Gina Pensiero

Gina Pensiero
Harrison, NJ
musician, songwriter
(Umberto, Dumb and Ugly Club, I am Janet)

Tottered on: 24 February 2007
Temperature: 24F
Ceiling: threatening
Ground: re-frozen snow
Wind: E at 10mph


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TT with HD: Gina Pensiero


[Ed. note: More detail on Gina's various and sundry musical and artistic pursuits can be found starting at I am Janet. If you'd like to listen to the song 'For a Lad who's Glad' mentioned in the conversation below, then Umberto's MySpace page is the place to start.]

HD: Let's climb aboard.

GP: Alright.

HD: You know what, it's kind of icy, isn't it?

GP: Yeah, it is!

HD: I'm going to try out--this is a pin hole camera that Matt Callow ...

GP: ... oh, cool! Neat!

HD: ... helped me build.

GP: His stuff is neat. ... Is there like science for how long you're supposed to pull that out for?

HD: Yes, there is, and I'm not sure exactly, but you know, I'm just giving it my best shot. [Ed. note: first pinhole and then digital photography ensue.]
So first of all, welcome to the teeter totter!

GP: Why, thank you!

HD: Shall we get this thing tottering?

GP: Sure, yeah!

HD: Is this going to work for you?

GP: Okay, yeah!

HD: So at this time exactly a week ago, I take it you were preparing for your show at--I don't know how to pronounce the name of the bar?

GP: Dominies Hoek /dah'-ma-nees hoe'-ek/

HD: Hoe-eck, with two syllables? Hoe. Eck.

GP: Yeah, it's a very interesting bar name choice.

HD: As best I can tell, that's Dutch for 'corner'?

GP: I assume that it is Dutch, yes. Although, I don't really know the origins of why it's called that.

HD: How did that show go?

GP: It went fabulous, I have to say. I've just started playing with two kids I went to high school with, who are both jazz musicians. We played a lot in high school together, and now we're playing again. It took a little while to get sort of re-acquainted with them musically, and now that we've gotten a chance to practice adequately, it's just fabulous to play with them--it's a joy, you know?

HD: So you three played as Umberto, or is that just for your solo stuff?

GP: We just played together as Umberto. One of the guys has an amazing analog synthesizer that makes the most incredible sounds ...

HD: ... what kind of synthesizer is it?

GP: It is a Korg. I do not know the model number. But it's one of those old ones where to change the sound you plug different eighth-inch plugs into different parts of the board, and it totally changes the way it can sound. It's really fun to work with. So that was really cool.

HD: And what does the other one [in the band] do?

GP: He plays drums.

HD: So you had a drummer, a synthesizer and you, which was ...

GP: ... acoustic guitar and voice.

HD: So were you playing new stuff that you'd created especially for this gig, or?

GP: Some new, some old. Some really old from when we played together in high school. We're actually going into the studio together to record. We're starting now, we'll probably be doing it all year--the goal is by probably in about a year to have a new Umberto album fully recorded on analog reel-to-reel tape.

HD: Wow.

GP: Yeah.

HD: So once you've got it recorded on reel-to-reel are you going to put it out on vinyl??

GP: Well, we'll probably dump it into digital for editing and probably release it on CD. Maybe vinyl! I would love to do a vinyl pressing, but that's a matter of connections on that one, I think, figuring out how to do that.

HD: So these other two people you went to high school with, they're now living out on the east coast, I guess, somewhere close to where you are?

GP: Yeah, they live close to Patterson, New Jersey, which is the home of William Carlos Williams--that's the most notable person from Patterson. [laugh] They go to school out there, one of them for recording and the other for jazz drumming performance.

HD: Where did you go to high school, with them?

GP: Verona High School in Verona, New Jersey.

HD: Oh, so you're originally from out there.

GP: I am originally from the area, yeah.

HD: So how did you wind up here?

GP: I went to U of M. The most cliche and normal way people end up here, I guess. [laugh] I don't know, I really liked this area when I was thinking about schools, and then I just ended up staying here for a while, because I had such a good time in Ann Arbor and with so many of the people that I met here.

