“Surrender on Demand”: The Pernice Brothers and Studio .45

This essay originally appeared in the now-defunct Maura Magazine on March 15, 2015 (issue #44), along with Allison’s Felus’s essay on The Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band, another classic album recorded at Studio .45.  

I’m reading the liner notes of a promo copy of Overcome by Happiness, the Pernice Brothers album released by Sub Pop in the spring of 1998. On “Crestfallen,” the album’s first song, Joe Pernice sings, “Oh, I need some time to make sense of something I lost along on the ride” as Aaron Sperske’s drums fill the space behind his voice. A few bars later, a string section enters on the left side of the stereo picture just before the band—Thom Monahan on bass, Peyton Pinkerton on guitar, Bob Pernice on guitar and vocals—hits the chorus. About two minutes later, I think the song might be over, but the guitar returns, followed by the bass and drums, only this time Michael Deming’s string arrangement takes the place of Joe Pernice’s lead vocal. When the song is over, I read the back cover of the CD, which I found about a year ago in the bins at Reckless Records here in Chicago. The cardboard sleeve is now yellow and faded, and, just beneath the copyright notice, I read a warning from Sub Pop. Or maybe it’s a suggestion: “Not for Sale,” it reads. “Surrender on demand.”

I know Joe Pernice and his brother Bob had nothing to do with those last two lines. They’re not part of the liner notes, and they have nothing to do with the songs. But I read those two lines of legalese in the same spirit as I hear the first line of “Crestfallen”: a voice from the past that I recognize only when I surrender to it. When I listen to Overcome by Happiness—a record I didn’t own in 1998 and didn’t hear until 2014 when Allison suggested I listen to it—I hear the other records and songs produced by Mike Deming at Studio .45 in Hartford, Connecticut. Seattle and Chicago produced some of the most popular bands of the 1990s, but Connecticut and Western Massachusetts produced some of the decade’s best music, and a lot of it came from Deming’s studio: listen to Monsterland’s “Jane Wiedlin Used to Be a Go-Go As Far As We Know” from the Danbury, Connecticut band’s 1994 EP At One with Time, or “High Writer at Home” from the Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band. Thom Monahan, incidentally, co-producer and bassist for Overcome by Happiness, was also the bassist and co-vocalist for Monsterland. While you’d never confuse Joe Pernice’s mellifluous voice and sparkling melodies for Monsterland’s aggressive, often dissonant, Mission of Burma meets My Bloody Valentine sensibility, and while Eccsame the Photon Band at times sound like Lush covering The Dark Side of the Moon, what all three share in common is a specific sense of motion.

Records made at Studio .45 have an openness, not just in the words but also in the sounds. There’s space to move in these records, but it’s the slow, circular movement of a drive through New England, past the rusted, abandoned factories of Bridgeport and Waterbury, Connecticut through the poverty of New Haven and Hartford and onward to the opulence of their rich suburbs. It’s the sound of poet Wallace Stevens, walking to his office at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, but it’s also the voice of Taj Mahal, who was born in New York but spent his early years in Springfield, Massachusetts, just a few miles south of Northampton, where Joe Pernice formed his other band, the Scud Mountain Boys. In New England, especially, Connecticut, we love the blues. The Scuds, as we used to call them, released an album with Sub Pop, too, just two years before Overcome by Happiness. It was called Massachusetts.

I’m glad I only heard Overcome by Happiness a year ago. If I’d heard it in 1998, I’d be locked into specific memories of that year, when I was living just outside of Storrs, Connecticut. I’d remember driving from Storrs to Northampton, or I’d think about the gigs my band was playing at The Bay State or The Russian Lady or Gronion’s. Back then, when I listened to Lilys and Monsterland, I’d wonder what other magic might be happening at Studio .45, a suite of rooms in the old Colt Armory building in Hartford. The studio, like the three clubs I just mentioned, is gone now, too, but Mike Deming is still in the music business, designing and marketing a line of studio compressors and preamps with his new company, CharterOak Acoustic Devices. A good Connecticut name.

When I listen to “Crestfallen” and “Dimmest Star” and other favorite tracks from Overcome by Happiness, I think I remember specific places and friends from twenty years ago, but then I realize that the memories I have of this album will eventually be locked, here and now, in this present, in Chicago, in 2015. But I can’t resist the pull of that other time, the time I think I remember, when Tris, my basisist, and I ran into Bruce Tull and the rest of the Scuds outside T. T. the Bear’s in Cambridge in 1997. They were playing the Middle East. They’d pulled up in a van. Tris knew Bruce from grad school at UMass Amherst. They looked surprised but happy to see each other. Bruce, I remember, looked tired. Joe Pernice might have been there, too, but I don’t know if I met him. Maybe he was still in the van, or getting a falafel sandwich at the Middle East. Or maybe we said hello.

Not for sale. Surrender on demand. I keep repeating those lines to myself like they have some kind of meaning, like magic. I’d love to be dramatic, tell you that the Connecticut/Western Mass. scene in those days wasn’t for sale, wouldn’t surrender anything, was too punk for you, so that’s why you don’t remember these bands as fondly as you remember Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins or Liz Phair. But that wouldn’t be true either. Mostly, I miss my friends, and I miss the curve of 91 north as it follows the Connecticut River through the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. And I wish Mike Deming were still making records, and I hope someone someday puts together a collection called The Best of Studio .45. I think that’s what I’m hearing when I’m hearing “Crestfallen” and the other lovely songs on Overcome By Happiness: not Connecticut in the 1990s, but the stillness of my apartment, now, as I write this. And what I think I’ll remember of these songs in another 20 years. And those string arrangements. Those strings.

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