The AST Interview: JD McPherson (Free Tickets)

JD_LTGTR_CD_BOOKLETJD McPherson heads out on tour this week in support of his widely acclaimed Let the Good Times Roll. JD’s approach to music clearly comes from a deep research and enjoyment of rock ‘n’ roll of all kinds. There’s plate reverb, dastardly fuzz, echo in the vocals and snares, the drawl of loud American blues licks. Horns and piano and tambourine and hand claps fill every crack. The backbeat never lets up. Where the songs slow down effects are applied to keep you on your toes, organs stab at your soul, baritone electric grinds your bones. There’s no way to not dance, or at least toe-tap along. McPherson’s band is a sharpened instrument, having been on the road for years together now. He chose to record Let the Good Times Roll with veteran Mark Neill, a Georgia producer whose eccentric, eclectic choices set his records apart in time.

From the press release:

The new tour dates cap off an amazing year for McPherson, which includes a performance of his latest single “Head Over Heels” on Conan, a July 4 performance on the season finale of “A Prairie Home Companion” and NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” featured McPherson on the program. Of the music, NPR Music critic Ann Powers praises, “There are people who imitate and people who work within that genre . . . that become original. And I really think that JD is doing that with his band. . . .” Additionally, McPherson’s Let the Good Times Roll debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart.Produced by Mark Neill (The Black Keys’ Brothers, Old 97s, Los Straitjackets) along with McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll was recorded at Soil of the South Studio in Valdosta, GA. Additional recording was done with Alex Hall at HiStyle Studio in Chicago, IL and Michael Trepagnier at 3CG Studio in Tulsa, OK. McPherson also co-wrote the song “Bridge Builder” with The Black KeysDan Auerbach. Of the new album, McPherson comments, “Much of the new song material was asking for a different sonic treatment. I was thinking of these big, bombastic sounds; lots of guitars, tons of percussion; plate reverb.”

We got a hold of JD before he begins his tour to ask him about his inspirations, and just what exactly he was thinking when he made a late ’50s rock album in this day and age.

Check the interview below, and if you’d like to see the show leave a comment. We’ll pick a winner at random Monday evening and let you know via email if you’ve won two tickets to go.

JD: Hey Sean

AST: Thanks for talkin’ to us

My pleasure

I hear you’re coming out here on a west coast tour

Yes, headed for sunnier climes

I’m really enjoying the new record this year. One description I’ve read of it that I love is as a ’50s psychedelic record. I wonder if you had that sound in mind when you went into the studio or is that something that came about in the recording?

That was a catch-phrase dropped on the phone between myself and Mark Neill, the producer. We have a lot of catch-phrases and that was one that stuck. We were just talking about taking some of those elements from records that we love or engineering chops that we love and pushing them a little further and then also just to push the writing further. That’s kind of what I would call it. It’s kind of a traditional rock n roll record with some un-traditional stuff happening.

Jimmy Sutton produced your first record, but how did it come about that Mark produced this one?

Mark is a producer that was very well known to me. I had a lot of his records. He produced a ton of bands that I liked. It was probably The Black Keys’ Brothers that really kinda sealed the deal. I had been speaking to a mutual friend who is the lead engineer for Sun Studio and Phillips recording service in Memphis, we were just having a phone conversation, I was talking about the songs I’d been writing and then Mark’s name came up and about five minutes after I got off the phone he called me.

Oh yeah?

Matt texted him and said my name had come up about possibly making a record with me. So we had some really long intense conversations the following month just getting ready to make a record together.

You seem like two people who could really nerd out about music. I didn’t know Mark Neill had made that Hacienda record. I really liked that as well.

He really does his thing very well. What he really truly loves to do is make records kind of in the manner of mid-’60s, a-team, Nashville sound type stuff, like Roy Orbison, or bands with big production, and lots of echo chamber, and plate reverb, that was a little bit of a departure from our first record. What I found out about Mark is that he’s really got some crazy taste in other things. We talke a lot about weird Texas psych-rock, he played us a lot of David Bowie records, we talked a lot about Tony Visconti  and some of these real eclectic, unusual, kind of maverick producers that made cool weird sounds.

I think that really comes through on the new record. The horns moved to the back of the mix and there’s a lot more sounds. Did you bring in more musicians for that or is that the same group of guys?

It was the same group we had been touring with for a couple of years. The first record had a bunch of different random people. The second was with the touring band that we had settled into. So the second record is the same group of five guys we have on stage now. Mark brought in a lot of ideas. First of all I was very grateful to Mark for bringing in fuzz baritone guitar. That’s become sort of an ubiquitous element of the band now.

If I’m not mistaken he’s playing baritone guitar on the record right?

Yeah, Mark plays a baritone guitar solo on “It Shook Me Up” and he also plays the fuzz six string bass stabs on songs like “Caroline” and “Bridge Builder.”

You guys have really nailed a little Richard sound but it definitely pushes the envelope into a weirder psychedelic sound. You were an art student and teacher. Are you mashing these things together as a way of building your compositions, is that conscious for you?

It’s definitely a mix of both. There was a book I read a long time ago by Robert Henri called The Art Spirit. It was letters to his students kind of bringing about the idea that all creative production is related. Like you shouldn’t be separating your disciplines that should all be treated as creative production. It’s a big idea I embraced early on. A lot of that art school stuff helps me make decisions and edit.

I think it really comes through on this record. In your Bio you mention Bowie, and T. Rex, but you also mention Joseph Beuys, and he was part of the Fluxus movement. One of the things cool about them is they smashed together so many forms of art. One of the thing that separates your record from just an Americana record, or a Rockabilly record, is it sounds like one of the records kids will find and want to take samples from to make rap or hip hop songs.

