An interview with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats

After 16 years and five records as Fruit Bats, Eric D. Johnson decided to retire the moniker in 2013. Continuing to make music, the multi-instrumentalist, and former member of Califone and the Shins, stayed busy scoring films and released a solo album under his initials EDJ in 2014. But it wasn’t long before Johnson realized how much weight remained in the name of his previous project.

I was lucky enough to chat with Johnson over the phone for the Boston Herald the week before his album Absolute Loser was released. Below is the complete interview for all of the Fruit Bats fans out there. And if you haven’t heard them yet, keep reading, and give them a listen—you’ll love it.

Fruit Bats Press Photo 1 by Annie Beedy

photos by Annie Beedy

I remember when you announced when you were retiring from Fruit Bats. What led to that?

That whole thing was kind of weird. I know a lot of bands breakup and they get back together to headline Bonnaroo or something like that. That’s obviously not the case. Fruit Bats is not like that. It’s not a money grab because Fruit Bats never had any money, so there’s no money to grab. I’m a total hundred-aire. I always said Fruit Bats is a band that came out at a weird and interesting time in that five year period after accessible indie rock, but before the digital age. We were a lucky little band and we got to get signed to Sub Pop out of nowhere really and got kind of lucky with the timing. I think I was living in this bubble at the time and had some tragedy in my life and the Fruit Bats have always been me with a rotating cast and it’s always been me. I knew it wasn’t working for me anymore. I was doing film scores and thought maybe I should just record under my own name, and nothing happened with that. Basically I copped to the fact that that was a completely dumb move. And I was going to experiment by coming back as Fruit Bats and see what happened– and a bunch of stuff happened immediately. It really came down to coming back with my tail between my legs and really just changing two words back to something and being able to resume this modest career that I’ve been building for the past 20 years. I don’t know if that’s the world’s most boring reason or what. I think I came back and this friend of mine said when you say it’s an EDJ show you have to have Fruit Bats in parenthesis just to get five more people to buy tickets. This is the removal of the parenthesis.

I remember seeing you at TT’s in 2002.

I bet we were terrible! That was super early on. That may have been the first Fruit Bats show ever in Boston. Who were we playing with? We played at TTs a million times, but I bet you could Google that.

Speaking of the Fruit Bats being only you and the band constantly changing, did the cast of characters affect the sound from record to record?

Yes and no. Definitely with The Ruminant Band. I had put together a band and it was very much all recorded live and it has a band sound and we toured on it in that way. People really loved that and I was surprised how much people responded to that. I think it’s just being a product of being a child of the 1990’s indie rock stuff. I liked bands like Guided by Voices and Palace, where it’s a dude, but it has a band name. That’s kind of where it all came from for me. When I went back to Tripper I was kind of still using these guys, but returned to that veteran type of recording method. It’s more of a headphone record. I think with this one we did a bit of both. It was very organic, but it was also very digital at the same time. I come from that late-night 4-track realm. I like to be by myself for a lot of it. I like to walk down a path and walk down the wrong way before coming back. I don’t think a lot of people have patience for that. I think weirdly the digital age has been good for people like me because you can make a million mistakes and still come back and honing things.

Tell me about the title of the record what led up to such an eerie sort of title?

It’s sort of a play on words. If you call someone an “absolute loser,” it’s a pretty big insult to somebody, but it’s sort of designed to trick you into hearing that, but really it refers to an absolute loss and someone who feels that absolute loss. That’s the title track and it has some darkness in the lyrics, but it has some positivity too. It’s a lot about this whole fruit Bats thing and this clean slate and blowing something up, being let down to zero, an absolute loss and burning down into nothing and the person who has the absolute loss is an absolute loser. It’s not intended to bait people or a bait and switch where they say “Absolute Loser” is an “Absolute Winner”.

I bet you’ll get a few of those.

I hope so. And not “Absolute Loser is an apt title.” The title of the album was up for debate. I was hesitant to call it that, but I polled people and they thought that should be the title.

Do you think it was a rebirth of sorts?

