"I just bought a house. It's the first one I've ever owned, so today was the first time I'd ever cut my own lawn," Searcy says from his Louisville, Ky., home. "Regardless of what happens with my music, I wanted some kind of security and structure."
So on a rare day off between gigs, he spent the morning of this interview buying a mower and shearing his grass into compliance with the magazine-worthy lawns the Bluegrass state calls to mind. But as you'd expect of a rocker reared in the low-budget punk tradition, he didn't blow his new-album paycheck on a riding-model Toro.
"I'm a horrible haggler," Searcy says, laughing. "I went down to the hardware store and looked at the used rack. I saw one for $90, and I asked the owner whether I was buying a $50 model for $40 too much money. He brought out another one, a Roper, that was newer for the same price." Searcy reports that the mower did the job just fine.
The Kentucky-born Searcy began his career in 1985 making lawn mower-like noise with the agreeably catchy Squirrel Bait. Predating grunge with a more hardcore thrash sound than the similarly minded (and youthful) Replacements, the group boasted alums who went on to play integral roles in Slint, Basto, and Gastr del Sol. After two Squirrel Bait albums, the group disbanded in 1987. Searcy landed first in Big Wheel, then in Starbilly, then in an Atlanta restaurant waiting tables before assembling his solo disc.
When Searcy answers his cell phone for the interview, he's settling his lunch check at the tavern next door to his house. Rather than walk out suavely, having placed cash on the bill, he tells more than one staffer before hitting the door that he's left payment on his table. Searcy's voice in the center of the bustling sound of The Comeback Inn ("It's a crappy little bar that's always packed because the food is so good," Searcy says) is a canny irony; even if it almost sounds as if a waiter has answered his cell phone, Searcy has left service work behind for full-time rock again, and he's glad.
"If you're a musician who doesn't plan on spending his life in cover bands, that's what you have to do. You'll have to work at something else in the meantime. No matter how little I liked doing that, the end result was that I'm out playing music again," he says.
His voice, confident and capable, is also at the center of the bustling Could You Please and Thank You. It's an upbeat album with the jubilance of a debut, but it's crafted with the assurance of a pro.
"They say you have your whole life to write your first album and just a few months to write the second. But I've had the chance to write two or three first albums," Searcy says, referring to his work in previous bands. That perspective, and his non-household-word status, allows Could You Please to be convincingly uncynical, even though it's far from Searcy's first arrival in the marketplace. The songs are tersely written and plainspoken but delivered with urgent harmony vocals and alternately jangly and buzzing guitars. It's the most charming Paul Westerberg solo disc Paul never got around to making himself. Accordingly, Searcy is proud and optimistic.
"It's been great so far," he says of touring and supporting the February release of the album with in-store appearances (the one close to his hometown satisfied him the most). "At some points I've never been so tired in my life, but it sure beats waiting tables."
Just like Searcy's breaking away from accepting customer orders, Could You Please is the product of a 15-year music veteran who will no longer compromise. "I've been in other bands, so this was the first time that I didn't have to bend my ideas," he says. "I mean, a song can really turn around when you watch it evolve as other people contribute to it, but what they offer doesn't bend the song out of shape."
Witnessing the evolution of a batch of songs was another new privilege for Searcy, whose punk aesthetic died hard. "I've been very used to getting everything ready in the practice space, then duplicating it in the studio in two or three days' work. But this was what I always wanted -- the ability to experiment a little bit. There's a reason major-label albums sound the way they do.
"The side of me that grew up in the do-it-yourself way likes to hear mistakes. I didn't grow up making home recordings. It was always rehearsal, then quick recording. As much as I love to listen to a Jellyfish record, I don't think I'd want to make one." Searcy insists on a more vividly emotional connection to the material, eschewing sonic trickery and thick layering. "You know what makes a great shaker? An aspirin bottle. Big tablets," he says, noting that track six of the new album, "Invent," contains some of that headache relief in the mix.
Searcy found a soul mate in producer Tim Patalan, who has worked with Sponge, Fretblanket, and Marty Stuart. "It's a great opportunity when you can work with someone willing to ask you, 'Are you sure that's what you want to say and how you want to say it?' Tim took me aside and asked if I could make one song better that I thought was completely done. I defensively said no, but I was challenged, and what I came back with the next day was 10 times better," Searcy says. "It planted a seed."
Searcy admires producers, such as Jon Brion and T-Bone Burnett, who can bring out new facets of artists while imprinting the results with personal trademarks. He mentions Don Dixon and Mitch Easter's formative work with vintage 1983 to 1984 R.E.M., then says he hopes that his partnership with Patalan will have that impact on his own work. "I'd like to develop a relationship with Tim," he says.
Patalan and Searcy worked to make the album cohesive, whittling down Searcy's 15 songs to a swiftly paced 11 that roar out at under 40 minutes. "I think that CDs have made long albums the norm. But I know I like to get through an album and have my attention span riveted through every song. You can't do that with a long album."
Searcy remains an avid listener, another trait describes a newbie rather than someone who's made eight records. He enthusiastically recommends the last Remy Zero disc and the current Shelby Lynne, complains that the tour van doesn't yet have any Black Sabbath aboard, and admits he's stymied by Michael Penn's new one. His recent trip to South By Southwest affected him as much as a concertgoer as a performer.
It could be as simple as having a new house to play his albums in. Or it could be that in his second decade of effort, Searcy knows he's still getting better, becoming the kind of writer and performer other acts point out as an influence. Searcy, modestly describing his house and trimmed lawn, could also be talking about his music: "It's not a mansion. I'm an urban pioneer, and I know what's going on. I know I've got some records to sell before I can afford to add central air to the house."
Peter Searcy with Frankie Machine and Neve
Friday, March 31 at The Granada