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Comedy of menace: Pennsylvania punks Pissed Jeans’ honesty and impotence

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  • published
    28 Feb 2013
  • interviewed by
    John Calvert
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Pissed Jeans

Somewhat ‘grunge’ with their rapier fuzz-punk and doom-metal riffs, on the surface Pissed Jeans are what you might call quintessential Sub Pop, with the hardcore quartet’s stellar fourth album, Honeys, marking their seventh year with the imprint and four since the release of the modern classic King Of Jeans, the Pennsylvanians remain starkly at odds in outlook with the label’s classic aesthetic.

As flame-bearers of the Pacific North West’s delinquent rock tradition – spanning The Kingsman to The Wipers to Nirvana – Sub Pop have largely specialised in music of the righteous and earnest variety. We’re talking about the serious stuff here, crusading stuff: young rebellion and idealism and like, sticking it to the man. Basically the gritty business of heroic counter-culturism. Then you have Pissed Jeans.

All hail these imploding company-men, these white-collar masochists whose only contribution to heroism is a guy with a slightly sore back, jacking off in the staff toilets to the memory of water-cooler Jane. This is Pissed Jeans, who’ll die for the cause if the cause is just five more minutes in bed, whose only crusade is the cure for male pattern baldness, and whose gangrenous, sadistically physical music, couched in hysteria, becomes some kind of metaphysical comedy: more performance art than literalist crust-punk.

This is the nightmare farce of Butthole Surfers as interpreted by suicidal accountants, Revolting Cocks for the call-centre generation, led by frontman Matt Korvette’s anti-persona: a masterpiece of male impotence placed in absurd juxtaposition with the most monstrous kind of hardcore, making for a portrait of acceptable madness, drudgery and laughing into the abyss as fine as any in the canon of existentialist music. According to the handbook of pretentious theory, this tragicomic juxtaposition is what’s known as separating sign from meaning, the effect here being to make the humour horrifying and the horror hilarious. And who said Americans can’t do irony?

 

 

John Waters, Steve Martin, pop-art, even The Onion…irony has been integral to the American arts. But not, however, when it came to American hardcore, irony-free right from its West Coast origins. The Cramps, with their kitsch postmodern spin on 50s rock ‘n roll, were almost there. As were Dead Kennedys, whose music had all the characteristics of high-art parody. Biafro knew that the hammier his schlocky horror-punk, the more effective it would be as a parody of real horrors, namely the sordid misdoings of the Californian political elite. But it was only when hardcore became post-hardcore that irony showed up, especially with the arrival of that cruelest of killing jokes, Big Black. In whose wake came a crop of bands whose post-hardcore was of a vaguely absurdist tilt. Bands like Jawbox, The Residents-esque Arabs On Radar and even Fugazi, whose ‘Waiting Room’ channelled punk protest through Samuel Beckett.

But in terms of traditional American hardcore, the style has remained averse to irony since day-dot. Which is especially peculiar considering that, in first wave British punk, irony was a founding principle. A Harold Pinter buff, Johnny Rotten’s (Sid James-channeling) pantomime delivery worked like a meta-narrative, reminding the listener that, in the end, it was all a big joke, a sentiment which when combined with punk’s sonic violence created one of Pinter’s ‘comedies of menace’. From the Greek word ‘Eironeia’, meaning ‘dissimulation’, irony was in Lydon’s hands used to undercut punk’s own ‘simulation’ – the illusion that punk could save the world. It was a postmodernist snarl aimed at the ridiculousness of righteousness, which Greil Marcus claimed connected the British punks to the Situationists.

With their own comedy of menace, Pissed Jeans have brought that same Brit punk mentality to hardcore, right down to the themes of bodily disgust and sexual inadequacy that seeded British punk, from the Pistols’ ‘Bodies’ to ATV’s ‘Love Lies Limp’. Not only a funny-as-fuck band, they also unintentionally function as an art-rock band, on a par with any in America right now.

 

“In my lyrics I just discuss the things that come up in my life, the things that bother or provoke me, or the things that worry or frighten me.”

 

What did you do today?

Matt Korvette: “I’m currently at work, anxious to go home and experience what might be the first significant snowfall of the winter. And to enjoy my weekend as well.”

What do you work as? It’s been the inspiration for Pissed Jeans’ funniest moments. And is it hard balancing work and the band? Do you get time off?

“Essentially I’m a corporate drone. It’s really been wearing on me lately, but yeah, a lot of my work life has been the inspiration for Pissed Jeans songs. I work the standard 40 hours/9-5 schedule, so the Pissed Jeans stuff happens at night, meaning that it’s not too hard to strike a balance. I get a good share of time off too, which is generally used for touring.”

As a teen were you always interested in mundanity? Or rather, art/music that addresses mundanity? In a very real way, your schtick evokes Kafka. What do you reckon? And do you read any of that stuff?

“It’s interesting that everyone calls our song topics ‘mundane’, because I don’t necessarily see it that way. I just discuss the things that come up in my life, the things that bother or provoke me, or the things that worry or frighten me. I think I sing a lot about love and lust, and I don’t think those are too mundane. I just want to approach topics that matter to me, so I suppose most people must think I’m kind of a boring guy if these songs are all so mundane.”

Quite the opposite. It seems a reaction to mundanity. Or rather, it’s as if what frightens you most is mundanity. ‘The Jogger’ is full of terror.

“That’s interesting… because I feel like ‘The Jogger’ is pretty mundane. Ha. Honestly I am psyched on anyone’s specific interpretations of any Pissed Jeans song, it can be pretty insightful for me.

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