There’s an old saying: Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.
Moe Berg can appreciate both sides of that coin. Thirty years ago, the lanky singer-guitarist led Canadian power-pop trio The Pursuit of Happiness to international success with the droll breakout single I’m An Adult Now and the Todd Rundgren-produced album Love Junk. Now, even though it’s been more than two decades since their last disc, Berg knows how good he’s got it.
“I’m An Adult Now got us everything we have in our lives, you know?” he asks. “I’ve been able to channel that song into an entire lifetime of working in music. It was a great experience and I’m just grateful it’s had the life that it’s had.”
That life isn’t over yet. Last fall, Berg and TPOH welcomed an expanded two-disc reissue of Love Junk to mark its 30th anniversary. Fittingly, he and the band’s most recent lineup — longtime drummer Dave Gilby, guitarist Kris Abbott, bassist Brad Barker and backing vocalist Renee Suchy — have also regrouped for a handful of performances, including shows this weekend in London, Ont. and Toronto.
From his home in Toronto, Berg took some time to chat about being old before his time, the genius of producer Rundgren and the life of a rock ’n’ roll dad. Full disclosure: I’ve known Berg and Gilby since the ’80s, when we were all part of a vibrant Edmonton underground music scene that also included SNFU, Psyche, Jr. Gone Wild and others. Their band was called Modern Minds. I was the drummer for a rockabilly trio called Draggnetts. Once or twice, I even played drums behind Moe during encores while fellow Winnipegger Gilby took a smoke break. It feels like a lifetime ago. Or was it just yesterday? Anyway, here’s what Berg had to say:
Did I read correctly that you’re about to turn 60?
Well, yeah. But I’m still in my 50s. So we’ll just leave it at that. (Laughs)
Have the ‘I’m A Senior Adult’ jokes started yet?
No, but I’m sure they’re coming.
Is this the first time you’ve listened to Love Junk lately, or do you go back periodically and revisit?
No, I don’t listen to it a lot. But it was funny. In putting together the package, I listened to the remaster and I listened to a lot of demos and live versions of the songs that we recorded — and that I have not listened to, probably, since the week after they were recorded. And I’m pretty happy with what we did. Clearly, a lot of the songs were written by a young man, and I’m aware of that. But some of the other songs seem almost like the older me was channeling them down to the younger me. So there’s some songs that feel like they have more meaning to me now than they did back then. Certainly I’m An Adult Now and She’s So Young seem more like they’d be written by a slightly older person than the person who wrote them.
You’re lucky. A lot of artists are slightly embarrassed by their older material.
Well, I feel fortunate because we weren’t really a part of any sort of prevailing trend when we started off. So there’s nothing that feels wildly dated about the stuff that we recorded. And we always tried to stick to our guns in terms of what we wanted to do stylistically, and not jump on any bandwagons. So I feel we kind of dodged a bullet in that way. Bands who do something stylistically that is very specific to the time that they lived in can end up feeling their old recordings are ugly baby pictures.
Is there anything you would have done differently on the album?
Not on Love Junk. I think it kind of works. And I feel like changing anything about it would probably change a whole bunch of other things inadvertently. There are other records that we made that I might go back and tweak a couple of things here and there, but probably not Love Junk.
Why is that the case? What’s so special about it?
A lot of it has to do with Todd Rundgren, the producer of the record. Todd did an amazing job of choosing the songs that were on the record. He definitely chose our best songs. Maybe left to our own devices we might have chosen different songs. We had 30 demos we sent him of songs that were potential candidates for the record, and he very skillfully whittled them down to the best ones. So we didn’t record any songs I don’t like or that haven’t weathered the test of time. That was sort of a stroke of genius on his part. And the way he recorded them was that he really tried to capture the immediacy of the band. The studio sessions were very fast. He just set us up in a room and said, ‘Play the songs’ and we never belaboured anything. Usually it was the first, second or third take. I think both of those things contributed to the longevity of the record.
