Matt Korvette has only been to Big Gay Ice Cream in South Philadelphia once before. It’s 8 p.m. the evening after Valentine’s Day and the only patrons appear to be couples. Lady Gaga plays loudly when he enters the room. Korvette’s dressed in all black—an amusing juxtaposition against the shop’s rainbow interior. The entire scene couldn’t be further from anything his sludge punk outfit Pissed Jeans serve to represent—perhaps with the exception of the sadistic humor in eating ice cream when it’s below freezing outside. A few hours ago Korvette was working the same job he’s had for over a decade, handling workers’ comp insurance claims. It’s a surprising gig for the Pissed Jeans frontman whose band has always been vocal about the pitfalls of office life. “It’s like a purgatory of college degrees,” he says of his corporate days, placing a small spoon into a chocolate cone. “Working in an office is the worst shit.”
Pissed Jeans’ primary shtick has been to scream about mundanity, creating drama out of the ordinary for the sake of not dying from boredom. On their last album, 2013’s Honeys, Korvette sang about the death of an imaginary coworker in “Cafeteria Food”: “People walking around looking sorry. Someone’ll even cry. I’ll be rosy ‘cause you’re dead. You died.” It’s emblematic of the dystopic punk that has made Pissed Jeans successful: bleak as hell, and funny.
For a while, Korvette kept his musical aspirations hidden from his colleagues—no one wants to be the guy at work who brags about his band, or the guy whose successful band’s repertoire consists of songs about finding joy in his coworkers’ demise. He now works from home, though office environments have always been a place for Korvette to unpack humdrum truths in partial anonymity. In the past, Pissed Jeans have treated that invisibility with an introspective tone. On their latest album, their fifth full-length, Why Love Now, it’s more of an outward observation that settles on a critique of manhood, of understanding certain privileges that have made even the most soul-sucking situations for them, a band of white cis straight men, less soul-sucky.
That feeling resonates most on the record’s first single, “The Bar Is Low.” In the video, Pissed Jeans work out in a gym, quite literally aspiring to some sort of bar, a male ideal of fitness. They’re wholly unsuccessful and wind up mocking the situation along the way. It’s not so much that they fail, but that their system was flawed in the first place. The song’s inspiration is even darker. “That’s from finding out every other week, some celebrity or local scene guy: ‘Oh yeah, he drugged a few girls’ or ‘He dropped date rape drugs in people’s drinks’ or ‘He’s been harassing his girlfriend for three years,’” Korvette says. “It’s always this disappointment.”
Pissed Jeans’ want for male enlightenment—a certain sensitivity to victims of shitty dude behavior along with the acknowledgment of their own faults within it—is not new. On Honeys, in “Male Gaze,” Korvette considered himself to be one of the men he’s criticizing: “It’s just the male gaze, it’s in me, I know it / I feel it all around me, I wish I could destroy it / Yeah it’s the male gaze, I’ve had it forever / And I know I’m no angel, but I’m trying to kill it.” On Why Love Now, he’s not immune the socio-behavioral expectations of maleness, but he—and his band—are trying to be better. Korvette says simply, “I want to have my woke-ness and eat it too.”
The Pissed Jeans story starts more than a decade ago, but the band’s members have known each other twice that long. Most of them—Korvette, guitarist Bradley Fry, bassist Randy Huth—met at Nazareth High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fry and Huth have known each other since they were four years old. “Myself, Matt and Randy have essentially been playing in a band together for 22 years,” Fry explains. “I did not like Matt at first. I thought he was an asshole. He just moved to town. ‘Who is this nerd?’ I thought”
“‘Nerd?’ Strike that from the record,” Korvette interjects.
The trio met drummer Sean McGuinness a year after their original percussionist moved to North Carolina, right after the band recorded their debut LP Shallow. “I was in a record store on South Street called Space Boy.” McGuinness recalls. “Someone said something about Pissed Jeans: ‘Oh, they need a new drummer!’ I was like, ‘That should be me!’ I emailed Matt saying, ‘Hey, just looking to get in touch with [his other band] Air Conditioning to see if they need a drummer,’ thinking maybe he’ll put it together. Matt was like, ‘Yeah, here’s their email. Also, actually, Pissed Jeans needs a drummer.’ The way I remember it, the first time I played with these guys in Allentown, PA, I remember instantly feeling like, ‘This is totally going to work. This feels like how it should be.’”
“The original drummer of Pissed Jeans moved back like a year later and was like, ‘Oh, you guys are on Sub Pop now?’” Korvette jokes. “Here’s the thing: he missed out on us signing to Sub Pop and now we’re totally rich,” Huth adds.
The members of Pissed Jeans like to talk about Sub Pop, their home label. It’s partially because of the innocence of how their signing came to be—a story left untarnished by feelings of selling out. “I think people were impressed because in my scene of friends, no one would sign us,” Korvette explains. “I would’ve never dreamed of it. We didn’t submit a press thing to Sub Pop, we didn’t do it to any label. The guy that signed us, [Andy Kotowicz] sadly died in like a tragic car accident six years ago. He heard us on [New Jersey radio station] WFMU and looked into it.”