I love hearing that, that’s cool.

How do you define the record? I’ve read it called Rockabilly, which it’s not. What was your goal? ’50s music has been made, we’ve heard Elvis and the Stones, is this a soul record?

It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record in every sense of the word. I’ve had the conversation before where people ask what I call my band and I’ll say we’re rock ‘n’ roll and they’ll say ‘That’s weird to say that,’ but is it weird to call Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll? Or the Rolling Stones rock ‘n’ roll? That seems weird to me. Rockabilly is pretty far away from what we do. I love rockabilly and I’m a student of it, but as far as this band goes it’s pretty far removed. It’s more from the kind of idea of the first push towards teenage music. Rock ‘n’ roll music is my primary interest. The thing about it is I learned it’s not a big deal what people choose to call it. People use the vocabulary with which they’re equipped, and if certain things say that to them then it’s fine. It’s not that big a deal to me what people choose to call it, we naturally want to put things into categories.

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I like that you mention Chuck Berry. I was listening to some Chuck Berry in parallel with your new record. In the early ’70s when he was super on, and really confident there is just a viciousness about him because he knows he’s the best in the world. Your record is kind of like this, at points it’s very primal, very shocking, even on the softer songs like ‘Bridge Builder.’ Were you trying to write something more shocking?

The songs that were coming out were probably a by-product of my mental state at the time, which was, I was in a little bit of a dark place, and yeah, I think this is also a weird but relevant –kind of salient– point. Playing in slightly larger venues than you were a year ago, some songs feel strange to play. It’s almost like knowing that you’re playing in a larger room with a larger sound system can subconsciously guide the songs you’re writing. We did a couple of shows with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, and Seger is a huge star everywhere in the world, he sells out stadiums everywhere he goes, he plays like a two hour show and every song is a huge hit, and some songs you didn’t even realize were Bob Seger are. I just remember we were invited to watch him sound check his acoustic guitar and we were standing in the middle of the stadium, and he was talking to us on the microphone through these gigantic nests of speakers, and I just remember him saying ‘Are you guys really bringing an acoustic piano in here?’ He just couldn’t, but he was like, you know, ‘they’ll figure it out’.  Sometimes venues can gently guide you into a new sound profile (laughs).

In the past five years or so I just discovered the whole early Bob Seger catalog, before he was like top 40 hit guy.

Bob Seger Sound System.

Yeah! Those records are phenomenal.

Incredible. You can hear even in those early garage records that he’s a superstar. His voice is amazing and you can just tell this is gonna be huge.

So you’ve been touring for a few years now right? Signs and Signifiers was out in 2012?

Yes, we’ve been out for about four or five years I guess.

Are you still based out of Oklahoma?

I just recently moved to just outside Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve been living just south of Nashville for about six months now.

There’s a really good scene in East Nashville now. I think of guys like John Moreland, Todd Snider, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brian Wright. Have you been out to see those guys?

Well, John is a good friend, he’s an Oklahoma guy, John is amazing, we toured with him. My friend Parker Millsap just moved out here, he’s from Oklahoma too, but you know when I’m at home I’m a family guy so I don’t get a chance to get out very much. The last show I saw was Nick Lowe at the City Winery, that was amazing. I know a lot of musicians are here. When you go to East Nashville it’s a community populated entirely by musicians. You go to the grocery store everybody has beanie caps and combat boots on, it’s hilarious.

There’s whole sections of Seattle like that too, you’ve certainly made quite a few friends in the few years you’ve been at it. You’ve recorded with Dan Auerbach, toured with Eric Church, opened for Queens of the Stone Age, did you have any idea your music was gonna take you this far or you’d meet with people like that?

Absolutely not. There’s some things that have popped up that I can’t wrap my head around. It seems, at the time when you’re touring it doesn’t seem strange, but if you say it out loud that your band has played with Eric Church, Dave Matthews Band, and Queens of the Stone Age, that’s a pretty eclectic group of people to be invited to play with so we’re lucky in that regard.

It’s funny that rock ‘n’ roll or it’s sound can be re-introduced to people in a different format over a different period of years. Do you think it means rock ‘n’ roll still has more to say? Is there still a statement to be made with it?

Well, rock ‘n’ roll is really simple, and should be really simple. There’s always a band that has elements of it that is exciting, and I think that’s the main thing is that it’s exciting. If you go see L7, they’ve just gotten back together, if you see their shows that is a rock ‘n’ roll show. It’s super exciting. If you saw The Strokes in the 1990s that was rock and it was exciting. Just like I still get excited every time I hear a Kinks song on the radio or a Ramones song; all that stuff, it’s related. All those bands are just dissimilar enough that they’re keeping a thing going but starting something new. I think there is a pendulum. A symbolic pendulum that exists, I don’t know how long it will hang there, but whenever music gets really boring or becomes self-important it always swings back the other direction to kind of a rebellious type music. It happened in the ‘70s with Prog-rock turning to Punk. It happened with synth bands and suddenly a guitar band came out of Manchester called The Smiths. I know you could argue that the Smiths might not be rock ‘n’ roll but there’s a lot about them that’s rock ‘n’ roll to me. They were super snotty, and so, I just feel like whenever there’s a boring thing that happens that tries to make music grow up it always kind of swings back in the other direction. It’s happening in country music with guys like Chris Stapleton who are ringing a bell in people for something that’s missing. That’s all it is. It’s gonna be an ebb and flow.JD_LTGTR_CD_BOOKLET