Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with antifolk singer/songwriter PALEFACE about the obstacles of his early career and how Daniel Johnston influenced his music.
Q: Do you go by any other name than PALEFACE?
A: Most people have started calling me P.F. You know, people who know me. The sarcastic ones twist that in various ways, so like, P-FACE, FACE, P, F, you know.
Q: So no given name?
A: No, it just didn’t work out that way. Even Mo calls me, P.F.
Q: How did you get that name anyway?
A: Basically, I was just a kid playing in the antifolk scene or whatever you want to call it, and this rumor got out that I was living in the subway (laughs). In that culture, you never saw any sun. You were always staying up late and going to bed at 5 or 6 in the morning. I wasn’t actually sleeping in the subway, but it kind of came out of that joke about not seeing any sun and being pretty undernourished.
You don’t have any money at all when you’re playing music like that. I remember back in the day, Beck and I used to sing in the subways a lot, so we’d count up our change and, at the time, you could get looseies. You could get three cigarettes for a quarter, I think it was. It was a real bargain-basement kind of way of life — split a muffin, stuff like that. Word just got out that I was living in the subway, and I was under age, so people found it easy to make fun of me.
Q: What year was this and how old are you now?
A: That was back in ’89-90. My memories a little foggy, but there are a few landmarks like that my first record was in 1990 — I remember that. Meeting Daniel (Johnston) was, I think in ’89. That was a big shift in my life because I wasn’t really writing songs until I met him. Early on, I was just copying him really because he was so great.
Q: Didn’t you say your work influenced Beck?
A: That was just the family tree. I got my whole thing from Daniel, and I was trying to copy him. I started doing that — I was mixing with hip-hop and all that — and Beck came along and didn’t have any songs, just a bunch of old folk songs. He started taking from me and doing what he was doing. That’s what you do when you’re first starting out, you find somebody you like that you think is cool and see if you can write a song like them.
A: Yeah, it’s funny because I remember playing (The Beastie Boys’) Paul’s Boutique to Beck for the first time going, Dude, you got to check this out, this record’s great. He didn’t know who they were at all; he’d heard the party records, but that was all.
Q: Who are some of your influences?
A: I would say Daniel’s my biggest. When I met him and hung out with him, that was amazing. To hear all those tapes he had, all those homemade recordings of all these great songs — he was doing something I’d never heard before as far as how you could write a song. I would say he’s my biggest, but I’m influenced by everybody a lot of friends. I became influenced later on by people I was also influencing, people I knew like Kenya or the Avett Brothers. I don’t know how much I’m influenced by them, but I certainly enjoy their music.
Q: When I look at your discography, it seems like there are two very clear recording periods — between 1991-1996 and the slew of releases from 2000-2007. What was the cause behind the long dry spell?
A: Well, it’s simple — I nearly drank myself to death. My liver crashed, and I was in the hospital. It was a horrific, terrifying, extremely painful experience. They told me, You can keep drinking, but you’re going to do, so I stopped drinking. My immune system was trashed, so where a normal person would have a cold for a few days, I would get this chest infection and have to lie in bed for weeks.
A: It took years for me to get to the point where I could function again. I didn’t start playing out again until 2000 when I met all those people, the new breed, the future stars like Regina Spektor, The Moldy Peaches and Jeff Lewis. There were just loads of really cool artists just starting out, so I fell into that scene, and they sort of adopted me as this casualty of the past.
Q: Was it difficult to get started again? You had the help of those artists, but how difficult was it to return to recording after that kind of experience?
A: No, I was relieved that I’d found this cool place. I wasn’t drinking, and I didn’t want to drink. I was writing songs, and there were all these other people, and they were my friends and were writing songs, too. It was really just about the music. It was a great time. I was incredibly lucky.
It was still hard because I was still getting sick, and there were times when I wouldn’t see them for awhile. But they knew what I was going through, and they would help me out.
Q: It seems like, reading your bio, that you’ve suffered a lot of setbacks at the hands of both the business side of the industry and apparently at your own hands. Were you ever so disillusioned with the industry and the lifestyle that you considered giving it up for good?
A: I never wanted to give it up. There was a period there in the late ’90s when I was totally forgotten and sort of bitter because I was ill. I just had to work through it. I see a lot of people who get that way, and they just kind of retain this bitterness about the whole thing, but I don’t function like that.
Danny Fields was my manager for eight years. I learned all about the music business from him, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going on. He pretty much told me what I needed to know, having been in it since the early 60s and being responsible for so many things. He would say funny things like he would be having lunch with some dude from the music business and be like, Oh yeah, we’re suing each other, and they’re meeting for lunch (laughs). It was weird stuff like that. The music business is what it is. It’s certainly not just, but who cares? I’m at that point where I really don’t. It’s changing so much anyway. Who knows where it’s going to be in five years?
