Moe Berg – The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness turns 20

The Pursuit of Happiness bw
Image by Eden Robbins, taken from the back sleeve of TPOH’s One Sided Story CD.

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut January 11, 2016

I remember one night in the mid ‘90s, sitting in my friend Andre’s basement, tuned to the local rock station. They played the weird stuff at night. The non-singles. They didn’t bother editing the swears. My finger was ready on the record/play buttons.

“She might be a painter, or a communist with my luck. But that’s the kind of girl you really wanna…”

Well, you know. And then there was something about how he was looking for girls.

I too was looking for girls (and had yet to discover satire), and the ones that Toronto’s Pursuit of Happiness were singing about were a lot more exciting than the ones the Goo Goo Dolls weren’t trying to name. But he wasn’t ever singing about getting the girls, just trying to get them, which was something a lanky 14-year-old from Winnipeg could relate to.

These songs were poppy, too. Catchy. Something you could sing along to and identify with. Most importantly, the songs seemed honest, especially on the band’s 1996 swan song, The Wonderful World of the Pursuit of Happiness.

“It’s funny how we ended our career on this sort of pop moment,” frontman Moe Berg says over the phone from his home in Toronto. “A lot of the songs, like ‘I Like You’ and ‘What You Did To My Girl’ had this very kind of syrupy pop feel to them. (Single) ‘She’s the Devil’ had a more of a hard edge, a lot more rock.”

That wasn’t the only thing different about the record. Berg says that the band took a different approach to recording it, at least for TPOH.

“We were experimenting with this idea of learning the songs in the studio,” he says. “I’d written everything with this idea that it would just be one long piece with all the songs that kind of go together, like side two of Abbey Road. In a way, I was writing song fragments almost more than I was writing a song. I just kind of made demos of all the songs and gave them to the band and said ‘here’s the demos, I’ll see you in the studio.’

“With our first couple records, especially our first one (1988’s Love Junk), we’d played the songs for a year and a half before we ever made it to the studio. So when we recorded that record, we recorded it basically live off the floor with (producer and rock legend) Todd Rundgren, and some of the takes were in one take, so this was gonna be the exact opposite of that. My idea for that, there’s this sort of special moment with a band, where if you’re working on a song, and everyone kind of plays it right for the first time, it has this great feeling to it. I wanted to capture that excitement of everyone playing the song for the first time. No one is jaded, everyone is excited about it.”

“She’s the Devil” was a hit, but the band went on hiatus shortly after the disc’s release. A solo album, 1997’s Summer’s Over followed, but Berg has been coy about releasing anything new under his own name in the two decades that have followed.

“I never assumed or never thought I’d stop writing after Wonderful World or after my solo record, I just assumed I would keep going, but I was fairly disenchanted with the music business,” he says. “I started writing short stories (Berg released a book of shorts, The Green Room, in 2000) so I really felt like that was where my creativity was heading. I really felt inspired to write short stories and I didn’t feel inspired to write songs. That inspiration to write songs never really came back.”

At least not as part of TPOH or on his own, but the man who wanted you to take him to your room where the flowers hang like bats finds himself working with the next generation as a collaborative songwriter and producer.

“Every artist needs their own special care, but my main focus as the producer is the song,” Berg says, noting that his skills don’t fall into the technical area of engineering. “I’m more interested in, a) that we have a great song, and b) that we have a great arrangement for it, and c) that everyone who is playing on the track is playing a really good part.”

He’s placed his stamp on a number of records, including such favourites as the Monoxides’ Galaxy of Stooges and Robin Black’s Planet Fame, in addition to new stuff by up-and-comers Taylor Holden and the James Clark Institute. It’s his way of doing for the kids what rock legend Todd Rundgren did for him.

“When we got our deal with (new defunct British label) Chrysalis, I was in the office in New York and they said ‘who would you like to produce your record?’ I just said Todd Rundgren, thinking that would never happen.”

During a tour stop in Winnipeg, he got a call that changed his life, proving that sometimes all you have to do is ask.

“I pick up the phone and it’s Todd,” Berg says. “He tracked me down in Winnipeg to talk to me about producing the record. Quite an amazing moment in my life.

“I feel like the sort of thing Todd Rundgren did was help us define our style. He sort of whittled all of our songs down and said, ‘this is who you guys are.’”

While that band evolved over the course of its five records, the final line up of Berg, Dave Gilby, Kris Abbott, Brad Barker and Renee Suchy still gets together for the odd show when the timing works out.

“When we decided to take a hiatus, we said we’d never say never, but we sort of decided that we’d let people come to us, instead of us trying to force ourselves on people,” Berg says. “I think we’ve been trying to avoid putting together a tour and playing these places that may or may not have any interest in seeing the band. Whenever we play it’s because someone says ‘we want you to play, we’ll offer you the money that you need.’ There’s always other factors involved in terms of scheduling people, but we’re careful about what we do at this point in our career.”

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