BELMONT, VERMONT ó Joe Pernice is in a hurry. At the moment, heís bolting from aisle to aisle inside Shawís supermarket, flinging provisions into his cart. He spies a package of raw chicken and starts to toss it into the pile, then pauses. "This looks a little beat-up," he mutters dourly before opting for another specimen. A shopper passes by, and Joeís head flicks around, as if heíd been startled.
"Ah, shopping with Joe," cracks Joyce Linehan, Perniceís long-time friend, manager, and, for the past three years, business partner at Ashmont Records. She and Pernice started the Dorchester-based label as a clearinghouse for the former Scud Mountain Boys singerís new music after both had parted ways with their old label, Sub Pop ó she as its senior director of A&R and he as one of its most highly regarded songwriters. Linehan, whoís made the three-hour trip to her brotherís summer cabin, where the Pernice Brothers are recording the follow-up album to last yearís The World Wonít End, doesnít look the least bit surprised at her chargeís jittery behavior. This is what happens to people whoíve been holed up for two solid weeks with nothing but guitars, amplifiers, a batch of unfinished songs, and one another for company.
"I went back to Northampton last week to get a guitar fixed and it was freaky," Pernice was saying a few hours earlier, as we sat at a table at the Belmont General Store, surrounded by homemade blackberry pies and refrigerator magnets depicting the virtues of Vermont. "There were so many people. Northampton is a small town, but it was like being in a big city." Indeed, compared to Belmont, a sleepy New England hamlet of country churches, picturesque meadows, and dirt roads that trail off into unseen distances, Northampton feels like a bustling metropolis.
"Weíve been having some good horseshoe matches up here," Pernice says of the bandís extracurricular activities at the cozy white cabin, which overlooks a small lake complete with canoe. "Iíve been out in the canoe a few times. Thereís not much to distract me because thereís nowhere to go. Our cell phones donít work, and we can only take a few incoming calls, but not many people know the number." Between canoe rides and the occasional jaunt to the general store to grab smokes and cookies, Pernice and producer/engineer Thom Monahan, along with guitarist Peyton Pinkerton, have devoted their days to laying down basic tracks and brainstorming ideas.
Inside the cabin, recording equipment, microphone stands, and instruments are everywhere. An acoustic guitar rests against a wall under a portrait of a moose. A tangle of wires and cables snakes through narrow doorways. Sofas are occupied by a sprawl of reclining electric guitars waiting for their moment. A smorgasbord of effects pedals is neatly laid out like a buffet on the kitchen table. From this chaos order is materializing and things are falling into place ó even if the albumís facetious working title of Pretty in Pinkerton is sure to change. Also, for the first time in ages, Pernice isnít "hearing strings." "When Overcome by Happiness [Sub Pop, 1998] came out ó I remember because I had just come out of the Scud Mountain Boys ó I wanted to pile it on. And now, Iím feeling more like I want to start peeling things away a little bit."
Pernice and Linehan have high hopes for the new album, which Ashmont will release in January. Apart from garnering a slew of glowing press, The World Wonít End has also proved profitable since its release last autumn, selling roughly 15,000 copies, according to Linehan. She adds that this is more than either of his previous Sub Pop recordings ó a remarkable feat when you consider Ashmontís minuscule staff (two) and lack of mainstream-radio support. So how did this happen? Linehan points to a combination of shrewd marketing and a loyal Pernice fan base whose devotion has surprised even the two principals.
Before the release of The World Wonít End, for example, Ashmont assembled a limited-edition EP of unreleased Pernice songs available only to consumers who pre-ordered the full-length. "That was how we raised the money to do our consumer advertising," Linehan explains. When Pernice and Pinkerton toured last spring, Ashmont tapped fans on Joeís mailing list to help sell merchandise at each show. Pernice also phoned retailers directly to make sure they were stocked with the album. The one-on-one contact didnít hurt his chances of snaring a prime spot in the record-store window. Itís work, but it works.
