Pissed Jeans on their furious return

Pissed Jeans interview

After 20-odd years of making music, Pennsylvania noise-punk quartet Pissed Jeans have turned out their least subtle, hardest driving and ostensibly angriest album yet in the shape of Half Divorced. After building a reputation as a churning noise rock band in the vein of Flipper, the group turns that around on their new album, which packs 12 hard, fast, loud punk songs into half an hour. Frontman Matt Korvette, for his part, maintains his wildly entertaining stage presence, and he proves to be just as interesting to converse with as he is to watch onstage when he sits down to talk with Treble over Zoom.

He begins by explaining that the album’s curious title “popped into my head while trying to come up with something concise and intriguing that flows with our previous titles, sensibility-wise.” He adds: “I guess it just comes from the thought of how the world as we know it now feels really odd, uncomfortable, and foreign to me in [terms of] a lot of the ways that we interact with each other. It feels like wanting to not be a part of that, but still having to exist in society and trying to juggle how much I’m participating in the total nonsense that I hate.”

Kicking up the tempo six albums in might, at first, seem like a counterintuitive decision for a band with such a well established aesthetic, but it makes perfect sense when hearing Korvette talk about how much of a priority it was for him for Half Divorced to be a record that was fun to play live: “That felt important to me, to have a collection of new songs that would feel really good onstage, versus making an album that was this incredible studio creation that doesn’t really get replicated in front of people. I guess we needed new songs to play in front of an audience for a bit, and it felt a good way to re-up on that.”

We spoke to Korvette about Pissed Jeans’ return after seven years, making sense of the world, and their hardcore roots.

These are some of your fastest songs yet. Were they consciously pre-planned to be that way, or was it more a case that they just developed that way in the studio?

Matt Korvette: It developed as we were writing them. I don’t think that the speed was something we intended on, although we’re certainly psyched on that. I feel like each song, as we work on them, we try them out at different tempos. I don’t know, a lot of these songs just had to be fast for them to feel right. So yeah, it wasn’t a pre-planned thing.

It feels like this is an album that is looking forward to, if not death, then an exit from modern life, more so even than 2017’s Why Love Now was. Would you say this is a fair assessment?

MK: I think that’s an interesting assessment. That’s one of the most fun things about putting out a record, is seeing what people think about it. We write these songs for us, but we’re also really writing them for anyone who might want to hear them and form their own opinion. That’s really cool and insightful. I feel like I can learn about our songs from what other people’s takes on them are. Things I wouldn’t expect. It’s interesting to me, because I personally feel like I’m in more of a positive headspace than I’ve been in previously. It feels like I’m maybe happy to see the world as it is and to realize that so many of the walls that feel so natural and have been here for centuries, we don’t have to abide by them. We don’t have to sit here, wake up one morning, and be like, “Well, I’m either Team Biden or I’m Team Trump, so who do I like?”

All we have to do is exist, and find our way while we’re existing. I don’t know if I’ve had a specific epiphany. I don’t think so. Maybe it’s getting older, feeling like time is no longer infinite and wanting to make the most of it by not engaging in all the white noise, social media nonsense that really leaves us completely unfulfilled. It sucks me in too, so I am trying to be aware of that and just politely decline to be involved in all the stupid things where you have to chime in on them … playing music feels so good, and I feel like we should do more of that.

I just want to share my perspective, and make sure it’s only taken as that, as being from my vantage point. Hopefully, some people can relate or find meaning in that too.

With that in mind, has there been talk within the band of touring more regularly than you used to in order to achieve that?

MK: (Laughs) Well, probably not, no. We never stop playing shows. We’re always doing stuff. However, we’re not really world travelers to the extent that probably the rest of the Sub Pop roster are. I guess it’s that this band is so much fun for us, and the more it turns into hard work, the less excitement we can feel. I love to travel and stuff, but I don’t love to be checking Excel sheets to see how many tickets we’ve sold, if we’re doing better than the last time, and what room we want to play in this town. All that stuff feels very unappealing to me.

