Talking with Moe Berg

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The Pursuit of Happiness is probably one of my all time favorite pop-rock bands from the late eighties. Led by singer/songwriter Moe Berg, the band found great success with the song “I’m an Adult Now”. i still have fond memories of my freshman suite-mates and I screaming along to this song out in front of our dorm, proclaiming our “adulthood” to anyone within shouting distance. the song was so powerful and exhilarating to sing along with. their debut album, Love Junk is pop-rock perfection with absolutely no filler. the album still sounds fresh and relevant to this day. it’s a true classic. almost twenty years since the release of Love Junk, Moe Berg is still out and about writing songs, playing clubs and even producing other bands. let’s check in with Mr. Berg and see what’s up..

retroDan: Hi Moe, I just watched your little baby girl on youtube signing the alphabet. and she appears to already have a great singing voice at 17 months!! Now, your wife Laura and your daughter Fireese have gotten a lot of press with the Smart Handsproject. How in the world did the writer of such songs as “She’s the Devil”, “Hate Engine” and “Killed By Love” become a loving husband as well as a father to such a beautiful little girl?

Moe Berg: I guess you meet the right girl and everything falls into place. Being a father is quite fantastic. As Keith Richards said, “you don’t know the meaning of true love until you have kids.”

retroDan: it’s a bit dissappointing to read that you have no plans to continue to work as the Pursuit of Happiness. How hard of a decision was it for you to walk away from the band and your faithful fan-base to focus on something non-musical such as writing a novel?

Moe Berg: I’m still quite involved with music. I actually spend most of my time producing bands and writing with young songwriters. Some of my recent projects include The Clicks, The Populars, Shannon Lee Briggs and The Left. I am about to go into the studio with a band called The Holy Fields, a singer named Emily Weedon and with Robin Black and I’m writing with a really cool young kid named Mike Slute. That’s why the novel has taken almost seven years to finish. (finish? it’s STILL not finished) As far as TPOH goes, I didn’t really walk away from them. It ended as many things end, which is naturally. Everyone went on to other things that now seem more important than the band. I still talk to everyone and really like them, which is more than many bands can say about each other. We released a best of in Canada a year and a half ago and played a weeks worth of shows. It was fun and then it was over and that was fine with everyone. We got Todd Rundgren and Ed Stasium and some rock writers to write liner notes and that was really great. I look back on all of it with fondness and a huge amount of gratitude.

retroDan: From what i’ve read, you still continue to perform in local clubs with other musicians pretty regularly. what’s this i hear about you performing a Hilary Duff cover???

Moe Berg: I actually perform very infrequently. I really don’t enjoy it that much. That show you are talking about was something I was asked to do called Boys Do Girls. They asked a bunch of male singers to perform songs by a female artist. Looking for an ‘angle’ I chose Hilary Duff mainly because she’s recorded a bunch of songs by The Matrix, which is one of my favorite songwriting/producing teams. I’m the temporary guitar player in Shannon Lee Briggs band, mainly because it lets me play country guitar. I’m part of a joke cover band called Monteforte with some of the members of TPOH and we play once or twice a year. I’ve also recently begun rehearsing with some friends to play 70’s and 80’s country covers. But serious performing of my own material is rare. The street I live on had a street party and I did a half hour set and that’s probably it for the year.

retroDan: You also seem to be having some fun by DJ-ing weekly at a local Toronto bar called the Tap. how did that come about? and what types of songs are you playing?

Moe Berg: DJing is great, the best job I’ve ever had. The Tap is my local and has been for over a dozen years. One day I told the manager, “I think I should DJ here on Saturday nights.” So they bought a rig and I’ve been there ever since. Dave Gilby, the drummer in The Pursuit of Happiness started doing Wednesday and now there is someone spinning every night. I play a lot of power pop, new alternative stuff, some rock and end the night with traditional country stuff. I post part of my playlist every week on my myspace blog.

retroDan: I want to cover some of your past work with TPOH. Now, are you able to listen to what you’ve recorded in the past and enjoy them simply as a listener or are you the type that gets too critical of your own work?

Moe Berg: As far as my past work with TPOH, I’m critical of some of it and enjoy some of it. I can’t say I listen to it very often. There is a lot of it I wish I could go back and change, some of it could have been really good with a few small tweaks.

retroDan: what songs are you most proud of?

Moe Berg: I really like Where’s The Bone, and of course I am still very proud of Love Junk. Favorite songs are Hate Engine, Pressing Lips and Angelique is a Free Spirit.

retroDan: The signature TPOH sound features female backing vocals. Sort of an odd choice for a rock band but it actually turned out to be one of the “hooks” in the TPOH sound. who came up with that idea?

Moe Berg: The girl backup vocals thing was my idea. I wanted my songs to have a lot of harmonies like Todd’s music and the Beatles and Beach Boys. I could never find guys who could sing all that great. So it was more necessity than anything else. It was a hook and a lot of people really liked that about the band. We always walked the line between pop and rock and the vocals always kept the pop element alive.

retroDan: You worked with rock icon Todd Rundgren on your debut album Love Junk as well as the followup, One Sided Story. You went into the recording sessions as a long time Rundgren fan. Did your views of him change any after working with him?

