As Roger Lion, Joe Pernice and Josh “Budo” Karp Make Acoustic Music for a Hip-Hop World
The horns, opening somewhere between a 21st century sonata and a street-side soul riff, raise the fine hairs at the back of your neck. When Joe Pernice’s voice eases in like the boy next door, it’s purer than you’ve ever heard it – like a bell with a tiny chip in it. He sings, without judgment, of an inconsolable woman whose poetic sorrow may be of her own making. What music sounds like this?
The songs on Roger Lion, Pernice’s new project with Josh “Budo” Karp, might be the most diverse set he’s ever collected on an album. It includes a simulacrum of what could be an Ennio Morricone-penned James Bond theme in the instrumental “Adulterer’s Moustache” and a twinkling-star exploration of love’s infinite reaches in “Telescope.”
There’s also “Cruelty to Animals,” a love song involving mascara and a vaguely sinister snippet from “Alouette.” Pernice explains, “The lyrics are just crazy, but you don't really know what that means, right? So I thought … I'll steal that for a chorus of a love song.”
For the rest of us who have never known or questioned it, “Alouette” is about a boy plucking the feathers from a lark because he doesn’t like the bird’s song. Pernice is a fan of such inside jokes. Take the name Roger Lion, for example. “It's a character in my last book,” he says, referring to It Feels So Good When I Stop (2009). “[He’s] a fictional indie pompous asshole whose name is Roger Lion III. We thought we would maybe name [the band so] it seemed like it's just one person … Josh liked it and I said sure, let's go with it.”
As Budo, Josh Karp is best known for playing horns, guitar, and computer for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. But what attracts him to hip-hop, he says, is that it allows him to draw on music of all kinds. His appreciation and deep knowledge of jazz, blues, soul, and even alternative country music derives, he says, from the Boston branch of his family, the Guralnicks. Although he now lives in Seattle, his mother was raised on the East Coast with family members including author Peter Guralnick, jazz saxophonist and promoter Tom Guralnick, and artist manager Jake Guralnick, whose client list has included Alabama 3.
Karp laughs easily in the way of someone with comfortable talent, who was born to it, is master of it. His rap name, Budo, is taken from a Miles Davis song. Jazz was his first and remains his longest-lived genre love. “That was actually my favorite song on [Davis’s 1957 album] Birth of the Cool,” he says. “I was putting out rap records and, you know, 10 to 12 years ago it was necessary to come up with an alias. I couldn't call myself ‘So What.’”
Ever adventuring in music, Karp contacted Pernice a year or so ago to ask if he could remix the Scud Mountain Boys’ “Do You Love the Sun” for his playlist on SoundCloud. It had been the title track of that band’s 2013 release – their first in 17 years. “I was a big Scuds fan,” Karp says, referring to the band’s mid-1990s work. “So I tracked Joe down on Twitter.”
Teenage Fan Club for Manny Ramirez
When Karp and Pernice began communicating, the latter wasn’t interested in revisiting the Scuds record. He had moved on. He’d composed and ditched an entire Pernice Brothers project and worked on a movie score, a record, and a short tour with Norman Blake of Scotland’s Teenage Fan Club.
Blake had recently married a Canadian and moved to Canada. A mutual friend told him that Pernice was also in Canada, having left Boston in 2005 to be closer to his Canadian wife’s family. The two pop-meisters had become acquainted in Europe over the years, and Blake was eager to enlist Pernice as a local bandmate between his Teenage Fan Club obligations in Europe.
“Norman texted and he said ‘Let's start a band and call it the Mendicants,’” Pernice recalls, “and I had, no lie, just that day … written a song for the Scud Mountain Boys [called] ‘The Mendicant’. That day, no joke. In fact I sent Norman the song immediately and that's how we started our band. I was freaked out a little bit … nothing comes up for me like that. But the damn name had already been taken, so we added ‘New’ to it.”
The New Mendicants debuted with Into the Lime just last year and already are well into their next project. “Norman and I were just in Norway,” Pernice says. “We were recording in a lighthouse out on the North Sea with friends from a Norwegian band, I Was a King. They invited us to come up to Norway for a week or so and do some recording in this lighthouse out in the ocean, and we ended up recording a record which we almost finished.”
