Anti-folk duo Paleface returns to Asheville

DYNAMIC DUO: The Paleface sound has to make sense both in the studio and onstage. “When you have an acoustic guitar and you add a drum, a lot of songs fall apart,” says singer-songwriter PF, right, with drummer Mo Samalot. “We could record them and put a bunch of stuff on them, but I don’t want to do that. … I want every song to be two people playing rock ’n’ roll and having that work live.” Photo by Staton Carter

Paleface, the singer-songwriter who fronts a duo of the same name, has been working on a follow-up to the band’s 2011 release, One Big Party. “There’s 20 or 25 songs that I’ve been writing,” he says. The musician and his on- and offstage partner, drummer Monica “Mo” Samalot, will play some of that new material at Jack of the Wood on Friday, May 27.

“They’re not all going on the record, [but] it’s still a really good way to know if a song’s good,” says Paleface. Paraphrasing a music documentary he watched recently, he says that playing a song once live is worth two weeks of rehearsals because, ”The audience, they won’t lie to you.”

But after more than two decades of writing, performing, recording and touring, what makes a good song can’t be a complete mystery to Paleface. The musician, who — miraculously in this age of oversharing — has kept his birth name secret, got his start in New York City in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He was mentored by singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, discovered by Danny Fields (manager of The Ramones and The Doors, among others) and quickly signed to Polygram. “The music business side of it, I wasn’t prepared for that at all,” he says. “I was just down in the Village trying to be as artistic as I could.”

Paleface, who goes by PF, overcame a health crisis and returned to New York in the late ’90s, where he met The Moldy Peaches, Langhorne Slim and others who were part of the bustling anti-folk scene. “I’d been through it, and I knew what I was looking at. I knew it wouldn’t last,” he says. “That was a special time … you’d see all that talent in one night, and you knew all those people were going to have careers.”

But he and Samalot have kept in touch with some of those groups. They recently ran into Langhorne Slim at a gas station in Ohio (the two bands also performed a few shows together last fall). And it was The Avett Brothers who suggested PF and Samalot relocate to North Carolina, making Concord their home base for extensive touring. (“In the beginning it was terrible. … I remember saying to Mo, ‘I think we made a mistake!’” PF says. “It was a big adjustment, but when we hit the road, it was all worth it.”) Last month, the Avetts invited PF and Samalot to Asheville for a video shoot.

Though it’s been a while since Paleface has played an Asheville show (past dates included Isis Restaurant & Music Hall and the since-shuttered MoDaddy’s), the duo work to keep current with local and regional venues and music scenes. It’s Samalot who handles band business, such as social media and booking venues, while PF focuses on the music. “The more I get into songcraft, the harder it becomes,” he says. “Keeping it simple is always the best thing, but it’s the hardest thing, too.”

He continues, “The more rules you know, there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll apply to any given song. And sometimes you can’t get your mind to accept it.” While PF has described his recent past work as “simplistic, happy songs … three chords, jump around, and they’re fun.” But at some point, he says, “I just wanted more. I wanted a little more depth, a little more to the songs.”

He adds, “That’s what I’ve been doing. We’ll see how it turns out. You never know until you hear it. Every artist you talk to will tell you the greatest album they’ve ever made is the one they’re making at the moment … that’s the mindset you have to be in to make it.”

If that sounds at all fatalistic, it’s not. PF says he does feel like his current work-in-progress is the greatest album he’s ever made. And, adding to that creative output, he’s gotten into painting, selling his music-themed folk art online and at shows. Samalot (whose background is in architecture and planning) also takes photos, which she posts on the band’s social media sites. And, even though it’s not easy, both seem glad to keep touring and recording.

“No matter what struggles we face, he’s got the guitar, and he’s thinking about the music,” Samalot says of PF. “I can’t imagine him doing anything else.”

WHO: Paleface, with The Local Honeys opening and Dirty Soul Revival closing
WHERE: Jack of the Wood, 90 Patton Ave., jackofthewood.com
WHEN: Friday, May 27, 7 p.m. $5

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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