What was your mindset during the sessions? Was it, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe this is happening?’ Or were you too busy just trying to keep your head above water to be overwhelmed?
It was a bit of both. But there was definitely a lot of the ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe this is happening.’ (Laughs) That was probably the prevailing feeling. There was also a sense that we were doing something and to be conscious of that. But I think we were just really having so much fun and we were just so excited to be working with Todd. I was such a huge fan of his and we just connected with him so immediately.
It would have been terrible if he had been a mean prick.
Yeah. And there have been reports of people who didn’t get along with him as well as I did. But that happens. These relationships are not unlike any other relationships. Some people you vibe with and some people you don’t. Fortunately for us, we really hit it off with him.
Can you think of something specific he contributed to the sound that became a definitive element of the album?
Well, it was the ’80s. And there was an ’80s sound that I don’t necessarily hear on our record. And that sound might have dated the record somewhat if we had gone into the studio with someone who was more obsessed with the recording process. There was a gated-reverb snare drum sound that was very prevalent back then and there were a lot of people using way too many effects because there was a big technological boom in the ’80s where there were a lot of new recording effects created. A lot of producers and engineers jumped on that, but Todd had his own way of doing things and he recorded our record the same we he recorded every record. So it was more his own specific sound than trying to copy what was going on in the rest of the recording industry.
Did you learn anything from him at the time?
Absolutely. I learned the song and the performance are more important than anything else. We can list off a dozen classic records that were made for $3,000 that have more to do with how well the band performed the songs and how great the songs were. Certainly the first Ramones record or the first Police record were records like that; records that were banged off. But they have that sense of immediacy, because it’s really about the songs and the performance more than the technology and the recording.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
I don’t, really. I will say that one of the songs I like playing live is Hard to Laugh. We typically open with it. It just has a lot of energy, and it’s had a lot of energy from the moment we started playing it. It’s one of those songs we’ve never done a bad version of. It’s always worked for us. And it’s easy to play. (Laughs)
You’d written tons of songs before these, and wrote plenty more after. But these were right in the zone. Do you have any idea why? Was there something specific going on in your life at the time?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. It’s true, I’d written a lot of songs at that point and been in a lot of bands as a kid. I was always writing songs and always performing my own songs. I think it may just be a matter of the fact that I finally got good at it. I mean, I probably thought my songs were good all the way up to that point. But that was when I really got better at it, and these songs were my coming of age as a writer. That might have more to do with it than anything else. And in terms of cold hard songwriting, certainly the stuff on Love Junk is some of the best stuff I ever did.
What’s it like to get up and play these songs 30 years later, and who are you playing them for?
It’s mainly people who spent the last 20 years waiting for us to come back to their town. (Laughs) There’s a lot of those people. And they’re happy to see us. It’s funny. We played a show in Winnipeg and there were these four women there. I looked at them and I recognized them. They’d been to every Pursuit of Happiness show we ever played in Winnipeg. And the first time they came to see us they were 15 and they snuck into the show. And to see them now, when they’re middle-aged women with families and stuff like that, it just kind of snapped me back into, ‘Yes, it has been 30 years.’ We hadn’t played in Winnipeg in 20 years, and it was great just to see people and recognize people that we played to the last time we were there.
Other than that, is it just like getting back up on the horse?
Yeah. Over the last 20 years, we’ve only played about a dozen shows. But every time we get up and play, it all comes back. And part of what’s made the shows successful is our own personal enthusiasm for playing the songs. It’s not like we’ve been out for the last 20 years slugging it out and playing 100 shows a year. So when we get onstage to play it’s like a birthday or Christmas. We get to go out and play these songs again and be with each other and tell jokes and do all the things that make being in a band such a great thing.
What do your kids think of your music?
They don’t listen to it. They listen to what’s on the radio, same as I did when i was a kid. My daughter loves K-pop, you know. She’s 13 and my son is 9. I’m just dad. They’ve come to see me play and they’re kind of amazed to see that side of me, and to see that people like me in that way. But it doesn’t really stick with them.