BY JONATHAN VALANIA A way out West there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Pete Yorn. Now, above all things, Pete Yorn is a dude. He is, in fact, a dude’s dude. Same as there’s a man’s man and a songwriter’s songwriter, Pete Yorn is a dude’s dude. You can tell even before he opens his mouth, which is when it becomes really obvious. That hair, that denim jacket, those eyes — eyes that have searched soulfully through the racks of a thousand Jersey convenience stores for the perfect microwaveable burrito. He surfs. He lifts weights. He shoots hoops. He does bongs. And, most importantly, chicks dig him. Not just some chicks — all chicks. And he doesn’t even seem to care. That’s why he’s The Dude. That’s what you call him. That, or Duder. His Dudeness. Or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Now, when something makes The Dude happy — and, really, The Dude has so many things to be happy about these days — his voice raises an octave and he cries out, “Sweet!” He says this with a slight drawl, like a farmer calling a pig: soo-weet!
Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in 2004, I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man–I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here — sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there — and that’s The Dude, in Los Angeles. They call Los Angeles the City of Angels. I didn’t find it to be that exactly, but I’ll allow as there are some nice folks there.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck once mused to an interviewer that people would be surprised how far you can get in the music business by simply showing up for your appointments. The Dude always shows up. Even though he makes it look easy, The Dude works hard. Hell, he toured for 18 months straight to nudge his eminently lovable debut, musicforthemorningafter, to gold-selling status. He’s always worked hard at music, going all the way back to the time he was nine and his brother taught him how to play drums on a right-y kit, even though The Dude’s a lefty. By the time he was 13, he was playing drums and singing in a Replacements cover band called The Cheese. For its big debut, The Cheese was set to perform at the high-school talent show. With an eye for the obvious, even back then, The Dude had ’em work up a version of the Mats’ “Talent Show.” During the dress rehearsal, members of one of the other bands, Backgammon For Troubled Youth (which is quite possibly the worst band name in the history of amateur rock, with the possible exception of The Cheese), liked what they heard and approached The Dude afterward about sitting in on vocals when they performed “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the talent show. A Neil cover? Sweet!
The rest of The Cheese weren’t quite as excited about the idea, and needless to say, they were even less so when Backgammon For Troubled Youth took first prize. But, you know, whatever. All was forgiven when The Dude would “borrow” his mom’s car for a little joyriding and everybody would pile in. Until the day he got caught.
“I was hanging out with five of my buds,” says The Dude. “I had been slowly experimenting with taking the car out-I backed over my friend’s foot once-and that night I felt extra ballsy. I ordered a pizza at the best pizza place ever — I really love pizza — this place in Parsippany, Nino’s Pizzaria on Route 46, and they didn’t deliver. I was like, ‘I’ve been driving around the neighborhood, I’m gonna go get this pizza.’ We get in the car, and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ comes on. I felt a little foreboding, but whatever, so we start driving. And then it starts snowing. I got pulled over. Cop comes up to window and says, ‘Licenseregistrationplease.”
I say, ‘I left it at home.’
He looks at me and says, ‘How old are you, son?’
I go, ‘Uh, 17?’
He goes, ‘How old are you, son?’
‘How old are you, boy?’
Cop turns around and says to his partner, ‘We got another one of these.’ I guess they caught a lot of kids stealing their parents’ cars that night.” When The Dude got out of jail, his mom was pretty mad. Like, F-word mad. The Dude, flexing his budding dudeness, was just like, whatever. That’s why he’s The Dude.
Fast-forward a few years to freshman year at Syracuse. It’s 1992, and The Dude is living in the dorms, jamming on an acoustic guitar with his buds, staying up all night playing Nintendo, smoking bongs and spinning records by Echo & The Bunnymen, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Stone Roses, Smiths, Ride and lots and lots of R.E.M. The Dude had been a heavy-duty R.E.M. fan since back in the day, when his brother made him get in the car and listen to “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” like, super loud. “I remember I was blown away by the way it started real quiet and lo-fi, then got really big and loud,” says The Dude. “I did the same thing with my first album. I thought it would be cool.”
