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Peter Cortner (Part 2)

29 January 2009

Continued from part 1

This segment concentrates on their seminal (and much underrated and misunderstood) 1988 album Field Day. This would be Peter’s last Lp with the group before the two reunion albums they did with Can I Say singer DAVE SMALLEY (1991’s Four on the Floor and 2002’s Minority of One, both of which will be discussed in subsequent segments of this interview). It also touches upon his early ’90s project LOS VAMPIROS. Read on!

PETER CORTNER: It is there. I remember reading a book by CHUCK EDDY. Something about the 999 Greatest Heavy Metal Records of All Time (the book in question is Stairway to Hell The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe). After reading it, it became clear that his entire theory was that he was standing at a point where hip-hop and metal were on a collision course where enough people were gonna realize that the boundaries just aren’t there. And I was really struck by that because one of the things that I recall as being sort of fun when I was getting into music when I was younger but ultimately made me a little weary of punk scenes was the stances that people would take regarding the music they listened to. It’s like “I like this, so I definitely don’t like that”, whatever “that” is. I suppose it’s something that when you’re young, you might wanna seek out because you want some way of belonging to a group especially if you’ve never been part of a group. But really, especially when it comes to music, it’s almost like saying “you know, I’m all about consonants. I don’t believe in vowels. I’m not gonna use vowels anymore.” Consonants are great and all, but after a while you’ll start to realize that you actually do need vowels.

And things would be hard to pronounce, too.

PETER CORTNER: And it’s just gonna get old. In the intervening years since Chuck Eddy wrote what he wrote.

When was that?

PETER CORTNER: I must’ve read that book in the late ‘80s. Actually it must’ve been a bit later since the reason I picked it up is because he included Field Day as one of his great heavy metal records.

That’s to his great credit.

PETER CORTNER: Well at least at the time he liked it. I don’t know if it still holds water.

It holds water for me. I listened to it this morning. I’ve been listening to it for 16 years.

PETER CORTNER: Well, I like it.

We’ll get to that later.

PETER CORTNER: I guess what I like about it is that is that a lot of the records in the book have nothing to do with heavy metal. He doesn’t care. He’s got this thing where he thinks that all of those records have things in common.

It was all Lps? Or was it singles, too?

PETER CORTNER: There were singles towards the end, too.

So then he picked _Field Day as an individual record? I mean I think it’s certainly metal-influenced and I think it’s indicative of where BRIAN BAKER (Dag Nasty’s guitarist) was going (he later ended up in the LA hair metal band JUNKYARD after Dag Nasty broke up)._

PETER CORTNER: Sure.

So I can hear that and we’ll get into that more later, but what was his justification for that or his reasoning as to why it’s a metal record?

PETER CORTNER: I don’t think that the things that showed a metal influence were the things that impressed him at all.

Well they’re not the things that impress me about that record.

PETER CORTNER: Nor are they the things that impress me about it, either. I think the things on there that speak of metal are the low points of the record.

I think the solo in “12XU” is definitely indicative of metal and the lowest point on the record.

PETER CORTNER: Well where do you start? Two songs in particular. “Here’s to You”.

I don’t mind the solo in that.

PETER CORTNER: I don’t mind that solo, either. What I love about that solo is that it really pissed DOUG CARRION off. He was like “what is that”? He hated that. I think that Brian, on his own, might’ve decided to record another one, but upon reflection…

Because of Doug’s reaction, he decided to keep it.

PETER CORTNER: Exactly. He was just so “you’re not gonna tell me that’s a bad solo”. It was a big “fuck you” to Doug to keep that in. I didn’t really care because I thought that the solo was the only really interesting thing about the song. It was an unsuccessful song; not because I didn’t like the music, but that along with “You’re Mine” on which I think the music is really tepid…I’m just not the right kind of singer for that kind of stuff. And that alone is reason enough to say that it does not work.

I was gonna get to this later but since we’re talking about Field Day, I’ll ask you this now. When you were in Dag Nasty, did you primarily write lyrics and did Brian write the music or did you occasionally write music as well? Were there others involved, too? It was never clear from the credits.

PETER CORTNER: When I joined the band, I was primarily writing the lyrics.

That’s always what I thought, but I was never sure.

PETER CORTNER: Some suggestions for songs from Wig Out at Denko’s (their second album and the first with Peter singing) came from Brian. There was one song in particular, “Safe”, that he had already written prior to DAVE SMALLEY leaving the band.

_ To me it sounds like it could’ve been on Can I Say (their debut Lp)._

PETER CORTNER: Yeah exactly. That song and “Fall” were written while Dave was in the band. I’ve heard recordings of “Fall” with Dave singing, but I don’t know if they ever did “Safe” live, so I don’t know if they had lyrics for that one.

I’d love to hear that. Those aren’t on the box set (the 1992 4×7” box set put out on the Selfless label and long out-of-print), unfortunately. Do you have the LOS VAMPIROS (the band he formed with Dag Nasty drummer COLIN SEARS and bassist ROGER MARBURY in the early ‘90s) Lp and the 7” that Selfless put out as well? I only have the CD and I heard that the vinyl version is different.

PETER CORTNER: Sure I do. I mean the Lp is slightly different. Los Vampiros is a whole ‘nother story, though. I don’t know if it’s worth having separate versions.

Well only because there’s an extra 12” that came with the initial copies. And the songs on the 7” are different, right?

