Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree, Pernice sings on "Working Girls," the candy-coated opening number of the new Pernice Brothers disc The World Won't End. And those are pretty much the poles that dominate Pernice's brokedown characters, wry defeatists looking for the exit, lost in distractions. I feel sullen, I feel seventeen, he concludes on that song. It's a seventeen far removed from -- and truer than -- the coy slickness of boy band adolescence. A seventeen hunkered over college catalogs, not Rolling Stone.
But Pernice is well past thirty, past college, seemingly past the uncertainty of those years and the early part of his recording career. World is the first release on Ashmont Records, the label Pernice set up with his manager following, not coincidentally, the dissolution of his relationship with the Sub Pop label. If Scud Mountain Boys and the first Pernice Brothers disc were Pernice's college, his final Sub Pop album, Chappaquiddick Skyline, (billed eponymously, with no trace of Pernice's name on the outer sleeve) was the first year of graduate school for the singer. It didn't go well.
"That record took two years to come out," Pernice explains. "The blood flow was like molasses. I made it as a side project, with Pernice Brothers as my main outfit, knowing that it would be a grim record that I wouldn't want to work or tour with. I did a separate contract for it, but after I delivered it and they said they wanted to put it out as the next Pernice Brothers album, it became apparent that I didn't want to be on that label anymore.
"I don't like to sling mud. Honestly, it's bad karma," Pernice says. "I can see from a business standpoint that they're trying to create a brand awareness, but from an artistic point of view, they wanted to sell albums based on a separate deal for something they paid very little for."
So Pernice released his next batch of songs under his own name on a small European label while he regrouped, then decided that none of the offers he had received were better than starting Ashmont.
"There are good record deals, and I can't say I'd never work with another label," Pernice explains. "It just wouldn't be like I worked with Sub Pop. A lot of people don't understand that even on a small label, you don't have a lot of freedom. Owning my own label comes with a lot of headaches, but at the end of the day, financially, my interest has probably increased ten times, my payback. I don't want to make a million dollars, but it's an unbelievable blessing to make a reasonable living playing music.
"And I don't have to sell a million records to keep playing," Pernice continues. "Having control over my own career has actually lowered my expectations now that I know what my bottom line is. I don't need a smash hit to be happy. I've never been huge, so I can't really say whether success on that level is more liberating. At any level, there's the expectation of making money, and you do a lot of things that are a bit unsavory. I have to feel devoted to [my work] and connected to it. I have to take it personally."
The next day, Pernice was scheduled to shoot a video for "Working Girls." The irony doesn't escape him.
"Scud Mountain Boys made a video once," Pernice says. "It was a colossal hemorrhage of money. We should have started IRAs or gone out on tour and paid roadies really well with the money instead. This video will be paid for by the British label who licenses my stuff. We wouldn't be making it otherwise. I'm not anti-video. I'm just anti-spending $30,000 or more on one."
Pernice in conversation is, like his songs, not quite cheery, not quite morbid. The delicately rendered but chronically downbeat songs on The World Won't End turn the album's title into a complaint instead of reassurance. But the man who began that Chappaquiddick Skyline disc singing I hate my life eagerly deconstructs Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard's songbook ("I'm looking at my copy of it," he says, asked whether he's heard Pollard's new Suitcase boxed set of solo pisstakes and rarities) and offers several witty metaphors despite the early Sunday morning hour. Not only does he casually use the word "burgeoning," but on World's "Let That Show," he rhymes it (with "turning") and makes it sound perfectly natural.
Up until recently, Pernice's musical career supplemented his income as a college English teacher. He had studied poetry and still writes free-verse apart from his songs.
"When you're writing songs, it's half music and half words," he says. "They tend to support each other. Poetry is very naked. It has to stand on its own. I like the structure of songs. I'm really interested in breaking out of the classic pop song form, but when it comes down to it, I pretty much adhere to the rules of classic songwriting." Pernice, then, embraces The Clash and Jimmy Webb equally. "I always return to the fact that I love to write songs and I love making records. Good days, bad days, those things stay the same."
Pernice says he has written the equivalent of "at least an album or two" of new songs that he wants to record early next year. He writes on guitar, though the playing doesn't come easily to him. "I'm a hack," he admits, laughing. "Let's get that right out in the open. I'm a pretty okay rhythm player, but if someone said, 'Okay, Joe, take a solo,' it would be a train wreck."
His self-consciousness helps explain why Pernice says "demos are dangerous." Mostly, though, it's that Pernice is a fast worker in the studio who wants to capture his ideas unspoiled by over-rehearsal. And he writes almost constantly, a devotion that a pause for demo-making would hinder. That most of his songs perfectly straddle the line between immediacy and craft is what Pernice has in mind. He mentions Robert Pollard again.
"I think he's a genius," Pernice says. "And the thing is, his output is in itself his art. He's working on some kind of installation. The whole body of work is his thing, whether individual songs work or not." After seven stunning albums under four names, Pernice is similarly installed and only getting better.