Adventures of Weird Paul: Documentary sheds light on quirky Pittsburgh music legend

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Weird Paul Petroskey is the focus of "A Lo-Fidelity Documentary," being screened at the Harris Theater as part of the Gallery Crawl Friday night.
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It's the truly rare individual who drops his Almond Joy bar and finds a song in it, let alone a meaningful one.

It's that attention to detail and affinity for the mundane and the bizarre that's made Weird Paul Petroskey the kind of cult figure who would warrant a documentary film.

"A Lo-Fidelity Documentary" chronicles the lo-fi life of this Pittsburgh singer-guitarist who started making up songs as a kid and has gone on to write more than 500 of them. Among the classics he's committed to tape are "I Got Drunk at Chuck E. Cheese," "Piece of Meat in the Tang" and the aforementioned "I Dropped My Almond Joy Bar." One of the 20 homemade cassettes/albums he's made over the last 19 years was a 16-song set based on one line in a B-horror film, "There's a worm in my egg cream."

Obviously, they all sound like joke titles -- and Weird Paul does confess to being a musician because he was too shy to be a comedian -- but the songs often go beyond the surface humor. For instance, the Almond Joy Bar incident becomes a song about getting depressed about the little things in life.

Musically, these aren't all just offbeat little campfire songs: Weird Paul rocks!

He's a pretty ferocious guitar player, able to dash off riffs and whip up a noise storm, even when it's just him, the guitar and a homemade amp. In between, he keeps the audience laughing with antics that range from masks to playing the radio through his amp to your basic surreal stage banter.

While Weird Paul is hardly a household name in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he's a star in the lo-fi rock underground for his impressive discography of tapes and LPs, including one on the national Homestead Records, that go all the way back to the 1985 parody "Drunk Diver Down."

Members of bands like Happy Flowers, Spoon and King Missile all turn up in the documentary, directed by Chicago filmmaker Stacey Goldschmidt, to sing his praises. An ex pops up to explain his appeal: his striking resemblance to Kurt Cobain, his frail stature and the emotional vulnerability of his songs. We also get a glimpse of the wonderful and quirky Petroskey family, all very prolific with the video camera.

"A Lo-Fidelity Documentary" will be screened at the Harris Theater at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Friday as part of the Gallery Crawl. In advance of that, we had some questions for Weird Paul Petroskey.

Q: Did you really get drunk at Chuck E. Cheese?

Ha! I did not. Normally I drink wine coolers, and they didn't have them. I had to embellish that idea a little. ... The idea of the song was really just my amazement that you could buy beer and wine at Chuck E. Cheese. Helps the parents deal with all the kids, I guess. So I just daydreamed a little of what it would be like if I did get drunk there and what the outcome would be.

Q: You've written more than 500 songs. How many do you know enough to play live?

I have written or co-written over 500 songs. There's definitely some that I don't remember well enough to perform. If someone requested something I didn't really know, I'd definitely give it a shot. But stuff I know well enough to definitely do live ... it would be half, I'm sure. Now that I've been doing a lot of solo performances, I've been doing more varied material, because I don't have to worry about other musicians knowing the songs.

Q: No idea for a song seems too small to you. Do you ever discard any?

Anything unusual I overhear or think up, I write down or say into a tape recorder. I have ideas from nearly 20 years ago I've never used still on paper or tapes, and every once in awhile when I can't quite come up with what I'm looking for, I go through that stuff. I probably write a song every day, but unfortunately, many of them come into my head while I'm driving, working or something else that prohibits me from remembering them later, and they're lost forever.

Q: Are there any subjects you feel uncomfortable writing about?

Not really -- I have felt for a long time that this is why some people have used the term "genius" to describe what I do. It's because I'm not afraid to write about how I actually feel, to the extent where I've actually been in tears while recording at times. I'm also not afraid to write whatever comes into my head.

Q: Most of your songs are funny. Do you like when people say they like the sad songs best?

I'd say only a little over half of my songs are funny. The rest are either serious or maybe just have a strangeness to them that can sometimes be construed as humor. I do like when people say they like the sad songs ... because the sad songs are definitely more personal to me, they reflect things I've actually been through, and I like when they are appreciated.

Q: Your parents seem so supportive. Did that contribute to your output?

Definitely. My parents never talked me into doing things I didn't want to or stopped me from being creative. I remember one time, recording in my bedroom, a song that was really just me screaming for over three minutes.

My dad came up and opened my door, and I just motioned for him to leave, that I was recording. So he closed the door and walked away. Probably muttering something to himself! My dad, still to this day, will help me with a song if I'm looking for rhymes or lyrics. And I talk to my mom all the time, she is very inspirational. I am lucky to have such fantastic parents. I love them.

