Interview: Roots rocker JD McPherson discusses new album and tour

JD McPherson w/ David Zollo

Gabe’s — Thursday, Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.

Roots rock musician JD McPherson heads to Gabe’s on Thursday — the first tour stop in support of his much-anticipated album Let the Good Times Roll, a follow-up to his breakout Signs and Signifiers in 2012.

Before 2012, the McPherson was teaching art to middle schoolers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Right around the time McPherson’s music came to the attention of Rounder Records via the success of a youtube video featuring one of his songs, he was out of teaching gig due budget cuts. With this fateful nudge, McPherson threw himself into pursuing music full time and quickly became a favorite of critics and roots music fans alike.

Little Village caught up with McPherson recently and discussed coming up as a musician in Oklahoma, the madness of making a record and the mark Star Fox made on his music.

Little Village: It seems that being Oklahoman is a big part of your identity, and you take a lot of pride in being from there. Is that something that comes in through the music at all? What is the “Tulsa Sound” to you?

JD McPherson: Well it’s definitely been printed that there’s a Tulsa sound. There were all those British blues rocker guys hiring a bunch of Tulsa people to be the band. I don’t really think there’s a “Tulsa sound” though because there’s such a diverse group of musicians that come from here that went on — everything from Big Al Downing to Chet Baker to Wanda Jackson to Bob Wills. I guess Wills wasn’t from here, but he made his home here.

I would say more accurately that it really does produce a lot of musicians. There’s a ton of great musicians in Oklahoma. Tulsa is weird in the sense that you don’t hear much about it but there’s a really prolific group of people here. I’m glad I grew up here and had the friends that I did.

I do care about Oklahoma a lot. I care about what happened to it and I don’t get extremely mad when they mess up (and they do a lot) but there are some good folks here. You should be proud of where you’re from and if you’re not, you should find someplace to live that you are proud of.

I understand that you were in punk bands growing up. What were some of the things that you were listening to at that time? What did you sound like?

There was a point in high school where I had three simultaneous punk bands comprised of the same members but just playing different instruments [laughter]. It was an incredibly prolific time. I had discovered The Stooges and The Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I didn’t get into some of my favorite stuff until later but I still love The Clash. The Clash is still maybe my favorite band ever. Then I ended up discovering Stiff Little Fingers and Bad Brains and Black Flag.

That’s all good stuff for a frustrated 15-year-old to get into. The 15-year-old default setting is frustration, so punk rock can provide a healthy outlet for those frustrations. You eventually learn that punk rock is kind of a gateway that will get you into all kinds of music. I love pop music too. It’s one of those things where either you’re going to go completely tribal and only like punk rock or you’re going to be open-minded and listen to whatever. Thankfully I went the other way.

This is more for my personal curiosity, but in your three bands with the same members did they all have different band names?

One was Slippy, one was The Fjord — as in the norwegian Fjord — and one was Gladys.

What was the first one?

Slippy. That one was named after a character on —

Star Fox!

(laughter) Yeah Star Fox! We thought Star Fox was the coolest game ever made.

Flash forward a bit — your first album, Signs and Signifiers came out a few years ago and was perhaps a bigger success than you were anticipating?

That’s an understatement. I didn’t expect anything. That first record was just made as a pet project. I wasn’t trying to break out of the teaching game and go hit the road. I just made that record because I was always doing music and I had the opportunity. So we did it and then surprisingly started getting offers to go play some festivals in Europe. It just kind of went from there. I did not expect this to happen.

It’s been a while since that first record. You gave us a little taste with the EP of cover songs that came out last year, but your new album, Let the Good Times Roll, is about to come out. I listened to an interview you did a little over a year ago where you make mention of the “new album,” so I assume this has been a long time in the making. What has the process of creating this album been like?

It was completely mad. I really don’t even know where to begin. There were a couple of songs and it was not easy to get those songs off the ground. We were also going through some growing pains in the band. It was a different group of guys than the first record was made with. Those guys weren’t even in the band at [for the first record]. It was expected that there would be some sort of continuation in the process from the first record, but it wasn’t working for a hundred reasons.

I’ll skip over those 100 reasons and just say that sometimes I got to the point where I knew that the songs/sound that I was hearing in my head needed some outside assistance. That started the conversation with a few people, but ended up with Mark Neill at Soil of the South Studios. Even when that began it still a long time. It took a long time to record because we were touring constantly. There was a lot of flying back and forth. Tons and tons of time on the phone. When I thought it was finished, it wasn’t actually finished and we had to do extra recording.

It was just a really long process but the good news is that I’m really really proud of what happened. I’m really proud. There was a point where the record could have come out but it wasn’t ready yet. We took a little more time and I’m glad we did that.

It sounds like there were some issues both logistical and aesthetic, with the added pressure of trying to follow up a successful debut album. But I had a question about the recording process itself. Are you strictly analog?

Well there’s a misconception that the first album was all analog. All the affordances of modern technology were taken advantage of. The real trick to the sound is playing as much live as you possibly can and using a very old school approach to microphone placement and recording. That’s where a good engineer comes in.

The new record was almost exactly the same way except that we recorded to a linear digital format for sound quality purposes. It was a Radar. I don’t even know when that thing was built. It’s like a tank. It is digital but it is linear. It’s like recording to tape. I’m not as purist as some people would like to think as far as the analog thing. I think it’s great and it’s a color that you can use but I’m much more pragmatic than I was when I first started. I believe in whatever it takes to get the thing onto the canvas to make the painting happen. If it sounds good, do it.

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