Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No fear in McPherson

Broken Arrow, OK native JD McPherson has certainly been on a wild ride since the original release of his brilliant Signs & Signifiers.  McPherson, a former art teacher, is bringing his unique sound that is filtered through vintage rock and r&b stylings to the masses.  I love watching the reaction of those discovering his music for the first time.  Usually, the word "finally" comes out as they describe something that will surely become a new favorite.  The thing that sticks out the most when talking to JD is just how friendly and down-to-earth he is.  So many friends that have had the opportunity to spend time with him already had told me about that before I did the interview.

Thanks for taking a moment to chat.  Ok, important question out of the way early…how do you pronounce your last name?  I’ve heard both.  Is it Mc-”fear”-son or Mc-“fur”-son? 
It’s Mc-“fur”-son but almost no one gets that right.  My whole life it’s like that (laughs).  My Aunt Genie (McPherson-Durden) says, “there’s no ‘fear’ in McPherson”.

You’ve got a crazy touring schedule right now!! I guess it’s both a blessing and a curse. 
It is.  It’s paying off but it is really tough.  It’s a really tough schedule.  It’s tough for anybody but for a fella with a wife and kids it’s really tough that way.  Logistically, being in Baltimore one night, London the next night, Dublin the next night, Massachusetts the next night is ridiculous.  I don’t know how I pulled that off.

I hear you went to a pretty small high school in Oklahoma. I understand you only had 10 in your graduating class? 
11.  Yeah, really, really small.  The same school my mom went to.  I think they started the school in the late ‘30’s.  From that time until about 2008, they said there was 500 students total that had been through that school (laughs).

Was it in high school that you picked up a taste for punk music? 
Yeah, I was a weird kid and I did not fit in with the cowpokes around me (laughs).  I did not like that music which at the time it was Billy Ray Cyrus’ first album and Garth Brooks and the big pop country stuff.  I did not get that at all.  I didn’t care for it.  I think that I just really wanted something else.  I wanted something as far outside of that as I could possibly get.  Of course, now I love country music.  I even like Garth Brooks now.  My primary interests in high school were music, playing guitar, drawing…all of that stuff.

People that like punk often find it easy to understand and appreciate rockabilly, artists like the Burnette brothers, Gene Vincent, etc., which of course was the punk rock of it’s time. 
Well, it’s just great music. I got that rockabilly stuff before I got into rhythm & blues and black rock & roll. The first time I heard that Johnny Burnette Trio, that was almost too good to be true.

I read that it was hearing early Buddy Holly tracks that got you down the path of seeking out early rock and r&b. 
It was a double disc compilation and had a lot of the Decca stuff on it…the rockabilly stuff….like “Rock Around With Ollie Vee”, “Annie’s workin’ on the Midnight Shift” and that kind of material.  The second disc had some of his pop stuff.  I love that now maybe even more than that earlier stuff but at that time all I wanted to hear was the rockabilly.  Everything I wanted to hear was there because it was really enthusiastic music.  It was very youthful and exuberant music but at the same time it kind of a country edge to it.  I thought this makes sense.  I can identify with this a little more than I can with The Ramones coming out of New York City.  I hadn’t even been to New York City.  The first time was last year so it was a little easier to identify with Buddy (laughs).

I wanted to send your CD to someone that had some first-hand knowledge of Buddy Holly and that would also love this style. Dion DiMucci was on that Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. He emailed back, “Yo! Thanks! This JD McPherson CD is great. Man, this kid has got the goods. I love “North Side Gal”. The whole band sounds great. Very, very cool!” 
Wow!  That’s so cool.  I love Dion’s music.  My wife does too.  My wife is a HUGE Dion DiMucci fan.  In fact, we only had 2 CD’s in the car.  One was a 3 CD set.

I also read about your dad being a big influence on you with jazz and blues music that he was trying to get you to listen to. Tell me about that. 
I did not care for jazz at first.  He was trying to at least listen to Dave Brubeck.  He really liked (John) Coltrane and (Thelonious) Monk and stuff that was a little farther out but he didn’t think I would like that as much.  Eventually, that’s’ what I really liked.  He’s from Linden, AL.  He grew up in the late 50’s and early 60’s and it was a big “no-no” to like that kind of music in his household.  It became almost a badge of honor to like that stuff.  He was really into John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and rhythm & blues that they were playing on Randy’s Record Shop on the radio there that he could hear.  I really did like that a lot.  He would give me Muddy Waters tapes for Christmas and I would give him Jazz CD’s.  I remember wearing out “Catfish Blues”.  He didn’t care for rock & roll. He didn’t like Elvis, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee and that kind of stuff.  He really just liked blues and maybe some rhythm and blues.  So yeah, dad was a big influence on me for exposing me to that stuff early on.

