How does a former punk rocker raised on an Oklahoma cattle ranch end up sounding like a classic rockabilly singer? JD McPherson found his groove in the style of 1950s rhythm and blues, rock and rockabilly. To help create that vintage sound on his debut album, Signs and Signifers, he used vintage mics, old amplifiers and a Berlant reel-to-reel recorder from the '60s — all analog. McPherson's love for this classic sound all goes back to a record store in McAlester, Okla.
"There was a girl working there. And she was cleaning out the clearance items, and she gave me a few CDs. But the one that really stuck with me was a double set of the Buddy Holly Decca recordings," McPherson says in an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block.
"This is sort of what I'd been looking for. I can't really be an English punk rocker in 1995 — Buffalo Valley, Okla., on a cattle ranch. This kind of stuff scratched an itch I was looking for, so I went nuts from there. I went looking for everything I could get my hands on. The more I listened to Little Richard and Fats Domino and Larry Williams and these guys, I became more enamored with the black side of rock 'n' roll at that time."
The sound got right under his skin.
"That's all I kind of wanted to listen to or think about," McPherson says. "There's always been these little resurgence of music from the past that will creep, and right now it's '60s soul — it's readily acceptable by a lot of folks thanks to people like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and they do an amazing job. But there's this huge treasure trove of rhythms and sounds that are within rhythm and blues from the 1950s that — you can see it everywhere you play it. If you play that kind of stuff and you do it correctly, people will dance every single time. I just think there's something there that's kind of untapped."
'Hit The VFW'
Speaking of which, listen to "Scratching Circles" and try not to start moving. There's a line that says, "We'll hit the VFW by the Tuskahoma line when the band lays the first hot note." McPherson says it's one of the few songs written from real life.
"My best friend in high school — we had a little punk band together," McPherson says. "The rule was that we could rehearse in his house, but we had to play songs with his dad, who was a country-and-western singer, whenever he wanted. We played one show, and it was at the Tuskahoma VFW. I just remember seeing these older country ladies with their Rocky Mountain jeans and Roper boots pouring salt on the floor, so that when they would dance and stuff, they wouldn't slide and fall down."
For maximum dance potential, McPherson says that the album's producer, Jimmy Sutton, would walk around with a metronome and one of the songs in his head "until he found the most danceable beats per minute.
"A lot of bands, it's like kind of about playing as fast as possible," McPherson says. "But there is a certain heaviness that you can get from just the right groove, even if it's not a really fast groove."
Slam The Tape
In "A Gentle Awakening," JD McPherson slows things down.
"I had been staying up late at night in the studio writing, because I didn't have any songs for the record," McPherson says. "I had been listening to the Pixies and I had this song by them, which was a B-side for their song 'Wave of Mutilation.' I was like, 'Man, I love that beat. I'd love to have something slow like this,' and then these lyrics just sort of appeared. They're dark lyrics, and it ended up — it's one of my favorite tracks on the record."
The vocal distortion you hear in "A Gentle Awakening" not only comes from the vintage microphones used on Signs and Signifiers, but also slamming the tape "with a little more gain than you're supposed to."
"I like seeing the hand involved in all work," McPherson says. "[What] you're hearing out of the radio and pop music now is this big kind of congealed blob of ear candy. It works for a minute, but there's no vulnerability there. There's no evidence of soul there. I want to hear the performance and the people behind the performance."
"Wolf Teeth" shows the growly inner wolf of JD McPherson, who closes each live show with a high-energy rocker.
"If we haven't had the audience at that point, we have them after that track," McPherson says. "I've seen it happen over and over again. After we play that song and keep it going — and it changes every night — sometimes it's longer, sometimes it's shorter. But we keep going until we get them. Folks kind of lose it at that point. It's a lot of fun to play. It wears my vocal cords out."