Burning down the house
It's summer, 1994, and Pervis is headlining an MCA Records showcase at Trees. Co-sirens Rachael Strauss and Cristina Harrison writhe, high-kick, and caterwaul to the punk-metal rumble of their three male counterparts. "Slut rock," one naysayer snarls, echoing the common kiss-off above the din of a full house. "They're just like L7."
That Rachael and Cristina, both now 28, play up the sexy angle is undeniable. The popular press has called them "rowdy [and] rude" (Fort Worth Star-Telegram); the "dynamic duo of nastiness" (Buddy); and "nymphomaniac praying mantises devouring a million lovers" (Alternative Press) and has repeatedly mentioned the sequins, fishnets, and "micro-minis" adorning these "acid-casualty chicks dressed as titty dancers" (Your Flesh). But while the duo admit that after the band formed in 1991 they "used to hump each other," and they still "do strange things with microphones" and shriek obscenities onstage, sexual histrionics have never been the point. Unlike other "chick" bands such as L7 and Hole, the Pervs are also skilled musicians.
"It got stupid," says Cristina. "In the beginning, when we were all running and falling, that applied. But now we sing more. You have to concentrate." Drummer Harden Harrison--Cristina's husband and the self-described "coot" of Pervis at 31--is a veteran of now-defunct metal crew Rigor Mortis. "You got two chicks up there jumping around and shit; all the guys are gonna dig it," he says. "But that's not why we have them for singers. We always thought that was a hindrance, in fact, as far as people really listening to the music."
"If someone can't see past us two dorks up there," says Cristina, "then he's got a problem." A woman from MCA who was at Trees saw well enough to secure $2,000 for a three-song demo, "knowing good and well she was not gonna sign us," says Rachael.
"She said we weren't hummable," Cristina adds. Pervis went on to release the aggressive songs recorded for MCA as an independent 7-inch; several labels have offered Pervis similarly cautious deals. "We've looked at a lot of contracts," says Rachael. "And it's just a bunch of bullshit"--what bass player Les Bewley, also 28, calls "multiple tomfoolery."
"They want too much control," says drummer Harrison. "Or too many records. Or it's not enough money." Pervis tours constantly and has released a handful of cassettes and records as well as a four-song CD on local label Last Beat. With scant exposure, they've developed a national following and musical maturity; the long-awaited first full-length Pervis CD, NeckOrNothing, will be released this week.
In the Last Beat recording studio in Deep Ellum, Pervis is mixing NeckOrNothing. Though the CD will be released on Idol Records, the band continues to work with Last Beat engineer Ben Yeager; NeckOrNothing will be the first full-length project at the revamped studio.
Yeager is fixed on the breezy chorus to "Vitamin C." "I've got this small demon/It lives in my head/It won't fucking leave me alone," the women sing--rather than scream as they often did on the band's earlier efforts.
"I think we're getting more confident [and] trying to broaden our horizons," Rachael says. "We still like to keep some of that harder stuff where we're balls-out, and then have more...singing."
Cristina reclines on the black leather sofa and buries her face in a recent Vanity Fair reprint of Madonna's journals. "I'm reading about my mentor," she says. "Is that funny? It's very cool not to like her. But I love her. I think I'm obsessed with her. I've actually had a sex dream about her. Can we talk about Madonna in the interview? Just kidding. Oh my God! My band's gonna kill me."
Childhood friends Rachael, a Chicago native, and Cristina, from WYrzburg, West Germany, met in the seventh grade in Bonn. Rachael's father taught at the school where the girls sang in the formal choir. "Can't you tell?" asks Rachael sarcastically. The instructor sat them together because they "sounded better that way," she says, then expelled them.
"For talking too much," the two women say in unison.
"For talking in stereo," says guitarist Eric Schmidt, 29.
"That's where we met," says Rachael.
"And fell in love," says Cristina.
"That's when we used to like each other," says Rachael. "We used to be a lot more alike. She's gone one direction, and I've gone another, personally."
Eric has another theory: "Going on tour has..." But suddenly everyone is yammering about who fights more on the road--the women with each other, or, as the women insist, them in solidarity against the rest of the band. "Shit!" Harden yells. "What the fuck was all the wrestling matches and punches and shit!?"
"Did you not almost just fucking break her neck in L.A.?" Eric asks Rachael.
"I wouldn't say that!"
Rachael compares herself and Cristina to bickering brothers Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes or Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis; the pair have been inseparable since their early teens. Again, they speak in sync: "We're like sisters."
"There's no holds barred," says Rachael.
"It's just our lifestyles," says admitted party girl Cristina. "I don't know if I worry her or what. She's got her authoritative say-so about every fucking thing I do, so that pisses me off. And that's how it all starts."
The pair journeyed to the United States from Germany in 1989; on their way to Los Angeles to form a band, they stopped in Dallas for longer than expected. They tried to convince neighbor Eric to write and perform with them for a while before he agreed to an informal jam. "He hated the band he was in before," says Rachael. "So he was never going to be in a band again."
