Since breaking out in 2012 with his debut record, Signs and Signifiers, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native J.D. McPherson has been a hit with fans of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and soul, due in part to the smoking singles “Firebug” and “North Side Gal.” McPherson is back with a new record, the optimistically titled, Let the Good Times Roll. With the backing of a new label, Rounder Records, McPherson set out to challenge himself and his audience, creating a decidedly 50s hybrid psych-rock record — a sonic departure from his previous outing. McPherson, who plays the Shea Theater in Turners Falls tomorrow night, shared some insight into creating Let the Good Times Roll in a recent interview.
Examiner: You’re on the great Rounder Records label which was started here in Massachusetts. Was there anything remotely akin to a bidding “war” for your second release, Let the Good Times Roll?
JM: Well, the contract we have with Rounder grants them the option to put out several records with us, so there was no need for any act of war! Even so, I adore everyone I’ve worked with at Rounder, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They’ve been extremely cool to us, and have given us lots of freedom to make the records we want to make.
Examiner: The new album is a sonic departure from your debut, and if I hadn’t heard the NPR piece on you a couple of weeks back I could lay claim to being the first to say that there’s a bit of a psychedelic undertone to some of the songs. Not the psychedelic music of the 60s, per se, but some recording techniques that would’ve been innovative or a stark contrast to the current retro vibe that your music has. Can you talk a bit on that creative shift?
JM: The new songs were “asking” for an unusual treatment. Once I knew that we’d be working with an outside producer, those sounds and ideas started to take a more firm shape. I remember the first few conversations with (producer) Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Los Straitjackets) were about how to take the basic effects from early rock ‘n’ roll records like tape delay and tremolo, and push them to extreme levels. We didn’t push them to really extreme levels in the end, but there’s some really exciting, bizarro ideas going on in the final mix. I love the sounds on this record.
Examiner: The uptempo tunes on Signs and Signifiers had a particular urgency, somewhat compact and at the same time, very loose. On the new album, there’s a different economy at play — very syncopated, intricate and disciplined (especially on the tracks, “Bossy” and “It’s All Over But the Shouting”), something akin to the precision of listening/watching Los Straitjackets in action. For lack of a better description, it has an epic, sweeping feel to it. I’m wondering, given your visual arts background, do you write music the traditional way, or is there a visual component that perhaps supercedes or works in tandem with the whole verse/chorus, melody, rhythm songwriting structure?
JM: I’m not sure how directly that my visual arts background translates into inspiration for music work, but I do know that art school absolutely gave me more access to ideas and the ability to self-edit a bit more efficiently. For the non-musical aspects of making records like videos and album art, that stuff has come in really handy.
Examiner: You’re happy to be in the modern world creating decidedly “old timey” music, even the title of the new record is anachronistic and maybe not without irony given that the energy, naivete and innocence of the particular era of music you’re fond of is pretty much over. Is that me reading into it?
JM: Rock ‘n’ roll music is as fresh and exciting to me as it was to Lux and Ivy in the Cramps. I don’t really have any intention of making “old-timey” music, that would be a step backwards. I’d rather take the sounds and rhythms of the music that have influenced me and given me direction since teenagehood, and apply that vocabulary towards making new music. I love this stuff because it can become both high-brow and low-brow simultaneously. The Cramps probably understood that better than anyone. As far as the album title goes, it was not my intention for it to be anachronistic. It’s actually the opposite! I’ll leave that up to the listener. It helps to buy a physical copy of the record, because lyrics are included. That can help a listener’s interpretation of a song. The song is really about ghosts.
Examiner: From what I gather you’re a free-ranger in terms of your music tastes, you’re versed in the ways of Wu Tang just as equally as Big Bill Broonzy. Is there anything in your musical past or present that you’ve had to break from as incompatible?
JM: If anything, I’m growing even more open-minded toward music as I grow older. I really enjoy music now more than I ever have. There’s music I railed against in my twenties that I’m actually showing interest in now! I’m on a huge Hall and Oates kick right now, never thought I’d say that at 16.
Examiner: Tulsa, OK is known for having a fairly diverse musical community, lot of folks originating out of that city. Any favorites?
JM: There’s a guy in Tulsa who plays a gig every Friday night at my favorite Thai restaurant. To my knowledge, that’s all he does. His name is Tommy Crook. He’s a guitar genius. Apparently, Chet Atkins was on the Tonight Show in the 80s, and Johnny Carson asked him who his favorite guitarist was, and Chet answered, “Well, there’s this fellow in Tulsa named Tommy Crook . . . .” He’s unbelievable. He’s been courted by everyone from Merle Haggard to Willie Nelson, apparently . . . but he’s happy just playing occasional gigs in Tulsa. I always tip him and ask him to play “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and he always obliges.
Examiner: You were a middle school teacher at one point, what did you teach and do you miss it?
JM: I taught a mixture of Technology and Art. First separately, then a hybrid of the two. Media Literacy for 6th graders, and a contemporary art primer and studio for 7th and 8th graders. I miss those classes the most. I remember teaching the 8th graders about performance art through Joseph Beuys and Andy Kaufman videos. They loved Andy. He appealed to everyone, especially 8th graders.
J.D. McPherson, with Eric Church, March 1, 2015, 7 PM, Shea Theater, 71 Avenue A, Turners Falls, MA 01376, (413) 863-2281