masthead5

 

MICHAEL PENN

Even Songs
Hearsay #16 / 1997 / Email interview with Ewen and Neil

penn_frankw_ockenfels
 
 "I am obsessed with wanting to know why all the things are the way they are"
 

Prismatic lyrics, frayed keyboard sounds, mischievous wordplay... it can only be the long-heralded return of the blistering MICHAEL PENN, his glistering talents in tow and intact. The third album, Resigned, finds him re­-signed with a vault-load of cutting couplets and hooks to commit seppuku on. Neil and Ewen felt moved to engage our Penn-friend on Theosophy, divina­tion, poor English magicians and seismic shifts. And, lo, he was engaged, making time for Hearsay among his amused consultation of the record company's and radio stations' sales fluctuation charts...

HEARSAY: Resigned finds you jettisoning the sessioneers in favour of a focused four-piece band. Did you write the songs specifically with those other three chaps in mind or did the tight arrangements suggest themselves later?

MICHAEL PENN: When I recorded the demos that became March I was alone in my bedroom. My circumstances were such that I couldn't use real drums so I spent a lot of time learning how to make sequenced drums interesting to my ear. It worked well on most of those songs and was carried on to the actual album. I did the same thing on Free-For-All but by then I was getting tired of it. I gave drum credit to 'Ian McHandel LePine' on the sequences so I could at least pretend to myself that there was more of a 'band' involved. This time I wanted a band. The songs on this album were written with the idea of a band in mind. I had known Dan McCarroll for a few years. He was drumming with Lloyd Cole in 1990 when we did a tour together and we became friends. Dan knew and was a friend of Brendan. So it all fell into place very well.

Likewise, how influential was Brendan O'Brien in nudging you towards a more volume- and guitar-based sound? Did you adopt that feel because of his involvement or did you approach him precisely because you wanted him to bring some of the sensibility he's applied to Matthew Sweet and co.? How does his methodology differ from Tony Berg's?

Well, Brendan was influential in that he had produced some records that I had liked a lot over the preceding few years and so that stuff went into my head. But that had nothing to do with becoming 'more volume/guitar-based'. Some of the records Brendan has produced are very acoustic guitar-oriented. There is less acoustic guitar on this record than on Free-For-All. That one was a bit more Psychedelic Folk and the new one is a bit more Sedimentary Rock.

I would say that Brendan and Tony are at different ends of my personal taste spectrum. Tony is more fastidious. He helps the perfectionist side of me get into the minutiae and make it right. Those two records are, to me, beautifully tidy. Brendan is a slob who knows what he's doing. He's very spontaneous. It's 'throw a mic up! what mic? well, what's already plugged in over there?... use that, sounds great.' And he's right it does. He's all about capturing a moment. Most of this record was cut live.

You seem to delight in puns, ambiguity and word-play as a means of obfuscation... Do you have any faith in the concepts of 'meaning' and 'truth'? Are the clearest pictures necessarily out of focus?

No, no. God, no! I delight in puns etc. only when they illuminate another facet of what I'm writing about and save me the effort of writing an additional line. It's all about economy. I am not trying to cloud the issue. When I say 'I don't want to try you anymore' I mean I don't want to attempt this anymore BECAUSE I don't want to be in a position of being the irritant who you feel is judging you.

I have a very real faith in meaning and truth. And I don't mean a personal truth that is 'true for me' but a real, objective standard that you can put to the test. I have faith in that truth. I bow to that. The clearest pictures that humans paint for each other are necessarily out of focus because we as humans are all to some degree out of focus. Beyond that it may not be such a bad thing. One person's level of Gaussian blur might be just the thing to allow another access to something that if displayed more clearly, might not be applicable to that other's life. Blurring the edges allows for more personal interpretation. Blur is good. Oasis is better.

Do you feel you reach a more clarified meaning or understanding by having to configure your language to fit the structure and conventions demanded by songs?

