Interview: Pall Jenkins of Three Mile Pilot and The Black Heart Procession

words by Casey Boland | photo by 3MP
| Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Pall Jenkins lives in San Diego. The first time I heard his band Three Mile Pilot I was in San Francisco. I endured an ill-advised overnight haul via car from the Bay Area to Seattle; a friend and I shared the wheel through the dead hours with only Three Mile Pilot’s Another Desert, Another Sea as our solace. The snaking I-5 promised certain doom at every turn. Thundering logging trucks swerved into our lane deep within the midnight mountains of northern California. I developed a true love affair with both the record and the band during that perilous drive.

My introduction to Jenkins’ other best-known band The Black Heart Procession was based solely upon their second record’s cover art. I saw it in a Philly shop and felt oddly drawn to it; I had no idea who was in the band or what it sounded like. I trusted that musicians with such impeccable graphic design taste knew their way around a song. I wasn’t disappointed. Like Another Desert, 2 served as crucial midnight driving music.

Fast-forward a decade and both bands still prove themselves capable of functioning as elixir and narcotic. Three Mile Pilot’s The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten, their first in 13 years, reflects the finer attributes of The Black Heart Procession and fellow Three Mile Pilot alumni band Pinback. In no way a rehash of the band’s ‘90s output, The Inevitable Past… boasts new tricks from old dogs. The Black Heart Procession recently released EP Blood Bunny/Black Rabbit. Featuring a handful of guest remixes (one from Lee “Scratch” Perry), this entry in the band’s canon is a wild and welcome artistic detour.

Jenkins offered a substantial slab of his time to discuss these musical adventures. He elaborated upon the recording of Another Desert, Another Sea, Three Mile Pilot’s awakening from a decade-long slumber, his formative years as a young San Diego punk, and the bedlam that is The Black Heart Procession’s new EP. When not playing in his trailblazing bands, Jenkins produces and engineers other peoples’ bands. Indeed, the guy lives and breathes music. We are the better for his exhalations.

When did you begin working on
The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten?
About five years ago.

Did you work on it consistently throughout that whole time?
No, well, Black Heart was touring and Pinback was touring and working on albums. Both bands were busy. We worked on it when we had time off and slowly picked away at it. We wrote about, I would say, 30 songs or something. We probably had 40 ideas and finished the tracking on about 20 of them. So it took us a while to pick through everything.

Did anything instigate you finally finishing it?

We always wanted to. We never really broke up. We were always great friends. It was just a matter of Black Heart [being busy, as well as] Pinback, and we did these other things for quite a long time. We always felt like there was a little score to settle or something that we didn’t finish with Three Mile Pilot. The idea was always to make another record. It just took a long time. (laughter)

What was the process of recording? You did it all in your home studios?
Yeah, I run a studio here in San Diego. I work with bands all the time. Zach has a home set up as well. So we kind of did some here and some there. We were into recording — I think that is a big difference from before, when we were Three Mile Pilot 15 years ago. We didn’t record ourselves much, just a little bit. We’d always go to other studios. Now we work with bands and record our own records. It was a cool experience to come back at it with a different insight into recording. But it also threw up challenges because the Three Mile Pilot sound back in the day was very chaotic and more carefree than we are now, where we understand recording and work on getting good takes and stuff like that. It used to be [that] I’d go in and sing the song once and that was it. Now we sing it 20, 30, 40 times. (laughter)

Do you tend to be the primary songwriter in the band, or does it tend to be more collaborative?

I bring in some ideas and Zach brings in ideas, but primarily with Three Mile Pilot it’s [as follows]: Zach starts off with an idea — a bass line or something he’s got going, maybe fake drums or some parts in there. Then I would sit with the ones that I liked, that resonated with me. I would work on lyrics and work on my guitar parts and whatever else I wanted to bring to the table. Tom [Zinser] would bring beats and do the drums. And we would work out parts as we go. Then we would play the whole song and figure it out together from that point.

“Battle” was one that I brought in. I think that was the only one on the record I actually brought in. But then there are ones where [Zach] just had a part where he wasn’t sure where it was going and I kind of took it over — steal his baby from him kind of thing. But yeah, it was very [collaborative], working on the parts and making decisions. Zach did a lot of the file management, keeping track of the recordings — we had to pick one person to manage all of the files rather than having things constantly go back and forth. So he had that fortune of dealing with all that crap. (laughter).

There are always compromises and things don’t turn out — somebody has an idea and it doesn’t get realized. But we have other bands nowadays, so we are okay with calling them as we see them and trying to get the best we could out of it.

