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Joe Pernice isn't nearly as depressed as his songs imply. Then again, how could he be? His new album as Chappaquiddick Skyline opens with the line, "I hate my life," and hardly perks up from there. His two previous projects, the still-active Beatles- and Big Star-flavored Pernice Brothers and the country-tinged Scud Mountain Boys, aren't much brighter. But Pernice has a way with a melody that can only be called uplifting, making it a joy to wallow in his self-pity. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Pernice about name changes and the future of music.
The Onion: Besides its name, what makes Chappaquiddick Skyline different from The Pernice Brothers?
Joe Pernice: I wrote those songs pretty much right next to each other, but they just felt different to me. I wanted to do them a different way. I didn't want the full string arrangements, horns, and stuff like that. I also wanted to make a record I could do at home, and I did. The songs felt different, so it all came together that way.
O: Not that the Pernice Brothers album is a real pick-me-up, but the Chappaquiddick Skyline album seems especially downbeat.
JP: It's pretty depressing. I think it's a downer record for sure.
O: Do you realize just how much of a downer the music is as you write it?
JP: Sometimes I go back and think about it. Most of the time, I just do it. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I'm pretty engaged when I'm writing songs, and when I'm done I don't really listen to them. Every once in a while, I'll listen to a song and think, "Shit, this might be heavier than I should put out." [Laughs.] Or something like that. But for me, it's about the engagement of doing it, and beyond that I don't give it a hell of a lot of thought.
O: So is it just your perception? Do you write songs with specific projects in mind?
JP: Yeah, I end up doing that. I might not always be right. [Laughs.] But I write a lot of songs, so I'm always kind of parceling things out. It's just a sense, really. I mean, sometimes it's obvious. It's more of a feeling.
O: What was Sub Pop's reaction when you told them you wanted to release an album under a different name?
JP: Well, I'm not on the label anymore. I asked to be released, actually, so I got out of my contract. To tell you the truth, my dealings with Sub Pop were pretty good, but things started to go a little bad. I made this record, Chappaquiddick Skyline, as a side-project record, and I had actually done a separate deal with the label to make it a side-project record. They were cool with it, and we made a deal with separate paper and everything. And then I delivered the record, and they wanted to change the name. It's kind of lousy, because they wanted to market it as the next Pernice Brothers record, but of course I didn't get the budget I would have gotten for the second Pernice Brothers record, you know? All along, I said it was a different record and that I didn't want to promote it that way. And they kept saying, "Yeah, yeah, that's okay. We're behind you." Then, when I delivered it, they started changing their tune. "Oh, can we put Pernice Brothers on it?" I said, "No, that wasn't the deal we made." I thought I was going to be able to do anything with them. I mean, I knew there were certain parameters, because they're a business and they want to sell records, but I didn't think I was going to get that kind of runaround from Sub Pop. It was a little bit uncomfortable toward the end. That's when I realized I didn't want to work with them anymore. I was starting to feel like I was getting the major-label jerk-around from them at some points, without the benefits of major-label support. I was also feeling more and more like my stuff had no home there. It was the best thing for me to do. I asked to be released, and it went without incident. There were no hard feelings; it wasn't bitter or anything. It was just the time for me to do it.
O: The difference is that a major label might not have been so understanding.
JP: It's a nightmare. I have a friend, and I won't name the band or the label, but they were signed to a major that just sat on the record for a year while they decided whether they wanted to keep them or not. What are you going to do, sue the label and go into all this legal bullshit? Once you're signed to a label like that, of course you have an exclusive contract. It's not like you can just go out and make a record for someone else. You're just kind of sitting there on your hands while some people who have, like, a million other records to deal withyou're really not the prioritydecide whether they want you or not. It's really disturbing.
O: The temptation is still there, though, for a lot of people.
JP: It depends on what you want out of it, really. You've got to be on a major label to become a star, but who wants that? To me, I couldn't think of anything more deplorable. I couldn't think of a worse way to live my life.
O: There are bands like The Flaming Lips and Built To Spill that seem to be doing okay making weird music on a major label.
JP: I was just talking to someone about those very two bands the other day. It's about having someone [at the label] who really digs you and will stick by you. It's really a messy time.
O: How did you end up getting the Chappaquiddick Skyline album to sound so good, being home-recorded on a small budget?
JP: We had kind of a home studio set up in the basement. That's Thom Monahan for you. The guy's a great engineer, and he took great, great care to put decent sounds on the tape. I just finished another record with him.
O: What direction do you think music is heading? There have been so many label mergers lately...
JP: I think it's bad for medium-sized labels. I think they're fucked. New independent labels are going to pop up. That whole EMI-Capitol-Virgin-Warner-Atlantic-Elektra-and-their-subsidiaries thing is frightening. A lot of people are going to go to the independents, because the majors aren't taking chances on things that aren't Britney Spears: things they can milk a few million out of, then toss aside. I think a lot of really shitty music lends itself to that sort of treatment. If real, hard-working bands that write songs have no hope in that situation, the only alternative is to go alternative. Maybe alternative will be reborn. I think there will be new indie labels. Say you have a band that sold 20,000 records: On a major, obviously, that's a colossal failure. But you can put out your own record and sell the same amount and make 150 grand and have complete control, especially with promotion and distribution through the Internet. I think it's a great time for it.
O: Now that you're not on Sub Pop, where will you end up?
JP: Gee, I wonder if I was hinting something. [Laughs.] Well, I just finished making a record, and to be honest with you, I think I'm going to start my own label. It's just ridiculous. I don't want to play that kind of game. I don't want to be marketed like a product, or a flash. I want to make records for as long as I can stand, and as long as other people can stand them. So it might be a good time to put my own record out.