A noted musician from Massachusetts who now calls Toronto home, Joe Pernice has been the central voice in acclaimed indie rock bands like the Scud Mountain Boys, the Pernice Brothers, and Chappaquiddick Skyline among others. While he's released many records since the mid-'90s, he's also written a book of poetry called Two Blind Pigeons and a novella-turned-screenplay for the 33-1/3 series called Meat is Murder, which is inspired by the Smiths album of the same name. Riverhead Books recently published his first novel, a compelling story about love, confusion, and commitment called It Feels So Good When I Stop and Pernice took some time to tell us all about it.
Joe, you've created a nameless protagonist here who seems rather conflicted and lost during a formative time in his life. Can you tell me more about the main character in It Feels So Good When I Stop, and what inspired his story?
Well, I think that you hit it right on the head. Usually, in books, I see characters that have these great epiphanies where they find themselves at the end, and I kinda wanted to show a character who was a bit of a screw-up or very clueless who, maybe isn't necessarily finding himself but just becomes aware of the fact that he's lost. That's kinda the character I was shooting for. I was visiting my parents back in Massachusetts one Christmas a couple of years ago. I was pushing my infant son around the neighbourhood in a stroller, and a dog, a rottweiler or something like that, kinda went at us, but he was chained up so he couldn't reach us. It freaked me out a little. I remember thinking, "If that dog gets free, I'm gonna have to kill him with my bare hands or he'll eat my kid." That's where the book started, right at that moment.
Right, there's a scene in the book that mirrors that experience.
Yeah, except I ran with it in the book; the dog gets loose and they actually get into some kind of battle. But that's really where it started. From there, I was just walking around the block a million times because it was the only way my kid would sleep. And I just started to think, "Who is this guy who's walking the kid? What's he doing where he is?" And then I just ran with it.
It's a very relatable story for anyone who's been in a relationship and been unsure of it. Does any of it stem from experiences in your own life?
Oh sure. There's some of that in there. I might've taken some things that were real and just blew them up into more interesting stories than they actually were.
Music means a lot to this character and it's kind of a touchstone he uses to communicate with others and maybe even to make sense of life generally. Why was it important for you to convey that feeling of playing and appreciating music in this guy's life?
I think because of the time. It's set in the early to mid-'90s and I was that age right around then too, when music was so important to people. Just like you said ― it's a touchstone and a meeting place where people can relate to each other without actually having to have anything to say, y'know what I mean? So I was using it like that. My character's not exactly the most emotional or healthy when it comes to relating in a good way. But music does a lot of talking for him.
There was more of an orthodoxy about music in the '90s it seemed. You could be defined by the music you listened to and that really comes across in the book. The characters aren't snobby necessarily, but at the same time they're very protective of the music they love. Does that feeling still exist today or was it a particular part of the '90s that you wanted to convey?
I don't really know but I'd have to say yes. I don't think there was anything really unique about that time. Kids today are probably as protective. People always think their time was different but they're all the same.
I distinctly remember that feeling of being on one team or another but today, those musical lines seem to be gone.
Maybe they're gone for you! But I betcha, to younger people, there's still this camp and that camp.
Right, okay. At one point Lou Barlow becomes a character in your book. This interests me to no end. Why do this and why Lou exactly?
I wanted to have a famous character, someone who was famous at that time. He fits the sweet spot of the kind of music that my character is into and he also lived near by. Lou lived close to where the book is set. It was either him or Mascis. I needed somebody who was local but had become kinda famous too.
I dunno why, but it's just a very funny, interesting thing you've done, inserting him into the story. I can totally see Lou in that situation too.
Why not? I did write to him. When I was living in Massachusetts making records, I lived close to the town where Lou lived. We were both signed to Sub Pop at the same time, we're both fans of each other's music, and we have the same birthday, if you can believe that. But we've never met each other. I wrote to him though and told him I was writing this book and wanted to make him a character. I was asking his permission; I didn't want it to just show up. And I said, "You're a decent guy in the book, don't worry about it." And he said, "That's great but you can make me a dick if it's more appropriate." So, that was very sporting of him. Whenever we exchange emails, they're not very wordy. But he wrote me to say, "I just read a part where I'm sucking nitrous oxide! Yoo hoo!" So I think that's approval.
Yeah, I think you've done well there. I understand that It Feels So Good When I Stop actually has its own soundtrack?
Yeah well, about halfway through the book, I decided I should record these songs. Most of the songs that made it into the book are important to me. I thought, "I'm a musician. Why not?" So, they're covers of songs that appear in the book.
Oh, I see, cool. Joe, you've been a rather prolific and respected songwriter over the past 15 years or so and this novel marks a bit of a departure for you. How do you suppose your work as a songwriter might relate to this new venture as novelist?
