Not a job
Matt Korvette’s day job as an insurance claims adjuster is up there with Marilyn Manson manning Space Mountain at Disney Land. Just as Manson cannot be expected to fetch the minimum height stick when he’s not sacrificing babies onstage and eating tapeworm, Korvette is no more cut out for tiled carpets, water cooler flannel and the indescribable hum of corporate life. That’s how it seems, at least.
There’s plenty of good humour to the music Korvette plays with his Philly-based hardcore band Pissed Jeans, but it remains as ferocious as it is fun; a heavy slurry of guitars one minute, speedy, grungy punk the next, then plain weird. Their new album, ‘Honeys’ (the band’s fourth in their ten-year history), is something of an accessible zenith, but it’s angry enough to fantasise about a co-worker dying of cancer (‘Cafeteria Food’); it’s still hardly a record for your team leader to get into.
“For me I never really considered giving up my day job,” Korvette tells me on his lunch break. “I’ve also never considered not being in a band. A couple of the guys in the band I’ve played music with since we were 14 years old; it’s been our main hobby. Like, people might love playing baseball, but they’re not going to try to make that their career. They’re just going to join leagues constantly and follow it on TV and buy baseball jerseys and play it constantly with their friends. That’s how we’re approaching music. It’s not like, ‘oh, I like this enough to make it my career’, it’s like, ‘I like this so much let me do it as much as I can without having to worry about it providing me food to eat.’”
Korvette spent years hiding his hobby from his co-workers. He’s since quit the position he held whilst writing ‘Honeys’, an environment that inspired the monotonous chug of ‘Cafeteria Food’ but also the doom dirge of ‘Chain Worker’ – three minutes of white collar, battery-farm hell. The people in his old office wouldn’t have gotten it. “These are people where being in a band, it’s hard for them to understand what that means,” he says. “Y’know, when you’re not into music and you live in the suburbs and you don’t really do anything that’s fun, being in a band they either think you’re in a covers band or you should be a rockstar, so why are you still working here? They can’t understand the people do things for fun. Even the existence of a vinyl record would take a lot of explaining.”
Still Korvette is happy with the only setup he’s ever known. He tells me that he likes to live comfortably, and having reached his thirties there’s no longer so much honour in being broke in the name of punk rock. “If I was 23 and had a shitty apartment and lived on a couch, or lived in my parent’s basement then maybe I’d think we need to make this our career,” he says, “but we’re settled in in our lives a bit and I like being able to have expensive dinners and nice clothes, and buy records if I want to. Having a little money in the bank is nice rather than really trying to make it and doing all I can to not have to work a real job. I mean, I can’t blame anyone who would try to go for it, but that’s my personal preference.”
Pissed Jeans have some decidedly un-punk views regarding touring, too – the most vital and noble part of hardcore life. They don’t like it, and seldom do it. Korvette sees the whole affair as no less regimented than clocking in and out at the office, simply more unpleasant in many ways; less comfortable, certainly.
“It’s strange how touring is such a prevalent thing,” he says, five days home from a string of domestic dates. “It’s kinda a huge pain the ass in a lot of ways. I mean the shows are great, but everything else that goes with it is kind of rough. For myself, as a fan of music, I don’t hear a record I like and think, oh man these guys better play here and go on tour – I’m happy to just enjoy that record. Every band should just stop touring at once and we should all go and see who’s playing locally, and then when we decide there’s a band a few towns over that we want to see we should get a caravan. I think the fans should do the touring. That would be sweet. All these music fans should hit the road every summer – let’s flip the script.”
In 2008 Pissed Jeans moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from the interstate city of Allentown, evidently not to find fame and fortune but rather a way of keeping the band alive. “Being a successful band is such a game of chance that if you’re trying to make it happen the chances are you’ve already lost,” says Korvette. “If you’re a good band people will probably find out about you, but you can’t just force yourself to be a great band. Either you are or you’re not.
