Question: What do you get when you put two cult indie musicians in a car, send them across Spain with a roadie and ring their mobile at the appointed time on a certain day? Answer: an unorthodox interview. Joe Pernice answers Norman Blake's telephone in convivial fashion. "Oh, hold on a minute, he's just driving," he says, before whispering "Umm, Norman? Did you know you had an interview with The Irish Times now?"
A couple of confused minutes later – and thanks to the speakerphone function on Blake's phone – a New Mendicants group conference is underway. The trio (drummer Mike Belitsky from alt-country band The Sadies brings their number to three) are midway through a short Spanish tour. There are no red carpets and bowls of blue M&Ms on this jaunt, though: they don't even have a driver.
“We’re a low-budget tour, and we’re cheap,” deadpans Pernice. “Norman’s been doing most of the driving. We printed up a 7-inch single that we brought with us, and that sold out – so that pays for the petrol and our food . . . and some booze.”
So, how did they come to be in a cramped car, halfway to Madrid on a sunny December morning? As frontman of Teenage Fanclub, Blake first crossed paths with Pernice, who formed the Pernice Brothers with his brother Bob in the late 1990s, in Toronto.
"My wife's Canadian and we met when I was making the [Teenage Fanclub] album Grand Prix," explains Blake. "Her kids had grown up – her daughter was 14 at the time – and we decided that it was probably a good idea to experience life in Canada for a bit, so we moved there about four years ago. It was a similar thing for Joe. He moved to Canada because his wife's Canadian also. We first met around 2000 when we did a show together in London, but last year I was in Norway working with a band called I Was a King, and they had Pat Berkery, who had once played with the Pernice Brothers, play drums on the record. I told Pat I was moving to Toronto, and he said 'Oh, Joe is living in Toronto, you guys should hook up.' I wrote an email to Joe and he got back to me. A couple of weeks later, I was back in Canada and we met up for a beer and very quickly decided that it'd probably be a good idea to start a band. So that's what we did."
Their first gig was a low-key affair in a small Toronto venue called the Dakota Tavern. “It’s about 20 metres from Joe’s place – we were extremely lazy about the whole thing,” says Blake, laughing. “Initially, I went over to Joe’s and we sat in the kitchen and played some songs and then walked up the street a little bit and went into the bar. We actually got paid – we made some money on the door. And we got free beer, too, so it was a pretty good first gig.”
Belitsky came on board not long afterwards and the three began recording at Blake’s house. “We got some good mics, and basically just pushed back the settee,” he says. “Mike would set up his drum kit and Joe would plug in his acoustic guitar to put down the basic blueprint, then it was a case of adding all the other stuff. It was a very leisurely process, and an inexpensive one.”
Their first release was an EP last year, recorded primarily to sell on their Australian tour (and funnily enough, titled Australia 2013 EP); other songs were later recorded for a film project that never came to fruition.
"I have a friend who works in the film business and she puts music in movies. She had suggested to us that we should write some songs for the next Nick Hornby film [A Long Way Down], because we were both friends with Nick and he likes our music. So we submitted the songs, and the producers didn't like them," Blake laughs. "Nick told us he liked them, so I suppose it wasn't his call – but it worked out well, because it gave us somewhere to start. There were four songs done for that, so that was about half the record done."
Work on Into the Lime began apace, with Pernice writing the bulk of the tracks. The musical kinship of Blake and Pernice can be heard throughout these 10 songs, particularly on the sweet acoustic plucked guitar of Follow You Down, the gentle, Byrds-like folk rock of If You Only Knew Her, and their beautiful, twinkling cover of Sandy Denny's By the Time It Gets Dark. The last track, Lifelike Hair, takes an unexpected detour into 1960s psych rock.
Pernice dissolves into laughter when we claim it as an album highlight. "Truly, the hook of the song came from my six-year-old son," he chuckles. "I was really into GI Joe as a kid. We were watching old GI Joe commercials on YouTube, and it says 'Five rugged men with lifelike hair', and my son started singing the hook. That was just the working hook for the song, and Mike wrote the lyrics for the rest of it. It's probably the best song on the record, and a six-year-old wrote it . . .".
Neither musician is trying to avoid the past – either in recording, or in the songs they play live. As witnessed at their Dublin gig last year, their setlist was liberally sprinkled with both Teenage Fanclub and Pernice Brothers songs, and the resultant stripped-back arrangements worked wonderfully.
"The way I look at it is that they're all songs that I've written, or they're all songs that Joe's written, so it's OK to play them in a different context," says Blake. "Playing Teenage Fanclub songs is usually a full-band affair; it's electric, it's loud. This way, you can approach them differently. A song like I Don't Want to Control You; we've gone really, really soft with that. It's nice to know that you can make those songs work in that style, too. It's reassuring."
Of course, The New Mendicants isn't the first extra-curricular activity for either. Blake most recently collaborated with former Gorky's Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs on the band Jonny, while Pernice has released solo records and developed a sideline as a very capable author of fiction.
"The new Fanclub album is about 80 per cent finished," Blake confirms. "We went to France around March and recorded about 12 songs over a three-week period, then said 'We'll finish this over the summer' – but that's kind of passed now," he laughs. "We're looking to finish it in the next few months and we're hoping to have it out by May or June. We just have a few songs to finish and some vocals to record, but it's almost there. It'll be nice to be able to move between projects."
Pernice confirms that there is a new Pernice Brothers album ready to go, too – but that doesn’t necessarily spell an imminent hiatus for The New Mendicants.
“We plan to do some more recording soon, actually,” says Blake, smiling. “We both like the idea of just recording as often as possible. I think we’re very compatible as musicians; this is only our fourth tour in a year and we’re playing with four guitars, a glockenspiel and that’s it. And it’s a lot of fun. We get on very well together. It’s almost boring.”
“For now . . .” Pernice interjects, ominously.
“Yeah, for now,” agrees Blake, chuckling. “There may be trouble ahead – we could be in separate cars for the next tour. But, no, that would be expensive, wouldn’t it? Though I suppose we could get a trailer, couldn’t we? See, there’s always a solution . . .”
Into the Lime is out now. The New Mendicants play Whelan's, Dublin, on January 24th, 2014