So was that the way you tended to approach songwriting back in the ‘90s?
Definitely not. [In the ‘90s we would] spend hours on end in the practice space — write the songs together, really work out the songs, or sort of work them out as good as we could. Then we’d head into the studio, spend as little time as possible on the earlier records, [being as] cheap as possible — get in there and get the hell outta there. Then when we started working on Another Desert, Another Sea — it was with Geffen. There was more budget. We would take longer. But it was always with Three Mile Pilot back in those days where we’d work out the songs and be able to play them live as a band first. Nowadays we tend to write parts and play on top of each others’ stuff and record as we go. So there is a definite difference in that.

Were you on Geffen when we began doing Another Desert, Another Sea?

Yeah. Geffen picked up Chief Assassin of the Sinister, added three songs to it. We put that out with them and then we started working on Another Desert, Another Sea. Basically, they didn’t feel there was a radio hit or whatever, and so we got back in the studio and started working on stuff with other producers — and we didn’t like what they were doing. So we went home one day and told the company the first record we turned in was it, and if they didn’t like it, then don’t put it out. That was Another Desert, Another Sea. They decided not to put it out. We got it back for free and put it out with Cargo. Then Three Mile Pilot took a break for a while and we started Black Heart and Pinback.

So was there a lot of wrangling as far as getting that record from them? Was Geffen trying to shelve it?

Yeah, they were definitely trying to shelve it. They didn’t see anything going on and they wanted us to stick around and work on shit [endlessly]. We were not in that frame of mind. We wanted to put a record out regardless of if there was commercial success or not. We wanted to just document these songs and put them out and get on tour and see what we could do. They were trying to make us re-record stuff, make us write stuff again, suggesting ridiculous things that were never part of the picture when we first signed with them. What was your initial question there?

I was curious how difficult it was to get the record from them.
By the time we were done with them, they weren’t fulfilling their contract by not releasing the record. We said this is our record and they said they didn’t want to put it out and they said take it for free. The only way out of the contract for them was to not put it out and we would get it for free. That was in the contract. So we got the tapes and everything for free. But we were no longer with the label and that was fine with us.

What was the recording like for that album? Was this overshadowing everything while you were recording it?
Definitely. We were up at Bear Creek for initial recording for two months, really expensive stuff, $1,800 a day and paying a producer. So it turned into a $200,000 record. We didn’t see a dime of that. That never came into our hands. It was directly from the label to whoever needed to get paid. So we got the record back and put it out with Cargo. It was overshadowing the whole thing. We were burnt by the time the record came out.

So did you tour when the record came out, or were you spent by that point?

We did a little bit of touring, but basically not. I soon started Black Heart and went on some tours with them and did a record. But I think those guys weren’t into touring; I was wanting to do music and tour. Then Zach started Pinback. I was already doing Black Heart and Touch and Go offered to [release] our record and we were busy all the time. Then Pinback did a record, and Touch and Go wanted to put out their next record — they’re all fans of Three Mile Pilot.

Do you ever listen to Another Desert? Can you divorce it from that whole process of what you went through to record it?
Yeah. We were very involved with all the music writing for Another Desert, Another Sea — they [the label] didn’t have someone in there telling us what to do. The original record we wrote is Another Desert, Another Sea. It was once we turned it in and they didn’t feel there was a hit … and we ditched all those songs. Maybe one or two are on that comp we did. They were just pretty horrible songs taking it too far to a pop area where we weren’t comfortable. But we tried — we figured it can’t hurt to try. We’ll write some of these songs and work with some of these people. But it just really started not going well very quickly. And we were younger, too; I think we were more impatient. I think when you’re young, you want to make your record and get out there. Everything is such a moral issue when you’re young and working with a large label. You just think they are these demons trying to suck your blood. It’s not always necessarily like that. Some people, this is a job they like. They work for Atlantic and it’s cool. There is a lot of great music that came out on Geffen and Atlantic and a lot of those labels.

Now that I’m older, I’d probably deal with things a little bit more [and not be] so hurt by every suggestion. But we still don’t have an interest in major labels. I just understand the process more now that I’m older. I think that when we were young, it was very tender. Those people were very “LA” and we were into our world. (laughter)

To go back in time even further, I was curious how you got into music and involved with playing music?

When I was a kid I really liked music and there was a guitar around the house. My brother took piano lessons and I just banged on the piano. Eventually, my dad bought me an electric guitar, [with] which I took lessons for a couple of months and put in my closet.

Then I was 15, 16; I started writing a bunch of lyrics, just getting into different kinds of music — early Dischord stuff and punk rock music with a message, and writing and drawing a lot. Then one of my friends said, “You’re always writing and drawing, why don’t you sing for our band?” And I was like, “Alright, I’ll try it.” So then I kind of started singing. That was my first punk rock band called Dark Sarcasm. Zach and Tom were in a band called Neighborhood Watch and we would play some shows together. Then they started a new band and asked if I wanted to sing. I started hanging out with them and that developed into Three Mile Pilot.

