The Sharp Things mainman and noted music industry p.r. maven dips into his literary inspirations and comes up holding a handful of Hornby via a Tucker Crowe-approved set of original tunes. “I was totally intrigued by the idea of an album [by] bands that don’t exist,” admits Serpa.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Over the years, Charles Bukowski and Chuck Palahniuk have become almost mandatory touchstones to punk rock kids everywhere. But, Nick Hornby is probably the closest thing just about every other rock and pop musician out there has to a literary patron saint
From High Fidelity to About a Boy (just consider the title alone), Hornby has endeared himself to a generation of songwriters thanks to his obvious passion for music and deep cuts knowledge. And 2009’s Juliet, Naked is one of his strongest music-based novels to date, following an obsessed music fan and his girlfriend to a pilgrimage to find a reclusive American musician. The book is populated with references to a slew of singers and bands and even goes into details about a tribute album dedicated to the fictional musician Tucker Crowe.
Now, Perry Serpa, singer/songwriter best known for his work with the brilliant indie pop band The Sharp Things (profiled in 2014 at BLURT), has brought fiction to life with his latest project: Wherefore Art Thou? Songs Inspired By Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. Admittedly we’re treading pretty close to Being John Malkovich territory here, but Perry’s record (10 songs, just as described in the book) is simply sublime. Getting help from a number of his friends, Perry was even able to convince Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5) to guest on a track. McCaughey, fittingly, is one of the musicians mentioned in Hornby’s book who played on the (fictional) Tucker Crowe tribute album… take a moment to let that sink in.
Serpa’s record arrived digitally worldwide on October 5; a UK and EU-only CD release is set for November 2; and a worldwide vinyl release is planned for November 23.
Serpa, also happens to be one of the coolest guys in music PR, currently servings as Principal for Tell All Your Friends PR. He was nice enough to take some questions recently via e-mail about this project.
BLURT: You’ve said that you first read Nick’s book about 9 years ago. At what point did you decide to start putting together this album?
SERPA: Pretty soon afterwards, actually! This is gonna sound a little “shiny shiny,” but I was totally intrigued by the idea of an album explained in detail in a book that you never really hear. I had fantasized over the years about creating, then publicizing bands that don’t exist, mainly to see how many folks would jump on the bandwagon and lie about being at their shows. I also had this idea for a film about a song that changes the characters’ lives that we never really hear. So, Juliet, Naked was right up my alley.
As soon as I read it, with all of the stated, hysterical influences- Dylan, actually Bob and Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Camus, Springsteen, Beckett, Dolly Parton, I started wondering about what these songs would sound like. And that was it. I had to write it.
How long did it ultimately take to write and record? Every thought of giving it up at some point?
I think of giving up everything I’ve been doing for a while, but this… no. I figured that, at some point, I would finish the album, which was an already predestined 10 songs. There were discernible presets to a number of the songs. Premeditated time units, so it wasn’t exactly the same as writing your “own” album where you can easily over-write. You know, the cliché of entering the studio with 25 songs and walking out with a 12-song record. That wasn’t this. There was an end to be seen. And there was no real deadline. It was my own self-inflicted project. No one told me to start, and thankfully, no one told me to stop, so I just kept doing it until it was done.
How did you go about figuring out what kind of sound Tucker Crowe would have? What musicians did you see inspiring his sound besides those he mentioned?
A lot of that was already in the book, at least in terms of the critical comparisons- really those aforementioned. I thought of Crowe as someone who had aesthetic inclinations that encompassed all of these classic influencers, so in a lot of ways, as a songwriter, he was all over the place. He wasn’t 100% Springsteen, but you can definitely hear some of that in “We’re In Trouble,” and maybe “In Too Deep.” He wasn’t 100% Leonard Cohen, but I made sure you can feel (more than hear) that influence in “You And Your Perfect Life.” “Dirty Dishes” obviously addresses the Johnny Cash/Dolly Parton tendency, Curtis Mayfield with “Who Do You Love?”, “And You Are?” definitely Dylan (Bob). And then I think I threw in a bit of Alex Chilton, the Replacements, Pink Floyd, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, and others, and addressed the literal influences mainly in the lyrics. It was a true collaboration between me and that character (and Nick).
How did you get Scott McCaughey involved in the album?
Here’s the thing. The album that you’ve heard is actually the tribute album of Juliet, the fictional album from the book, and not the original, which thickens the plot- and is certainly ridiculous. In the book, that tribute record is called, Wherefore Art Thou? as Hornby then describes a few contributors to the said Tucker Crowe tribute record. One of them is the Minus 5, a band I’ve been into for a while, and the other I can remember is Coldplay.