I’d like to just kind of flow, see what show offers we get, take the fun ones, and hopefully go to some new places and some places we haven’t been in a while. But also, I feel like this behavior allows us to have longevity as a band. We’re not burning down and breaking up either. We’ve never played Miami, Florida before, or Denver, Colorado, or Maine. There’s plenty of places in America we’ve just never been. But maybe we will someday. I’m not writing it off. As long as we’re in decent health, we’re going to keep going around and hopefully wind up in some cool places.

Would you say your new songs have a more mature thematic focus than songs like “Boring Girls” and “Pleasure Race” had? If so, would you attribute this alteration in focus to yourselves having grown older as people in the 15 to 20 years since those earlier songs were written?

MK: Yeah, for sure. I would certainly hope I’ve grown in 15 or 20 years. When I’m writing lyrics, I’m really trying to pinpoint feelings, aggravations, or frustrations I have, and those things just naturally change, I think. The things that bothered me as a 25-year-old might have no bearing on my life as a 40-year-old, you know? To me, that’s exciting and fun. I definitely don’t want to pretend I’m perpetually 22 years old. The excitement for me in Pissed Jeans is in trying to be real and authentic in areas that can be uncomfortable to look at. I think that’s always going to change. I can’t forecast what a bunch of 60-year-old Pissed Jeans songs would sound like, but I’m certainly curious. Probably different, probably smarter than now.

There seems to be a real anger to songs like “Killing All the Wrong People.” Was this your intent, and if so, where would you say this anger has come from?

MK: Yeah. The world—for me at least, as someone who definitely has some level of privilege to be clueless about things—I feel like the one good thing about information being so available and out there is that you can get a better picture of what’s really going on out there. It’s so hard not to be disgusted at the multitude of injustices going on around my town, around my block, around my planet. It’s hard to be so checked out where you can just be fully happy all day long, considering all the horrors that people are encountering on a daily basis.

I guess the tricky part is trying to speak to that without being an arbiter of how to handle that. I just want to share my perspective, and make sure it’s only taken as that, as being from my vantage point. Hopefully, some people can relate or find meaning in that too. I feel like sometimes, the more specific you are, the more universal it can become if you’re able to communicate well.

Would you say Pissed Jeans have generally had that effect, from what you can tell? That you have been able to be specific about how you’ve addressed issues, and that specificity has had a universal appreciation?

MK: It’s hard to grasp. Because there could be someone out there enjoying the hell out of Pissed Jeans songs, but unless they send me an email or share a comment directly at some spot where I’m looking, I’ll have no idea, you know? I hope so. But I feel like our songs have definitely resonated with people throughout the years. I also feel like what we’re doing is not unique, but it’s hard to find bands who are playing aggressive music—or even pleasant music—where the lyrics kind of resonate with me. There are definitely those bands out there, but I feel like a lot of people are scared to say anything. Either scared or uninterested.

Because you can just fill up the space with regular words, and if the music sounds good, people will probably be fine with it. But to me, it’s such a great opportunity to try to share thoughts and be interesting. I guess I’d want to provoke people with what I have to say, rather than jumping into the crowd and flailing at them. It’s more exciting to use my words. It’s also more of a challenge. If I jumped on you right now, I’d get a reaction, but so would anyone. That’s not exactly exciting.

You guys are in your 40s now, and you’ve been playing together under your current line-up since you were in your 20s. Would you say having such a longstanding relationship with each other has been beneficial to the writing, recording, and performing processes?

MK: I don’t know. I haven’t done a ton of music outside of Pissed Jeans in the past few years, but the few times I have done have reminded me what a special relationship Pissed Jeans is. It feels like family. When you have that depth of a relationship, like family, certain things don’t have to be said. The starting point is so much deeper than someone you just met. Even if it’s someone who’s awesome, you know? You just have all those early stages of a relationship to attend to.