Into the Lime is as efficient a delightful pop romp as fans might expect. Everything’s there, nothing is wasted. Every last jangle, la-la-la, and charming harmony has its place. Especially noteworthy is the cover of Sandy Denny’s “By the Time It Gets Dark,” which she frequently sang in live performance but recorded only as an acoustic demo. That demo can be found on Sandy Denny, a 2010 box set of 19 discs from Universal UK that includes all the legendary singer’s work with Strawbs and Fairport Convention, as well as her solo work. It fetches about $2,200 new, making the New Mendicants’ version a bargain knockoff as the only known recorded cover.
Many of the songs on Into the Lime had been written, then rejected, for a film based on Nick Hornby’s 2006 book A Long Way Down. Hornby is a friend of both Blake and Pernice, and the latter had great success with a song for the 2005 film adaptation of Hornby’s Fever Pitch. The song “Moonshot Manny,” a tribute to Manny Ramirez’s spectacular contributions to championship wins by the Boston Red Sox, was never recorded, but it’s available on the film’s soundtrack.
The song also attracted an unusual collaboration: It inspired Jim White, chronicler of Southern character, culture, and quirks, to venture north and put Pernice’s imaginative production to work on his 2007 release Transnormal Skiperoo.
“I didn't do a heck of a lot,” Pernice says. “The [musicians] in Ollabelle, who played in the band with Jim, had pretty good ideas. I piped in with some song structure stuff … but the band was pretty amazing.”
Once Karp made contact, Pernice began checking out his music. He was especially taken with Karp’s solo work and the diversity of his online output under the name Budo. The more he heard, the more interested he became in a collaboration.
“We started talking and he sent me a bunch of songs,” Karp says, “and he kind of gave me free rein, but not with the intention of really doing anything. I think it was more just exploration. … [We] just developed a rapport and had a pretty easy time working together.”
Pernice says, “A good number of those songs, almost all of them, I already had sketched out and was working on before I even really met him.” Some were from the abandoned Pernice Brothers project. “It was a matter of seeing what the production was like and whether we clicked and how he would work with the songs I had been working on.
“Most of the time,” he adds, “my mind was just blown away. I'd say ‘Can we cut this here, or can we try this here?’ and then he'd say, ‘Yeah let's do that’ or he'd say ‘Oh I want to retry something.’ So it kind of went back and forth. But the overwhelming majority of the instruments … the production is all him.”
For his part, Karp says, “I'm a huge fan of his and I was lucky enough that I think what I was doing also kind of resonated [with him]. So we ended up not working on those Pernice Brothers songs and just kind of building things more or less from the ground up, with those acoustic numbers that he was sending.”
Those acoustic numbers, as it turns out, were part of a song cycle Pernice was working on about Josh Ritter’s divorce from folk singer Dawn Landes.
“I know Josh,” Pernice says. “I've met him a few times, very nice guy, like his music. A friend of mine was a publicist for him overseas, and I kept getting press stuff from him in my inbox. It was always about Josh Ritter's new record and his divorce, and I guess that's what the record's about. Every journalist [made that] the tagline, and almost all the stuff that my friend sent to me was all about Josh Ritter's divorce. I said to him, ’Look, man, I'm tired of getting texts about Josh Ritter's divorce, so I'm writing my own record about Josh Ritter's divorce.’
“So I started to [do that], and that's not a joke. I said, like, 'Fuck it. I'm writing my own record about Josh Ritter's divorce. I don't know a thing about his divorce. Not a fact. To this day I'm not sure if I know what his ex-wife's name is. I know she's a folk singer, but I swear to you I do not know her name, I don't know anything about it.
“But I just started thinking about Josh Ritter, and I listened to some of his records, and I tried to get a vibe for it, and then I just went with it. I just pictured his face, honestly, when I was writing a bunch of these songs, and they went into all different territories.
“I was also thinking about [how] sometimes people get divorced and they clearly still love each other. And just because you love someone doesn't mean it works. It doesn't mean you can survive together. I think I was trying to picture a relationship of people where, it's kind of cliché but it's like a sickness in a way, and you can't shake it, even though the situation, I don't think will kill you, but it certainly will make you unhappy. You continue to be drawn to it or stuck in it and attracted to it.
