TMW Interview: New York-Based Musicians Porter Block Talk New Music and Tour

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by G. H. Harding

We’ve been tub thumping the new album –out Friday- Primer, by the duo Porter Block: Peter Block and Caleb Sherman. Their new release combines their unique talent for catchy, pop-melodies; almost like the best pop of the 80’s and 90’s.

We caught up with Peter in a NYC studio; prepping for a series of dates later this summer for an exclusive chat.

Q: Peter, tell us about the formation of Porter Block, with Caleb Sherman.

A: Caleb and I and started working together on a bunch of musical projects when we met through a mutual musical friend in 2003. It turns out we grew up near each other and became friends. We formally started Porter Block in 2005 when we worked on and released two versions of our debut album, Suburban Sprawl. One was a more acoustic and percussion-heavy version of pretty much the same songs. You can still find both versions on iTunes and Spotify, I believe.

Q: You’ve made one EP and six studio albums and the new Primer comes out Friday. Tell us about that record? And, the two unreleased tracks, “So Mean” and “Always Right.”

A: Primer is meant to be a small sampling from each record, although we tended to focus on last couple records. I think it contains some of the best work I’ve done with both Mike Viola and with Caleb producing. And then there are some somewhat-forgotten songs like “Love Shield,” which is a very personal song to me, as well as “Die A Little Every Day.” “Always Right” and “So Mean” are two tracks that we worked on very early in 2005. I always feel that they were explorations as we were attempting to find our sound. “Always Right” is almost funny in the way it uses progressive-rock riffs. Both are exciting tracks, but the songs never quite worked for on the records we were making.

Q: What’s your philosophy for your music?

A: We knew we both wanted to make human-sounding records. We both — and Mike Viola as well — consider the writing the most important aspect to our recording and performances. If you can’t sit down and play and sing the song simply with just piano or guitar accompaniment, it probably isn’t strong or compelling enough storytelling to make a record.

Q: That quote from the Daily News in Pittsburgh, “Power pop doesn’t get much better than this folks!” was a nice love letter, right?

A: Yes! It was quite a nice compliment. I tend to be more obsessive in my own fandom — Beatles, Big Star, XTC – than about getting feedback like that, but it feels great. Maybe even better then people listening in great numbers is someone who really loves and knows music to say “I get it, I like what you’re doing.”

Q: In the 70’s and 80’s and even 90’s, pop music seemed to be viable, vibrant and more interesting than a lot of what’s around now. Can you speak to that?

A: Pop music has always waxed and waned in terms of quality. I love the music of the 70’s and 80’s because I grew up then. The music meant so much. It gets hard really keeping up that kind of love and commitment to music and certain artists as you get older. My attachment to Crowded House or Elvis Costello is rooted in the fact that I was a young and willing participant when I first heard them.

Q: What do you listen to that inspires you?

A: Currently I’m listening to the new Aimee Mann album Mental Illness. She is really a mesmerizing songwriter and singer. Spoon has a great new record. I also constantly listen to albums I missed when I was young but love now. Sail Away by Randy Newman is just about the most perfect set of songs I think I’ve ever heard. Anything by Harry Nilsson.

Q: Tell us about your work with Mike Viola… 

A:  I met Mike in 2009 through my manager Darren Paltrowitz. We had a day or two in my studio to write a few things and for him to assess if I had an album of material. He, quite frankly, blew me away as I had never met or worked with anyone with that kind of talent. We wrote a few things but he made it clear we were going to need better quality songs with more human connections. The guy is simply a powerhouse but an incredibly-empathetic one. He found out I was in the middle of a divorce and started writing material with me which had that at its emotional through line. He is simply a wonderful and talented, writer producer, musician and man.

It is not surprising to me at all that he’s since become one of the top co-writers in music, having written and/or produced for Ryan Adams, Panic! At The Disco, New Politics, Rachael Yamagata, etc. On top of that, Mike is now Vice President of A&R at Verve Records. I hope to be able to work with him again in the future.

Q: There’s a bunch of summer shows coming up for you; are you looking forward to that?

A: I’m very excited about upcoming shows. We get to strip it all back to acoustic guitars and voice, so we are picking songs that will fit that. The first show is in the lounge of The Space At Westbury on July 22nd!

Q: Where did you grow up Peter? And, who were your musical influences?

A: I grew up in New York City. When I was six, I was left dumbstruck by stolen copies of the Beatles red and blue albums. I was hooked. It was almost a decade before MTV arrived and suddenly music and bands were more accessible. I gravitated more towards The Stray Cats and Prince because I could hear some of the obvious influences, like rockabilly, [Jimi] Hendrix, and James Brown.

Q: What’s next?

A: Beyond Primer and these upcoming shows, what’s next is a music-themed podcast called In A State, which I’ve been working on all summer. I get a chance to sit down and have intimate discussions with artists, entrepreneurs and business people in the music industry. I already have episodes with Leigh Lust (A&R for PledgeMusic), Andrew Horowitz (keyboardist of Tally Hall, writer/producer for Jidenna), Glenn Morrow (owner of Bar/None Records) and Willie Nile (singer/songwriter) in the can. We are heading out to Los Angeles in August to tape more episodes. More info can be found at www.teammensch.com.

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