ACL Interview: JD McPherson
Uncanny rockabilly from the time warp
By Tim Stegall, 12:25PM, Wed. Oct. 2
JD McPherson, an ex-punk rocker and art teacher from rural Oklahoma, released a debut LP three years ago that differed from most rockabilly. Signs and Signifiers sounds less like Elvis at Sun Studios and more like Specialty or Chess Records R&B.
Austin Chronicle: Your album’s amazing. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it. I thought it was something from 1956.
JD McPherson: Well, that was the mission. I think, from the producer’s standpoint, that record was a once-in-a-lifetime ode to era-specific production accuracy. We were making that record for ourselves and for a scene. That scene has not really produced – how do I say this as respectfully as possible? There are a lot of bands and a lot of musicians we know who are sorta fetishizing that music and making music on old equipment and stuff. But we wanted to make one that sounded exactly as if it had been recorded at [New Orleans legend Cosimo Matassa’s studio] J&M or Chess.
AC: It sounds like a live band that’s playing in one very live room with a bunch of mics in the air and small Fender amps cranked all the way up. I even thought it was mono until I heard one track with percussion panned hard left and right across the stereo spread.
JDM: I think that record sounds lively because it was a learning process for me and a happy experience for the other people involved. I think it was just one of those times where it happened so quickly. It was written and recorded so quickly. It was recorded in like six days! It was just, like, really fast. It was effortless. That’s how I remember it.
We’re working now on a new album, and it’s exciting too. It’s actually more exciting than the first time, but it’s harder work and there’s more of an exciting back and forth with this. I really love watching things start to stack up. You have ideas and they start going through everybody’s filter and they start to change in front of your eyes into something you didn’t expect to happen. That’s what happened on the first one for me. It was like, “Whoa! We sound like Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry and all these guys.”
AC: Austin was the home to an artist who was doing something very similar to what you’re doing who’s unfortunately no longer with us. Have you ever heard of Nick Curran?
JDM: Let me just talk to you a minute about Nick Curran. I bought Fixin’ Your Head, which is his first solo record, back in the Nineties. And it’s only because of Nick Curran that I ended up doing what I do now.
I was into a lot of music; I was playing in all kinds of bands. I was playing in punk bands and rock & roll bands. I dunno, I was trying to do basically what I liked. But when I heard Nick Curran, I was like, “Man! This is on another level!” Because he was so great. I’m just gonna speak as a person, as a fan: He had one of the best rock & roll voices and rock & roll guitar techniques of anybody on the planet. He’s a hero to me. But I was also jealous of him at the same time. That last record he did seemed as though it was the record he’d always wanted to make.
AC: He was a friend of mine. At the end of his life, he was playing in a friend’s punk band called the Flash Boys, besides doing his more Fifties-based thing. I know your background was very similar. You said you were playing in punk bands and things like that before you were doing this?
JDM: A long time ago. In high school and up to maybe my second year in college, I still had a fuzz pedal. To me, it wasn’t a detriment to be so persnickety about making things sound so period correct. It was part of digging through records and obsessing about all the music and the sounds and all these things. There was a point where I became such a purist about it. That can be a detriment. That’s why with Signs, the first studio record, half those songs I had written before I even got in the studio. And they were lyrically very assuming of a certain idea, like a temporal time frame of music when it happened. It wasn’t until that point that I sorta started thinking about writing things that were relevant to myself and to my time.
AC: I see you had some Austin musicians playing on your album, as well, people like Susan Voelz, and even someone from Nick Curran & the Lowlifes. You’ve got some definite local connections.
JDM: I never did get to meet Susan. But if you’re talking about Jonathan Doyle on saxophone, he’s amazing! He just happened to be in Chicago that week, and we got him up to the studio and put him to work! He toured with us for a little while, but he’s doing what he wants to do right now, and he’s amazing. I hope to see him when I’m down there. I hope he’s not on the road.
AC: You originally released this album yourself. Now it’s been picked up by Rounder Records. You had a video that was a hit on YouTube, and now you’re about to play before thousands of people for two weekends at ACL. That’s quite a journey.
JDM: It is really weird. We played Bonnaroo this year, and it was surreal. We’re coming out with a ’64 Leeds piano onstage and draggin’ this 1940s Slingerland [drum kit] out. And we turn around and there’s like a jillion people, and what in the world are we doing here?