When alt-country began to reach the height of indie rock consciousness, the Scud Mountain Boys of Northampton, Massachusetts went from being a blip on the local radar to a universally renowned band back by Sub Pop, destined for reverence, but limited by brevity.
Led by singer/songwriter Joe Pernice, the band possessed the smoky whisper of hushed vocals and backcountry balladry with the southbound twang and slang of steel guitars. Not only was their career cut short, but their breakup led to over a decade of bad blood and non correspondence. Now, almost 15 years since their last show, they are taking their unsuspecting fans by surprise and reuniting for a small run of shows.
Since the premature disbanding of the Scuds, founder Joe Pernice has recorded with his brother under the self-explanatory moniker, the Pernice Brothers, recorded solo records, written two novels and founded Ashmont Records in Dorchester. I caught up with Joe Pernice from his home in Toronto (where he’s spent the last couple of years) to figure out how the Scud Mountain Boys started, why they ended, and the inspiration behind their reincarnation. Enjoy the ride through the backcountry and backcatalogue of Massachusetts’ greatest alt-country band. Cheers!
Nolan Gawron: So are you living in Toronto now?
Joe Pernice: Yes.
NG: So who is running the Ashmont Records Empire while you’re gone?
JP: Joyce is still in Boston. I do what I do from here. We moved from New York in 2004 and I lingered around, but I’ve been in Toronto since 2005, so it’s been a few years.
NG: So I guess most importantly, why reunite the Scud Mountain Boys now?
JP: Well, for me, a couple of years ago, a friend of ours from Northampton died. There was a memorial and there was a big show. I started thinking about it and I figured, ‘hey I should play that show’ and put all of our band’s differences aside. He was a good friend of ours, probably our biggest fan and just a genuinely nice dude. For some reason I chickened out of patching it up. When the band broke up, it wasn’t a very good break. Lots of feelings were hurt and things were said that shouldn’t have been said. None of that matters now. We were all pretty tight friends and went from being tight friends to not speaking. I chickened out, but it didn’t leave my mind thinking we should reunite. It was really the death of our friend that was a catalyst for me thinking about it. I listened to the music for the first time and though it was really very good and maybe we should play a show just for fun. In my mind, it’d be a great reason to patch up with my old friends. You get older and stuff really doesn’t matter anymore. It took awhile. I mentioned it to a mutual friend and he broached the subject to one of the guys, Tom. He was really cool and we started emailing. It took awhile for people to warm up. We actually got back together because I was playing a solo show back in Boston in September and I had corresponded with Tom and a little with Steve. I was playing a show in Boston and knew they were living close by. I knew Bruce was in Oklahoma so I knew he wouldn’t get a chance. I didn’t really hear from Steve, but I heard from Tom who said he’d love to go and I said, ‘Hey if you wanna sit in…”. Then I was going to be in Boston the next day and so I wrote an email to him and Steve and said ‘I’m going to set up a bass rig and a few mics and here’s my setlist. I’m going to play these eight Scud Mountain Boys songs. If you wanna show up and play I’d love it, but if you want to drive on, I understand too. I knew Tom would show up, but Steve showed up too. Not a word of conversation in 14 years and we had a drink before and shot the shit and it was all water under the bridge. I was getting chills really. It was very emotional. These guys were my good friends and man, they sat in and it was like we never stopped playing. It was tight and moody.
NG: Will Bruce be on the tour as well?
JP: Oh yeah, we emailed him later that day. After that show I talked to the guys and said ‘let’s book a few shows. What the hell.’ Bruce said he was on board and we started booking the shows immediately.
NG: So no one was especially hard to convince?
JP: No, it was easy actually. It was a lot easier than I had anticipated. I am the one who split up the band. I was the reason that it ended. I wanted to do something else. It may have been harder for me to get the nuts up to do it or to get the courage. When I did, I can’t say how hard it was to overcome, but it was easy to get together.
NG: What were the other members up to between then and now?
JP: I’m not really sure. I’m not kidding when I say I didn’t say a word with them. Not a word. Tom still played in bands. He and Steven still play with Ray Mason in western Mass. Bruce played with a few different bands before he moved back to Oklahoma. Tom got married and I heard that he had a couple of kids. But I was not involved in their lives and they were not involved in mine.
NG: Do you remember the last Scud Mountain Boys show prior to you reuniting?
