The Making Of Pernice Brothers’ Overcome By Happiness
By Michael Pelusi
The trinity ball is a 56-year-old tradition of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. During the celebration, held after the last day of classes, thousands of students don formal wear, enjoy live music and unwind to commemorate the end of a long school year.
In 1999, Northampton, Mass., group Pernice Brothers played the ball, along with Supergrass and others. The band members have very particular memories of the event. “The cream of British society sends their children to this school,” says guitarist Peyton Pinkerton. “And there were people shagging up in trees. All dressed to the nines, mind you.”
“We were playing ‘Wait To Stop,’” says bassist/producer Thom Monahan. “We’re standing in front of 1,500 to 2,000 drunk Irish kids in formal gowns, all dancing wasted-as-fuck to that song. We always said that was the make-out song.”
When reminded of the event, frontman Joe Pernice can at first only say, “Oh my God.” He continues with a memory of the song’s creation. “When the lead guitar comes in on ‘Wait To Stop,’ we really wanted it to have a ’70s slow-dance vibe to it. We were imagining it being in Carrie. Real ’70s slow-dance sadness. And it was really fun when it happened. There were kids slow-dancing to it. It was awesome.”
How many of those soused, swaying, spit-swapping Irish kids knew that a year prior, that band onstage had released that song on one of the most masterfully, sadly beautiful albums of their—or any—age, 1998’s Overcome By Happiness (Sub Pop)? Or that beforehand, the band’s frontman was doing most of his performing at a kitchen table?
“I definitely think Joe is one of the most underrated, incredible songwriters,” says Monahan, now an in-demand producer (Devendra Banhart, Vetiver) in L.A. “He’s fucking amazing. I do not think that that guy has gotten his due.”
“Anybody who creates such quality material in such a short amount of time, it always astounds me,” says Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman. “And Joe was really on a roll.”
Pernice shrugs off this kind of talk. “I don’t feel like, ‘Oh this record is so great, it should be heard by millions of people.’ I promise you, I’ve never felt a sense of entitlement.”
Before the Pernice Brothers, there were the Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice’s prior band. They specialized in an especially moody brand of alt-country. They played Pernice originals with titles like “Fiery Coffin” and “Grudge Fuck,” as well as irony-free covers of Glen Campbell’s “Where’s The Playground, Susie” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Mr. Please.” They were initially a rock band named the Scuds, until they started informally gathering around a kitchen table to play country songs. Once rechristened, they started bringing the kitchen table up onstage.
“The Scuds were these dudes who were always playing these late-night jams at this house ’round the corner down this really shady, wooded little road,” says Monahan, who had just moved to Northampton in the mid-’90s. He wound up recording their 1995 album, Dance The Night Away, ushering in a 10-year collaboration with Pernice. “I happened to have an eight-track, and I just dragged it into (guitarist) Bruce Tull’s house, and we did Dance The Night Away,” he says. “It was fairly romantic, I gotta say; windows open, rainstorms blowing through in the middle of takes.”
Monahan found about Pernice’s prodigious writing ability when the two became roommates. “He was always writing,” he says. “Joe and I were living together in this apartment. Joe would always be playing songs in the kitchen. It was just ridiculous. He was just churning them out. I’d wake up in the morning and he’d be playing some song he’d written. I’d be like, ‘God, another one!’”
For their final album, 1996’s Massachusetts, the Scud Mountain Boys had landed a contract with Sub Pop, thanks to the enthusiasm of the label’s East Coast rep, Joyce Linehan, who lived in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. But Pernice was already a little restless. “We were a certain genre of music, just by what our skill sets were and what we all liked to play as a group,” he says. “And I just wanted to do more than that.”
Enter Bob Pernice, brother of Joe. While not a professional musician, he still played guitar and occasionally sat in with the Scud Mountain Boys. Pernice Brothers first joined forces as a band to record a handful of songs with Monahan and some other musicians at Bob’s house. Two songs, “Jimmy Coma” and “Monkey Suit,” came out as a Sub Pop seven-inch in 1997. These songs, Bob Pernice says, were “straightforward rock.” It wasn’t quite the sound Joe Pernice had in mind. “I think he was gravitating towards something a little bit more complex and refined,” says Bob. “Maybe (the seven-inch) was a stepping stone.”
According to Joe, “I wanted to do something that had a full orchestra, a lot of piano-based stuff. I wanted the guitars to have less of the country twang.”
The seeds of the Scud Mountain Boys’ demise had been planted. Not that it was a decision that came easy to their soon-to-be former frontman.
“I struggled with it,” Joe admits. “The Scud Mountain Boys, those guys were my closest friends. These guys are your closest friends, the music’s pretty good, and you just made a record that’s been really critically acclaimed, and you could probably build on that. I contemplated not doing it, because I thought, ‘Jesus I’m giving all that up, just for what?’ To take a crack at making this kind of record when I don’t even know if it’s going to work? At the end of the day, I just had to go with what I really wanted to do and not worry about any of that other stuff.
“And I’ll tell you what: It was not only a turning point in my musical career, it was a big turning point in my life, because I grabbed my balls, as we say, and I did it. I just thought I had to do it. And I risked this other thing, and I risked friendships, and my friendships certainly suffered for a long time. So, it was a big risk, but I had to do it because I knew I wouldn’t be happy just doing the Scud Mountain Boys anymore.”