"So much unhappiness, so little time/It's a struggle making lemonade when life gives you lime."
Such is the opening of the new album from The Breakup Society, the band that Ed Masley formed in Pittsburgh after the demise of The Frampton Brothers. The clever singer-songwriter-guitarist has specialized in darkly comic but always playful sketches of people in the throes of heartbreak or failure, and it hits a new level of maturity on "So Much Unhappiness, So Little Time."
Unfortunately for his Pittsburgh fan base, the CD release show took place in Phoenix, where the former Post-Gazette music critic is now based as a writer for the Arizona Republic. For a time, he maintained bicoastal versions of The Breakup Society for his visits here, but that fell by the wayside as other members moved on.
"So Much Unhappiness" -- which was just released from Pittsburgh's Get Hip Records -- follows 2004's "James at 35" and 2007's "Nobody Likes a Winner." Mr. Masley's influences have always leaned heavily on early Kinks and Who, with a nod to the Attractions, and this one is no exception. Even before you hit play, the song titles bring a smile: "Your Invitation to Quit," "Another Day in the Life," "8th Circle of Hell"...
The songwriter goes beyond girl-boy troubles, touching on such subjects as a loser fretting his homecoming ("The Next Reunion"), the problem with blind patriotism ("He's Supportin' the War") and the distinction between the artist and the art ("Mary Shelley"). As in his previous work, there are enough little pearls of wit here for a full necklace, which of course would be a little too formal for the occasion.
So, you've settled more into the Phoenix-area scene. How would you compare it to Pittsburgh's in terms of bands and clubs, and how everyone interacts?
I've been really impressed with the number of great local artists I've heard since I moved here, some more popular than others. But I always felt that way about the Pittsburgh scene as well, from my earliest trips into Oakland to play the Electric Banana and the Decade before I could legally enter either of those fine establishments on nights I wasn't playing. I've never understood why people need to be encouraged to support the local scene. All the greatest bands were local somewhere.
You maintained The Breakup Society in both places for a while. Is there a Pittsburgh one left to play the music live?
I would love nothing more than to come home and play with the Pittsburgh edition of The Breakup Society. But since Dan MacIntyre moved to Texas, it's pretty unlikely. Not unless we had a show that made financial sense for us to both fly into Pittsburgh. What's Rich Engler up to these days?
So, you took a different sonic approach on "So Much Unhappiness ..." What were you trying to do this time?
Well, I wrote the first two songs I'd ever written on piano ("Another Day in the Life" and "He's Supportin' the War"). And by piano, I mean a Casio PT-100 with 32 keys. In the meantime, I found that the other new songs I was writing had gotten away from the chugging, early-Who-by-way-of-the-Ramones guitar I'd fallen into in the '90s when the Frampton Brothers started rocking more. So I wanted to make a record where I set the crutch aside and said, "OK, what happens when you're not allowed to do that?" And what happened is I went into the studio with Bob Hoag, who's produced all The Breakup Society albums, and we focused on making a record that draws more on the music of the psychedelic '60s through the early '70s -- which also makes it sound more like the kind of record someone might have made today because those frames of reference are as relevant as ever.
Yeah, with a lot of younger people listening to vinyl and plenty of old-timers still around, is there still a lot of interest in '60s/'70s-sounding pop?
If there weren't a lot of interest in the music of that era, it would be hard to explain the success of Adele. And this is not to say one might confuse us with Adele. I'd just look silly with my hair up in a bun like that.
Most people would. So, would you say you were writing mostly from personal experience here or getting into the heads of other characters?
This album was originally named "A Collection of First-Person Character Sketches." But our lead guitarist, Scott Marceau, thought that was horrible. And he was wrong. But the idea was that there's autobiography in most of my character sketches, and most of my first-person narratives are packed with fiction. The writer for the Phoenix New Times said I was "the poet laureate of romantically challenged, over-educated ne'er-do-wells," a line I love when in reality I'm none of the above. I just prefer to give those characters a voice because their problems are more interesting to me than what passes for drama in my life. Having said that, I like that the album's most revealing line -- "If I can't stop laughing at these gallows, it's just 'cause they're scaring me half to death" -- is in a song called "Mary Shelley" about how people shouldn't read too much personal information into other people's art. But the album's most personal song is probably "Your Invitation to Quit," which I'm assuming is my final word on the Frampton Brothers breakup.
And I finally wrote a song that's closer to my world view than all that gallows humor. Bob thought we needed an opening track that would set up the record the way the Beatles did on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." So on the way into the studio the next day, I thought, "OK, 7th chords and work the title in there somewhere." And because the title was so dark, the challenge then became to get from there to "All You Need Is Love" in two verses or less, which I did in the time it took to drive into the studio that day. I even paraphrase the words to "All You Need Is Love," although, for me, the more Beatlesque line is "Only you can leave your tears behind."
How did you come to write with John Wesley Harding?
We met when we opened for him at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. What happened is that he invited me to fly to Pittsburgh to perform in his Cabinet of Wonders, but I couldn't swing it financially. So I said "Could we write a song instead?" I had this music I had written that I loved, but I was struggling with the words because to me it had this real John Lennon vibe and called for lyrics closer to a "Mind Games" or "Imagine" than I'll ever write. So I thought, "Well, let's see if Wes can come up with some optimistic Lennon magic here to complement the music." And he comes back with "The Way We Weren't," a title I was shocked I hadn't written first. So it was nothing like what I had hoped he'd write and all the better for it. He recorded it as well, with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and some Decemberists.
What plans do you have to get out and promote this?
Well, from what I hear, we're playing SXSW. And we've done a video for "Your Invitation to Quit." We'd like to do one video per song. So if you're reading this and you would like to do a video, we need 11 people just like you to help us out. As always, if the New Pornographers invited us to tour with them, we'd do it in a heartbeat. Or some version of us would. We owe it to ourselves, Get Hip and most of all, our friend John Fredland, who bankrolled the bulk of the sessions.
There was some delay in getting this out. Do you already have material for the next album?
There is an album's worth of new material. And I am itching to record it. At the moment, I'm thinking of calling it "Before the Intervention Ruined Everything." Or possibly "Don't Let the Hipsters Catch You Crying." But I need to focus my Breakup Society energies on getting this one out there first. I've never made a record I'm more proud to call my own. I can't just move on to the next thing now that it's finally here. You wouldn't do that to a baby, would you?
The Breakup Society's "So Much Unhappiness, So Little Time" is available at www.gethip.com.music
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.