“We’ve had some lucky breaks, and the Sub Pop thing [signing to the label, who’ve released three of Pissed Jeans’ four albums] was huge for us. We weren’t sending out demos or trying to get signed. They heard us on the radio and got in touch. We would never think ‘what’s our next step?’ but Sub Pop has really legitimized us with so many people, because it’s such a trusted entity in the world of underground rock – if they put out a guy playing a rubber band and farting people would be like, ‘well, I’m going to listen to this three more times, because maybe there’s something I’m missing here if Sub Pop thought it was cool. I must be fucking up’.”
Pissed Jeans must be a pretty inexpensive band to have on the books. They’re a sparing punk band rather than a prolific one. They have no desire to give up their day jobs, when they do tour they do so in their own van, and they’re currently in a cycle of releasing a new album every four years. It’s unsurprising that the band’s two forthcoming UK dates (their first in five years) sold out as soon as they were put on general release last month (the London show has since been upgraded to Camden’s Electric Ballroom venue), yet it feels as if a new appreciation for this group is due to their latest record above fears of enjoying them while they’re around.
‘Honeys’ confirms Pissed Jeans as simultaneously the funniest and smartest hardcore band around today, with Korvette barking lessons in everything from misogyny and vanity to cat allergies, Louboutin shoes and Internet dating. The response to the record since its release in February has been overwhelmingly positive, making it feel as important to Pissed Jeans as ‘The Chemistry of Common Life’ was to Fucked Up in 2008.
“It took me a little off guard, honestly,” says Korvette, who I quickly learn is a modest guy who expects very little from the world. “I’m surprised that anyone even cared to listen to it in the first place, because we’re not the new hot thing and I feel like so much of music is driven by, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve already heard of them – what’s new?’, y’know? So then this band Pissed Jeans have been around for 10 years and people are psyched to pay attention; that gives me a lot of hope and positive thoughts. Even if people hated it, I’m like, ‘well, it’s cool that you bothered checking it out and really considered it.’
“I feel like there’s not a whole lot of other bands out there sounding similar to us at our level, who’ve been putting out records for a number of years. There’s not a lot of competition, even, and I don’t know if that’s sad or if that’s great. I feel like our bracket is pretty thin. And then there’s these songs – we worked hard on writing songs that would be pretty easy to get into. These aren’t songs that you need to hear ten times before you can understand them – generally, if you hear it once it’s a pretty easy record to grasp. Maybe we made it too easy, I don’t know, but that’s where we were heading with this one. We thought, let’s write a pretty succinct record of songs that we’d like to play live, with hooks.”
Korvette says that they purposefully set out to make a record that was “less artsy, not that any of our records are super artsy, and there’s still plenty of thought put into it everything. It’s not all like, ‘ooh ooh baby, come back to me’,” he says. “I guess as an artist you can try to push people away or you can try to make sure everyone likes it, and I guess we’ve always felt adversarial towards the listener, because I enjoy records that fuck with me, like we-dare-you-to-like-this. But I feel like we’ve moved away from that a little bit. We’ve got nothing to prove to anyone, so let’s do a record that is fun and catchy and sounds like our other records but is more distilled.”
At it’s pacier moments, ‘Honeys’ is no harder on the ear than Nirvana at their most tuneful (‘Health Plan’, ‘Vain In Costume’), the pantomimic ghoul garage of Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster (‘Romaniticize Me’, about how not to be a boyfriend) or, on ‘Loubs’ (the aspirational number about designer shoes), Nick Cave’s theatrical monster blues. Yet ‘Chain Worker’ almost grinds to holt, ‘You’re Different (In Person)’ is weighed down by twisted, pigfuck irregularity, and the sluggish ‘Cafeteria Food’ works wonders at sapping any forward momentum that remains. In the middle sits ‘Something About Mrs. Johnson’, a home-recorded instrumental relic from 1995 that the band have been waiting to sneak onto one of their albums. And because Pissed Jeans refuse to thrash out the same song, at the same pace, twelve times over, ‘Honeys’ feels longer than its 35 mintues, smarter and like no one else, save, perhaps, for the progressive highs and lows of Fucked Up.
