Joe Pernice has a kind of Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy to him, a surreptitious strength under a sensitive façade. In most photographs, the 35-year-old frontman looks like he just stepped out of a television police drama -- tough, a little sensitive, very urban and very ethnic, which shouldn't surprise if you know his background. Pernice is Italian, "a little Irish" and Catholic-schooled. He's quick to dispel certain standing ideas about Catholic schooling and original sin. "I think a lot of that Catholic sin psychology is a myth," Pernice says. "It's played up. I didn't know anybody in Catholic school who didn't think they were going to get laid before they got married. The whole premarital sex hang-up idea is a bunch of crap."
When asked if he's a "Southie" (i.e., part of that bunch of South Boston Irish folk that we sometimes see in movies such as Good Will Hunting), Pernice says, "Nah -- I'm even farther south of that. A place called South Shore, or what we call the Irish Riviera."
He sounds tough, but there's another side of Pernice, something that happens when he puts on his glasses. Suddenly, he looks like a member of the Elvis Costello Bittersweet Songwriters Academy, or maybe a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets. Kerouac, after all, came from Massachusetts, too. He also lived for a while in Manhattan; Pernice, for his part, mostly lives in Brooklyn now. So much for the parallels.
The fact is, Pernice, who just released his latest CD as the Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine & Ours, on his own label, Ashmont Records, is one of the great secret practitioners of pop music. His music is wistful, pretty and loaded with pop hooks that dig deeper under the skin with repeated listening. "I'm as lonely as the Irish Sea," he sings on "The Weakest Shade of Blue," the album's lead track, "and as willing as the sand." This is the bespectacled, mild-mannered side of Pernice, a side that's reflected in a voice that's soft and melodic, often compared to that of '60s singers such as Colin Bluestone of the Zombies.
Pernice multitracks his own harmonies, and his music is textured in a way that makes such comparisons apt, if a bit short of the mark. There are other influences at work -- Morrissey, the Feelies, the dBs and perhaps a smidgen of R.E.M. Lyrically, Pernice tends to eschew simple pop formulas; although he can be close-mouthed on the subject, the influence of Leonard Cohen and other more cryptic songwriters, such as Michael Stipe, is apparent. Pernice once said during an interview that he wondered if anybody has ever sat and listened to Cohen's brilliant 1971 existential dirge "Famous Blue Raincoat" for an entire day, but Pernice obviously has; traces of that song and others can be found in lyrics such as those in the tune "Number Two." Cohen, however, never wrote a line quite as blunt as "You were my life-sucking power monger/You're a total mess/Can you admit that yet?"
Pernice's music is curious that way: It's pretty -- lush even, especially on his 2001 record The World Won't End -- but beneath the sweetness is a serious undertow of irony and rancor, even depression. It's a heady mix. Nevertheless, his isn't the brand of fashionable melancholia sported by disaffected youth in their bitter bedrooms.
The new disc is every bit as pop as the last but for a few minor details. "This one's more of a guitar record," Pernice says. "We decided to leave out a lot of the strings and so forth that were on the last disc. We wanted the new record to have more power, more kick than the last couple, which were predominantly string-centric."
At the time of this interview, Pernice is two weeks into his current tour, and he and the band are driving through the south, having just played a gig in Atlanta. Now, deep in the heart of Mississippi, he admits to a case of the Mississippi Delta cell-phone blues. The reception is poor, his bandmates surround him in the van and he's clearly a tad shy about answering questions about himself while everyone listens. Two new musicians are touring with him: Pat Berkery of the Philadelphia Berkerys, who usually drums for the Bigger Lovers, and James Walbourne, a London guitarist. The presence of Walbourne affords Pernice the opportunity to joke about the British predilection for bathroom humor and bad dentistry; when Pernice's guitarist, Peyton Pinkerton, comes up as a topic of conversation, Pernice remarks that Pinkerton is a fabulous guitarist. "Now, if only he'd learn some better hygiene," he adds with a laugh. Pinkerton sits beside him in the van, the recipient of his mild-mannered friend's good-natured barbs.
The one actual Pernice brother, Bob, is an adjunct member, but he's not to be found on this tour. "He's some kind of vice-president of some digital-ink company, I believe is what it is. No kidding," Joe says.
After beginning his recording career with the Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice went on to form the Pernice Brothers and signed a deal with Sub Pop. The label released an album called Overcome By Happiness and reissued several of his older records and some unreleased material. Pernice decided then to pull out of the deal and form his own label, Ashmont, which has released the last two Pernice Brothers records. "Sub Pop was like a bad flu," Pernice says. "Everyone's got it. But you do eventually become immune to it, or more like a tolerance."
When Pernice isn't busy making music, he spends his time working on a short novel, due in a couple months. "I received a rather dubious phone call from Continuum Books one afternoon, from someone wondering whether I might be interested in writing something on the Smiths," he explains. "They're publishing a series of books about influential albums, and they suggested I write about The Queen is Dead. But I didn't feel like writing any kind of critical book, like a straight rock-criticism type of book, so I said, 'How about a piece of fiction that would show the importance of that particular record in someone's life?' So I wrote up a little treatment, and they accepted it. And I didn't want to write about that particular album. I suggested Meat is Murder, and they agreed to that as well. There's like thirteen or fourteen books in the series, but I think mine is the only one that's taken this kind of an angle.
"It was hard at first to get motivated 'cause it takes up a lot more time than writing songs, which is sitting around playing guitar, and I only had a couple of months to work on it. So the hardest part was the discipline, sitting in front of the computer. But once I got in the swing, it was fun. Making records, after all, is a collaborative effort. It's a lot less lonely."
Still, he was a little intimidated by the project. "If I was actually deciding I wanted to be a writer instead of a musician, I'd probably be shaking in my shoes," he admits.
As for his immediate plans, Pernice is determined to tour through Thanksgiving, possibly longer than that if the tour goes well, and then get back to his songwriting and recording. He also has an idea about a musical that he wouldn't discuss in detail.
Pernice and his band have stopped for a spell along the road, and he admits that they listen to few records while traveling. "We do have some Smiths, the Cure, the dB's, a few other things, but most of the time we just read," he says. He then takes a moment to admire his brand-new Econoline E350 extended-cab van, which he claims is in immaculate shape. He jokes that he's trying to keep it pristine so that he can get a good price for it eventually. What about an SUV? "Never," he says sternly. "You might catch me under one, but never in one."
Let's hear it for the tough guy.