Reid Paley: Laughing in the face of life's unrelenting ugliness

Written by Scott Mervis on .

paleyIn a town previously known for doo-wop and blues-based bar bands, Reid Paley came along in 1980 to help ignite a new scene with a four-piece band called The Five that could have become one of the era’s more formidable post-punk bands had anyone been paying attention to Pittsburgh.
Paley was a Brooklyn-born singer who came here for college, and made his impact not only as the howling voice of The Five, but as catalyst in organizing the scene and being a thorn in the side of the elder bands.
In 1986, The Five picked up and moved to Boston, where it made one more album, before disbanding. During his stint there, Paley struck up a friendship with Black Francis (aka Frank Black) that has led to a handful of collaborations. Along with touring together, the Pixies frontman produced Paley’s 1999 debut, “Lucky’s Tune,” and their writing collaborations appeared on some of Black’s mid-’00s albums, including the song “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh),” which isn’t as insulting as it sounds.
In 2010, they hooked up for “Paley & Francis,” a raw, bluesy Americana record cut over two days in Nashville. Now, they're on tour together, playing a sold-out show at Club Cafe on Tuesday. Paley, who’s been back in Brooklyn since the early ‘90s, took time out this week to talk on a wide range of subjects.
What can people expect from this show — two solo sets and some overlap?
Who knows. We’ll see what happens. I’ll play, he’ll play. Maybe somewhere in there, something will happen, who knows. We’ll figure it out as we go along. We’ll work it out on the drive up the Hudson.
Take me back to when you guys first met. What that was like? 
We were both playing the Boston rock club circuit. The first time or so, the Pixies opened up for us. It was a very long time ago, it was a very new band.
Do you see something right away?
Oh yeah, of course. They were a great band. They kind of offended certain people in the Boston rock scene, because it was a very strict garage-rock kind of thing, even back then. And The Five, we showed up in Boston, a bunch of guys with long hair, and some members had tattoos, and we were like Led Zeppelin compared to what was going on in Boston at the time. It was good, but it was all kind of garage-rocky. These were people who were used to playing in clubs with nice PAs and lighting systems and we were Troglodytes from Pittsburgh by comparison.
What is your collaborative process like for you guys?
It’s different each session. We’ve done several different things. We’ve done the sitting in a room and throwing ideas back and forth, and putting together songs kind of organically — music, words all piling up at once. On the Paley-Francis thing, he was in town here and we spent three kind of relatively short afternoons sitting in my apartment after drinking strong coffee and sat with guitars and worked out a bunch of song forms. At the end of that, we had a bunch of stuff and decided to each take half the songs and finish them off with lyrics and what have you.
In the YouTube clips that pop up, he’s playing electric and you’re playing acoustic...
I don’t even own a good acoustic guitar. If anyone wants to sell me an old J-45 that’s beat up, that’s affordable, tell them to get in touch with me. The stuff that was recorded on the album, I’m playing an old SG, and old Gibson, and he’s playing a Telecaster on on two, and the rest he’s playing an acoustic guitar. And live, a we get a bit more muscular. We toured with my bass player and my drummer, and we rocked, like mother------. This tour, it’s just him and me, like some weird indie buddy flick, driving around.
TheFIVEThe Pittsburgh punk scene back in the late ’70s — are you glad you were part of it, or do you wish you had been somewhere else, like New york or Boston?
Yeah, I’m glad to have been a part of it. It’s who I am and been a part of and it was a really interesting, really cool thing. If there was technology then like there is now, that whole scene might have gotten more notice. On the other hand, if there was technology that there is now, it might not have happened that way, because part of it was just that feeling of not having anybody looking at you and not wanting to have anybody look at you, so you just did whatever the [f---] you wanted to do, and that’s how you got bands like the Cardboards and us.
It’s interesting that the two faces of Pittsburgh punk — you and Karl Mullen (of Carsickness)  — were both outsiders. You both came from different places.
That’s what makes things interesting. What makes New York City the most American place in America — and what some people would say the least American place in America — is that there are people from all over the place here, so it mixes it up. If you have everybody from the same place, they share a lot of assumptions and a lot of experience, and that’s nice, but it also doesn’t shake things up. I spent enough time to warrant ... It’s not like I showed up for 10 minutes and declared myself a Pittsburgher.