“I had to clear it with [Ritter] first,” he adds. “I didn't clear it with him as far as writing the record, but I didn't want to be a total jerk, and if the guy was crushed, I didn't want to make him feel like shit by putting out a record like that. And I didn't want to be cavalier about something that could be really heavy in his life. So I asked him if he was okay with it. I just said, ‘Look, I'll never mention it at all if it's a bummer to you.’
“And he said ‘No, by all means. I love it’.”
The Musical Journey of an Alt-Country Fanboy
Pernice began to see how his breakup songs on Ritter’s behalf opened new possibilities, and Karp was already in the bag. It turns out he had been an alt-country fanboy since his middle-school years. Sometime between age nine, when he picked up a trumpet and began his jazz immersion, and high school, when he tumbled irretrievably into hip-hop – perhaps around the time he first learned to build a chaotically personal orchestra on his computer – Karp’s Guralnick cousins in Boston introduced him to the Scud Mountain Boys.
“Rap is a massive part of my life,” he says, “but it's not a huge part of my formative life as a music listener. I had a couple of cousins that were musicians and worked for labels in Boston back in the '90s. They were part of that [alt-country] scene. As just a fan I came [up] through Joe's music and through bands like Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. That world was super important, and so I had that as a solid foundation in my bones.
“In a lot of ways,” he adds, “it's sort of felt like this record is the music that I've been trying to make for a long time, and it just happened to kind of work. … Joe's songwriting aesthetic goes much deeper. It's Glen Campbell, it's Elvis, it's Sam Cooke. So he's not just a product of the '90s; really he's a product of the '70s, you know? His songwriting aesthetic I think is something that fits much more comfortably in that world.”
Pernice elaborates on those who inspire his songwriting aesthetic. “I can't tell you, I mean … I've had Jimmy Webb’s writing in mind when I wrote a song. Sometimes I return to his things and I think, ‘Okay, what would Webb do?’ … Johnny Marr [The Smiths] is a big influence. Probably the best guitar player I've ever heard. I think he's just unbelievable. You know I am a big Smiths fan, but his guitar playing is otherworldly, no one like it. I was hugely influenced by the Jam early on, the Clash, the Beatles. Obviously the Beatles, I mean, that's just a given. You know Alex Chilton, that's just a given. Obviously a huge influence. There are so many of them. Bob Dylan, Carole King. I mean, Carole King [is] unbelievable – probably one of the best songwriters around. ... Brian Wilson, obviously. It goes on and on. Singing? Dusty Springfield vocals. Holy cow! As good as it gets. Early R.E.M. stuff, even some of the middle stuff, very influential, very important music to me.
“The Grifters [Sub Pop label mates] were a very influential band on me, very important. I toured with them in the late '90s with the Scud Mountain Boys and they’re just good guys. I liked hanging around with them, and just their music. They're like an American treasure, that band, and they should be revisited by anyone who hasn't. … Seeing them play live, it changed me. I quit my band right after that tour. I was like ‘I gotta do something!’ Because they meant it. They meant it in a way that was just full-on.”
What’s in a Label?
The Scuds’ first promising CD, Dance the Night Away, had come out in 1995 on the Northampton, Massachusetts, label Chunk Records, home of Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. It included a tender cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Where's the Playground, Susie” and a dozen originals, with cover art featuring a religious image ideally suited to titillating hipsters. A second release the same year, Pine Box, came out on cassette only (and later on vinyl), and included covers of “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Please, Mister, Please,” and Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.”
“I think only a thousand were made on vinyl only,” Pernice says. “It wasn't trying to create a mystique about any limited edition thing. To be quite honest with you, we got in a horrible dispute with the guy who ran the record label.”
In the wake of that kerfuffle, Joyce Linehan snapped up the Scuds for Sub Pop, and in 1996 the band released Massachusetts, a singer-songwriter album full of artful turns of phrase and the kind of pang only the occasional twang can deliver. Included in the set was what has become the universal anthem for the newly brokenhearted, “Grudge Fuck.” Pernice can’t explain its popularity. He hates thinking about those things.