I haven't a clue. I write songs. I like the structure. It's a good balance. Song structure and conventions are very flexible. There is a lot of room to push shit around. Haiku would be way too cramped. And I wouldn't be able to keep my boots on. Free verse would be a hypertextual nightmare for me because it would never be done. Songs end. You get in, you get out.

Do you share Joe Henry's love of the visual arts as an inspirational springboard?

Sometimes. But I think it mostly goes into the subconscious and does its thing in a way that I can't trace.

And speaking of visuals, the sleeves for March and Free-For-All prove compelling cases for the reinstatement of 12-inch vinyl as the leading format for recorded music. What can you tell us about David Shannon?

Well. David is an illustrator whose work I admired. He's done work for magazines and lots of books. He has a sweet, Gothic style that felt perfect for those records. He's also a great guy who I owe a phone call to.

How did the commission to score the film Hard Eight arise and what kind of working relationship with Jon Brion did you devise to get the job done?

The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was listening to Free-For-All a lot when he was writing the script and got it into his head that I should score it. I had no interest in getting into film scoring as I figured that it would be 'art by committee' but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He finally got me down to a screening of the film and I loved it so I said OK. The problem was that by the time I saw it I was waiting to get the start date on my record and I wasn't sure that I would be around to do the whole thing so I suggested that I bring in Jon in case I had to leave. Jon is a good friend and the most naturally gifted musician I know. I had been looking for a way to work with him for a while. As it turned out I was in town long enough to finish it. Jon and I would watch the film; Paul had assembled a temp music track that captured the essence of what he was looking for and Jon and I would throw melodies and ideas around. We would first sketch it out, show Paul where we were heading, get his OK and proceed. We had a blast.

Did it prove a wholly different discipline from songwriting or were there unexpected overlaps? Is it tougher to take your cues from frames set in celluloid rather than the pictures in your head?

It was a very different process for me. The feel for the music was outlined in Paul's temp track. Something gentle and raw here, something grand and orchestral there. That sort of thing. We looked for melodies that made sense that way. We looked for ways to express in musical terms aspects of the characters. I told Paul early on that I would do it if he was all right with it being an anti-score. We tried to avoid movie music cliches, particularly in the way we attempted to build tension. There was one unexpected overlap. About halfway through doing the score, Paul started dropping hints to me that an actual song might be great to have for the end of the film, over the credits. At first I tried to talk him out of it. I would never be able to write lyrics that reflected a movie without living with it for a long, long time. But Jon and I had written this theme for the main character. It shows up a few times in the film in different ways. Lyrics started coming to me that I felt captured the subtext of the film. So suddenly I had this song called Christmastime. I wrote it for Aimee Mann to sing. I envisioned it as a kind of perverse James Bond theme and Aimee was perfect. Unfortunately, she was on tour at the time so I did a guide vocal and we sent an ADAT out to her on the road. She was able to get some work done on it but it was all very last minute and it wound up a duet. It actually was released on Geffen's Christmas record last year.

Disparate scraps of the Michael Penn legend allude to various things — The Prisoner, conspiracy theories, Masonic regalia... and the name of your publishing company, Liafail, gets pretty good press on the Madame Blavatsky homepage. Do any of these keep you awake at night? Are you one for conspiracy theories and are you devising any particularly paranoiac ones you'd like to share with us?

I loved The Prisoner when I was a kid. For some reason that show connected with me. I was glued to the set every Saturday night There was a lot of truth in that show.