For me I didn’t realize what a rebirth it would be. When I was doing the solo record I just kind of believed that that would just be a continuum. That EDJ thing didn’t get out there much, but I’m really proud of it. I’ve always been in love with the lost classics and now I’ve made my own lost classic. Hopefully it’ll be classic, but it’s definitely a lost album. So, it feels like a rebirth in a dumb sense. After doing that solo thing, I lost a lot of things. I wasn’t in the game anymore, I wasn’t in a band anymore. It was very much a DIY thing and I’m a DIY type of guy, but there were things I couldn’t do. I was curious if there was even an interest in this, and there was. As soon as I got it going again, I got a new manager and everything starting coming together—again proving that it was just those two stupid words of a name that seemed to make a difference. It is a rebirth and I’m super humbled and feel very lucky.

Would you say this album was cathartic?

I had always written from the heart, but it was impressionistic and universal. I always had that way of projecting lyrics out there. They were about me, but I like telling vague stories a little better. It felt super cathartic and it was fun to get a little anger out and a little sadness and a lot of stuff that I haven’t had before in writing. It was fun. It was me throwing some stuff out there. It’s me comforting myself in a lot of ways.

You have a good way of hiding the sadness through the music and your voice. You can make a sad song sound happy or hopeful.

I’ve been told that many times and I think that’s good. It’s weird because on previous records people would say that I was happy all the time, but not really. But this record is about some really heavy topics and some really heavy shit that happened to me. Hopefully it just doesn’t sound like sunshine and rainbows all the time.

Fruit Bats Press Photo 2 by Annie Beedy

Would you say you made this out to be your most personal Fruit Bats record?

Definitely. No it is. It’s always personal. It’s always coming somewhere from your head, but this was certainly the most confessional. It’s personal and I’m being a little more blunt and candid in the lyrics. I’m not really hiding them behind any sort of abstraction. Sometimes songs mean nothing too, but on this record every song very specifically means something.

When you were scoring films did that influence how you wrote songs after that?

Definietly the EDJ solo record was very cinematic. There were some very score-y pieces in it. At the very least, when you’re a singer/songwriter and your scoring films you very quickly have to learn how to engineer and how to use the studio as a tool. That right there informs my music a little more than just sitting down with a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar. I’m starting with a more expansive palette now in what I’m thinking about and I can sit down and use the studio as a tool. But yes and no. I’ve always thought cinematically in a lot of ways and have always been obsessed with making movies and mini-movies with my songs. So that’s always been there. That’s probably why I got film work in the first place, even though I’m not doing orchestral arrangements or anything. Well, actually I have done a few of those now, but they didn’t come from a classical background or anything. I think the first few filmmakers that hired me heard that in there, even in the earlier stuff. It’s always been in there, but it’s had a bigger effect now.



Sebadoh: Lou Barlow’s Secular and Unintentional Lo-Fi Legacy

Originally created as a side project to coincide with his work in Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh quickly became Lou Barlow’s main musical outlet after being ousted from the band he helped create. After a notorious power struggle in songwriting with J. Mascis, Lou Barlow began pursuing his more autonomous endeavors.

In contrast to the towering guitar-based rock band that Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. would become known for, Barlow and his work with Sebadoh would soon led to Lou’s reputation as one of the pioneers in the lo-fi sound revolution.

While he has reunited with Dinosaur Jr. for the occasional tour and recording sessions, it is his work in Sebadoh that will always remain as Barlow’s secular masterpieces.

This interview with Lou was taken a few months back as he prepared to open for himself at the MIddle East Downstairs.

So I heard you’re hitting the road today. Are you driving straight to the east coast from LA?

I’m flying to New York tonight. Oh no, my band mates live in Brooklyn, so I’ll fly out there and practice for a few days.

What brought you out to California?

Low rent as compared to Boston. We moved out here 13 or 14 years ago and I wanted to buy a house and that definitely wasn’t able to happen in Boston.

Do you still feel an affinity for Massachusetts?

Yeah, of course I grew up there.

What is the difference between Sebadoh, Sentridoh and Lou Barlow?

Well, Sebadoh is me and my band mates. I guess Lowenstein and I have been keeping it going. It’s been the two of us with a few different drummers. Well, three I guess at this point. There have been a fair amount of drummers. We started swapping drummers out in 93 or so. Eric Gaffney is the original and he formed the band with me. We got Jason on board pretty soon after that in 1989. We toured after awhile and Eric kept quitting the band so we got Bob Fey and he played with us until about 1995 or 96. Then we got Russ Pollard. And now we have….