HD: So did you live for some time in Brooklyn? I just assumed you had based on the song of yours--'Don't Move to Brooklyn' I think is the title--I guess I assumed you were actually living in Brooklyn at some point?

GP: Oh, no, I actually have never lived in Brooklyn and am staunchly against living there [laugh]--although in somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek manner, because many of my good friends live there.

HD: Have you ever seen anybody raising chickens in Brooklyn?

GP: No, but I heard an NPR program about that! About people in all the boroughs starting to raise chickens and these huge community gardens. I guess it's a thing that people do.

HD: Apparently. Yeah, when Peter Thomason was here teeter tottering, he said in Brooklyn chickens were totally allowed and people keep them all the time. He's from Ypsilanti--I don't know if you know the background, but he would like to have the ordinance changed to explicitly allow chickens in backyards.

GP: In Ypsilanti?

HD: Yeah.

GP: Ahh. Yeah, I think it's very interesting, but I've never actually seen chickens in Brooklyn, but they're probably around. [laugh] Chickens, hipsters, ...

HD: So the show that you played at Dominies Hoek, Patrick Elkins was on the same bill.

GP: Yeah, but Patrick didn't show! he ...

HD: ... I was going to ask if he behaved himself.

GP: Oh, well, Patrick never behaves himself! That's the best thing about Patrick!

HD: But he didn't show up?!

GP: No, what happened was he had a mix-up with his plane ticket and he couldn't change his plane ticket in time to make the show, so he had to go back. It would have ended up costing him a whole lot of money to change the ticket.

HD: Oh so he was there and then left.

GP: Yeah, he played another show earlier, which I missed, because I just assumed I would see him at that one. I was really disappointed. I wanted my dosage of warped muffins, you know--applesauce, suicide ...

HD: Let me ask you about this song of yours called 'A Lad Who's Glad'--is that the name of it?

GP: Yeah, that's the name.

HD: The review that ran in The Observer last summer, it characterized that song as a 'low-tech punk channeling of Bertolt Brecht'.

GP: [laugh] Yeah, I remember that! I remember that phrasing [laugh].

HD: To your mind, does that fit?

GP: You know, I felt that that interview was very flattering, but a lot of the assessments in it, I didn't necessarily agree with, I guess. I mean, everyone has a right to their own opinion, but that song for me was coming more from a place of being inspired by bands like The Elephant Six groups--like Neutral Milk Hotel--and just that big crazy-loud distortion sound, that's almost hard to distinguish what's going on, you know? But I thought it was an interesting analysis nonetheless. I was flattered by it.

HD: To me, if I analyze the lyrics, and leave the musicality aside, it seems to be more a call to action, an exhortation to someone to take this confused content of their mental world and to use that to create music.

GP: Mmm hmm. It's interesting that that's what you got from it, because that whole album, I wrote while I was in London and ...

HD: ... this is London, England, not London ...

GP: ... Ontario. Yeah yeah, England [laugh]. And it was kind of a very strange sort of lonely time. But it was also very pretty, because London is very pretty and very classic in a way. And a lot of the things I was writing then were influenced by the way that people talk there and things that I would see there--like these beautiful old cathedrals, and beautiful old buildings and churches. And I think a lot of it was playing with the language that I was surrounded with in that space, and playing with my feelings and the way that they measured up against that time of my life.

HD: How long ago was that?

GP: That was I guess about three, four years ago. A while now. Three years ago.

HD: The website, I am Janet, I was trying to figure out exactly how to even characterize that. It's not really just a record label, it's more like a consortium of various artists.

GP: Yes, it's definitely trying to be that more like--at one point it was described as sort of an 'art label'. Because it does include music and writing and internet happenings, blogs--but also visual art and filmmaking and things of that nature.

HD: So it is an appropriate question to ask, Who owns I am Janet?

GP: [laugh] Sure, you can ask it. I don't how to answer! I would say that the label idea of it was started by Michael Beuchamp and I when we were freshmen at U of M. We were playing together with the Dumb and Ugly Club and we just wanted kind of like a vanity label to put our stuff out on. And then it just got crazy and ended up being a real thing. And since then, basically all my very best and most-loved people in Ann Arbor and from Ann Arbor are involved at this point. I would say it's owned as a whole by everyone, you know? It's a fairly disorganized mass of happenings.