“I feel like we’ve lucked out on shaping what Pissed Jeans is,” says Korvette. “There’s a pretty wide birth of songs that could be Pissed Jeans songs. Like, we can have a real slow creepy dirge, or a doom metal songs, or a totally simple punk song and it works for us. It’s never like, ‘woah, what are they doing here, this doesn’t work, they need to stop that!’. We’ve lucked out because since our early records we’ve tried different things and they’ve all worked out pretty well.”
Korvette likes to play a game with himself when guitarist Bradley Fry turns up with a new riff to work on. He likes to pick apart its makings and call whether it reminds him of Angry Samoans, Danzig, The Birthday Party or something more doomy, like Goatsnake. Then he decides it sounds like Pissed Jeans and he gets to writing the lyrics. Lyrics – and how they’re presented, uncharacteristically high in the mix on ‘Honeys’ and 2009’s ‘King of Jeans’ – are perhaps what’s most important of all to Pissed Jeans. When they formed in 2004, “it was kind of a lark,” says Korvette, a side project to the dogmatic hardcore bands they were all playing in. “We wanted to do something that sounded purposely dumbed down as far as how we wrote the songs and how we played them,” he says. “We just wanted to have fun, let our personalities out and not be scared of doing things that other people wouldn’t do. When we got started there were no bands playing slower punk rock. Everyone was infatuated with thrash or 1982 hardcore like Minor Threat, Negative Approach, trying to be as authentic as possible. I like a lot of that shit, but I was like, ‘let’s try to be a bit more weird and creepy, but fun about it and humorous’.”
Pissed Jeans are having a laugh, and a majority of the gags are in Korvette’s words (although they did very nearly call themselves Unrequited Hard-On). ‘You’re Different (In Person)’, a pervert’s guide to uniformdating.com, features positively cute lines like, ‘So I’ll put my info up on the ‘Net / To see what kinda friends I can get / I figure it’s worth it / Self-photo – a sure fit / Poke or wink, that’s flirting / Check me out – go surfing.’ Never mind the increasingly desperate howls that are saying all of this. ‘Cat House’ then tackles that specific issue of being allergic to feline with classic punk yells of ‘Walk in / Sit down / Wet eyes / Dry mouth / Can’t sleep / Red snout / Loose fur / Cat house’; ‘Loubs’ is even more wonderfully niche thanks to its fashion referencing, ending with the lines, ‘Whatever you want, you won’t hear me say no / ‘Til I’m seein’ red / ‘Til I’m seein’ red under your heels’; while ‘Health Plan’ has Korvette sharing his tips for prosperous living as he ends every line with, ‘You wanna know my secret? / I stay away from doctors’. Not only do Pissed Jeans refuse to burry their vocals, they print their lyrics in their liner notes too – very ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’, not very US hardcore.
“These days you see this half-assed compromise where bands will write the lyrics up but they’ll scribble them in a diagonal pattern,” Korvette notes. “It’s like, ‘yeah, I guess you could follow them if you really try hard, but no one is going to’. It’s stupid. But in terms of the actual words, bands will know they can faithfully say life is shit, cops suck, humanity’s fucked, let’s go get a drink, fuck you. Y’know, you can safely run around in circles saying any of that and no one is going to say, ‘stupid lyrics, man’, but no one will ever care either. I mean, maybe there’s a lot of vocalists who don’t have anything to say, or don’t really want to say anything. I think a lot of people are kind of shy – they want to be in a band but they just want to follow the footsteps of being in a band, they don’t want to do their own thing and see if people like it.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the studio where there’s a punk record being made and the producer says, ‘let’s listen to the vocals only’, and it’s the most hilarious, crappy thing, and you just hear someone going, ‘agh-ahh! agh-ahh! agh-ahh!’” he blurts. “It’s embarrassing if you’re the singer, with people there laughing at your screams. As tough as some punks like to pretend they are, people can be sensitive and they’re embarrassed when they hear that stuff, and they just want their vocals to get mashed up in the rest of it. I feel like you’ve got to get passed that if you want to do something cool. Even if you don’t want to bring your vocals all the way up you’ve got to not be so timid. My advice is to just get over it, y’know. Don’t be ashamed of what you’re saying.”