Moe Berg: It was a dream to work with Todd. Before recording the first album. we spoke on the phone many times and he came to Toronto to see us play. The night after the show, we stayed up all night and I asked him every question I’d ever wanted to ask him. So when we started the record, I’d gotten that out of my system. Working with Todd was great, it didn’t change my opinion of him at all. I really enjoyed the sessions and his company. Some nights after recording, we’d have many drinks and get into wild arguments about politics or whatever and I remember those being just amazingly fun nights. I haven’t been in touch with him much lately, but he recently played Toronto and I visited with him backstage for a while and had a beer with him the next night and it was just great to see him again. I am very proud to have worked with him and it’s still the most frequently asked question- “what was it like working with Todd?”

retroDan: Do you still listen to his music?

Moe Berg: I still listen to Todd’s music, though I must say I’ve heard some it a lot and I mean a LOT. When I was a kid (and well into my 20’s), I played Todd albums all day, every day. I still love it when I’m in a supermarket or a mall and a Todd song comes on the radio. I’m a fan and always will be.

retroDan: if you were to make a mix CD of Rundgren’s songs, what would be on it?

Moe Berg: In terms of a Todd mix tape, I wouldn’t even know what to pick. “Drunken Blue Rooster” would be the first song and “Fade Away” would be the last. In between, it would depend on the day.

retroDan: in a recent interview with Todd Bernhardt, Andy Partridge of XTC described Todd Rundgren’s studio in Woodstock as a “pretty wretched two-story shed”. he goes on to say this about the studio: “Downstairs was like a little living-room area, with a loose carpet. There was a grand piano in one corner. The room was sort of cut off by a breakfast bar, which was in terrible repair, and then behind the breakfast bar was a shower unit! And stored around by the shower unit were loads of boxes of tapes. It was in such neglect in there. It was pretty shocking, actually.” What do you remember about your time spent at Rundgren’s studio? Was it as “wretched” as Partridge described?

Moe Berg: Andy’s description of Todd’s studio is a bit harsh. That’s approximately what it looked like though I don’t recall it being shockingly unkempt. While I was there, which was after XTC, I thought it was pretty amazing. In fact, most of the mess there was beer cans and booze bottles we brought and left behind. I’ve recorded in far worse places, believe me. I really don’t understand why Andy has to be like that. Todd produced the best record they ever made. Why not just say, thank you.

retroDan: “She’s So Young” off of Love Junk is just pure melodic bliss to me. it’s probably one of my all time favorite TPOH song. Any remembrances on writing or recording that pop classic?

Moe Berg: She’s So Young was the oldest song we recorded. I’d written it years before we recorded it and, actually, there is a indy record with it as the B side. When we recorded it with Todd, it was clear he thought there was something about it. He dug out his old Vox amp for me to play and invented a new lead guitar sound for the solo.

retroDan: In “I’m an Adult Now” you wrote “Speaking of hearing, I can’t take too much loud music. I mean I like to play it, but I sure don’t like the racket. Noise, but I can’t hear anything… just guitars screaming, screaming, screaming..” What did that those lyrics mean to you then and what do they mean to you now?

Moe Berg: I’m An Adult Now was about many things but the part you refer to is a jab at all the rock and roll cliches. People think rock is better if it’s too loud, if it’s sloppy, if you’re too drunk to play. These are myths concocted by people who aren’t artists and I plan to someday write a book that exposes these myths.

retroDan: sonically, “The Downward Road” was a big step up terms of how the band sounded on record with beefier guitars and powerful drums upfront in the mix. i love how the whole record sounds. it’s a bit dissappointing that the album didn’t get the exposure it deserved. did the record label’s marketing team just drop the ball on that one or was it something to do with the musical landscape at the time?

Moe Berg: The Downward Road was a good record though it may have been a bit long. I think a couple of those songs could have easily been left of the record and that would have helped it out in terms of listenability. The reason’s for its ‘failure’ are all of the things you mentioned. Grunge had just become huge and though I don’t think our band sounded all that much different that the popular bands of that day, some of the differences may have been noticable only to the taste makers. We had always considered ourselves an alternative band but we started to become very popular and that maybe made us seem old guard to some. Ironically, we recorded a lot of it in the same studio Nevermind was recorded in. In fact, we also almost did the record with Nevermind producer Butch Vig. I had a conversation with him and he was quite into the project but scheduling interfered. Plus, we’d always wanted to work with Ed. We were also having a lot of record company problems, which certainly didn’t help at all.

retroDan: how was it work with Ed Stasium? how did that experience compare to recording with Rundgren?

Moe Berg: Working with Ed Stasium was the opposite of working with Todd. Todd’s very much a vibe guy, works really fast and really tries to capture a performance. Ed is extremely meticulous. Todd’s records took a few weeks and Ed’s took a few months. Really loved both guys, though.

retroDan: Now that you’re producing a lot of young bands and artists, do you feel that you are a more sympathetic producer compared to others since you have experience on both sides of the recording console? what’s your usual approach when working with a new band?