What was the San Diego music scene like back in those days?

There was one small club called the Casbah. And there’s still one small club called the Casbah. (laughter) No, I’m teasing. But it’s true, back then there was just the Casbah and the Che Café, a few clubs, and there would be house shows. It was a smaller community of people doing music. There was a lot of really good bands and a lot of energy behind San Diego at a certain point there.

Then the Casbah moved into a bigger place. That’s where it is nowadays. It’s not much bigger, but maybe three times bigger than it used to be. It used to be a hole in the wall. Yeah, we used to have great shows, good times. Drive Like Jehu was one of my favorite bands back then. It was great shows, playing at Che Café at three in the morning.

Is the Che Café still around?

Yeah, they still do shows. Now when I go there I feel like a very old man. (laughter) But it’s funny, Zach’s parents used to go to the Che Café and then we went. And now Zach’s having kids and his kids will probably go.

Keep the tradition going.

Why not?

To switch gears a little, I feel like there is a rich, narrative nature to your lyrics, and I’m curious if you ever do other kinds of writing besides lyric writing.

You know, I’ve threatened to do stuff like that — write a book or do something like that. But every time it came down to it, it’s like…I do write and do all that stuff, but it’s a mess. (laughter) Lyrics fall from the sky. You can’t really control where they come from. For me to sit down and write something has been a real challenge. I tend to have to get myself into a zone and hear something and feel something.

I used to write a lot more, constantly writing in a book late at night before I’d go to bed, late into the middle of the night. Now that I’ve gotten into tracking bands and recording more, I’ve gotten into sounds and songwriting and lyrics just kind of appear. Lyrics are a mystery to me, of where they come from or what they really mean. I tend to find different meanings for things down the road. Every now and then I’ll just write; I’ll do a bunch of stuff and see if some stuff works for music. But generally, it’s always for songs.

In the liner notes to Another Desert, Another Sea, there’s mention of a companion booklet. Did that actually exist?

No, it never did. That was one of my threats or attempts. I had this idea of putting a bunch of my artwork and writing into some sort of strange, Pictionary street bible thing. I still have the idea in the back of my head, but it was too convoluted to ever really bring to light. And now that’s 15 years past and I’ve moved on from it. But, such as yourself, a few others every now and then will be like, “What the heck was up with that?” I don’t know what I was thinking. I just put it in the liner notes because I had an idea. (laughter)

So there are no plans to create this booklet?

No, definitely no plans to do that. There is a guy in Greece making a whole comic book based on the first Black Heart record. I’ve seen the first chapter and it’s really cool.

What’s it called?
The Waiter. We do a series of songs called “The Waiter” — there are six or seven of them. So they wanted to do a comic book based on the first record.

Is the comic book available yet?

No, he’s not finished yet.

Speaking of Black Heart, you have a new mini-album out (Blood Bunny/Black Rabbit). Tell me a little about that.
The EP, it’s a remix record. We had some people remix it, like Mr. Tube and the Flying Objects — he did some. Eluvium. Lee “Scratch” Perry did one that’s kind of insane. We added three new songs on it. It’s a mixture of remixes and new songs, or unreleased songs from our last recording session.

How did you hook up with Lee “Scratch” Perry?
We were talking about remixes and I thought it would be cool to have Lee “Scratch” Perry, so Jeremy from Temporary Residence said he would see what he could do. He somehow tracked down their management company and they agreed to do one. We had to pay a fee for it, but we got it. We had never met him or ever seen him before. I sent files to their management and they got them to him. But the remix he did sounds like — I don’t know what he was smoking. I heard he doesn’t smoke anymore, but it sure sounds like it. I thought we’d get some cool dubbed-out jam thing and it’s more weird, electronica something or other. It’s really weird. He’s doing cat sounds all over it, singing over it. It’s just like he’s ranting and raving about something or other. It’s pretty funny.

At first I was like, “What the hell is this? This is not fair that we paid for this.” Then as I listened to it, I realized it was just kind of insane. At first I didn’t hear any of the music that he used. Then the piano player said, “That’s my piano bass line sped up really fast.” Then we started realizing he used very minimal parts of what we gave him and put it through some weird shit. It doesn’t sound anything like the original song. You can hardly even recognize the original song in there at all.

So it wasn’t what you were expecting from him?

No, not at all. I would have liked to get some dubby, long, spaced-out thing. But we got this short, weird, electronic thing. But in those situations, you’re paying someone to express themselves and that’s what he did. But to say Lee “Scratch” Perry remixed one of your songs isn’t such a bad thing either.

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