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Part One: Franz Nicolay (Guignol) interviews Erik Petersen (Mischief Brew):There's been a lot of veteran punk rockers doing acoustic tours in recent years, especially around the "Revival" tours. Maybe not coincidentally, some of the same people have written songs specifically confronting their relationship to the idea of punk and its politics with a mixture of defensiveness and nostalgia. You've written one or two in that vein yourself. I wonder if you think that's a natural stage for songwriters who pass the ten or fifteen-year mark, or whether there's a specific adjustment happening for a generation of musicians who came of age in a pre-messageboard era?
Having done Mischief Brew in one form or another for ten years now (and The Orphans for years before that), I realized around age 30 that I’d been in the punk scene for half my life and counting. Feeling jaded and tired at times seems inevitable (especially if you can still remember booking shows without the internet), so since that’s a natural stage, it makes sense that someone still singing songs into their 30s would have a song or two about growing/changing in the context of a youth culture. Give a 30+ year-old, “ex-singer-of-such-and-such” an acoustic guitar and some whiskey, and a bitter weary song is sure to come out sooner or later. Perhaps we’re seeing more of these types of songs because the scene is not just becoming older, but becoming somewhere the “veteran punk” can still exist, book shows, play in bands, etc. And while there is definitely an inundation of acoustic performers these days, I like that punk is becoming more “old-friendly,” cause it certainly didn’t seem that way when I was younger.
Doing shows with people like TV Smith and Subhumans was really instructive and inspiring to me in terms of watching musicians of an older generation still working intensely and joyfully. Are there certain musicians you look to as examples of how to - not exactly age gracefully necessarily, but have long lives in music with a certain integrity of ambition and inspiration?
You mentioned one of them: Subhumans. They were one of my favorite bands growing up, and it’s amazing to me that they’re still packing themselves in the van and doing it after all these years. As an angry suburban teen back then, what really blew my mind were bands like that, Crass bands, etc – that weren’t just pissed off but offered an alternative to the system, some sense of long-term hope that you could aim for. And you look at someone like Penny Rimbaud from Crass today, and that Dial House they all lived in… they’re still around, hosting workshops on everything from permaculture to building composting toilets. I mean, all cops are bastards, for sure… but that can only go so far before you start to ask yourself why they’re all bastards. In addition, it’s always awesome to see Billy Bragg, The Ex, New Model Army. But overall, I get the most inspired by our peers, our friends’ bands that are at the same point in their lives and are still finding ways to keep it up. Doing a bunch of shows in October with Meisce from Seattle, who have been playing in bands in the Pacific Northwest for ages now, was so much fun and rewarding. And every time Defiance, Ohio comes around we usually do a round of shows – which is always a blast, making me feel like a kid again.
You make a living as a carpenter. All things being equal, would you prefer to make a living solely from Mischief Brew and Fistolo, or does having a craft give you breathing room to do music on your terms? Do you think it's important for musicians to keep regular, non-music job?
I’ve definitely gotten a lot of inspiration for songs from working experience, whether it was carpentry, landscaping, or plastering a straw-bale house. I don’t know if it’s offered me breathing room, as getting up for work the day after a late show definitely sucks… but in the end, I’m happy that I’ve been developing a craft all these years, rather than just having shit-jobs that I’d quit the day before leaving for tour. I’ve carved out this bizarre timetable of building kitchens by day, then at night, nearly getting my teeth knocked out by kids grabbing for the microphone to sing along. It’s a weird subversive Clark Kent existence that has worked well for me so far. It’s also been instrumental in the creativity and songwriting of Mischief Brew. I think it adds to the songs, grounds them in a way that working folks can identify with. People identify with the language of the lyrics, the working class sentiment, in a way I am grateful for. We appeal to all kinds, for whatever reason... not just the “kids” but some of their parents. To me, that is the greatest reward, and I can only attribute it to having a "regular" life beyond music.
Correct me if I'm wrong - you've spent most of your life in the Philadelphia area and Upper Darby specifically, and you live in your childhood home. Do you think this connection to a physical location manifests in your music, or in your life in what is generally considered a distinctly rootless profession?
I’ve definitely spent plenty of time travelling around – and in the past ten years of MB, touring around – but for me, having a home-base to return to is important, definitely. It's a way to reflect from all our travels... I take it all in, sort it out, and maybe write a song about it. I don’t like being on the road too long at once, but then if I’m home too long I’m antsy to get out there again and go on tour. I’m never happy – or always happy, depending on how you look at it.
What's your favorite top-40 hit of the last five years?
Shakira and Danzig doing “Hips Don’t Lie.” Hey, close enough!