The band you were in before going solo was The Starkweather Boys. First off, you guys had the coolest concert posters.  Did you make one for each gig? 
That was our buddy, Thom Self.  We only played a couple of places in Tulsa.
 One was the Mercury Lounge.   Thom was kind of the house poster guy.  He still is.  He would always make a new poster for every single show.  He gave each of us one every time we played.  I’ve got a closet full of posters.  I learned so much in that band.  We didn’t play much around but there was a couple of guys in that band that were as close to professional as I had ever worked with like Kevin Wright, the lead guitar player/steel player/harmonica player.  He had been in a neo-rockabilly outfit in the 80’s called The Kingpins.  They were fairly well known.  They were sponsored by Coors and were on Star Search.   They had a tour bus and that all that kind of thing.  He had gotten out of The Kingpins and went to school and ended up getting his doctorate in Communication.  He had moved to Oklahoma and we snatched him up.  First of all, he was a great lead player but he could play a lot of things.  He could play the pedal steel and he could sing.  The other guy I learned a lot from was Billy Earl Padgett who was the drummer for band called Brian Parton & The Nashville Rebels.  Those guys were my idols coming out of high school.  They were a Tulsa band.  They were absolutely unique.  They were the coolest.  They were playing a lot of rockabilly standards but they wrote a lot of original material too.  They were doing a different kind of slant to it.  The guitar player played through really thick reverb instead of delay.  They all wore these 70’s western clothes.  They were just really cool.  I found later that one of the big influences on Billy was NRBQ.   Talk about thinking outside the box. Billy was like “treat it like a business and be mindful of it and don’t ever get a job that will prevent from hitting the road and playing rock & roll”.  I didn’t follow that advice until later (laughs).  But, he was an amazing drummer.  He was a cross between Ringo Starr and Tommy Ardolino of NRBQ.   Those were his 2 favorite bands…The Beatles and NRBQ.  The Starkweather Boys’ goal was to play every kind of roots music that we could
possibly squeeze into one band.  We didn’t mesh anything together.  We would play as traditional of a western swing song as we could right next to a blues shouter.  It confused a lot of people.   A lot of people bought that CD and said “I don’t really understand. It sounds like a different band on every track”.  Well, it was just being capricious and trying to do this thing (laughs).  But yeah, it was a lot of fun playing in this band.

Was it around this time that you met your producer (and owner of HiStyle Records) and bass player, Jimmy Sutton? 
Jimmy Sutton
Yeah, in fact that’s why we met Jimmy.  We were trying to play outside of town a little bit.  We had a CD and we had sold everyone that would come out to a Tulsa show a CD.   So let’s get out of town and play.   We wanted to get up St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago.  I knew Jimmy had his finger on the pulse of Chicago so I introduced myself via MySpace.  I said “hey I really like all your bands and projects so can you listen to this and see if there’s a shot we could get a gig up there”.  Luckily, he listened and got us a gig at Martyrs.  That’s
when we started talking just he and I about future projects.


The Signs & Signifiers album originally came out in 2010 on HiStyle and then just recently rereleased on Rounder.  Are you itching to record something new? 
Well, I mean yes absolutely I’m very excited to make a new record.  But, I tell ya what.  Our band right now is so unbelievable.  We’ve got this guy Ray Jecildo on keys.  We bought an acoustic piano for the road and we have him on a Hammond M3 with a Leslie.  These songs are turning into something else.  Every night we play every song off the record.  It’s so much fun to play these songs with these guys.  Our new drummer is Jason Smay formerly of Los
Straitjackets. He is just a monster. He’s incredible.  We’re getting really, really tight.  I don’t mind playing these songs over and over again as long as folks are going to come out and want to hear them and I can keep playing with these guys.

I’m sure the increased radio airplay, YouTube buzz and TV appearances like Conan have really added a lot of new excitement to everything as well. 
Yeah, it really does.  It’s exciting to go out and see a larger and more diverse crowd every time.  I love performing those songs for people that know the songs and want to hear them.

So one of the marks of a great rock band is when people get the lyrics wrong.  We’ve heard people mistake a CCR lyric to be “there’s a bathroom on the right” or the Hendrix line “excuse me while I kiss this guy”.  Now, it appears that “North Side Gal” has joined that ranks.  The official line in the song is “old beat up guitars and old sleazy dives”.  However, if you look online, several places have it as “old beat up guitars and old ZZ Top”.  At first, I thought you were just giving a shout out to a great Texas band but then I realized those lyrics just didn’t make sense. 
Oh my goodness. I haven’t heard that before. Well, I love ZZ Top. (laughs)

Speaking of “North Side Gal”, your music video for that really spread like crazy on YouTube.   Did you have any idea it would cause that excitement? 
That has been our greatest boon to everything.  We had no idea.  We just wanted to make a video.  We just thought it would be a hoot to do it.  We had no idea what was going to happen with that thing.   It almost immediately got passed around to record labels and industry folks.   You’d be surprised who we talked to.  We talked to some major, major, MAJOR record labels.  A lot of those folks did not get it at all what we were doing.   They were excited but they didn’t know what to do with it.  We knew that they were going to try to change things.  We talked to a lot of labels that would have been cool but when Rounder stepped up we were just like “jackpot”!  This is the perfect label to put this record out on.  It has been the absolute best experience.  Rounder is a safe haven for artists.  They want you to make records you want to make.  They are career builders.  They consider bands to be a long term investment.  They’re all music fans.  All of them know music in and out. It’s been great working with those folks.

