“Everyone has someone they really despise,” surmises Matt Korvette between bites of a vegan sloppy-joe sandwich at the Royal Tavern. “I’ll never stab anyone in the face, but I’ll be happy when someone I hate dies from cancer. I just quietly, patiently hope for the worst.”
These thoughts are inspired by “Cafeteria Food,” a song from Korvette’s band Pissed Jeans’ new album, Honeys. An office worker sits quietly at his cubicle anticipating the death of his “project manager” and a “big-time broker.” But this acrimonious man is no lunatic. He would never consider murdering those he loathes.
His plan is far more challenging, exhausting — more human. He’s waiting for his asshole colleagues to die from natural causes, a process that could take many, many years.
He’s counting down the days. And when the day finally comes, and they’re dead, he feels like he won the Super Bowl. He feels like Jesus Christ. He wishes he had his tap shoes on so he could sneak into the bathroom and do a little happy dance while his co-workers squeeze out phony tears in the lunchroom. Tonight, he’ll sleep better than he’s slept in forever.
At the Royal, I ask Korvette to describe himself in three words.
A mischievous grin forms on his face, and he answers within seconds, enunciating each word perfectly with brief pauses in between.
“Back in elementary school,” he continues, “people had to write down three nice things about everyone else in the class and read them out loud. I’d always get ‘funny.’ But I got sick of it. If someone got ‘attractive’ every time, they’d probably wish others would care more about their personality. No matter what you get, you always want something else.”
Envy and hate have pumped through the heart of Pissed Jeans since the Philadelphia punk band’s beginning. And these feelings, combined with Korvette’s bleak sense of humor, have grown stronger with each of its four albums, culminating in the wondrously elephantine clusterfuck of animus that is Honeys. Their third release on Sub Pop is all about distorted, chiseled power riffs and skull-hammering beats. From the post-My War sludge of “Chain Worker” to the stampeding hardcore of “Health Plan” to the grunge-nodding howls of “Male Gaze,” it’s the band’s most diverse offering yet.
Upon diving into Pissed Jeans’ unrelentingly vindictive discography, and especially after witnessing the band’s notoriously rumbustious, oftentimes dangerous live performances, it’s understandable how someone could think the four members are insane nihilists devoted solely to the destruction of all things civilized and sacred.
Understandable, sure. But false.
Korvette (vocals), Brad Fry (guitar), Randy Huth (bass) and Sean McGuinness (drums) are four of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. When Korvette arrives late to dinner, he apologizes profusely while holding the pub door open for me. A gentleman! The next morning, he makes an additional apology via email. Such civility!
They’re all in their early 30s, with full-time jobs. McGuinness has worked at Resurrection Ale House since it opened in 2009. Huth has been bartending at the Khyber since 2005. Fry, the only one who doesn’t reside in Philadelphia, lives and works in Bethlehem. “I work for a company that contracts out accounts-receivable stuff,” he says. “I supervise 15 people older than me, and all the typical office stereotypes you can think of apply.”
Korvette’s situation’s a bit more complicated. Unlike the others, he’s not sure any of his co-workers know he’s in Pissed Jeans. On the record, all he’s willing to say is: “I work in insurance,” the job’s “pretty mundane” and he was hired within two weeks of graduating from college. He’s had the same job for 10 years; he doesn’t talk about Pissed Jeans at work.
They’re all homeowners now, and either married or in deeply committed relationships. When McGuinness refers to his girlfriend as his “girlfriend,” he comments on how insufficient the title feels. “It’s stupid to call her that,” he says. “She’s so much more than my girlfriend.” Huth says something similar. Fry and Korvette are both married.
Finally, the big one. With the first arrival in 2011, they all became fathers within one year of each other. Korvette, Huth and McGuinness have sons; Fry, the first to have a child, has a daughter. And just a few weeks ago, Fry learned that his wife’s pregnant again. When we spoke, it was before he’d told his bandmates the news. He said he was nervous, but not as much as the first time, since now it’s something they’ve all been through together once already.