Part Two: Erik Petersen (Mischief Brew) interviews Peter Hess (Guignol):In the studio, I've found that spontaneity supercedes design, that improvisation can be far more magical that memorization. Are there any spontaneous moments in making Fight Dirty that stick out to you?
I agree. Put the right people in a great room and dial up some great sounds and it's not that hard to stick to the script, and execute the material that you've worked out. Then a lot of what makes a really memorable record are the happy accidents, moments of inspired playing, missteps that end up becoming essential. . . and this usually comes from playing with real confidence, sometimes risking blowing an otherwise useful take by following through on an idea that comes to you in a nanosecond. There are several spots on this record that come to mind. . . on “Ahmet” there are a few spots where the gain was way too hot on the clarinet and I overdrive the mic. . . I went with it rather than call off the take, and that turned into the whole flavor of the solo, and ended up having a bit of low-fi, aggro vibe. We shifted some of [Erik’s] guitar chords on “Sugar Park Tavern Death Song” on a whim and it added a pretty magical shine to that section. Ben's trumpet solo on the Maiden tune ("Hallowed Be Thy Name") caught us all by surprise, we had no idea how cool that would sound. Maybe the best, I think it's on “Off The Books,” I just improvised a sort of outro melody on the take, not really planned at all. . . it came out so catchy that we later orchestrated it for trumpets in harmony.
The response to the Iron Maiden cover/interpretation of "Hallowed Be Thy Name" has been overwhelmingly positive. What made you pick that song for us to destroy and reassemble in our own way? Any past significance?
It was guys in Maiden t-shirts that pummeled me in junior high, so I was kind of late to the party. Great memories of making breakfast in Vienna with guys squatting a former Communist party headquarters, dogs running around, 9am with “Run To The Hills” cranking, dicing onions for the tofu scramble. The very first time I heard “Hallowed” I realized that the second guitar melody was so close to a traditional Serbian melody, and Franz and I resolved right then to do it eventually.
Having played with a variety of bands with a variety of styles and approaches — from Balkan Beat Box to World/Inferno to Guignol — you have the advantage of being creative through many different outlets. In other words, when one project limits you, you can liberate yourself through another project. Do you find that to be true, or do you approach each band in a similar way?
Kind of a two part answer: each different environment gives me a chance to bring out a different part of the things I'm always working on, and then they all feed back on each other; the snake kind of eats its tail at a certain point. I've definitely brought some of the Turkish and Serbian music to bear on some things I've written for World/Inferno…but I can flex them a good deal more with Guignol…though I definitely apply some other lessons learned in World/Inferno back to Guignol: how to bring some real immediacy to the song and to the stage, how to cut away some of the chaff and get to the essentials. It's not so much that the different contexts are more liberating; rather, you see some opportunities to get to something that's better suited to another group of players, and it's really exciting when you realize you can get there.
Having lived and owned a home in a Brooklyn, NY neighborhood LONG before it was hip, fashionable, or desirable... a TON of bands and musicians have claimed the area as their stomping ground. Has this bolstered your inspiration to make music (has the diversity of bands inspired you)... or has it watered it down, been a bit disheartening?
I've been here in Prospect Heights for going on 15 years now, almost twice as long as I've ever lived anywhere, and by this point it really does feel like home. My wife is from the area, my friends and collaborators are here. The people I work with most are my neighbors. Certainly, there's all kinds of inspiration around that has nothing to do with the band of the moment or the skinny-jeans crowd that clogs up my local on a weekend. One of my favorite saxophone players ever has lived down the block for 20 years, and he's practicing every single time I walk by. There's a Haitian Rara band that marches up and down Washington Ave, there's bumping into Sxip Shirey who is always doing something amazing, there's the Balkan Shout Out parties around the corner, the On The Way Out series at Freddy's. . . there's a real sense from a lot of the musicians in the neighborhood that this is where we're doing the work, that's why we're here.
All of us have spent lots of time in European venues/squats/clubs, often the same ones tour after tour! Which are your favorite places to revisit, that you never grow tired of?
Let's see. . . always very fond of Nexus in Braunschweig, catching up with Moisl. Hannover has some pretty powerful memories. Metelkova in Ljubljana is an amazing place. Haven't been to Forte Prenestino in Rome in a while but they have an incredible community there. Even more than the places themselves, it's great to see the people you've gotten to know, who are all contributing to this alternate universe where you can do these things, put on a show, build something through sheer force of will and sheetrock and scrap metal. There's a feeling all around that it's not about the box office or presales or splitpoints or merch. Instead you turn the night into something special, because that's what you want the world to look like. So you have this in common with these people who you built it with and it's a strong bond even if you never talk about it.