Freshman year was, as The Dude recalls, “a very emotional time.” He had just broken up with his high school sweetheart, his first true love, and his first taste of heartbreak. On top of that, he felt so guilty for turning his parents into empty nesters, he wrote term papers about it. “I remember thinking it was the end of an era, that things would never be the same,” he says. He wrote, like, 200 songs that year. He had just one rule for songwriting: the Five Minute Rule. If he couldn’t finish writing a song in five minutes, it wasn’t worth finishing.
After a lot of beer bongs and soul searching — then more beer bongs — The Dude discovered two things that would dramatically impact his songwriting: He loved Bruce Springsteen and hated Leonard Cohen. “One of my frat brothers was Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son,” The Dude recalls. “My buds were like, ‘That guy’s dad is this awesome singer, check it out.’ He gave me one of his dad’s later discs. I hated it, wound up throwing it out the car window.”
The Dude never liked Springsteen when he was growing up in New Jersey; quite literally, it hit a little too close to home. As anybody who’s ever been there can attest, Jersey is a lot more exotic from a distance. Besides, the Boss was going through his pumped-up, headband-wearing’ Born In The U.S.A. phase. But in college, on of The Dude’s buds told him to, like, check out the early stuff. “He was like, ‘Dude, do a giant bong hit, turn out all the lights and lay down on the floor and listen to a song called ‘New York City Serenade,'” says The Dude. “I was like, ‘That sounds cool.’ After that, I got into all that early stuff.
Despite all the jamming and songwriting, The Dude only did two proper gigs while he was in college. The first time was in a bar, and it was no big deal. But the second time, well, he had somehow gotten roped into performing at another talent contest. It was for a good cause, all the proceeds went to charity, so he’s like, “Fine, whatever.” And guess what? The Dude won first prize. Sweet! “I was like, ‘I might as well go for it now,'” he says. “I don’t want to be past my prime wondering what if.”
After graduating in 1996, The Dude relocated to California and moved in with his brothers — Kevin and Rick — who were climbing their way up the Hollywood ladder. After eight hard years spent taking down gang bangers for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, Kevin had turned to entertainment law. His first celebrity client was Benicio Del Toro. Rick had started working for CAA, a powerful Hollywood talent agency, and he got The Dude a job counting concert tickets. It seems like there were always movie stars hanging out at Casa Yorn. Matt Dillon was a frequent overnight guest; he turned The Dude on to Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes. One day, The Dude came home to find Jim Carrey sitting on the couch, smoking a joint. Sweet!
Though The Dude had two entertainment-industry insiders as brothers, breaking into the music biz was slow going for him. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna get signed within a year,'” he says. Four years later, The Dude still didn’t have a record deal. He had a couple of near misses. He had recorded an album with producer Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, Hole) for a label that Daniel Lanois was trying to put together, but the deal fell through and the record got shelved. So he went back to his day job, working as a production assistant for Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films. (“I thought it was fitting because I was from Jersey,” says The Dude.) He continued gigging (mostly at Largo, ground zero of L.A.’s singer/songwriter scene) and sending out demo tapes to labels. Finally, in 1999, Columbia took the bait and signed The Dude. Sweet!
Things only got sweeter when the Farrelly Brothers asked him to score Me, Myself & Irene, which he worked on concurrently with musicforthemorningafter. Columbia pretty much left The Dude alone while he worked on the album with his bud R. Walt Vincent in a “shitty neighborhood” in Van Nuys. “No air conditioning,” says The Dude. “It was like a hundred degrees in there.” The Dude took his time, and a year later, in May 2000, he finished his debut. Like The Dude himself, musicforthemorningafter is a lovable hunk of unshaven folk rock, with a strummy heart wrapped in denim vulnerability and the nostalgic ghost of ’80s college radio: the Smiths’ brittle sob stories, R.E.M.’s kidzu jangle, high-toned Joy Division bass lines.
Columbia used the same slow-build approach to market the album. musicforthemorningafter was released in March 2001 to light fanfare and very modest sales. But The Dude kept plugging away, opening up for anyone who would have him. Semisonic. The Hours, Sunny Day Real Estate. Bands that have long since eaten his dust. MTV2 started playing the video for “Life On A Chain,” and suddenly everybody wanted a piece of The Dude. For 18 months straight, he stayed out on the road.