Q: How did you learn to play guitar, and who are your guitar heroes?

I taught myself to play on an $8 electric guitar from a flea market. Every day after school I would sit for a half hour and play maybe three single notes over and over, to learn how to control my fingers. That's more of a testament to my patience than anything else. I'm glad I taught myself. ... It enabled me to develop a real one-of-a-kind playing style. After that, I'd just play along to the first Ramones album over and over again. Johnny Ramone is a real underrated guitarist. Sure, he's not into playing endless solos, but try strumming that fast in one direction for awhile like he did. I guess if I had to pick other guitarists that influenced me, it would be Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and Philip "Snakefinger" Lithman.

Q: The film mentions that you are a lo-fi cult figure. How big would you say is the cult?

I don't really know ... but always bigger than I think. I used to get lots of fan mail, before e-mail was in use, even from places as far away as France, Brazil, Germany and England. Now I just get the occasional e-mail. With the advent of myspace, though, now I hear from lots of people from all over the country who find my page on that site, telling me how many times they've listened to my album on Homestead Records and how much joy it's brought them. I was lucky enough to be recognized early on by people like Calvin Johnson of K Records, Lou Barlow and The Happy Flowers, others who were working in the lo-fi genre and who kept my name floating around where other people could see it.

Q: How did [local indie-scene kingpin] Manny Theiner become your drummer? Do you consider him a musical genius? And why did you kick him out?

In 1988, I was playing with my first drummer, Ed (a-go-go), when Manny started booking me to play shows. One year later, Ed moved away to go to school, and I was all ready to play solo at the current show Manny had booked me for. When I arrived at the venue, Manny asked if I'd like him to play drums. I said sure. So with no practice, and using another band's kit, we proceeded to play my music.

Manny is very intuitive and great at spur-of-the-moment impromptu changes and he's full of ideas. He's a fantastic keyboard player and even a fine bass player, but he's not so much of a drummer as just someone who plays the drums. It's a lot of fun doing shows with Manny again. I kicked Manny out of the band in 1991 due to personal reasons.

OK, I'll come public with it. ... He insulted my fiancee's bass playing, and she wouldn't play in the band with him anymore. I'm glad Manny and I were able to put aside the past and start playing again, because we work well together, and I have a new bass player now. Tip: Never be in a band with your significant other.

Q: Have you ever gotten any really bad reactions from concert crowds? If so, what?

I totally get bad reactions at times. There's always people who just don't get it ... miserable people. When I am in front of one of these stone-faced sighers, I try to be as crazy and obnoxious as possible, just to get them to crack a smile. And sometimes that doesn't even work! Years ago when I played in North Carolina, someone in the audience said, "Wow, Pittsburgh must be really lame." The worst reactions of all: In Youngstown back on my 1991 tour, out of only a few paying customers, two demanded their money back, and in West Virginia on the same tour, a guy stormed out of the bar yelling, "YOU'RE JUST A BUNCH OF [BLEEPING] PUNKS!!"

Q: Did you really quit making music to watch every horror film ever made?

Not really. ... I never really quit making music, I just became reclusive ... partly due to depression. Besides writing songs, that's what I did in that span from 1992-1994, though -- just watched movies. Lots of horror movies. I've seen over 6,200 movies. And I love taking movie titles and writing songs to go with them ... not necessarily about the movie, just to go with the title.

Q: How amazed are you that there is a documentary about you, and what did you think of it?

VERY amazed. I certainly would never have predicted that. It's a strange feeling that someone thinks you are worth making a movie about. It's very, very flattering, of course, and also somewhat embarrassing at times. I hope I haven't brought shame to my family, ha!

Q: Your son is writing songs now. Do you see him following in your footsteps?

I used to record my little brother, Ward, when I was first putting out my music. I would tell him to write some songs and I'd record them and put them out. It was a pretty natural progression that when my son was old enough to understand how to write songs that I'd be doing it with him. I like to allow him to be creative in the same way that my parents did for me.

I'm not sure if he likes music more than making videogames or stop-motion animation, though. I can't tell where he's headed yet! I do think he wants to be famous, though.

Q: In the film, you mention early goals of making a record for a label and having girls fantasize about you. You accomplished that. Now what?

Yeah, those two goals ended up being a lot easier to attain than I'd thought. I guess I'm back to that first goal. ... I'd like to have music released nationally again. And I would like to continue to be more and more prolific. ... The artists I enjoy most are people like Robert Pollard, Daniel Johnston, The Residents, Jad Fair, They Might Be Giants ... the ones who just never stop, who can make a song out of anything. I like the idea of having this huge body of work. I'll never stop as long as the songs keep coming into my head.


Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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