Michael Penn: Long Way Down

I’ve been a Michael Penn fan for years. It was a performance of “Long Way Down” on a KCRW live album that hooked me. His word play was clever, intelligent and, well, adult. He may have been garnering some radio airplay (at the time), but his singer/songwriter fare — like wife Aimee Mann’s — was light years from Jewel or Hootie or even, God Bless her, Tracey Chapman. And his musicianship! His songs are — what could be better? — deep and simple. He was onto Jon Brion way before he became Hollywood’s favorite composer (“Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “I Heart Huckabees”). Again, his pop songs are hooky and compelling but in a grown up way.

Way back in 1996, Michael was my first on-camera MTV News interview. He was releasing “Resigned,” his last ditch effort with Sony. He had a buddy along with him at his Fez gig, a little nerdy lookin’ guy named Paul Thomas Anderson. “And what do you do?” a 25-year-old version of me asked.

Michael’s long since been one of my few musical heroes. His records are intelligent and uncompromising. He wrestled with RCA and Sony and (eventually) won. “My dad fought in World War II,” he says. “He’d find it ironic that I spent half of my life at war with the Axis Powers.” More importantly, though, he has been a musical inspiration. His “Little Black Box” inspired my “Crash Site.” His “Bunker Hill” inspired my “Summer’s Gone.” In short, I wouldn’t be me without him.

It’s an unseasonably hot and hazy April afternoon (they’d call it earthquake weather in Los Angeles) when Michael calls me from his cell phone. He’s pacing outside of Joe’s Pub in the East Village. After an eight year hiatus spent extricating himself from his former record label, he’s is in town to drum up support for his forthcoming independent release, “Mr. Hollywood Jr. … 1947.” He clearly doesn’t relish the dog and pony show, but he’s in good, if guarded, spirits as we discuss getting back on the horse.

BW: Hey, man. How did sound check go?

MP: You know, as good as those can go.

BW: You cross your fingers that the sound doesn’t change drastically between the time you check it and the time you perform.

MP: Yeah, exactly. When you have, you know, a couple hundred people [acting as] sound absorption sponges and they can be to probably change the music dynamics of a room. And then you have the energy and nerves of a show sort of making your hand grip your guitar and nervous tension that pulls everything out of tune. All those fun things.

BW: That still happens? After all these years of performing, nerves still happen?

MP: Of course it still happens. Performing doesn’t exactly come naturally to me.

BW: So you’re mid-way through the tour. How’s it going?

MP: Well, it feels good. I mean, there’s a certain exhilaration of the notion of starting over and paying my dues again. It’s good.

BW: Tell me about your new record “Mr. Hollywood Jr. … 1947.” At what point in the song writing or recording process did you discover the place and time element to the album cycle?

MP: Well for at least like fifteen years I’ve been obsessed with that year. I’m gonna say my little rant about it tonight, but for me that year really is like the year everything changed. And it really felt to me just as I was writing these songs that everything that was going on around me sort of in some way there was a string tied to every event to lead back to that year and everything was coming to fruition. And I became so obsessed about it that as I was writing songs for this record, I mean the events and the things I’m talking about are not what the record is about they’re sort of the peripheral of it. It’s about the same shit I always write about and it’s just that every time I was writing these songs, I was putting myself in LA and Hollywood back in that year and to some degree thinking about my father who fought in World War II and came home and was a victim of the black list, which began in 1949 and also just feeling like there were so many parallels between 47 and now in the events that were going on. That it was kinda beside myself that it was happening that it was constantly happening.

BW: How did that manifest itself in the songwriting? Were you half way through the recording process and said ‘I have something here’ or did it color songs that came later?

MP: I guess it has to do more with my song writing process which is like I’m kind of avoiding the concept album title for a number of reasons, not the least which being Aimee did an end run around me. But, truth be told we both kind of got the notion to be sort of free with that sort of idea from The Honeydogs because we could have The Honeydogs record on the united musicians a year or two ago that was a concept album, and a great one. So we’re really more to the point what happened was, when I write, I mean this wasn’t a concept album and all of my records have been concept albums because Free For All was about Los Angeles in 1992 and its dealing with you know, and for me the writing process is always that I sort of picture the scene in my head and it’s just when I was writing these songs and picturing the scene, I usually for me, it was always in this sort of [Raymond] Chandler of Los Angeles as opposed to current.