So Sentridoh and Lou Barlow are strictly solo acts?

I mean I guess when I made records with Lou Barlow it meant that I’d actually have people play on them with me. The thing with Sentridoh is it’s basically just me.

Was there ever an end to Sebadoh or has it always been active over the years?

We’ve always been active. We never gave up.

Did reuniting with Dinosaur put Sebadoh on hold for a bit?

Not really, it kind of facilitated it. When Dinosaur got back together for the first round of reunion touring, it sort of gave me the financial means to get Sebadoh back together with Eric Gaffney. I was able to make a leap and make this happen and buy plane tickets for everybody. Dinosaur kind of made Sebadoh possible. To be completely happy in Dinosaur I have to be doing other stuff. And if I’m doing other stuff I’m perfectly happy doing Dinosaur.

So on this tour you are playing solo and opening for Sebadoh? Is this a first… opening for yourself?

I guess it is the first time we’ve officially done it. I’ve always wanted to do this and take over the night and do what we wanted.

How did the reissues come to be? Was it your idea, or did the label come to you to do it?

It was the label. They said, “hey you guys should reissue these records”. And we said okay. I didn’t think there was any particular interest in it. I didn’t think there was a necessity to reissue, because they’re probably all still readily available in bargain bins everywhere and sitting in piles in warehouses. I think it is a gesture made by people and labels to say that you made an important record and you should reissue it. It was also the impetus of getting back together with Eric Gaffney and collaborating with the reissues of our really early records. I was very grateful for that. It facilitated Eric coming back into the band and doing the original lineup for the reunion tour in 07 and 08.

Did Harmacy get re-released yet?

No, because they wanted me to do that and I absolutely don’t want to pursue it at all. I just can’t get excited about that record and I also think it’s another one where I think its everywhere. I think anyone can find it and I don’t know how we could improve upon it unless we included the b-sides from that time, but the b-sides we did from that time I don’t know they were that great. After we redid Bakesale, I mean that was cool, but it’s not like they sold anything or we make any money from it. Only the very original reissues that we did with Eric was there any money involved. Maybe we would get some change from working on it. I mean Sub Pop lost so much money on Harmacy that when we get royalty statements its like, “oh now you only owe us $15,000.” It’s like oh great. And Harmacy precipitated this huge meltdown at Sub Pop and Sub Pop just totally reorganized itself after Harmacy and Supersuckers records. They made a lot of bad decisions at that time that it’s hard for me to get psyched about it.

Do you have a favorite record or time period with the band?

I really liked Sebadoh 3. That was a really cool record. It was schitzo-tense and really represents the introduction of re-writing members of the band. And we did Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock and Bubble and Scrape, and those records have such a good vibe to them. They were kind of self-produced and we did those before we recorded with other people and let other people determine how we sounded. We were actually at the boards with our friend Bob Weston mixing stuff and cranking EQ’s and doing all the crazy things that we could think of. Those records have a wild sound to me. Bakesale is cool too. It has a cool vibe too, but it’s pretty well-mannered compared to the previous period.

And you guys are putting out new stuff?

Yeah, we just did a digital EP that came out a few weeks ago on Bandcamp with 5 new songs. And we have 15 more songs in various stages of completion and hopefully we’ll release those early next year and start the whole cycle over again.

When people comment on Lou Barlow being part of the lo-fi revolution, do you see any merit or truth in that? Or was there just a time and place for that that was do to the technological limitations of the time? Was being lo-fi a conscious thing when you were recording?

I guess I never though too much about it. It was really just about making music. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, going to a studio was a sure way to kill your music. Rock records in the 80’s and 90’s were horrendous sounding to me. I just did what I did to keep it interesting for myself and do things that I thought sounded good. Generally I wanted to keep it kind of crunchy and to my ears natural sounding. I mean we also literally recorded things on Walkmans to record records. But to me that wasn’t a radical statement or anything. I grew up in Massachusetts and there was a wealth of college radio and I was exposed to a bunch of independent spirited music early on, from the time I was 11 or 12. You go left of the dial, and even in Western Mass, I swear there were 10 different stations at any given time that were playing totally independent music like punk rock, hardcore, college rock… all that stuff was out there and I was hearing it. Rough Trade had a domestic thing back then too and they were just flooding stores with Young Marble Giants records. I heard all of that stuff. I just think that my music was a response to all of that.