I don't really know how it might relate to it but it took me about nine months to write this book and I didn't really write any music during that time. I made a conscious decision to put music aside while I finished the book. Having done that, I think it was really good for my music to put it aside for a while. Again, I can't really say how the book's gonna relate to my music; I have no clue.
Well, even the fact that you had to compartmentalize and do one thing over the other; that's interesting to me.
I've heard other people say that they've come back to music with fresh outlook and I certainly have and feel the same way. It's exciting to make music again.
How would you compare the two processes and how you approach them?
Well, to write the book, I had to be really disciplined. I worked every day for the same amount of time, for the most part. I had to get into a schedule and I was really strict about it. And I had to do that in order to maintain. If I took one day off, it took me two more days to get back into the swing. Whereas, making music, writing songs ― you can fit it in. I rarely spend four hours sitting down with a guitar every day; it just doesn't happen. So, it's a lot less time. Writing songs is almost recreational. For me, just hitting a chord feels good and it's fun to play a guitar. Just the fact that you have one in your hand and you're messing around with melodies… there's a lot of things involved in writing songs that are just pleasing in and of themselves. So it's really fun, it's never work, and it's a pretty relaxing process. Writing a book, because you just have to do it so much more and it takes so much more time and you have to keep your head in it all of the time, it's exhausting and not always fun. But when it's clicking, it was a trip like none I've ever had because you're completely alone; you're not working with other people and you're just alone with your thoughts. There's no drum beat to carry the song, no other musicians ― just your words and your thoughts. While it takes a huge amount of effort to make all that happen, when it is happening, it's a real kick. So, they're very different experiences for sure for me.
They both come from what I assume is a very personal place. Are either or both particularly cathartic or therapeutic for you?
Well, I'll tell you what: with music it's such an ongoing thing, it's hard for me to quantify that. With the exception of that period where I stopped writing music to write the book, I'm always playing music and it's hard to say just what the net effect of music is on my life. I would imagine that, if I had to stop for good, I'd be a very unhappy person so, looking at it from its absence, I'm sure it's very cathartic and nourishing in some way. As far as writing the book goes, I started to recognize that themes in the book might not have been ones that I've grappled with per se, but were coming from a deeper place in myself, not just creative. You could use a word like "issues" but they're not the obvious ones; like I'd wake up and think, "Wait a minute, I know why I'm writing that." That usually doesn't happen when I'm writing songs; they usually just happen and then they're gone with little reflection. But with this book, I found that ― and not to get all weird about it ― the same way a person might go see a psychoanalyst four times a week, I was writing this book every day. It was on my mind in the morning and there was just a constant focus on something and, I think maybe the fact that I spent so much time examining characters, it was inevitable that I would see pieces of myself in these people.
Yeah, I mean based on the setting for sure and some of the circumstances―
Yeah but, and I don't mean to cut you off, but the obvious ones aren't the ones. I'll tell you that right now. It's set where it is because I'm lazy and I didn't really feel like doing a lot of research about what it's like to live in Ohio, know what I mean? I knew what it was like to be in that place, so I just took it. So, I can see how, because I grew up in Massachusetts and went to the University of Massachusetts, as does my main character, clearly I can see why someone would imagine that was me. But I'm saying right now, I'm lazy and didn't feel like doing the legwork.
But also, I think the fact that there's an underlying musical aspect to it connects you. And also, the character himself is lazy!
[Laughs] Yeah, right!
In a lot of ways, you drew a parallel to yourself that I didn't even know about.
Yeah. Well, I'm lazy in one sense. I work really hard but one of my least favourite things to do is research. I hate it. Which is why, when I wrote my book on the Smiths, I wanted to write a fiction anyway. The thought of writing a critical piece on the record made my skin crawl. I couldn't imagine having to read about it and get facts. What does that say about me? Draw what you will!
Possibly that you're a little bit lazy I guess. Finally Joe, I'm wondering about your plans beyond now promoting It Feels So Good When I Stop. Whether musical or literary, can you tell us all what's next for you?
Yeah, I had done some dates across America to promote the book and the soundtrack album. In November, I'm gonna do another string of dates. Those might be the last ones for this run and then I'm gonna finish up an album in December I think, right around the holidays. I had recorded a solo album and that's the one I'm gonna finish up, hopefully for April or May. But don't hold me to that because I'm just talking out my ass.
Do you have any concepts for novels you're hoping to explore?
I do. I started to outline another book. As I say, I'm lazy so by outline, I've probably written about four sentences, which is about three more than I wrote for the last book, so I'm getting better. It's a big commitment to sign on for a book y'know? It's gonna be six months to a year of working for me based on how much time I have. So, before I jump into that sort of thing, I just wanna make sure I have the energy and desire to pull it off.
Well, I hope you do Joe. It Feels So Good When I Stop seems like a harbinger of great things to come.
Oh, well thanks man. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I really did have a fantastic time writing it so yeah, that's great.
Check out Exclaim!'s "Writer's Rock" article featuring Joe Pernice here.