Irony, Absurdity, Complexity; An interview with Amos Pitsch of Tenement

Four years since the band’s last release, Wisconsin’s Tenement deliver Predatory Headlights, an ambitious, contagiously catchy, 25-song double LP that is already being enthusiastically touted as a contender for record of the year in punk and indie circles. Although Pitsch and his collaborators, bassist Jesse Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer, surmounted a treasure trove of ideas over those years, it wasn’t until Don Giovanni founder Joe Steinhardt presented the idea that a double LP became part of the band’s plans.
Ghettoblaster caught up with Pitsch to discuss his informed look at songwriting, recording at BFG in Appleton, the retired DIY venue where the band lived, and more.
It’s been four years since your last release.  Were you writing for Predatory Headlights that whole time?
I played drums for The Nerves’ reunion tour thing in 2012, and when that went awry halfway through, I went home and began writing for this record. The lyrical material for Predatory Headlights was mostly written while on tour: playing drums for The Nerves, playing drums for Big Eyes, and with Tenement and Technicolor Teeth. It HAS been one big non-stop writing and recording block since it began though, and I’m relieved that it’s over and I can start thinking about the next record.
When did you realize a double album would be the best format for PH?
Joe Steinhardt approached us about doing a double album. The idea never even came close to making itself known to me until he convinced us we should do it. I thought about double albums that I love like The Beatles’ White Album, or Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, or The Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and what I love about each of them and what makes each of them special and what makes each of them succeed as a double album. Then I tried to apply those ideas to what makes our music special.
Is there a common theme or set of ideas that ties the record together?
It’s not a concept album. However as a writer of words, I’m influenced by thinkers like John Steinbeck and Werner Herzog. I more often than not find myself writing about the ironies, absurdities, and complexities of life, the nature of the human being, and society’s dark taboos.
Why was BFG, where you recorded the album, demolished?
We lived there a long time. Our prior LPs, Napalm Dream and The Blind Wink were mostly recorded there, too. We hosted punk shows in its basement for six years. In a town like Appleton, Wisconsin, a place like BFG was a lawless jungle. I’d always thought that it was meant to be bulldozed and not to be handed over to new tenants. The energy that place held after we’d been there for eight years wasn’t meant to linger in a normal family environment.
Was there ever any doubt that you’d work with Justin Perkins on this one too?
There was doubt. He doesn’t do much engineering or mixing anymore; choosing instead to be a mastering engineer. After a lot of sweet talk, he agreed to work on the record. I’m still thankful, as he’s one of my favorite engineers and musicians.
How influential were Justin’s bands Yesterday’s Kids and The Obsoletes for you as a songwriter?
Extremely influential. I worshipped The Obsoletes’ Is This Progress? full length for many years and I still love it. Yesterday’s Kids were my hometown’s biggest musical export as a teenager and luckily I could relate to their music well. They were coming from many of the same places I was coming from; blending the influence of The Beatles and ’70s power pop with melodic punk music like The Ramones and coming up with something that was both punk and pop, but really difficult to label as pop punk most of the time. There’s a particular guitar riff on Predatory Headlights that is a second generation nod to Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet by way of Yesterday’s Kids.
People are already comparing it to historic releases like Zen Arcade and Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  Is that a source of pride for you?
I’ve never really listened to Smashing Pumpkins, but Husker Du were one of my favorite bands as a teenager.  Zen Arcade is a great record, but my favorite records of theirs are New Day Rising and Everything Falls Apart and More. I honestly don’t even know where the Smashing Pumpkins comparison comes from. Do they sound like us in any way at all? Oh, right. Guys with guitars….we crapped all over that notion with a large chunk of this record.
What have Don Giovanni done to help the band reach new audiences?  What opportunities has that relationship afforded you?
I suppose that the tours we’ve been doing often for the past couple of years with Don Giovanni bands have allowed us to reach a new audience. Obviously we haven’t caught on that well with the college rock crowd that attends those shows. I don’t think our minds resonate well with theirs or something. I walk through life day dreaming about music. I don’t know what the hell they even think about.
I ran into some former tourmates of yours, Vacation, who said they’re very excited to hear the record.  Are those guys tight bros of yours?
Vacation, I promise to never refer to you as my “bros”. “Bros” and “Dudes” should be kicked outta the English language. In any manner of speaking, they’re always bland and cheap words. Vacation is a really creative band and we admire them as our peers and yes, we do love them like brothers.
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