Cover story: Oklahoma native JD McPherson's music is built to last 

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PLUS! Hear JD McPherson's album and read Oklahoma Gazette's review of Let The Good Times Roll.

JD McPherson likes things that last. He wears them all the time —things like denim, but not necessarily denim. You see, he’s more of a durable garment guy — garments that are well-made, useful and dependable. Something made with care, made in an ethical manner. Think Martin Sheen’s signature denim jacket in the 1973 movie Badlands.

JD McPherson likes other things too, like his great-grandfather’s pocketknife. In its fourth generation of use, it still works well. In fact, you could say it was made to just ... work.

There’s a special space in the overlap between past and present that things like denim and pocketknives occupy, things that work now as they worked then. They’re of another time, yet they’re relevant and contemporary and can move us with their commitment of purpose.

They do what they did. They work.

As for McPherson’s music, that sounds about right.

After releasing his first solo album, Signs & Signifiers, the Broken Arrow resident has became Oklahoma’s premier rock ’n’ roller of days gone by.

With one boot in the past and another in the future, McPherson found a sweet spot with his sound, relying on well-established ’50s and ’60s structures while incorporating a myriad of rock, R&B, blues and even hip-hop influences. No joke. Listen closely and you’ll find nods to Ruth Brown, The Smiths, Wu-Tang Clan and Stiff Little Fingers. While it’s easy to pigeonhole him as a vintage performer, he is clearly much more.

McPherson’s formative influences were, frankly, all over the place. Introduced at a young age to jazz and Delta blues, he picked up Hendrix, Zeppelin and punk rock. He threw in some Buddy Holly; stirred in some Larry Williams, Little Richard and Art Neville; and topped it with soul and Jamaican rocksteady.

Talk about aromatic. Though he’s always played music, he had aims to do installations, performance art and sculpture.

Hell, he even studied experimental film at the University of Oklahoma, earned an MFA from the University of Tulsa in open media (with some credits for card magic) and worked as a middle school art teacher.

But as he says, things can change quickly. Nearly three years after his first solo release, McPherson released his sophomore album, Let the Good Times Roll.

Oklahoma Gazette caught up with him for a Q&A on life during his formative years, artist George Catlin and his international fan base.

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How does Let the Good Times Roll reflect your own life?

Oh boy, did life ever influence this record. The past three years of my life reveal themselves in some way through this record either lyrically or just maybe even through the tone of the album as a whole. Some of the record gets a little dark. There were definitely some downs to the last few years, but also some ups. Your priorities shift or become clearer during those times.

What’s the inspiration for the album title?

The title shares the name with the album’s first song. For the song, it was a coded, pleasant way of saying, “Hurry up.” Originally, the song had another title that was a little too on-the-nose for the theme. “Let the Good Times Roll” is a ubiquitous song title used by many bands for many different songs. In this case, it’s one character conveying impatience to another.

What inspires you on the whole?

Gloomy, overcast weather.

What’s the biggest misconception about the music you perform?

I’m not defensive about it, but our “genre” gets misinterpreted quite often. Eight out of 10 hashtags on Twitter label us #rockabilly, but that’s sonically and historically inaccurate. That’s not a slight upon rockabilly music; I personally love rockabilly and have played in several bands who chose rockabilly as their starting point, but this band is not that.

As long as people are talking about this band — whatever they want to tell their friends it is — I’m grateful.

But we’re a rock ’n’ roll band.

How many bands were you in before you released your first solo album and got signed to Rounder?

I’ve always had at least one band going since I was 16. I remember at one point, I had three separate bands going at once, all with the same members on different instruments. That was a very prolific time. One was called Slippy, one was The Fjords, one was called Gladys — punk rock stuff.

We sent a Gladys tape to Alternative Tentacles [indie record label], but they rejected it. I’d love to capture a little bit of that now, that urge to create without fear or self-editing, but where is the time?

El tiempo no es elastico.

Some bands can do that, constantly produce loads of music with usually very high-quality results; Guided by Voices comes to mind.

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How did your early punk interests inform your music?

Punk, as an ethos, grants you a few things, the most important of which should be economic freedom, the ability to do as much as you can with as little currency as possible.

