old takes and finished them off. 

What was it about the album that rubbed you the wrong way?
I just didn’t like the collection of songs—I don’t think they went well together. I scrapped maybe seven songs; we’d recorded 11, and I kept four—the songs Ric (Menck) played drums on. I’m not precious about it. When I’m writing songs, I like being focused and really into something. But that’s where the fun is.

You’ve also done some work for books and TV. How does that differ from songwriting?
I definitely like trying to make something out of words. When it clicks, it can be a pretty good buzz. But the minute I pick up a guitar and hit a chord, it automatically speaks to me in a more emotional way—definitely a kind of ease and an automatic pleasure. Just the sound of music puts me in a good mood when I’m writing a song, whether it’s a happy song or a sad song.

Every track on Spread The Feeling seems to have it’s own sonic space and personality.
We definitely chased down each tune as if it was the only song. We weren’t thinking about getting a unified sound. It was recorded in different places over a longer period of time. With (1998 debut) Overcome By Happiness, for example, we didn’t have the luxury of experimentation, because we were bound by the economics. We just got our drum sound, put our heads down and did it. Now you can own first-class gear in your bedroom and do 40 takes if you want. To be free from the financial constraints of it is no small factor.

It’s amazing how much change there’s been around the music industry since Overcome By Happiness was released.
I remember doing our first studio recording with the Scud Mountain Boys, and there was this new technology: You could get a CD-R burned of your session and play it on a CD player. The studio was $60 an hour. Making records is a breeze now—it’s really quite amazing. But selling them is harder. I think of the first Scud Mountain Boys record … The guy that made it pressed 1,000, and we never got paid for any of them—he kind of fucked us over. But the point is: He got paid. Nowadays, a band that puts out 1,000 records is hustling to sell any of them. People just don’t buy records, so it’s harder to make a living.

Speaking of making a living, what else are you doing these days?
I was writing scripts for a homicide show on Canadian TV. It doesn’t pay as much as [American TV], but I was still like, “Holy crap. That’s still a lot of money.” I’ll probably do another album and work on another television show.

So, these days, it’s more about getting the music out there?
I’m not going on tour for this album to make money. We put it out on Bandcamp.com, so if you want the record, there it is. Not to be a prima donna, but I really think the way money is distributed in such a small way to the artist [with streaming] is devaluing the music. I’m not looking to retire; I’m not gouging people out of tons of money. But like, “Fuck it. If you want the record, you can buy it.” I’m not gonna do it for free. But I’m also not selling belt buckles with my name on them for $50 each. I really do want to stress that I don’t feel like I’m owed anything. I just decided that I want to put my records out using a model that’s fair to me. If people want to come along and be part of that, beautiful. If they don’t, that’s fine, too. I just don’t want to be part of the problem.

Now that you’ve had some time to process Spread The Feeling, where do you see it falling in the Pernice Brothers catalog?
It’s one of the better ones—though I don’t think about it much because I’m on to another one already. I’m not being a smart-ass when I say that I really don’t think about an album much after I put it out. I drove my wife to work today, and I reached into a stack of CDs and pulled out a burn of this album. I was like, “Oh, fuck. There’s no way I wanna put that on.” For me, it’s all about the writing and recording. When that’s done, it’s like the tide—another song comes moving in.

—Hobart Rowland