GRAZING IN THE GRASS: The Sharp Things

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With three installments of an ambitious four-album series under its musical belt, the NYC collective prepares to unveil the final chapter. Sharp Things mainman Perry Serpa explains.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Over the course of their more than 15 years together, The Sharp Things have evolved from a trio to a near orchestra and are putting out their most compelling records ever. This recent burst of creativity is thanks in large part to a loosely-themed four-album series flying under The Dogs of Bushwick banner.

This year, the band released the second and third installments: The Sharp Things Live at Galapagos Art Space and Adventurer’s Inn, both brilliant indie pop records. But 2014 also marked the passing of drummer and band co-founder Steven Gonzalez.

To close out the year, chief singer and songwriter Perry Serpa (who is also a music industry publicist and operates Good Cop PR) was cool enough to put up with some questions recently and traded e-mails back and forth with Blurt to discuss the Bushwick series, the loss of his longtime friend and copping to knowing just about every Billy Joel song on the piano.

BLURT: Can you start of by talking about the concept behind The Dogs of Bushwick? How did the idea first come about?

SERPA: Well, its original name was Beware of Dogs, then we changed it to Dogshit Explosion before we settled on The Dogs of Bushwick.” Haha.

My bandmates, Jim Santo (guitarist) and James Pertusi (bass) had opened up a recording studio in East Williamsburg called the Kennel. ‘East Williamsburg’ was the cool term for West ‘Bushwick,’ before Bushwick was cool and partially gentrified. You would think I’m going back decades here, but it was like yesterday. Anyway, really there was no “concept” per se, aside from a means by which to release the 40-somewhat songs I’d been in the process of writing, and subsequently recording there. We actually thought of releasing one colossal record, but then that’s just an impossible listen. I mean, I wouldn’t want to listen to that. But, we were also, collectively, excited enough by the material not to feel like going through a stringent editing process, so the decision was to release four albums – space out the releases – not over years, but months. We’ve gotten close to doing that. We released the first one, Green Is Good in 2012.

There was a pretty strong theme on Green is Good. Is there a theme that ties together the songs on Adventure’s Inn?

Yeah, Green Is Good was a loose collection of disparate songs based on a period of economic instability and imbalance that was both a personal and social statement. Even though we’ve gone through a lot recently, as a band, with Steve’s passing, mainly – Adventurer’s Inn is just another collection of songs. Not really conceptual, but held together reasonably well. I think the more important pervasive idea for the whole Dogs of Bushwick project was to push our own envelope. It’s anti-branding, in a way. We moved from the idea of cementing “Our Sound” and running it into the ground, and I wrote in variety of styles and voices.

I like a lot of music, but I’m intensely bored with a lot of newer things I hear, sorry to say. There’s too much MyBloodyJesusandMaryChainandtheBunnymen being championed all over the interwebsuperhighwaymachine. I had that stuff, (and loved it) 25 years ago. But, if that’s gonna be your thing now, I’d rather hear some radical modification. One Radiohead. One Arcade Fire. One Talking Heads is quite enough. Thank you.

Have you thought of songs/themes/additional players yet for the fourth record?

Yep. It’s actually almost done tracking. What I can say about it is that it’s similarly all over the musical map – AND it’s one continuous ‘side’ of music, or I should say ‘sound,’ from top to bottom kinda like Abbey Road, side 2. Just, perhaps, not as good. But good!

I was sorry to hear about the recent loss of Steven. How did you first meet him? Was the Sharp Things your first band together? 

Thanks, man. It’s been rough on everyone in the band, but Steve and I go back 40 years. We were kids when we met. His family moved into a house around the corner from me. His brother had died of cystic fibrosis just a year or so before, and it was a condition that Steven was afflicted with, as well. It wore him out, but he refused to let it hold him back. And it was just a few years into our double digits that we started playing music together. He was drumming in a band with older kids that also included Steve London, The Sharp Things keyboardist who we pulled in just a few years ago. I could always sing, but once I could play piano with some confidence the three of us started our own band with a guitarist, London on bass, and Steve G. on drums, of course.

We were mainly a cover band called Common Sense. Haha! Hoo boy! But then we all started writing songs, too. That was 35 years ago, man. After that, Steven and I had a hard rock band called LifeHouse (before the one that actually got famous) – the name based on the aborted Pete Townshend concept record since the band and our manager, Mark Pensavalle, loved The Who. That was 1990, I think. We actually put out an EP on an indie label, did a little touring then broke up. I had had it with bands and I was writing a lot at the time, living in the East Village- being all tortured and hipster and shit. I wrote. I recorded. I wrote. I recorded. We made a demo at a repurposed church in Columbia, Pennsylvania, with our buddy John Hancock and Ken Heitmeuller and Jay Sorrentino from Suddenly! Tammy. We called the demo, Here Comes The Sharp Things based on a line from a song I’d written a years prior that never really saw the light of day.

