Pete Yorn interview: self titlement at the hands of Frank Black
October 6, 2010 by Bill Palmer
Pete Yorn can barely contain his excitement when talking about his new self titled record. Perhaps it’s because he got to work with Frank Black of the legendary Pixies. Or maybe it’s because he’s finally getting to share this record with the world after having had to sit on it for awhile because he originally recorded it at almost the same time as his previous record.
In any case it’s clear that he really, really likes this one. And with good reason, as it’s peeled back some of the layers that he’s always wrapped himself in and exposed a musical side of him that many fans probably thought they’d never see. “Pete Yorn” marks his third album release in the past year and a half – and in the midst of working on yet another future project, Pete stepped out of the studio to talk about, well, Pete Yorn.
When I first heard you were making a record with Frank Black, before I heard it, I thought “that’s awesome” but then I thought “I have no idea what that’s gonna sound like.”
That makes two of us, because I had no clue what the hell it would sound like. I had no idea if we would even get along, if I would like his ideas, if he doing it just to make some quick cash, or is he going to be interested or engaged at all. I had no clue what was going on, but I figured it would be fun to go check it out. And the funny thing is, when I hear the record now, it kind of sounds like exactly like what I think it should sound like. It sounds like me and Frank Black. I think it sounds just like it should sound (laughs).
But yeah, I didn’t really have any idea. The only thing I knew beforehand was that we were gonna go in, we were gonna hit it fast. And I was thinking in my head, what songs do I want to present to Frank, and I was trying to think, well, what would he like, more than anything as a fan. So I just had these songs in my head that I thought would make sense for the project, and I shared them with him, and he was into it, and he just came up with mostly straight up rock and roll arrangements.
What was the first song that you guys worked on together?
He picked me up at the airport up in Oregon and we drove right to my hotel, which he got me the room too, I mean the guy did everything, he’s the best. And we sat in my room, he had heard nothing beforehand, he was familiar with some of my earlier records and stuff but he had heard nothing of what we were gonna do, and I’m like alright, well I’ve got some songs and I started playing him songs on acoustic guitar, and I think the first one we worked on that I played him was a song called Sans Fear, which is on the record. It was pretty fully formed at the time. But lyrically, we started talking about life and where I was at personally at the time, and what was going on in my head, and he was kind of like an awesome shrink in some ways. He was so cool to talk to, and he was like, alright, listen man, what do you want to say? And he helped me focus the lyrics even more than they already were, and I ended up that night rewriting some of the stuff.
You were sick when you made this record.
Yeah, I got sick probably on day two and a half. All the sudden I started getting the chills, and it was really the worst flu I’ve had in probably ten years. I was really worried. I was like shit man, my luck. I got this opportunity, I’m here for a week or whatever and I fucking get sick. It’s gonna torpedo the whole record. I was so worried about it, and I was loading up on Sudafed and Tylenol and stuff like that. I really felt like shit. Some people are kind of germ freaks or something like that, and they might be like “Yo man, stay away from me.” He didn’t care at all. He was wow you’re sick, come on, fuck that, let’s go. He had no problem at all, and I was like that’s cool, at least he’s not afraid of me.
And then suddenly I started to realize, you know what, it’s kind of a cool thing going on with my voice right now. It sounded a little huskier than usual. I kind of like it and it’s kind of suiting the music. So we just went with it, and it worked out. And then I remembered years ago, on my first record there’s a song called Murray, and if you listen to that, I don’t know if you can tell or not, but I remember I was really sick when I sang that vocal too and I remember always liking it. It had a cool little extra grit to it. So you never know, sometimes things happen for a reason.
You made “Pete Yorn” in the same timeframe that you made Back & Fourth. What happened there?
Yeah, I was lucky that I had a lot of material. I was really writing a lot of songs at the time. So I had a lot of songs in my pocket, and that was one thing that I had going for me then. The other thing was just timing. All the sudden Frank came out of nowhere and he was like “you man, we should record.” I was like, yeah, I’ve got to take the opportunity and do it now. So I just kind of made it work.
There’s one crossover. You’ve got versions of Paradise Cove on both records. How did you end up deciding to attack that song twice in two different sessions?
I recorded it first with Frank and I loved that version. I actually had no intention of recording it for Back & Fourth. And then one day when I was hanging out with [Mike] Mogis who produced Back & Fourth and I was telling him about the sessions with Frank and how much fun it was, and I was like “check this tune out.” I was kind of just sharing the tune with him, “oh check this shit out bro,” and he heard it and loved it. He was like “man, we’ve got to record that here.” I’m like “oh I don’t know, I kind of recorded it for this record,” and he’s like “nah, come on we’ve got to do it, I love this song” and I’m like, I don’t know. We just ended up doing it. I think he played it for the band when I wasn’t paying attention, maybe, and they kind of had learned it, and we just went for it. I really love both versions.
It’s been a decade, this is your sixth record, you never thought to self-title one until now. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. It’s not really a big deal or a big statement, I don’t think. I see the record as a real stripped back kind of, and I remember I did say to Frank before we hooked up, “I kind of want to make something that really kind of defines me as an artist even more than I already am,” and his whole thing was “strip away, strip away, I just want to hear your voice, I want to hear it up front, raw, I don’t want a bunch of studio shimmer and tricks taking away from your personality.” That was a little scary for me at first. But then I started to appreciate those aspects and the way that the record sounded. So I guess in hindsight maybe just naming it “Pete Yorn” is just kind of a nod to how it’s kind of just me, out there, hello, I’m kind of naked in a way I guess (laughs). I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something in there probably relating to that.
Throughout your career you’ve released an album every two or three years, and now if you factor in Break Up with Scarlett Johansson you’ve released three records in about a year and a half. Should we read something into that? Do you feel more energized or more desirous of making music almost quickly than you did five or ten years ago?
It’s probably a combination of a few things. Like I said, the last couple years were for one reason or another very prolific. I just had a big writing spurt, probably the biggest since I was like eighteen years old when I first started getting serious about it. So I had a lot of material, and a lot of it just kind of worked out. Like if Frank didn’t reach out to me before I made Back & Fourth, those songs would probably be sitting around and maybe be ready to record now. I had the energy to go for it at the time. I figure while you have the energy you better go for it, because you’re not always gonna have it. I figured I’d get this stuff down and see how it goes.
I think the fans are always hungry for new stuff, and they’re always interested in hearing what you’re doing. I feel like if the three records I put out were really similar in tone, I probably would have maybe distilled it down to one project. But all three to my ear are so different sounding, and that’s just a reflection of what I’m into. I think a good song is a good song, and I just happen to like a lot of different vibes and a lot of different styles of rock and roll. The three records are very different sounding sonically, yet very cohesive in their own context. So that’s another thing. I felt comfortable putting all three out because I believe in the songs. They’re all things I want to say, and they all have a different vibe.
You made this record awhile ago. Are you working on another record already?
I’m actually in the studio right now, and I just walked outside to talk on the phone with you.
interview by Bill Palmer