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Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice played guitar primarily as a hobby before he joined a punk band while attending grad school at the University Of Massachusetts in Amherst. After shows, Pernice’s band would unwind by playing old ’70s soft-rock and country songs; eventually, his late-night drinking-in-the-kitchen ensemble developed into the Scud Mountain Boys, an acclaimed alt-country band that put out three albums in the mid-’90s. By the time of their marvelous third record, Massachusetts, Pernice’s twang was fading into plaintive folk, and once he disbanded the Scuds and founded Pernice Brothers, he embraced a richly orchestrated, dreamily melodic sound informed by AM radio and the poppy end of post-punk. Pernice Brothers have been inactive over the past three years while Pernice worked on his first novel, the recently published It Feels So Good When I Stop, about a part-time musician and full-time music buff who dodges responsibility in early-’90s Massachusetts. To accompany the book, Pernice released an album of cover versions of songs that play a role in the novel. As he prepared to do a short tour promoting the book and its soundtrack, Pernice spoke with The A.V. Club about his writing habits, his lifelong relationship with music, and why a born-and-bred Massachusetts boy recently relocated to Canada.
The A.V. Club: In addition to the book and the album, you’re also working on a screenplay, right? Based on the book you wrote about The Smiths’ album Meat Is Murder?
Joe Pernice: Oh, that thing. Funny that you should ask about that. The guy who I’m writing it with, who I have been writing it with for years now, is Neal Huff, an actor that was on that show The Wire. I just hung up with him minutes ago. Probably 10 minutes ago. This is not a lie. Ten minutes ago, he said, “I’m sending you something.” Because I’ve been breaking his balls for months trying to get something. I’ve been doing press for this book for almost a week now, and almost to a person, I’ve been asked about that screenplay. And I told Neal, “I’m sick of answering this question, because you’re a lazy shit and you won’t get to work.” I said “This used to be a backseat project, and now it’s in the trunk.” I’m like, “Neal, it’s in your corner to get me something.” So today he’s sending me something. No lie. When I work alone, I’m very disciplined. But when I work with other people, I want to strangle them for not getting me shit when they say they will.
AVC: How do your work habits differ between writing a song, a book, and a script?
JP: I usually think a lot before I write. Even when I was writing my book. I get an idea and I don’t think it through the whole way, but I think about it in broad strokes. And as soon as I feel like I have an idea that I want to run down, I’m pretty good about being disciplined and chasing it. Because I love it. It’s a fun thing to do for me.
Writing songs obviously takes less time. And it’s much more immediate, the gratification, because I like music, and hitting the G chord or an open E chord is for me just kind of pleasing. You have this other part to music. It’s not just about chasing down an idea. It’s an external thing that gives you pleasure. It’s much more immediate, and it’s over quicker. Like, I might write a song in a day or a couple days, and then go on to the next thing. It’s like a quick bite, and you get to go to something new. With writing a book, I had a window of about four hours a day to get into that zone. Every day. I knew those were the only hours I had, so I had to be really good about getting into the zone and staying focused. And I never spend four hours a day writing songs. Ever. So it was quite a bit different. Even when I’m making an album, the longest it’s ever taken me—with steady work—is probably a month or two. I’ve never spent more than two months of working constantly. But this book was on my mind for a year. Even when I was doing other things during the day, it was always there. And it was really a fun trip. I really enjoyed having it on my mind that long. It was a blast to do.
AVC: Did you find that having it on your mind that long caused it to evolve from what you originally intended it to be?
JP: Yeah, some. When I wrote it, I had an outline in my head and an idea of where it was going, but I honestly didn’t know who these people were going to be. I guess that’s probably how it is for a lot of people who write books, I don’t know. I was pretty good about keeping these characters corralled within these identities I had in mind for them. I was pretty good about that. But there was one point where I thought my narrator was getting away from me a little bit, so it changed some. I had to scrap a bunch of the work and pull back and start over and be stricter with my details and my characterization.
