Q&A: rock 'n' roller JD McPherson


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Fresh off the release of his new album, Let the Good Times Roll, on Feb. 10, rocker JD McPherson plans to bring this belief to Iowa City tonight, where he will kick off his new tour. McPherson sat down with The Daily Iowan to discuss being a modern “rock star,” his  appearances on “David Letterman” and NPR, and the drug-fueled origin of his album’s title.

Daily Iowan: How would you describe your sound?

McPherson: Definitely rock ’n’ roll. “Rock and/or roll,” to quote Rev. Lovejoy from “The Simpsons.” 

DI: What does it mean to play rock ’n’ roll in this day and age, when there are so many variations on the genre, from punk and metal to alternative?

McPherson: Rock hasn’t tried to take itself seriously or grow up too much. In the original sense, rock ’n’ roll was the first youth music. It was the first time teenagers had their own genre; before that they just listened to their parents’ music. Most of the time it should be raucous and energetic, but I consider the Ramones to be rock ’n’ roll. It does have a broader meaning now, but if we were to describe our sound, it’s the earlier use or rock. We're so lucky we have 70 years’ worth of music to draw from. You’re doing yourself a disservice as a musician if you don’t check out the roots of the tree.

DI: What “roots” artists have you been into lately?

McPherson: I’ve been listening to a ton of Eddie Cocheran, the Clash, Astrud Gilberto, and a lot of bosta nova lately. That’s entry-level stuff, but it’s really good. I listen to Irma Thomas probably the most, I can’t stop. I’ve been keen on her for a couple of years now. If we're playing music backstage, it’s almost always Irma Thomas.

DI: What makes an artist such as you decide to add to a genre that is already so rich with legendary musicians?

McPherson: That’s the real trick I guess. When you’re writing songs, you want to bring some of yourself to what you like. I think that’s the same with with every band, whether it’s Radiohead referencing the Beatles or Little Richard referencing the Five Keys. You build on what you love, but you bring your own ideas and your own words to it. There’s an argument that it’s already been done why do it, but I don’t see that as a valid argument. And it’s fun, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. It seems other people are enjoying it, too, so I’m very happy with what’s going on.

DI: Your new album has been described as a mix between ’50s rock and ’60s psychedelic. Is that what you were shooting for?

McPherson: It was a little less of an agenda. I wanted to stick to those [’50s] sounds I love so much but also push those parameters a little bit, and sometimes when you play with recording effects such as tape delay and echo, it starts to resemble something like ’60s psych music, but I love that stuff, too. 

It’s a fine line, because there are a lot of bands that aren’t willing to push the envelope a little bit. But us, we totally spaz out onstage. We put everything we have physically into the show — we’re almost like a punk rock show. Being earnest but also having a sense of humor helps create an electric spark. 

DI: How have NPR, “David Letterman,” and other media appearances affected your career? 

McPherson: It’s always good news that you’re going to get late-night TV. It’s a little bit of validation that you’re working really hard and that hard work is paying off. NPR probably has more to do with burgeoning artist careers these days than any other outlet. You can see measurable interest and sales increases after NPR. I don’t know why; if it’s because they’re active listeners maybe, or it’s something as simple as people watch “Letterman” in bed, and they don’t want to get out and buy something. [laughs] They’re both great, but NPR has excellent interviewers, producers, and editors who pull interesting things from your music.

DI: In your most recent NPR interview on Feb. 8, you said the title of your album Let the Good Times Roll may have been inspired by watching “Frasier” while on a weird drug trip …

McPherson: It was cold medicine, and it’s because I don’t really take anything, even when I get a headache, so any little thing will affect me doubly. I’m really square. I was lying in bed with a terrible cold, and I finally broke down and took the medicine, and it affected me in a terrible way, but I had this hyper-focus. I had all these acute and obtuse ideas happening at the same time. I had a melody in my head that I ended up using. 

I realized I didn’t like the title I had, and the chorus I had come up with it was too on the nose, so I had to flip it around and use something similar, but maybe in a subversive way. “Let the good times roll” is such a ubiquitous term, there are 10 or 12 songs called that. 

DI: What can Iowa City audiences expect to see today?

McPherson: We’re going to perform songs we have never performed before. It will be absolutely the first spot to begin the tour; we will be overjoyed to be playing these songs, so it will be an extra happy gang of musicians onstage. 

JD McPherson
When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Gabe’s, 330 E. Washington
Admission: $15-$18

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