FOREWORD: It’s a downright shame when fine bands like the Bigger Lovers breakup and go away. But that’s just what happened a year or so after this interview took place. Anyone who experienced them live or on record will recall their greatness and enjoy this trip back.
Alongside Burning Brides, Marah, and Capitol Years, the Bigger Lovers rank as one of Philadelphia’s best contemporary bands. Less rockin’ than Brit-influenced Capitol Years, louder than sleepy-eyed depressives Marah, and less visceral than intuitive neo-grunge stoners Burning Brides, the egalitarian quartet consisting of guitarists Bret Tobias and Ed Hogarty, bassist Scott Jefferson, and drummer Pat Berkery mold well-constructed tunes with huge choruses resolved by reclining guitar solos.
Recorded in a nearby Wilmington, Delaware studio between Halloween and Thanksgiving ’99, Bigger Lovers spectacular ’01 debut, How I Learned To Stop Worrying, dealt with heartbreakingly provocative emotional concerns in an unexpectedly mature manner, gaining instant plaudits from serious indie pop aficionados. After piquant power pop opener, “Catch & Release,” the quartet settles into the sentimental hand-clapped, organ-droned apology “I’m Here” and the dirgey neo-psych sedation “Change Your Mind.”
Neighborhood pedal steel pal Steve Hobson gives the pretty ballad “Steady On Threes,” the static-y hangover “America Undercover,” and the rural Western tearjerker “Out Of Sight” a lilting Country twang. In lesser hands, the ethereal moments might sink to murky depths of self-indulgent misery, but not here. Every lucid lick, hymnal harmony, rollin’ rhythm, and ephemeral embellishment falls perfectly into place as the bands’ collective instincts are fully realized.
‘02’s stunningly consistent Honey In The Hive brought greater lyrical awareness and broader song structures to the fold. Its warm crested peaks, eloquently streamlined valleys, low key charm, and deliberate drawn-out tension nearly parallels the Wrens mysteriously lovely The Meadowlands. Moreover, the energetic beat-driven stomp “Ivy Grows” juxtaposes the otherwise mellow backend just fine.
Harder to pigeonhole but just as cohesive, ‘04s contradictorily This Affair Never Happened…and here are Eleven Songs About It conservatively expands the Bigger Lovers’ palette, bringing their wistful world-weary melancholia to beautifully supple new heights. Chintzy strings, dozy harmonica, and chirpy harmonies give the bouncy retro-pop enticement “Slice Of Life” its amorous Beach Boys appeal. The somber acoustic retreat “No Heroics” recalls the somniferous slow-core daze of Low or Slint and the tearful “Ninja Suit” seemingly pleads for reciprocal acquiescence.
But they also know how to rock out when necessary. The reflective “I Resign” builds to a snappy upbeat crescendo while the hard-boiled melodic rocker “You” gets high on emotion and the equally resounding “You Don’t Feel Anything At All” plies pulsing no wave bass throbs and friendly guitar shapes to fuzzy vocal jaunts. Crosscutting bittersweet sympathies with guileless splendor, the streamlined “Peel It Away” begs for mainstream accessibility and the irrepressibly irresistible “You’ve Got To Pay” inadvertently wanders into Pat Benatar’s assertive “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” at the climactic breaks.
While growing up, which artists had a profound influence on your musical tastes?
PAT: I was massively into the Beatles since age 8. Then, when MTV came into the picture, the Pretenders, the Police, and Van Halen. Since I grew up in South Jersey, inevitably hair metal took over at age 14. But I had an older sister into Fleetwood Mac. I had a punk rock chick friend who brought me to the Replacements and Depeche Mode. I had one foot in cock rock and one in the bedroom thing.
ED: I’m from Poughkeepsie. My first influence was Classic rock radio. The holy trinity of Poughkeepsie was Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult, and Eddie Money. Rush and Van Halen impressed me.
BRETT: I’m from the depressing town of Reading, Pennsylvania. My dad had a lot of ELO and Beach Boys on the hi-fi. I got into hair metal then quickly discovered the Who and Replacements in high school. Later, I got into ‘70s not-quite-punks like Soft Boys, XTC, and Only Ones.
SCOTT: Early on, I played violin and was into Classical living in Massachusetts. You could rent records from the library. I was into the Beatles’ Rarities record, Abba’s Greatest Hits. When I got into Connecticut College, I worked radio and got into noisy stuff like Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers. I got so high with the Butthole Surfers once. It was scary watching them live because they had such a bizarre connection with the audience. They lit things on fire and were starving for attention. We got King Coffey to do a backward promo. People were crawling through the backstage window sneaking in to the show and the band was letting them.
Have the Bigger Lovers gotten more democratic over the first three albums?
ED: We’ve become more democratic. Scott is a great 4-tracker. Pat starts the musical critique. He’s like Van Dyke Parks. (laughter)
PAT: The new record is more off the cuff because I was touring with the Pernice Brothers. They were sending demos to show what was going on, so we had a night of pre-production. Then, we went to the studio and arranged on the spot. At this point, I’d rather do that. I don’t get a thrill anymore banging out songs for three weeks in a basement when we could learn on the spot, record it. There’s better energy.
The ’01 debut, How I Learned To Stop Worrying, had Country leanings unexplored on the two follow-ups.
ED: That’s because we had a pedal steel player living down the street. He’d come over and play…but we got the alt-Country tag.
BRET: When we were demo-ing songs for the second record, Thom Monahan was producing. He was in the last incarnation of the Scud Mountain Boys with Joe Pernice, but Thom hates alt-Country because while living in Massachusetts, he went through Northampton when guys would be into rock one day and the next they’d be wearing Stetsons and heels. So when our demo leaned that way, Thom immediately said, “No.” But we weren’t married to the songs he disliked anyway.
ED: He took the cream of the crop and let it work.
I’d guess from the barroom atmosphere of the Bigger Lovers louder numbers that you guys are into pub rock by Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, and Brinsley Schwarz.
PAT: Yeah. Did you know Legacy is reissuing the Rockpile record and doing the same for Dave Edmunds’ Best Of and Porky’s Revenge soundtrack. Yep Roc’s trying to repackage Nick Lowe’s records. But Nick’s in no hurry to do anything. He put out The Convincer in August 2001 and didn’t tour America til July 2002.
Was the reference to “Something In The Air” on the suspicious “Ninja Suit” intentionally lifted from Thunderclap Newman’s 1970 mini-hit?
ED: They’re vaguely familiar. Pete Townshend may have produced that and may have been on “Something In The Air.”
PAT: Tom Petty does a real good version of that. It’s his last song on the Greatest Hits package.
Contrast This Affair Never Happened with the previous album, Honey on The Hive.
ED: Honey’s more manicured and thought-out. We’d work to two in the morning, sometimes five, going through stuff. We’d come back next day and re-examine. On the new album, all basic tracks were cut by dinner. We did both albums in one mammoth block, went back, and touched things up. But the new one, we left things for chance. We’d do a track a day instead of separately doing drums, then bass, then guitar.
BRET: We’d go through an entire song a day; basic tracks, vocals, then overdubs. No one had to sit around eating Doritos.
How will your future recordings differ?
BRET: They won’t be as planned out. We’re getting more complex. We don’t want to sound like a typical power pop band. When you get pigeonholed power pop, you never go anywhere. I’d be inclined to call us rap metal so we could sell more records.