Monday, February 19, 2007

33 1/3: a conversation with joe pernice

The bio note on the back of Joe Pernice’s 33 1/3 offering, Meat Is Murder, reads: “Joe Pernice is the singer and songwriter for The Pernice Brothers. Their most recent album is called Yours, Mine & Ours. He has published a book of poetry. This is his first work of fiction.”
Since the publication of Meat Is Murder, however, The Pernice Brothers have recorded and released two more discs, Discover A Lovelier You and Live A Little. Pernice’s novella is officially the series’ fifth release as well as its first endeavor into fiction and the current best-seller among all 33 1/3 output.
We spoke by phone on June 8, 2005.

How do you get hooked up with David Barker?

He just called me. He e-mailed through my label. He was a fan of my music and then, you know, he just got in touch with me and asked me if I was interested in the series.

So this wasn’t because you had a book of poetry out and so therefore he knew you were a writer.

He had no idea, he said. He didn’t know about the book. He got the idea for the series, and he said he was looking at his shelf of albums and he went through and picked out records that he liked of people he thought might be interested. Whether he was pulling my leg or not, I don’t know.

That’s quite a leap of faith – to assume that because someone can write a good song they can also write a good book.

I agree, but he asked if I was interested in thinking of an idea and writing up a treatment of it, so that was probably to see if I could string a sentence together. I sent him about 200 words, and my idea was to write a fiction, and to his credit he just said, Why not? I remember him saying, We don’t do fiction, but What the hell? That was exactly what he said.

So your original treatment or pitch was to write a work of fiction about Meat Is Murder.

Yeah, he knew I liked The Smiths and he suggested The Queen Is Dead, but that wasn’t a big record for me. For me it was Meat Is Murder. And I said, I went to grad school and I just can’t write any more stuff that even approaches criticism. I have no interest in it. But what I would do is maybe write a novella that, you know, tries to place this album in the context of some freak’s life. And he said, I like it. Go ahead. It was really that simple.

When he wrote you, did you jump in with both feet? Or did you have reservations?

Well, when he first got in touch with me, I was literally at the halfway point of recording my record, Yours, Mine & Ours. I was neck deep in it. And so I had some reservations, but on the other hand I had also seen how far we had come with recording. Like that last recording project was involved as far as logistics and making everything work, so I was feeling a bit brave. And I finally said, You know what? It’s 25,000 words. What the hell? It didn’t take me long to say yes.

Was any of the novella already written? Or did you pretty much write the thing from scratch after the assignment was made?

I think I decided to do the book maybe around Christmas, maybe a little earlier. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to begin it until March, and I had about five weeks from March until I was going on tour again, so I had a window of five weeks and just made sure my schedule was clear. Probably around Christmas I started relistening to Meat Is Murder, and it brought up a lot of memories. And to tell you the truth, no shit, I sat down in about five weeks and wrote it from scratch.

You had five weeks and you used all five weeks.

I did. I had a little closet in my apartment in Brooklyn that I cleaned out. It was big enough to put like a desk in and a lamp in. When we finished recording and mastering our record, I sat down and I just started to get into a schedule. It took me a week or so just to get into the, you know, swing. Like, All right, I’ve got to work from whatever to whatever, or I need to do this many words a day. The biggest problem was just figuring out which part of the day was kind of the sweet spot for me.

And what did you learn? Are you a morning guy or a night time guy? When does the fiction flow?

Well, I thought I was a morning guy because that’s usually when I write songs but I got up in the morning and I realized I was still writing songs and I wouldn’t even start thinking about sitting down to write fiction until about 1. Then I honed it down. I realized that probably from between 1 and 5 I was doing pretty doing good work, and then after that I just kind of faded. So that was my window. I wrote anywhere from about five to six hours a day.

You mentioned getting a headstart around Christmas by listening to Meat Is Murder, but when you’re in your closet with the computer turned on are you playing music while you’re writing?

Oh no no no no no.

Not even classical, mind-clearing stuff?

No, I need to have like a fan on, actually. I put a fan or something on where it’s just a din. I like a white noise.

And would this be Christmas ’02 into March ’03?

Yeah. I wrote it in March of ’03. I wrote it from like the end of March until I passed in the manuscript about five weeks later and I believe it was published in October of ’03.

And how is David Barker as an editor?

Oh, he’s great. He really is one of my best friends now. It turns out that we lived right around the corner from each other in Brooklyn, and we would get together. You know, we would hang out a lot and it had nothing to do with the books. He became really one of my closest friends.

