SONS OF NAZARETH
How blues rock thunder chooglers Pearls & Brass found their sound in rural Pennsylvania.
by Brian J. Barr
Photography by Maria Tessa Sciarrino
Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (March, 2006)
Pennsylvania is a gentle state, its curving hills blanketed by lush maple, oak and chestnut trees whose leaves all turn to a dazzling spectrum of red, orange and yellow each year around October. Over the past several million years the glacial run-off carved deep river valleys into the land, and in the mid-state region left the soil flat and fertile enough for farms and high school football fields. Outside the concrete sprawl of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (the port cities bookending the southern region) Pennsylvania is pock-marked by countless factory and agricultural towns, nearly all long past their economic peak.
Pearls and Brass hail from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a rural nowhere of about 6.000 situated near the New Jersey border, a mile from the Appalachian Trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. The Martin Guitar factory, maker of acoustic guitars, is in Nazareth; so, too, is the Nazareth Speedway. But like most rural Pennsylvania towns, Nazareth is desperately non-descript; its smallness is its defining characteristic.
“Nazareth was your typical small, working class town,” says Randy Huth, Pearls and Brass’ guitarist and vocalist. “Not a whole lot going on, y’know. But that pretty much made us do our thing.”
Alumni of Nazareth High School, the members of Pearls and Brass (Huth plus Josh Martin, drums; Joel Winter, bass vocals) come off as sincere and plainspoken guys whose roots run deep through their town. Together, they play a bluesy power trio rock that has as much to do with Skip James as it does Blue Cheer; loud, melodic, eerie and crammed with enough riffs to dizzy Tony Iommi or Matt Pike. It’s as if they successfully boiled down the basics of the blues, cranked the volume and carried on the tradition of early Black Sabbath and The Groundhogs. Not to mention they narrowly avoided a case of blue-collar ennui by investing in the healing powers of rock n roll.
If we are to ascribe a myth to Pearls and Brass, it will be one of “local boys make good” romanticism. One imagines Pearls and Brass as the Cobainesque outcasts of Nazareth High, taking refuge in their record collections and loud guitars. We picture them drinking whiskey and smoking grass in a parked car out in the middle of the woods on Friday nights while their classmates cheered on the home team. Most likely they’re holding down low-paying jobs to afford their vices; bagging groceries at Giant Food or bussing tables at De Nisi’s Family Restaurant, whatever teenagers do to get by in these places, the weary townships of rural America.
If we were to ascribe such a myth it wouldn’t be far from the truth. Huth, Martin and Winter went to school, smoked grass, worked shitty jobs, went for long walks alone in the woods, playing guitar. Individually they’ve spent their post-high school years either in-and-out of college, or employed at labor-intensive, low-wage jobs. As a band, they’ve released a single little-heard album on a tiny label—2003’s Pearls and Brass, on Doppelganger—which may have sold in the low triple digits. They’ve never toured for more than two weeks.
And yet, despite this relative isolation and obscurity, Pearls and Brass scored a gig at February, 2005’s Slint-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Camber Sands, recorded a new album in California with Fucking Champs’ Tim Green, and have found a higher profile home at indie label Drag City—all the result of a single right-place, right-time event.
As Martin recalls it, Pearls and Brass had booked a small tour in support of their debut. A week before they were to hit the road, all shows were cancelled. They loaded up their gear anyway and barnstormed the East Coast, looking for clubs that would take them on as an opener for whoever was scheduled that particular night. In Louisville, Kentucky they found a fan in the manager of Za’s Pizza, who was so compelled by the disc they handed him, he called David Pajo, who was scheduled to play that night with his band Papa M, saying: “Hey, I got this band from PA here, they’re really good. Could they open for you?”
“We had no idea who Papa M was,” says Martin. “But Pajo told the guy no. We spent that night on the stoop drinking 40s and smoking cigarettes. But I guess the manager was playing our record when Pajo was setting up.’”
A year and a half later, Huth receives a call from All Tomorrow’s Parties organizer Barry Hogan, who informs them that Slint (Pajo’s former band, who had recently reunited) has selected them to play as part of their curated show in the UK.
