When JD McPherson and the band played in Dublin recently (see live review) we were able to have a quick Q&A with band members JD, Jimmy Sutton, label head, bassist and producer and drummer Jason Smay.
One quote I read was that you had an inclination to sound like Stiff Little Fingers on Del-Fi Records so I figured you guys had a wider musical upbringing that some might expect.
JD: I keep forgetting about these things that I say. They pop back up and I laugh.
Jimmy: You know what when you say something it's signed sealed and deliver and may come back on you.
Growing up in a small town like Broken Arrow was music your link to a wider, weirder world?
JD: Completely. It was all I did. Draw and listen to music and read about music. I read every magazine I could get my hands on. Photo copied fanzines as well as Creem and Spin and whatever. It was all there was to do. That and getting into trouble.
What was the range of music that you were hearing back then?
JD: My Dad grew up in Alabama and his music was rural black music. He listened to blues and rhythm and blues. He also got into jazz in the army. I liked his blues stuff. I wasn't so much into the jazz when I was I school. I just didn't get it. He was listening to some pretty heavy stuff like Thelonious Monk. I love that now but back the I didn't. My Mom listened to whatever was easy listening on the radio at the time. So my first kinda thing when I started to get into music was through my older brothers. They were into Southern Rock and Arena Rock - Zeppelin, Hendrix. Basically guitar music. That what I was starting to do - play guitar. I though that Eddie van Halen was the best thing that there ever was. As I got older I realized that Bo Diddley was more interesting.
We talked about the way music comes from a lot of sources and how early country music brought a lot of different strand together and later sophistacaction with singers like Ray Price. JD felt he was like a country Dean Martin and Jimmy said he had elements of jazz in his delivery, depending on what part of his career you were listening to. Music for all of us was a wide open world.
Jimmy was your background similar?
Jimmy: I grew up on the south-side of Chicago by the University of Chicago. It was a real inter-racial culture surrounded by a ghetto. Literally one block from my house was the start of Brownsville. I had all kind s of stuff hit me from all angles. But I have to tell you my first concert ever was Count Basie. He used to play our church on the south-side. My first rock concert, which was the day my brother said I turned cool was The Ramones, before that he said I was just a pest. When I do these interviews I think about it and when you slam Count Basie and The Ramones together you got something there. But in Chicago the local station they were playing Joy Division before anybody else. They were playing everything before it caught on. It was pretty eclectic. I kinda learned a lot from that but as JD said when your young you can only digest so much. So I was really listening to jazz and things like that back then. My brothers were a hugh influence on me and The Beatles were a big thing. The along came The Ramones and DEVO and I had a crush on Debbie Harry. But then a lot of that punk thing came along and it was hand in hand with rockabilly. All the cats - The Stray Cats, The Polecats, The Rockats, the Bob Cats. That was like my Kiss when I was a teenager. That open the doors. I think we all shared that experience and we all wondered "who wrote those songs?". So that's me in a nutshell.
Was it similar for you Jason?
Jason: I grew up in a small town near Rochester, New York. It was small and there was no real music scene in it. So I grew up listening to what my Dad listened to. That was Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple, 60's rock music. I was always interested in rock 'n' roll so greaser culture was something I found myself in real quick. That's what I was brought up on.
Jimmy: Greaser Culture, that's a good one (laughs).
You guys got together after JD contact you Jimmy?
Jimmy: Yeah, he contacted me on MySpace. When you get approached as I was and I was getting tapes all the time it was "Ok, sigh, here's another". So when I listened to JDs I was definitely taken by surprise. It was "yep, he's got it, that's my boy" (laughs). It's funny you guys both talked about your parents and I should mention mine. My Mum is from Peru so she listened to a lot of latin music. She was disorganized and had this record collection and there were two Elvis records in it, one was a gospel record and I forget what the other one was. My father listened to whatever was on the old-time radio which was WGN and that was mostly big-band jazz and vocal harmony groups - whatever was happening.
Jimmy: I think the soul resurgence has helped us a little bit. We're not soul but I think we're maybe soulful.
You are still touring Signs & Signifiers even though it came out on Hi-Style two years ago. Is that a something that holds you back?
JD: It came out in October 2010.
Jimmy: October 18th. on my small little label Hi-Style. Which was just me talking a big game.
JD: It's fun to go into a new town and play this stuff, like tonight. I just know tonight's going to be wonderful. I just can't wait.
Jimmy: We have a great feeling about tonight.
Jason: I was a good sign that when we were coming in the immigration guy said "Oh, you're playing in Whelans so you must be good! - have a good show"
Jimmy: While in Heathrow they just gave us shit.
You had a vision about how this project would sound and also how it would look?
