Michael Penn talks lyrical inspiration, four-track recording, and his debut album March


By Steve Newton

As long as you keep the channel-changer handy for the first frightening sign of Michael Williams, Kim Clarke Champniss, or Rap City, flicking on MuchMusic is sometimes worth the trouble. Once in a while you come across a heavily rotated video that catches your eye and makes you think: “Now that’s different!” or even “What the hell is going on here?”

Michael Penn has a couple of such weirdly wonderful clips in “No Myth” and “This & That”, the first two video/singles from his debut album March. In those videos we see a spaced-out Hari Krishna-type guy glumly beating a drum to his own imaginary rhythm; a woman in a dressing gown suspended at an unreal angle off her porch railing; a fat lady with one hand-painted toenail throwing things around under a kitchen sink; and Penn being covered by snowflakes in his room while he sings: “I’ll do this, I’ll do that, I’ll be burning canyons for you.” What the hell is going on in these songs?

“The subject matter varies,” says Penn, on the line from Pittsburgh. “Relationships between people, the human condition—these are things that are on my mind a lot, just trying to make sense of things. Some of the things may have a pessimistic slant, but I think there’s a shred of optimism in most of them, or at least a shred of humour.”

While his flighty visual creations and obscure lyrics may be a little hard to grasp, Penn’s Beatlesque music—with its gracefully arcing melodies and pop hooks—definitely grows on you. His tunes have a simple, unpolished quality that makes them immediately endearing. It’s not surprising that he wrote most of March using a four-track recorder.

“There’s this thing that happens with four-track, something to do with the way that all the sounds coalesce in that small space. It integrates them in a cool way. We tried to recreate it using 24-track digital. I really wanted to make a record that utilized the benefits of technology but still retain a real warmth and earthiness.”

Like many folks his age, the 30-year-old Penn grew up listening to “the seminal Beatles/Stones/Dylan thing”, but was also heavily influenced by acts like the Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Van Morrison. “I just kept buying records through the ’70s and kept exploring music and different people,” says Penn, who started off playing guitar in a high school band, then found himself that four-track and began writing his own tunes.

In ’81 he formed Doll Congress with his current keyboardist Patrick Morrow—the worried-looking fellow you see alongside Penn in those wacky videos—and played around Los Angeles for the next six years.

“That was really the place that I started writing seriously. There was a conscious effort in the group not to sound like anybody else, so we put a lot of work into the arrangements. Doll Congress came about at this really sort of gross period, when everywhere you turned you saw ‘new wave’ written in funny type, and there was so little out there that I liked that for me it was a way to experiment, just playing with forms.”

When Doll Congress packed it in in ’87, Penn went back to his four-track and began to fashion the songs that would lead to March, an album which features appearances by former Eric Clapton drummer Jim Keltner, John Cougar Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff, and guitarist Charlie Sexton.

When Penn makes his debut Vancouver appearance at the 86 Street Music Hall on Wednesday (July 13), he’ll be joined by former X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, second guitarist Gurf Morlix (recently with Lucinda Williams), and bassist Alan Kamai (formerly with Wendy & Lisa). Penn will be sharing the bill with Lloyd Cole, from Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, but wasn’t willing to help out when asked what sort of music his tour-mate will be performing on the bill.

“I don’t know—why don’t you call him and find out?” answered Penn flippantly, sounding a bit like his touchy brother Sean.

Gee, it wasn’t like I was trying to take his picture or anything.

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