You have to tell me about the wallet on the snare drum as seen in the “North Side Gal” video. 
They had those big WFL drums.  Alex (Hall) wanted to deaden that and it’s just his trick.  That’s a lot of drummers that have that trick.  Throw your leather wallet on the snare to deaden it a little bit to get a tighter sound.
 Another thing he did was he didn’t have a sizzle ride so he put a bunch of keys on the ride to give it a sizzle.  It’s a nice detail in the video that people want to know about.

There are 2 cover songs on the album but really fit in the groove of what you’re doing.  First off, you have to love an artist named Big Tiny Kennedy.  How did this song come about for you? 
Well, I had been a fan of Ruth Brown’s “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”.  I love the beat in that.  I wanted to rip that beat off someday with the tambourine.  I heard Tiny Kennedy’s “Country Boy” that had the same beat. I thought, “Wow.  Cool.  This is a guy singing this one”.   I liked the lyrics.  There was a lot of space in it.  There’s a lot you could do with it.  You could strip a lot of stuff out of it and do something with it.  I brought that to Jimmy and said I’d like to cover this one.  We completely deconstructed that and redid it.  I ended up not even using the same beat thing I wanted to do in the first place.  I’m proud of that one.  I really like the arrangement on that.  I really like the space in the song.  I think the bass and drums sound amazing.  There’s some weird little hooks in that song.

You also cover “Your Love (All That I’m Missing)” by The BellFuries. 
BellFuries is to me one of the best bands that ever was.  They’re out of Austin, TX and made a record called Just Plain Lonesome and I wore that record out.  The roots community, our scene where we came out of, just worshipped and revered these guys.  Joey Simeone, the lead singer, is the first guy who really was a songwriter.  It was like “ok, we’ve got a writer here!”   He also was unafraid to show other kind of influences.  On that first record you knew he liked The Smiths, The Ramones and Nick Lowe and he had all kinds
of influences but they were doing it as a hillbilly trio.  They had the instrumentation of a hillbilly or rockabilly trio.  That was my favorite song by them.  I thought it would be really cool to “R&B” that song up a little bit and pay tribute to those guys because they were so good.  Now, I don’t know if I’m supposed to let the cat out of the bag but I think they’re going to end up working with Jimmy (Sutton).  Their new guitar player, Mike Molnar, should be on the cover of every guitar magazine in the world.   He’s like a guitar hero.   He’s a cross between James Burton and Johnny Marr of The Smiths.  He’s got these really crazy techniques and a really musical guy.  They’re fantastic.  I just wanted to do a Bellfuries song because I worship them.

One of my favorite tracks from the album is “Fire Bug”.  Aren’t you working on a video for that one? 
Yeah, that’s what we’re working on.  It’s been pulling teeth to get that done.   There’s just no time to do it.   We shot footage for it the day after we shot “North Side Gal”.  That reminds me I have to call the editor (laughs).

In concert, you guys have been covering the Ike Turner track that had Jackie Brenston on vocals called “You’ve Got To Lose”.  Where did you discover that one? 
Well, it's just a classic track.  I think Jimmy used to cover that in one of his old bands.  He suggested it as a cover because we all knew it.  That’s become a permanent marker in the set.  It’s changing over time.  It keeps getting longer and more drawn out (laughs).  It’s a favorite one.

I found a video of you and Jimmy playing live on the BBC. One of the tracks you did was “Mystery Train”. You seemed to be channeling a bit of that Elvis, Scotty Moore, Bill Black vibe. 
That was a weird circumstance.  The first thing we did on the BBC was a morning show.   They told me afterwards that it was 7 million listeners and I was just petrified.  Originally, we were supposed to be the guests of Richard Hawley.  He was in this alternative band in the 90’s called Pulp.   He’s really huge over there.  He still does alternative kind of music but he’s a huge rockabilly fan.  He was supposed to be doing this morning show where he was going to DJ and play a bunch of rockabilly stuff.  He asked us to be the guests because we were going to be over there.  At the last minute it changed and he wasn’t there.  They asked if we could do some songs with Huey Morgan from Fun Lovin Criminals.  He lives over there now and has a show on BBC 6.  We were like “yeah, what are we going to do?”  They said to do something of yours and then something everyone in England would know.  They suggested “Mystery Train”.  We were like “Ok, but could we do a cross between the Elvis one and the Junior Parker one”.  It worked out ok.  I still wished I hadn’t been up for 17 hours and my voice was pretty run through the mill.  But it was certainly a cool experience.

So I imagine you still have plenty of touring in the near future. What else is coming up? 
Yeah, touring and we just recorded a single track for some B-side material coming out.  We’re excited about having something new out in the world.  There’s some radio and TV stuff that’s cooking that we’re looking forward to.  Still just running on this record and looking forward to making a new one.


"North Side Gal"

"A Gentle Awakening"

"Wolf Teeth"

"Fire Bug"

Live on BBC- "North Side Gal", "Dimes For Nickels", "Mystery Train"