“Still, it’s gonna be crazy,” admits Fry. “We have this album coming out and tours coming up. ... But, like everything else with Pissed Jeans, we’ll make it work somehow. It won’t hinder the band, but it will be harder for me and my wife. If we ever want to go do anything, now we have to find a sitter to watch two kids instead of one.”
“My only real fear,” he confesses, “is that one day I’ll have to tell my kids what the name of my band is.”
Korvette, Fry and Huth grew up in Nazareth, Pa. Fry and Huth attended the same daycare center and have known each other since they were 2 years old. They met Korvette when the three attended Nazareth High School, quickly bonding over hardcore and punk music.
“They were very creative even back then,” recalls Korvette. “I remember their individualism and their fashion — band T-shirts, homemade punk clothes — because they stood out visually. I was trying to do the same thing, so I looked up to them. They were going to fire halls to see hardcore shows a few years ahead of me and were involved in a subculture that I didn’t grasp at the time.”
Fry and Huth had already been playing in bands, but the first one they started with Korvette was the Ultimate Warriors, a project that combined powerviolence and wrestling-inspired theatricality. The Warriors released seven 7-inches and one LP titled Our Gimmick Is Wrestling. On YouTube, there’s a 22-second clip from a gig where Fry and Korvette thrash around while wearing wrestling masks.
Next came the Gatecrashers, with Korvette, Fry, Huth and drummer Tim Wynarczuk, who also played in the Warriors. (The Warriors’ first drummer was Daughn Gibson, the recent Sub Pop-signed artist whose debut album was released last year on Korvette’s label, White Denim.) The Crashers played only about 25 shows but released a few singles, splits and EPs, plus one full-length called The Gatecrashers Are a Bunch of Motherfuckers.
Then, in 2003, Pissed Jeans was born. The original lineup was Korvette, Fry, Dave Rosenstrauss (bass) and Wynarczuk. The initial goal, Korvette says, was to “maybe put out a 7-inch.” But in 2005, the band released its debut album, Shallow.
“We didn’t want to worry about notes and riffs and technical proficiency,” Korvette claims. “We wanted it to be personality-driven; we wanted the personality to ooze out.”
This mission was accomplished on the first track, “I’m Sick,” where Korvette excellently articulates the misanthropic agony of the Everyman that’s now become his signature. “I’ve got a fever,” he groans over sludgy riffs and crippling feedback. “I’ve got a runny nose!”
The song concludes with him calling in sick to work.
Right after Shallow, Pissed Jeans hired a new drummer, Sean McGuinness, who grew up in Ardmore and had known the others for several years through mutual hardcore connections. He joined just in time, because the buzz Shallow received led to Sub Pop offering them a record deal.
“I was in South Philly, hanging at Beautiful World Syndicate,” recalls McGuinness. “Korvette called me and said Sub Pop wanted to do a record. I couldn’t believe it. Man, what a sick club to be in! When Sub Pop calls, you don’t hold out for another offer, so we took it.”
Hope for Men, Pissed Jeans’ Sub Pop debut full-length, was released in 2007. Soon after, Huth — from the Nazareth High, Warriors and Crashers days — joined the band on bass. King of Jeans came two years later. And, next week, Honeys.
“I’ve known these guys almost my entire life,” says Huth. “But I can’t believe I’ve been in the Jeans for five years. We’re all fathers now, and we’re all so busy outside of the band. I don’t even think all four of our kids have been in the same room.”
“Life just goes by so fast,” he says.
When I meet Korvette, Fry, Huth and McGuinness at Space 1026, a location of the music video for Honeys’ first single, “Bathroom Laugher” (which debuts on Spin.com Feb. 12), it’s the rare occasion of them all being together outside of band practice.
The kids aren’t to blame. Sure, they make touring a bit more difficult, but Pissed Jeans have never been known to hit the road for months on end. Keep in mind, this is a band that hasn’t released an album in nearly four years. Prior to fatherhood, they all had full-time jobs and other commitments, and the band was never the No. 1 priority for anyone. It was always something that came after everything else.
