Fans of the Pernice Brothers know bandleader Joe Pernice as a versatile pop craftsman and a rocker in love with bright harmonies whose observations about love may occasionally be caustic, but are often wrapped in string-laden orchestrations that would make Burt Bacharach smile.
But Pernice’s first band, a mid-90s outfit called the Scud Mountain Boys, was a different affair. The group’s moniker may suggest some imaginary bluegrass or jug band from the 1930s, but the Scuds had a more melancholy vibe, offering pedal-steel horizons and plaintive vocals that put them on the sad, slow end of a spectrum then known as alt-country. The band broke up in the last century, making its appearance at the Black Cat next Sunday a rare, much-anticipated event. And the occasion for a touch of will-it-work anxiety.
“It could have been a real bloodbath,” Pernice says with a chuckle, referring to the three January reunion gigs he booked for a band whose breakup, he says understatedly, “wasn’t great.” Pernice hadn’t said a word to two of his three bandmates for 14 years. It took the death of a mutual friend, a big fan of the group, to get Pernice thinking again about the music they made. “I hadn’t listened to any of those records in years. I finally went back and listened and said, ‘It’d be fun to play these songs if we would get beyond anything personal.’ ”
A partial reunion last fall sounds like the feel-good closing scene of a Hollywood rock movie. Having convinced former bandmate Tom Shea to join him at a solo show in Boston (and knowing Bruce Tull, who now lives in Oklahoma, wasn’t available), Pernice reached out to bassist Stephen Desaulniers.
“Stephen was my best friend back then, and it was really rough between us when we split,” Pernice recalls. “I e-mailed him, said ‘Look, I’m playing this night. Here’s my set list. I’m going to set up a bass rig and microphone for you. If you want to come play, I’d love it. If not, I understand, no problem.’
“And he showed up.”
By the time all four performed together last month, hatchets were good and buried. Pernice describes four men who, far from their twenties, no longer have passion for old grudges but might have stayed estranged simply out of inertia. “It’s not often you get a chance to mop up ... I shouldn’t say that. It’s not often that we recognize the opportunity. You probably do have chances to make things right, but for whatever reason, you don’t do it. In this case I took it, and so did they, and it turned out really well.”
By no means does this mean that Pernice’s current band has been replaced by its predecessor. “The Pernice Brothers is my band,” he says confidently, noting that the group has a new album nearly ready for release and that, when he sits down to write songs, that group’s broader instrumental palette is what he has in mind. The Boys, it seems, were never destined to be the kind of long-lived unit that would follow its main songwriter down whatever stylistic path struck his fancy.
“What the Scud Mountain Boys did had a limited scope, it really did,” he recalls. “What we did best was kind of a live, super-mellow thing” that was so closely linked to informal song-swapping sessions at home that the group took to setting up a kitchen table between them on stage — performing on acoustic instruments and bringing a Gram Parsons-ish country vibe to originals and cover songs alike.
But turning those intimate jam sessions into a viable music career was doomed.
“We were all really close friends, right? When it was casual, just sitting around having a couple of drinks and playing, buddies getting together, that’s one thing,” Pernice says. “But when it becomes like a real, focused, 24-hour-a-day thing, a lot of clashes in personalities and stuff become very evident. It’s like having a kid in a way — like a giant magnifying glass to all your flaws, a spotlight on your shortcomings.”
Pernice, who was enrolled in an MFA writing program when the Scud Mountain Boys first recorded together, “was on a writing tear” and spent a couple of post-Scud years experimenting with different band names and configurations before settling on the Pernice Brothers label. (Joe’s brother Bob plays guitar on the records but isn’t a co-writer.) Pernice also split with record label Sub Pop and discovered he could escape some of the traps in which indie musicians often land. By starting his own label, Ashmont Records, and retaining rights other songwriters often sell, Pernice can make money selling even a modest number of records and doesn’t need to tour constantly for cash.
Limited touring means the other Brothers can attend to their own projects while Pernice publishes novels (he has a book deal for the follow-up to his “It Feels So Good When I Stop”) and explores new creative venues. Like Broadway.
“A very big theater company on Broadway approached me about writing something,” he reveals, declining to name the well-known organization because details aren’t finalized. “As soon as these Scuds shows are done, I’m going to focus on putting together something for them to decide if we want to work together.” The idea he describes (off the record) has nothing in common with today’s jukebox-musical trend or with ill-conceived, U2-meets-Spider-Man theatrical pairings. It’s a Pernice idea through and through, and one he easily could self-produce if the Great White Way turns it down.
And in the meantime, Scud Mountain Boys fans can continue to hope for new records. “We’ve talked about it a little,” Pernice says. “But you know, we’ve only spent three, four, five days together in 15 years. We’ve got to stick around, see how the next bunch of shows goes. See how everyone feels.”
The Scud Mountain Boys perform on Feb. 19 at 8 p.m at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW.