The Sharp Things' frontman Perry Serpa knows the tactics required to get a band noticed.
A noted New York City publicist for many years for a revolving roster of relatively high-profile and breaking new artists, he, of all people, should have known what he was getting himself into when he started The Sharp Things, an orchestral Pop band that often features upwards of 12 members onstage. So how does one deal with a musical family that large, particularly in the live arena?
"We try not to fall over each other," Serpa says from his New York home. "And if you've had a couple of drinks, it's worse. But we have a commitment to present the music in as brilliant a way as we can.
"We want to serve the songs well but we want to entertain as well. We're committed to having an experience with the audience but also with each other."
Serpa's Sharp Things recently released their third album, A Moveable Feast, which, like its predecessors, 2003's Here Come the Sharp Things and 2005's Foxes and Hounds, is an unapologetically big record filled with exquisite chamber Pop, swelling string and horn arrangements and love songs with a twist. The mystery is how Serpa manages to direct a 10-piece studio band into a sonic entity that sounds simultaneously epic and intimate.
"It's sort of tapping into this grandiose melancholy or the understanding that your feelings are no different or more profound than anybody else's feelings, but to you they're these tremendous mountains," Serpa says. "We all fall in love, we all get messed around and lose people and we all have these dire feelings of desperation. You're not fully human if you haven't, and you certainly can't be an effective songwriter if you haven't gone through a lot of things.
"What you're hearing is the intrinsic push/pull between the simple and plaintive reality that you have feelings like everybody else, but inside you those feelings can be volcanic. We express the volcanic symphonically."
Serpa's first foray into his own music began in the '90s with a standard issue post-Grunge guitar band, an experience that left him empty. As Serpa pondered his future, his mother suggested that he visit a transsexual psychic that she frequented to get some insight.
He confessed his Rock ambitions to the seer but was told, "I don't think that will work ... you'll be more successful with something else. I see violins in your future." Three years after envisioning The Sharp Things' baroque Pop blueprint, that story eventually became the foundation for Foxes and Hounds' opening track, "There Will Be Violins."
The Sharp Things have always enjoyed broad musical comparisons to everyone from the Bad Seeds and the Divine Comedy to Elton John, Todd Rundgren and Jimmy Webb. When The Sharps' label chief, Bar/None head Glenn Morrow, heard the mixes for A Moveable Feast (which boasts an almost Glam guitar sound this time around — with distinct hints of Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, courtesy of gifted guitarist Jim Sant — yet also features the 40-piece New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble), he compared it to a classic Burt Bacharach album, if Burt could sing.
"Glenn's as big a Bacharach fan as I am," Serpa says with a laugh. "He's not a consummate singer, but he definitely has a thing going on. I love to listen to the sound of his voice, but it's not a powerful, trained, from-the-diaphragm kind of thing. He just sings his songs, and it's nice. And he's a genius and I'm not. I write pretty little tunes, and he's an innovator."
After good notices for The Sharps' first two releases, Serpa obviously wanted to follow with another great album but also wanted to focus attention on the form itself.
"We were all about making a great record, but unlike a lot of artists, there was a real commitment to making an album," he says. "I guess it's because a lot of us have come from the world of albums and grew up listening to full albums' worth of music. Whether they were concept records or there was just some sort of thematic thread that worked its way through from the kickoff song to the climax, there was something that held it all together — the sound or a select group of instruments or voices or a lyrical slant or a real story. I know a lot of that is on me as the songwriter, and I tend to drive my band crazy with that."
Though a relationship separation inspired the new album, things couldn't be better for Serpa now. Reconciled with his wife and back with his family, he's enjoying great reviews for A Moveable Feast and is anxious to hit the road in support.
The Sharp Things' performance at the Lite Brite festival this weekend is their first area visit (they'll also make an appearance on woxy.com's Lounge Acts concert series Friday at 4:30 p.m.). Serpa is looking forward to presenting songs he feels are among the best he's ever written.
"I was more proud of these songs than I have been with any other endeavor and I felt they held together better," he says. "Foxes and Hounds was the result of me and my band reining in my expectations to create something that was going to be more embraceable. I wrote 32 songs and I wanted 29 to be on the record and make it a double album, and my band was ready to kill me and quit. I took their advice: It became 14 songs and I'm proud of those songs.
"It wasn't ideally what I had in mind, but I'm glad we did it that way. We made that record conventionally, and we're an unconventional band. I didn't want to repeat that with this record."
Serpa is quick to credit his fellow Sharps with having a vital role in arranging and creating the band's overall sound. What began as a large collective of musicians with differing visions has coalesced into a cohesive unit with a unified purpose.
"We all have other things we're doing," he says. "There are other songwriters in the band and people play in other bands, but this is the focal point for pretty much everyone and we treat it as such. We take pride in it together as a group and so it's a band, a real living, breathing outfit. Somehow everybody has their voice."
THE SHARP THINGS perform at the Lite Brite Indie Pop & Film Test Saturday at the Southgate House.