Heartbreaking news today for the Philadelphia punk rock community – and the music scene at large. Erik Petersen, veteran guitar-slinger and grizzled balladeer, founder of Mischief Brew, captain of the ship at Fistola Records and an eternally enthusiastic dude, has passed away.
The news has been swirling around social media for the past few hours, and was formally reported by Punknews earlier this afternoon. Details are scarce, but it seems Petersen passed away last night. The band’s final performance took place on Friday, July 8th, at The Trocadero opening for his close compatriots and longtime favorites World / Inferno Friendship Society. Mischief Brew was scheduled to perform in the Lehigh Valley tonight at the Square of Opposition / Double Decker Records anniversary; we wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of impromptu tribute bubbles up.
Beyond the whats and the whys and all that, Petersen’s passing is a major loss of a passionate and driven voice in our community. Onstage, he was sweaty and snarling, unhinged and intimidating, a guitar swinging from his shoulders and a jeff cap slipping from his head. As soon as he stepped offstage, he was brimming with cheer and that classic ear-to-ear Erik Petersen grin, quick with a handshake and a hug and a cup of coffee or a slug of whiskey (or both). He was community personified, he was a friend to all in the scene; to him, the scene was life, it was every aspect of his world since he was a teenager in the early 90s.
Petersen founded the West Chester punk outfit The Orphans in 1994, and fast developed a rabid following in a fertile East Coast network of bands that also included Plow United and Weston. Their signature tune was “The Government Stole My Germs CD,” and you can totally hear that revved-up and defiant Darby Crash attitude in it (as well as their entire Raise the Youth LP).
When The Orphans disbanded in 2000, Petersen dabbled in a more acoustic style of songwriting – more out of necessity than anything else. To paraphrase an interview he did with me in 2007, he had songs, he wanted to play them and it didn’t matter at that point if he had people to play with him or not.
The punk troubadour thing, though, was something Petersen was really really freaking good at. Fueled by his own late-20s fascination with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie, and aided along by a listening public rediscovering Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska during the aughties, Mischief Brew took on a life of its own. Petersen quickly saw it as a means to be a musician in whatever setting best suited him. If it was easier to do a run of shows acoustic, he’d play acoustic; if the situation allowed for a band, he’d bring in collaborators like bassist Shawn St. Clair, his brother Christopher on drums, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Chris “Doc” Kulp (Mischief Brew’s original drummer), or accordion player Franz Nicolay (of The Hold Steady and World / Inferno) and more.
Their debut, Smash the Windows, was released in 2005, and was succeeded by Songs from Under the Sink in 2006, The Stone Operation in 2011 and This Is Not for Children in 2015. He also released collaborations, including the excellent Photographs from the Shoebox split with Joe Jack Talcum of Dead Milkmen in 2009, and later the same year, Fight Dirty with Guignol (Nicolay’s klezmer-rock project).
With the exception of last year’s Children, all of these records came out on Petersen’s own Fistolo Records, the label he ran out of his DelCo home with his wife Denise Vertucci. He was DIY the the core, and when the time did come to work with another label, he went with the Alternative Tentacles – the like-minded California independent imprint run by Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys.
In a roundabout way, Petersen was a catalyst in the website you are looking at today. Many moons ago, my first role at WXPN was a volunteer host on the internet radio / HD stream called Y-Rock; one Sunday in 2007, my good friend Jake “Rabid” Nisenfeld asked me to fill in for him on the local show. Having recently discovered Mischief Brew, and knowing that Petersen was slated to play a gig that evening at West Philly’s LAVA Space, I cold emailed him asking if he’d like to swing by and play acoustic on the air before the show. He was quick to respond and happy to oblige.
I recorded Petersen’s set and interview, and it was goddamn beautiful – to this day it one of my favorite recordings I’ve made here at WXPN. He opened with “Nomad’s Revolt,” an endlessly catchy and lyrically poignant song “for the aging punk rocker who needed an anthem.” I was a year shy of 30 at that point, and it totally rang true for me in every possible way. I excitedly played the track for Jake that week, and his reaction was the same. “We should do more of these,” he said. And so began the Philly music scene documentation undertaking that we now call The Key Studio Sessions; I absolutely love that this crazy project occupies such a major part of my own life, and I have Petersen to thank for that.
Petersen and I kept in touch as the years unfolded. I caught him playing spitfire sets in places from Millcreek Tavern to The Barbary to Cedar Park (the photo at the top of the page). A few years down the road, XPN planned a tribute to Bruce Springsteen for his 60th birthday, and I was tasked with collecting covers from the music community. Petersen submitted a haunting take on “My Hometown,” the closing track on Born in the U.S.A. Below, you can listen to it, along with the acoustic “Nomad’s Revolt” and interview from that very first performance on XPN in April of 2007.
The last time I saw Petersen was at PhilaMOCA last winter, and the memory is absolutely magic. It was the Eraserhood art space’s Video Music Festival, and as one of the curators, I invited Petersen to screen his new music video for “O, Pennsyltucky,” a brilliantly sardonic clip filmed in Centralia (aka that town that’s decimated by underground coal fire). The song is about the love-hate relationship we all have with the places we call home; the quirks and regressiveness and dunderheadedness that drives forward-thinking people absolutely up the wall, and the simultaneous way no other space in the world gives us the same sense of comfort. Again, Petersen’s lyrical craft was brilliantly on point – witty, observational and smart, he was one of the best storytellers and scene-setters in punk – and again, it rang tremendously true.
Another one of the videos screening that night was “Where I’m From” by West Philly rapper The Bul Bey. That song, in it’s own beat-heavy summertime-jammy ear candy kinda way, is talking about the same exact issues – contrasting the downs and ups of the places we call home. After the event wrapped up, I caught Petersen and Bey talking shop afterwards — they totally noticed the parallels in one another’s songs before I did, and were nerding out about them. I quickly chatted with Erik; he was excited about releasing the new record on Alternative Tentacles, and plans to take it on the road in the subsequent year. Once again, he had that huge smile on his face. The lights came up and it was time to clear out; I extended my arm for a handshake, he went in for a bear hug. That’s the kind of guy Erik Petersen was.
Petersen’s final recordings at XPN were made with the Folkadelphia team, and they were just released last month. Host Fred Knittel had this to say.
I will bet you that the first time I heard Mischief Brew, I was sitting on a dilapidated couch in the basement level of 3210 Chestnut Street, deep within the confines of Drexel University’s non-commercial, free-format, student-run radio station WKDU. That’s where I, and so many open-minded, forward-thinking weirdos cut our teeth, got lost in the vinyl stacks, and figured out for ourselves what was good music. I thank my lucky stars for being in the right place at the right time.
I think that last sentiment is true for many of us. Rest in power, Erik Petersen.
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