Live at CMJ: Pela

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photo by Doron Gild

review by Sheryl Witlen
interview by Jim Beckman
photos by Doron Gild

Brooklyn based Pela is the brilliant product from Billy McCarthy (vocals, guitar), Eric Sanderson (bass, vocals), Nate Martinez (guitar) and Tomislav Zovich (drums and vocals). You would be hard pressed to find a harder working band or one more deserving of your attention and praise. With all the energy of a garage punk band and armed with Billy’s striking vocals it is hard take your eyes and ears off of them. Self taught, well traveled and armed with their latest release Anytown Graffiti, Pela are one of the highlights of the CMJ experience.

Jim: What’s new with Pela since the KEXP Barbecue?

Billy: We’ve been really working on the generative process for the record. We’ve finally gotten over the hump. We are going to Los Angeles in two weeks for a month. Our new record is called, “Rising Sunken Ships.”

Jim: Who are you recording with?

Billy: We are recording with Dan Long. Dan was just with us on a few tracks on ‘Any Turn ‘and he did “Waiting on the Stairs,” “Lost to Lonesome,” “Trouble Through the Cities.”

Jim: Do you have all the songs written already?

Billy: Yeah, we do. I am really excited about it.

Jim: So when did you write them?

Billy: I’ve been writing for about a year and a half now. I think i really turned on the jets within the last three months. Still turning out songs, so it is just nice to have more material.The more the merrier, it just makes the whole selective process more richer. So i will probably continue to write until i get out there (LA).

Jim: Do you typically bring songs to the band?

Billy: Yeah, I’ll write at home. Everything is written on acoustic guitar and that is changing a little bit more with the new record. I used to just come in and perform it for the band. I always felt very confident if I could sing it through and play it through (for everyone else) it would have a better chance to have it up and running quicker. But now actually Nate has co-written a couple songs and Eric has an instrumental track on the record. We are getting into demoing more, so home recording is becoming a greater emphasis on acoustic based things — that medium is changing to a lot more horns a lot more piano. So it is kinda going to be more of a lush record.

Jim: And do more contributions from the other band members give the album a new sound?

Billy: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s got a lot of organs, almost like a New Orleans kind of horn section stuff. It’s pretty exciting. It’s definitely a little bit more of a mature record and it has to do a lot with how I’ve been going through some pretty heavy family stuff and it’s a lot about that. Sort of about commentary on home towns and small towns and I think this record is sort of about getting on with it. What happens when you leave. My little brother is in a pentitentory right now and my family is going through this big thing so I’ve been writing songs about it. I have four songs about it. So again, I can’t seem to write a proper love song. I just seem to write about sleeping pills and so I’ve been trying to exercise this stuff that I feel has been keeping me down and so this is a rise, like sunken ships.

Jim: That one song that you performed the time you came into the studio with the guy that you met at a bar,

Billy: Clive

Jim: Is that going to be on there?

Billy: It is, it’s called St. Clive the Cop. A lovely person, but an absolute animal unto his jungle, which is out in Brooklyn. He was raised here. he is a great guy, but he is also very human and also has a job in law enforcement. A lot of it is about bars and the bar scene in Brooklyn. People having sex in the bathroom, coke, cheating husbands, cheating mistresses, just the dregs of society really. A lot of that. Just with my brother, a lot of the themes are really intense. I don’t think any of us can really afford to go to a shrink, so this is about the best we can do.

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Jim: How about the other albums? Anytown Graffiti wasn’t the first Pela album.

Billy: Between you, me and the fly on the wall, um, we recorded a record and it just sounded terrible and we knew we could do better. I think that we are in an interesting flux in the music industry where you can get a band that’s like a formidable live act and the record can’t accommodate it because of the internet and so on. So we were like this band that was headlining and doing the walk, but we couldn’t get a record deal so we sort of had to fend for ourselves. Now we are taking off, but the first record was in that time period.

Jim: So you are just going to let that lie or do you think you will go back to it?

Billy: I think the trip that we could take with that album is kind of like it is just crap. We basically did it in three days, type of thing. I was inspired by “Love,” Nirvana’s first record and I was going at it like that. I don’t think that’s the type of band we should be on tape. Live performances on the radio are fantastic.

Jim: So any other future plans?

Billy: So we have California covered. We are just going to really hit the tour instead because what happens is you put a record out and we immediately make plans to record another one. I think that is the independent realm as well, just like the old days, you gotta put records out all the time. So we are learning right now that recording is going to change your life and take your emphasis off of playing live which is a bit of a challenge energetically speaking. So we are walking away from touring so right now we really want to get as much touring in as possible until the album comes out in June. I am also going to be doing my side project, which is a folk project, it’s called “Caleb and the Colts.” It is basically songs from several friends over the year that couldn’t hold on and couldn’t keep jobs or parenting or left the country and I have covered the songs and put them out because people wouldn’t know that i am that folksy.

Jim: I think choosing Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy kind of showed how you can go from a rock song and still play this diverse mix and play something quieter. Cheryl commented on how it is surprising that you could play a quite song even when you are out of breath. I think you’ve got a good group of guys to play with who all seem to really have their heads on their shoulders.

Billy: Yeah, we are very healthy. Yeah, we all really do come from working class-middle class people who just go out and work everyday. Nothing grandiose. And there’s also nothing tragic other than not trying.

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