“I wasn't trying to write a cheesy ballad,” he says. “I was trying to write something that had real feeling to it. It is like a '70s kind of power ballad, in a way. … I had in mind a Gin Blossoms tune [‘Hey Jealousy’], which I thought was a perfectly good song. But I also had David Gates and Bread in mind.
“The music is as soft as anything Bread ever did, but my title was about fucking. You know David Gates, even though he's saying ‘I want to make it with you,’ he's probably saying ‘I'd like to fuck you’, but he can't say that. You couldn't say that then because of shock. But David Gates when he was singing ‘I want to make it with you,’ I bet you he was having some pretty good thoughts.”
The 1996 release of Massachusetts happened; the tour with the Grifters followed, and afterward the Scud Mountain Boys were a dead band walking, until 2013 when they reunited for Do You Love the Sun.
But when Pernice left the Scuds behind, he held onto his relationship with Sub Pop. Linehan encouraged him to release the Pernice Brothers’ 1998 debut Overcome by Happiness via the Seattle indie, essentially setting his songs free of genre boundaries in a way that inspired him and made writing and recording more fun.
Lavishly produced around wide-open songs, Overcome set the relatively sparse and wood-chipped Scuds sound firmly in Pernice’s past. As if to illustrate his intent, he revisited “Grudge Fuck” with a full orchestra, as the ’70s pop ballad he had imagined when he wrote it.
“With the Scud Mountain Boys, as much as I loved it, I just wanted to have a much wider palette of sound,” Pernice says. “I wanted to write songs that weren’t quite as structured. … I just got kind of bored. The genre got a little constricted for me, and as much as I still like writing songs like that, they're not the only kind of songs I want to write.”
In January 2000, Sub Pop released Chappaquiddick Skyline, essentially a Pernice Brothers record under another name. But by September that year, Pernice’s output found a new home on his own label, Ashmont Records, named for its surrounding neighborhood. The label’s first release was a Pernice solo project, Big Tobacco.
“I just wanted to have my own record label,” Pernice explains. “I didn't want to be beholden any longer. [Sub Pop] was a mess at that point. Joyce walked away there, too, and I liked working with her, so we thought, let's get out of the deal and make our own label.”
For almost 15 years, Ashmont released, promoted, and filled orders for Pernice’s various projects, including his book, It Feels So Good When I Stop, and its companion CD. But when Linehan took a job as policy director for the mayor of Boston, the marketing and business departments of two-person Ashmont Records took a big hit. “It was a tough decision,” Linehan says, “but such a great opportunity I couldn’t pass it up. I believe in the mayor, and I believe in Boston.
“I’ve been very independent all my life – working from home, making my own way. My new role is very different. It’s been hard not being as involved in Joe’s day-to-day life, but we still like each other – despite what he tells you – and I think we’ll be in some kind of business together for years to come.”
For this new Roger Lion project, then, the best thing would be to go with a visionary label operating at top strength, maximizing its own caché and that of its roster. Pernice picked Team Love, the label co-founded in 2003 by Conor Oberst and Nate Krenkel, a friend of Pernice. The two became acquainted when Krenkel was a publisher at Sony. “I've known him forever,” Pernice says. “He's just a really nice guy, very knowledgeable about music. I knew he had a label, and I thought that it might be right for us to do this record. So when Josh [Karp] and I … knew we were going to make a record, I got in touch with Nate and said ‘Any interest?’ and he said ‘Yes.’ I sent him some songs, and from there we just did a handshake. That was it.”
What Do Macklemore and Joe Pernice Have in Common? (Not a Trick Question)
“Are you familiar with The Language of My World?” Karp asks, almost gently, as if interviewing in a foreign tongue. Not everyone in roots music is fluent or necessarily even friendly to the language of hip-hop, let alone the culture from which it derives.
He’s referring to the 2009 solo record from Macklemore (Ben Haggerty), a precursor to the rocket-ship ride that came with his 2012 breakthrough, The Heist, a collaboration with Ryan Lewis. Karp produced Language and worked closely with Haggerty throughout the process. “He had put out a self-released project before that, so I was a fan,” Karp says. “He and I were both working in Seattle. I tracked him down and we got along pretty well, saw eye-to-eye on most things necessary to make music. So we just kind of started working together.
