On “Signs & Signifiers,” JD McPherson’s guitar alternately jangles with Buddy Holly longing and thumps with Johnny Cash-like drive; the bass clicks and slaps, the piano rolls and the drums pop, while a sax honks its way along in the background. We asked McPherson about his early rock sound and what audiences can expect when they come out for one of his shows.
On “Signs & Signifiers,” JD McPherson’s guitar alternately jangles with Buddy Holly longing and thumps with Johnny Cash-like drive; the bass clicks and slaps, the piano rolls and the drums pop, while a sax honks its way along in the background. It’s not only hard to imagine this album being recorded anywhere but a one-room studio in Memphis in 1956 — it’s practically impossible.
But even if it all sounds old, it’s not like an oldie preserved in amber: Instead, it’s a reminder of the vibrant origins of a sound that got splintered in so many directions it’s often hard to remember where it came from.
We caught up with McPherson to ask him about “Signs & Signifiers” and what audiences can expect when they come out for one of his shows.
Q: Your album has an amazingly authentic early rock ’n’ roll sound. Did you say when you set out, “We’re going to make an album that sounds just like a Little Richard record from 1956,” or was the process more organic than that?
A: If I remember correctly, I met [producer and bassist] Jimmy Sutton – he had this studio [Chicago’s Hi-Style Studios] he had been building for a while, you know? And we had done a couple of things together, been talking back and forth, and talked about making a record. I don’t know if it was said out loud or put on paper or not, but we both wanted to try to explore some of those sounds of rock ’n roll and rhythm & blues that we liked.
But the deal was, once we started working and comparing notes about the kind of music we all liked – not just that style of music, all other things – we had the idea of the project becoming something more ambitious. For sure, we know that we’d be able to make some good sounds [using] pretty traditional recording methods and [doing] that kind of rock ’n’ roll stuff.
Q: You grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and got your start in more punk-oriented bands – how did you wind up getting into influences from the early rock era?
A: I think my dad had a lot to do with that. My dad was working in Western Alabama, he was a teenager in the ’50s and ‘early ’60s — he did not really actually care for rock ’n’ roll that much. He was much more into kind of Delta blues and jazz and stuff. But letting me hear [that music] at an early age probably planted a seed or two.
But I think the light really came on when I got my hands on a Buddy Holly disc at a local record store. I just really liked it. It was just good music – good time, good feeling rock’ n’ roll – energetic, infectious … That kind of got me on that path. Finding Little Richard, Fats Domino, all these guys – that was really what kind of did it.
Q: The album really seems to be gaining steam – what do you think attracts people to this kind of rock ’n’ roll?
A: Well, I can’t say for sure. I get reports on what they’re saying on Twitter, and they’re not really saying WHY they like it – they’ll say, oh, this is rockabilly, or this is ’50s, or this is soul, or this is like Amy Winehouse, and people can’t quite put their finger on what they’re listening to. But I really just think that it’s the inherent, you know, enjoyability of swinging, good-time music – it’s exciting.
We’re very protective of this record and we’ve tried to do the very best job we can, and also not write material that is 100 percent in this sort of retrograde world. We tried to write a few songs that are relevant to the present time and to ourselves as people, and I think that people are responding to that … I think maybe people are responding to some kind of honesty in the music.
Q: What can people expect when they come out for your shows? I suspect it’s not one of those concerts where you sit quietly with your hands in your lap.
A: No, we definitely discourage that! (laughs) It’s an absolute blast to perform this stuff – and I think audiences respond to that. We can tell by the exponentially increasing number of audience members who are seeing the group in repeated towns. You know, they’re telling their friends they had a good time.
I really can’t stress enough – I really do play with some really incredible musicians. We’re really working hard on serving the song, and making sure that everything is just right. You know, we have such a great time, I think that’s infectious.
JD McPherson and his band are currently touring the US before heading to Europe early next year. More details at jdmcpherson.com.