Interview – Elvis Perkins
June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, March 31, 2009.
To suggest that perpetually shy American songwriter Elvis Perkins (above, far right) has lived in the shadow of his illustrious family would be a gross understatement. After the release of his remarkable 2007 debut Ash Wednesday, barely a single interview has passed without his late parents becoming a central motif and Perkins – understandably – closing up shop.
So on the eve of his flourishing second album, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, we made something of a choice. We would actually ask one of the most talented songwriters going around about…his music. Hell, we would even ask him about song writing, about poetry, about recording with uber-producer Chris Shaw (Bob Dylan, Public Enemy, Ween) and about why his new record sounds happy but feels sad. You can google his parents if you feel the need.
Hey Elvis, where are you at the moment?
I’m in upstate New York, a couple hours north of the city.
I’ve heard it’s been a bit of a nasty winter over there.
It’s been sort of a nasty winter, yeah. I’ve only lived here for about a year so I don’t have much to put it up against, but that’s what I’ve been told.
It’s a lovely record by the way.
It was a bit surprising after Ash Wednesday, sonically at least. It’s kind of got a really vibrant and flourishing feel in parts. I’d be interested as to whether you made a decision to go down that path, or whether it was something that just sort of unfolded?
A lot had to do with the fact that on the first record my producer and I were dealing with our own vision of the thing…well, mostly his, in terms of the strings and horns and sort of extra stuff there is on the first record, whereas on this one, um, obviously we had a full band effort. So it was both deliberate and more unconscious at the same time – more just the act of a band creating music in the studio together as a band.
I can’t remember whom you recorded the first album with.
I did that with my friend Ethan Gold, who is primarily a songwriter himself and produces his own work. We knew each other as friends first and foremost and it wasn’t until it sort of became clear to us both – or perhaps maybe to him more than me – that I wasn’t going to get my act together without somebody stepping into help me that he graciously decided to be that person. And you know, I think he did a very good job.
On the other hand, working with Chris Shaw and the full band, you’ve managed to come away with something that sounds far more rich and full. Tell me about working with Chris. What do you feel he brought to the album?
I guess he just really brought an expert knowledge of sound and of really kind of getting the good ones (laughs). He also brings this really sort of laissez-faire approach, which turned out to be one of the real benefits of working with him. He has this style of setting up mics and getting everything sounding nice and then just letting us do our thing, without imposing arbitrary ideas of his own on songs that we’ve been working on for a while as a band.
That said, of course he did contribute good ideas, but it didn’t seem at all ego-driven or control-driven. If he had a good idea he would contribute it and we would take it, but for the most part he sort of got us set up and let us behave as adult people who had been playing for a long time.
While the record has that very upbeat feel, some of the themes are still really kind of sombre – I’m thinking especially of ‘123 Goodbye’. I’d love you to talk me through that kind of balance.
It’s something that mostly just occurs. I’m not the most deliberate or overly deliberate writer. Some of the songs that seem very heavy, it turns out they’re actually very light to me or vice versa. So it’s a bit a crapshoot to the listener, but I guess I like to keep it that way – keep people guessing, keep them on their toes and keep some safe distance between me and the world (laughs), which is probably what this song writing business is at least a bit to do with.
I’ve read that you developed your writing via poetry before sort of intermeshing it with your music.
I suppose so, yeah. At first, I had no knowledge of how to do it and no concern with fusing those two interests. So they both got to sort of evolve a bit on their own, which could be a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a thing; it’s just how it was for me. But I think, by the time I started thinking about actually making songs, I had some sort of foreground to feel pretty – I don’t know if confident is the word because I don’t know if I even feel that now – but just as though I had some sort of grasp on both sides of things.
So to this day, I still don’t think of what I’m doing in terms of writing lyrics so much, and I’m not even sure that I wrote poetry either. It’s probably true of a lot of people you speak to – they probably don’t like to call it anything. But yeah, that’s how it started and how it still is. Both sides have lives of their own and when they can meet in a happy place, then hopefully that makes for happiness for me and those who come in contact with my creations.
One thing that really stood out on both Ash Wednesday and Dearland is this situational kind of dynamic to the writing. It’s like you concentrate on the details of a situation rather than any outward assertions or confessions as such.
Yeah, I normally check any instinct I might have to be too outward pouring, mainly because I’m not too sure as to what the value of that is. Or, I don’t know, maybe I just get self-conscious about it.
So yeah, I think your perception is accurate. Everything, if you let it be, is fascinating unto itself and it seems far more generous to intimate rather than explain away, because then it seems to possibly leave the song open to that many more ways in or that many more interpretations of what’s going on, as opposed to something that could only mean one thing.
Were there any particular writers or songwriters who really opened your mind to the possibilities of writing and words when you were younger?
I remember the novel/epic poem of Vladimir Nabokov Pale Fire. Do you know it?
I don’t think so.
Well it’s a poem written by a fictitious character and the foreword written by another fictitious character reflecting on the poem written by the other fictitious character (laughs). And the poem itself is a thousand lines of couplets and is, well, I remember being very turned on intellectually and spiritually by this work. I was probably 13 or 14 and it kind of opened everything up for me.
Elvis Perkins in Dearland is out April 4 via XL/Remote Control