He seems like a very pleasant fellow.

An excellent guy. And that helps. As an editor he gave me a little guidance. I probably wrote about 5000 words and sent it to him, and I think he made a couple - they might’ve even been grammatical - changes, sent it back and said, I like it. Keep going. And then he didn’t see anything again until the end.

There’s a certain power to the words “keep going” if they’re coming from the right person.

Yeah, you know, I was concerned because I didn’t know if I was writing anything that was any good. With music, I’ve sort of developed a bit of skin where if you take a hammering here and there, you know, and you don’t really let it get you down. But I was thinking about this book. Like all of a sudden, you know, am I immediately lumped into that kind of category of songwriters who think they can write, but they can’t? So I really wanted to write something that was pretty good. I don’t mean the greatest book of all time, but I wanted to do something that was pretty good. So I had some concerns about just getting crushed critically, and I was concerned because David had become a good friend of mine and I didn’t want him like lose his job because he put out some dog. Like, I really thought about that.

Was fear of failure a motivation? Or is that taking it too far?

I think that might be a little too far. I did think about it, but when I got into the groove of writing I was really into it and I didn’t think of much else. But every once in a while you poke your head up and you’re thinking, What am I doing?
But luckily for me I did develop an ability to just focus. It was really an enjoyable thing. I loved it.

Your book is the best seller of the series, but as a work of fiction it’s the least representative. If you were the editor of this series would you be worried, or bothered at all, that the only fiction entry is the one that has sold the best? (ed. note: since this interview the 33 1/3 series has published another novella, John Niven’s Music from Big Pink)

Well, I would say No, because I think the number of books I’ve sold – and it’s not an astronomical number – is above his expectation. I mean, I’m sure he wants to sell books, but if his motivation was What can I do to sell a ton of books, then none of these people would be writing books, myself included. But I think I might have gone past the expectation. As long as the other people are living up to their expectations, or to think of it in a crudely business sense, as long as everyone else is hitting their bottom line, then I think he’s successful for sure.

How many books in the 33 1/3 series have you read?

I’ve read a couple. Not many. I’ve probably gotten Thank yous on six or eight books in this series because I’ve hooked up that many people, I think. Just said, Hey David, I know a guy who can write.

Who have you made the connection for?

Well, I definitely got Warren Zanes hooked up. I got my cousin, Joe Harvard, hooked up. I hooked up this guy John Niven who’s from Scotland who was actually an A & R guy who signed my band. He’s writing a book on The Band. I hooked up Ric Menck who’s writing a book on The Byrds which I think is going to be really good. I think there were a couple others that aren’t coming to my head right now.

Well, obviously you’re providing a kind of editorial function already, but let’s say David wins the lottery and retires and Continuum throws a lot of money at you to take over his job.

Oh Jesus.

What writer would be next on your list?

There’s a guy, Gary Stewart, who was the head of A & R of Rhino for years. He produced all those box sets, and he and I are pretty good friends. And as I’m thinking of this right now I’m thinking, There’s a guy who David has to get hooked up with.

And what should Gary write about?

Everything. His knowledge of music is colossal. If you look at any Rhino box set, any box set from the last 15 years or how ever many years, you’ll see the name Gary Stewart and you’ll see the name Bill Inglot. Bill’s mastered like everything, or a ton of it, and Gary has produced and compiled and written the liner notes for countless things, hundreds of records. So that’s a guy. I may make a phone call.

I assume you’re getting an agent’s commission.

Yeah, which is probably about three bucks.

Well, you at least ought to get a Thank you and a cup of coffee from each of these guys.

Yeah, well. Like my friend Menck who’s writing his book now (ed note: the recently published Notorious Byrd Brothers), he is so psyched. I wouldn’t think of him as the kind of a guy who would go out and try to put like a book proposal together and beat the carpet or beat the drum, whatever you call it, and get a deal, but his knowledge of music is outrageous. And I’ve sat with him I don’t know how many hours and heard him go on with incredible passion about records, from the most obscure to certain mainstream music. His knowledge is just huge. He’s a lover - like a real certifiable lover - of rock and roll, so I hooked him up and he’s like a pig in shit. And I’m pretty psyched about it because I get to talk to him about it and he’ll say, Oh, today I hit a stride and I really said what I wanted to say, and that’s very cool. This is just like a very fortunate situation for a lot of people.

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