Korvette is used to being called funny. In life, he’s always seen it as a half compliment. “You’re either hot or your funny,” he says. “Here I am always wishing to get hot. It’s like when you’re a freshman in high school and it’s like, ‘say something nice about everybody in the class’ – I had thirty funnies. Fuck!” You can be too funny, though. Remember Bloodhound Gang?
“Oh, I agree,” he says. “You don’t want to be pointlessly joking, there’s got to be some kind of rationale behind it. I just think I can’t approach anything without being sarcastic or absurd about it. It’s just in my personality; it’s not like I put on a special hat for writing my lyrics.”
Beneath ‘Honeys’’s humour, which can in fact be easily missed or ignored if you take the tracks at brutal face value, there’s plenty of sobering clout. ‘Cat House’ aside (it really is just about being allergic to cats), Pissed Jeans take the righteous edge off by serving up what they’re wanting to say with a side of silliness. But anxiety, paranoia, rage – they’re all in there, kneaded into the dough of this fun-not-dumb punk album. ‘Male Gaze’ is no laughing matter, though. A violently lurching track that straight up apologises for misogyny in punk rock, it’s a subject that Korvette is particularly passionate about.
“Punk is definitely very much a man’s world,” he says, “and I feel like more guys need to address that rather than waiting for a woman to bring it up when she’s being treated poorly.
“I feel like most men accept their reality as everyone else’s reality – they’re like, ‘hey, I went to college and got a good job, why didn’t everyone else? Why are these people complaining?’ But it’s like, hang on, maybe you had it easy; maybe when going to shows you didn’t have to worry about being hot, so that someone wouldn’t judge you. Being a guy, you really don’t have to worry about that, because it’s all just other guys there. I mean, you want to look good, but who cares, you still have the same power no matter what.”
Over the past ten years, Korvette has seen just how sexist the hardcore scene can be, on an ugly, overt level, and in terms of an institutionalized misogyny that so many people have come to not expect but accept. He’s guilty of it too, and says so in ‘Male Gaze’ – ‘I’m not innocent, I’m guilty / I’m not innocent, but I’m sorry / It’s just the male gaze, it’s in me, I know it / I feel it all around me / I wish I could destroy it.’
“Pissed Jeans has always had a good female presence as shows,” he says. “I’d be psyched it if was only females who listened to us, because then all these stupid guys would have to come to the shows because it’s where all the women are.
“One thing that really makes me shake my head is how so many people can’t fathom that a woman would like to hear guitars doing feedback and someone screaming. Like, it’s not like that’s a specifically male thing to enjoy, but so many people can’t get that, and women end up feeling bad because they’re like, ‘no, a boyfriend didn’t make me come here’. Anyone can like any art, and there are plenty of guys who don’t like guitars feeding back. It’s such a weird thing, and we’re like, ‘hey, we’re Pissed Jeans and women like to listen to us, because they like how it sounds, they think we did a good job recording it and they like the songs.’ All these punk bands play for crowds where it’s 90% sweating guys trying to jump on them, and it’s like play to an audience of women and you’ll realize what a waste your life has been.”
Korvette’s lunch break is over for another day, and those insurance claims aren’t going to file themselves. Before he goes, though, I ask him if he thinks the success of ‘Honeys’ could tempt Pissed Jeans into quitting their day jobs.
“It totally is a hobby,” he insists. “We’re not trying to preach the gospel of Pissed Jeans to the world. We’re not like, ‘Holy shit, we’re the most important band, everyone’s got to hear us, we’re groundbreaking and essential.’ I feel like we’re just a good band, and I think it must change things [when your band becomes your job], because you get more scared and you’re then making decisions based on survival rather than what you really want to do. Like, if Pissed Jeans rocks up on a Doritos bag, y’know, urrrrggh,” he sputters. “You end up doing some things that you’re not proud of.”