I didn’t want to play in front of people, but then I thought, “I could just grab Steven and we could do a couple of shows,” and it wouldn’t feeeeel like a band. We could just kinda do our thing at the small clubs around town. So, we did that. The first show was at the Sidewalk Café on Avenue A. Our friend Jim Santo, who was a guitarist and a rock journalist, came down to the show with his wife. My guitar was out of tune. I could hardly play it, so I asked Jim to be in “the band.” It was “a band” now. I guess it had to be. So, on we went…

The band has had members come and go over the years. Aside from you and Steve, who has been a constant since the beginning – or at least early on?

I suppose, at this point, in addition the obvious aforementioned Mr. Santo, who’s been in the group pretty much within a year of its inception, after 17 years together, it’s fair game to also give that credit to Aisha Cohen, who plays viola, Michelle Caputo, who plays guitar, as well, and Andrea Dovalle (violin) who have all straddled over the decade mark.

The band’s sound has evolved over the past decade or so, most notably with the additional instruments. Did you have a blueprint for what you wanted The Sharp Things to sound like when you formed the group?

Not really- that was sort of the premise of the band in the first place- NOT to have a blueprint at all. It was the songs that really did the talking and dictated the instrumentation. In previous groups, the writing was, for the most part, a collective situation with set, fairly standard, rock instrumentation. The notion of adding strings, trumpet, oboe, tuned percussion, etc… was never really on the table. What I loved about the initial extraction from the confines of a band, was that I could entertain all of offbeat timbres if it suited the songs, so I would just add them when I wanted. The Sharp Things, even at this point, is still an extension of that aesthetic freedom. The ability to add what I thought would elevate a song’s impact on the listener (which includes myself), remains one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a part of it.

Over the years, in the press, we got compared to various artists who used orchestration whether they pre-dated us (like Bacharach, Scott Walker, The Left Banke, The Divine Comedy) or post-dated us, like Belle & Sebastian, Broken Social Scene, the Polyphonic Spree, etc… but, in all honesty, as much as I love all of those artists, I just listened to what the songs were asking for.

One of the things I like best about the band’s output is that the influences are all over the place – some are obvious and some don’t hit you until you’ve listened to the album a few times. Do you or others in the group have any musical influences that would surprise people?

Oh, man… I’m sure! I particularly love film scores. I wish I could say that the first record that I ever bought with my own music was some obscure punk rock record, but it wasn’t… it was the Star Wars soundtrack. I can also play most Billy Joel songs on the piano, so fuck you. Otherwise, nothing too surprising, I suppose- I mean, I tend to lean on anything that is well-put together- great unions of music and lyrics from Randy Newman, Lennon & McCartney, of course, the Zombies, Billy Bragg, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, and so on.

Santo digs some of the weirder guitar-driven stuff- he’s going to Paris to be the 99th of Glenn Branca’s “100 Guitars” symphony in February. We’re really all into a variety of things.

I know you and others in the band have other projects you are working on and other jobs. Is it difficult to find time to write and record?

If I could sit around and write music 24/7, I would, but since the music hasn’t created a situation to make that possible in my life yet, I have to work it in when I can. That said, we make the time to make the music weekly, and I’ve become pretty good at writing on the run. I write a lot in my head. I orchestrate in my head. By the time I actually get to an instrument, it’s just a matter of fleshing out the nuances and structuring a bit. Lucky for me, everyone else is adult enough to listen, prepare and show up, despite jobs and kids and other responsibilities.

Sharp Things live by Shoka Javadiangilani

Are tours outside of NY out of the question?

Not at all! We played in Philadelphia in August, I did a solo show at NXNE in Toronto over the summer—we’re open to whatever comes up as long as it makes sense.

The first and third releases in Dogs of Bushwick series were available on CD and the live record was digital only. Do you still have plans to release the complete set on vinyl at some point?

The second record, The Truth Is Like the Sun, was available on CD, too. We did a really limited run on those, though. I don’t even have a copy myself. True! But, yeah- the full set on vinyl and CD will be available at some point. We’re not entirely sure when that point will be, but it will definitely happen. We’re looking for partners to help us with that, but we’re hoping that it will be within the next year.

What’s next for you and what’s next for The Sharp Things?

More shows, immediately- and finishing up the fourth installment of the series. Then, I’d like to think we could play some festivals in the new year, full band. Losing Steve could have easily made us walk away from this, but his passing has actually done the opposite. We feel the gravity of our collective friendship when we walk in to make music together. We feel him all around us, and we know that us working together to be a great band would have been something he wanted. Even if he couldn’t be with us, we know that what’s happening right now with us is what he would have wanted.

 

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