It’s South by Southwest weekend in Austin, Texas, the year’s biggest gathering of up-and-coming musical acts, with more than 800 artists crammed into three dozen or so clubs, bars, coffeehouses and parking lots over a five-day stretch. Daytime parties and in-stores make it easy to do nothing but see live music from the moment you rise at the crack o’noon (this is the music industry, after all) to that final after-hours party at 4 a.m.
So how does Joe Pernice plan to bide his time on Saturday?
He’s going fishing.
“It’s great, it’s very relaxing,” Pernice enthuses of his favorite pastime. “It’s completely solitary, which is really nice.”
Indeed, solitude is a refuge we all must seek out at certain times. For Pernice, who spent the mid-’90s with the countrified pop band Scud Mountain Boys, the need to be out on his own has carried over into musical pursuits as well. After three albums with the Scuds that focused on a lo-fi, minimalist approach, Pernice found himself hankering to make a record that more fully explored the possibilities of the studio.
“To me, recording a record and playing live have always been two different things,” Pernice begins, attempting to get to the heart of what led to the dissolution of his former band. “When we made the Scud Mountain Boys records, there were things I would’ve done differently — not a lot, but, I would have liked to experiment musically with some more instruments. And there was always the sentiment that we shouldn’t do it if we can’t play it live — which is limiting, in a way. So, I wanted to go into the studio and make the record I wanted to make.”
He’s done just that with Overcome By Happiness, due out May 19 on Sub Pop under the name Pernice Brothers. (Lest fans suspect the new moniker is some sort of Palace-inspired in-joke, Pernice explained that his older brother Bob does indeed play guitar and sing on the record, though family and work commitments will prevent him from touring with the band.)
While there’s an instantly identifiable connection between the Pernice Brothers and Scud Mountain Boys records — Pernice, after all, wrote and sang lead on almost all the Scuds’ original material — Overcome By Happiness is clearly a different animal. Piano often replaces guitar as the primary instrument around which a song is based, and several tunes are strengthened by a soaring, swelling string section. Overall, it’s much more stridently and overtly pop than the Scud Mountain Boys were.
“I think I definitely like pop music — whatever ‘pop music’ is — more than the other guys,” Pernice allows. “Like, Bruce [Tull, the Scuds' steel guitarist] was a great player, but he wanted to play pedal steel on every song, and sometimes I’m thinking, ‘I wanna write a piano ballad.’ He had pretty well-set ideas of things, and I wanted to experiment more.”
The greatest manifestation of that experimentation on Overcome By Happiness is undoubtedly the addition of strings, which burst forth in full orchestral swoon on an instrumental coda to the opening track, “Crestfallen”, and continue to be a significant presence throughout the record. “We triple-tracked the quartet, that’s why it sounds gigantic,” Pernice explains. “They were players from a symphony in Hartford. We went through the union and got some real pros. And the horn players as well.”
Conducting and arranging the orchestral passages was Mike Deming, who co-produced the album with Pernice and bassist Thom Monahan. Both Deming and Monahan had made guest appearances on Massachusetts, the Scuds’ final album, which came out on Sub Pop in 1996. (In 1997, Sub Pop reissued Pine Box and Dance The Night Away, both of which originally came out on Chunk Records in 1995, as a two-disc set retitled The Early Year.)
The downside to recording with symphony players, as the Scuds’ credo pointed out, is that it’s difficult to re-create such grandeur in a live setting (unless you have the stature of, say, Ray Price, who brought nine violinists onstage with him at his South by Southwest showcase). “If the money was there, or in select towns or something, I’d love to have a quartet come in, or maybe even just one violin and a cello or something,” Pernice says. “That could happen at some point. But I don’t think that I want to get into using a sampler or a synthesizer to do strings; I’d much rather leave ‘em off than do that.”
Indeed, Pernice stresses that the lush and fleshed-out sound of the new record was not a product of MIDIs and drum machines. “Outside from a few passages in one song, every instrument, every note, is created by the hands of people; it’s all human beings playing all the instruments,” he says. “It’s still flawed at times, because I’ll never be able to play in time, and I’ll always sing a little flat.”
Despite Pernice’s own-worst-critic appraisal, his singing is unquestionably one of the most compelling aspects of his music, a high tenor voice that realizes the richly melodic potential of his songwriting. At times, it brings to mind Art Garfunkel, and while Pernice is ultimately not quite in the same league as that legendary choirboy, there’s more than a little common ground between the two artists. For instance, the song on Overcome By Happiness in which Pernice’s voice most noticeably recalls Garfunkel’s is called “All I Know” — a Pernice original, but coincidentally, carrying the same title as Garfunkel’s first solo hit single back in 1973.