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Interview: Michael Penn

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Michael Penn is best known for his 1989 album March, which spawned the Top 20 single, "No Myth" and two other hits.  Since then, he has released four fantastic albums that mix clever, literate wordplay with Beatlesesque pop smarts.  Penn has also composed scores for such films as Melvin Goes To Dinner and Boogie Nights, in which he also had a cameo as a recording engineer.  Next Tuesday, he is releasing two CDs, an expanded version of his 2005 album, Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947, and a best-of CD called Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea.  In advance of the releases, I spoke with Penn about his career.  Below are excerpts from that interview.

Let's start with the expanded version of Mr. Hollywood, Jr. 1947.  What's new on the album? 

It's a two-disc set.  The first disc is the album, with a new hidden track, and the second disc is a live performance at KCRW and the video for "Walter Reed."

In light of recent discoveries, the song "Walter Reed" obviously takes on new, and even sadder, dimensions than you intended, especially on the last line of the chorus where you sing, "'cause every good thing I've had abandoned me."  Now, the one thing the main character could count on has left him, too. 

Absolutely.  That was happening when I wrote the record.  It's gotten more publicity now but it was sort of brewing.  In fact, right after the initial release is when then-Secretary Of Defense Rumsfeld announced that they were going to dismantle Walter Reed.  For me, that hospital is very iconic.  It's America's hospital.  

Interestingly enough, it's also the first place to deal with what used to be called "shell shock," but now we know as post-traumatic stress disorder.  And for a country like ours that was still suffering a collective PTSD as a result of the attacks of September 11, the idea that the government was going to remove the cure was interesting. 

The other CD that is being released is a Best Of CD, Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea.  The first thing I noticed is that the CD is not sequenced chronologically.  Why is that? 

I look at albums as a very specific kind of experience with two separate acts, and each act is a manageable amount of music.  I'm old enough to remember vinyl albums and the experience of being in the mood to hear either Side One or Side Two.  I think an album needs to be a journey of sorts from Point A to Point B where you're moving into different moods and tempos and it has its own collective space.  So I wanted to do that with the collection  

Also, now that the two major labels I was on had merged and they were interested in doing a collection from my catalog, I didn't want it to be the head of Legacy's (the reissue label of Sony BMG, which is releasing the CD) playlist, because the people who have all my albums aren't going to be interested in that.  I wanted to find a way to do something different.  I re-cut some old songs, found alternate versions of other songs, and I sequenced it with the idea of trying to find stuff I was still connected to and felt that moved from one to the next in a way that made some kind of sense to me.

When March came out, you couldn't read an article about you without a reference to your brother (actor Sean Penn).  To what extent did that help or hinder your career? 

I think it nulled out, in that it hurt and it also helped.  Certainly there were some people who were curious about what I was doing because of his fame, but by the same token I'm sure there were some people who thought, "Well, if this guy's such a great actor, then he can't be any good at that he does."  

My problem with it was the notion of show-biz families, which gives me the willies.  To me, it's a public display of dysfunction, and I find that unseemly.  I tried to avoid it as much as I could, but when I tried to make it not an issue, that became the story, like, "Hey, he's Sean's brother, but that's not an issue," and I couldn't escape it even if I wanted to.  

By the time you released Free For All in 1992, the musical landscape had changed.  We were beginning to hear the end of subtlety and texture on the radio Do you think that was why it was not as successful as March? 

I think there are a lot of reasons why that record wasn't successful.  I'll start with my responsibility.  When it was released, I had just fathered a child, and I didn't want to be on the road all the time.  

Also, RCA had just been bought, and Bob Buziak, who was the president at the time, saw the decline of the music business in 1989 and was getting ready to quit.  He wanted to sign something that he really liked before he left, and made sure that it got exposed to people.  But he left after that single, and the new regime weren't that interested in me.  That's just the politics of the record business, and it happens to lots of artists.  Unless you sell millions of the first record, they don't want to keep putting money behind you because it doesn't accrue to their credit.  

And I think I suffered because of the way the corporatization of music was starting to get control of everything.  If it wasn't something that followed the model of what was currently a hit, it disappeared.  I wouldn't have gotten signed if it wasn't for Buziak, because "No Myth" was not like anything on the radio at the time, and they never would have put the money behind it.  

How did you get into film scoring? 

I had this fan named Paul Thomas Anderson, who wanted me to score his first movie, which I had never been interested in doing because of the prejudices I have about the film business.  With all the crap in the press after the first album, I didn't want to do anything that smelled of nepotism, and putting my foot in the film business, even if it had absolutely no connection to my family, still kept the possibility of that.  

So, I avoided pursuing that, even though I had been an armchair film composer for a long time – watching movies and complaining about how the music sucked.  But Paul waited for me for about a year, and I finally saw the movie and was blown away.  My fears about film music being art-by-committee and an unrewarding experience were blown out of the water.  Paul was great to work with.  

You used "High Time" on an episode of Scrubs a few years back.  Are you finding that TV shows and movie soundtracks are better outlets these days for getting your music heard? 

They're certainly better outlets than radio, yeah.  Where radio was once a reflection of the tastes of thousands of DJs around the country, now it's a controlled, consulted business that locks people out of it.  But music supervisors can allow their tastes to be known. 

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About Dave Lifton

  • Thanks, everybody. The podcast is up!

  • Thanks for the great interview! Michael Penn is one of my favorites! I’ll check out the podcast when it’s up.

  • Excellent work, Dave. Especially nice to see a couple of angles I haven’t read in countless interviews previously. Looking forward to hearing your podcast, and certainly looking forward to buying these releases on Tuesday.

  • Thanks. Penn has long been a favorite of mine, too. Check my site on Wednesday morning. The entirety of the interview will be available as a podcast. This is only somewhere between 50%-60% of it.

  • Fantastic interview. Hopefully the greatest hit cd and upcoming tour will introduce Michael to new fans. He deserves it.

  • Good stuff, Dave.

    Glad to see that it’s not “just” a best-of and has some different versions of songs on there. That got me to add this to my “buy” list.

  • nik

    Great interview, he’s one of my favorite underrated musicians. Shame he hasn’t quite gotten the respect he deserves. (His third album “Resigned” is one of my top CDs)