I have only a cursory knowledge of the works of Madame Blavatsky and was unaware that she made reference to Liafail in her writings but I am not surprised. Liafail is the large rock that sits inside an open compartment in the throne of the British Empire. It's been there a very long time. It is the Stone of Scone; the coronation stone of the British Kings coming down from Scotland and Ireland before that. In Ireland it was known as Liafail. It is taken quite seriously. During World War II, Hitler (who was a part of the same occult tradition as Blavatsky) was after it and Churchill sent it to Canada to be protected. And it does play a large part in one of the Celtic traditions. This is the aspect that I find most interesting. It is from the most ancient Irish tales. It was among the relics brought to Ireland by Ollamm Fodhla. Ollamm Fodhla was an old prophet from a distant eastern kingdom who arrived in Ireland in the days of the Milesian Kings. That's like 584 BC. He totally changed the face of Ireland setting up Tara as the center of law for the nation. It is from Ollamm Fodhla and Tara that English common law is rooted and so the idea of individual rights and common law in the United States. The legend has it that he arrived with several items that held profound significance. It is Ollamm Fodhla who brought the Harp of David to Ireland as well as this stone called Liafail which became the coronation stone of the Irish kings. A bloodline that he influenced, as he also brought with him Tia Tephi, the daughter of his eastern King, who married the Irish king. Cool, eh?

I am obsessed with wanting to know why all the things are the way they are. I want to know. It's all about patterns. There is this one chunk that is all personal relationships. The psychology and the magic. The difference between limmerence and love.

This is what I like to write about most of the time. English as a language is disadvantaged right from the start. We have only one word for love. The Greeks had three. Lucky Greeks. Which connects to another obsession. Christ. He is by far the guy most worthy of obsession in the history of all the guys. He is, in fact, The Guy. I am a non-denominational and, from what I can gather, reasonably orthodox Protestant. I am a PROTESTant singer. Which leads to an interest in science, politics, conspiracy theories, you name it. And I am always trying to fill up the pieces of my little global-social-unified field theory puzzle. I do have what amounts to a conspiracy theory of sorts but I (of course) don't think it's the least bit paranoid. I only share it over wine.

When March emerged at the turn of the decade, it struck us as an exceptional law unto itself: few contemporaneous records seemed bothered with sounding so sonically vivid. Now, with recent masterpieces like Whatever, Trampoline, Omnipop and 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees seemingly born of a similar ethos, do you feel part of a genre? Or even partly responsible for one?

Only partly responsible for keeping it alive. I love great records. I try to make great records. To me, part of that means it is a law unto itself and sounds sonically vivid. The rest of the definition is that it conforms entirely to my taste. Thank you.

Likewise, Patrick Warren is one of our heroes for rehabilitating keyboards and prising arrangements out of the vice-like grip of gtr-bass-drums, which plagues a thousand college bands. How did you first meet him and what's your relationship like?

Years ago I formed my first 'professional' band, called Doll Congress. This was during the New Wave era and most of the bands around L.A. that used keyboards were either of that particular school of synth-pop, or they were holdouts from the grandiose progressive rock days. I wanted to do something different with keyboards and I was looking for someone with a similar viewpoint. I placed an advert in a newspaper that was worded in such a way that anyone who took themselves too seriously would ignore it. Patrick answered the ad and arrived for an audition with a 60s Gem organ that did not work. Perfect. So we spent the time just talking and I played Patrick some of my demos. He was attending CalArts at the time as a Piano major and was also in the Gamelan which I liked. I had a little work space over my parents' garage and in it up on a shelf that Patrick describes as 'a shrine' sat my Chamberlin. I had bought it from Harry Chamberlin himself whom I had gotten to know a bit. There was something about the sound of this instrument that I felt a kinship with. It was the antithesis of the sterile, perfect sound of the synthesizer. I knew that it would be an important part of what I wanted to do arrangementally but I was a lousy keyboard player. Suffice to say Patrick has become the master of that instrument in my opinion, due in large part I believe to the fact that he does not think like a keyboard player. He has the amazing ability to, if playing a set of string tapes, think like a string section; or a pedal steel player, or a horn section or whatever. That was about 15 years ago and we have worked together ever since. He is one of my best friends and one of the kindest people anyone could hope to know.

Who would you cast as the principals in the TV movie of the Michael Penn Story? (we thought the guy who played Bruno in the Kids from Fame would make a good Patrick...)