There really were no two faces of anything, and it wasn’t who was from where. There were people who were playing interesting, original music, and then there were people who were doing an old bar-band thing, which is fine as well, but kind of a different thing. And that had kind of fallen out of favor, and they were a little bit miffed.
I remember years ago, at a rehearsal space in Wilkinsburg, the landlady, who was very nice, had a son who was in a bar band/show band kind of thing and, at one point, they and The Five happened to be loading out at the same time, and there was some kind of vaguely friendly, vaguely hostile, frenemy banter back and forth, and at one point, the guy who was the singer said to me something that was wonderful. The thrust of it was, they’re a real band because they play real songs. We’re not a real band because we just sort of make ours up. So, I think that’s how you could divide things.
Even the guys who were in bands that wrote songs, it was the basic bar-band’s 1-4-5.
diamondreoThat was a transitional period back then. I don’t sense that would happen like that these days, that there would be tension between the old school and the younger wave.
Well, there were things that happened. Years ago, there was a place called Phase III and a bunch of older guys wanted to get away from their wives, and they bought this bar, and it was kind of a strip joint. And then Norm Nardini, to his credit, decided that he wanted to put bands there, and his idea was to bring all manner of punk rock bands in there and then have his band Diamond Reo open up for them and show how much better they were. And Diamond Reo was a good band, and they were a load of [f---ing] fun, but people would not buy them as a punk rock band because everyone knew them as this Pittsburgh bar band, not matter what they did. And I think that kind of annoyed them. And that created kind of an adversarial thing, and then I took over the booking of Phase III. I kind of wrested it from Norman’s guy. 
When I was working at National Record Mart, Cliff Burnstein, who became a huge manager — manages Metallica, what have you — he was a guy who was at Mercury Records, I believe, and he was championing Pere Ubu. I risked my minimum wage job at National Record Mart using their phone for the then long distance call, which is a concept nobody has anymore, to call Cliff Burnstein and say I’m looking to bring Pere Ubu into Pittsburgh. And I brought them into Phase III, and at that point, the manager said, ‘OK, you’re the booker, you’re doing so much better.’ It kind of created a little enmity there.
I read somewhere some years ago, ‘The bands took over Phase III.’ The bands did not take over Phase III, I took over booking at Phase III. One result of the rise of the digital age and social networking is I’ve noticed a lot of people taking credit for things that I did, and things that I organized, and places I booked. Not that I want to jump up and take credit, but for crying out loud, ‘Don’t write me out of some obscure history that nobody cares about!’ 
Speaking of Diamond Reo, you and Frankie [Czuri] were both badasses in your own way.
Yeah, he was a really good singer. They were great [f---ing] players. Warren [King] was a great player, and I got along with Norman. Karl used to do a lot of yelling. Karl would bait Norman and I guess I was lumped in with that. I, of course, was thinking, anyone who plays any kind of music, God love you, there are easier ways to live. There are easier things to do. There is nothing that the universe will punish you more viciously and more swiftly for than picking up a guitar and writing a song, I’ll tell you that much.
Karl, he played a gig with Joe Grushecky a few years ago,a and it was like ‘whoa.’
Oh yeah, Grushecky, yeah. The thing is, Grushecky’s good, and those guys in the Houserockers, Art Nardini and those guys, but everybody knew that the Houserockers were doing Springsteen. As I recall, they were kind of J. Geils, and they moved to Graham Parker, then
they settled in on Springsteen. Which is fine. These are all good bands. I would relish the chance to set in a bar and watch those guys again. Not that there was any kind of ‘ewww, Jets and Sharks,’ and we’re all snapping our fingers like jerks, but it was just a different approach and a different philosophy. I prefer to just go my own way, and there’s nothing the universe will punish you more for, because unless you join a club, nobody is going to take the time to figure out what you’re doing.
Having seen The Five way back when, it’s interesting now to follow you guys now on Facebook. Tom [Moran] posts about his oud playing, and Dave [Doremus] is a family guy really into the Saints ... 
He’s a sports guy. He used to get mad at me. I remember years ago, in Boston, he wanted to have a Super Bowl party and we were living in the same apartment. And I’m no fun at football games, because I would sit in front of the TV yelling ‘Hurt yourself!’ That’s not the spirit that you want. And then I would go into my room and play music and people followed me, and he got pissed off.
... And you have this standard Facebook post about ‘laughing in the face of life’s unrelenting ugliness.’
It’s amazing how many people don’t understand that. People just focus on one thing, and that is ‘ugliness.’ They think it’s a bad attitude. People don’t have any reading comprehension anymore. That was a thing that I put at the end of a resume years ago. It was ‘an unending ability to laugh in the face of life’s unrelenting ugliness.’
Now, in Brooklyn, obviously there is a music scene, and you must be an observer. What do you think of the scene there?
It’s really not a scene, it’s like an every-man-for-himself thing and then there’s groups of a couple bands here and there that like each other. People show up here for 10 minutes and they’re a Brooklyn band. Not that I give a [crap]. I was born here. I’ve been here forever.
There are kind of templates. Jack White is a good guitar player but The White Stripes kind of ruined it for drummers. This one template is the guy with his girlfriend drumming because she wants to make sure he behaves himself on the road. And she can’t drum, and she’s not interested. She just really wants to be with her boyfriend. And then, you know, there are three guys who are really earnest and they want to do power pop...

The digital age has made everything much more careerist and venal. There are people making music because they are compelled to, and they don’t have any other choice, because really it’s a bad life choice. But it’s considered a job. You’re a girl and you have  wealthy father, and the father spends a lot of money and uses his connections and you get a bunch of plastic surgery, and boom, Lana Del Rey.

There’s something I like to call ‘The Making Musicians Miserable Industry.’ Every once in a while I’ll get from some music site, ‘Are you this artist? Would you like to manage this page?’ because you took a bunch of my [stuff] and set it up. You’re basically mugging me with homework. Facebook, Twitter, the web site, that’s about all. A famous writer once said, ‘You could spend your life emptying ashtrays.’ Social networking is OK, but jesus, I want to write a song, I like playing guitar. The worst person to be in the music industry: a musician.
So where do you fit in the Brooklyn scene?
I’m not hooked into any scene, because I’m not indie. I don’t wear skinny jeans and I’m too old.

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