Codeine: The Welcomed and Unexpected Relapse of “Slowcore”

Despite their brief existence as a band, Codeine maintains a legacy as the pioneers of a genre eventually known as “slowcore”. Releasing three records from 1990-1994, the trio gained exposure on Sub Pop records as the east coast eccentrics on an otherwise genre-specific northwestern label.

With Stephen Immerwahr (bass/vocals), John Engle (guitar) and Chris Brokaw (drums), the band’s sound consisted of seemingly slacker lyrics and glacial-paced tempos that culminated into an onslaught of heavy-hearted vocals and heavy-handed instrumental crescendos.

Despite being a New York band, Chris Brokaw lived in Boston where Codeine had their first official show. Eventually resigning to start the band Come, Codeine would continue on, but the band’s life proved short-lived.

After years of being asked to reunite, it was the extensive Codeine vinyl box set reissues  on Numero Records that brought the band back together. The snazzy 6-LP compilation with previously unreleased studio tracks and 4-track demos, is out now and the band recently did a brief tour that included a slot in the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties to promote the release. I caught up with original drummer Chris Brokaw and singer/bassist Stephen Immerwahl, separately, to preview their recent Boston show.

Interviews with both Chris and Stephen are included below. Enjoy.

–>Interview with Chris Brokaw<–

How did All Tomorrow’s Parties go?

CB: All Tomorrow’s Parties London was amazing. We had done a warm up show in Seattle in early April, but ATP London was kind of our second show. It was definitely the biggest stage we’ve ever played on and definitely the biggest audience we’ve ever played to. I think it went really well. We were well rehearsed and had an excellent sound guy with us, which makes a huge difference in a room that size. Just the response from people was really great. I wasn’t too surprised because people were always asking me about the band a lot, particularly over the past ten years. People were really excited.

Was being asked to do that the impetus for getting the band back together?

CB: No, in fact, Barry Hogan who runs ATP has been asking us to get together for the past 8 years. In all that time we said “Thanks, but no thanks.” We thought about it, but we didn’t see any reason to go out and play. John, Steve and I have remained really good friends over the years and see each other very often, but it didn’t seem like there was a reason to get back together. The main impetus was being asked by Numero Group to do these reissues. Once we realized the scope of those reissues, we felt like we had to go out and play some shows to let people know this was happening. Barry was the first person I called and he immediately set us up with ATP London. He also had a stage at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona. And this year they also have a festival called Primavera Porto, in Portugal and it’s looking like we’re going to do an ATP in Tokyo in November.

So it was the organizer and not the curators that got you guys on ATP?

CB: They [Mogwai] asked us to play that day and that was once they knew that we wanted to do something with Barry. I have been friends with the Mogwai dudes for several years and they released a solo record of mine on their label, Rock Action. They put that out in 2005 and I’ve done a bunch of shows opening for them. Those guys are also superbig Codeine fans.

Were you surprised that the band would have this sort of staying power this many years later?

CB: I mean I don’t know. We all knew that we were doing something very unique and very specific when we were doing it and people recognized that we were doing something very unique even back then. In some ways it’s not entirely surprising because people zero in on things that are that specific, but it’s extremely flattering. In some ways it’s hard for me to divide the style of what we are doing from the songs themselves. I can speak objectively because I didn’t write the songs. Stephen wrote the songs. I think the songs are really amazing. He’s a really great songwriter so I think that stuff has real staying power.

I know the tour hasn’t officially started, but as far as how the band was back then, was Codeine an in-the-know type of band that grew in time or was it a big deal back then as well?