AVC: This next question is horribly clichéd, but given what your book is about, there’s no way to avoid it: How much of It Feels So Good When I Stop is based on your life?
JP: I was almost going to open this interview by answering that question. No, but that’s a fair question. Look, I stuck with what I knew. I stuck with a time period, mostly. I wanted to write a character that I saw as unique to my age group. Having been in my 20s in the early ’90s, it seemed like at that time, people of that age were kind of plagued with this… I don’t know, indecision. No one I knew could make a decision. I think that’s part of what the whole “slacker” thing came out of. When I thought about who my character was, I wanted him to be that type of person: someone who couldn’t be decisive and was handcuffed by his own inability to commit to things. So automatically, I set it in the early ’90s. That time was ripe. I certainly took things from my own life, but I ran with them and ran way, way out of reality with them. I guess every writer starts with something that’s true. And some of this book is me, for sure. I set it in western Massachusetts and I set all the college references to U-Mass., where I went, mostly because I’m kind of lazy. I didn’t want to have to research what it’s like to go to U-Va., or something like that.
AVC: In the book and on the record, you have a little story about how your lead character can’t listen to Todd Rundgren any more because of bad associations. Is that something out of your imagination, or firsthand experience?
JP: Not particularly that, but there have certainly been in my life songs that are so connected to people and events that they’re painful to listen to. But there are other songs that bring amazing joy because they’re connected to certain people. I’m a songwriter. I make records. I love music. I can’t help but attach songs to moments, both good and bad.
AVC: Is it strange to think that other people hear your music and have the same kind of reaction that you’ve had to other people’s music?
JP: Yeah, but also no. It doesn’t make me feel uneasy, but it’s strange sometimes to think of myself in that way. Because I don’t do it much. But when you hear someone come up and say, “This song meant this to me,” or “It got me through this rough period,” it’s kind of nice. I take it as a nice compliment. But as Joe, as just the regular guy, it is kind of weird. Because you don’t think of yourself in the same kind of vein as someone who you look up to.
AVC: Do you find that covering a song—which you do a lot of on this new record—changes your relationship to the song at all?
JP: Not really, no. It hasn’t for me. No. Because I don’t really listen to my own music. Instead, I’m just thinking back to what it was like hanging out with the guys I recorded this record with. Now maybe in that regard, I have a lot of good memories, of recording, say, “I’m Your Puppet.” Or all of those songs. I had a lot of fun doing it. So when I think about my versions of those songs, it’s mostly memories of what it was like to hang and record with my brother, and my old friend Mike Belitsky, and Peyton Pinkerton… all those guys. We just had a lot of fun. I suppose if I sat around and listened to them all the time, maybe it would become different. I still am affected by all those tunes, and I certainly go for the original rather than my own cover when I want to hear it.
AVC: And if you heard the original, would the associations be broadened to include your memory of recording it with your brother and your friends?
JP: Maybe so. I haven’t thought about it much. Haven’t had that much time these days to go back and visit the original playlist from which we recorded the covers. But that could very well be.
AVC: Are you still finding music today—either contemporary music or older music you missed the first time around—that generates the same kind of feeling you had when you were in your early 20s?
JP: No. Not because the music isn’t good, but because I’m a different person. If you think about your life when you had all your shit in a pile, as I always say, or think about it when your life is… well, I wouldn’t say settled, but there’s a lot in my life now that I’m happy about, and that’s working out the way I like it. It changes your perspective on things. I appreciate music and art for real pleasure now, whereas at a different time in my life, there might have been a kind of desperation wedded to that pleasure. I don’t have that so much anymore.
The other day, I heard that Pavement album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain for the first time in a while. A friend of mine is a bartender, and I went to have a drink while he was tending bar, and I listened to the whole album. The record, it was just mind-blowing, in a whole different way than when I was in my 20s and listening to it. I hadn’t heard that album in a couple of years, probably, but more than ever when I heard it, it made me think of when I heard it the first time. And what struck me was not just how amazing it still is, and how it holds up as a great album, but that there was a component of angst absent from the experience that, quite frankly, I didn’t miss.
