The Melancholy Smart-Ass 

Joe Pernice knows how to pull off the ultramaudlin: Dose it with deadpan humor.

When speaking with dogs, babies, or Smiths fans, remember: It ain't what you say, but how you say it. If you're chatting with your poodle -- Ooooh, Pookie, let's go for a walk, I love you so much -- but you use your best death metal Cookie Monster venom-spewing voice, ol' Pookie's gonna hit the ceiling. Conversely, it won't faze Pookie if you admit you're about to sell him into slavery (or just ditch him in the Albertsons parking lot) if you sound like Etta James.

Clearly, Joe Pernice understands this principle. He's the sweetest-sounding ultramaudlin guy you'll ever meet.

Sample lyrics: "Cut the baby in two." "I know a heavy load that drags me down, but who doesn't?" "I hope this letter finds you crying." Yes, Joe's a sad-sack sorta fella -- 35, clumsy, and shy. But every over-the-top melancholy word on the Pernice Brothers' Yours, Mine & Ours magically turns into a gorgeous pop hook snagging the largemouth bass of utter despair. Try the sunny California bounce of "The Weakest Shade of Blue" if you want to loudly sing along; the rest of Ours encourages rampant group moping.

Smart, literate East Coast pop has no greater prophet. As the six-headed band's frontman (only guitarist Bob is a real-life Pernice brother), Joe's breathy tenor undercuts his hyperventilating lyrics, in which he pulls out his hair like it was taffy. He's the only guy in the business who can sing "If I was the only one and you were the last alive/Would we sit there like the amateurs and watch our days go by/Waiting for the universe to die" and not sound like a jackass.

Take heart, nascent songwriters. You too can weep so eloquently. Just follow these six easy steps.

1. Be incurably maudlin, but crack wise every once in a while.

"I like a good joke," Joe admits, while piloting his tour bus through the wastelands of North Carolina. "You've heard it said how close they are, tragedy and comedy. I believe that." He's not Jim Carrey-manic in conversation, in interviews, or in updates to, but there's definitely a sports-bar wiseguy sorta vibe to him, as if he's trying to make you laugh as a distraction while he steals your onion rings.

But when he picks up his guitar, when Joe ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Pernice's first high-profile band, the slow country croonin' Scud Mountain Boys, operated under the same principle, from the album covers (Joe laid out in a coffin) to song titles like "There Is No Hell (Like Hell on This Earth)." Still, he easily grasps the irony of it all, like when his van was stopped at the Canadian border a couple years ago and the guards forced him to ditch the tour T-shirts he was planning on selling at shows because he didn't have a permit. Joe had them all donated to a local shelter, which means that several homeless people are probably walking around with T-shirts reading "I hate my life."

"For the record," he wrote at the time, "I am not a performance artist."

2. Idolize the Smiths.

Joe is also a poet, having self- published a collection entitled Two Blind Pigeons in 2001, the same year The World Won't End, the Pernice Brothers' critically slobbered-over second record, arrived. This year, he's contributed to Thirty-Three and a Third, a series of small tomes about beloved pop albums. Joe's choice? The Smiths' Meat Is Murder. Unsurprising, considering Morrissey's penchant for woe-is-me grandiosity. "A big record," Joe says. "Pivotal. It hit me at the right time. Coming from where I came from, out in the suburbs, it was just like a lightning bolt. The songs were great, the message, the angst -- it's all very romantic kind of teenage angst."

Don't expect any sort of enigmatic Morrissey-esque behavior, though. Joe is a businessman, after all.

3. Avoid record label scum like the plague.

"Start your own label," he says. "Don't sign. You don't need a label to accept you or validate your work. A contract is not validation of yourself as an artist." Though the first Pernice Brothers record, Overcome by Happiness (try "All I Know," it's a killer) flew under the Sub Pop avatar, Joe has since migrated to his very own Ashmont Records. A familiar tale, but always instructive. "When there's a record label waving cash in front of you, saying 'Oh you're great, blah blah blah,' don't buy into that," he says. "They don't give a shit. They'll drop you in a second. Start your own label, own your own stuff, be your own boss."

Joe thinks for a second.

"Unless they give you, like, ten million bucks. Then, take the freakin' money and run."

4. Kill all irony.

It's the bane of all confessional songwriters: How much do you give away? How naked and honest should you be? Shouldn't you rein it in just a little bit so all your ex-girlfriends don't kill you? Yeah, maybe, but Joe's more concerned with sincerity than comfort when songwriting: "I've caught myself saying, 'I don't really mean what I just said there,' so I don't put it out," he explains. "It might not be the greatest song, but I like to especially get the sense that the person is sincere, whether it's way-over-the-top personal, or whatever. The sincerity. A lack of irony is very welcomed by me, whether I'm a listener or I'm writing."

5. Don't let our somber national mood kill your buzz.

Some folks actually described 9/11 as "The Death of Irony," as in no more smart-ass banter, no more screwin' around. Fortunately, nothing that severe came to pass, but Joe admits world events invaded -- and nearly derailed -- his artistic career. "I was just kind of too depressed to really do much of anything," he says. "I thought about doing something that was a little less self-centered. Music is about you a lot. If you consider yourself an artist, your life circles around the work you do, for me at least. And in this climate, you wanna do something like go build a school somewhere.

"Very knee-jerk," Joe realizes now. "And after awhile you realize you do certain things because you love it. You have to love what you do. And I don't really know if building schools in Guatemala would sustain me for very long. I'd be missing my good sushi."

6. Marry your piano player.

To end on an up note, let's congratulate Joe on his impending marriage -- to Lisa Stein, who has played piano and keyboard with the Pernice Brothers for years. Ballsy move, Joe. Very Fleetwood Mac-ian. Fear not for our soon-to-be-newlyweds in this regard, however. "To be honest with you, it's been incredible," he says. "It's easy. It's not a problem. I sometimes might've snapped when it wasn't really about the piano playing, but that kind of thing happens all the time. For the most part it's great -- we've traveled all over the place together. It certainly made touring a lot less lonely then. She isn't touring with us now, but I doubt I'll be shacking up with my new piano player, James from London."

You see? The guy's hilarious.


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