CB: I mean people were pretty aware of what we were doing. In some places the band was certainly popular and drawing crowds like we’re drawing now. When the second record came out (and I stopped playing in the band when that record came out), I went to see them play on one of their tours over in Germany and all of those shows were sold out. We had a profile for sure after a point. People were paying a lot of attention to everything coming out on Sub Pop at that point. So just being on Sub Pop raised our profile a lot. Being on Sub Pop and being the first non-Northwest band on the label, and more specifically being so different from everything on that label also brought some attention.

Did words like “Slowcore” exist back then when you were starting out? Or were you guys the pioneers for that term?

CB: To a degree, but I think what it meant then was different from what it came to mean afterwards. At the time, I remember we were throwing the term “slowcore” around as a joke. New York slowcore was a take on New York hardcore. If we thought that term meant anything back then we thought it meant the Swans and the Melvins as the very crushing sort of thing. I think particularly we had a little of that thing going on, but it wasn’t as brutal as those bands. I think over the years that term started to change. It’s almost like the word “emo”. There was a period of time when the term “emo” specifically just meant the band The Rites of Spring. Then over time it became a lot of different things. I think “emo” and “slowcore” became terms that anyone called those terms doesn’t want to be referred to that way. It was a thing that cultural pundits came up with that didn’t mean much.

You said you left the band. Did you rejoin the band at some point?

CB: Basically I left the band because I was playing guitar in the band Come. I was playing in both bands for awhile, but once Come’s first album came out, I knew we would be on tour for a few months and it didn’t seem to be right to be in both bands. So I left the band and new drummers took over. Over the years as we were approached to reform Codeine it seemed like an unspoken thing and made sense that it would be the three of us.

I was always under the influence that Codeine was a Boston band. Was Come a Boston band?

CB: Come was always a Boston band. We played enough in New York that people thought we were a New York band, but we were totally a Boston band. Codeine was definitely a New York band. There was a period of about three months when Codeine was starting that I lived in New York. I went back to Boston to specifically start Come with Thalia. We were both going back and forth, but decided we wanted to live in Boston to start Come. So most of the time I was in Codeine I lived in Boston and would go to New York to practice and record.

So what led to the end of Codeine?

CB: My sense of it was there were a few things. I would say one is that they had been touring a lot and kind of got burned out. Also, I think they were supposed to do some recording in 1994 and they didn’t have any new songs. But I think also, my sense is that Steve felt like what he wanted to do was very specific and very finite. When the band started I remember him saying that he didn’t think the band would last more than a year and a half. The band lasted 4 or 5 years. I think he had a specific thing that he wanted to do and after he did it, he was done.

What were those guys up to after Codeine?

CB: Steve played a little bit of music with different people, mostly accompanying other songwriters, but eventually they both stopped playing music all together. They both stayed in New York and got different jobs.

Was anyone hard to convince to restart the band?

CB: It wasn’t hard to convince Steve. He was and has been firm about keeping it limited. Initially he said he would do up to ten live shows. Now it’s 17 shows, but my sense is we’re just going to do those shows and that’s it.

How did the reissues come to be and is it the whole catalogue?

CB: Yes. We were approached by Ken Shipley at Numero Group and he sent me an email and said “Codeine Vinyl?” The cd’s have remained in print on Sub Pop over the years and the vinyl has been out of print. So I said let me ask Sub Pop and they said, “Fine, knock yourselves out.” Ken is a really huge fan of the band and kind of a completist. In some ways he wanted to get all of our stuff in one place—compilation tracks, demos and stuff like that—especially unreleased stuff. And there was a huge trove of studio tracks we had scrapped and 4-track demo stuff that Steve had done that was really interesting and different. Ken wanted to take an active role in assembling this stuff. I think the box set is almost entirely complete. We did one song on a Suicide tribute record that we did as a joke, and that didn’t make it on the box set. It’s not absolutely everything, but it’s almost everything and everything we wanted to put together.

Do you remember specific highpoints of the old days?           

CB: Yeah, I think particularly recording the Frigid Stars LP. None of us had made a record before and it was a fun process. We did it in a friend’s basement, not in a studio. The experience was new to us and unusual. When we finally got the records in the mail from Germany we sat around and smoked cigars and listened to our album. That was really exciting. I had never done that before and it was something I had always dreamed of doing.  Some of the shows too. Individual shows like this amazing show in Vienna which was a highpoint for us. Just making the music. The way that John and Steve operate is very different that any of the musicians I’ve worked with. They weren’t really married to their egos as players so the thing was always about what the best way to create Codeine music. Just the whole process of arranging the songs was very new to me.

