Mischief Brew started out as a solo project of Erik Petersen where he planed to write medieval acoustic poetry. But since then the band has morphed into one of the earliest folk punk bands, one of the earliest gypsy punk bands, and more recently, a straight up, kickass punk band with some real old-world style (as well as the unnerving, occasional toast to Death himself).
In order to see where the band is headed next, Punknews’ John Gentile met up with Petersen where they talked about Mischief Brew’s next record, argued about history, and complimented each other for being Italian.
Erik Petersen is a spy. I meet up with him at a Philadelphia-based punk collective library just before he is scheduled to play with his band Mischief Brew. Outside the library/venue, young kids wearing the standard-issue punk patches smoke cigarettes and swig from bottles hidden by paper bags. Inside, the more grizzled punks flip through some of the library’s books, including a treasure trove of old zines, heavily researched books on home garden cultivation, a pamphlet on how to do a natural birth, a manifesto by the woman who shot Andy Warhol which argues for the systematic elimination of all males, and a pamphlet written by a non-medical professional which gives advice on how to use acupuncture on HIV Infected prisoners in order to fight the disease. I’m skeptical about that last publication, but the place is pretty much as punk rock as you can get, if you go by Crass’ definition of punk.
However, not six hours earlier, Petersen was working at his day job as carpenter. His client was so rich that he actually had a robotic controlled lawnmower that navigated the lawn electronically using a GPS system - Now that’s a man with a lot of cash. But, while Petersen was working, he was also observing, taking in detail after detail about how the top of the economic pyramid live. Indeed, the singer of a radical, anarchic punk band that borrowed from everyone between Utah Philips and Rudimentary Peni was in the den of the country’s richest. While the owner saw Petersen happily nailing away with a smile, Petersen was also gathering ammunition for his art.
“I do like to think of myself as a spy,” Petersen says. “But, I make it seem way cooler than it is. At the end of the day, I’m too nice to everybody. Even the rich people, I guess. There is my job, then my skill, then my band. Each thing you look at individually and evaluate it in that way.”
Like his dual identity, Petersen is something of a walking contradiction. Although his name is undeniably Scandinavian, he tells me he takes after his Italian side. It shows. “Erik Petersen” suggests either a massive, burly beast of a man with a flowing beard or alternatively, a tall, high-cheeked, blonde, twig. However, like so many Italians with ties back to central Italia, he’s short, limber, and has skin that doesn’t seem particularly dark, but when tanned, would make him look like bronze. And of course, as with so many countrymen, he’s got that undeniably round Italian nose. I doubt many of the show attendees catch the reference, but he’s even wearing the type of cap that zii Vincenzo e Carmen would refer to as an “Italian stud hat.” (I know because I have one myself.) If you were to strip off his sleeves and focus on his hands, you wouldn’t see the soft, malleable flesh of the usual artist, but rather, due to his carpentry career, calloused hands and taught muscles.
Still, the current economy has affected both Petersen’s art and his work, increasing his spy persona. “I have been working less,” he says. “We just did a kitchen for people that own an electronic yard. That’s not so common. I tend to think of myself as a sort of Clark Kent. I take in all the tidbits I see during the day.”
From there, he takes his experiences and forges them into the shambling mass that is Mischief Brew. Mischief Brew started out as a sort of neo-Medieval, folk-solo act, with music and lyrics that could have been plucked from Chaucer. But soon, Petersen recruited a whole band for his basement project about barons and beer, becoming one of the first so-called acoustic-punk or gypsy punk acts.
Mischief Brew is one of the few bands that can reach towards the ancient without falling into cliché. Their classic “Lonely Carpenter,” which is just Petersen and an acoustic guitar, could have been written and recorded during the great depression. It urges the working class to bind together in order to fight domestic economic oppression. “Thanks, Bastards” takes the curious twist of actually thanking corrupt and possessive governments for their wrongful acts, for they are who truly encourage class revolt.
But, for my money, their latest LP, The Stone Operation. is their true masterpiece. More electric than previous Mischief Brew works, The Stone Operation opens with “A lawless world” where Petersen charges forward and gives fate the middle finger. The album still maintains the band’s carnival-esque gypsy swing, incorporating junk instruments and something which I (without any evidence or research) imagine is called a pazookie. It’s nastier and more determined than before, all while keeping the acoustic swing on a few tracks. “Stuff’s Weird” had some of the most bittersweet lyrics, comparing Petersen’s relationship to punk to that of losing a lover. “Got a little dream house, we could each one have it all/ But you got a habit of burnin’ em down cause you don’t like the color of the walls.”
Though, to be fair, the closing track is what separates Mischief Brew from those other bands in overalls and handkerchiefs. Where a lot of other bands using similar imagery would end the album on the benefits of sticking together or on an expression of hope, Petersen steals a fragment from Rudimentary Peni, builds it up into an entire song, and gives a simultaneous toast to being alive, to good ale, and to dying a good death. With a gruesome laugh, Petersen calls out, “Better under the table than under the ground!” The song then spins deeper and deeper into a clattering cacophony until it is lost in a storm of gothic wailing.
The Stone Operation seemed harder, meaner, and more aggressive than their previous work. But, Petersen disagrees that the band somehow got nastier. Rather, he says, “I don’t necessarily think that it was more aggressive. It probably is because it sounds better. If we recorded our first LP, Smash the Windows where we recorded The Stone Operation., it probably would have sounded more aggressive. One of the crazier songs that we’ve ever done was left off Smash the Windows. We did that record more like Balkan bands. But, with all of our recordings, every studio is a part of the songs. The songs absorb the walls.”
