Think You Know
an interview with
by Frank Critelli
Berlin Turnpike, CT
Frank: Okay, first things first,
everybody wants to know. Explain Nerve Rock as a genre.
Peter: I dont know. Nerve Rock just seems to be an
accurate description of what we do because its a lot of different elements that come
together. We had no term for what we did. I mean, I guess everybodys
stuff seems different to them, right? Would you agree with that?
P: And, I dont know. The legend is
that...We were playing at the Empress Ballroom, and it was an all-ages punk show and some
kids were like listening to us play and one kid said, What kind of music is
this? I think one of the other kids said Nerd Rock. And I
misheard it as Nerve Rock, so we just kind of adopted that. But I think
its grown out of that. I think its music thats improvisational by
nature thats based out of the songs that I write. And that means that they
could morph from gig to gig or over many performances. We dont have one set
way of playing any song.
J: I think Nerve Rock is not jam, funk, jazz, punk,
folk. Its kind of little bit of everything thrown together. Some guy
last night in Fleischmanns called us edgy-folk, and thats okay. Thats
falls into the Anti-Folk type thing.
P: If you think in terms of the band, the performance
philosophy is that we morph the presentation to the venue that were in. The
Sawtelles have always been a looser sort of thing.
J: We played Las Vetas on Friday completely
unplugged. Now tonight were going to be blastingly loud.
F: What other bands do you think fit into that category?
J: Probably different bands at different times during
different songs. Sometimes some of Bret Logans stuff, because sometimes
they can totally go off on a tangent. Sometimes they just get in this groove and it
goes someplace. Sometimes Lys Guillorns stuff, you cant really
pigeonhole her either. Sometimes Carlos Project can be Nerve-Rocky.
P: We dont rehearse. Its just subject
to change. If we had to rehearse every week, Id probably quit the
Sawtelles. Music for me is a different thing. I trust Julie and Pete to do the right thing. I
trust their judgment. Id rather have them constantly putting their two-cents
J: ...and have it be spur-of-the-moment, free, not tied
down to anything.
P: I was influenced as much by Charles Mingus as the
Beatles. There are elements of both styles of music there. I equate it with
more of a jazz sort of thing: the interpretation changes depending on the performance.
F: Do you make set lists or do you just make it up as you go
P: We wrote set lists earlier on. I suppose if it
was a 25-minute showcase show where we were trying to show off a certain aspect of what we
do, I would write a set list. Most of the time there is no set list, but
theres a master list of all the songs that we currently do. So if Im
really stuck, I can look down. I usually try to get a feel for what the next song
should be when Im playing the current song...like what direction do we want to take
it. I try to pace it.
F: Part of your appeal in live shows is the physical
interactions with the audience like prize giveaways...
J: That stuffs all new. Peter and I would be
all set with just going up and playing music and not talk at all, but it just seems like
the more you put yourself out there, the more people will pay attention and see what you
do. I think its also trying to make friends... Sometimes well be
at a place and therell be nothing to talk about and people are doing whatever
theyre doing, and well just play the gig.
P: For me, if its a good night I can interact a lot
with an audience whether its telling a story about the song or...
J: The pigs! (refers to driving to a gig in Amenia, NY
and seeing two pigs running wild and free on the side
of the road)
P: Oh, we have a new story...Today, coming over.
Were driving through Waterbury and this guys changing lanes from the middle
lane to the left lane, which were in.
J: Where 84 joins up with 8 North. Im
driving, and I see this guy in kind of like a tourist-y vehicle and first he was in the
first lane, then the middle lane, and it looked like he...Tell the rest of the story!
P: He just keeps going over and then all of a sudden he
has two wheels up on the Jersey barrier.
J: And the car like smashed into the barrier, and
Im thinking Oh my God. its going to flip over! I saw him drift
over and I was wondering if he just wasnt paying attention.
P: I didnt know if he was looking at the Holy Land
Cross or he fell asleep or...
J: I didnt know what was going on with this guy,
but all of a sudden the car was up on the Jersey barrier and I saw the whole thing
coming. There was dust and smoke.
P: It didnt flip over, and he didnt blow out
a tire. He went back into the middle lane and drove with his hand over his face like
Im such a moron... But thats the kind of thing we would
bring to a show...Like the thing with the ringtone (referring to Billboard magazine now
charting cell phone ringtone downloads). I heard that story on the news, and I
thought how ridiculous. But the other part of my brain was trying to
think of how I could cash in on that. But some nights its a struggle for me to
interact with an audience at all.
J: It depends a lot on the vibe. Sometimes you get
that crossed-arm sort of vibe.
P: Or something immediately goes wrong...
F: Do those interactions ever break the momentum of what
youre trying to create musically?
