Published Mar 15, 2013With new album New Moon released this March, hardcore bumpkins the Men secured themselves among a royal lineage of bands (the Minutemen, Yo La Tengo and the Velvet Underground for starters) whose sound is best defined by its resistance to definition. In light of their thrillingly un-pin-downable and country-tinged new record, we chatted with Mark Perro and drank in the wisdom of a man desperate to wring positive vibes from his almost-jaded personality. Veering from concerns about his spiritual well-being to the trauma of firing the band's former bassist Chris Hansell in 2012, Perro put paid to the band's evasive rep and gave one of his most revealing interviews.
You have a new live setup — how's that gonna work out?
I'm excited — I'll be playing piano for the entire set, so we're reworking a lot of New Moon songs and older songs into that, and we've got a bunch of new material we're gonna be playing. Being on the road is an up-and-down, love-hate thing, but there's also a sense of dread, getting ready for the challenge of trying to get through another one of these. But everything's positive.
Are the new songs kind of piano-based then?
We were home for about four months at the end of last year. All the songs are not necessarily piano-based but there's a piano in every single song.
I know you don't plan how an album will sound in advance, but I'm wondering who made the decision to take a piano, steel guitars and harmonicas down to the Catskills Mountains, where you recorded New Moon.
Well, Kevin did some lap-steel on Open Your Heart too. Me, Nick [Chiericozzi, vocals/guitar] and Kevin [Faulkner, lap steel] would jam together, even before the Men, on acoustic guitars and harmonicas and stuff. So when we went upstate [to record New Moon] we thought, "Let's bring everything we've got and see what happens!"
What about the new stuff, was there a similar mindset?
Yeah, well we're actually still in the studio now.
In the city?
Yeah, in Brooklyn again. Basically we got back from tour and we didn't have a practice space — we'd been on the road for almost a year. And I had some weird situations where I found myself living alone for a little while. So for whatever reason we just loaded all our stuff into my apartment in Bushwick. Piano, small amps, acoustic guitars, muted drums. We must've went through 30 or 40 songs — more than half of which are just dead — but we ended up with like a dozen new songs. It was cool playing that way — everything we've ever done has just been so loud, it's been based on that volume. So it took us out of our comfort zone to be out there naked like that.
You have this process of recording an album, immediately getting into new stuff, new situations, and then recording what represents that. Presumably that feels very natural to you. Do you get frustrated when people refer to how prolific the band is?
I don't get frustrated per se, but I don't feel we're especially prolific. This is what we do. We make music. I don't have anything else — side projects, jobs: I live and breathe this band. I'm always writing — we're all always writing, we're always playing. That's our job. It's what we do. I don't think we're such an exception; it's not that crazy of a concept to be a working band.
Do you feel pressure to keep the band moving forward stylistically?
Not really. There may come a time when we don't have a record for five years, and that's okay too. We're not gonna force anything, but if the ideas are there we're gonna go full steam ahead. I don't think a song is something you can will into existence.
Some bands would record an album, spend a few months mastering it, then go on tour and maybe start thinking about new stuff after a short break, your process seems quite intense; maybe more comparable to bands like Black Flag, who'd spend long periods of time hanging out in their van and argue and get sick of each other. Do you feel those morale dips?
It's inevitable that people go through a range of moods. Sometimes people are gonna be super-high on what's going on and sometimes they're gonna be super-low. I mean, myself, through the course of a tour, at certain points I'll feel so good and it's the happiest I've ever been, and at others I want nothing else than to just be at home. But we're pretty respectful — we try not to take things personally, and you let everyone have their moods. Because it's not a reflection on each of us or the band, it's just everyone trying to deal with it. Also, for us the biggest thing is not touring, the biggest thing is making records. So if anything, the touring — while amazing — is also creatively stifling. So we have to make sure it's not gonna push somebody to the point where they're not happy any more.
I moved house the other day with two housemates who I generally get along with just fine. It wasn't pretty. I imagine being in a high-energy touring band is like moving house every day for three weeks, two months or whatever.
There were times in the past where it did go to those levels. There were certain relationships that went to that place. But that's not a good thing. Not to get into too many details about it, but there's a reason why certain people are not in the band any more. It was too vulnerable and a little too violent or whatever. You can't survive if that's the way it's gonna be. You can't tour, 'cause how can you sustain yourself when you're constantly at the brink of blowing up? You have to be able to understand each other and you have to be able to give each other space. And it's like, "Well, they're just in a place right now, and I'm gonna step away and I'll talk to you later. I'll let you deal with whatever you gotta deal with right now, and I'll talk to you later."
I interviewed James Mercer of the Shins last year, shortly after he'd sacked all the members that played on their previous three albums. He had reached a place where, as the main songwriter of the band, he had to make decisions about who was gonna help the band move forward. At the end of the day, that meant firing a couple of his friends who hadn't been taking things seriously enough — and those friends weren't necessarily happy about that. I know the Men don't have a leader as such, so is that kind of decision more difficult?