Martin: “I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe 100 people bought that first record and now some dude from ATP is asking to play? We had never played in front of that many people before. I know it sounds cheesy, but I was seriously looking at the audience and thinking, ‘Wow, there are a lot of people here.”
All the while Pajo had been talking the band up to Drag City and it wasn’t long before two of the label’s reps traveled from Chicago to catch the band in Toledo, Ohio.
Business was discussed the moment they set their instruments down.
As it happens, Pearls and Brass (the name means nothing whatsoever, they claim) is just another band these guys formed.
“Since we’ve been playing music, we’ve been playing together,” says Martin. “Randy and Joel are cousins. And Randy and I have been playing music together since we were twelve years old. Then Joel began playing bass. We’ve gone off and played in other bands, but we always come back to one other.”
Throughout their teens they played in a series ’82-style hardcore acts like The Gatecrashers and The Ultimate Warriors. (Huth also had a gritty solo project called Slogan Boy.) Because Nazareth couldn’t contain them, they played gigs all over the state, in hard-luck towns with names like Meadville and Oil City.
Somewhere along the way, though, they all shifted from punk to riff-heavy rock; thick, bluesy jams that are bombastic, supernatural and dense. Martin blames it on marijuana, Huth sees it as a natural progression. Much is also owed to their discovery of the ancient bluesmen. Says Martin: “I remember sitting around talking about Robert Johnson one autumn night with those guys and I said, ‘Hey, I have this Robert Johnson anthology, let’s listen to it.’ We played it and we had to get out of the car. The music was that scary. From that point on it was Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson and all the rest.”
“The old blues stuff is sincere,” says Huth. “Just one guy and a guitar. We just do our interpretation of what that would be like loud.”
Of course that was also the strategy of many ‘60s electric rock guitarists, and so, after high school Huth found himself diving heavily into those elder statesmen of riffs, spinning sides of Zeppelin, Cream, Randy Holden and Mahavishnu while lost in his headphones all day. It was only natural that his fret hand would begin to form similar chords.
Pearls and Brass’ debut was the work of a band that had done their Music of the 20th Century homework. Like a more muscular Allman Brothers, Pearls and Brass upped the roots quotient in a way akin to The Black Keys. They fueled their blues with working-class angst, playing because they were damned if they’d spend the rest of their lives inside some Nazareth factory. It was the kind of record that would have fit squarely amidst the whiter side of the Fat Possum roster.
On The Indian Tower, released in late January, the jams are bombastic, dense, almost mystical, like some sort of blues from beyond. The album’s feel makes all the more sense knowing that the album’s namesake and thematic base, the real-life “Indian Tower” pictured on the album cover, is a graveyard perched on the outskirts of Nazareth.
“It’s an Indian graveyard, actually,” says Martin. “And the (Indian) tower sits right next to it. There’s only maybe three Indians buried in this tomb among all these colonists. They named the Indians things like ‘Sara Indian’ and ‘John Indian’ and “Benjamin Indian.’ (The tombstones) don’t have Native American names.”
Built by colonists and originally intended as a lookout for invading armies, 200 years later the Indian Tower was party central for Nazareth teens.
“We’d go there to drink beer, smoke pot, make out with girls,” says Martin. “And later on we’d just go up there and stare, y’know, not really do much of anything. It’s always been there and it’s always been a sanctuary. But it’s also a place of death, it’s a graveyard. There’s something really peaceful and tranquil about it, but also something rather ominous. The record, lyrically, was written with kind of a death theme. So it seemed appropriate to blend the two ideas together. You know, there’s this place—the Indian Tower—that was kind of mystery and kind of a sanctuary to us, and then we mix in the death element with it. It was perfect for us.”
If the songs were not written with the tower in mind, then they were at least inspired partly by local stories, say Huth.
“We used little pieces from our youth as inspiration. Like ‘Black Rock Man’”—one of the album’s highlights—“there’s the Black Rock Woods that’s right in Nazareth near the Indian Tower. When I was a kid I found a little hut some dude had built and was staying in with a little campfire, some clothes. The guy must’ve been living in the woods. So I took and embellished little bits to make a song about a guy who was living in the Black Rock Woods.”
“We grew up around woods,” says Martin. “That’s home, it feels the most comfortable. So that’s what we’re gonna focus on with music and with the ideas we have.”
Tim Green’s production on The Indian Tower features the same sound you remember from your parents’ vinyl collection. It’s familiar, soft, warm, and likely to trigger flashbacks for seasoned classic rock fans. (When I played The Indian Tower for my longhair, Sabbath-crazed neighbor back in Pennsylvania, he said he loved Pearls and Brass so much he wanted me to give them all the money he had on him. Which was only four dollars, but assured me he meant every cent of it.) What’s ultimately most mindflogging about the songs, though, is the sheer number of hulking riffs and rhythmic shifts in each song. That kind of thing is hard to pull off without some sort of militaristic approach.
“There is a regimen to it,” agreess Martin. “We’ve done it the same way for a long time and we stick to it. One part follows another part and we know when to change. We’re in no way, shape or form loose with our songs. The old blues stuff, when I listen to it, is really complex. But it’s complex on a really simple pallate. That’s what so intriguing. It melts my brain every time I listen to it because it’s so lo-fi and so simple, but amidst that is so much emotion, so much feeling. Even the style of playing sometimes is so wild, the time signatures aren’t even following anything. I think ours is more contrived just because that’s how we grew up playing, with some kind of structure.”
He continues, “I love to think of the riffs and melodies and the rhythms as being a mountain. I always want to have the vision of wilderness, of a mountain, and following the curve of a mountain, following its peaks, the scenery, and trying to attain that vision with the melodies and rhythms. That’s what it’s always been for me. It’s always a vision of a bird soaring and dipping, and a mountain arising out of that.”
Pride in one’s tiny hometown is something normally reserved for WWII veterans, sports stars and government candidates. Pearls and Brass, however, are wearing “Fuck yeah, we’re from Nazareth” pride on their sleeve the same as The Ramones did NYC. But while outsiders are known to declare I Heart NYC from afar, pride in a town like Nazareth can only result from being born and bred there. And though they are inextricably tied to their hometown (going so far as to brand their disc “Nazareth Straight Bourbon Sounds”), they will also forever be associated with their practice space/venue Jeff the Pigeon in Allentown.
“We have friends who were doing this really super noisy rock n roll band called Air Conditioning,” says Martin. “They were practicing down there (in Allentown) and they were also doing shows. Our area was used to the same punk rock and hardcore shows, but this guy Matt from White Denim records was doing some really wild shit. Like, getting Costes from France to come over and do this really offensive performance art, having a lot of noise acts come in, just totally weird electronic groups. And when we moved in, the only thing we brought was beer. So it was like ‘Hey, let’s have this great music here and party at the same time.’ And Allentown is a real shithole, so it makes the experience of going there stranger. It doesn’t belong. I mean we were having these shows in literally a sweatshop. They’re making tags in this warehouse that say ‘Made in the USA,’ but there’s no garment attached to the tag.”
Jeff the Pigeon played host to a host of acts as wide-ranging as Espers, Jack Rose and Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty. Jeff the Pigeon was also where Face Down In Shit, Pissed Jeans and Oscillating Innards played. It was the kind of spot where beer empties were smashed rather than thrown away.
“It was in a shitty spot in Allentown,” says Huth. “So you never had to worry about the cops. And there were never any morons there that wanted to fight.”
“You could express yourself in any way possible,” says Martin. “People were cutting themselves and doing drugs and just having a good time. Over time it got more popular, and more dangerous.”
But for all their love of both Nazareth and Allentown, Pearls and Brass pulled up their bootstraps and got tout while the getting was good.
“We’re all in Philly now,” says Martin. “I got here just two days ago. I was sort of the last [Nazareth] holdout. I ended up at the dive bars every night by myself, and realized how absolutely morbidly boring it was. It was like ‘Wow, I gotta get out.’ Here, there’s more things to do and a lot more people to exchange ideas with.”
“We were trying to get (Martin) to move to South Philly,” says Huth. “Cause Joel and I live on the same block, we live two doors down from each other. And there’s a few other Nazarenes here, as well.
“We refer to it as The New Nazareth.”