Revival signs - Page 2

JD McPherson ushers in a welcome return to rock'n'roll roots

Old school, JD McPherson.

His teenage punk band began interjecting Buddy Holly's "Rocking Around with Ollie Vee" into their sets; the sound had a pervasive pull, and he fell backwards, deeper into the roots of rock'n'roll — Screamin' Jay Hawkins, blues artists his Alabama-born dad loved such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, and early jazz musicians.

He looked to Little Richard in particular, to whom he has garnered favorable comparisons (see the beginning of this story). Because of his style, and, perhaps, his skin color, he's also seen comparisons to Elvis. "I love Elvis, I mean, I lo-ove Elvis," he stretches out the "of" sound in the word "love" with an endearingly twangy accent. "I don't know if there's a huge musical similarity between us and Elvis, maybe instrumentation-wise, but we're way more Specialty Records than Sun Records."

"Little Richard is my favorite recording artist," he continues, "[I'm] way more interested in Elvis' black counterparts and predecessors. I do love rockabilly, but we don't interject a lot of hillbilly sounds into our rhythm and blues the way Elvis did."

In the '90s Midwest, pop-country was taking over the airwaves, Billy Ray Cyrus and the like — it's what all McPherson's high school classmates were popping in the tape decks. It wasn't for him. Perhaps this is why he shies away from any hillbilly sounds, those that can lead to psychobilly when mixed with the punk roots. Not that he disparages rockabilly.

"There's a subculture of all these bands that have no intention of doing anything other than just really faithfully reproducing these sounds, there's a lot more rockabilly and Western swing bands doing that thing, [yet] these are folks that are putting out quality music."

But in those scenes and beyond he saw a shortage of the more straight-forward rock'n'roll he loved. That's why he and musical partner Jimmy Sutton (the gray fox thumping those stand-up bass strings in the "North Side Gal" video) decided to make the DIY, all-analog Signs and Signfiers album in the first place. "So our record basically was almost like an art project, like 'let's just make this record and do what we always wanted to do.'"

The drummer on the album was Alex Hall, who doubled as the engineer. Now he's still "in the family," often playing keyboards with the band; drummer Jason Smay is on the current tour. During the recording process, McPherson and Sutton would run through a song then Hall would head into the control booth to mix. He'd set the levels, start the tape, run in, then get behind the drums. "That was kind of the magic of it, it was essentially mixed as we recorded it. Real fast, instant gratification. It's the best way to record."

Like contemporary Waterhouse noted, McPherson of course has his own connections with modern technology and has used digital recording processes in the past, but he prefers the analog way, to extract that authentic sound. "I've seen the amazing things you can do in a digital environment, but there's some special thing to getting a band live in the studio and recording an actual performance. And then you know, the equipment sounds amazing too."

While the record was originally released in 2010 on Sutton's tiny Hi-Style label, the "North Side Gal" single and album have really started picking up this year. With the homemade video as the ultimate calling card, Rounder Records signed the band and rereleased the album this spring. The video has gained half a million views as of press time, and the band's television debut is tonight on Conan. Despite all that, they're still relatively unknown in the US, but McPherson and his band have a huge following in the UK — they regularly play sold-out shows and festivals, and have daily rotation on BBC Radio.

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