“Was A Stone Operation a tactical approach to release 13 energetic songs, or did it occur organically?” I ask.
“We don’t really think too much about it,” Petersen replies. “I can’t think too much about it. When we try to force it, the songs don’t get written. Some kids did feel that we betrayed them on A Stone Operation. They thought that we were abandoning the folk thing, which was silly. You can go back to the earliest recordings like “Devil’s Toast” and “10,000 Fleas.” We’ve done heavier things. We’re not some light acoustic band. “ I ask Petersen if, like many artists claim to be, he feels immune to criticism. He replies, “No, I wouldn’t say that we are totally immune to it. We know that people want to hear songs that they grew up with. I’ve always been that way. I never want to go see one of my favorite bands and hear them play all new stuff. You try to mix it up.”
“That way, you won’t feel restricted.” He continues. “There are some songs that we don’t do because we’ve outgrown them. We don’t disagree with what they say, it’s in our minds, but very far in the back- in the recesses of our minds. You can’t do the same thing over and over. If Black Flag did that, they would keep remaking Nervous Breakdown and it wouldn’t be as good.”
Indeed, where Mischief Brew started out as an acoustic band that used the template of medieval music, it is now a combination of the modern and the classical. Petersen explains the evolution since the band’s beginning, “We’ve grown so much since then. My aspiration was ‘We’re going to start a punk band with acoustic instruments’ which at the time seemed crazy. Then it was ‘I want to play basements in West Philly.’ You set more goals for yourself and when you achieve them, you go ‘What’s next?’”
“Also, you’re a different person at that point in your life,” he says. “Back then, I was more into medieval music. Not that I’m not now, but my scope has widened.” If you go to a Mischief Brew show, the whole atmosphere is collegial and interactive. Like a hardcore show, audience members grab the mic and take vocal duties. But unlike a hardcore show, the meeting between band and fan isn’t violent. Rather, it’s more like the raucous party portrayed in so many early Pogues songs. Still, although people seem to be having a blast at the Mischief Brew show, Petersen did mention that the band faced some small, but in existence blowback, for the harder, more electric edge of The Stone Operation. Does that mean that the band has haters?
“Well, we do have haters. Not many, but a few,” Petersen says. “There were kids that felt that we abandoned the folk thing. If they don’t like it, it’s fine. It’s like food. You can’t make someone like what they don’t like. But, it’s a small contingent. We try not to pay too much attention to it.”
For a while, it seemed like “folk punk” had a very specific meaning and more and more bands were adhering to the “rules” which cropped up suddenly: you have to wear overalls, you have to sing in a 20s’ dustbowl accent, you have to have a ragged, blown out voice, you have to be acoustic whenever possible. But, although Mischief Brew referenced and used folk some five to ten years before folk punk was even really a thing, as the genre became more popular, Mischief Brew seemed to retreat from the clichés, and become more of a “band” than a “folk punk” band.
“For us, the term folk punk is convenient,” Petersen explains. “I don’t know if I say ‘I’m in a folk punk band.’ I just say that I’m in a punk band. I’ve said that since I was sixteen. You see all these bands of that variety. They’re their own thing and are pretty unique, but if anything, we’re a punk band.”
In many ways, because Mischief Brew is a “punk band,” they’re a walking contradiction. UK punk numero uno Johnny Rotten was the first punk to disclaim history. Attacking the monarchy, and through that, the concept of symbols, Rotten urged the destruction of false ideals and history. Through that concept, many punk rockers have come to feel this meant a discarding of history itself. Yet, Mischief Brew, which does borrow from the concepts, ideals, and textures of old timey folksters like Utah Philips and Woody Guthrie, has history imbued in their lyrics and in their very sound… despite being a “punk band.”
At my nudging and explanation of my personal bias that history is of paramount importance, Petersen pauses before explaining his thoughts on the merit of the written record. He says, “My inclination, my gut feeling, is that if you are into a scene or culture, or a subculture, you should know how it started. Then, you’ll respect it and respect what people have done to get it there. Otherwise, you’re just making it up and won’t have such a respect for it.”
He pauses again and points at the anarchist library before us before continuing, “You wouldn’t have as much respect for a place like this. These people that started this were punk rockers and they started getting older and people wanted something more stable than jumping from busted up warehouse to busted up warehouse. They wanted an autonomous space without cops and wiretaps and schisms. When you do dig back into the bands that came before you, you’ll have a greater respect for things happening around you… otherwise, you’re just a jerk.”
Following The Stone Operation, Mischief Brew released a series of non-album singles and EPs. 2012’s Rhapsody for Knives showed off the band’s harder, more modern side, with songs about fighting cops and self-immolation. But, in a nod to the past they followed it up with 2013’s Free Radical Radio Fever which sounds like it could have been recorded in the 30s. Now, between the energy of The Stone Operation, fan appreciation, fan blowback, and callback of Free Radical, it seems the next LP could go in any direction.
“We don’t really think too much about it,” Petersen says. “We do what we do and it’s worked well for us. We have had to make changes and evolve. We had to adapt. Whatever people think they’re going to get, they’re probably not going to get. I appreciate bands that create a template and then they smash it on the next record. It’s my favorite kind of record. So, the next record will be ten songs. I think people’s attentions have gotten shorter. If people are just going to buy songs on iTunes, we’ll just do ten songs- no chaff. It will be a complete record. I just want to get in and say what we want to say and get out. Some people might like the older stuff better because it’s more nostalgic. I understand that. But, we’ve grown and to do it any other way would be dishonest.”