Interview: Mischief Brew's Erik Petersen

posted May 9, 2011

by James G. Carlson

Mischief Brew's Erik Petersen

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's anarcho-punk troupe Mischief Brew have spent the last seven years, give or take, busily touring through the States and Europe, appearing on several different independent record label compilations, and writing and recording songs for a handful of split releases and full-length studio albums. Now, as a follow-up to their collaborative release, Fight Dirty, with Brooklyn's instrumental gypsy jazz quartet Guignol, Mischief Brew are preparing to unleash their latest effort titled The Stone Operation.

Each Mischief Brew album stands on its own as a wholly different chapter in the development of the band's highly original sound. Sometimes, like the very noticeable differences between Smash the Windows (2005) and Songs from Under the Sink (2006), one is fast, heavy and full of musical twists and turns while the other is more of a folk record somewhat akin to the protest singer/songwriters of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 2008, Mischief Brew released Photographs from the Shoebox, a split with The Dead Milkmen's Joe Jack Talcum, which in a way blended the gypsy punk and anarcho-folk styles from the albums that came before it. Fight Dirty, however, the collaboration between Mischief Brew and Guignol, united the raucous, carnivalesque anarcho-punk sound of the former with the more traditional yet crusty Eastern European-flavored fare of the latter, bridging the two and creating an altogether interesting and absorbing collection of songs. With The Stone Operation, it seems the lads are backtracking a bit to revisit the sort of thing they did with Smash the Windows, only darker, certainly not without a few new tricks up their sleeves, and with some remarkably talented accompanying musicians.

Of the twelve tracks on The Stone Operation there are a few that stand out a little more than the rest, though they are all decidedly very worthwhile songs. "A Lawless World," the album's opener, is Petersen's gruff vocal delivery, big, distorted guitar parts, low-end acrobatics, and driving percussion. "Dallas in Romania," a catchy, rollicking gypsy punk composition, moves rhythmically through its changes, with great sweeping strums on the guitar, masterful drumming, and impressive mandolin fingerpicking. "Busker's Wages" is a rather folky number whose lyrics are consistent with the band's well-known punk ethics and DIY practices, ending with the lines, "I'd earn busker's wages, read between pages and lines...and I think of the best money I've ever made in my life." In the middle of the album there's the song "Paris Warlike," which, judging by the lyrical content, is dedicated to the working class struggle throughout history, and much more specific that which occurred in Paris in the ‘30s. "On the Sly" is definitely one of the standout songs on the album, with crafty fiddle-work weaving in and out of the fast-paced, foot-stompin' folk-punk body of the song.

Now, as anyone who has listened closely to Mischief Brew's songs over the years knows, singer/guitarist Erik Petersen's lyrics often center on workers' rights, labor law reform, celebrating and lamenting the triumphs and hardships of the American proletariat respectively, and the like. Songs such as Smash the Windows' "The Lowly Carpenter" is just one of the songs which hints towards that. In fact, when Erik isn't writing and recording songs and touring with Mischief Brew, he is a hard-working carpenter. And it just so happens that the release of Mischief Brew's new record, The Stone Operation, coincides with May Day, otherwise known as Labor Day and/or International Workers' Day - May 1, 2011.

Recently I had a chance to catch up with Erik Petersen, to whom I hadn't communicated whatsoever since the interview we did at some point between the releases of Mischief Brew's  Photographs from the Shoebox and Fight Dirty. The following material is what I can only refer to as my informal mini-interview with Erik.

First, what is the album title all about - The Stone Operation?

The Stone Operation refers to a tidbit of 15th century Dutch folklore where someone abnormal, unusual, insane, undesirable...whatever...was said to have a "stone in their head." So the stone operation was the surgery that would make them sane. As far as I can tell, it was just a figure of speech, kinda like "rocks in your head," and not an actual medical procedure. But it fits in with our whole vibe of normal-abnormality...in praise of the outsider, the miscreant, the aspiring circus freak. Plus, you kinda have to lose your mind to make good art, or at least art worth paying attention to.

On this album...well, it seems you got a lot of your pent-up gypsy jazz and carnival-core inspiration and material out in your collaboration with Guignol, Fight Dirty, leaving this one to be more of a straightforward punk album, with a bit of gypsy-ish and circus-esque parts here and there. In comparison to your previous releases, it seems like you shifted gears somewhat for The Stone Operation. I mean, most artists with a punk-related sound get less and less punk with each album. Not always the case, but very common nonetheless. With Mischief Brew, it appears to be the opposite. Overall, the album just comes across as straight anarcho-punk with touches of gypsy and circus sounds, much of it loud, fast, angsty, and perhaps even a bit darker and less upbeat than your previous material. At least that's what occurred to me during my first listen. Whatwere your goals when writing, rehearsing and recording for The Stone Operation?

