Into the Great Wide Open

The Pernice Brothers make accomplished pop on their own terms

When asked if he considers his band's particularly well-crafted brand of textured, hook-laden and traditionally rooted songcraft to be "pop," Joe Pernice replies with a sort of clipped ambivalence, clearly conveying the sense that what peo-ple want to call it doesn't concern him in the least.

"I have no idea, to be honest with you. As time goes on, my ability to categorize myself, it's impossible for me to do. I have no idea what's what," says the Pernice Brothers singer/songwriter. "If someone who's up on trends says it's this or that, more power to you, knock yourself out. I can't be bothered by it. I just don't know."

What he does know is that his current project's layered beauty grew out of desire to both expand upon, and break away from, the sound of his former outfit, critically raved Massachusetts insurgent country outfit Scud Mountain Boys. And if Wilco, Beachwood Sparks, The Court & Spark, My Morning Jacket and many others have taught us anything, it's that great things (and assured cult-hero status) can happen when gifted Americana songwriters apply their rootsy pasts to an ambitious future.

"I got kind of tired of hearing a pedal steel, you know?" Pernice says with a laugh. "I was writing stuff constantly. I was burning up. I wanted to do everything, record like crazy. And I just didn't think the other guys were there."

Toward the end of the '90s, Pernice's yen for stylistic leg stretching signaled the end of the Scuds. He and brother/guitarist/fellow Scud alum Bob headed into the studio with some peers, many of whom are still a part of the current lineup (guitarist Peyton Pinkerton, bassist/producer Thom Monahan, drummer Mike Belitsky and keyboardist Laura Stein). The result was '98's Overcome By Happiness, which was released on Sub Pop, the label to which Pernice was still under contract. The Pernice Brothers were off and running. Following the tour in support of their debut, however, the band proper was immediately sidelined while Pernice put out some more streamlined (and somewhat maudlin) material as both a solo artist and Chappaquiddick Skyline. He half-joked in the press that he did it because he didn't think the songs were good enough to comprise a Pernice Brothers album. Now he says it was more a matter of their nature than their quality.

"I think the latter is the case," he affirms. "There are a lot of smaller, mellower songs [on those records] that were just apart from the stuff I was writing. They weren't of the same caliber, or were significantly different from the stuff this band does."

Not long after the Chappaquiddick Skyline record came out, Pernice and Sub Pop parted ways, and not amicably. Rather than subject himself to what he viewed as an unacceptable compromise of control, he and a business partner started their own label, Ashmont Records. Since then, two more excellent Pernice Brothers CDs have seen release through the imprint: 2001's The World Won't End and this year's nearly perfect Yours, Mine & Ours.

Pernice isn't an outspoken soapbox climber on the subject of toppling the recording industry's current system — he just didn't think that the system worked for a project of The Pernice Brothers' goals, aesthetic and status.

"When I was signed, I started looking at the future. I knew I wanted to make a bunch of records, not just one or two," he says. "And I also didn't want to be poverty-stricken for the rest of my life. And I wanted complete artistic control, which is a complete luxury — I don't know anyone, on any label, who has that right now. It just became clear that I was unhappy where I was at. And as we looked around, it didn't seem like it was going to be any different anywhere else."

The Pernice Brothers' stellar reputation has translated into gradually increasing album sales. Yours, Mine & Ours is already racking up astounding numbers for a wholly independent self-production. It isn't going platinum anytime soon, but then again, it doesn't have to; the percentage of money the band itself actually makes from each copy sold is exponentially larger than any label could offer.

Pernice admits that being his own boss carries with it certain peripheral duties and attention to detail that most bands signed to a major or even independent label don't worry about. He says they should, though. As a member of a big label's roster, he did; the only difference now is that he knows who to ask about it — himself.

"When I was signed, I had to do that anyway," he says. "At least now I know the answer to things; my questions don't disappear into a hole. 'Are they really spending that much money on marketing? Is the tour support going to be there when we get out there?' Those are the things that you'll pull your hair out over.

"My last band always got good press. And after we released the last [Scud Mountain Boys] record, the label started wondering how it would go over that I'd left to start this new thing. So I said, give me a little bread, and I'll run off the record and write a personal letter to every critic that loved the Scud Mountain Boys, and explain the thing. And they all responded positively. So I started thinking, why don't I do this for myself?"

Last week, we pimped the benefit for veteran Tampa drummer and recent tumor removee Jeff Wood. But Woody's not the only native musician who could use a little help as the result of some monster medical expenses. And what's weird is, the culprit is again a brain tumor.Most extreme metal fans know James Murphy. The guitarist played with world-renowned Tampa death-metal legends Death (whose famed principal, Chuck Schuldiner, died from complications arising from his own brain tumor in 2001), Obituary and Disincarnate before moving to Oakland in 1993 to join seminal thrash outfit Testament and record a couple of albums for guitar-shred label Shrapnel Records. At the dawn of the new millennium, however, a large mass was discovered at the base of Murphy's brain. He underwent surgery to remove as much of it as possible in September of 2001.

Thirty percent of the material is still in Murphy's head, and he'll be treating it with medication for the rest of his life, but he's been recovering steadily ever since. His bills, of course, are astronomical, and the worldwide underground metal community has laudably come together for Murphy, staging benefits around the globe as well as auctioning off equipment and memorabilia in his name.

Now it's his hometown's turn. This Saturday, St. Pete's Venom will host a monster death/grind/groove gig, with proceeds going into a fund for Murphy. Cult icons Six Feet Under (featuring former Cannibal Corpse vocalist Chris Barnes) and Tampa homeboys Diabolic will headline, supported by a cast of adept evildoers. If you can't make it because you no longer fit into those tight-ass black Levi's, there's a PayPal donation account set up on Murphy's website at

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].


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