“For the last couple of years, I've been working on the new Macklemore [and Ryan Lewis] record, and involved really heavily in the writing and composition process there. I started touring with them in the fall of 2013 and have been performing with them ever since, so that's been my main focus,” he says.
You may even have seen Karp in the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, swinging his trombone and laughing along with massive production spectacle promoting the video for a brand new “Mack and Lew” track, “Downtown.” It was, in a word that used to mean something, epic.
“So we're finishing up a record,” Karp says, “and transitioning into thinking about getting back on the road for that and for a bunch of promotions we've got coming up. That's the big thing that's taking up most of my time and energy. And then I've got a solo record that's a collection of mostly electronic -- it's almost a dance record – that is done. I'm just kind of shopping around to labels right now, and that will hopefully be out by the end of the year.
“And also I've got a record of kind of random acoustic covers of Daniel Johnston's songs.”
Except possibly for that last bit, there’s not much in Karp’s music life that seems to map to Pernice’s. So, with Roger Lion, both parties relished the opportunity for alchemy as they explored unknown sonic territory.
“It's a whole different vibe,” Pernice says of Roger Lion. “It has a kind of hip-hop influence on there, for sure, and I knew going into it that it was going to be like that. That's what I wanted. The quality of digital sound now is like night and day. On the Roger Lion record, I've had people who are bass players saying ‘What kind of bass is he playing there? What's the signal path?’ It's [Karp] playing a sample sound, really high fidelity, what's the word, high-quality sample on a keyboard. He's still playing the notes. It's not like he wrote them into the computer. He's still playing the parts, but he's not playing bass, he's playing ... sound.
“I mean that just is par for the course in that kind of music and so I have no problem with it. The strings and the horns on this record are real, though. Josh is a phenomenal trumpet player and musician in general. And he got some of his buddies who tour and play with Macklemore to come and sit in and record. Phenomenal horn players.”
Karp says he grew up in jazz. “I started my trumpet when I was nine and studied jazz trumpet, studied jazz music in general, and I was also just kind of surrounded by jazz and soul and blues music. It was a pretty large part of my world as a kid, and so I played in a band in middle school and high school. … Rap music I see as something that kind of fits different styles. It made sense to me in a lot of ways and it was a combination of a lot of the different kinds of genres that I grew up listening to. It was also something that I could more or less do by myself. I'd just sit down in front of the computer and, you know, play the flute and play the banjo and play the drums and do all of those things at once.
“I remember taking a computer music course when, I think, I was in 7th grade, which would have been the mid '90s,” he explains. “Looking back, the technology was pretty archaic at the time, but it was cool. I remember it kind of just blew my mind that I could sit down with a keyboard and [build] a full orchestra. You know, it was a terrible-sounding orchestra, but it was all there. I could play it.”
With Karp, it seems, the music can come from anywhere. But both partners in Roger Lion are zealous devotees of vocal primacy. The random catch in Pernice’s voice underscores its uniquely authentic quality. His delivery sells us the mood of the song – brooding, lovesick, empathetic, guy-like in a way that seems almost innocent. The music and production serve the voice in order to serve the song and its message. All else follows.
Pernice’s vocals are strikingly clear on Roger Lion, smooth and with remarkable diction. He agrees that after 14 releases, he has finally found his voice with this record. I kept almost every vocal I recorded,” he says. And once the vocals were recorded, they were done – Auto-Tune be damned straight to hell. “If you listen there are vocal clams all over that record,” Pernice says. “I don't think I ever hit the note, but, you know it's soulful, it feels good.
“I love that take in the song ‘Telescope,’” he adds. “The production is through the roof [strings, horns otherworldly twinkles and some understated beats] and I love it. I love the way the strings are recorded. I love what Josh did with all of the instrumentation. [But] that vocal take is from my demo. At first we were like, ‘Oh, the quality of the vocal might not be that good.’ So we recut it, but soulfulness of the performance and the clarity that came through, to me they just weren't even comparable. It was just like, ‘Who am I making a record for? “America's Got Talent?”’ No, I was making a record people might hear and feel good about, you know? Pull a feeling from it.