That being said, was this your first band? Or was this your first recording?

CB: First recording. I had been in other bands in high school and college, but this was the first band to do a real recording.

How old were you when Codeine started?

CB: Let’s see… I was 25.

I’ve seen you probably 100 times [only a slight exaggeration], in many different bands. I was wondering if you can possibly remember every project you’ve been in? Perhaps the first time I saw you play was at the Metro in Sydney, Australia with Evan Dando. Is there any way you can go through the whole list of people you’ve performed and recorded with?

CB: Oh my god! The whole list?! Well there’s Codeine and Come, Consonant, New Year, Pullman, The Empty House Cooperative, Dirtmusic. I’ve done records with Geoff Farina [of Karate] as a duo. I’ve done records backing up Steve Wynn, Evan Dando, Thurston Moore, Christina Rosenvinge, Rhys Chatham, GG Allin…. I know there are more than that, but I can’t recall.

–>Interview with Stephen Immerwahr, one day later<–         

How did you three meet to form Codeine? It’s funny I’ve talked to Chris a little. I actually asked him to name all of the projects he’s been in and I’m pretty sure he missed more than a few.

SI: Yeah, he’s a hometown hero. He’s a player.

How did the band get together? How long had the band known each other?

SI: Well, I went to the same college that Chris did. He was at Oberlin College. But I don’t think I ever talked to him when I was at Oberlin. It was a small school and Chris was really cool and I was actually very shy. So, what happened was, I had graduated and was “couch surfing” and I met John through his older brother when I was staying on a couch at his folk’s place. I knew right away that I wanted to be in a band with him and we would be in a band together. He actually didn’t know it and it took a little bit of time actually to happen. He had a cassette recorder and I would come over and make songs on the cassette recorder. Then a friend from Oberlin College, Sooyoung Park, was in a band called Bitch Magnet at the end of the 1980’s and he said asked if we wanted to open up for Bitch Magnet in Boston. We weren’t totally sure if we had a name at that point, but I described the concept to John. Then we got this offer to do this show in Boston and I didn’t know anyone in Boston, but Sooyoung said, “Chris Brokaw is in Boston and he has a drumkit.” And even though he was mainly a guitar player at that point, we were like ok. Sooyoung gave Chris a copy of the tape and he came down and did a couple rehearsals and then we went to Boston and played that show and that was kind of it. It wasn’t clear that we were going to do anything more, but…

So your first show was officially in Boston?

SI: Yes, our first official show was in Boston at the Middle East Upstairs.

What was your inspiration for your sound and did terms like “slowcore” exist back then when you were starting out?

SI: Um, there weren’t terms out there like “slowcore”. There were some terms out there. People were trying to determine what was out there with “indie” and “alternative” music then. But there wasn’t a “slowcore” or “sadcore” back then. It’s kind of hard to recall, but stuff sounds good slowed down. I don’t know if stuff just sounded good slowed down on John’s recorder—really it wasn’t just tape speed– it was just like an emotional heaviness that was the focus of the band’s sound. It took a while for some sense of how it might work, but I think it was the process of making “Frigid Stars” that we decided how to make the concept of what I had always had.

When you were making the songs initially, did you ever have the feeling that there was something special happening—something that would retain a legacy in 2012 and respark a band that had disappeared?

SI: [Laughs] When you’re in a band, you want it to be the greatest band of all-time. And when we were in a band it wasn’t the greatest band of all-time—which was terrible. But we had to try. But we had a couple of really good songs and we had a stylistic tool that a lot of bands didn’t have…especially in indie rock. And we had more of a coherent and aesthetic sound that we were trying to hone. We kind of got lucky because I think the band name was important too. We wanted to be great. We certainly weren’t great, but we tried. John and Chris would say “oh this band is copying us”, but we copied other bands.

I assume the Sub Pop thing attracted attention to you guys. How did you get recognized by the label?

