JD McPherson: When A Punk Goes Vintage A set of Buddy Holly recordings scratched an itch for McPherson, as a kid raised on a cattle ranch.
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JD McPherson: When A Punk Goes Vintage

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JD McPherson: When A Punk Goes Vintage

JD McPherson: When A Punk Goes Vintage

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: How does a former punk rocker raised on an Oklahoma cattle ranch end up sounding like this?


J.D. MCPHERSON: (Singing) I pulled a match game all around the north side, chasing a sweet thing, so satisfied. Every time I try. Crazy about a north side gal.

BLOCK: That's J.D. McPherson from his debut album called "Signs and Signifiers." McPherson has found his groove writing songs in the style of 1950s rhythm and blues, rock and rockabilly. And to help create that vintage sound, this is an all analog recording using vintage mics, amps and a Berlant reel-to-reel recorder from the '60s.

I asked J.D. McPherson about his odyssey from punk to old style rock. He says it all goes back to a record store in McAlester, Oklahoma.

MCPHERSON: And 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. And this is sort of what I've been looking for. I can't really be an English punk rocker. You know, in 1995, Buffalo Valley, Oklahoma, on a cattle ranch, but this kind of stuff scratched an itch that I was looking for.

And 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 and roll at that time.

BLOCK: Did it sort of get right into your skin, do you think, right into your bones?

MCPHERSON: Yeah. That's all I really kind of wanted to listen to or think about and there's always been these kind of like little resurgence of music from the past that'll creep in and, right now, it's sort of like '60s soul. It's readily acceptable by a lot of folks, thanks to, you know, 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. I mean, if you play that kind of stuff and you do it correctly, people will dance every single time and there's something that - I just think there's something there that's kind of untapped.

BLOCK: J.D., you just said something that I love, which is that, you know - if you do it, people will dance to it every single time. You have a song, "Scratching Circles," on the album and I would challenge anybody to listen to this song and not start moving.


MCPHERSON: (Singing) When I get the feeling in the middle of the evening (unintelligible). We'll hit the VFW on the Tuskahoma Line when the band makes a fresh, hot note.

BLOCK: I love that line, hit the VFW on the Tuskahoma Line. Would you do that as a kid?

MCPHERSON: Well, I never - usually, I don't write from real life, but this was an actual thing that happened. My best friend in high school that was in - we had a little punk band together. Sort of 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.

And so we played one show and it was at the Tuskahoma VFW.


MCPHERSON: And 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.


MCPHERSON: (Singing) Well, they're scratching out the beat with the leather on their feet (unintelligible) and the rhythm of the (unintelligible) and the movement on the (unintelligible). Pretty women and it's (unintelligible) scratching circles on the old dance floor.

You know, when we were making this record, Jimmy, the producer - he walked around with a metronome and he'd have the song in his head. And he'd mess with the metronome and he'd dance around until he found, like, the most kind of danceable beats per minute and that's what we'd record at.

BLOCK: No kidding?

MCPHERSON: You know, a lot of bands - it's like kind of about playing as fast as possible, but there is a certain heaviness that you can get from just the right groove, even if it's not a really fast groove.


MCPHERSON: (Singing) Scratching circles on the old dance floor.

BLOCK: I'm talking with J.D. McPherson about his new album, "Signs and Signifiers." You slow things way down on the song, "Gentle Awakening."


MCPHERSON: (Singing) Put down the paper, baby. I had a dream at dawn. A terrible storm blew over, covered up the morning sun. Beyond, I heard a lullaby so peaceful and serene.

I had been staying up late at night in the studio writing because I didn't have any songs for the record. And 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," and 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 and they're dark lyrics and it ended up, it's one of my favorite tracks on the record.


MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Hear the wounded mockingbird, a mournful serenade.

BLOCK: Listening to how your voice sounds on that part right there, is that sound coming, do you think, from the vintage mics? Is it maybe distorting just a little bit?

MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah. That's kind of the cool thing about it is that if you slam the tape with a little more gain than you're supposed to, you'll get this really beautiful distortion and I love that stuff.

BLOCK: What is it about it that you love so much?

MCPHERSON: I like seeing the hand involved in all work. What you're hearing out of the radio in pop music now is like this big kind of congealed blob of ear candy and 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.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you about your song, "Wolf Teeth." You kind of get to let your inner wolf out here, right?


MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) I ain't gonna lose my mind.

BLOCK: This is a whole growly side of you, J.D., that I don't hear when I'm talking to you. It must be fun to let that out.

MCPHERSON: Yeah. That song's turned into sort of like what we close with every time now and, if we haven't had the audience at that point, we have them after that track. I've seen it happen over and over again. After we play that song and keep it going and it changes every night. You know, sometimes it's longer, sometimes it's shorter, but we keep going until we get them and...

BLOCK: However long it takes.

MCPHERSON: Yeah. Folks kind of lose it at that point. It's a lot of fun to play and it wears my vocal cords out.


MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) tell the whole world (unintelligible). I leave a little magic every place I go. (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: J.D. McPherson, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

MCPHERSON: Thank you so much, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: J.D. McPherson's new album is "Signs and Signifiers."


MCPHERSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

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