A few months later the band, which the New York Times once referred to as possessing a name “that lies just outside of what’s printable,” became labelmates with Sleater-Kinney and The Shins, the very same record company that launched the careers of Nirvana and PJ-faves Mudhoney. “Sub Pop will never be ‘flavor of the month-y’ in who they sign,” Korvette assures.
I want to have my woke-ness and eat it too.
The discovery of acts that exist beyond what’s buzzy in a given moment is a pursuit Korvette has always identified with. Since early 2009, between his day job, recording with Pissed Jeans, and touring infrequently, he runs Yellow Green Red, a punk blog that serves as an epicenter for well-considered reviews of music typically ignored by major media outlets. “Coming from my white dude perspective, you just need to share your opinion,” he says. “It’s ingrained in us, so I might as well do it on something that I get moderately positive feedback about. If there were a bunch of places out there like Yellow Green Red, I wouldn’t feel like I need to do it. I see so much writing on the zero budget level, that’s like ‘Thanks for the free promo! This is great punk!’ There’s no actual thought.” He tempers this mission by recognizing the blog’s limited perspective: “I don’t wanna be the old curmudgeonly dick that hates everything, either. This isn’t an infallible text, this is one excited person’s perspective.”
Philadelphia has become a place of influence. It’s not hard to see why: the city has been an epicenter for the underground rock Renaissance. In a world where guitar-based music has fallen out of fashion, Philly offers a home for progressive activist musicians unwilling to give up the six-stringed instrument, and it’s often women who are at the forefront.
“Philadelphia is getting woke, myself included,” Korvette explains. “I still yell at stuff but with a more considered thought about where my place is in the scheme of things. Every year, my top ten, there’s so many more women than men. I’m not doing them favors. Guys have kind of fallen into this rut of being really good at a specific reenacted sound. That’s boring. Maybe women don’t feel as obligated to be traditional.”
“Whatever any man can do to be better is cool,” says Tina Halladay, Philly musician and Sheer Mag frontwoman. “White straight guys are the ones who have the resources to be heard more than others. It’s great that people are recognizing that, but it’s not always the case. There’s the younger hardcore scene that is making more efforts to be diverse and inclusive, and then there’s the aging white hardcore dude scene that’s just never going to fucking change. Every punk show I’ve been to since January has been a benefit. This is what we have to do. People are picking up the slack and supporting those who need it most.”
For Pissed Jeans, it’s a balancing act. They’re veterans in Philadelphia—older dudes with day jobs that prevent them from frequent touring but can’t stop the band from paying attention to the inequalities around them.
Outwardly navigating masculinity—the socialized preconceptions of bro-ness—has always been a part of Pissed Jeans’ ethos. From the band’s earliest days until now, this macho culture manifests with a level of humiliation (2005’s “Ashamed Of My Cum”) and humor (2009’s “Goodbye [Hair]”). On Why Love Now, it has been filtered through a newfound, ultimately feminist text with the help of two female collaborators: Ugly Girls novelist Lindsay Hunter and Lydia Lunch, the legendary New York No Wave artist, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks frontwoman who’s known for her abrasive demeanor and dark, erotic poetry.
“Lyrics are most important,” Lunch, who co-produced Why Love Now, explains. “If they’re not there, I’m really not interested. To me, [Pissed Jeans] is just rock that doesn’t exist anymore—back to the Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers in a way. It’s diverse but it’s cohesive. My job was to be the cheerleader, to promote and provoke the lyrics, the vocals and the also the guitar. I did threaten to crack the whip quite often but I was just flirting. I threatened to bend them over the bathtub to make them behave. They were all lined up anyway.”
Don’t give me another whiny white boy! Unless he’s whining about other whiny white boys!
Lydia Lunch isn’t a producer in the traditional sense, which makes her a surprising pick for the band’s fifth album. “We wanted Joan Jett but she was busy,” McGuinness jokes.
Korvette responds with a threat, “I’m giving [Lunch] your home address.” He turns to me, “She flicked a cigarette down the back of his shirt.”
“On purpose!” McGuinness jumps. “I’m a fire hydrant and she’s the dog. I’m just getting pissed on.”
Lunch remembers the moment: “I have good aim even when I’m not trying. I flicked the cigarette and it just happened to travel down the back of his t-shirt. ‘I wasn’t aiming for ya but I got ya! Don’t stand too close!’”
“I remember sitting at the sound board and getting massages from her,” Fry recalls. “It was extremely rough. It was like getting punched.”
When asked why the band sought Lunch’s guidance, Korvette offers: “Scary! I figured she would make it uncomfortable. My biggest fear is that she wouldn’t really be that interested, just in her own too-cool-for-school vibe, which wasn’t the case at all.”
Each day recording at the Spice House Sound Studio in Philly was similar. “I would receive a text message with the order of bottles of wine she wanted,” Korvette says. “I would go and retrieve her bottles of wine, then I would go pick her up and drive her the six blocks to the studio. It was hot as hell. The studio was fine, freezing cold. She would pull up some weird shit on her laptop and try to show it to us. She would make some notes on the words. There would have been no vibe without her. You might think of her as someone who has negative stuff to say but she was so positive.”