“We were having fun with it, just watching it build,” he says. “I remember Christmas 2001, we sold 17,000 copies in one week.” The rooms got bigger. The crowds got bigger. The gossip papers were linking him with Minnie Driver and Winona Ryder, the ultimate sign of alt-rock ascendancy. One night, he was playing in Seattle at the Crocodile, the rock club owned by Peter Buck’s wife. The R.E.M. guitarist came out for the show and afterward went up to The Dude and told him he loved his song “Just Another.” The Dude told Buck that Columbia wanted him to record a more revved-up, radio-ready version of “Strange Condition.” (The Dude always abides.) Would Buck consider playing on it? “Love to,” said Buck. Sweet!
Back in 2004, this was a typical day in the life of The Dude in Los Angeles: He gets up, not too early, but when he does, he appreciates it. Maybe he goes for a run. Two-and-a-half, maybe three miles. Then it’s time for breakfast, which is usually scrambled eggs and lox at his favorite diner, Early World, near his home in Brentwood. Then maybe he’ll surf the net and log on to the message boards on his Web site. He uses the screen name Lou Reed, but all the regulars know it’s him. Then maybe he’ll boogaloo over to Poquito Mas or Baja Fresh and get a burrito. Never could get a decent burrito back in Jersey. They were always wet. The Dude hates that. Or maybe he’ll go surfing or just do a few curls. The Dude looks skinny in photos, but he’s got guns. “I don’t even lift much, like maybe once a week,” The Dude figures, “and my friends are like, ‘Dude, you’re bustin’ out!'”
And then maybe he’ll visit his grampa. He’s 94, and every moment is precious. The Dude loves the guy. Straight off the boat from Poland in 1919, he built a life for the Yorns in the New World with his bare hands. Sold vacuum cleaners during the Depression, then he was a mechanic. Had his own garage. And then he was a baker. Had his own bakery. Put his kid through dental school. Grampa worked hard, man. He got a shoutout on 2004’s Day I Forgot. “Old man in the kitchen/I think he’s part of me,” The Dude sings on “All At Once.”
Or maybe he’ll go bowling with Rick or Kevin. “I just hope I’m lucky enough to grow old with my brothers,” says The Dude. Maybe he’ll hang out with his mom and pop. Or maybe he’ll go over to a buddy’s house and watch The Big Lebowski. “Pretty much simple shit, ya know?” says The Dude. The only thing he won’t be doing, however, is nothing. The Dude is like a shark–he’s gotta keep moving or he sinks to the bottom. Always been like that. Used to get sent home from Hebrew school for being too hyper. He doesn’t get to services too much these days, but the basic tenets of the faith he was raised in still seem pretty solid to The Dude: “Be a good person, treat people well, have respect for everything, don’t wish ill of people even if they aren’t so nice.”
The Dude seems like a walk-between-the-raindrops kind of guy — and during my time with him he certainly made being Pete Yorn look easy — but just like you and me The Dude’s got stress. Like, under pressure, from within and without. You see, there are people — his family and his record company — that are looking out for The Dude and they have big plans for him, plans that were set into motion long ago. “My dad had it planned all along,” says The Dude. “He encouraged Kevin to move out to California, Rich would follow and then he could move mom out there and retire. It worked.”
The Yorns are tight. Like, dynasty tight. And The Dude’s brother Rick — who taught him how to play drums, who showed him R.E.M., who even played in The Dude’s band when he first moved to Los Angeles — he’s got plans for him, too. Make him big, like, Ben Affleck-big. And why not? The Dude’s got the look. He’s got tunes, good hair, he works hard, chicks dig him. Sweet!
I mean, you really have to make an effort not to like The Dude. And some do. There’s a lot of bitter talk going around the biz. Real catty, sorority-sister, hair-pulling bullshit. His brothers used their clout to get him where he is, they say. And there’s some truth in that. But it isn’t what people think. It’s not like The Dude got off the plane in Hollywood and his brothers picked him up and drove him to the spotlight. “I wish it worked like that, because we love Pete and I wish I had that much power,” says Kevin Yorn. “Pete did this all on his own. People who think we pulled strings for him don’t understand how the music business works. Music either stands on its own or it falls.”
