I first came to know Perry Serpa as a publicist with Good Cop PR. He regularly sends me music to listen to and pitch to editors for coverage. A few months ago, I got a disc in the mail from a band called The Sharp Things, and discovered Mr. Serpa was leading a double life. Not only is he the singer/songwriter behind The Sharp Things, the band just released the final installment, called EverybodyEverybody, of a four-album concept piece. I asked him a few questions about all of his jobs.
How can you be your own publicist? Does it make you cringe to write nice things about yourself?
Ha! Yes, sometimes it’s painful to be quite honest, but it’s more painful to pay someone to do it. Dignity or poverty. The latter wins. I work in the music industry. There’s not much money to go around anymore. That said, I’ve never twisted arms on our behalf, and we’ve been lucky enough to have some very cool advocates and friends in the press who’ve covered us almost throughout our entire career- these are people whom i know would pass if they felt to. Folks with integrity, so there’s not much push needed.
When you started this series, did you know how many albums it would encompass? Did you have a clear arc you wanted to see happen over the span of the different albums?
Kind of. I had about thirty songs written and sketches of about fifteen more, so I knew that the entire schedule would entail about forty tunes, or more. The first inclination was to put it all out in one massive package, but that was quickly put down by all of us and my own trepidation about it. The second idea was to just stretch it all out over a bunch of albums and so, if you do the math, it’s four albums. The original plan was a tighter release schedule which would have had it all out within a year and half, but that just wasn’t realistic in terms of all tasks needed to make this band, in particular, put out quality, so we started with Green Is Good in 2012, and commenced this year with EverybodyEverybody. There were fortunate and unfortunate events that stood as obstacles along the way, otherwise we would have probably got it all out within two and a half years, but that’s life.
What would you say there is a specific story arc over these four albums? You seem to pop in and out of a larger landscape, kind of how the TV show Little Britain did – a lonely night at the pub, a suburban day at the park, and around the globe.
Very perceptive of you, and I appreciate your seeing that. Yes, there is a loose theme. I have yet to really pull together a tight mission statement on it, but I think it makes sense to say that, since the music’s origin is the life of a melodramatic songwriter with his heart on his sleeve, a lot of the ideas behind the individual songs are about my own experiences before and during the process of making the album – poverty, love, death, divorce, friendship, hatred, god – it’s all there. There’s also a fair amount of baloney in there – shit that just made us laugh.
The first album, Green Is Good, kicks off with a political statement, “Blame the Bankers,” and then immediately pivots to something more personal in “The Piper.” Were you looking to establish that particular range of social and personal commentary right off the bat?
Yes. Absolutely. The range of commentary throughout the albums are always personal in nature, whether they’re lyrical accounts of things I had experienced or just feelings about things I’d observed over time – they were feelings that stuck with me. “Blame The Bankers” is most definitely a real display of anger. I am a pretty simple guy who’s lived in New York City all his life. I felt the disparity of the classes hit home as that disparity suddenly made it impossible for me to buy a home in the neighborhood I’d lived in for a decade. I saw the finance guys gloat and complain that they didn’t have enough and I wanted to punch them in the face. I still do. Sorry. I have a problem with it.
The popularity of Bernie Sanders now underscores the feeling, but a few years ago we had Occupy Wall Street, but I wrote the song from the perspective of an everyday, George Bailey character – closer to me at this point in my life than from the perspective of a protester encamped out there. Hence the line, “we couldn’t lasso the moon/that dream was reserved for the chosen few.” “The Piper” is a song written for a friend who lost his son to cancer. So the clear delineation between the two songs is not obvious, but both are about loss, and about being led away, powerless. “Green Is Good” comes in and out of that throughout.
Everybody Everybody definitely sounds orchestrated to be one long piece, more so than the previous albums in the series. Is that how you put the individual songs together? Did they come to you in that order?
A few of them were never meant to be full songs, like the medley of “Sports Drinking Again,” “Hail To The Chief,” and “Shine Shine Shine,” but I shoved “Daphne’s Coming Over” into the middle of it just ‘cause I thought it would spike the proceedings, which it does. But, yeah, there was some rhyme and reason. I always meant for “Family Day At The Lake” to wrap it up as that song feels pivotal to me. Final. There’s not much else to say. But, the album kicks off with a new song called “Something Big,” which is about my struggling for closure after Steve’s death, which opened up a new chapter in my life after it happened, so I felt that it really needed to start this album. The album’s last song, “The Libertine, Ciel Rouge,” which is sung by Jim, is kind of its cool down. It’s post-denouement. It’s “Her Majesty.”
McCartney seems like an obvious influence throughout. Would you agree with that, or does that English pop sensibility come from somewhere more unexpected?
Yes! McCartney always is, but so are the other Beatles. So is Bowie, Scott Walker (not English, really), the Zombies, Billy Bragg, Neil Hannon, Bill Fey, Bolan, and other guys like Dylan, Bacharach and Leonard Cohen.
There is also a variety of styles, from electro to symphonic to straight up rock and roll. Is there a particular style that feels most like who you are as an artist, or does that change from song to song and album to album?
Changes from day to day. I think the whole series is an exercise in massaging all of those styles. the next thing I do may be a bit more focused. The series went a bit over the top, on purpose.
How autobiographical is some of this material? Hard not to feel like “Dogs of Bushwick,” for example, isn’t a snapshot of something you experienced directly.
As I said above, totally! There’s probably not a song on the series that doesn’t apply to me, personally, somehow. “Dogs Of Bushwick” particularly. That whole song is true. I did work at gas station and write songs on a Casiotone in the kiosk- it was in the “shadow of a miracle” (the Miracle Mets – right near Shea Stadium) and I was robbed by gunpoint, et cetera.
Is there a core of players you consider to be The Sharp Things, or has your supporting cast revolved from project to project?
That’s always a good question. Really, it would unfair to the folks who’ve played with me for several years to not referred to them as “core” band. So, I will do that. But yeah, there were some hired hands who I’d definitely hire again and some folks who were just able to stick around for a few years, who we still love, too. All told, we’ve had about forty musicians come go throughout the nearly twenty-year history of the band, but Michelle, Jim, Aisha, Andrea, and James have stuck around for lots of that. Jim and Steve, who passed away in 2014, were there from the beginning.
What happens now that the four-album cycle is over? Is that it for the band?
No. I don’t know when we’ll actually do another record, and we have no shows scheduled, but the Sharp Things is a door that I’ll probably always leave open.