Q: Does the online independent artist revolution strike you as a feasible alternative to working with labels?
A: It seems like it. The Avett Brothes, who are buddies of mine, are pretty much an independent band. Dolph (Ramseur) is their manager, and he’s set up a label, but they’re doing it by themselves and they’re selling out wherever they go. People love their music. They sing along to every word. They just did a New Years show in Charlotte, and it was sold out to 2,200 people. People were singing along to every line to every song. If that’s not success, I don’t know how you can say it’s not. The Internet has a huge amount to do with that.
People are rediscovering me through the Internet. I got a fan letter the other day from this kid who said when he was 12 years old, his sister bought this cassette tape at a garage sale. It was a George Michael tape, and it had a piece of tape where it had all the songs listed, and the tape said PALEFACE. His sister gave it to him, and he just wore it out. He had no idea who PALEFACE was. This was in the early days of the Internet, and he tried to search for me, but there was nothing out there at all because I was out of the picture. Eventually, he found me when I got back up on my feet. Now, people are finding me. There’s always somebody who finds me at a show — some 30-something guy who wants to hear Burn and Rob.
Q: It’s interesting to look at what you’ve done and see how big a role bootlegs have played in your career. Why is that?
A: I think there are two things. First, there’s the Daniel thing, because that was one of Daniel’s big things: you should tape yourself, even if it’s singing in the bathroom. All those early tapes are him just sitting there in his basement, garage or wherever he was just making whole albums. Those things are still selling well today.
There was that, and when I came back in 2000, I had no money. There were a lot of people selling their little CDs, and a buddy of mine was like, Why don’t you make a CD? I had all this stuff, all these demos and recordings I wasn’t able to finish because of my drinking problem, so I just started throwing them together and calling them, The Multibean Bootleg.
Q: Why Multibean?
A: I don’t know, just because there was all kinds of stuff on there. It’s almost a record the Sire (Records label) record got done, and it got done because there were professional people hired by Sire Records to make me finish it. That was pretty cool. You know, there was tons of stuff I didn’t finish, and a lot of it was pretty cool, so I though, Hey, let’s put it all together and call it a bootleg. Bob Dylan did it, Daniel did it all the time, so why not?
Q: Do you feel like, since 1998 and all this upheaval happened, your songwriting style has changed any?
A: I guess you always change. When I wrote Burn and Rob, I pretty much knew I couldn’t write another song like that. I could try, but there was just no way I could write a song like that, so why even try. You’re sitting there, and you’re like, How can I make something cool, that like — that’s worth creating, something I haven’t created already? Otherwise, you’re just copying yourself, I guess.
I’ve thought about it because people accuse me of changing too much — that I don’t focus on anything — and that’s why I have trouble retaining an audience. I’ve been aware of that for awhile. With the first record and the second record, even though it was four years apart, a lot of people who liked the first didn’t like the second. I’m trying to be a little more focused these days.
Q: What’s the reaction been like to A Different Story so far?
A: Well, we just had a record release party last week. A bunch of people showed up, and we sold a bunch of CDs. We’re having fun playing the songs. It’s just the two of us. We left our band in Brooklyn. We just couldn’t tour with a four-piece, it was just not cost-effective. We just went out as a two-piece, and it’s been great. We’ve had a lot of fun. I haven’t toured in a long time. The other guys who were in the band were really good musicians, but they have their lives in Brooklyn. One guy is a guitar teacher and didn’t want to leave his students, and the other guy got married and had roots in Brooklyn he wanted to put down. That left the two of us, the ones who really wanted to go out and do it, so that’s what we did. We moved down to Concord, and we got hooked up with an apartment. That’s what we’ve been doing since August.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve got a bunch of new songs. That’s another part of the new year is trying to get them all recorded and get some of the special musicians I’ve met down here to lend a hand and add a little flavor to it. We’ll see. We’re definitely in that process. We’re going Sunday to make some demos.
Q: Any anticipated release date for it?
A: No idea. There’s been talk with a few people who might want to put it out, but your guess is as good as mine, at this point. We really don’t even have one note recorded yet, so we’ll see.
Q: Well, if you keep recording at the pace you’ve been recording at, you’ll have to release it this year or risk 2008 being the first year you’ve missed putting something out since 2000.
A: That’s right. Yeah, we kind of held up the release of A Different Story because we didn’t want it to be dated. We didn’t want it to be a 2007 release. We could’ve released it before Christmas and taken advantage of sales because a lot of people buy records as presents, but we held it up a month so it got the 2008 release date.