“You know what it is?” asks R. Walt Vincent, the man behind the recording console on musicforthemorningafter and Day I Forgot. “A fuckload of jealousy by not-so-successful artists. And I hope it makes them feel better. You might be able to buy an opportunity to get your music heard by people, but you can’t make them like your songs.”
When the Yorn brothers arrived in Los Angeles, they couldn’t afford furniture. It would be years before Matt Dillon and Jim Carrey started showing up. “I remember my brothers both slept on the same futon for, like, a year,” says The Dude, who spent four times that long trying to get a record deal. And when he did get his shot, he worked his ass off. Tour for a year and a half without interruption? He’s there. Smile for a camera? Cheese. In-stores? Not a problem. A Farrelly Brothers movie score? Sweet!
When it became time to make a follow-up to musicforthemorningafter he started recording again with Vincent. The Dude wanted to rock out more. No more loops, no more ’80s drum machines, no more holding back on the vocals the way Vincent got him to do on musicforthemorningafter, because, like, The Dude was feelin’ these songs. And when The Dude is feelin’ it, he yarls — which is fast becoming the mullet of vocal styles. “When I first met Pete, he sang much more, um, testosterone rock,” says Vincent. “My girlfriend teases him about singing like Eddie Vedder. He thinks it’s a huge compliment.”
The Columbia brass didn’t wasn’t a singer/songwriter record, they wanted a rock record. They were ready to push the button, to drop the big dime — AT&T even wanted a piece of the tour — but they needed something they could sell to the KROQ kids. This was album two, The Dude’s last chance to establish himself as a rock artist. Another quirky, romantic, singer/songwriter album would lock him in the triple-A ghetto and throw away the key. If he lost some of his original fan base with this record, the thinking went, he could always get them back on the third record. “We did a lot of blistering guitar rock, and there were a few slower, tug-at-your-heart songs,” says Vincent. “There was lot of pressure. You could feel the commercial elements saying, ‘Give us something we can shoot to the moon,’ and the fans were saying, ‘Don’t sell out.’ And the elements that wanted this record to rock a little more won out.” Andy Wallace, the guy who made Nirvana sound so cherry, was brought in to give it that patina of compressed sizzle that radio loves.
The problem with Day I Forgot is it makes you do something no second album should: It makes you miss the first album. On musicforthemorningafter, you might be able to hear The Dude’s record collection in his songs, but you could also hear The Dude. Day I Forgot isn’t a bad album, it’s just not a very good album — and I still think he has it in him to make a great one. The early reviews have been polite, purchased or downright dismissive. Rolling Stone gave it a two-star review that could be summed up in one word: blah. Not that The Dude cares. “You know, somebody told me a long time ago that if you are going to believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones,” he says. “So I just stopped reading them.” No biggie: The Dude’s not much of a reader, anyway. And besides, reviews don’t really matter — at this point, he’s critic-proof. The first week out of the gate musicforthemorningafter sold 2,000 copies. Day I Forgot sold 73,000. Sweet!
Well, that’s pretty much the story of The Dude in Los Angeles circa 2004. He loved his parents (probably still does), his brothers were well-connected Hollywood insiders (they still are), his record company wanted him to sell a lot of albums (they still do) and AT&T wanted him to sell a lot of phones. Whatever. It could’ve been a lot worse. The Dude knows this. He’s always known this.
That’s why The Dude abides.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the release of musicforthemorningafter and The Day I Forgot, Pete Yorn has released five albums, two live albums and seven EPs. His latest release, Apart, an EP of duets with Scarlett Johansson, dropped in July. Yorn is currently in the midst of a career retrospective solo acoustic tour that stops at the Ardmore Music Hall this Thursday, September 27th. Phawker’s Henry Savage got Yorn on the phone yesterday. DISCUSSED: His just-released duet with Liz Phair on a cover of The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man”; Serge Gainsbourg; Brigitte Bardot; Guided By Voices; Howard Stern; Bruce Springsteen; David Bowie; his three year old daughter’s love affair with vintage Madonna; Iggy Pop; the Butcher Brothers; Mick Ronson’s guitar Ziggy Stardust; his favorite ScarJo movie.
