Music Interviews
3:22 pm
Fri May 18, 2012

JD McPherson: When A Punk Goes Vintage

Originally published on Fri May 18, 2012 5:34 pm

How does a former punk rocker raised on an Oklahoma cattle ranch end up sounding like a classic rockabilly singer? JD McPherson found his groove in the style of 1950s rhythm and blues, rock and rockabilly. To help create that vintage sound on his debut album, Signs and Signifers, he used vintage mics, old amplifiers and a Berlant reel-to-reel recorder from the '60s — all analog. McPherson's love for this classic sound all goes back to a record store in McAlester, Okla.

"There was a girl working there. And she was cleaning out the clearance items, and she gave me a few CDs. But the one that really stuck with me was a double set of the Buddy Holly Decca recordings," McPherson says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block.

"This is sort of what I'd been looking for. I can't really be an English punk rocker in 1995 — Buffalo Valley, Okla., on a cattle ranch. This kind of stuff scratched an itch I was looking for, so I went nuts from there. I went looking for everything I could get my hands on. The more I listened to Little Richard and Fats Domino and Larry Williams and these guys, I became more enamored with the black side of rock 'n' roll at that time."

The sound got right under his skin.

"That's all I kind of wanted to listen to or think about," McPherson says. "There's always been these little resurgence of music from the past that will creep, and right now it's '60s soul — it's readily acceptable by a lot of folks thanks to people like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and they do an amazing job. But there's this huge treasure trove of rhythms and sounds that are within rhythm and blues from the 1950s that — you can see it everywhere you play it. If you play that kind of stuff and you do it correctly, people will dance every single time. I just think there's something there that's kind of untapped."

'Hit The VFW'

Speaking of which, listen to "Scratching Circles" and try not to start moving. There's a line that says, "We'll hit the VFW by the Tuskahoma line when the band lays the first hot note." McPherson says it's one of the few songs written from real life.

"My best friend in high school — we had a little punk band together," McPherson says. "The rule was that we could rehearse in his house, but we had to play songs with his dad, who was a country-and-western singer, whenever he wanted. We played one show, and it was at the Tuskahoma VFW. I just remember seeing these older country ladies with their Rocky Mountain jeans and Roper boots pouring salt on the floor, so that when they would dance and stuff, they wouldn't slide and fall down."

For maximum dance potential, McPherson says that the album's producer, Jimmy Sutton, would walk around with a metronome and one of the songs in his head "until he found the most danceable beats per minute.

"A lot of bands, it's like kind of about playing as fast as possible," McPherson says. "But there is a certain heaviness that you can get from just the right groove, even if it's not a really fast groove."

Slam The Tape

In "A Gentle Awakening," JD McPherson slows things down.

"I had been staying up late at night in the studio writing, because I didn't have any songs for the record," McPherson says. "I had been listening to the Pixies and I had this song by them, which was a B-side for their song 'Wave of Mutilation.' I was like, 'Man, I love that beat. I'd love to have something slow like this,' and then these lyrics just sort of appeared. They're dark lyrics, and it ended up — it's one of my favorite tracks on the record."

The vocal distortion you hear in "A Gentle Awakening" not only comes from the vintage microphones used on Signs and Signifiers, but also slamming the tape "with a little more gain than you're supposed to."

"I like seeing the hand involved in all work," McPherson says. "[What] you're hearing out of the radio and pop music now is this big kind of congealed blob of ear candy. It works for a minute, but there's no vulnerability there. There's no evidence of soul there. I want to hear the performance and the people behind the performance."

"Wolf Teeth" shows the growly inner wolf of JD McPherson, who closes each live show with a high-energy rocker.

"If we haven't had the audience at that point, we have them after that track," McPherson says. "I've seen it happen over and over again. After we play that song and keep it going — and it changes every night — sometimes it's longer, sometimes it's shorter. But we keep going until we get them. Folks kind of lose it at that point. It's a lot of fun to play. It wears my vocal cords out."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORTH SIDE GAL")

BLOCK: How does a former punk rocker raised on an Oklahoma cattle ranch end up sounding like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORTH SIDE GAL")

J.D. MCPHERSON: (Singing) I pulled a match game all around the north side, chasing a sweet thing, so satisfied. Every time I try. Crazy about a north side gal.

BLOCK: That's J.D. McPherson from his debut album called "Signs and Signifiers." McPherson has found his groove writing songs in the style of 1950s rhythm and blues, rock and rockabilly. And to help create that vintage sound, this is an all analog recording using vintage mics, amps and a Berlant reel-to-reel recorder from the '60s.

I asked J.D. McPherson about his odyssey from punk to old style rock. He says it all goes back to a record store in McAlester, Oklahoma.

MCPHERSON: And there was a girl working there and she was cleaning out the clearance items and she gave me a few CDs, but the one that really stuck with me was a double set of the Buddy Holly Decca recordings. And this is sort of what I've been looking for. I can't really be an English punk rocker. You know, in 1995, Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma, on a cattle ranch, but this kind of stuff scratched an itch that I was looking for.

