Practice makes perfect

Pete Yorn is a bit distracted at the moment. First of all, he is watching the World Cup, and the United States is tenuously tied with Italy at one goal apiece. Secondly, he’s aching to get through this round of phone interviews so he can run over to what he quaintly refers to as “band practice.” It’s kind of funny to hear a guy whose first album went gold, who has earned a wealth of critical praise, befriended several of his childhood idols and has been romantically linked to a circle of famous starlets, talk about preparing for a national tour in the same terms as a kid about to rock out in his friend’s garage. And it’s reassuring, too, to know that for all the success he has experienced in the last few years, living in Los Angeles hasn’t completely sucked the small-town Jersey boy out of Yorn just yet.

“Some of my snooty friends say, ‘We’re going to rehearsal,’” the 31-year-old songwriter quips, replacing his laid-back drawl with his best pretentious Hollywood-hipster accent. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going to band practice.’ ”

What Yorn is rehearsing — er, practicing for right now, though, isn’t actually a “band” gig per se. He’s getting ready to hit the road for the first time as a truly solo artist, playing “sweaty clubs” with just himself and an acoustic guitar, and maybe a couple friends along the way. Yorn hasn’t toured for nearly three years, and he’s been aching to get back out. But he didn’t want to just dive straight back into playing the kind of medium-sized theaters he could easily headline. The idea, he says, is to wade out slowly, “reconnect with everybody” and present his fans with the material from his upcoming third record, Nightcrawler, in its “most simplistic, raw form.”

In essence, he’s trying to keep it real.

Not that staying in touch with his roots is something Yorn has had trouble doing. He grew up in Montville, New Jersey, a modest township in the northwest part of the state, and he still carries it with him. “I had that simple type of upbringing,” he says. “It stayed with me. That’s who I am.” The son of a dentist father and a school teacher mother, Yorn didn’t necessarily have access to much “cool” music during his formative years: His dad loved Henry Mancini and Sergio Mendes, while his mom dug the Carpenters and Barry Manilow. It wasn’t until he left the neighborhood to attend Syracuse University that he discovered the artists who would come to inform his songwriting: the Smiths, the Cure, David Bowie, the Buzzcocks. But Yorn says his upbringing was crucial to shaping his aesthetic (and he admits to being a big-time Manilow fan). “Now that I live in a bigger city, you see kids growing up exposed to everything, which is both good and bad. Growing up in a simplistic way made me appreciate a lot of stuff.”

After graduating from college, Yorn moved to Los Angeles and honed his craft in the same singer-songwriter gene pool that spawned Elliot Smith, Aimee Mann and Jon Brion. He was scooped out in 2000 by an A&R dude from Columbia Records who happened to see him performing at the popular club Largo, but the label “didn’t really know what to do with me,” Yorn says. He was shuffled to the rear of their priority list until the producer of the Jim Carrey-Renee Zelwegger vehicle Me, Myself & Irene recruited Yorn to score the film. “That jumpstarted everything,” he says. “[Columbia] was like, ‘If somebody likes it, maybe we’ll get behind it here.”

The Britpop-inflected Musicforthemorningafter appeared in 2001, and, propelled by the singles “Life on a Chain” and “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is),” sold more than 500,000 copies. Day I Forgot followed two years later, and while it didn’t fare as well as its predecessor, it did show Yorn moving in a more directly American rock-inspired direction.

It would be three more years before Yorn would complete what could loosely be termed his “24-Hour Trilogy” (Morning, Day and now Nightcrawler). In the interim, he played drums behind Iggy Pop on a set of Stooges songs at the Henry Fonda Theater, became close friends with the late Johnny Ramone and supposedly dated Winona Ryder, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver. With all that celeb-cavorting out of the way, Yorn is now prepared to start promoting his third album, which he assures “is not a sleepy record.”

“It’s different than both [previous albums],” he says, noting that he has been listening to a lot of Elvis and Roy Orbison lately, “but the soul is still there.” In regards to completing the trilogy he set out to make five years ago, he adds, “It feels like the final installment of one phase of my life.”

Just then, his publicist comes on the line and announces that Yorn must be whisked away to attend to some other commitments. Well, at least he’s still going to band practice.