PHAWKER: What prompted the decision to do a solo acoustic tour? Any hints about what people can expect?
PETE YORN: I started doing these solo tours in about 2014, on and off. At first I wanted the challenge of forcing myself on stage with just my guitar and see what I could do with that. It ended up being a fun thing for me and the fans, so I’ve been doing them on and off for a few years now. The main thing about it is that it’s a really spontaneous show, when it’s just me I have a lot of material I can go to that I’ve been messing around with since I’ve been 13 years old, a lot more than I’m able teach my band. It’s a lot of requests, there’s really no setlist, it’s an intimate, fun sing-along kind of night. It’s a way for me to get out and play songs, sometimes I just want to sing these songs and play music.
PHAWKER: I wanted to say very nice job on “Here Comes Your Man.” Do you remember the circumstances to first hearing the Pixies and what your reaction was?
PETE YORN: I can’t remember when or where I was when I first heard that song, but I do remember it affecting me. There’s only a few songs I heard for the first time that stopped me in my tracks, and “Here Comes Your Man” was definitely one of those songs. It might’ve been the video on 120 Minutes, it very likely might’ve been that. I used to love 120 Minutes on MTV and I would stay up after my bedtime to watch it because it was on at 11 o’clock on Sunday nights. I would sneak downstairs to watch it or tape them on VHS and watch it the next day over and over. That song just the melody of it and everything about it I loved. I also felt the same way about “Gigantic” when I heard that song. Thank you for giving it a thumbs up, I appreciate it.
PHAWKER: How did Liz Phair get involved with this cover?
PETE YORN: Liz is an old friend from when I first started making music. We had the same producer for both of our debut records, this guy Brad Wood, we might’ve met through him. He became friends with other friends of mine and one of them is this guy Doc Dauer who recorded and co-produced this whole covers record I did and one of those songs is “Here Comes Your Man” and the rest are kind of sitting on the sidelines right now. I think I was on tour and Doc is friends with Liz too and he just called her in and got her over to the studio, and she sang on it when I wasn’t even there. Then he sent it to me and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so great,” it was like a nice surprise. Thinking back I had worked with Liz before, I played drums on a few songs on her record and she sang on a “Suspicious Minds” cover that I did a few years ago. She’s awesome, she’s out on tour now too.
PHAWKER: Scarlett Johansson has duetted with two people: you and David Bowie. That’s pretty good company. What’s your favorite David Bowie song and why?
PETE YORN: I just saw yesterday, I think it was like the 40th or so anniversary, I think of his song “Heroes” being released. When I heard that song for the first time it really stayed with me. I went to summer camp in the Catskills in upstate New York and I remember I was probably 11 or 12, and I used to go the canteen which was like where the kids would hang out at night. They had a jukebox and I used to go in there when I was too shy to talk to girls or anything like that, but I would go up to the jukebox with limited songs, but they had Modern Love. It was brand new at the time, and I used to just put a quarter in and play that song. I loved hearing that song and it always just gave me a good feeling.
One thing I also love is “China Girl,” I did a cover of it a few years ago. I recorded it on a very stormy night in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania at a studio by these guys, The Butcher Brothers. I wanted to cover it because I always loved Bowie’s version, but I had never heard Iggy’s version and when I heard his version it inspired me to cover it because I thought it had a real rock and roll vibe. So that song was very influential to me and I loved “Blue Jea” too. I remember as a kid seeing that video and years later I rediscovered it and it’s just such a cool song. Then there’s earlier Bowie stuff like Ziggy Stardust and the Mick Ronson guitar, it was one of the first things I learned to play on the guitar. There’s another song “Ashes to Ashes” and that song is killer. He couldn’t really mess up, he was great.
PHAWKER: You’ve collaborated with Scarlett Johansson twice, there’s the just released Apart, an EP of duets that came out back in June, and The Break Up, an LP’s worth of duets with her that came out in 2009. How did the ScarJo collaboration originally come together?