The only tricky thing is that we want to keep sounding like Pissed Jeans, but we don’t want to just repeat ourselves over and over, be it song structure, lyrics, sound, or melody. So we have to dig deeper into the well now, to come up with a song that feels novel and kicks ass, but also isn’t a radical departure from what we’ve done. We’re not going to suddenly replace live drums and bass with synths, you know what I mean? That just feels true to us. That’s the tricky part: coming up with stuff that’s fresh and exciting, but also truly, obviously Pissed Jeans-sounding.

Would you say, then, that your longevity has made the songwriting process more difficult in that respect?

MK: Yeah, in some ways. Sometimes, we’ll write a song, and it’ll be, like, “This sounds like a band that’s trying to sound like Pissed Jeans.” And then we’ll just shove it. That’s the beauty of it. I come up with so many lyrical ideas and the vast majority are just trash. But that’s kind of how you have to do it. You have to be willing to throw out a bunch of ideas and then sift through until you find one that feels like it holds up.

I guess no one wants to be the person that brings a song to the rest of the bandmates and it ends up being kind of mediocre, but you have to take that risk. There’s a little excitement there: “Maybe everyone else completely loves it, or maybe no one’s feeling it at all.” We do it in a pretty democratic way whereby we’re all involved in the writing together. I could see it working if there was just a dictator who said, “These are the songs. Learn them.” For other bands, perhaps. But we all add our two cents and help shape them.

You’ve been around for about 20 years now. Have there been bands that have come along in that time in whose music you’ve detected the influence of Pissed Jeans?

MK: Definitely. I hope people have been influenced by us. I definitely think so. More so, I would say, early on than now, because I feel like we’re an interesting band that writes songs that are worth checking out, but the thrill of our existence is kind of over … there was a band called Snake Apartment that were cool dudes and I was like, “They’ve got to like us.” Or a band called Fresh Meat. I feel like, in the hardcore scene at least, we kind of were the first to be slow and dreary and negate a lot of what hardcore is.

Was there a negative audience reaction to that within the hardcore scene?

MK: It’s crazy, because there really wasn’t. I don’t think we were going for a negative reaction. We were coming out of playing very formulaic hardcore that was fun and energetic, but also kind of felt like a dead end very quickly, as far as creativity goes. And then when we did Pissed Jeans, there was immediately this freedom to it. I don’t know why we had this freedom. Maybe there were no stakes to it. We already had other bands going on.

But it immediately felt so perfect for all of our skills. It was exciting and what we wanted to try out. There was also no clear limitation on what we could do. We could have a spoken-word part, or we could have noise, or we could have an extended instrumental. All these things that wouldn’t necessarily fit as cleanly into hardcore, or make sense or whatever, we were doing. We were also into stoner rock and Sabbath-y riffs. Why not throw that in there too? It just really gelled for us.

It’s been seven years since Why Love Now. Was it planned for there to be that long a gap, or was that just the way things worked out?

MK: No. I would love to do it sooner, but we’re never going to just force the new album every two years. “Let’s just put together some material and then go record it”—that, to me, would be the worst, most depressing thing I could do with Pissed Jeans. We really didn’t get together for over a year during COVID. Basically, from once COVID hit until we all got the vaccine, we weren’t playing music together. We were just having these sad little Zoom calls with each other.

I’ve seen some bands where one guy sends the digital file for a completed song to someone else and then boom, they’ve got all these songs. We just can’t really work that way. We tried, but a lot of what Pissed Jeans is about musically can be simple, and then we have to put our own personality into it. So it’s tricky. We need to be in the room together to do that. I feel like our songs can easily be covered by other musicians. That, to me, feels good, but then we have to make it interesting. That comes through when we’re all together, poking it out.

Will there be more Pissed Jeans albums after this one?

MK: I sure hope so. There are definitely no plans for stopping. No plans for any album any time soon, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy this one, I’m sure. But yeah, to me, writing songs is the most satisfying part of being in Pissed Jeans. It’s so fun to hash them out and try to make it work and figure out what lyrics might work with what song. Recording them can be stressful, but is super-satisfying and fun. I prefer that to playing shows, honestly. It’s just such a satisfying thing. Shows can be great, and so much fun, but I guess I feel most like I’m making art when we’re writing songs.

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