Brad Almanac: Let’s start with the new stuff. How exactly did this batch of solo songs come about? Was there much of a break after you officially retired New Radiant Storm King, or did you start on the album right away? I’m curious if the solo songwriting came easy after retiring such a long-standing collaborative outlet.
Peyton Pinkerton: When NRSK called things off in September of 2009 (after twenty years as a band) I was somewhat devastated – even though I knew all too well that we had definitely overstayed our welcome ( e.g. Pitchfork* – “why are these guys still around even – don’t they have lives yet?”).
I immediately went to work on some old songs that were decidedly “un-NRSK”. I’ve always written a lot of songs – for every album where I’ve contributed 8 or so songs there would be about forty songs or more that would fall by the wayside. The truth about New Radiant Storm King by 2004 or so was that we weren’t really collaborating on songs much anymore – just bringing in our respective tunes and adding a few things to each other’s songs.
My partner in crime Matt Hunter by this point lived in NYC and I had a lot of time on my hands to write songs alone, as opposed to the “slug it out in the basement practice room” approach that we had been accustomed to since our inception. This developed into what I’d describe as a ritualistic songwriting technique.
Matt Hunter & Peyton Pinkerton
I write by recording everything; every instrument and vocal. I can’t even distinguish my writing process from my recording process anymore – they are that intertwined. I would get used to my demos sounding a certain way and then would become very attached to my versions.
[MP3] Peyton Pinkerton – “Pharmacies & Bars” (from the new LP)
I became a control freak and a perfectionist with my tunes and left no real room for anyone else’s input or contributions when we’d go into the studio proper. In retrospect I think those songs of mine would probably have been better if I could have relinquished some of my tendency to be precious with my tunes and let the other guys feel some ownership of the songs too.
In sifting through the “attrition pile” from all of the NRSK rejects (rejected on the basis of sucking or not being NRSK-esque) I salvaged two songs for PEYTON PINKERTON that I thought might get me pointed in the direction that I wanted to go. I re-recorded them and then established my bearings. I did not want to make an NRSK record and these two numbers took me over (quite unexpectedly) into a Zoo/Korova/Factory Records territory that felt right at the time – without being too literal as far as the stylings of those label’s artists were concerned.
At this time an old friend of mine killed himself and I was still very depressed about the end of NRSK and I started to go to a dark and frightening place. I was soon hospitalized for bipolar disorder for two months and my illness was addressed with some new medications and a better understanding of my condition. After I got out of the hospital I had a remarkably productive period. I wrote two or three songs a day for a few months. I was on a serious and seemingly effortless tear. The songs on my record are culled from about 90 of these songs mentioned above.
I recorded everything as demos but soon realized that most or even all of the tracks were useable for a proper record. I figured my career (or whatever you’d call it) in music was over so I was really just hell-bent on making a record for myself. I truly didn’t care if anyone else heard it or not.
In trying to get out of the NRSK territory, and also trying to get out of my immediate comfort zone I played (and wrote on) a lot of twelve-string and baritone guitars in place of many of the six-string and bass lines that I originally conceived. It gave everything a slightly foreign feel and I began to gain confidence that I was actually covering some new ground and not recreating all of the sounds from my past recordings.
BA: I first became aware of you when the NRSK debut LP was released back in ’93, and I’ve always been curious about the beginnings of the band. How did you and Matt first get together at college? How long had you been playing guitar at that point? How did the collaboration work when you first started playing together, and how did it change over time?
PP: NRSK formed at Hampshire College in January of 1990. It started off with me, Eli Miller and Elizabeth Sharp on drums. Eli and I switched between bass and guitar depending on who wrote the song. This proved tedious and we wanted another guy to fill out the sound.
I’d met Matt Hunter by essentially barging into his dorm room to grill him about SST bands because he was blasting “Double Nickles on the Dime.” He was exotic to me in a West Coast way. I was pure East Coast so together we made Kansas! We would just sit and smoke weed and listen to all of the great bands on SST, Homestead, Touch and Go and the like – pretty much 90% of the bands from the book “Our Band Could Be Your Life.” He’d turn me on to Sun City Girls and I’d play him Phantom Tollbooth or Bastro. So that was a pretty instant bond. When we needed a bassist Sharp suggested we try Matt and we were all in agreement.