I would have to cast, to use Peter [Blegvad]'s song, animated dolls. I would want it to be a stop motion film by the Brothers Quay. Just so I could watch a new Brothers Quay film.

Is it fair to say the impetus behind your musical collaboration (with Aimee Mann, Roger McGuinn, Peter Blegvad, Squeeze, Wendy and Lisa, The Wallflowers et al.) is more social than artistic? Are there any personal heroes of yours you'd actively pursue to work with?

I am a pretty solitary person and not much of a collaborator. I would never just pursue someone to work with them. The little collaboration I have done has been the result of some social contact.

Aimee I had met in 1990 when I was touring. She came out to see the show in Boston and was beginning her solo career. We kept in touch and she came out to LA to work at Zeitgeist on Whatever. Then we lost touch for a long while. She was back in LA to work on [I’m With] Stupid when we met again.

Mr McGuinn called me out of the blue. I had never met him before but was honoured that he would think to call me to work with him. The most intimidating part of it was that he wanted me to play 12-string!

I was always a big fan of Squeeze and when I was in London promoting March I appeared on a radio show and Chris and Glenn called up to say nice things about me. How fucking cool is that? I didn't really meet them until they came to the States to work with Tony. I only see them occasionally and wish I could hang out with them more often.

Wendy and Lisa I met through Tony. I knew their work with Prince and Tony was meeting with them about producing their solo record. He suggested that they might bring something interesting to the record so I suggested we bring them in on Bedlam Boys. They are amazing people and obviously extraordinarily talented. Another case of 'I wish we hung out more often'. This time geography is no excuse.

I met Jake [...ob Dylan!] several years ago. In fact it was through Jake that I met my manager, Andy Slater. I like Jake a lot. The Wallflowers thing came about through Jake, Andy, and T-Bone Burnett. I met T-Bone and Sam Phillips through Victoria Williams. It's such an incestuous little community out here, isn't it?

The only artist that I have ever in any way pursued is Peter Blegvad. Peter was a big influence on me and in many ways, I felt, a kindred spirit. I sought him out. It was a thrill for me to be able to tour with him.

How the devil did you manage to bring Tommy Cooper back from the dead to provide string arrangements on Resigned?

I am pretty sure that this is a different Tommy Cooper.

Some of your songs are imbued with a strong sense of place and landscape whether abstract (Drained, Like Egypt Was) or specific (Bunker Hill). Does being in different places affect your writing? And how do you square the role of reflective songwriter with the seemingly superficial and commercial world of LA? Does living on a fault line provide its own unique inspiration?

Being in different places affects my writing if I am affected by the different places. But I am quite fond of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles that I know is in reaction to the commercial and superficial TV version of the city. It is still a pueblo. It is still a setting from Chandler or Hammett. It is a hundred different environments in one. It is the beach or the valley or the desert or the snow in the mountains or the woods. It is a big metropolis with as much culture as New York, it's just spread out more. We may not have Broadway but we have The Museum Of Jurassic Technology. And, yes, we have earth­quakes; little reminders that it's all just a rock ball in the midst of space-time with its own agenda. That's got to be a good thing.

"Palms and runes, Tarot and tea." What's your favourite method of divination? Do you ever play with your subcon­scious (and does it ever play with you?)?

I do not use any method of divination but I do play with my subconscious. It cheats. I have caught it cheating on five separate occasions. When confronted it is remarkably adept at turning the subject round to my own insecurities and failings and before long I have forgotten what I was challenging it about. But I know it cheats all the time. There have been rare occasions when I have recognized that it had the opportunity to hoodwink me but did not as there was a third party present.

Can we take it from Small Black Box you sympathise with David Lowery's dread of dying in an aeroplane crash? How would you like to die?

I am not fond of the idea of dying by any means. To die. Hmmmm. Let's say 'to go'. I would say that if given the choice, I would like to go. Like Enoch went: ‘and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.' [Gen. v.18-24].

Individual rapture is the only way to go.

 
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