“Whether we were 14 or in our 30s, we never thought of bands as something we’d ever do for money,” Fry says. “I have this fear of not having the security of a real job, and I think all of us feel that way. Pissed Jeans has always been just one part of our lives.”
“We all have families, and that’s our main thing,” adds Huth. “Pissed Jeans couldn’t work any other way. Our outside lives have always taken precedence over the band.”
“We never wanted to quit our jobs,” confirms Korvette. “We’ve always had our heads on too straight for that. Working is what we all do, because we all like living comfortably. I was raised to believe that I have to work, and I have to act civilized while I do it. But I want to have fun, too. For some people, that might mean cooking or checking their fantasy-football stats, but for me it’s always been music. Pissed Jeans involves work, but it’s mostly for fun.”
In fact, everyone in Pissed Jeans agrees that having kids has brought the band closer together. “We’re all less of dicks now,” says Korvette. “Having kids has made us more loving, tender individuals. Taking care of a tiny being brings out the humanity in you. And since we’re all experiencing this together, we don’t have to be insecure about feeling this love.”
Hearing this makes me wish I had a time machine so I could go back in time to Nazareth High and tell these young punks what their lives would look like in 2013. I’d tell them they’d one day be tender individuals who aren’t insecure about feeling love.
They’d never believe me. After puking a little bit in their mouths, they’d probably punch me in the face and pin me in less than 30 seconds, the way the Ultimate Warrior did to the Honky Tonk Man back at SummerSlam I.
At Grace Tavern on a recent Thursday afternoon, McGuinness is sitting at a table drinking a beer. He’s chatting with a waitress friend while his son bounces on his knee.
The kid’s name is Iggy, inspired, in part, by punk icon Iggy Pop. As we talk, Iggy keeps grabbing a plastic mustard container and throwing it under the table. McGuinness picks it up. Iggy does it again. And again. And again. Each time he does it, Iggy smiles at me, as if to say, “I want you to know that I am having a total blast fucking with my dad right now.”
“You all right, big guy?” McGuinness asks Iggy. “He’s normally a chill guy. As long as he has food, he’s good.”
McGuinness gives Iggy a French fry.
Of all the Pissed Jeans, McGuinness is the most outgoing. When Huth and I talk over a few slices of pizza, he seems ready to leave the second he sits down. Fry isn’t shy, but his nervous energy makes him do things like talk nonstop for 25 minutes about the evolution of his guitar playing. Korvette is confident and friendly, but also shrewd, as if he has an identity to protect, which he does.
“We all have very different personalities,” McGuinness confirms. “But the first time we played together, it just clicked.”
He puts down his cheeseburger and snaps his fingers three times.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
“And we probably all get something different out of Pissed Jeans, too,” he says. “I can’t speak for everyone, but, for me, it’s great to hit that deep mental and musical level with these three guys. Our time together is hilarious and fun, and I always look forward to it. We’re not constantly in each other’s faces — we’re not the best of friends — but when we do get together, it’s great. This feeling gets better with every record, and we have no plans to stop.”
Then it hits me: The members of Pissed Jeans live the lives we all wish we lived. These punks have it all. Spouses, or partners that may as well be. Kids. Jobs. Homes. And the icing on the cake? An amazing band that’s about to release its best album yet.
I’ve had a few beers, so I happily share this observation with McGuinness. I tell him flat-out that I envy him and the other members of Pissed Jeans. He laughs.
“I guess we do have everything we could ever want,” he says, as if he’s realizing this for the first time, too. “We have a great label that supports us. We all make an honest paycheck every week. We’re not rich fat cats, but we’re not poor, either. We all own houses. We all have great kids. Great ladies. And we have a band that just enough people seem to care about, and that all four of us really care about.”
A beamish Iggy throws the mustard under the table one more time. After McGuinness retrieves it, he says, “We might be the luckiest band in the world.”
Pissed Jeans play Fri., Feb. 15, 9 p.m., $12, with Lantern and Leather, Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St., undergroundarts.org.