JD McPherson ushers in a welcome return to rock'n'roll roots
MUSIC A few musicians with slick hair and black-frame glasses are seen setting up their equipment in Chicago's Hi-Style Studio: amps, a mustard Telecaster, glittering gold drums, a huge stand-up bass, and vintage condenser microphones. What year is this?
The drum hits crack and the bass strings ripple with heavy plucks. The finger-snapping beat is unavoidable, almost cloying in its blitheness. Potent vocals reminiscent of Little Richard suddenly overpower it all. It's Broken Arrow, Oklahoma's JD McPherson — singing so hard a craggy vein in his otherwise smooth forehead bulges — in the video for the single that has brought him this far: "North Side Gal."
It's due to be inescapable this summer. "The Chicago Cubs have actually been playing that song at the stadium during games," McPherson says during a phone call from his car, where the singer-songwriter-occasional vegetarian is waiting on an order of red pepper tofu. "It's really exciting. There's really no other team I'd rather have that song associated with. It's the ultimate old ballpark, underdog team."
Like contemporaries Nick Waterhouse (who, coincidentally, is also playing San Francisco this week, and un-coincidentally is also profiled in this issue) and Nick Curran and the Lowlifes, McPherson is tackling the invigorating rock'n'roll power and bluesy vocals of early R&B and 1950s rock, exploring retro record-making processes,while nonchalantly dressing the part.
It's another revival, likely to sell well across the mainstream in the Heartland, but also appeal to the underground listeners throughout rockabilly pockets. Though this is beyond classic rockabilly's precise replications of the past, past kitsch and overwhelming aesthetics. These band leaders with undeniable guitar skills and a very modern drive have something that can only be described, apologetically, as star power. Out of the smoky clubs and into the mind's eye.
And while rockin' McPherson may have the sound, the side-parted hair, and the analog recording process back-story like the others in this current resurgence, his own background is fairly different; if the more soulful California boy Waterhouse is Rat Pack wool suits, McPherson is dusty rolled denim.
McPherson was raised on a cattle farm in Buffalo Valley, Southeast Oklahoma — dutifully feeding the cows before school — but later fell into a nearby punk scene, and met his wife (and mother to his two young daughters) at a new wave-goth club night in Tulsa; wearing a Smiths shirt herself, she approached him to say,"You look like a Smiths fan." She's now his biggest supporter, sitting patiently while he runs by new guitar parts or song lyrics. She's also the original "North Side Gal."
But before all that, before his interest in punk and new-wave, before the wife and kids, and long before the release of his modern reinterpretation of early rock'n'roll record, Signs and Signifiers, he was just a 13-year-old kid in the Midwest learning to play the guitar.
His much older brothers showed him their '70s-era Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, and Jimi Hendrix records. He grew obsessed with Led Zeppelin then Van Halen, and later, Nirvana, which led to searches for punk origins records by the Stooges and the Ramones. As a late teen, he discovered early rock'n'roll, the backbeat to all those spinning vinyl dreams.
"I found the Decca recordings of Buddy Holly, and that sort of seemed to marry the exuberance of the Ramones, with the country Arcadian aesthetic that I was growing up around. It made sense...and it got me."
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.
During the recording process, and up until the end of the 2011 school year, McPherson was still employed in a local Broken Arrow middle school as a computer and arts teacher (he went to college for fine arts). When he was laid off last summer he says he told the band, "well, I'm getting a paycheck through the summer, so let's tour and try to make some money while I look for another job." They've been touring consistently ever since.
Perhaps this batch of '50s-inspired rockers and analog R&B crooners will move beyond the past, and into the future musical pantheon, gaining elusive mainstream success. Or maybe they'll remain lovable underdogs. Only time will tell. For your McPherson fix now, you could always take in a Cubs game. Check back at the end of summer '12.
With Toshio Hirano
Thu/7, 8pm, $21
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF