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Peter Cortner (Part 1)

Dag Nasty @ City Gardens late '80s
28 January 2009

To those of you familiar with what was going on in the hardcore scene in DC in the late ’80s, PETER CORTNER should need no introduction. He was DAG NASTY‘s lead singer for their terrific and often overlooked or underrated 2nd and 3rd records ( Wig Out at Denko’s and Field Day, released in 1987 and 1988 respectively). A few years after that, he sang for a short-lived project with former Dag Nasty members COLIN SEARS and ROGER MARBURY called LOS VAMPIROS. More recently, he’s now in a Philadelphia-based band called THE GERUNDS (you can listen to and download some of their material here), which you’ll read more about later in the additional installments of this extensive, multi-part interview. This segment covers his early influences and his introduction to punk rock.

Are you familiar with The Big Takeover and if so, when did you start reading it?

PETER CORTNER: I have long relied on The Big Takeover and I started reading it probably in the late ‘80s when Dag Nasty came to an end and for whatever reason, I wasn’t hearing any music. I was sort of insulated into life with my girlfriend, my current wife, and I just didn’t listen to music on the radio and I’d never been interested in watching music on TV. Watching videos just doesn’t connect for me. A lot of my friends had moved on and they were the source of what I would hear at that point, so I picked up The Big Takeover and of course, every issue is an almanac. It’s an encyclopedia. If you can’t find something you like in there, I don’t know what you’re listening to.

It’s kind of hopeless then (laughing).

PETER CORTNER: So I looked through it and one of the things I really like it is that since bands and artists are always mentioned in bold face, it’s very easy to skim the contents and find the thing that hooks you in. So I could pick something up and as soon as I saw THE UNDERTONES, then it’s like what’s going on with them. And then you go to someone’s review and it mentions that so-and-so sounds like The Undertones, THE JAM or something else that I was into.

Have you seen The Undertones in recent years?

PETER CORTNER: Yes.

I have also on multiple occasions. They’re fantastic, at least in my view.

PETER CORTNER: I think that for both myself and my wife, seeing The Undertones in New York the last few times they came through…

Were you at the Knitting Factory or the Southpaw show (both in April 2005)?

PETER CORTNER: I was at the Knitting Factory. I saw you.

Really? I was right up front.

PETER CORTNER: Nah. I couldn’t get that far up.

Actually for that show I was on the left-hand side and close to the middle since I got there a bit late. When they played the Knitting Factory the year before (2004), I was there for both nights.

PETER CORTNER: I think that for both of them, I was actually closer to the back.

I wouldn’t actually be surprised if you recognized me since I get that a lot, even though we didn’t know each other then.

PETER CORTNER: All I saw at that show was the back of people’s heads. It was magical.

I agree.

PETER CORTNER: It was really magical both times. It was just as wonderful as any show that I’ve ever been to.

I was also at the Maxwells show the night before that last Knitting Factory show.

PETER CORTNER: Was it the same kind of vibe because it’s such a different place.

Well it was different because every other time I’ve ever seen them, it was Knitting Factory. Also, the people I was with that night had their own take on things. They were a bit more critical than I was. They just didn’t like the new singer. One of them said that he was a little too BRYAN FERRY-ish with his moves and stuff.

PETER CORTNER: Wow really? Oh move-wise yes I can see that.

I’ve never actually seen Bryan Ferry perform.

PETER CORTNER: Me neither. I’d have a hard time thinking of someone being Bryan Ferry-ish in a derogatory way. Even with The Undertones, it would be like “ok so you guys like Bryan Ferry”. OK I’ll take a chance and see what that’s like.

Well what about a band like ABC, who were obviously Bryan Ferry-ish? Do you like them at all? I go back and forth on them personally. I think just about all the New Romantic stuff was straight from ROXY MUSIC.

PETER CORTNER: I always come back to… (singing) “You think you’re smart, stupid stupid” (from their hit “Poison Arrow”). It’s one of my favorite lines because it’s sung with such conviction, but it’s such a terrible line. It’s not as bad say, as almost anything NEW ORDER can come up with. I mean I’m a huge JOY DIVISION fan and I’ll always have a place in my heart for New Order and I’ll always give them a chance and I like a lot of their material, but it just gets to me that there are some New Order songs where I’m just trying to enjoy it, trying to ignore the lyrics, but they’re so incredibly bad. It’s like “how can you write that”.

Can you give me an example?

PETER CORTNER: The song is “Someone Like You” from Get Ready. The line is “You’re everything to me
The sweetest symphony
All that I try to be
You are my harmony”

It’s terrible.

So let’s start off the interview then. How did you get into punk and hardcore?

PETER CORTNER: I first heard punk, I think, when I was in 10th grade and I heard THE SEX PISTOLS. I remember being intrigued because my expectation was that what I was gonna be hearing was something that wasn’t musical at all. I remember upon hearing it thinking that it was musical as anything I’d ever heard. I recognize this as a song. To me it’s incredibly energetic and what’s wrong with that? I didn’t end up pursuing it, though. At the time, I was mainly listening to ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA, who were my favorite band since 6th or 7th grade.

Hey, I’ve got a copy of New World Record.

PETER CORTNER: Exactly, and listening to THE CARS. I really fell in love with CHEAP TRICK at that time.

It’s hard not to fall in love with those 1st 3 records.

PETER CORTNER: So I didn’t pay much attention then until I moved from the high school I was going to a different high school that had an art program. When I was there, I walked in and lo and behold the teacher allowed the kids to listen to whatever they wanted to. I heard, among other things, THE DEAD KENNEDYS’ “Police Truck” and I was just blown away. What is this? It just had so much energy.

(Laughing) I’m laughing because when I bought Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, it had the same affect on me and that’s its first song.

PETER CORTNER: And the lyrics, but what took me a long time to realize is that what I was really enjoying was the guitar. EAST BAY RAY is just this incredible surf guitar player and that was getting to me even more than the aggressiveness and the fact that this guy is cursing and that he’s being a joker but at the same time being serious. In the end, though, what always keeps me with The Dead Kennedys even when I’m a little tired of Jello is the music and the guitar. And right after that, THE SPECIALS were being played. And then right after, ULTRAVOX and I was like “what is that”?

The early Ultravox with JOHN FOXX?

PETER CORTNER: What was the record with “New Europeans”? “Vienna” had actually come out and it was a while later before I heard the earlier incarnation, but I enjoyed that, too. I thought “New Europeans” was a great song. And then a band I really didn’t like at all was Joy Division. They were playing a song called “Isolation” and I thought “this is really terrible”. I’m not enjoying this at all.

Closer took a long time to grow on me, too, so don’t feel bad.

PETER CORTNER: But all of this was new to me and one of the guys who was playing all this was another student, in the same grade as I was, named JOE LALLY. Some of the other kids who had this music were very dismissive when I expressed interest in it because I was like “can we listen to JUDAS PRIEST?”? But Joe was like “Yeah, Judas Priest is good stuff” and he would talk to me about the music we were listening to and from there that was my entry.

I know Joe’s also a big ST. VITUS fan so he never lost his enthusiasm for metal. Correct me if I’m wrong.

PETER CORTNER: Oh no, not at all. I think his appreciation for metal is probably a lot more profound than mine. I always find that the stuff I enjoy is the least favorite stuff by any given band.

Can you give me an example?

PETER CORTNER: Judas Priest has a song called “Turbo Lover”.

Sure that’s later. It came out in ’86. It’s not a bad song, actually. It may not be “Another Thing Coming” or anything, but still.

PETER CORTNER: See, I think that in their own way, Judas Priest is one of the world’s great disco bands. I don’t think anyone will ever get that until for some odd reason, THE B-52’s come out and does a full Judas Priest set. I think that would sell people on these songs. I can very easily hear The B-52’s doing “Breaking the Law”, for example. I think their version of it would be outstanding. And frankly, I could really imagine ROB HALFORD doing “Planet Claire” and I think that these two bands really should get together and do something and show that these things aren’t all that dissimilar.

Well there are only a few heterosexual members between them.

PETER CORTNER: Well I hate to say that there’s a connection, but there’s a connection.

Not that it would automatically make it completely similar.

Continued with part 2.

 

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