I reached out to Scott with the premise of creating this tribute album like, “You’re already in the book.” It was like, “You HAVE to do this.” (although I didn’t say that). But he, also a Hornby fan, had read the book and knew exactly what I was talking about. I gave him a choice of a few songs to sing, and he chose, “And You Are?” and it was perfect and brilliant. I can’t even imagine anyone else, including myself, singing that song.
I wanted Chris Martin to sing “In Too Deep” as Coldplay was name checked as having “contributed” to the album, as well, but he was understandably too busy. So, I figured I’d just ask folks who worked for the songs, had some history with Nick, or who I knew would understand what I was doing. I got through the short list and realized I would have to wait forever for some of the folks’ schedules to clear, so I just did my own thing, sang the songs, pulled my friends into it and enjoyed the process. That was why I started into it anyway.
Oh, yeah, of course. I had been sending music to him since 2007. I wrote a song called “The Jumpers” based on his book A Long Way Down. The song was the faux-operatic, baroque, chamber music shorty about jumping off a building, aka: tower block. It featured Michael Cerveris on lead vocals, and it kicked off The Sharp Things’ third album, A Moveable Feast. I mean, I had to send it to him.
He took a minute to check it out, but he finally did, and he liked it enough to check out the rest of our catalog. So, there, I was enabled! I wasn’t into the process of writing the songs for Juliet for very long before I started sending those to Nick, too. Each time he would say something short, but encouraging. Like, “Great! Good luck with it!” It wasn’t until “And You Are?” actually premiered with Consequence Of Sound last year that he actually got effusive about it. I was psyched, though.
Any interest in playing these songs live?
I’m actually starting to think about that. I probably wouldn’t except that the release schedule for this album is sort of long tail. We’re putting it out digitally through Shifty Disco in the UK and EU and Schoolkids Records, everywhere else on October 5th, then Shifty is doing a CD release in early November, then It’ll be a special release for Record Store Day Black Friday (11/23), so there will be good momentum, and that kinda justifies putting something together to play out for me.
We’ll see, though. Keeping folks together is hard these days. The people I would ask to play with me all have jobs and kids, etc. So, it could be tricky.
Was it just coincidental that the movie is coming out this year?
Good question! Yes, totally. In fact, I’m still kinda amused by the consequence of it all. I had been fits and starts working on this record for five, maybe six years before I even knew there was a film in the works. By the time I’d heard about it, I’d had pretty much all of the songs written, but in various stages of development. I think there were five of them already tracked in some way and I was planning sessions and guests for the rest of it.
My initial reaction to it was weird. It was this irrational feeling like someone was encroaching on my turf since I’d been living this story for so long. But, that quickly turned to delight, and that was compounded by the fact that two old friends were involved in the film- the director, Jesse Peretz and the film’s composer, Nathan Larson. Nathan was actually in Shudder To Think and Hot One, for whom I did publicity back in the day. So, we’ve been pretty close throughout the years. There wasn’t really room for this music in their film as they had decided to address that overall part of it in a different way, but I was nonetheless excited that there was all of this creative energy around Nick’s deserving story.
As I was finishing the mixing process, I started to realize when it would all finally wrap up, and that my release plans could possibly coincide with theirs. Months later, and here we are, kind of overlapping each other.
On to a different topic, are The Sharp Things planning any more music?
When it comes to The Sharp Things, I’ve learned to never say never. After 20-plus years of making music together, I think of every attempt to make another record or doing another show as a family reunion. Despite the really kind words we’ve gotten throughout our existence, it’s never really been a “career” for any of us in that we spent far more money than we ever made.
No matter what the face of it is, there was never any significant business going on, so it was ours to pick up and put down. Any “break up” saga was just pretentiousness, or us just messing around trying to have a “real band” history. Had we had the good or bad fortune of being a big band, I would have a more specific answer, but all I can say is that I still very much love the enduring band members and I remain proud of what we’ve been able to create together, so the idea of playing music with them always puts a smile on my face. And, honestly, we get better at it every time we reconvene.
So, what’s next for you?
Loaded question! I’ll address the music making side of that ‘cos I’m a dad and a business person, so I could go forever: In the past year, I’ve lost both of my parents. It’s brought up a very distinct urge within me to be creative, possibly because my mom and dad both always encouraged that in me. There were not two people on the planet more supportive of my efforts as a songwriter and music maker than them. So, I feel the need to finish things I started years ago (like the Juliet album), and to continue giving attention to those bits and pieces that fly into my head regularly. Beyond the record at hand, I’ve been working on dozens of other songs. I’ve written more than what should comprise a few more albums. So, I guess I’ll just follow that and see where it leads me.