PETE YORN: Scarlett’s an old friend, I’ve known since she was probably 15 years old, maybe even younger. She knew my brother’s first, and I met her in a club in New York I think maybe like 2000-2001. She came up to me and said, “Your Pete!” I guess she had maybe seen a picture of me or something. I was like “Hey! What’s up?” and she said, “I’m Scarlett, I know your brothers,” in her New York accent. The whole thing working with her in the first place was I had gotten into the idea of wanting to make a record sort of like Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, like having a beautiful starlet sing on a song. I remember thinking “Who is the Brigitte Bardot of today?” and it’s Scarlett. I hadn’t talked to her in a year and I texted her and called her at the right time. I said, “I have this idea for a record, do you want to sing some songs?” She said sure and we got together and made some music, then years later we got back together and made some more music.
PHAWKER: It was almost a 10 year gap between recordings, did it come together that way or did you plan to take time off before the next project?
PETE YORN: There was no plan at all, just kind of timing I guess. We actually recorded The Break Up in 2006 so it was even longer than 10 years if you really want to know the truth. When timing works out I can get together with her and make some music.
PHAWKER: What was the inspiration for the cover art for Apart? It has a retro capital logo and an old-style feel to it.
PETE YORN: I’m a fan of old records and that kind of aesthetic. So I have a lot of albums where I love the old logo on the album art and I always ask for it like, “Can you get me one of those stereophonic, old rectangle boxes you see on old record sleeves?”
The cover came together when we were shooting the video and the director, Sophie Muller, she just started taking some stills while we were in our clothes for the video. She got these really great pictures where she had a screen behind the car with our faces projected onto it, and she took a series of pictures and afterward she sent them and they just looked really neat. I thought it had an interesting vibe and I thought it really highlighted the whole “apart” concept where we’re not really with each other at all in the photos, we’re kind of looming over each other in the back, in the rear view. I like the colors of it a lot as well, the greens and reds popped a lot.
PHAWKER: It’s well-known you’re a big Springsteen fan — favorite Boss song and why?
PETE YORN: Oh wow. Springsteen, it’s so hard to pick a favorite. I’ll say, right now, going mid-era Bruce, “Bobby Jean.” As a disclaimer there, that’s just today it could change tomorrow, but I love that song.
PHAWKER: So I have it on good authority you’re a big Guided By Voices fan — favorite GBV song and why?
PETE YORN: GBV is one of my all time favorite bands, Guided by Voices was a very big influence on me. For GBV, I’ll throw Big Boring Wedding, I love that line: [singing] “Pass the word, the chicks are back.” I always used to love that.
PHAWKER: What is your favorite Scar Jo movie and why?
PETE YORN: Oh maybe, Match Point! which I always loved. I’ll go and stick with that for right now.
PHAWKER: What was the last album or song that made you change the way you look at the world’ Or if that’s too grandiose, what have you been listening to recently that makes you happy?
PETE YORN: [laughing] I’m sad to say mostly Howard Stern on SiriusXM. I listen to a lot of Howard interviews when I’m in the car! Frankly, because I have a 3 year old little girl, she loves Madonna, especially early Madonna. So we’ve been listening to like Get Into the Groove. I’m kind of rediscovering some stuff because of my daughter and what she’ll let me listen to because she’ll start whining if she doesn’t want to hear something. Ironically when I drove her home from the hospital when she was born, the first music she ever heard was Madonna just because by coincidence we got into the car and the radio turned on and maybe Ray of Light was on the radio or something like that. Two and a half years later she kind of likes her voice, so it’s kind of funny.
PHAWKER: What can people expect at Ardmore Music Hall on Thursday?
PETE YORN: There’s a lot of new music coming. I kind of hit a creative spurt in the first half of 2018 and I created a lot of new music that I’m going to start dishing out pretty soon. I’ll probably be playing some new songs that nobody’s heard before on this tour. I don’t want to send everyone to the bathroom at once, but I’ll pepper ‘em in, in a respectful kind of way of course. It will be tons of old stuff, fun new stuff, and tons of requests. It should be pretty cool, so please come!