music (2006-25)

It Stoned Me

Pearls and Brass defies and complies with “stoner rock”

Tim Easton must have been a therapist in a former life

by John Sewell

A million fuel injected Camaros rev their engines in a simultaneous primal scream of fossil-fueled lust. A Manson Family of dinosaurs goes on a tar pit murder spree. Atom bombs reduce planets to subatomic cosmic debris. Cro-Magnon sex fiends construct monstrous granite bongs, which will serve as ovens for the sacrificial offering of virgins to the cannabis gods. This is the stuff that stoner-rock dreams are made of.

Often lumped into the stoner-rock niche, Pennsylvania’s Pearls and Brass construct bombastic riffage that is reminiscent of proto-metal bands like Blue Cheer, Mountain, and Cream. Leaning heavily on the blues-inspired end of the metal spectrum, Pearls and Brass create music that inspires more than just headbanging: The band tweaks every lick of their music to maximize the groove, delivering a jazzy sonic amalgam that evokes the spirit of Jimi Hendrix just as much as the mighty Black Sabbath. And drummer Josh Martin sure doesn’t seem stoned.

“I guess the stoner-rock thing applies, yeah,” says the articulate and obviously clear-headed Martin. “It’s rock’n’roll, and I guess it follows the pattern of that [stoner rock] kind of sound. It’s nice to be able to fit into something in a way.”

Pearls and Brass is one of those endearingly odd bands where all the members grew up and underwent a Kafkaesque musical metamorphosis together, without outside intrusion. The Nazareth, Penn.-based trio has been jamming for over a decade, evolving from a “super-fast hardcore band” into the current, infinitely more interesting and challenging group. Sure, the band is constantly (and most often accurately) compared to the bluesy sludge of proto-metal. But the band came to the sound (and the subsequent pigeonholing) by way of a convoluted path.

“We had never even heard Blue Cheer when we started working on the sound we have today,” says Martin. “It’s always about the riff and where it takes you. We loved rock’n’roll, got into the blues, and it just so happened that that’s what a lot of the proto-metal bands had done before. We were doing it, then got compared to it, and then we listened to it.”  

The trio certainly has a lot more to offer than just primitive, repetitive power chords. Their longwinded songs are based on simplistic patterns, which quickly veer into skewed constructions that can baffle the listener—if they think about it too much, that is.  It’s one of those bands that makes musical complexity sound simple. And this complexity is in service of the songs, not to dazzle the listener with onanistic sonic kick-flips.

“Really, you can tap your feet in 4/4 to almost every song,” explains Martin. “We just like to stretch out the riffs as far as we can. The songs usually start as just one central riff. From there, however we feel it should go is where we take it. Sometimes there’s a lot of contemplation to the structure, but we don’t usually know where we’re going to go when we start out. The songs evolve.”

Pearls and Brass’ debut album, The Indian Tower (Drag City), features opaque lyrics that nonetheless muster an overall feel of foreboding. And the lack of a lyric sheet can sometimes leave the listener guessing. But all that really matters is that it sounds cool.

“The lyrics are always the last things to come,” says Martin.  “Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding words that work in the context of the riffs. I think that lyrically all of the songs are kind of an embellishment of the town we grew up in.

“The Indian Tower is a monument in our town,” Martin continues.  “And that’s basically the focus of the album. The town itself is just a boring, small place. So we kind of make the descriptions a lot darker to go along with the riffs.”

In the past year, Pearls and Brass has erupted into an indie rock phenomenon, touring the country and appearing at the prestigious All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England. While the group is definitely pleased with their new-improved status, Martin says that Pearls and Brass would surely have continued without the accolades.

“I think our only goal is to just try to be better at what we do and to keep progressing musically,” says Martin. “If we weren’t touring and putting out records, I’m sure we’d still be playing anyway.

“We grew up together. Randy and Joel [guitarist Randy Hurth and bassist Joel Winter] are cousins. I’ve known these dudes since elementary school. Being in a band, you live in close quarters. And you sometimes get irritated. But we rarely fight, we just laugh. When you’re stuck in Lansing, Michigan, you’ve gotta laugh.”