"It just kinda happened," says Cristina, but Rachael objects: "That's why I moved to the States," she maintains. "That's why we came back. To get a band together."
"It was just a bunch of drunk talk," says Eric.
"Well, that was my ultimate goal," Rachael insists. "I don't know what your ultimate goal was!"
An acquaintance of Eric's, Harden joined Pervis in 1991 after guitarist Mike Scaccia left Rigor Mortis for Ministry. "We just got together to jam, pass the time, and keep up on our licks," Harden says of Pervis.
"He was just available," says Eric. "I was living next door, and it just fucking happened."
Rachael finally surrenders, exasperated: "All right," she says. "So it just happened, then. It was magic!"
"They haven't officially told me I'm in the band." says latecomer Les, who heard about Pervis from a friend in 1992. "Back then, we were the speed-of-light thing, and I had never done anything like that before, ya know? It was just fun. The next thing I know, wham bam, it's four years later."
"Next thing you know," Eric interjects, "they were combing each other's hair."
"My idea of a bass player is the anchor guy, ya know?" says Husker DY and Minutemen fan Les. "My dad had an acoustic guitar, and I tried to mess around with that. I was like, 'Man, six strings. Fuck this!' Then I saw a bass. 'Four strings--it's gotta be easier!'"
"Air guitar was my first instrument in the fourth or fifth grade," says Eric. "My mother and father were hippy-dippy...stereo always blaring. I picked up on the music jumping off the sofa with a tennis racket." After getting an acoustic guitar in 1981, Eric took the one month of weekly lessons his family could afford. "I just wanted to play whatever was on the radio. After that, it was mostly going to arena shows--all the Texxas Jams--and watching every little thing through binoculars."
"My Mom, uh, made me play drums when I was young," Harden says in his slow, garbled drawl. "I'd come home from school, and I'd have to practice for a half-hour before I could go out and play. It was like torture for me. Then I started getting into rock--Rush, KISS, and punk."
"Why'd she want you to be a drummer?" Cristina asks.
"I don't know," Harden half-whispers. "You'd have to ask her. It started out her making me, then it slowly turned into she can't get me to stop."
While uniformly metallic, the 10 songs on NeckOrNothing are otherwise diverse and showcase Pervis' melodic development and the singers' vocal strength. The songs run the gamut from hard funk ("Another Ted?" whose narrator notes "Now I have to worry/Serial psycho in my yard") to speed metal ("No Cop-No Stop") and slow bluesy rock ("I'm Choking on the Monster"). "Owed to an 18-wheeler" is alternately droneful and riffy while the artful "In Stitches" is a near-ballad in 12/8 ("What is the reason for my creation/the purpose of my being here?"). "Dying Superstition" is grungy cow punk; "Grapes of Wrath" is dirgy gloom-and-doom.
While Rachael writes most of the lyrics, she and Cristina compose melodies and arrangements in collaboration, often to jams the band previously recorded. "I guess I've written [the lyrics to] one song," Cristina says of "Vitamin C" ("So pretty and white/all lined up so tight/Does anyone here have a brain?/Gather around/There's snow on the ground/I'll never see the sun shine"). "I hate it. It's like homework to me."
The new material is "calmer and more singing," says Cristina. "It's slowing down."
"That's just us developing," explains Eric.
"Us feeling more confident about our vocals," says Rachael. "And them venturing out more; Harden playing slower."
"When I'm playing, it doesn't seem that fast," says Harden. "One show in New York, I listened back to it, and I was hauling ass! I need to calm it down a little, and it will sound better."
"It's just like a hot sauce that's so fucking hot, you have no taste buds left--there's no flavor," says Eric. "We're trying to find a happy medium salsa; something that's flavorful, but still hot."
NeckOrNothing is the first full-length CD on Idol, an independent Dallas label run by Sony marketer Erv Karwelis, who says he has "a casual one-record agreement" with so-far staunchly autonomous Pervis, but already foresees at least another single. "He's keeping it as simple as possible, which we like," says Rachael. The CD will be distributed throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, shopped for licensing deals, and serviced to radio. Pervis recently traveled to Los Angeles to perform for the German label Absorbing, which is awaiting a copy of the CD in hopes of distributing it in Europe and arranging a tour there.
While rock stardom is tantalizing, the members of Pervis stay realistic, hoping that the CD will allow them to tour even more and ultimately make a living playing music. Like the women, who have a rock-chick house cleaning service, the other members work jobs that allow travel: Eric does set construction for catalog studios, Les occasionally works as a graphic artist, and Harden works for a scaffold company. "Repair and maintenance on electric traction hoist motors," he says in his almost-indecipherable grumble. The motors "run the swing stages on high-rise buildings," explains Harden. "So they gotta be working right or people are gonna start dying and shit."
"You gotta have staying power," says Les. "Sometimes somebody'll have a big record, and that's it. I'd rather be continuing--just keep working and progress. We're doing something that no one else is, so godammit, it's gotta have some worth somewhere. So we're just gonna keep doing it."
Pervis will perform at a CD release party for NeckOrNothing at the Orbit Room Thursday, December 12.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.