SI: We were pretty lucky as a band and we got signed to Sub Pop as a band before we had even played 10 shows. A lot of those shows were in Boston. We played Bunratty’s, TT’s and the Middle East. But what happened was I had gone to Europe doing sound for Bitch Magnet and when they were doing interviews and people asked what the happening American bands, I said, “Tell them Codeine”. And it totally worked. This German label that was putting out Bitch Magnet at some point asked, “Is Codeine still unsigned?” and we were like, “Yes, Codeine is still unsigned”. And we sent them a tape. I had recorded songs with John and it was still proto-Codeine. It was slow and heavy and more produced than Codeine records landed up being. They were like, “Oh this is great. We’re going to put this on a compilation and here’s some more money to do two more recordings.” So we recorded the first side of Frigid Stars and they were like, “Oh this is great, here’s some more money for the rest of it.” So this label, Porterhouse, in Germany, was busy putting out the Codeine record there, and they were also the Sub Pop distributors for Sub Pop in Europe.  So Sub Pop was interested, or more likely, curious. So we sent them the cassette. And they didn’t dig it right away. Maybe it wasn’t grunge or have big enough guitars, and they heard the first single and they got the whole aesthetic. They said they would put this thing out, but wanted to see us play first. So they came out at the beginning of 1990 and saw us play at TT’s and they said, “Ok, you guys are alright.” That’s how it happened.

I hadn’t thought about this til now, but when did you guys start vs. Morphine and was there any strange feelings about the likeness in opiate-based names?

SI: Morphine I think was just starting. Morphine is huge. I remember John asking, “Are we bigger than Morphine now,” and Chris goes, “No!  We’re not bigger than Morphine.” We were never bigger than Morphine. There was a little bit of “Oh they’re cramping our style”, but they had their own thing and I don’t think we were the first drug band name, but we were certainly on the front of it. I’m certainly happier to be associated with Codeine than Morphine, myself.

What have you been up to between the then and the now of Codeine?

SI: I went to grad school and I didn’t like it, but I learned statistics and research methods. And basically I’m doing now what I have been for the last 7 years, working for the New York City of Health counting things. The Health Department keeps track of all sorts of things and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing that for a while, and I think liking my job is pretty cool. I really didn’t think that I missed being a musician. Even my music listening has changed. I think when I was in a university, my listening was very pragmatic and I though about what I could use… what do I like? I find that I listen to music a little differently now that I’m not a full-time musician.

Do you have some highlights from the old days that stick out?           

SI: Yeah. I will say that when we first got out copies of the Frigid Stars LP, when John and Chris and I first got our red box from the Post Office and I brought it to the rehearsal space. I bought some cigars that I guess were really, really cheap… how would I know. We opened up the box of our first ever vinyl record and smoked these cigars and I guess they were horrible and John and Chris were both sick the next day. But that was one of the greatest moments ever. I think that and headlining CBGB’s for the first time ever was pretty special too. I feel just really lucky. All deaths our hard. And our death was hard. But not only did we lose Chris Brokaw, when we lost Brokaw, we got Doug Scharin. And we played even more shows with Doug than we did with Chris. We were damn lucky.

Does Doug have any bad feelings about Chris being chosen as the reunion drummer over him?

SI: [Laughs] I don’t think there are any bad feelings, but Doug sent something over to Chris over Facebook saying, “Chris, are you sure you don’t want to play guitar?” I think that was really cute actually. It’s all good.

Why did the band call it quits after all?

SI: I think the Muse kind of left. It’s kind of hard to describe it. There weren’t new songs ready to go and Codeine existed to play those other songs. When there weren’t songs coming, that was it. It didn’t seem right for the band to continue… if that makes any sense.

I saw that the reissues were delayed for a bit. When are they expected to hit stores?

SI: I think they’ll be in stores today or tomorrow. A few of my friends got theirs in the mail this weekend. They should be in stores RIGHT NOW! [laughs]. I haven’t seen the finished product yet, but I assume that seeing the re-releases with the liner notes and the booklets will be right up there with the time we first saw the release of Frigid Stars.           

Scud Mountain Boys: Some Good Ole Country Folk(s)

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.

NG: Are there any places you are especially excited to play? You’re playing in Boston at a new venue instead of an old favorite.

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.