“I sometimes wish that being a musician was like being a painter where you make the thing and then it sits where it is instead of piling yourself and so much heavy matter into a vessel and dragging it across the globe.”
Elvis Perkins is discussing the recording of his new album Elvis Perkins In Dearland on the eve of a sold-out show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom and some glowing reviews for his new release. “I do enjoy the recording process. I know more about what to do than I ever have and I’m sure I’ll know what to do even more so next time around,” he adds.
Elvis Perkins’ story is a fairly unique one. Son of Anthony ‘Psycho’ Perkins, he was visited by tragedy when his father died of AIDS complications in 1992 and then again when his mother, photographer Berry Berenson, was aboard one of the planes involved in the September 11 attacks. These life altering events formed many of the themes of Perkins’ debut album which was named Ash Wednesday, after both parents coincidentally passed away on Tuesdays.
Though the new record allows him to explore different subject matter he does feel that certain topics will continue to feature in his songs. “You’ll see some of the same themes carried over from the first and some of those themes will carry on to the third, whatever that’ll look like.”
As well as being the album title, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is also the name of his band that he formed to tour Ash Wednesday. After a few years on the road, he has taken them into the studio where they played a key role in the recording of the new album. Though Perkins still provides the songs, there is collaborative input from the band.
“I ask their advice, sort of multiple choice. Like ‘would you rather hear this word or this word?’” he explains. “There was more cohesion [with the band] rather than just the guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing and is being helped in making the record, otherwise I would have been sitting around for a while.”
Though Perkins essentially remains a solo artist, the band play an important role in providing a dynamic that keeps him honest and on track. “It’s a change of vibration, a meeting halfway which has some compromise for the singer songwriter as well as for the band. I think that push and pull and tension creates something interesting.”
In creating a lush and richer album there arises the issue of translating the songs to the stage; something that Perkins did out of desire rather than just necessity. “In part to avoid this feeling of repeating oneself ad nauseam, so we we’ve done some of that to entertain ourselves and for the sake of letting the compositions as they we recorded on the album be that way and not try and just recreate them.”
Touring restrictions also added to the reconfiguration of some songs. “Sometimes we simply can’t recreate them as we aren’t traveling with an enormous horn section. All of the guys in the band play horns but they also need to play their main instruments during a song in the course of playing live. Things do get worked around,” says Perkins.
The band’s live schedule recently took them to the SXSW industry showcase in Austin, Texas. For some bands the opportunity to play there can ignite or kick start their career and for others it is a loathsome experience. Justin Townes Earle recently commented that he would rather take a trip to the dentist than play SXSW.
“It is exhausting and you don’t get that sort of pleasure pain you get at the dentist, at least I don’t mind it too much, the sharp pliers going into the gums,” Perkins laughs. “There’s so much music there that your own music runs the risk of seeming utterly obsolete. There’s just so much sonic waste and information,” he says before pointing out the positive side, “but you know, it’s a beautiful city with beautiful people and weather.”
Discovering what another musician is listening to is always an interesting conversation and though he doesn’t stay in the loop with new music coming out, he has been turned onto some fascinating historical music between the recording of his two albums. He happily espouses the thrill of listening to 1950s Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who was famed for her five octave vocal range, along with a recently discovered tradition called Sacred Harp; sacred a cappella choral music from the American South.
“The dude who made the documentary about that put out a compilation, which we’re part of, of both the traditional music and the contemporary writers doing it,” Perkins explains, before acknowledging the influence it had on Elvis Perkins In Dearland. “There’s a touch more of pronounced gospel music on this record, which the Sacred Harp business had something to do with. It helped to invoke some kind of preacher figure who had some light to shed to the people.”
The striking artwork for the album is a mysterious gold object that resembles a cushion, though there is more to it than meets the eye. “That is one of these wonderful, bought from a flea market in Los Angeles, very cheap, French ‘70s foil pieces that are two dimensional with a crazy depth. When you move them or walk past them they move with you and they sort of pulse, its all in how it is bent but I can’t quite figure out what it is,” Perkins admits, adding that he sees it as a blown-out horn when he looks at the artwork.
Elvis Perkins will be out on the road for the foreseeable future, hopefully making it down to Australia some time soon. The next album is in the back of his mind but for now he his happy to tour and play the new songs for his growing audience. “I’ve got some new things on the burner, but there’s still many miles to go on this one.”