You make your own currency. It took me a while to figure this out, but punk encompasses many ideas, many sounds and many philosophies. You can find Talking Heads, Minutemen, Bad Brains and Stiff Little Fingers in the same section at your local record store, but those bands couldn’t look or sound more different. That was the best part, learning that it just meant freedom to do your thing, usually in an aggressive, beautiful way.

What was your biggest motivator in your early years?

My biggest motivator in high school was isolation. There wasn’t anything for me to do but focus on drawing and immersing myself in music; it was a great gift. I loved growing up in the countryside for that reason.

Some say people never change. With all your early influences and how they’ve affected you since, would you agree?

I don’t believe that you are who you will be by high school. It’s possible that your talents and passions will become evident at that time — for instance, being ridiculously good at math — but I think a person’s motivations and value system can change within a short amount of time. I’m not the same fellow I was two years ago, and I’m a completely different person than I was in high school. Thank heavens.

What has changed the most for you since your first album came out?

Almost overnight, I went from working for someone else and being home with my family each day to being my own boss and being away from home a great deal, sleeping in weird places.

How many live shows do you do a year?

The first year was over 200 in 11 months. That was too much. Last year, we played too few dates! This year, we’re going to get it right. My family is my priority, and you need to find a balance between life and work. We all understand the rhythm of touring now, but it’s still difficult to stay on track sometimes. It helps when things are going well.

How do your international audiences receive you and your style of music?

They are huge supporters. They just appreciate that someone cares about that music. It’s not even from their country, but they truly appreciate it and are patrons of it.

They’re not really consumers over there; they hang on to things and keep them in shape instead of throwing things away. I really agree with that sentiment. We tend to tear things down and rebuild here, and not necessarily always for the better.

For example, I’ve got my great-grandfather’s pocketknife. It was used extensively by him and my grandfather, and it still works well. I’m not going to buy a cheap, plastic-handled pocketknife at a truck stop. It won’t last.

How has touring been?

Any awesome experiences? Playing a gig in a country that does not speak your language natively and hearing them sing every word at the top of their collective lungs will give you pause. I find that to be incredibly moving. I would have been that guy at a Pedro Infante show back in the day, the only gringo screaming along with “Tu Solo Tu” at the top of my lungs.

Recently, Nick Lowe sat in with us at a gig in London. He’s my favorite songwriter — ever. And he was right there, plugged into Doug’s amp. Falling out of the moment and seeing things the way they are can be very disconcerting. I definitely got a little foggy, realizing suddenly that my hero was on stage with me. Amazing. What an amazing, kind, clever guy he is.

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The next OKC area show is in Guthrie. Any other shows or festivals planned in OKC or the metro?

I’m very excited about the Queen of the Prairie show in Guthrie. There are so many great bands on that festival, lots of friends. Plus, the promoters are really working hard at making an impact on their community through music. I’ve never heard of a small group of people working that diligently on turning their little town in to a music hub. That deserves some applause.

[The festival runs May 1-2. Learn more at queenoftheprairie.com.]

Other than QOTP, we don’t have any other OKC metro gigs planned at this time, but I hope that changes. I love OKC, and I’ve paid a lot of dues there over the years.

What do your bandmates like most about Oklahoma when they’ve played here?

Whenever you land in a bandmate’s hometown, it’s usually a nice time. The gigs are usually happy ones. There’s family around. You can take them to your favorite haunts. I know the guys always love to go visit Mary Beth [Babcock, owner] at Dwelling Spaces in downtown Tulsa. She’s such a supporter and full of so much fun and positive energy. They always enjoy popping in to visit her and getting a cup of coffee.

The album’s cover image is a bear. Tell me more about it.

The paintings in the album sleeve are by George Catlin. He made paintings across the American West, but I’m mostly interested in his wildlife studies, like these bears.

They have so much character! They look like W.C. Fields with claws and fur.

Read Oklahoma Gazette’s review of McPherson’s new album, Let the Good Times Roll, at okgazette.com.

(Photo: Jim Harrington / Design: Christopher Street)

(Photo: Jim Harrington / Design: Christopher Street)


Print Headline: High Roller, On the heels of his sophomore solo album release, Oklahoma native JD McPherson talks about inspiration, punk rock, hashtags and his slot in the Queen of the Prairie Festival.

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