If you listened to the radio or watched MTV in the late eighties, you’ll know both left much to be desired: In 1989 alone, hit songs included Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting,’ and Warrant’s ‘Heaven’, worthy entries on the limpest limp-dick Adult Contemporary playlist known to man. Nirvana and the Alternative Nation—which would help spawn past Oral Hit-storytellers like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Soul Coughing, and Matthew Sweet—were still a few years away from breaking into the mainstream.
However, there were a few artists writing hooky, genre-bending songs long before the alt-rock virus swept over the land. One of those was Michael Penn.
For Penn, notoriety and fame may have seemed a bit more obtainable than usual. The son of actor/director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan, he’s the older brother of Sean, the future two-time Oscar winner; and Chris, who would put together memorable credits in Footloose, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance before tragically passing away in 2006. Whereas his younger brothers “embraced beach culture,” in their home of Malibu, California, Penn reflects that he was largely an “absent” older brother, spending time holed up in his room. He was the family introvert.
“It had to do with a serious relationship in my life that broke up, and I was just trying to figure out, ‘What the fuck was that?’ So this song was the beginning of me trying to actually figure that shit out in song.”
But that would all change in ’89, when the then-30-year-old released his critically acclaimed debut, March. Written after the breakup of his scenester Los Angeles band, Doll Congress, the album’s lead single, ‘No Myth,’ would reach No. 13 on the Billboard 100 chart and win Penn an MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist.
Now 55, Penn tells Made Man he’s “kind of retired” from the singer-songwriter gig, but not at all from music-making: He’s been busy composing for hit cable shows like HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s Masters of Sex. However, he says: “I do miss… writing songs and making records, so I know I’ll get back to it at some point.”
Meantime, here’s the story behind the song that made him a household name.
Let’s talk about ‘No Myth.’ Do you remember exactly where you were when you wrote it?
Yes. I was in my parent’s garage in Malibu.
How did the song come about? Did you start with a specific line and just build on it?
Well, I had this band in L.A. called Doll Congress, and we played around at Madame Wong’s West [and] Club Lingerie in L.A. in the ’80s. We were this odd, sort of quirky group that was part of the resistance to the hair metal bands that were all the rage. My parents were kind enough to let us set up shop in their garage. So I had a little recording rig there.
When the band broke up, I started to do a new batch of songs; and I had some very, very early forms of digital recordings. I started working with this guitar and drum pattern and became kind of obsessed with figuring out how to make drum machines, which had become kind of an important tool for me after the band broke up, because I didn’t have a drummer to play songs [with]. So that beat that it has and that guitar pattern was the genesis of the musical part of the song. It was that C to A-minor riff against that [drum] pattern.
We were just going to ask you about that backbeat. It’s such an integral part of the song.
[It’s] a very strange tempo. It’s slow but very danceable, so it’s a weird, odd phenomenon. I guess there was something about it that just felt natural. It’s the reason why I got the idea to call the album March, because I found that I wrote in this sort of very deliberate, mid-tempo march way.
Lyrically, the song sounds like a breakup song. It strikes me that your band had just broken up. Was it about a girl or the band?
It was a relationship-breakup song. It didn’t have anything to do with the band. It had to do with a serious relationship in my life that broke up, and I was just trying to figure out, ‘What the fuck was that?’ So this song was the beginning of me trying to actually figure that shit out in song.
Some songwriters write songs as a form of catharsis or therapy even. Is that how you go about songwriting, or is it just one of those things that…?
[interrupts] I think that’s an element to it. I mean, it’s more a matter of just what you’re thinking about. It doesn’t have to be a cathartic thing necessarily. It can be anything from analytical to whimsy. So it’s just what’s interesting you at the moment, and one of the things that was interesting me at the moment was ‘What the fuck just happened?’
The tone of the song is pretty self-deprecating. The narrator’s indirectly comparing himself to Romeo and Heathcliff, two ultimately tragic-romantic characters. Do you relate to either of those guys at all?
Well, no. It was more the idea [that they were] iconic figures of romantic love — which is what I was trying to figure out. They were representative of that to me. They proved points in literature of this idea. But at the same time, it was really like, ‘That doesn’t fit right. It doesn’t feel right.’ It was later that I realized what I was doing. There’s another song on March called ‘Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun,’ which is the same kind of thing. And it was only later that it suddenly dawned on me, ‘Well, wait a minute. This was not written as a romantic epic. This was written as a tragedy. These kids were not in love. They were acting out these parental issues. They were naive and they were dramatic and they were fucked up.’
So that sort of led me to realize I was writing about this thing called limerence, which was a word coined in the ’50s by this psychologist to describe this sort of heightened tragic, epic, emotional thing that Western society has sort of merged with love. The idea of romantic love in the West in the 20th century is dramatically different from what it was in, say, Shakespeare’s time.
Happy dance partners: Penn and his wife, fellow musical whiz Aimee Mann.
The song itself strikes us as very Beatles-esque. George Harrison-y, definitely, on the solo. When writing it, did you have a specific influences in mind?
That would be George Harrison. Harrison and Richard Thompson were probably my two favorite guitar players growing up, and one of the reasons I love Harrison so much is that his solos aren’t real jammy; they’re very melodic, and they’re really, like—if you think of a rock band as an orchestral group—a violin part or a mid-to-high cello part. So he was a big influence on me.
We take it you’ve played this song quite often throughout the years. Now that you’re a married man, how has the meaning of the song changed for you?
It’s remained consistent for me. It’s about what it’s about. My perspective on certain things now has some new terminology attached to them, because I’m older and I’ve been through some stuff; but [the song] still rings true to me, and that’s why I’m not averse to playing it: Because it still feels like something real.
If someday, somebody decides to release a Michael Penn covers album, what band or artist would you want to cover ‘No Myth’?
Oh man. I think it would be funny for a woman to do it. I don’t know who that would be, but I think it would kind of give a nice push to it.
We suppose you’d have to change all the ‘Romeos’ to ‘Juliets’ …
You wouldn’t. It means the same thing. It doesn’t matter what the gender is. The only thing you’d have to change is ‘he.’ [pauses] You wouldn’t necessarily have to change that!
You composed music for the HBO shows Girls. Tell us a little about that.
I kind of come into the process after they’ve filmed everything and they start to edit all the episodes. With the exception of a couple of times, where I did something musical that was included within the show as part of a performance.* There was an episode where the character, Marnie, sings a very embarrassing version of a Kanye West song, and I sort of prepared that stuff for her.
You’re married to songwriter Aimee Mann.** Are you guys constantly playing music around the house, or do you set aside work when you’re at home?
Well, you know, I work from home, scoring, so I’m around doing that, [and] Aimee’s often writing in her quadrant of the house, so we don’t really interact [while songwriting].
Lastly, you had a bit part in the fantastic P.T. Anderson movie Boogie Nights. If you weren’t a musician, would the porn industry be a suitable job option?
Absolutely not! Abs-o-lutely not! I have a strange little segment of guilt in me for being in and scoring Boogie Nights, because I sort of feel like that film legitimized the porn industry.
*Penn’s song, ‘On Your Way,’ was featured in the Season 1 finale of the show.