HD: Well, part of that mass is a blog that you have dedicated to documenting examples of graffiti.

GP: Mmm hmm.

HD: Do you ever go out bombing, yourself?

GP: Oh, no! Although I wish I did! I had this really intense phase of being totally obsessed with street art and especially people like Banksy and other people doing this really political, interesting, fresh, street art. It got to a point where I decided what my tag name would be if I ever had any kind of visual art talent. But I don't so ...

HD: And that was?

GP: Guitar.

HD: Oh right, okay, the name of the blog author.

GP: But I'm actually thinking about taking that blog maybe in a different direction, because I haven't really been keeping up on it very well. And right now, I live in an area with all this amazing urban decay, so I was just thinking about maybe taking it more towards art photography of that area and stuff like that. We'll see. I've got to find time to make that happen!

HD: I noticed on that blog there aren't any examples I could find of indoor, bathroom stall stuff. And also I couldn't find any examples of stenciling. I was wondering if that was a conscious decision that those two forms don't qualify as graffiti--or at least not the kind of thing that you wanted to document. Or is that just an accidental gap?

GP: It's kind of accidental. I have a big cache of things that I haven't really put up there yet, and they do include a lot of stenciling. I really like stenciling quite a bit actually. Bathroom stuff, I don't know. I guess if I were to find something interesting enough. I feel like a lot of bathroom graffiti, while it is like kind of amusing and charming in its own way, it kind of all starts to blend together at some point. Although maybe it would be worth taking a picture of the Fleetwood bathroom, just for good measure.

HD: If you want some pictures of various examples of trough-style urinals, I've got some.

GP: Really! That's kind of a weird thing to just have lying around! [laugh]

HD: There's a story behind that, but we don't have time to get into that.

GP: Okay!

HD: Tomorrow there's supposed to be a massive snowstorm blowing through here.

GP: Really! At what time?

HD: I don't know that they've pinned down the exact clock time.

GP: I hope my flight can leave! [laugh]

HD: You're leaving tomorrow?

GP: Yeah, I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon, because I have to go back to work. But it was more than worth it to come out here for the weekend and see lots of people.

HD: So you had a place to crash, then?

GP: Yeah, actually my very best friend still lives here in Ann Arbor, so I'm taking up her couch for now.

HD: So you had a couch, you didn't have to settle for the floor?

GP: Oh, noo, no. I was living in style! We graduated!

HD: And that was here in Ann Arbor or in Ypsi?

GP: Here in Ann Arbor, over in the Kerrytown area.

HD: Was there anything particular that you wanted to make sure you got done, or saw while you were here on this visit? Or do you just pretty much figure you'll be back soon enough again and check it out anytime you want?

GP: Every time I come to Ann Arbor, there's kind of a To Do list that I check off.

HD: So what was on it for this trip? Besides ride the teeter totter.

GP: Well, the teeter totter was a big one! I didn't tell a lot of people I was coming, so it was a perfect ambush situation to show up at the Blind Pig with the Saturday Looks Good To Me show going on, and have a whole bunch of people there, and then walk in and have everyone go, What the hell are you doing here?! That was really amusing. Got some great brunch at Zola, which is one of my favorite Ann Arbor establishments. I usually try to hit the Fleetwood at least once--that will probably happen sometime in the wee hours in the morning tonight. And record shopping, going to Encore and Underground Sounds and Wazzoo. And just walking around, seeing the Ann Arbor sights. Mainly at this point it's just kind of like a list of people I need to make sure I see. There are a couple of establishments I always try to hit up.

HD: You have anything else at all on your mind?

GP: Hmmm. Do I have anything else on my mind. I don't know, I think that pretty well sums it up, I suppose.

HD: Well, listen, I really appreciate your taking the time to ride the teeter totter on this visit to Ann Arbor!

GP: Well, thank you. I really appreciate your having me here on this teeter totter! [laugh]

HD: Alright let's try and dismount--now wait because it is icy and the teeter totter has a perfect safety record and I don't want to ruin it.

GP: Awesome. We did it.

HD: Good deal. Now if you just fall down by yourself, it doesn't count against the teeter totter.