JD McPherson Lets the Good Times Roll
JD McPherson just released his new album, Let The Good Times Roll, in February. It’s gotten great reviews. Paste Magazine, for example, says the singer-songwriter “strikes a balance between power and agility.” The album veers from hard rocking tunes such as the title track to ballads like “Bridgebuilder,” a tune he penned with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. McPherson phoned from a Philadelphia tour stop to talk about the album.
I read that you started out playing punk rock. Is that true?
True story, but I was doing other things too. In order to have access to rehearsal space at my best buddy’s house, where we played punk rock, we had to play Conway Twitty songs with his dad. I always had a couple of things going on at all times. I love Conway Twitty, so it wasn’t a problem.
How did you discover the music of Buddy Holly?
I had a crush on a girl that worked at a CD store. Nothing cool was for sale and she was getting rid of stuff. She said, “I bet you would like this box set.” It changed the course of my destiny.
What attracted you to it?
It was something that I became really excited about. I was into the Ramones and the Stooges and all these bands that had this energy. I could hear that their music was a reaction to bands with extended solos, but I liked extended solos too. All of a sudden, I found this music that was full of exuberance but also had a sophisticated finesse to it and great musicianship. It just felt great. The Buddy Holly stuff I got ahold of was his first stuff with producer Norman Petty. Those were songs that had not made him a giant star yet. Everything he did was incredibly brilliant. The first stuff he did was the best stuff for me to hear because I was interested in guitar and Sonny Curtis was playing guitar. It fit in perfectly next to my other records.
Your debut album Signs & Signifiers was released in 2010 on Hi-Style Records and then reissued in 2012 on Rounder. Talk about your approach on that album.
That was a complete labor of love with no pressure at all. I wanted to make a record that sounded like the rock ’n’ roll records that I loved. For the most part, it does. Again, I wasn’t a professional musician and I had a respectable career as a middle school art teacher. I put way more effort into music than what I was supposed to be doing. We made it in Chicago and it sounded great. We made a video for it too. All of a sudden, I lost my job and there were some festivals in Europe that wanted us to play. It was perfect timing.
Talk about your approach on Let the Good Times Roll.
The songs were asking for a different treatments this time. It was good to bring in an extra set of ears with [producer Mark Neill]. I was thinking about more space and bigger sounds and bombastic sounds. The sounds were getting more expansive and the hooks were getting a little weird. He was the perfect guy to work with.
“It’s All Over but the Shouting” has such a cool, retro vibe to it. Talk about what you were going for sonically.
I really like that song. I would like to make a rock n’ roll blues record where there was some psychobilly and we could push those experimental effects to the maximum. It’s one of the first songs I wrote. The first set of lyrics were so dark. I wanted to keep going with it until it was palatable to myself and others. It’s weird how things take shape.
You co-wrote “Bridgebuilder” with Dan Auerbach. How that did the collaboration come about?
He showed up at one of our gigs in St. Louis. He had been listening to the first record. He came by and hung out. We talked about music and we see things the same way. We’re interested in a lot of the same music and equipment. We have a general value system that’s similar. We kept talking and at some point it came up that I should come to Nashville and write some songs with him. I did. We spent all day just flipping ideas back and forth. I had the title and verses for the song. He helped me bring it into the home stretch. That’s my favorite on the record right now. I love the sound on that one. Dan is a very good collaborator. He’s not going to push his thing on you. He understands that the most important thing is the song. The song asks for what it needs and he helps develop that.
I love how “You Must Have Met Little Caroline?” has some really noisy parts. Talk about that song.
It’s a beat called the stroll. It’s based on this dance they do in England. It’s a weird thing but around those beats sometimes, songs will come out of rhythms and grooves. I’m always thinking about how people will move around to a song. That one was a weird one. Mark Neill had this idea to put baritone guitar tabs thought the song with buzz on them. Man, it makes the song for me. It’s a nod to songs like Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry ’bout Me,” which is this beautiful ‘60s ballad. And then all of a sudden in the middle section, there’s this fuzz guitar solo. That fuzz popped up not only in that song but elsewhere in the record because we loved it so much.
What is that image on the album cover?
It’s a painting by George Catlin. He was a painter of the American west in the early days of settlement. He did paintings of landscapes and American tribes but the most interesting were these wildlife studies. He did bison and bears. The bears have a lot of personality and I remember seeing that painting and making a note about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Luckily the Smithsonian gave us permission to reproduce it and a couple of other pictures. It’s a contrast to the album title and sums up the tone of the record too. I love that painting.