JP: I do…very well. It was July 24 or July 27, it was a Sunday at TT the Bears. It was our last show and I had peaked. I peaked.
NG: How would you rate your level of success back then? I remember being in Australia 10 years ago and seeing a magazine rate “Grudge Fuck” one of the ten best alt-country songs of all time. That seemed very odd to me being 20,000 miles away.
JP: Maybe a little bit, but I still don’t know how into it people were. We really weren’t making records for all that long when you think about it. I think our first record came out in 1995, even though we made it the fall before. And our second record came out in February of 1995. And then we signed a record deal with Sub Pop and released our third record in September of 1995. It came out April of 1996 and the band was broken up by July of 1997. So we weren’t a band with product for very long. For me I was a little detached in a way. I had already started feeling like I didn’t want to do it. I was uncomfortable playing the music live and I think my vocabulary was starting to increase. My next record was more orchestral and textural. I stopped reading press, but the reviews of Massachusetts were glowing. But press doesn’t mean people listen to the records.
NG: Growing or maturing as a songwriter, how do you feel looking back at the old songs and them holding up over the years?
JP: I think they do very well and I’ve continued to play some of them over the time. The band had a downer vibe and really slow. I tried to make my lyrics be poignant and I recognize that by playing with various people over the years since the Scud Mountain Boys that everyone has a unique contribution and all configurations make a unique thing whether good or bad. The Scud Mountain Boys, in my mind, made a very unique sound that was a very good one and I think that the chemistry really lent to the songs being successful.
NG: Where did the band’s name come from?
JP: Steven and I were playing during the Gulf War. We had just gotten together and we hung out at my house in western Mass. We worked together at a bakery; that’s how we met. We hit it off, but I was about to start graduate school and I wasn’t about to be a musician. And he was of the same mind because he’d played with a bunch of people. When someone says “let’s jam’ you don’t know what you’re getting into. It could be two hours, but they could be the worst two hours ever. We got together and hit it off. The first number we ever played was “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and we turned on the TV and the Gulf War had just started. So the term “scud” was everywhere and Steve…godbless him, came up with the name.
NG: Was it particularly difficult to get your recording rights back and release your old records on your label after being on Sub Pop?
JP: No, no. It was licensed to Sub Pop. They didn’t own it. It was like having a lease. The lease was up and because we weren’t talking to each other they were then out of print. No one could do anything with them until we reconciled. I had such a bad taste about it for a while. They were three records. People could burn them if they wanted them. I felt so beyond that. Sub Pop wasn’t going to pay royalties on that ever anyhow. So none of us were going to make any money on those going out of print… or staying in print for that matter.
JP: In a way I’m really excited for all of these shows. It’s not a long stretch and we have no plans on what will come of it. I’m just happy to play music with old friends. I’m even excited to just go to western Mass and rehearse for a few days. Sitting around and playing like we did– It was always so casual. It was only after we were expected to tour as our job that I started to feel really anxious. Now I’m super-relaxed about playing.
NG: What do you do when you’re not playing music? Weren’t you teaching for awhile?
JP: That was a long time ago. I still have a publishing deal with Penguin in the states from my last novel and I’m chipping away at a new one. I have other projects. Currently I have a musical piece I’m working on and I’m collaborating with people in Canada in writing for television.
NG: Do you want to talk about the musical at all?
JP: Well, I’m sort of pitching it at a very large theater group… well they came to me. A theater company on Broadway asking me to pitch something. So I’m putting my treatment together and demo-ing a couple of songs. If they dig it I’ll keep going. It’s very exciting though—to have Broadway come after you.
NG: What do you think about the term “country” or what you did as country? Do you think you still play country even after the Scuds broke up and you continued on?
JP: When the Scud Mountain Boys were together we certainly recognized the influence of more old time stuff– certainly 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s country. It’s only when country went hairspray and the stuff that has survived that is considered mainstream country nowadays. I mean I love listening to it. When I’m driving I’ll put whatever the hot country station is and I love it because it’s horrible and it makes me laugh. The more crazy and Christian it is the better. It’s hilarious. I never considered myself part of that and never want to be. But if you’re talking about the stylings of old country music… certainly anytime the music I’ve made and the music of the Scud Mountain Boys, we touch on the country music that harkens back to an older time. I could listen to Charlie Rich and that’s country music. It’s phenomenal. I still consider myself someone who has no trouble entering into that. But I like the Buzzcocks too, you know.