And so I went nuts from there. I went looking for everything I could get my hands on. The more I listened to Little Richard and Fats Domino and Larry Williams and these guys, I became more enamored with the black side of rock and roll at that time.

BLOCK: Did it sort of get right into your skin, do you think, right into your bones?

MCPHERSON: Yeah. That's all I really kind of wanted to listen to or think about and there's always been these kind of like little resurgence of music from the past that'll creep in and, right now, it's sort of like '60s soul. It's readily acceptable by a lot of folks, thanks to, you know, people like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and they do an amazing job.

But there's this huge treasure trove of rhythms and sounds that are within rhythm and blues from the 1950s that - you can see it everywhere you play it. I mean, if you play that kind of stuff and you do it correctly, people will dance every single time and there's something that - I just think there's something there that's kind of untapped.

BLOCK: J.D., you just said something that I love, which is that, you know - if you do it, people will dance to it every single time. You have a song, "Scratching Circles," on the album and I would challenge anybody to listen to this song and not start moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCRATCHING CIRCLES")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) When I get the feeling in the middle of the evening (unintelligible). We'll hit the VFW on the Tuskahoma Line when the band makes a fresh, hot note.

BLOCK: I love that line, hit the VFW on the Tuskahoma Line. Would you do that as a kid?

MCPHERSON: Well, I never - usually, I don't write from real life, but this was an actual thing that happened. My best friend in high school that was in - we had a little punk band together. Sort of the rule was that we could rehearse in his house, but we had to play songs with his dad, who was a country and western singer, whenever he wanted.

And so we played one show and it was at the Tuskahoma VFW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCRATCHING CIRCLES")

MCPHERSON: And I just remember seeing these older country ladies with their Rocky Mountain jeans and roper boots pouring salt on the floor so that, when they would dance and stuff, they wouldn't slide and fall down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCRATCHING CIRCLES")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) Well, they're scratching out the beat with the leather on their feet (unintelligible) and the rhythm of the (unintelligible) and the movement on the (unintelligible). Pretty women and it's (unintelligible) scratching circles on the old dance floor.

You know, when we were making this record, Jimmy, the producer - he walked around with a metronome and he'd have the song in his head. And he'd mess with the metronome and he'd dance around until he found, like, the most kind of danceable beats per minute and that's what we'd record at.

BLOCK: No kidding?

MCPHERSON: You know, a lot of bands - it's like kind of about playing as fast as possible, but there is a certain heaviness that you can get from just the right groove, even if it's not a really fast groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCRATCHING CIRCLES")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) Scratching circles on the old dance floor.

BLOCK: I'm talking with J.D. McPherson about his new album, "Signs and Signifiers." You slow things way down on the song, "Gentle Awakening."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE AWAKENING")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) Put down the paper, baby. I had a dream at dawn. A terrible storm blew over, covered up the morning sun. Beyond, I heard a lullaby so peaceful and serene.

I had been staying up late at night in the studio writing because I didn't have any songs for the record. And I had been listening to the Pixies and I had this song by them, which was a B-side for their song, "Wave of Mutilation," and I was like, man, I love that beat. I'd love to have something slow like this and then these lyrics just sort of appeared and they're dark lyrics and it ended up, it's one of my favorite tracks on the record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE AWAKENING")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Hear the wounded mockingbird, a mournful serenade.

BLOCK: Listening to how your voice sounds on that part right there, is that sound coming, do you think, from the vintage mics? Is it maybe distorting just a little bit?

MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah. That's kind of the cool thing about it is that if you slam the tape with a little more gain than you're supposed to, you'll get this really beautiful distortion and I love that stuff.

BLOCK: What is it about it that you love so much?

MCPHERSON: I like seeing the hand involved in all work. What you're hearing out of the radio in pop music now is like this big kind of congealed blob of ear candy and it works for a minute, but there's no vulnerability there. There's no evidence of soul there. I want to hear the performance and the people behind the performance.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you about your song, "Wolf Teeth." You kind of get to let your inner wolf out here, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOLF TEETH")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) I ain't gonna lose my mind.

BLOCK: This is a whole growly side of you, J.D., that I don't hear when I'm talking to you. It must be fun to let that out.

MCPHERSON: Yeah. That song's turned into sort of like what we close with every time now and, if we haven't had the audience at that point, we have them after that track. I've seen it happen over and over again. After we play that song and keep it going and it changes every night. You know, sometimes it's longer, sometimes it's shorter, but we keep going until we get them and...

BLOCK: However long it takes.

MCPHERSON: Yeah. Folks kind of lose it at that point. It's a lot of fun to play and it wears my vocal cords out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOLF TEETH")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) tell the whole world (unintelligible). I leave a little magic every place I go. (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: J.D. McPherson, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

MCPHERSON: Thank you so much, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: J.D. McPherson's new album is "Signs and Signifiers."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOLF TEETH")

MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.