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Last Gang in Town: Pitchfork Militia by Peter Aaron

Fourteen years. Eleven albums. Comprised of singer-guitarist Peter Head, bassist Karl Krause, and drummer Joe Morgan, Pitchfork Militia is the longest-standing cornerstone of the Hudson Valley punk scene. Whether the Stetson-topped, faux-hick trio is found headlining one of its party-like self-produced gigs or holding down the opening slot for the occasional touring act, it’s clearly a band that feels right at home in the trenches. For too long the members of Pitchfork Militia have been thanklessly and selflessly giving of themselves to boost the local rock underground—and kicking out their own brand of bemusing, righteous ramala along the way. The threesome’s latest full-length, the double CD Tastes Like Chicken!, was released last October on the band’s Pitchfork Wreckerds logo, and serves up 27 hell-raisin’ cuts with names like “Murder on My Mind,” “3 Squirrel Gravy,” and “Cut Off Your Dick.” For this issue, we managed to lasso band mastermind Peter Head for questioning. Y’all dig in now—and pass them biscuits!

Congratulations on the band recently celebrating its 14th anniversary. Has it been the same lineup the whole time? What’s the secret elixir? Any tips for younger bands looking to keep it together for the long haul?

Thank you. We’re looking forward to the next one. The year we started we had a drummer named Adam Hyer, you hear him on the earliest recordings. He went off to college that fall and Joe Morgan has sat on the throne ever since. Karl Krause and I played together for three years prior to Pitchfork in a band called Heinous. The magic, I think, is that we all like what we are doing and we’re friends. Joe and Karl went to high school together. For advice, I’d say don’t take yourselves too seriously, record and listen back to all your efforts, practice as often as you can, and hone your craft from every angle. Play out and don’t be upset if there aren’t many people and they don’t immediately adore you. Keep the band together, try to have fun, and make merch!

Despite your having released so many recordings and playing the area pretty regularly, you guys haven’t really done much performing outside the Hudson Valley. Why is that the case? Do you have any interest in at least touring the U.S.? How about playing New York?

Both my guys have wives, kids, dogs, and jobs, and we usually have a freakin’ blast wherever we play. Playing local is easy and fun. But, really, we need a manager. But it would have to be the right manager; I’m, like, one of those touchy artist types. I have no interest in poor-guy/sleep-in-the-van touring, but with even a little bit of money and managerial support, I think short tours would rock. We have had some great shows in New York and we’ve had shows where we played for the barkeep and soundman. We rely mostly on invitations by friends, bars, or other bands for shows in New York. I lean more heavily in the direction of recording than playing out, so it doesn’t concern me so much. I got the CD-makin’ craze. It’s an obsession and a disease. What we would like is to get involved with more festivals.

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In your nearly one and a half decades as a band, you must have seen a lot of changes to the local punk scene. How does it compare nowadays to the time you guys started out? Would you say it’s improved or taken a downturn?

When we first started in ‘95, the local punk scene was mostly teenagers. Some of the music sounded punk, but much of it sounded more metal or alt rock. Everything was called punk and it would be further defined by words like crusty and grindy and whatnot, but, from what I could tell, by the mid ‘90s the word punk referred more to an attitude. The force, the angst, the yelling, etc. Pitchfork is called punk a lot, but the only punky thing I see besides the simplicity, brevity, and breakneck speed of the songs is the devil-may-care attitude. And maybe the force, the angst, and the yelling.

I don’t know what they’re calling punk these days, but I know a couple of guys that’ll downright froth at the mouth if someone says some emo band is punk. A lot of the kids from that original scene are still pounding it out: Dead Unicorn, the Arkhams, John the Baker, even Coheed and Cambria was part of it, as Shabutie. Overall, with the DUI laws and the smoking ban live music in general seems to have taken a downturn, but from the depths of crappiness may the new scene emerge!

Your lyrics often express a fascination with redneck/white trash culture. What draws you to this as a topic? Do you think it registers with your audience in the way you intend? Have you ever encountered any hostility from offended blue-collar types?

I just paint what I see. I’ve got longer roots in this area than anyone I know. I’ve lived in the Hudson Valley for 500 if not 40,000 years, and though I’ve been to college, my collar is decidedly blue. To my knowledge I’ve never offended the working class but, Jeez, read the lyrics, I hope I’ve offended someone! Am I being understood? Hard to say, I know some of the kids have taken my stories of drunken idiocy as if I condone getting drunk and fucking shit up. With all the murder songs, I can tell you that I am violent-minded, but that I absolutely abhor violence. Would you know that from the lyric sheet? Probably not. Every song, and there are over 200, has a story. You ask and I’ll spill.