Both Pissed Jeans and Lydia Lunch share a penchant for perversion, for writing songs from a place of overt sexuality. PJ’s lyrics can be domineering—hidden in their humor is an aggressive take on intimacy, but also a critique of dudes— and throughout her career, Lunch has been fascinated with that ugly uneasiness. “They’re not afraid to talk about the deficiencies of the male species, which I love,” Lunch says. “So many songs on this album, specifically ‘Ignorecam.’ It’s a twist on men trolling the internet for women to ignore them, a fantastic subject matter. ‘It’s Your Knees,’ too—it’s always women who are picking at their bodies. Men are pretty accepting and they should be. Women are more beautiful than men and we pretty much fucking accept them, warts and all. Men are just happy to sit next to a good-looking gal. They’re not looking for imperfections. It’s always women who are picking on themselves.
“They attack the fragility and ego of the male species,” Lunch adds, “How interesting with that subject matter they come to me! I have this ridiculous and incredible sense of humor. Just because I don’t make a comedic facade around what I’m talking about doesn’t mean I’m not laughing at shit. They weren’t intimidated by that. They understand that even my anti-male rants aren’t about the individual man. They’re always about men in positions of power that ruin it especially for other men, and the rest of us. If someone can understand that, then a lot of sensitive people are not scared of me. The ultimate outsiders, they know they’re safe with me. I’m the opposite of a personal attack dog—I want them to feel as good as possible because I want to feel as good as possible.
“But don’t give me another whiny white boy!” she shouts. “Unless he’s whining about other whiny white boys!”
The most memorable moment on Why Love Now comes in the middle of the album—a spoken-word dirge called “I’m A Man.” On first listen, the voice reciting a grotesque short story about office sexual harassment sounds distinctly masculine. It’s difficult to listen to, but the track is an edited version of a previously unpublished work by Hunter, including lines like: “Get me a coffee and dip your undies in it because I like my coffee with a nip of cream. I’m a man, Miss Office Lady.”
Hunter and Korvette have been friends for several years, but this is their first collaboration. “He reached out to me about the album and I thought he was insane–I mean, he is,” she laughs. “I remember reading that they wanted their music to feel like a toilet flushing. There’s so much in that I agree with. It’s funny, and what’s more human than flushing a toilet? It’s also an amazing invention that humans made, a toilet, and being able to flush your waste is amazing. There’s so much in it that I feel [like a] twin.”
Hunter recorded “I’m A Man” in her basement and sent it to Korvette, who wrote back: “God, that just made me feel awful the entire time.”
“Fragile masculinity, almost narcissism, misogyny—I am very obsessed with that,” Hunter explains. “Over the years talking to Matt I know he’s very obsessed with that, too. I almost feel like he’s even more feminist than I in certain ways. I find myself being deferential to masculinity all the time or apologizing or making room for it—’I can tell that you’re fragile in this way, let me edit myself in this way.’ It’s just pervasive.”
The beauty and danger in Pissed Jeans, and especially in Why Love Now, is that the band tackles these ideas with humor. They’re a band who has made music by men, not necessarily for men—but men seem to be drawn to it. Sometimes, the band worries that the nuances of its anti-masculine message will be lost, and that Pissed Jeans’ listenership will miss the joke.
“People don’t get it sometimes and that makes me sad,” Korvette says. “Like, I attract dumbasses, you know? Use the subtlest of context clues. There are so many women involved in making this record. Do a little bit of homework. I wanna have it mashed up together. I don’t want to be like Weird Al and I also don’t want to be like Prurient where everything is an ultra serious, poetic, angry thing.”
“I’m A Man,” is a point of contention. “I’ve seen some preliminary reactions to that song from dudes and often it’ll be like, ‘This is sick, so crazy,’ from guys who get it,” Korvette says. “And then the guys who don’t [get it], say, ‘It was weird.’ Weird? You throw this thought into someone’s head and it just slides right off. It doesn’t register. I want to have fun and make uncomfortable moments. I can’t whip my dick out on a record, and also if I did, you’d be like, ‘Seen it before! GG Allin died like 20 years ago.’ I wanna look broader.”
Shock comes with the territory, but it’s not the band’s objective. Pissed Jeans are looking to progress and that requires introspection and outward mobility, which, with Pissed Jeans, always comes dowsed in dark humor. “Why Love Now could be an Oasis or Swans album title but it’s a Millionaire Matchmaker quote,” Korvette explains. “Have you ever seen that show on Bravo where she’s like, ‘So, tell me, why love now?’ ‘Well after my two wives I realized at my age of 48 I’d like to date a model.’ That quote stuck with me. It’s nice-sounding, but it’s a little hopeless. That feeling permeates the record.”
In more ways than one: it’s hard to think of a more pointed example of male privilege dictating relationships than that of the lonely millionaire, but it’s also a funny sort of loneliness, one that repels empathy. If Pissed Jeans are asking Why Love Now, they’re doing so with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. You can learn something from PJ, but it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride.