Interview: Pete David of The Payroll Union (Part 2)

By on Thursday, 16th July 2015 at 11:00 am

Did you miss part 1 of this interview? Don’t fret! Catch up here.

Based on historical source material from the project’s extensive research, the songs on The Payroll Union’s ‘Paris of America’ are an exquisite expression of the social and political upheaval in mid-19th century Philadelphia. In writing them, frontman and songwriter Pete David has balanced historical accuracy with artistic licence, incorporating both precise detail and cleverly imagined empathy with the characters he attempts to portray. “I wanted [the songs] to represent those events and those characters successfully, in a lyrical way,” he says.

“Basically, I’m trying to write characters, I’m trying to write stories. And although I want to have some kind of integrity to what I write, in the lyrics, it’s not necessarily about accuracy. It’s about, telling a story, painting a picture, you know, creating something very visual for the listener. But you know, if a historian dissected the lyrics, I mean it’s like dissecting poetry, you can’t really get into it and on a kind of accuracy level. They’re lyrics, they’re not an academic essay.”

Payroll Union Paris cover lg

The album’s lead single ‘The Mission Field’ is based on the historical account of Protestant minister Benjamin Sewell of his time with Philadelphia’s Bedford Street Mission in the 1850s. “Bedford Street was an area of a lot African-Americans, a lot of Irish, generally poor, generally quite diseased. A place with a lot of bars, as you might expect, a lot of taverns, and prostitution was rife and what have you.” David inhabits Sewell’s character very effectively on the recording of the song, his vocal delivery vividly conveying Sewell’s violent distaste for the people around him.

Talking of Sewell, David displays a unique understanding of his subject. “He’s just incredibly judgmental and unpleasant about the people. He hates the Catholics, and he talks about them like they’re animals, you know. And there’s this kind of correlation that runs through the literature of the time, where people are talked about as savages, you know the savagery of the American Indians, and there’s the savagery of the poor. Both of which are abhorrent things to correlate.”

David took a similar approach to writing and singing album opener ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’, in which a Nativist mob makes a martyr of one of its own men who was killed in an anti-immigration riot. In writing the narrative song lyrics, David says, “I sort of took the place of one of these men who were exacting revenge for George Shiffler’s death. I think that is always more interesting, in a way, to try and explain the perspective of the person you don’t have any sympathy with.”

While the song’s turbulent subject matter might be easily relatable to his listeners in terms of current political events, David says that he stays away from writing songs with a deliberate political intent. “I just think it can end up clumsy. You’ve got to tread carefully I think, with trying to make a political point in a song. Very few people can do that well, and I don’t think I would be able to do it very well. That’s why I just try and write stories. But obviously I have sympathies with certain characters that are going to betray my political persuasion.”

One of the album’s less politically-charged tracks is ‘Winter of ‘41’, which David describes as “probably my favourite song on the album, actually, and probably, lyrically, I think, the one I’m most proud of.” It’s an imagined narrative, based on one line from a letter written by James Fenimore Cooper to his wife during his visit to Philadelphia in 1841. Inspired by the words “Philadelphia is struck by a paralysis”, David has here installed Cooper as his narrator in describing the atmosphere of that long, bitter winter. “In January 1841, the Second Bank of the United States closed its doors in Philadelphia. There was already a depression going on at the time and the city in particular was really hit by that. At the same time, this incredibly bitter winter is going on, where it basically lasts from October to about May. I just thought it was such a great opportunity to use that kind of wintery imagery to explain the economic depression that was going on.

Paris of America by The Payroll Union

“And that story developed from this kind of frozen city, and there’s that point at the end of the second verse where the river starts to thaw and the ice breaks up and the poor are picking up the driftwood to keep the fires going. And when you get to the end of the song, it’s kind of this point where, as the sun comes out, so does the disease and so does the violence. It’s almost like it breaks everything open, and that kind of feeds into this popular theory of what’s called miasma, where disease and disorder would kind of fester in the rotting matter, you know, and kind of taint the air. At the end I really just wanted white noise, I just wanted it to be absolutely terrifying. And Tom put down so many guitars on that track, just a sense of chaos at the end.”

‘Paris of America’ ends with a final hidden track called ‘The 6th’, which is a postscript to the album proper, written from the vantage point of a regiment of black soldiers who had volunteered to fight for their freedom in the Civil War. The song looks ahead to the war while also taking a somewhat ironic look back at the social and political events immediately preceding it. David talked at length about how the song fit into the context of the other tracks on the album. “I wanted to have this very linear narrative that [would] start in, say 1838, and end in 1863. But it just doesn’t work like that, you know. If I was going to do that, I would have had to write every single song understanding the ebb and flow of an album and the sequencing of an album right from the start, and match sequentially each event to the ebb and flow of the album. I mean, it just wasn’t realistic. But what I’m really pleased about is the last song, because that is almost this point of bitter redemption where all this stuff has happened.

“Philadelphia was a horrible place to be if you were black. They had these ties to the Southern economy, and they were a point of trade with the South, and there were a lot of people from the South living in Philadelphia. And although there was a very small black middle class, it was generally pretty unpleasant. And I was really careful, I was trying to be careful, not just because I’m trying to put myself in their shoes, but also because you can’t end it on this note of redemption. It’s not a moment of redemption, it’s a brief moment of relief in a way. That’s why there’s that line ‘You’ll never know this bitter pride’. That’s kind of, in a way, talking to myself, saying, you know, how can I even attempt to do this? But also, there’s a real bitterness to it as well. I mean, they’re going along and there are these crowds cheering them. It would have been pelting them with rocks before, you know. And then they get to this point where they rest for a while and they’re being served by whites. It’s just really strange. So, I was glad we were able to end the album on that.”

Though ‘Paris of America’ is barely complete, David is already thinking ahead to future projects. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he spoke of a few possibilities, and I must admit that his enthusiasm was contagious. “I want to start writing again, because it’s been too long really, I’ve been taken up with other things. So I’m going to start writing properly, hopefully in September. I have so many different ideas, but it’s which one to choose, really. I think we want to do something a bit more experimental, musically, and play around with some different sounds.

“I have one idea certainly to do a whole album about New York in 1836, which is basically a series of characters that I want to write about, but I haven’t yet, or maybe just touched on, and they all just sort of pass each other in some way, on one day in 1836. There are a lot of interesting stories that happened [in the context of] the rise of the penny press, this very cheap form of news, and you’ve got this, well this is a few years earlier, but I’ve wanted to write about a very small religious cult, which has got this weird kind of sexual angle to it, and there’s just a few stories that are around that time that I want to bring together in some way. Definitely bending the truth. And then, I guess, I actually want to do something that is just a bit more, absurd, maybe, and lyrically playful that has nothing to do with history whatsoever.”

Whatever he decides, the next Payroll Union project is sure to be another fascinating narrative study. David’s songwriting style has evolved alongside his thematic interests, and the band have kept pace, musically, with the demands of their subject matter. They have carved for themselves a unique niche within the Sheffield music scene as well as within the genre of folk-rock, and one with many facets yet to be explored.

Many thanks to Pete David for this extensive and enlightening chat. I look forward to hearing more from him and The Payroll Union in the future.

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