Jimmy: Well both JD and I are art school kids. We are both into visuals and concepts. I think that's what attracted me to JD.
JD: It's the talking about the concept for a record, the packaging and all that stuff is just as exciting as everything because that was part of one thing that I really liked, well two things actually, that I liked about punk. That was the economic freedom - the do everything yourself type of thing. The other was that all the bands were like tribes. Bad Brains was this... not even punk, David Bowie had tons of stuff to look at. So I love coming up with the visual side.
Jimmy: I goes along with the fact that most of us like to listen with our eyes.
The demise of packaging is somewhat over dramatized.
Jimmy: It's fun. It's exciting, another one of our senses engaged. We listen but we also want to look.
Ronnie: You have got the look right, so the first thing that people who don't know the music see is the styling.
Ronnie: You tour list is pretty tight. Is that how it works for you guys?
JD: You worry more when you look at the schedule but when you just do it it's alright.
Jimmy: It's pretty exciting times right now with the recording coming out on Rounder. It's kinda a fun ride.
JD: A shot in the arm for sure.
How do you go about touring?
JD: Back in the States with our regular set-up were hauling around an acoustic piano, an M3 and a Leslie. We put everything into it.
Jason: You get into a groove with it as it's just what you do. When you do have a night off it feels, for me, wow, aren't we supposed to be doing something tonight? What's going on here.
Jimmy: As Jason said there something to be said for lack of schedule but it takes a bit of time to get there. It's almost like your internal clock. So going back to what you said about the schedule being insane but, I think, at this point were just like on. The record has been re-released and it feels like it has fresh legs. But yes we'd love to put out another record and play some new material but at this point we can't even figure out when we can rehearse.
Do you think that the music will change when you do do the new album?
JD: It occurred to me that when I made this record, for me, I just wanted to make a real traditional rock 'n' roll record.That it could be indistingishable from something from another time. I just wanted to do that because it was something I'd always wanted to do. But then getting to know Jimmy and getting to know the studio and being there and listening to stuff it was about half way through that things began to change a little bit. Songs like A Gentle Awakening and Signifiers were written. That's when I got really excited because I sensed that this was a new thing to me.
Jimmy: It also developed early on when some key words that came when we first started talking about trying to put out a timeless record and as JD's a great wordsmith so I started to wonde if I could push him to be more contemporary yet still timeless. To sound like you're not trying too hard.
JD: Our conversations were around that too. I was talking about the three or four songs I had going into it like Scandalous. That's a very Lieber/Stolleresque thing as I was totally aping on those guys. The new record I still want to be rhythm 'n' blues but I really want to open that up a lot and mess with that.
Your look, sound and recording process are all rooted in an earlier era of music making. Is that something that is important to you methodology?
Jimmy: Well, we recorded most of it live right to quarter inch. That being said you have to have a good performance in the space that you are in. The microphones are going to pick up the same things so we had to sound good right there and then. That also made me think who I was going to get on the session - what piano player, what drummer as not all drummers can play to a smaller envoirnment and yet still sound intense. A lot of drummers are very heavy handed. Once they try to play quiet they sound like they're trying to play quiet and that's the thing. You need to get over that hurdle. The drummer I originally got was Alex Hall who was very fluid and he also knows how to rock. Someone like Scott Leigon the piano player he just loves all kinds of music. He loves Johnnie Johnson and the first time I heard him play we had this wedding band and we were playing this song with a simple left hand piece (Jimmy hums the riff) and he said "Oh. that sound's great" and he was more than happy just to play those three notes throughout the song and that's rare. You don't find that many players that do that. As far as guitar I think JD's a great guitar player. I love his styling. I think he want's to play like Eddie van Halen sometimes (laughs). I love the simplicity, it's the way his brain is working.
What's the plan to achieve world domination?
JD: I just want to keep playing and making records but right now things are happening that I can't really explain. Last night Nick Lowe was in the dressing room and at another gig Tom Waits was in the audience. Dan Aurabch from the Black Keys came to a show in St. Louis. That kind of stuff freaks me out.
When you played I heard some comparisons between you to early Blasters.
Jimmy; That's great I love The Blasters.
JD; I remember when I first started to listen to punk rock I used to think "this is it, I'm a punk" and it was punks listen to this and skinheads listen to this and rude boys listen to this thing, each segmented, and then I remember reading about shows in the early 80s with the Blasters, Dwight Yoakam and X on the same bill and I was like "ok, you can have this cross pollenation of people". So I like it when we get a mix with the opening act. We did a show recently with a New York punk band Lucious and it was great.
Jimmy: If It's all the same thing then it numbs the senses.
Interview by Steve Rapid with Ronnie Norton. Photography by Ronnie Norton