"I canít say enough about the artistic freedom," says Pernice, who feels that "making a living and enjoying what you do" with autonomy is, for the first time, a real possibility. "Doing it for Sub Pop was working for somebody else. It seemed like a very gauzy situation, like a dream world. This is more tangible. But I donít feel like I was ever wronged, really. This step would not have been as easy as it was had it not been for Sub Pop."
Although Ashmont remains a part-time venture for Linehan, the label has expanded its roster this year by issuing Big Tobacco, a Pernice project that never saw stateside release. Ashmont has also published a book of Perniceís poetry, Two Blind Pigeons, and has signed another former Sub Pop artist, country singer-songwriter Mike Ireland. After a four-year hiatus, Ireland, who also happens to be Linehanís boyfriend, has just released his second album, Try Again, which he recorded with his backing band Holler. Theyíll be in town to celebrate its release with a two-night stand at the Kendall Café next Friday and Saturday.
"Iím very happy where we are," says Linehan. "When we initially talked about starting Ashmont, I donít think we had that much of a plan. But we exceeded our expectations."
For Linehan, who grew up in the Cedar Grove section of Dorchester and later managed bands like the Lemonheads and the Prime Movers, the road from there to here hasnít always been easy. She had her first taste of promoting bands in the early í80s, at which time she was editor of a syndicated newspaper written by and for New England high-school students. When the publication fell on hard financial times, Linehan began organizing benefit shows and discovered she was good at it.
But it was during her tenure as co-owner of Maverick Management, an independent management and promotion company she formed with Tommy Johnston, that her career took a high-profile turn through her association with the Lemonheads. It was the late í80s, and so-called "alternative rock" was just around the corner. Linehan started getting calls from Atlantic about the band while Johnston was on the phone to RCA about Bullet LaVolta. "Here we were, two kids from Dorchester and Quincy being taken to New York for $17 salads, looking at each other going, ĎWhat is going on here?í It was very, very bizarre."
The bumps began when she left Sub Pop after a four-year stint at the end of 1997 and began managing both Pernice (whom she had signed to the label while he was a member of the Scuds) and Ireland. She describes herself as protective and demanding. "I think both artists kind of suffered for Sub Popís dislike of me. And I was continually painted as difficult, which I may or may not have been. I guess I was." Relationships deteriorated, and after Pernice and Ireland were released from the label, "we tried to figure out how we were going to do this."
Mike Ireland and Hollerís Try Again is Ashmontís first non-Pernice entry. Built around Irelandís tender tenor and laconic narratives, the album works as a song cycle about love, faith, and perseverance. Itís also awash in the kind of classic country and pop references ó lush yet economical arrangements, warm strings ó that made AM radio a staple of kids growing up during the í60s and í70s. It follows Irelandís 1998 debut, Learning How To Live, which despite great reviews and a hearty push by Sub Pop sold few copies.
"I owe them a lot actually," says Ireland of his old label, speaking on the phone from Kansas City. "The small degree to which people know who I am and would actually seek out the record is due in large part to the work that they did on the last record. I was probably a harder sell than a lot of things they had been working with, so in that way, I kind of feel bad for them."
Prior to releasing his debut, Ireland played in the Starkweathers, a roots-rock band that fell apart when he discovered his wife had been having an affair with the lead singer. Yet some good came from that devastating experience. The songs started pouring out of him. "I wouldnít have wanted to go through my divorce, but that mightíve been the thing that broke the dam. It certainly put me in a place where itís easy to sing and itís easier to write songs than it was before."
The new album, he says, is about moving on from the bitterness of the past. "Thatís whatís been on my mind a lot lately ó how you decide to make those choices to commit to something when you know how badly it can turn out, and how badly you could be hurt, or you could hurt somebody. And yet you do it again. Thereís joy, but thereís also risk and pain, and there will probably be prices to pay. You want to protect yourself, but in the end you just canít. And you wouldnít want to."
Mike Ireland and Holler will appear at the Kendall Café next Friday and Saturday, July 26 and 27. Call (617) 661-0993.