Pitchfork Militia is frequently branded, so to speak, as being a psychobilly act; that is, a band like King Kurt or the Guana Batz, which based their sound and aesthetic directly on that of the Cramps, who often—though not always—play a stylistically exaggerated form of rockabilly and draw on cult horror-movie imagery for lyrical themes. Yet the psychobilly tag seems wholly wrong for you guys: While you do reference the occasional B-movie theme, a lot of your tunes use the galloping “Ghost Riders in the Sky”/“Theme from Bonanza” rhythm, instead of true rockabilly riffs, and your look is more cowboy than “evil Elvis.” How did the psychobilly thing get started in relation to your band? Has anyone at a gig and ever complained that they were expecting something closer to the Cramps?

Ooh...I want to live inside that “Ghost Riders” riff. I want to curl up and sleep inside those sweet, perfect yodels. The “psycho” part probably came from all the eye-poppin’, limb-flailin’, finger-pointin’ stage antics. The “billy” part might come from the wicked Southern lilt to my voice that I picked up from living amongst Southerners for too long in my travels. But if one song has a punk beat, and the next has a rockabilly click to it, are we a punk band or a rockabilly band? We also have a swing song, a Latin song, a ska song, a disco song, some blues, some country, and a couple of big, fat Hendrix covers. So whattaya call it? We prefer the term Apocabilly. “It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s loud!” No complaints yet. If you skim the top you might taste a lot of things (tastes like chicken!), but if you really boil it down to just a few words, we’re a rock band, in my opinion. We rock. The cowboy thing began as us bashing country music. We were making fun of it. The boots and hat were the dumbest-looking things I’d ever seen—and then they wouldn’t come off!

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Last August, you guys took part in a musical revue called Rock and Roll Broadway. What was that all about? Something you might like to do more of?

Joe’s wife Laurel works at the Center For Performing Arts in Rhinebeck and they wanted a band to back the performers, rather than hiring the usual studio musicians. They offered us money, the obligation was short (four rehearsals and four performances), and we were all amazed at how much fun it actually was. We aren’t opposed to doing another one, and there’s been talk of it next summer, but it’s not really what we do.

In addition to Pitchfork Militia, you’ve had a few side projects (Firebug, Broome Handel) and perform as a solo artist. Tell us about the music you make with those projects.

Firebug is a three-piece electric instrumental band with John Fay on bass and Matt Mesic on drums, both from the band Daddy’s Lap. We put out one CD. John and I are now playing with a different drummer named Mike Patrick and calling it Elephant Graveyard. The beats and bass lines are furiously driving, as I practice the art of “shred-hacking.” Long, open-ended solos...it sets my psychedelic soul on fire...channeling the Divine...riding the wind. Broome Handel is a buddy from Tennessee who blows a mean-ass harp and picks a real primitive banjo. Whenever he visits, we spend a day or five recording whatever craziness comes out of him. I also put out CDs of what I call heavy ambient music: music for the working artist. Guitar-oriented sound paintings. Layered and repetitious with no jarring changes or distracting words. Some of them use a bunch of third world instruments I’ve made out of junk, and some of them have beautiful nature recordings stretched across the backgrounds. When I play a solo show, it’s usually a combination of loops and lead guitar, and singer-songwhiner stuff. Rodeo is my acoustic CD. (There are descriptions of all 25 Pitchfork Wreckerds CDs at myspace.com/pitchforkwreckerds.)

You’re als’o a visual artist with a very unusual style. Can you describe your art for those who haven’t seen it? Any plans to show some of it soon?

I need an artist manager, too. I make so many things and I rarely show any of it. I believe the power is in the making of the work, so I just keep making it. Right now, my primary focus is on making hand-built ceramic bonsai containers. I have a series of ceramic busts of imps, shamans, and wise old men. I use paper and tape to make large-scale puppets, sometimes using papier māché or fiberglass to make them more durable. I make a lot of stuff out of found objects: samurai swords out of rusty farm steel or old bed frames; animal spirit protection poles—for posting your property’s perimeter—made out of branches, roots, cloth, and dirt; and small, wearable iconic sculpture. I make folk art mountain banjos, guitars, and kalimbas out of cookie tins, old rakes, and bean cans. I’ve used them on recordings and used to drag them out to shows, but they’d get broken too often and were too quiet to be heard in a noisy environment. I fancy myself somewhat of a cartoonist, I’ve designed most of the band’s shirts and I send out hand-drawn postcards for most of our shows. (Visit www.petersmithbonsai.com and www.peterheadhimself.com for more info)

What do you see you and your bandmates doing 14 years from now?

The kids’ll be old enough to drive us around and haul our gear, sounds like a tour after all!

Pitchfork Militia will play at the High Falls Cafe on January 17.

www.myspace.com/pitchforkmilitia.



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