BW: The hard-boiled detective, the noir kind of lighting …

MP: Yeah, just that the post war … I think part of the key for me was that everybody you know has their trunk fill of trauma and from their lives and leads people to either sort of deal with the issues of their life and their childhood and their upbringing or not deal with them and find ways to push everything out and let it sort of come out in unconscious ways in their relationships and in their life. But thinking about what that extra baggage of having been through war might have done to my psyche, because I’m fucked up enough and if that was in there too I don’t know where my life would be. So that was the world and then just the sort of political stuff that was happening, everything from the National Security Act of 1947, established the CIA and the UN partition of Palestine and you know all the things sort of felt like they were the beginnings of…

My personal take on it is that in the personal world, America became the first country to be in this position to take over the whole world, but didn’t, but really did. And it was just a big bad nature of a slow corporate process that has gotten a tremendous boost by Bush.

BW: Was there any sort of instrumental elements from the era that you found to color the album?

MP: Well, I didn’t want to like use the sort of como-estetics of that year as a guide because for me it’s more in the lyric and, you know, musically I did was these are folk songs, like all my songs are folk songs and I arrange them the way I usually arrange songs which is what does the song want so it goes from this sort of crazy Appalachian dulcimer based thing on “Mary Lynn” to something like “Walter Reed” or whatever so it kinda runs the gamut for me, but the one thing I did do to sort of hopefully gel the thing together within this idea of 1947 is that it’s also the year the transistor was invented, and it was also the year the television went national, so some of the instrumental things kinda of acknowledge that for me to a certain degree. Trying to sort of construct sounds that you know, sort of sound design atmospheric things that sort of hopefully strike a certain mood of what was going on.

BW: And I notice you’ve tracked the CD with two sides, like a record album.

MP: It is an album, which I think is something that has gotten lost and in fact when I pressed up, before we made the deal with Spin Art I pressed up some advance for friends and what I did was, I actually mastered it so that it was only two tracks on your CD, side one and side two. Because it’s meant to be listened to, this is another little pet peeve of mine is that one of the things CD’s really fucked up and as much as I love iTunes, one of the things itunes is securing the deal on is eliminating the art form of an album. And fifty minutes of music is too much, it’s overwhelming for most people. And I have a memory of these experiences of being in a mood for a side of a record because 15 minutes of music, 20 minutes of music is magical. It can be a total experience into itself. So this record is really is in two acts and even though it would have been stupid of me to have mastered the final record that way, what I did do was indicate on the cover art so you can see where the dividing line is.

BW: To what degree have you considered adapting this in some way to another medium: film or stage or television?

MP: Well, I haven’t considered it at all because I have no recourse to do something like that but if somebody came to me then that’s a whole other story, but we might…it looks like we might do a video of some kind for “Walter Reed” since that’s the chapter I think they’re gonna go with first.

But for me, what I mean by that is somebody who has the tools to do that, because I don’t. I mean, if I had the tools to be able to do that I would certainly have had thoughts about it and if somebody comes along that is interested in doing something beyond a video or something, I’ll certainly be involved and want to sort of dive into it because it would be really fun to explore but I’m not really thinking about it now, I’m just trying to do my job of playing these shows and then get to some more writing and stuff.

BW: What’s the plan for the album? I know it’s been done since last fall. How are you remaining so patient?

MP: Well, you know what happened was the album was originally slated to come out in June, but this record has been done for nine months, and for me, it’s like I needed to figure out what was the smartest way to put it out and I knew I there was no way I wanted to sign another record contract, so I started talking to people about doing a joint venture thing with my label and I was put in touch with these guys at spin art by my manager, and I really liked them and so we finally got that thing settled and it looked like it was gonna come out in June and then I ran into an issue with the cover art because I have a cover that I became very very attached to, it’s actually where I got the title, it’s a painting that I found at a swap meet and I tried to track down the artist and it became a long detective hunt trying to sort of figure out where this guy was, how I could get in touch with him and literally right when I was closing in on where he was and how to get a hold of him, I found out he died the previous week. So then it was another long hunt to find his next to kin because there was no obituary, there was no report about his death, nothing. I finally was on the phone with the coroner of Los Angeles and got the name of the mortuary that he was returned in and they gave me the name of his next to kin. Finally talked to her and she was actually up for it but his estate was in such disarray that the attorneys said that it would just be too long before they could figure it out. So I had to come up with an alternate cover and that became the delay from June till now.