To put it simply, we wanted it loud, gritty, and short. Day one of recording, I told Mike (the engineer) that we wanted the core instruments to blast through: big guitars, big drums. We wanted the bass to stick out a lot more, and I absolutely love the basslines that Shawn came up with. We wanted to use the acoustic instruments sparingly, more as accents here or there, or rhythm instruments. As far as it being darker, I think that's true too. The lyrics have always been dark or melancholy, even the seemingly uplifting songs. Someone once told me that they found "Every Town Will Celebrate" to be so inspiring. I was grateful, but was like, "Did you read the lyrics?" I mean, the bad guys totally win in that song! But that's the trick, that's the intention in a song like that. And that's one of my goals, lyrically: deviance, trickery. I like hiding a hint of hope in a song that seems nihilistic, and conversely, writing a catchy pop song about the end of the world.

Despite the scales being tipped by the "negative, jaded" factor, I still feel like we're doing what we do best. We're writing songs about ramblers, workers, jugglers, Trick-or-Treaters, drunkards, the troublemakers and the dispossessed.

In the one song on The Stone Operation I noticed you incorporated some fiddle! It sounded great! That was the first time you guys were accompanied by a fiddle player...at least to my knowledge? Did it come out as you'd hoped? And who was it on fiddle exactly?

Yeah, I can't believe we never had a fiddle before. Tom Swafford from the Seattle band Meisce plays the fiddle on it. They're good friends of ours, we've done a bunch of shows together, so when it came to arranging "On The Sly," well, it required it. He actually lives in Brooklyn, so we recorded all his parts up there at Vibromonk, then put it all together back at the studio in PA.

The Mischief Brew lineup... Is it the same as it used to be: you (guitar and vocals), Shawn St. Clair (bass), and Chris "Doc" Kulp (drums)?

Here's the record's lineup, from the liner notes...

Chris "Doc" Kulp: percussion, vibraphone, timbales, bodhran, congas, cabasa, brass arrangement etc.
Erik Petersen: voice, guitars, mandolin, banjo, melodica
Shawn St. Clair: bass, distorted Bass, voice, beer
Gregory Taylor: drums, trash kit, military snare, marching drum
Denise Vertucci: voice
Tom Swafford (Meisce): fiddle

What are some of your upcoming show locations and dates?

We're doing the Caravan Festival in Philly with Mariachi El Bronx and Devotchka, a few acoustic shows before the record is released, then some spring shows and fests that hopefully this will be out for! Our Philly record release show is May 1st at The Barbary.

With your sound, look and manner, one can deduce that you were seemingly born too late...or into the wrong era, as it were. Now, that may be true to you as an individual, or it may be way off base. And that's what I want to know. Do you personally feel as if you perhaps should have belonged to a different point in human history but make do with the one into which you were born?

At one point, I thought I did. Like, in some sort of pre-industrial time, or the 60s, or going to see the Ramones before anyone knew who they were.... but no, I like being here, watching everything unfold now. Thinking of it as a movie, I know what happens already. It's the future that interests me. Besides, who wants to go back to booking shows via snail mail?

Clearly, we live in some really fucked up times these days, socially, politically, economically, environmentally, and so on. What are your thoughts on these things? And do they maybe have anything to do with the slight shift of sound on The Stone Operation album?

It's possible, sure. I don't know if there's any direct relation... I'm not interested in writing topical protest songs. I'd rather tell stories, and if there's a message there, you gotta dig and figure it out for yourself. I find very little inspiration to write a song by hearing some Glenn Beck rant, or seeing where the Westboro Baptist Church will be turning up next... I try to find ideas in the "in-between" moments of life: a bullet-hole in a bar-room wall, some beans thrown in a busker's guitar case, a beer after work, etc. Hell, that drunk guy on the bench rambling about kids today? There's a whole damn album!

Did you deliberately choose to release The Stone Operation on May 1st, May Day (Labor Day), as a meaningful gesture towards the occasion? Or is merely coincidental? Knowing you, I'd have to say it's the former...but I've been wrong before.

When throwing around the idea of a record release, it was Denise that pulled out her calendar, checked when May Day was, and threw that idea out there. It was a great one. It was also her idea to have all Mischief Brew-related bands play the show (Corrupt Justin is Doc's old band reunited, and Shawn plays in Blood Bomber). And the date is definitely not coincidence. We are celebratory when it comes to labor history, struggles, past and present. And these issues are not going away. The rich are still trying to screw us all over, plain and simple. The myth is real, let's eat...