PETER CORTNER: Yes. Brian had a particular idea for what the song was gonna be about. He already had a chorus “am I safe if I don’t wanna be with you”, told me what it was about and I took it from there. When it came to Field Day, there were a couple of songs that came from suggestions from Doug.

So then you wrote the lyrics for “The Ambulance Song”?

PETER CORTNER: Oh yeah.

That’s crazy. I always thought he must’ve written some of the lyrics.

PETER CORTNER: There were a couple of songs where he suggested some individual lines, but that was it. And with the exception of “When I Move” on Wig Out at Denko’s, all of that was written either by Brian or by Brian and Doug (the music). With Field Day, some of the music came from my contributions, usually altered quite a bit, but it was still the genesis of it.

_Which songs?

PETER CORTNER: “The Ambulance Song” and “La Penita”.

“La Penita” was one of my guesses. “Trouble Is” would be another.

PETER CORTNER: “Trouble Is” was actually, the chorus of that was written during the brief time that LONDON MAY was in the band. It was part of a song that we never did anything with, but I just happened to have a tape of it at the time we were doing Field Day. I said to Brian that part of the song is good. Not all of it, but part of it.

Was London May initially Colin’s replacement before SCOTT GARRETT joined?

PETER CORTNER: Yes. And so we took that from there. Other than that, I made some suggestions with that song. I said, let’s take this part and add this part that sounds like, of all things, DIE KREUZEN. So believe it or not, the verse of that song was an attempt to sound like Die Kreuzen and if I could think of the song in particular, I’d let you know (note: it must be “Man in the Trees”, the first song on October File; there are clear similarities between its verse and that of “Trouble Is”). It’s something from October File. It’s more in the rhythmic approach. That was much more collaborative. That was when all 4 of us were there together and threw ideas around.

Since we’re still on _Field Day, you told me this story a few months ago when I met you, but since it’s not on the FAQ portion of the website and isn’t generally known, could you tell the story behind “Dear Mrs. Touma” and how that came about._

PETER CORTNER: I was, before Field Day was recorded and we were out of material, I had gone back to Maryland to spend some time with my family and one morning at breakfast time, my mom told me that this fellow I know named Leo had been killed. He’s been struck by a bus a block or so from my house and Leo was at that time, probably in his late 30s. Leo was a guy from the neighborhood; he always lived about two blocks down. He was struck with polio when he was young and at the time, I think that the approach to treatment or at least what he was able to receive as treatment for polio got him out of the wheelchair and got him walking…

So this was before JONAS SALK came up with the vaccine?

PETER CORTNER: Yeah and it left him with a difficulty in speaking and because of that, he went through school with the assumption that he was mentally retarded, which he wasn’t. But that assumption sort of steered everyone’s expectations for him. So as he was older, he always lived at home but he was able to work. He was doing stock, taking out trash and cleaning up at a local department store where I also worked when I was a teenager and when I was in my early 20s. So we got to know each other there and we got to be really good friends and when I befriended him, I realized that some people in the neighborhood had an impression of him that had no bearing on reality at all. And one person who had a really poor impression of Leo was a neighbor who lived directly across the street from me. When Leo would go to work in the morning or go home, he would tend to shake his head back and forth a lot or he would stu le or talk to himself and the neighbor would always say “there goes that no good drunk” and “we don’t need to have this guy in the neighborhood”. And I thought that this neighbor knows perfectly well that Leo isn’t drunk and he seems to enjoy insulting him and he seems to enjoy having someone who he can talk down about. And when Leo died, this neighbor was one of the first ones to say “oh isn’t this a terrible thing” and I was disgusted by what I took to be him very hypocritical. In later years I think back that maybe, in fact, he wasn’t being hypocritical.

Maybe he wanted to atone for this behavior.

PETER CORTNER: Maybe he did. It’s not like I ever asked him. I just took and got mad about it and ended up writing a song about it. And it’s not usual for me to do a song like that, which is about one particular thing. In that instance, it was just all sort of coming out. I’d been thinking about it so much and I just wrote it all down.

So usually it’s all fictional or a mish-mash of fiction and reality?

PETER CORTNER: It’s more of a mish-mash.

Or based on a movie or a play or something?

PETER CORTNER: I just read an interview with DAVID BYRNE.

I just saw him play a few weeks ago, which was really, really phenomenal.

PETER CORTNER: I bet it was.

Well we had great seats, first of all. It was at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and he had those dancers, in addition backing singers, and there was choreography (that at times includes Byrne himself) woven into each of the performances as well.

PETER CORTNER: Cool.

And his band was really tight and they did a bunch of TALKING HEADS songs, all from 1978 to 1980 except for “Burning Down the House”, which for me was the low point of the show.

PETER CORTNER: I know what you mean.

I shouldn’t really complain, though.

PETER CORTNER: I’ve never been to the Tower.

I’ve only been there twice. We saw THE ARCADE FIRE there (in May 2007).

PETER CORTNER: I read that, at least to the time, that his approach to writing lyrics was that if you get an idea for a line, for whatever words strung together that he was intrigued by, he’d write it down in a book without any other context. He’d just put it down and come back to it. So I started doing exactly the same thing. More often than not, lyrics would come from there. I would hear the music that others were writing and try to fit something in and say can I go from there. And whatever it was is usually something I’d try to build on thematically, although every now and then it would just kind of ending up being nonsense. The connection between any two lines would be tenuous.

Continued with Part 3.

 

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