Paleface & Mo: Anti-folk duo keeps it simple



has etched out a long and prolific career as one of the earliest purveyors of

anti-folk, so named for its ramshackle sound and antipodal stance to oft-staid

mainstream folk.


really, he didn't have much choice. It's not like he could do much else.


could never see him in an office job or something like that," said Monica "Mo"

Samalot, his drummer and girlfriend for the last three and a half years.


got his start as a protégé of the brilliant but troubled artist Daniel

Johnston, who he's long pointed to as his biggest influence. Before Paleface

met Johnston in New York City in 1989, he was basically "plunking around on

guitar and not really writing." He didn't think he could write songs anywhere

as good as those by his favorite artists at the time, Neil Young and Tom Waits,

among other traditional singer-songwriters.


Daniel was this guy who wrote songs and recorded them onto cassette tapes,"

Paleface said. "You could hear his mom walk into the room on the recordings. It

was a revelation because it was really powerful. It was effective; it really

got to me. It was accessible, something anybody could do."


passed along such epiphanies to his roommate at the time, the soon-to-be-huge

Beck, who later cited him as a major influence on his early work. By 1990

Paleface was being managed by Danny Fields — who guided such artists as

The Ramones, MC5 and The Doors — and was well on his way, opening tours

for Billy Bragg and The Breeders.


by 1998, his second major-label deal had collapsed and Paleface was drinking

himself to the point of liver failure.


was not good for me," he said frankly. "I wasn't really able to make good

decisions, and that led to a lot of unhappiness."


for money, a friend got him a job at a PBS affiliate burning CDs (this was the

'90s). Paleface recalls getting in trouble for smoking in the elevator, but

throws in some obfuscating details. He tendered his resignation after one day.

"It just wasn't going to work," Paleface



he found his way back to New York and a burgeoning music scene. It was at the

Sidewalk Café, considered ground zero for the anti-folk movement, where he met

up-and-comers like The Moldy Peaches, Langhorne Slim and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

He remembers sitting in the back of the Sidewalk Café with Kimya Dawson of the

Moldy Peaches the first time he saw and heard Regina Spektor perform.

"She hadn't really figured out how to

write yet, but her playing was like oh my God, listen to this," Paleface said.

"It was obvious she had a huge amount of talent. It was great for me to just

kind of fall back into that scene. There were so many people in it who were

obviously future stars."


also where he ultimately met Samalot. She was just a fan back then, attending

Lower East Side open mic nights Paleface played while he was making his


"I was introduced to this new raw, real

kind of music," Samalot said.


learning how to play drums, Samalot joined a band. A couple of years went by

before she up the nerve to ask Paleface if he wanted to collaborate musically.

"I eventually became confident enough to

ask him if I could play on one of his projects," she said.


was impressed.


had a lot of balls because at the time I had one of the best drummers in the

city," he said.


alliance yielded a beatifically austere sound on the last two Paleface records,

The Show is on the Road and last year's One Big Party.


able to tour with the relatively low profile that we have," Paleface said. "It

works as a two-piece. I have a lot of musical ideas that I'd like to expand at

some point. But for now this works."


continues to embrace the idea of performing with minimal instrumentation.

"It challenges you when you write as

well," he said. "You don't have all these instruments to rely on to fill up



that he hasn't filled some space in the past, using instruments like bass,

Dobro and lap steel. There's one lesson Paleface learned from Justin Townes

Earle during a songwriters circle.

"The record doesn't have to be exactly

like the live show," he said. "That made a lot of sense to me. On my last

record it's very simple, but we have room for other instrumentation."


Samalot, "The songs have a framework where we can pull them off live with just

drums and a guitar."


can't easily articulate his ideas for future projects. There are so many, like

adding strings to some of his best songs or recording and touring with a big

band complete with a horn section.

"I could go all the way with it," he

said. "It's just one of those things where I don't know where the music would

take me."