Who: Pearls and Brass w/ Black Sarah and Phantom Family Halo

Good Advice

by Molly Kincaid

Tim Easton gets me. I have wussed out on Bonnaroo, so I’m sitting in the echoing, empty offices of MP on Friday, feeling like I missed the ball. But the voice on the line doesn’t judge.

Most surprising is the way that Easton, a singer-songwriter based in Joshua Tree, Cal., can detect the haggard despair in my voice. Maybe it’s just the fact that he’s tired of talking about himself—he’s in the midst of a two-hour run of interviews. Or maybe it’s the listless way I begin to deliver my questions. But he keeps reverting the conversation back to me, which is at once jarring and indulgent for someone so accustomed to doing the asking. For a moment, Easton becomes my personal life coach. And really, that’s not too much of a stretch for the sagely self-deconstructing songwriter.

I can’t stop listening to the song “Dear Old Song and Dance” on Easton’s brand new album, Ammunition . It’s like a Hunter S. Thompson fiasco read in reverse; sick of the “booze and pills and powders and Bloody Mary mornings…” Easton finds himself “waking up sober in Amsterdam.” He likens it to my personal rejection of Bonnaroo—which, despite our mature cover-story reporters’ bold foray, remains a swirling, debauchery-and-drug-packed orgy of youth. “You get to the point where you move on from your totally carefree lifestyle,” he says in a calm, instructive tone. “As a musician, there’s always the free booze and drugs, and I reached a point where I missed a gig and realized I had to change…Do I want to stay up all night at the bar or play music…You visualize what you want your life to be and decide to do that.”

Easton goes on with some more personal advice, and by this time I’ve even forgiven myself for being an old grandma. But it’s time to talk about him, like it or not. And for someone who doesn’t like to talk about himself, Easton’s a pretty fascinating guy.

It’s been three years since his last album, Break Your Mother’s Heart . In that time, Easton bought a house in Joshua Tree and spent some time in Ohio, registering voters in the ’04 election. “I just had this sense of personal responsibility,” he says. “It used to be that everyone was part of the revolution.” He uses the term “revolution” in that rage-against-the-man sense, recalling those vague good old days when everyone seemed to stand for something. Ever since 9/11 and the ever-escalating Middle-East conflict, though, even old-timers who remember marching for McGovern admit that our generation has now something to act up against.

While Easton writes some socially-aware lyrics in songs like “Before the Revolution” and the more metaphorical protest anthem “Black Dog,” he doesn’t inflate his importance in “the cause.” “I’m not participating in a real sense,” he says, though he mentions that running for office someday isn’t entirely out of the question. “Our role [as musicians] is primarily to entertain, but also to help us look at ourselves. It’s mostly singing, dancing, playing and ass-shaking—though there’s only one moment of ass-shaking on my record.”

“C-Dub,” the tune that might get some tails waggin’ down at the juke joint, combines a raw bluesy analog feel and the sentiment of Hank’s ramblin’ man. His voice has that classic scratchy-yet-mild, tempered sweetness of someone who’s lived and seen.

Compared to “C-Dub,” most Easton fare is less cocksure; leaning mostly toward the more meditative, and sometimes outright dogmatic. With “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” (which stands for “Jesus, protect me. From your followers.”), Easton takes a gutsy stab at fundamentalism. While it seems extreme at first, the lyrics go on, “Not all of them. Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.” Easton explains his live-and-let-live outlook, saying, “I think a lot of people want to make lives out of their own opinions.”

While he’s not touting ideals, Easton also relishes the telling of stories, some of them inspired by life on the road. “I try not to write too much about the actual traveling, but it’s hard when that’s all you do,” he says. “I really like reading the local sections of newspapers—the little meaty bits. The stories of American lives. There are songs in that.”

His interest in the small story even got Easton into the habit of recording CB radio talk. Snippets he recorded outside Nashville became the basis of the lovelorn ballad “Wish You Well.” He also recalls doing some recording on the road to a past Bonnaroo. “There’s all those girls in bikinis on the highway drinking beers,” he laughs. “The truckers think they’re in heaven.”

There’s a lot of interesting things on the highway, just waiting to be discovered, Easton muses. Then, in a moment of epiphany, he reverts to self-help mode, “Maybe you could go out and travel and document that. Maybe that’s your contribution.” Maybe so.

Who: Tim Easton