[MP3] Peyton Pinkerton – “Arshile Gorky” (from the new LP)
By this point I’d been playing guitar since 1978 – although I sucked until I figured out the all-important barre chord; and stopped trying to learn other people’s songs and just fucked around until I would actually “write” something of my own. My first guitar was a Memphis brand Les Paul copy – black and beautiful. My older brother picked it out and my folks got it for me for my birthday/Christmas present (I was born on December 22 so things often were merged!). It was the best gift ever.
When Eli left the band under very difficult terms that I don’t really want to exhume, the onus of songwriting really fell on me and Matt – as Eli was the chief song contributor; with Matt and me rounding out the material with a few songs each, per album. This pushed us into a far more creative period than we’d had in the past and we discovered our own voices – to use the cliche. We also spent all of our time together; writing and rehearsing. We supported each other to the point where no one person could claim full ownership of any one song. It was definitely one of those awesome, young band situations where it was hard to delineate where one person began and another ended – including body odor!
Over time this changed. Sharp left in 1994 and we went through a slew of drummers – never really finding one who felt like a true and legitimate member. By that point on record contracts it was just me and Matt. As time went on we got more confident but relied less and less on reciprocal involvement in one another’s songs.
New Radiant Storm King through the years
Matt moved to NYC in ’98 and that pretty much ended our “hey let’s go hash this progression out down in the basement” approach. I got obsessively into recording – first on cassette four track, then digital eight track, then sixteen track and so on and so on. That was how I wrote. I would record and treat every track on every demo as if it WAS the song that WOULD be on whatever album we were working on. Matt would come up with riffs or chord progressions and leave a lot of room for arrangements – much more undeveloped than my demos. He didn’t ever track any demos and usually there wasn’t a totally complete song-form to work with. This of course gave us room to play around with his ideas. I think I actually played better on some of his songs than on my own. Maybe the approach had something to do with that.
Matt was the Oscar Madison to my Felix Unger if that makes any sense. I had to have things tidy, tight and all worked out ahead of time and he was much more comfortable with ambiguity, looseness, letting the song reveal itself etc.. Subsequently his material allotted more room for collaboration in the end than mine did. Our last album “Drinking in the Moonlight” really does showcase the death of our collaboration. It was either my song or Matt’s song and often one of us wouldn’t be around for the tracking of the other’s song while in the studio.
Our styles had changed as well and Matt was doing a lot more with acoustic guitar and embracing a more traditional sense of “song” while I was desperately trying to perfect what I thought our sound should be. Trying to perfect rock and roll is a dangerous game and it seldom, if ever, has good results. At best it’s like trying to catch a trout in the water with your bare hands – you might get a second’s purchase but it will inevitably free itself and swim away, maybe even puncturing your hand with one of its spiny dorsal fins. But I guess it’s some feat to have caught it at all.
BA: On the subject of collaboration, I wondered if you could talk a bit about your work with other musicians outside of NRSK. Your various musical bios always include a mention of time spent in Silver Jews & the Pernice Brothers, and your new LP features a guest appearance by Mark Mulcahy (of Miracle Legion). Could you share a bit about how these musical relationships came to be, what the experiences were like, and what, if anything, you took away from each? (I know this question could cover A LOT of ground, but it’s something I’ve always been curious about.) Let’s start with Silver Jews…
PP: I met David Berman (DCB) when he attended UMass Amherst for the MFA Writing Program in 1992 – I was in Northampton at the time where he lived also. We became fast friends and bonded over lots of music, writers, American presidents and Civil War history – the latter being a big interest for us both especially. I was aware of the early Silver Jews records and enjoyed them very much. A lot of people kissed his ass while he lived in town and I didn’t so I think he trusted me a bit more than most folks.
In 1995 DCB asked me to play bass on what would have been the album “The Natural Bridge.” He had the original Jews (Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich) as well as newcomer Pavement drummer Steve West. We went to Easley Studios in Memphis to track the record but from the start it didn’t feel right; competitive tension between DCB and Malkmus, David’s natural insecurity and his panic attacks, and a few other factors made for an uncomfortable setting. We recorded half a dozen songs and then DCB called it and made the engineer burn the tape. He said he was done with music forever. I half-believed him.
We tried again in 1996 with much better results – even though it still took a massive toll on David. Matt Hunter ended up playing bass, I was on guitar and Rian Murphy from Royal Trux, Drag City staff etc. was on drums. DCB’s decision to not have the Pavement guys was controversial but necessary I think to DCB’s sense of autonomy. The Jews had been labeled as a Pavement side project for so long that he needed to show what he was capable of – and had been capable of since the inception of Silver Jews. In the end I think that record turned out really well considering DCB had panic attacks throughout and got about an hour’s sleep a night during tracking. It’s one of the records I’m most proud to have been a part of.
