Smart, literate East Coast pop has no greater prophet. As the six-headed band's frontman (only guitarist Bob is a real-life Pernice brother), Pernice uses his breathy tenor to undercut his hyperventilating lyrics, in which he pulls out his hair as if it were taffy. He's the only guy who can sing If I was the only one and you were the last alive/Would we sit there like the amateurs and watch our days go by/Waiting for the universe to die and not sound like a jackass.
Take heart, nascent songwriters. You too can weep so eloquently. Just follow these six easy steps:
1. Crack wise every once in a while.
"I like a good joke," Pernice admits while piloting his tour bus through the wastelands of North Carolina. "You've heard it said how close they are, tragedy and comedy. I believe that." He's not Jim Carrey-manic in conversation or in interviews, but there's definitely a sports-bar wiseguy vibe to him, as if he's trying to make you laugh as a distraction while he steals your onion rings.
But once Pernice picks up his guitar, when he ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Pernice's first high-profile band, the slow-country-croonin' Scud Mountain Boys, operated on the same principle, from the album covers (Pernice laid out in a coffin) to song titles such as "There Is No Hell (Like Hell on This Earth)." Still, he easily grasps the irony of it all, as when his van was stopped at the Canadian border last year and the guards forced him to ditch the tour T-shirts he was planning to sell at shows. (He didn't have a permit for them.) Pernice had them all donated to a local shelter, which means that a number of homeless people are probably walking around with T-shirts reading "I hate my life."
"For the record," he wrote at the time, "I am not a performance artist."
2. Idolize the Smiths.
Pernice is also a poet, having self-published a collection titled Two Blind Pigeons in 2001, the same year The World Won't End, the Pernice Brothers' critically slobbered-over second record, arrived. This year, he's contributed to Thirty-Three and a Third, a series of small tomes about beloved pop albums. His choice? The Smiths' Meat Is Murder -- unsurprising, considering Smiths singer Morrissey's penchant for woe-is-me grandiosity.
"A big record," Pernice says. "Pivotal. It hit me at the right time. Coming from where I came from, out in the suburbs, it was just like a lightning bolt. The songs were great, the message, the angst -- it's all a very romantic kind of teenage angst."
3. Avoid record-label scum like the plague.
"Start your own label," he says. "Don't sign. You don't need a label to accept you or validate your work. A contract is not validation of yourself as an artist." Though the first Pernice Brothers record, Overcome by Happiness (try "All I Know" -- it's a killer), flew under the Sub Pop banner, Pernice has since migrated to his very own Ashmont Records. A familiar tale, but always instructive. "When there's a record label waving cash in front of you, saying, 'Oh, you're great, blah blah blah,' don't buy into that," he says. "They don't give a shit. They'll drop you in a second. Start your own label, own your own stuff, be your own boss."
Pernice thinks for a second.
"Unless they give you, like, ten million bucks. Then, take the freakin' money and run."
4. Kill all irony.
It's the bane of all confessional songwriters: How much do you give away? How naked and honest should you be? Shouldn't you rein it in just a little bit so that all your ex-girlfriends don't kill you? Yeah, maybe, but Pernice is more concerned with sincerity than comfort when songwriting. "I've caught myself saying, 'I don't really mean what I just said there,' so I don't put it out," he explains. "It might not be the greatest song, but I like to especially get the sense that the person is sincere, whether it's way-over-the-top personal or whatever. The sincerity, a lack of irony, is very welcomed by me, whether I'm a listener or I'm writing."
5. Don't let our somber national mood kill your buzz.
Some folks actually described September 11 as the death of irony. Fortunately, nothing that severe came to pass, but Pernice admits that world events invaded -- and nearly derailed -- his artistic career. "I was just kind of too depressed to really do much of anything," he says. "I thought about doing something that was a little less self-centered. Music is about you a lot. If you consider yourself an artist, your life circles around the work you do -- for me, at least. And in this climate, you wanna do something like go build a school somewhere.
"Very knee-jerk," Pernice says. "And after a while, you realize you do certain things because you love it. You have to love what you do. And I don't really know if building schools in Guatemala would sustain me for very long. I'd be missing my good sushi."
6. Marry your piano player.
To end on an up note, let's congratulate Pernice on his impending marriage to Lisa Stein, who has played piano and keyboards with the Pernice Brothers for years. Ballsy move, Joe. Very Fleetwood Mac. Fear not for our soon-to-be newlyweds in this regard, though. "To be honest with you, it's been incredible," he says. "It's easy. It's not a problem. I sometimes might've snapped when it wasn't really about the piano playing, but that kind of thing happens all the time. For the most part, it's great -- we've traveled all over the place together. It certainly made touring a lot less lonely then. She isn't touring with us now, but I doubt I'll be shacking up with my new piano player, James from London."
You see? The guy's hilarious.