P: I think the second time we did that (giving away
glamorous dollar-store prizes to audience members), I was like Okay, enough
prizes, lets play. Its weird. I wouldnt like a band
that was totally goofy and not serious at all, but yet, sometimes I think its
pretentious when theyre so totally serious all the time. You have to strike a
balance, and that balance is different all the time. That may be one of the things
that may have appeal for the Sawtelles over time...that it is different all the time.
J: Maybe it creates little memorable events that people
can key into, but you dont necessarily have to do it all the time. Well at
least do it once a year on our birthdays. But whoever got the 30-pack Family Comb
set will remember that, you know? We spare no expense at the dollar store.
P: People have different schticks.
F: Change gears just a little. Talk to me a little bit
about how the songs get written.
P: It mostly all comes from me...thats about
ninety-eight percent. The two percent might be if Julie and I are rehearsing
something and Ill just start playing a riff or a couple of chords. Shell
say, Whats that? And Ill say, I dont know, I
just made it up. She encourages me to push myself and finish it. But most of
the time its just me sitting there.
J: I cant write. I have no inspiration, no
desire to write songs. I dont feel any pull. Im not compelled to
write songs. Maybe hell play something, and Ill say, That sounds like this
kind of idea.
P: And then Ill take that and turn it into
lyrics. Its almost like being commissioned or something like that. I
dont necessarily wax and wane over it. We were driving back from a show that
we played, and she said, That thing you were working on should be about this.
And I found a pen and an envelope in the car, and I wrote before we got to the Mass
Pike. Sometimes its easy when somebody says, Just do this.
Im not sitting there trying to express myself; Im sitting there trying to
express the idea that was brought up. Its hard to divorce myself or make
myself do that all the time. Im a big minimalist in terms of lyrics; I very
rarely have a song thats like a story. I tend to be more fragmented
lyrically. I really want someone to interpret it. Rain is
probably the closest Ive come to a story song. Garden is so
fragmented, really only I know, or you (refers to Julie) might know what its
about. Its definitely about a true event, but I just wanted to portray it
F: Ive been listening to Yellow for a week, and
you definitely have a knack for saying a lot in a few words.
P: Well, I think my big rule in lyric writing is that the
speech rhythm in the lyrics has to fit the melody rhythm. Ill pair my lyrical
idea with the melody idea. Im not a Dylan type of guy. Once the melody
is written then I tailor the lyrics to that melody. And Im happy with paring
it down or pushing the envelope of the idea, or the impression, or the image to fit with
that. Thats my own personal thing.
F: So would you say that you write from a musical place or a
P: I try to strike a balance but definitely the melody
has the last say over almost anything. Actually some of the songs are about two
things at the same time. They could have been two totally different songs, but I
come up with a couple of lines that have to do with the car accident we saw in front of
us. Or Ill come up with a couple of lines based on something somebody said to
me. Ill have those two ideas in my brain at the same time, and Ill morph
them into one song. So to me its about two things at once because I thought of
those things one after the other, or one made me think of the other. But the melody
has the last say. To me, the best pop songs are the ones with the strongest
melodies. Second, how the melody fits over the chords. Third, the general
feel of the song.
(we are interrupted here
by the waitress who brings more coffee)
F: I might have been able to guess that most of the songs come
from Peter, but to the casual observer at a show, it definitely seems like a group
effort. Julie, you seem to me to be like the secret weapon. You
seem to lead by hanging back, and you play the song instead of the drums.
Whats different about the way you approach your instrument than a more typical rock
n roll drummer?
J: I have no training whatsoever. Most of the time,
Peter will play a song and it will speak to me and Ill know exactly how it needs to
be played. Occasionally, Ill get stuck. On those stuck songs, it might not go
anywhere because I just cant get past that. It doesnt give me any
ideas...but thats so infrequent. I grew up listening to a lot of music, I see
a bazillion concerts, but I have no idea about notes or timing. I play by instinct,
P: She has a dance background. We would be driving
along and a Led Zeppelin song would come on the radio, and shed play the drum part
on the steering wheel. She has an innate sense and love for music.
F: I was watching you pretty close this past Tuesday night at
cafe nine, and Julie has a very melodic style. You were talking about the importance
of melody before. You seem to put together very interesting combinations of snare
and tom and cymbal...like a tap dance is a more melodic style of dance with the different
heel and toe sounds. Do you think your dancing might have pushed you in that
direction as a drummer?
J: Yeah, Ive taken tap. Tom Dans (the
Furors) says my playing was very staccato, or syncopated, which might actually come
from my tap background. A lot of it might be from osmosis because Ive listened
to Peter play drums for so long. A lot of things I might come up with are things
hes already done.
P: The thing about the Sawtelles is that theres a
balance. There are times when people play and when people hang back in all three
parts. All three parts could be taking the lead in some way at any time.
Its very equilateral, and I like to have a balance between melody and musical
support. I like space. I feel fortunate that the Sawtelles have developed the
way they have. Its everything I could have hoped for the songs to have.
