Jack Pyers’ Music Finds No Road Back But A Road Ahead
'No Road Back' is an unofficial reference to the new music released by Jack Pyers in 2015. Jack Pyers is a member of the Susquehanna Valley’s hard-rock elite who’s has been largely out of sight for over 20 years, running a recording studio in Selinsgrove called Jack Pyers Studio. Now he's returning to the stage in a new and vulnerable way, acoustic guitar in hand. In an exclusive interview, Pyers talks candidly about the touring years on the road with Harpo and Dirty Looks bands and his new music career as it transitions to songwriter.

What does your life look like today, compared to when you were on the road touring?
Figuring out where I’m going to be each day isn’t so hard anymore. Right now, having structure is what lets me lets me do my thing. I have an actual house to live in, instead of a hotel room.
People that know you were followers and real fans, but for those who don’t, what bands were you touring with, and where did you go on those road tours and bookings?
My career started locally with the band Harpo. I was one of the original members. We were at the apex of our career in that band. You know, we played every major market in the northeast—ranging from Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, all the way down to Boston, New York City, through New Jersey, all down the east coast, into Ohio and west from that. And then at a point, probably in the late ’80s, I exited from that band and connected with a gentleman by the name of Henrik Ostergaard and we started Dirty Looks. That band was fortunate enough to go on and get signed to Atlantic Records and we did a number of major label releases and toured all over creation.
What really drives players to the road and what tips do you have for touring musicians?
Obviously, when most guys start on the road they are young men ... so it’s all about going out and conquering the world. The best piece of advice when you’re touring is to keep your wristwatch or some other timepiece set to your home time zone, so you don’t end up calling loved ones or friends at a bizarre time of the day, when you think it’s OK to call them and it’s not!
What venue do you remember liking the most and the least?
For me, I never really enjoyed playing the larger venues, as weird as that sounds ... because there’s always such a huge gap between the performer and the audience, and that was just always weird for me. With Harpo or Dirty Looks you can just go down the list ... L’Amour in Brooklyn and the Cat Club in NYC, the Channel in Boston, and Hammerjacks in Baltimore and the Agora in Cleveland. Just fantastic nightclubs that were a blast to play. They had that thing where, when you’re playing these shows and the clubs are sold out beyond capacity, and the people are just right up against the stage, and everybody’s sweating on everybody else, and everybody’s still smoking in the bar, so the air is filled with cigarette smoke. As disgusting as that sounds, it was a blast. Then you go through those towns that are the working class towns like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Buffalo and Rochester ... we had some of the greatest shows in those towns.
What was the single most spectacular happening when you were on the road?
That would be with Dirty Looks. We haven’t been signed yet ... we’re getting some conversations going between us and Atlantic Records, and we’re playing a show at another one of those great nightclub-style places in Rochester, NY, called the Penny Arcade. The guy that ultimately signed us ... Frankie LaRocka, an A&R guy from Atlantic records ... flies into Rochester, and it’s just the most classic moment: this guy walking in, total hip dude, sunglasses on, and the nightclub setting.
Was he your Atlantic contact?
Yes, he was our A&R guy so everything we did, for the most part, fed through him, but in different phases. Once the record was done, then we’d get turned over to the promotions people who’d set up all the interviews and signing dates ... in the record stores to sign CDs. That’s back when people actually bought music. Obviously there was a whole team that would be assigned to the musicians, but Frankie was our main guy.
Did they dress you?
When we did our first video, which was filmed at the former Studio 54, they hooked us up with an independent wardrobe expert. She turned us on to a fantastic store down in the village named Trash and Vaudeville. Of course, we were a hard rock band and we all needed leather jackets. Prior to that, we didn’t have enough money to buy anything. She took us to all the cool shops ... she got us to the right places and guided us in the right direction. But it was never a thing where they said “You need to dress like this; you’re the Indian, you’re the cop, and you’re the construction worker.”
Did you guys have colored hair?
Oh ... the Dirty Looks thing. We’ve been lumped in with the “hair bands.” But no. Obviously we all had very long hair and all that, but we were very much a street-tough-oriented band. No mascara, no rouge. The other guys were a bit younger, but Henrik and I had pounded it out on the bar circuit. We were definitely some street-hardened dudes.
Now you’re releasing some new music. What’s your writing technique today and what do your lyrics have to say?
As a writer, I do not have the ability to go into writing a song with a preconceived notion whatsoever. So, in the very first blush of things, I’m writing purely for myself. Obviously I come from a rock background. At Dirty Looks we wrote a lot of material ... and at Harpo, too, for that matter, ’cause even though Harpo was a cover band, they were always striving to make that conversion over. It was always more of a “riff” band and I still kind of use that concept. You’ll be just sitting by yourself, strumming away, and sometimes you might just run the report, and lose yourself and not pay attention to anything. The next day you go back and you’re mining for pieces of gold ... where you hear those two chords or three chords. You get that little pattern that creates a reaction for you. You get a little rise out of it. That’s what I’m looking for. Or whether you’re just sitting there jamming away, and you catch that groove and you can feel that rush ... a little rush of excitement, like “Oh wow, that’s cool.” This all requires that on the front side you go into it with no judgment, cause you want to feel free to play anything of any kind and then if it gives you a feeling, go for it. But then on the backside, you need to have self-judgment. Lyrically, it’s very much the same thing for me. You just clear your mind and let the music create an emotion, and because we are putting lyrics to music ... it’s not like it’s pure poetry by any means, because sometimes maybe the phrasing of what you are singing is actually more important than the content.
Is it ever urgent? Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and run for a pen?
Not so much in the middle of the night, but for me, driving! Because of spending so much time on the road ... especially in the early days, not having a tour bus, you’re driving! The guys are splitting up the time and I love to drive, so there’re times I’d drive for hours on end.
How do you handle a good idea while driving?
It could be so old school that you have a cassette player lying around, or today, you just hit that apple on your phone and you spit it out.
How do you move in your mind from your metal background to the new solo acoustic frame?
Number one, it’s a horrifying change ... scary, because for me, I was always a bass player in the band and really didn’t sing at all. My major successes were in the hard rock area, but over the course of a musical career I’ve accumulated lots of material that was acoustic in nature. If you look back it’s the same with a band like Zeppelin, even though they were the ultimate. For me, acoustic has always been engrained. Of course, when we started out as kids in Harpo, we played everything and anything that we thought would get us a job, ’cause we were so terrible. I mean you go back to when we were kids and you had all those great Neil Young Records ... Crazy Horse, Harvest, After the Goldrush. I was into all that great acoustic music, and you go through that whole lifetime and there are so many influences. Even though people may only see you one-dimensionally in the music you’re now doing, you have a whole library of everything you’ve ever listened to. There’s not really a big singer-songwriter vibe in my background, but the acoustic part is very strong.
Writing for bands vs. writing solo? Can you explain the approaches and some of the variations on that?
A lot of times, especially writing for bands, you wrote with the bands.  As I said before, it was very riff-oriented.  You’d maybe get a couple ideas together and then the whole band would get together. Really, that’s the magic of a band, because you have one piece of an idea and then, the reason that drummer is in that band is because of how he plays and suddenly, he puts a beat to it and it brings something to life that maybe you weren’t hearing. Then the guitar player lays his part in, and then you know. I’m sure there may be some bands where the writer is singular in what he does. And yeah, once in a while in my own bands someone would come in with something that was completed. But usually it was just an idea. “I got this riff.” “Hey, that sounds cool. Let’s jam on it for awhile and start molding it.”
What are you a student of today?
Recently, figuring out how to play the acoustic guitar halfway decently. Basically what I’ve done is kind of switching gears and doing the acoustic “singer-songwriter” ... as much as I hate to hang that mantle on myself ... because I had no way to go back to my rock roots. There was really nothing available to me there, and I wanted to continue to be able to be creative and express myself. I kind of just sat in my basement studio and started. I could always play guitar good enough to come up with some riffs, but it wasn’t my thing. I’d been just working on getting my guitar playing to a decent level and then developing a singing voice of some sort.  For me, it hopefully comes off as somewhat unique, ’cause it’s kind of self-taught, and I’m just figuring out what I can do with what I have to work with.
What’s your frame of mind today?
Kind of excited about it all. It’s horrifying and exciting right in the same swathe.  As a singer, you go to the rock thing and it is always a very big production. Being I was a bass player ... and this’ll sound odd ... I never had to directly connect with the audience. I’d get up there and rock out and have a good time and do my thing, but I didn’t really need to act and touch the audience, per se. So at the end of a show, I’d walk off the show, and I don’t need to talk with anybody, whereas the singer always has to. They’re meeting and greeting and they’re the personality that does all that. Then, really learning how to play an acoustic guitar and learn how to sing to some level, and to realize that everything was just me ... at points, it was almost debilitating.
What are some of your new acoustic song titles and what do they say?
Well, I would have to say that all of my song titles will always be up to the listeners’ interpretation ... ’cause I go to that format. Like sometimes I’ll just sing complete blather (I’m admitting something here) and eventually figure out what words will fit in there, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the day, after maybe writing the first verse of a song, I’ll say, “Oh, that’s interesting, so maybe that’s what I’m singing about in this song.” So it’s just experience. That’s how I decided to handle going into this singer-songwriter thing. Essentially it just struck me as a concept ... there’s no Marshall stacks, there’s no huge light shows, there’s no fog machine. It’s just me and I’m, like, stripped to the bone.
Regarding the title, is it the first thing or the last thing that gets put on the song?
For me and the challenge I’ve had, being from the rock background, the hook was the be-all, end-all. But being that sometimes a lot of the songs that I am writing right now don’t necessarily have a hook, sometimes I’m really scratching my head for a title. Some are pretty obvious for what’s being sung, like “The Cowboy Song.” I think I got one song that has a strong hook, “All Night Long.” A lot of them, maybe it’s the first phrase I sing ... because there’s really nothing else to go on. The great thing about performing by yourself is you don’t need to follow classic song structure, so some of them might not even have a chorus. There’s one called “It’s Alright,” ... that’s the first three words I sing, and that’s the name of the song.
Is there a softening in the sound when you move from hard rock and metal to the songwriting mentality?
Well, there has to be. As a philosophy, I always played angry! All the bands I was in were always fairly aggressive in their musical approach. I still kinda do that ... which causes me to have to tune up more than I should have to. I enjoy darker music, so when I’m playing softer and more delicate, the result might have a pretty dark theme.
Is it sentimental?
Yes, I mean it would be very looking inward and introspective.
What is it seeking?
So, you get to the age where you’ve been through a lot and you can become ... to use a coined phrase ... comfortably numb. Pink Floyd. And just be like, “I’m at this stage in my life and everything is OK, I made it.” But as an artist you need to remain open, not to sound too cheesy, to all the pain and suffering that life may throw at you, because there is a lot of that, everyday. If you’re willing to withstand that, it gives you a lot of fodder to work with.
What is it about our area that musicians seem to spawn here, and who else made it onto the rocker scene from our area?
Fred out of Lewisburg got to the point where they had a record deal. It went very badly, and I’m not even sure it was released nationally, maybe a European release. Of course, back in the day, because there was Rolling Green Park, you had a band called the Electric Elves from Ithaca, NY, that came down here. That was where all the hard rock bands would have spawned. The Elves had Ronnie James Dio, who replaced Ozzie in Black Sabbath. He started out with Richie Blackmore after he left Deep Purple then he went to Sabbath and he had a long career. You had the Bullies out of Scranton, which was out of the way, and from there, then, the Dirty Looks thing happened, then the Badlees came, and then after that, Breaking Benjamin. All those came out of the same area.
How does it feel to morph into this new musical identity? What does re-entry really look like and where are you going with this?
Of course, the first thing is, it’s just me. Being that I have been a musician since age 10 and worked steadily in bands from 15. But the Dirty Looks situation was devastating to me. After having worked my whole life I was right there. That band was in a position to be hugely successful, and internally collapsed. On one hand you could say I was blessed for being signed to Atlantic records and putting a couple records out and touring and doing videos. But the reality is, Atlantic records was so strongly behind that band that the true potential of that band was never even close to being fulfilled. Having to walk away from that situation because of the decisions being made wiped me out, quite honestly, for a couple of years. Then I just got into the recording thing and got to the point where I need to be creative again. Sometimes it’s good to not do anything for a while cause it kind of recharges you and you forget all that crap you’re upset or not happy about. I need to be creative again. And I did dabble in a couple band formats and it just didn’t work out. (Pauses.) Ok, now I’m gonna be an asshole. The bad side of having gotten some degree of success, when you realize the amount of effort and dedication it takes to get there, is when you try and put something else together, maybe with people that don’t have that level of dedication. I can’t take that. The only thing I can do is by myself, ’cause then I control what I do and that’s that.
Looking ahead, you’re going to be generous. You’re going to invite a few people into the picture.
I’ve gotten a few shows under my belt and I figure I can go out and play without embarrassing myself now, so that was a huge step for me. I worked from time to time with Bret Alex from the Badlees. We’ve had a long-standing relationship. When I came back from the Dirty Looks days, after I opened a studio, I actually worked with the Badlees, early in their career and produced a record for them. Bret and I have stayed in contact through the years. And he has a studio now that he runs. From time to time Brett and I will get together and he’ll record some tracks for me or I’ll sit down and say, “Hey, I got this song …” The bad thing about writing songs totally on your own is that you can get into a rut and just end up doing the same thing. Every once in awhile I’ll go up, and Bret and I’ll get together, and be like, “Bret, man, I got this song”... because Bret is an awesome songwriter ... “and I’m to this point and I don’t want to do the same thing I always do.” And he’ll be like, “Well, play an A min to a C to an E min.” I’m a bass player, so minors are like a mystery. So then I say, “That’s fantastic ... you’re awesome!” And it gives me a little bit of a different flair. I’ve spoken to him and he says, “Let’s do some shows together.”
Edited by Walter Gibbs; Oslo, Norway. Editor’s Credits: The New York Times and Reuters.
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