Q&A With Pete Yorn

Pete Yorn has been surprisingly prolific of late. Consider that it was three years between his sophomore outing, 2003’s Day I Forgot, and 2006’s bracingly eclectic Nightcrawler, the latter largely restoring the potential of his brazenly accomplished out-of-nowhere debut, 2001’s Musicforthemorningafter. Another three years between releases, and Montville, N.J.’s favorite boho chick magnet suddenly had a lot more to say. Last year saw the release of Back & Fourth, followed by Break Up, a wispy collaboration with Scarlett Johansson inspired by Serge Gainsbourg’s duets with Brigitte Bardot. Now Yorn has ditched his smokin’-hot muse for Frank Black, who encouraged the confessed perfectionist and overdub junky to strip away the studio varnish and rawk out for the new Pete Yorn (Vagrant). As you might expect, the results are mixed, even a smidge Pixie-esque (see “The Chase”). But they’re never boring—something that can’t be said about Back & Fourth, produced with relentless taste and restraint by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes fame. Yorn will be guest editing all week.

“Precious Stone” (download):

MAGNET: At the rate you’re going these days, we can expect the next Pete Yorn album in, say, about four months? How do you explain your prodigious creative output of late?
Yorn: I briefly lost my mind.

The chronology laid out in the press info for Pete Yorn is a bit confusing. Was it recorded before or after Back & Fourth? Or was it during the B&F sessions?
It was recorded about two weeks before I started recording Back & Fourth. I already had the plans to go to Omaha but wanted to squeeze in the Frank Black session.

What were the circumstances that brought you and Frank Black together?

Once you get past the first single, “Precious Stone,” the vibe on Pete Yorn only gets more raw and unpolished. That would seem to go against your own studio instincts. Was it difficult to surrender to Black’s warts-and-all philosophy?
I really enjoyed working with Frank and seeing his process. He was a great mentor, coach, motivator, psychoanalyst and … producer. He had strong ideas and was able to articulate them to the musicians and myself. His ability to know what he wanted allowed us to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

How was the chemistry between the two of you in the studio?
As a producer, he gained my trust fairly quickly once I started hearing where things were going.

Apparently, you were sick during the recording process, which explains the ragged vocals. That rubbed-raw quality is a bit disarming—but ultimately charming—in its immediacy. How comfortable were you with the way you sounded at the time?
At first, I was worried my illness would torpedo the whole session. But Frank gravitated toward the rougher quality of the vocals, so I just went for it.

What about when you listen to the album now?
I think the timing of my sickness suits the recordings and adds to the energy of the record. There’s a song on my first record called “Murry” that has a similar quality in the vocal. I was sick when I sang that song, too.

So, would it be too much of a leap to call this your “guitar hero” album? It contains some pretty fiery fretwork, cliché intended.
Ha! The record sure has some fun riffs—not too much shredding though.

“The Chase” may be the closest you come to an outright Pixies tribute. Would you agree?
I can’t say the Pixies came to mind when writing the song, but I’ll take it.

Those who’ve grown accustomed to the more polite version of “Paradise Cove” on Back & Fourth are gonna have to brace themselves for “Paradise Cove 1.” How did you wind up with two songs that are so radically different?
The Black version is the original, and I loved it. I never planned on recording it for Back & Fourth. I’d played the recording for Mike Mogis just for fun, because I was excited about it, like, “Yo, check this shit out!” He really liked the song and convinced me to record it again. I figured there’d be no harm in that. I really like the B&F version as well, for different reasons. I feel like a covered my own song.

Only “Paradise Cove” made it on both albums. How did you go about determining which tunes would lend themselves to the edgier Frank Black treatment and which were more appropriate for the Mike Mogis sessions?
It was mainly an instinct thing. The bulk of songs for B&F were already picked out before I went to work with Frank. I had all these others put aside that seemed to make sense for the Black sessions. In all honesty, most of it was me thinking, “Hmm, what would Frank dig?”

Your cover of Gram Parsons’ “Wheels” sounds like a long lost Johnny Cash b-side. Could there be a country album in Pete Yorn’s future?
I was never a country fan as a kid. But as the years go by, I find myself gravitating toward a certain style of country music. Waylon and Conway and Johnny and Gram just have a way of saying things about the human condition that resonates with me.

While Back & Fourth and Pete Yorn couldn’t sound any more different, thematically they seem like two different sides of the same coin. Both contain a healthy dose of self-analysis and self-pity. But where B&F is introverted and melancholic, PY is visceral, cathartic and even optimistic. “Sans Fear” and “Future Life” come to mind. Was that the intention?
That’s a great observation. I’ve come to realize that myself after having time to get some distance from the recordings. I think, on some songs I recorded with Frank, subtle changes to lyrics and attitude presented a more defiant stance than a mournful/regretful one, which was all over B&F. I think just being around Frank pumped me up a bit, and it comes out in the overall presentation. When I came home with the record and listened to it with fresh ears, I felt liberated. It made me wanna put my fist in the air; it was helping slay demons. I was very happy about that. I needed that at the time.

—Hobart Rowland