Even when we play as a duo, that element is still there. Theres a delicate
F: As a trio, talk to me a little bit about the
chemistry that you have in a live setting.
P: We started playing together quietly and in close
proximity. Acoustically. We started off playing strictly coffeehouse gigs and
grew into the clubs. We learned to play quietly first and that gave us the ability
to listen to each other. If somebody goes somewhere or steps out...Pete is prone to
playing a solo or a lead part. Some of the songs live have an open-ended bass solo
or lead part like Mr. Attitude or I Think You Know. We
always lay back and let him play.
F: He does a lot of interesting things on bass. Is that you
giving him room to breathe or...
P: Yeah. Its really only like less than four
times a year that hell actually play a note over a chord that I dont agree
with and Ill say, Resolve it to this note. Its really
very rarely. I play a lot of open tuning and partial chords so hes more
free. Hes also says hes more free because theres no kick
drum. Hes not tied down to playing a beat thats married to the drum
part. The drum and guitar provides the outline, and the bass connects the
dots. Petes bass playing is very active, and it makes my guitar parts seems
more like rhythm parts.
J: You play differently when we play as a duo.
P: Yeah, definitely.
J: You play more actively. Were more random
and might go off on a tangent.
P: Its all very natural. The best thing I
could do for the Sawtelles is not tell everybody what to play. I let the song
dictate instead of me dictating.
F: How do you compare the Sawtelles on record with what you are
capable of live?
P: I think on record youre getting the essence of
the song. I try to get the most concise version of the song for ease and economy of
recording. Less is more. Youre always going to get the shortest version
of any Sawtelles composition on record.
J: Except for Garden. Its till a
minute-fifty-seven no matter where we play it.
F: The Sawtelles seem to have a certain mystique
among other bands in CT.
P: We do!
F: Hey, Im just telling what Ive observed!
P: No, thats awesome!
F: How does it feel for you guys to be considered among your
peers to be the Real Deal?
J: Yeah, thats awesome.
P: I always think of success in terms of the jury of my
peers. And if people we know say nice things, I feel really happy. I feel
happy that were getting across. That kind of response from peers means the
most to me.
J: The thing with us is that were not
straight-up. Someone made the observation that we are an acquired taste,
and I agree with that.
F: Part of my experience with the Sawtelles was like a
Buddhists Enlightenment. All of a sudden, one day I looked at you and it
clicked. A light went on somewhere and I thought, Holy Shit, these guys are
fantastic! Why didnt I hear this when I put Yellow on for the first
time? I felt like I had taken acid for the first time.
P: I think some of my favorite bands have worked that
F: So whats the appeal? Why do so many artists like
the Sawtelles? Ray Neal (Miracle Legion, Jellyshirts) told me the other day
that you were his new favorite band. Ive said those exact words, and so have
other people: Theyre my new favorite band.
P: To me, those comments mean that were along for
ride with everyone whos serious about what they do. So maybe that means
were serious and honest about what we do. We just go up there and try to get
it done the best way we can. Some nights you think we suck and I cant get out
of my own way musically, and people will think its great. And some nights you
think you play a great show...
J: ...and nobody says anything.
F: Im going to push my original question:
what do you think it is about the Sawtelles that appeal to other artists in particular?
J: I dont know.
P: I would say its honesty.
J: I mean, were not Mick Jagger; we just do what we
P: We do it because we love it, and maybe that comes
across. Im just happy that people say that about us.
F: Its well-known fact that the Sawtelles
must have been cloned because youre everywhere. If youre not out
playing, youre at someone elses show. How much have other artists in the
area influenced your work?
P: A lot. We have this thing in the Sawtelles
called The Bastard Award. Anytime we hear a song that we just think is
awesome we say You Bastard! because I wish I wrote it. Some of Mr.
Rays stuff. Some of Bret Logans songs; To The Lake. To
me, it doesnt get better than that. The Furors. I think were
influenced by everybody. When I hear something thats really good, it makes me
want to do it too. Miracle Legion. Dum Dum Boys. Camera Face. The
Scene and wanting to be a part of it, thats what influences me.
J: Were trying to build the scene. We like
going to see the people we know.
P: There are so many people whose music I love, and I
want to hear them play live.
J: When I lived in Massachusetts, I never went to see a
local band. But when I moved down here, I was totally blown away by some of the
local bands that we saw. I couldnt believe it. I never knew how good
local music could be until I moved down to CT and started seeing shows in New Haven.
P: There was a whole other world you never knew existed.
J: Oh, absolutely.
P: I think the best music, especially in the U.S,. is
music existing on the local level. Maybe thats part of the Sawtelles appeal,
were pests. Were always around. You cant get rid of us.
J: (laughs) They wont go away!
P: ...but in a good way. In a supportive way.