Playing with David on “The Natural Bridge” was a great thing because he never told you what to play – but rather he’d say something like “your guitar solo needs to smell like old brown leather and oak.” Most of the time I’d know what he meant too. Before recording each song he’d read a motivational passage he’d written about the song – sort of a prompt like in the method acting style. It was a great way to work.
[MP3] Peyton Pinkerton – “Silent Grotesque” (non-album track)
I ended up playing on the final album additionally, “Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea” in 2007. By then the band was a tight unit that had worked out any kinks from the extensive touring we’d been doing for over a year. I was the only non-Nashvillian so I learned a lot from the band who were comprised of stone cold ringers. David was more comfortable but there was definitely a “safer” approach to the material. He had a difficult time getting his voice the way he wanted it to sound and the mixing of the songs presented myriad issues. In the end it was a fun experience but it was no Natural Bridge as far as comradery in the studio went.
BA: How about getting involved with the Pernice Brothers?
PP: I met Joe Pernice in 1995 while I was the soundman at the Baystate Hotel in Northampton. At that time he was playing with the Scuds – soon to change their name to The Scud Mountain Boys. I remember liking him right away when he asked me to “just make sure to keep my acoustic from sounding like a bag of nails – or giving it that singer/songwriter sound.”
By the Summer of 1997 we became friends and he’d ask me along on half-day fishing trips in and around the Pioneer Valley. He was an avid fly fisherman at the time. I was not but I’d sit on the bank of whatever river we went to and just smoke cigarettes and shoot the breeze with him while he’d cast. He never caught a fish when I was with him but he kept asking me to go with him. I figured I might be bad luck as far as brown trout were concerned.
Later that Summer the SMB’s broke up and Joe asked me to be a part of his new project The Pernice Brothers who were gearing up to make a record that Fall. I was kind of shocked since I was quite a different guitar player, stylistically speaking, than the type of guitarist I’d expect him to go for. I guess by that point he wanted to get away from the “twang thang” associated with the SMB’s and I definitely did not have much twang in my playing at the time.
Since making that first album (Overcome By Happiness) I’ve been on six Pernice Brothers records and a handful of E.P.’s, 7″s and side projects (Chappaquiddick Skyline and Big Tobacco). We’ve also toured the world pretty extensively. Playing with Joe took me to places I thought I’d never have the opportunity to see.
I also learned a tremendous amount from playing with Joe. He has an extensive chord vocabulary and I had to quickly learn a lot of the more difficult “Beatles chords” as well as many different voicings for chords I was already familiar with. Very often learning a song involved Joe shouting out names of chords and me having to be totally on top of it; changing to the appropriate chords in time as he barked them out.
He writes these songs that sound simple enough and then you learn them and realize just how complex and sophisticated they really are – crazy turnarounds, key changes and close interval chord progressions. I owe him a lot and am definitely a better guitar player from my experiences playing and recording with Joe.
[MP3] Peyton Pinkerton – “Bouzouki” (non-album instrumental)
BA: And Mark Mulcahy? He’s got a great new solo record of his own out this year (note: MM plays Great Scott in Allston, MA on March 13th), and I was psyched to see his name show up in the credits for your record. How’d that come about?
PP: Mark is a staple celebrity here in the Valley. He has fans going back to his days with Miracle Legion and his solo efforts have only made more fans of his incredible talent as a songwriter, singer and overall musician. I can’t really remember meeting Mark so much as becoming a fan after seeing him perform a number of times. I guess we were seated next to one another at a wedding in 2009 and that was maybe the first time we spoke extensively.
I remember shamelessly offering my services if he ever needed a guitar player. Later he actually took me up on it and I played on about five or six songs on a record of his that has yet to be released. I hope it eventually sees the light of day because the songs are really great.
I asked Mark to do just a little bit of singing on my solo record. His voice has so much personality that I knew I shouldn’t put it up against my voice too much (one can’t have the best vocals on the record be those of the backing singer).
He sings on one song, “Blackout ’77“, and it is a wonderful yet brief appearance. He channeled this creepy vibe at the bridge of the song and it was just the perfect part for that moment. It took me about two minutes to record him. He just sang, having never heard the song before and I thankfully hit “record” while he was trying something. We triple tracked his part to smear it out and I’m proud as hell to have him on there.