“Also, much to Josh's credit, he certainly had no problem leading the charge to remove all unnecessary elements. … You know, less is more.”
The Voice and What It’s Singing
The voice is the vessel for the words, and Pernice’s all but overflows with them. It’s something like an affliction. He is writing music – all kinds of music – almost all the time, in part, because he needs to. But it’s not because he’s writing for a particular project, like the Scud Mountain Boys, the Pernice Brothers, or even the New Mendicants or Roger Lion.
“I don't think about it too much,” he says. “It's not a hyper conscious or contrived thing. The thing I love most of all, more than playing live, is writing and recording. That’s where all of it happens. I'm most engaged then. To be honest with you, I don't really think about how or where the song lands, or who gets it or how it gets to them. I'm always pleasantly, but genuinely, kind of shocked when someone will say, ‘Oh my God, that song meant this to me. The song is so important.’ It's really strange, because I don't really make them with that in mind. ... I just like to make music.”
Pernice is not so blithe about the craft aspects of his lyric lines. He takes a poet’s care with his words, even if he’s not always clear on how he comes by them. His lines are acerbic, whimsical, searing, or pin-prick painful fragments that invoke rather than describe a mood or theme, almost in the manner of a contemporary visual artist. The listener is invited to interpret the words, and the spaces between, by attaching their own experiences.
“I really I don't like songs that are focused on a story of the guy who went and robbed a bank and then drove off into the sunset,” he says. “So [my] songs are kind of … sometimes they're a very gossamer thing, but I like to have imagery that really is evocative, pretty much.”
The lyrics throughout Roger Lion, as a result, shine with gemlike images. In “Redemption Is a Myth,” for example, Pernice sings of the fundamental futility of the battle of the sexes:
I’ll shoot the beast that must be put down
you kick the sickness that keeps coming round.
It’s the soundtrack for that same, go-to argument that haunts any relationship, set here in Karp’s gorgeous, lavish orchestral arrangement, straight out of the ’70s.
“The songwriting there is phenomenal. It just strikes that sort of perfect balance of, like, concrete and sort of fleeting. The songs are clearly about a certain thing, but they transcend those things that they're about. So they kind of allow you to apply your experience. … And Joe’s voice is just Joe's voice. It’s a wholly human thing and I love it.”
Pernice credits some of his songwriting style to exposure he got to great writers and writing, and opportunities to hone his own, in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts. “I know I brought into songwriting an idea compression that I like in poetry. It wasn't super flowery and verbose and epic stuff of epic length, but the stuff that knocked me dead is the stuff that's really compressed and clear. Small things that blow up into a world, rather than trying to cram a whole world onto one page.”
At one point, Pernice’s plan for adult life was to be an English professor. He also dabbled in writing, publishing a novella for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. He wrote about the Smiths’ Meat is Murder, set in the life of a high school sophomore. The novella has the feel of a lost John Hughes movie, freighted by the realities of suicide and the Reagan era, and containing correspondingly more “fucks.” Imagine a Holden Caulfield more honest about his autoeroticism, the life-distorting nature of emerging sexuality in general, and the initial impact of the Smiths in an otherwise mostly blue musical palette.
A full novel followed. It Feels So Good When I Stop chronicles a slice of coming of age in the slacker era.
“Writing the book let me name check a bunch of songs that I love and get them into a book,” Pernice says. “And then I decided I should just record the covers of those songs and make it a kind of companion piece for the book.” That recording includes Del Shannon’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” and ten more.
All along, music has been an irresistible force for Pernice. “It was always kind of a hobby of mine,” he says, “But music just happened for me. … To me the pleasure is not in releasing records. I like to play live but I don't need it. When I finish making something, I put it aside and I want to make something else. It's fun and I love doing it. And if I don't do it, I'm not a very well-adjusted person.
“I've always likened myself to that rat and the experiment – when [the rat] presses the button, he gets a little pinhead of coke and he snorts it up. And then he's wigged out and then he has to press that button again. He just sits there and presses the button all day. That's what I like to do. I like to keep making records.”