Yeah, we've had a few member changes throughout our history, and it's a terrible thing. When we parted with our last bass player, it was one of the most horrible feelings I've ever had. Finally making the decision that that was gonna be the case — to take that away from someone. Especially because when you're in a band like ours you're not just a bass player, you're part of this thing. You're a big contributing part of that. So to take that away... I dunno, it's horrible. Unfortunately for anything to grow, these things are necessary. If that didn't happen, we would've broken up for sure. It had to happen. It was just one of those things, man. Just one of those things.
I read in a 2012 interview with you guys that you're all quite aggressive people, which is why your music sounds like it does. Is the sound of New Moon a sign that you've mellowed out a little?
Yeah, I think I have. I try to. I don't like being aggressive and angry all the time. I mean, I have my issues. I am angry a lot. But it's not something I see as a positive in my life. I try to find some kind of peace within myself, some comfort. So you're not on edge, or ready to... do something. So I don't know whether that comes through to the music, but as a person, I do try to find that peace. Or whatever.
I was thinking about the progression of the band, and at first you were doing the traditional punk thing of fighting something or everything. But then with Open Your Heart and New Moon, it seems like you're fighting against previous perceptions of your band. Is that looking into it too much? Is it an aggression against your former selves, or is there genuine inner peace?
I think that's part of it. As soon as we finish a record, we wanna try to do the opposite. Not out of wanting to mess with people — just, "We did that, that's done, I've moved past that, and now in order to feel satisfied I wanna do something new." Maybe they're kind of self-reactions. We wouldn't still be around if we were doing the same thing over and over. We would've fallen by the wayside a long time ago.
The Minutemen justified their out-of-step punk style by saying, "Oh, you wanted no rules? Well apply that to your listening habits too." Are you saying you have a different attitude: to satisfy yourselves and your work ethic?
In a way, yeah, but I absolutely agree with that statement. For whatever reason, I do feel we've had a backlash from the supposed punk scene or whatever. And to me, being a punk or playing punk or whatever — I mean, I don't consider myself a punk — is that freedom to do whatever you want, and there is no rule or limit on who you can be, or what you can be, or what you can say or what you can sound like. So it's interesting to me when punks have a problem with us for "abandoning" certain sounds. We're trying to be as free artistically as we can be, and allow whatever's floating around in our minds to come out. That's as punk as you can be, in my mind.
I think the lyrics are slightly more audible on this album. How did you feel about that?
On past records, I've always thought of melody and the sound of vocals more than the words. That's changed on this record. We're all very proud of the words. We didn't put any effects on the vocals at all, and listening back to them myself is a little uncomfortable because they're so out there. Off-key notes, voice cracks and whatever.
Did that encourage you to expose more or less of yourself in what you wrote?
For whatever reason, the lyrics that I wrote came to be very exposing. Maybe it was being in a comfortable place with friends. I just felt comfortable enough to talk about things that were weighing on me emotionally.
Are these things you would only talk about in song, or would you discuss them in an interview... such as this one?
Yeah, I'll talk. Like I said, we printed the lyrics. If you put it out there, I don't see how you can be like, "Oh I don't wanna talk about it."
Were there any particular life experiences that influenced this album?
I dunno man. It's hard for me to evaluate it like that. For me, the biggest thing was the ability to be able to play together in the same room. Not for a show or a tour but just to play, for the sake of playing. To get in touch with that part of it and away from the work aspect. There was nothing really traumatizing that happened in my life. Nothing that doesn't happen to anybody during their life. There's personal relationships that go up and down and family situations that come in and out. It's par for the course, I guess.
I guess that's reflected in the music you play: Whether it's hardcore or now the country thing, it's always working people's music. Is that a coincidence?
It's who we are. We're amateur musicians. I like that human element to musicians and I like that amateurishness, and that side of someone that is not this God-like figure; it's from a person just like I am, and I can relate to that. That's something that we take pride in.
On the flipside, are your listening habits confined to this American staple stuff?
We all listen to all different kinds of stuff. We all grew up on Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Sabbath — all those bands are deeply embedded. But as we get older, we've grown into listening to country music, punk music. I love soul, I love all that stuff.
You went to Peru for an Ayahuasca ritual before Leave Home. Any similar experiences since?
THAT was a traumatizing event in my life. And it put me on a different path since then. I spent some time with a shaman in Peru, and I was going through a lot of things, looking for answers, looking for some help. I don't necessarily know if it helps, but it set a lot of things out in my mind. Since then, I've tried to find a place of peace and avoid that trauma and avoid that madness of existing. And just be in a place where I'm happy and comfortable. Not afraid of being happy and feeling good. It's not good to focus on the negative. You need to get out of that darkness and be in the light, or whatever. So since then, it's just been a gradual self-learning. To try to get to that place of light.