Moe Berg: I am a sympathetic producer, more than most but the people I was fortunate to work with weren’t unsympathetic. I always felt respected and a lot of the ideas on the records were mine. I learned alot of what I do from Todd. Todd didn’t manhandle our songs. He found the flaws and made me go back and change them. I try to use this approach with bands that I trust to come up with good ideas.

retroDan: I always wanted to ask you this. Who’s that on the cover of “The Wonderful World of..”? and how does the cover concept relate to the music on the record?

Moe Berg: The girl on the front of Wonderful World was someone who wrote for a fanzine here in Toronto. The cover doesn’t relate to the music particularly but I just liked Japanese graphic design and I thought it would look cool.

retroDan: and while we’re on the subject of “the Wonderful World of..”, what made you decide on linking all the songs together? Was it something that you challenged yourself to do while writing the album or did it occur to you during the recording process.

Moe Berg: Linking the songs together was something I’d conceptualized while writing the album. Unfortunately, on reflection, some of the songs weren’t fully realized because I was thinking about them in terms of the entire piece. The album has a natural emotional arc, it starts out very optimistically and descends into a dark, depressing ending.

retroDan: One of the standouts on the album is a song called “I’m Just Happy To Be Here”. I just love how the song has a layer of sadness underneath the “happy” title.

Moe Berg: When you say there is an underlying sadness to songs like Happy To Be Here, that was reflective of where I was at the time. I was having some problems that only got worse. My solo record was even darker. I don’t think it was until I met my wife that things changed for me.

retroDan: what’s your typical approach in writing songs in general? Do you start with a particular guitar riff? Chord progression? Or does it all start with a set of lyrics?

Moe Berg: In terms of how I write songs, I have written them almost every way a song can be written. I will say that most of the stuff for TPOH and my solo record were written lyrics first.

retroDan: Do you labor over each and every word or note in a song? Or are you the type of songwriter that just bangs away at it in a creative burst and then just lets the song be as is.

Moe Berg: I do both. I wait for inspiration to hit, then spew it out. Then I go back and fix the stuff that didn’t come out fully formed.

retroDan: right around the time of your solo release Summer’s Over, you were working through some issues dealing with your Christian upbringing. now that it has been almost a decade since then, have these issues been resolved?

Moe Berg: The issues surrounding my Christian upbringing don’t trouble me any longer. At my age, it’s time to get on with life. I guess I would call myself a Christian though not like the ones you see on TV or in the movies. God is God, he cannot be shaped by man’s neurotic needs and impulses. People make a lot of decisions about who and what God is based on their own beliefs about the world or what is convienent for their life. Real religious experiences are personal, your relationship with God is personal and the problems begin when you try to exploit God, or form clubs around your conclusions about who God is.

retroDan: You stated in the past that your solo album “Summer’s Over” was pretty self-indulgent. i’d say the set of songs were refreshingly candid and intimate. since TPOH is no more, any plans for more self-indulgence?

Moe Berg: When I said that Summer’s Over was self-indulgent, I meant/mean that I didn’t take into consideration the fact that other people would be listening to it. I don’t think I respected the listener and consequently, the record didn’t find a very big audience. When I produce bands now, I ask them to consider the fact that the record is mainly for other people’s enjoyment and how can we shape their art so that people will want to listen to it over and over again. I’ve thought about doing another solo record and giving it away online. Now it looks like that is something more and more people are going to do so mine wouldn’t be much of a novelty anymore. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I don’t really have plans for one.

retroDan: in terms of your work, where do you get the most satisfaction? (ie. writing/performing, recording, producing, live gigs, etc)

Moe Berg: Currently I get the most satisfaction from producing. I like songwriting but most of my writing tends to be in collaboration with other writers so my enjoyment of it tends to depend on how much I like the ideas of my co-writers.

retroDan: a growing concern among music listeners is the “loudness wars” in which CDs are mastered at such a high volume that digital clipping occurs sacrificing the overall dynamic range of the recorded music. As an artist and producer, are you actively involved in the mastering stage of your music? Do you usually have the final “say-so” on the sound quality of the CD before it gets mass produced? and what are your thoughts on this tendency in the music industry to compress the sound and boost levels on mastered CDs?

Moe Berg: As far as the loudness/compression debate is concerned, I don’t really like the sound of most records these days. I think a lot of records won’t live on because of it. They’ll be like those rock records in the 80’s that had too much reverb on the snare. Music is in a terrible state right now. There is still lots of great music but most of it hasn’t been heard by the masses. You could say it’s always been like that but that would be false. There has always been good music on the radio, good bands on major labels and hit bands that were also great bands. At least until about eight years ago. I think this will be a lost decade, where most of the music produced in the 2000’s will disappear. I highly doubt future generations will have any interest in what has been produced so far this millennium.

retroDan: OK, Moe. Speed round!

- what are you currently listening to?

I listen to Willie’s Place on XM radio.

- what are you reading?

I just read Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless

- your favorite food?

Southern Barbecue, (ribs, pulled pork etc)

- your favorite guitar?

My strat

- real tube amp or Line6 amp modeler?

Tube Amps

- pro tools or Logic Pro or a real studio?

Pro Tools

Thanks Moe!