BW: Sorry it didn’t work out.

MP: Yeah, me too. What I think I might do is, if this estate ever clears up I might try to get the rights to it down the line and maybe if there’s a special edition with acoustics durations or something.

BW: How difficult is for you as a songwriter to come back to music that’s been in the can so long, in terms of performance and singing and so forth?

MP: It’s not tough, I mean what’s tough for me is looking back at things and trying to revisit songs that frustrate me and these songs don’t frustrate me and so you know, I don’t think I’d go back to like a song off my first album, “Evenfall,” which was just this sort of goofy rave-up which I just don’t feel connected to anymore. So if I feel connected to it then it’s not a problem.

BW: You have to tell me a little bit about the museum of Jurassic Technology, the link on your web site. Is this jest or is this the real deal?

MP: You know what, I don’t want to tell you until you go visit the place because it’s one of the treasures of Los Angeles.

BW: So then such a place does exist?

MP: Oh yea, it’s there, and truly one of the wonders of L.A.

BW: And to what degree does it relate to or what was your thinking in its relation to your current project.

MP: Well, it’s the brain child of a guy named David Wilson who’s a friend of mine, who is the curator of the museum and there is actually a little bit of a connection to the packaging anyway of “Mr. Hollywood Jr.,” but I again I don’t want to blow the vibe of the place for you because the next time your in Los Angeles I urge you to go. I’ll take you there.

BW: I’m in. You don’t have to ask twice. Now, unpack “On Automatic” for me a little bit. It’s really poppy for the second to last track.

MP: Well you know, optimism is a funny thing.

BW: “P.S. (Millionaire),” on the other hand, leaves us a little more contemplative, melancholy…

MP: “P.S. (Millionaire)” is a literally a postscript in a sense, because it doesn’t have its roots in 1947, it has its roots in right now and it’s sort of like me in a sense commentating on I don’t know, whatever. I mean the initial start of the song, there’s an instrument that I use sometimes called a Marx-a-phone, which is this weird auto harp device that has these keys that bounce on the strings sort of like a hammer dulcimer. And the thing about the Marx-a-phone was when they were selling the things which was in the 20’s through the 40’s, they would sell them door to door and that’s what I’m doing now, and it felt like, that’s where I am now. Now that the record business sort of completely eaten itself and music for all I know may…you know popular music is only 150 years old, you know really since sheet music and it’s as a commodity as a thing, and it could easily go away. And it could be replaced by I don’t know, fucking magic or something as the popular cultural entertainment. That’s kinda where that was, it’s like what does it take, is that what it takes? Then I don’t want to be any part of it.

BW: I imagine it took a certain level of courage to step up and to put yourself back on the stage again.

MP: I’m not aware of it being courage, but I’m aware of it being stubbornness.

BW: I gotta’ ask about those “Acoustic Vaudeville” recordings … what ever happened to those? Are they coming out?

MP: Well, truth be told, they recordings themselves were just not well recorded and I was kind of ok about putting it out in some fashion, but Aimee kind of nixed it or Aimee’s management kinda nixed it because they thought…especially what it boiled down to is that we switched mic’s for those show’s, vocal mic’s, it was recommended by somebody and when we got the recordings back, they sucked.

BW: I saw one of the early ones at Joe’s Pub, and then later at Town Hall.

MP: That’s when we were really still really Acoustic Vaudeville, because we kinda became acoustic electric.

BW: Speaking of, are you expecting to go out with a fuller band later on in the album cycle?

MP: I hope so. It’s all depending on whether the record actually has some success and there’s money to be spent because you know, there’s an extraordinary expense going out with a full band who’s not sort of invested in the outcome the same way as a songwriter is.

BW: I hear ya’. Well, I look forward to the show tonight, and the one in Philly, and you’ll hear from me when I’m in L.A. next.

MP: Allright, man.

This interview later appeared on MTV News Online

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