Sometimes when you revisit a record… Well, I can think of other records, and I won’t name them, but they meant a lot to me back then, and now, because that desperate attachment is gone, the records don’t hold up. There’s always the fear that it won’t hold up because all you were doing was attaching a sadness or an angst to it, and there’s maybe not much else there. A lot of smoke and no fire.
AVC: Are you looking forward to playing live again?
JP: Yes. I’m doing a combination where I’m going to read some passages from the book and play some covers from the album that goes with the book, and I’ll probably play some other old tunes. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t played in quite a while. Last show I did was at Carnegie Hall, and I contemplated retiring, because where do you go from that?
AVC: You genuinely enjoy performing?
JP: I do, actually. I don’t need it, like some people need to be onstage. I don’t really crave that. And sometimes when it’s gone, when I don’t do it for a while, I don’t exactly miss it. It doesn’t gnaw at me: “I have to get on the road, I have to get on the road.” It doesn’t gnaw at me to do it. But when I get back into it, it all comes back. I know right now, even though I’m not champing at the bit to be in front of an audience, I know that it’s fun and I’ll love doing it. So I think it’ll be good.
AVC: Will you be playing any new songs?
JP: I don’t know if I’ll pull out any new songs. I’ve been rehearsing a set, just to get it tight. There are a few new songs that I’ve been contemplating adding, but I might wait until I finish recording them. I’ve got a record that’s kind of in the can, except that I’ve yet to sing on it.
AVC: You mean you’ve recorded all the music and you have the lyrics, but you just don’t have the vocals recorded yet?
JP: That’s basically what has happened. I started this record and did most of the recording prior to signing my book deal. I got the go-ahead that Penguin wanted to do the deal, and then it was a few months between the time that they said yes and when the contracts were all signed. So I told myself I’d work on this album up until the time the book deal was done. At that point, I put it aside, and I worked on no music through the time it took to write the book, and now the press for the book. So I got all the tracks recorded, give or take an overdub here or there, and all I have to do is sing on it. After I do this book tour and music tour, I will sit down and finish that album. To be released next year. I’m shooting for early in oh-ten, as they say.
AVC: This tour will get you back to the States, too. When and why did you move to Toronto?
JP: I’ve lived here now for a couple years full-time, legally, as a resident. My wife is Canadian, and we wanted to have a kid. When we decided we wanted to have a child, I was still traveling a lot, so she wanted to be near her family, and all of her family is here. The deal was, if I travel and go away for an extended period of time, she could be around her family so she wouldn’t have a kid solo.
AVC: Have you ever noticed any big differences living there as opposed to living in the U.S.?
JP: Well, I moved here from New York City, so the difference is pretty amazing. I really enjoyed living in New York. I loved it, actually. This, Toronto, as far as the way it looks aesthetically, it’s not exactly my favorite place. But it’s different. You know you’re not in the States. It’s hard to explain. I will say that having traveled a lot around America, I don’t miss the flag-waving. We don’t really have that up here. People here are proud of where they live, but it’s not the same. I like not having Jesus billboards stuffed down my throat wherever I go, or NRA billboards. And I do enjoy having my health care paid for through my taxes. When I left the States, I was self-employed, so I was paying, I don’t know, $500 a month for my health insurance. And up here, my taxes aren’t $6,000 a year more, and yet the health care I’ve had here is fantastic. So I think it’s really kind of cool to live in a place where it’s kind of a right of all the people to not go bankrupt if you break your leg, or to die of something because you can’t get treatment.
AVC: Plus the money is so pretty.
JP: The money is, isn’t it? Except if you look at the $5 bill, I don’t know what the dude’s name is, but he looks just like Joe Lieberman. So it kind of bums me out to see a fiver.