Moe Berg on leaving Edmonton, loving Rundgren, and the Pursuit of Happiness’s One Sided Story

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 12, 1990

When Moe Berg left Edmonton for Toronto five years ago, the city of the Oilers didn’t exactly react like it was losing The Great One. There wasn’t a big hullabaloo in the press, nor were there many tears shed, either by Berg himself or the gaggle of Edmonton fans he was leaving behind.

But great things have happened for the bespectacled blond rocker since that big move east. In ’86 he formed the Pursuit of Happiness, and two years later was in the studio with his biggest idol, Todd Rundgren. The resultant album, Love Junk, went on to sell more than 100,000 copies in Canada alone—that’s what they call “going platinum”—and another 125,000 in the States. Now the band has a second album under its belt and is touring with Canuck rock hero Kim Mitchell; it will be at the PNE’s Exhibition Bowl this Monday (July 16).

One wonders where the 30-year-old Berg might be today if he’d decided to make the move to greener pastures a few years earlier.

“I probably should have left Edmonton sooner than I did,” says Berg, calling from T.O. “It was real difficult for me to make something for myself in Edmonton, unfortunately, just the way the music scene is there. ’Cause I was in this all-original band, and there weren’t any real venues to play. So a lot of bands were just floundering, playing gigs whenever they could. There wasn’t a real cohesive scene, like there is in Vancouver or Toronto.

“But it’s not like I harbour any bad feelings towards the city,” he adds. “I mean, it was a great place to grow up.”

When Chrysalis Records heard TPOH’s independent single, “I’m an Adult Now”, and became convinced of Berg’s keen ear for witty and infectious pop-rock tunes, the label signed the band, and Berg was basically free to choose whichever producer he wanted for the debut album. His only serious choice was Rundgren, and it wasn’t because he’d heard a song or two that he like by the Runt.

“Maybe I should clarify what a Todd Rundgren fan is,” he says. “I mean I know you meet a lot of people who say they’re a Todd Rundgren fan, but I’m a Todd Rundgren fan—like I bought every single thing that he’s ever done. I have all kinds of cassettes of his live shows, and 20 or 30 hours of Todd bootleg video. So I’m a serious Todd fan—it’s like being a Deadhead.”

The Berg/Rundgren pairing has resulted in two albums chock full of off-colour lyrics driven by an excitable rock noise that sounds very basic yet is very distinct from anything else you hear on the radio these days. It’s a match made in boogie heaven.

“What generally happens is that I send Todd demos of all the songs that are candidates for the record, and he sort of goes through them and does these elaborate critiques of them and says what he likes about them, and what he doesn’t like. And then I go back and address his complaints, sort of rewrite and rearrange the songs until they meet with his approval. It’s not like he actually changes the songs; more like he tells me what I’ve done wrong and to go back and do it again. So it’s sort of like proof-reading, almost.”

Once the TPOH tunes are Rundgren-ready, it’s just a matter of slapping them down on tape. One Sided Story was recorded in only two-and-a-half weeks, just slightly faster than the first album, but a lot quicker than most LPs come nowadays.

“Once we got in the studio the arrangements of the songs were basically there, all we had to do was give a good performance. And when we record with Todd we record live off the floor, basically—we all sit in the room at the same time and play, and then we just do a minimal amount of overdubs—usually just the lead and back-up vocals and the guitar solos. So Todd’s whole idea is to try to capture the performance instead of just mechanically going through everything piece by piece.”

Since the recording of One Sided Story, bassist Johnny Sinclair and vocalist Leslie Stanwyck have left the band, to be replaced by Brad Baker and Susan Murumets. But Berg doesn’t think the new members have changed the sound of TPOH much. Not yet, anyway.

One thing that will probably never change as long as Berg is the leader of TPOH is his unique approach to songwriting. With a keen eye, Berg sees through the typical macho messages inherent in so much rock ’n’ roll, and churns out fresh observations of the human condition—especially about love junkies and young folks on the make. And sometimes he surprises himself with what he comes up with.

“I don’t express myself very well in normal everyday life. I think my songwriting in a lotta ways is sort of an exorcism for me, almost a therapy kind of thing. Sometimes when I finish writing these songs I think, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’

Berg doesn’t mind using sex—or skewed references to it—to get his thoughts across. Tunes like the first album’s “Down on Him” and “Looking for Girls” proved that he wasn’t afraid to be cheeky. He continues his explicit approach on One Sided Story.

“There’s some references to sex in the music,” admits Berg, “but I think the overall thematic thing is more about relationships. I think sex is just a part of relationships, and I don’t mind speaking about it in less euphemistic words than maybe other bands do.”

Berg doesn’t plan on changing his no-beatin’-round-the-bush approach to lyricism any time soon, but he is aware of the recent push toward censorship that has musical proponents of free speech on the defensive. He doesn’t think it too wild to believe that his group could one day become a target of the goody-two-shoers who want to bleep out bands.

“Well that’s the fear; that’s why it’s important to watch out for it. I mean that’s how things like that start—they start initially with a band like 2 Live Crew and then the next thing is TPOH. The thing that’s frustrating about it is that it just started out with a few people who have a lot of opinions and a lot of time on their hands—and rich husbands. I mean they’re really no different than some lunatic who walks down the street, you know, talking about Armageddon, except that suddenly they’ve been given a lot of credibility.

“So that’s the thing to worry about with censorship. Once it gets started it gets like a perpetual motion machine and it’d be hard to shut it off.”

So does Moe Berg think that anything should be fair game for musical expression?

“Well, yeah, ultimately. The problem with prohibitionary attitudes is that they tend to encourage the very thing they’re trying to discourage. That’s certainly true with alcohol, and I think it’s true with drugs. And I think it’s gonna be true with this. Apparently, since this 2 Live Crew controversy started they’ve sold something like two million records; I mean I didn’t even know or care who 2 Live Crew was until this whole thing started. And I think if people just ignored things like this they’d probably go away.”

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