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By Tom Murphy
At times, singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins admits, anonymity is more appealing to him than personal acclaim.
"I didn't do any singing in the first two bands I was in, and it took me a while before I had the nerve or the material I deemed worthy enough to even step onto an open-mike-night stage," he says, his voice quiet, his cadence slow and deliberate. "To this day, I sometimes think, wouldn't it be nice if I could just be a guitar player — inconspicuous — in a band somewhere? I don't know — that could happen again somewhere."
Such disinterest in notoriety is rare in a performer, but it makes sense for Perkins, whose understanding of celebrity is deeper, broader and infinitely less starry-eyed than it is for those who haven't seen its dark side. As the son of actor Tony Perkins, whose portrayal of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has unnerved generations of film-goers, and noted photographer Berry Berenson-Perkins, he grew up in the reflection of fame that transmogrified into something more haunting in the wake of their demises. Perkins concedes that "in 99 out of 100 things I see involving my name, I can gloss through and see my father's name or see what he died from" — he succumbed to AIDS in 1992 — "or see the sad numbers pertaining to my mother's death," which took place on September 11, 2001, when the plane she was in hit the World Trade Center.
Perkins is understandably weary of these subjects, but they're hardly tangential to his work. The title track of Ash Wednesday, his 2007 debut album, refers to the day after his mother died, when ash from the fallen towers floated lazily in the New York City sky. (By gruesome coincidence, September 12 also happened to be the anniversary of the day his father passed.) As for Perkins's latest, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, which shares its moniker with his band, the recording doesn't draw as specifically from his best-known personal tragedies. There's plenty of witty surrealism at play in "Shampoo," and a wonderfully infectious melody runs through "Heard Your Name in Dresden," which may or may not have anything to do with the World War II firebombing of the city it references. And yet tunes such as "123 Goodbye," in which he sings "I love you more in death/Than I ever could in life," can't help but turn a listener's thoughts to his biography.
The same thing happens to him when he encounters the work of other artists — though he remains suspicious of the process. Interpreting a song, a book, a painting or a film with its creator's story in mind "feeds my modern-brained need for organization and for explanation — to solve the equation of a piece of art," he admits. "Maybe it makes something less mystical than it is. Makes it more scientific. Kills it."
Moreover, not every clue proves revelatory. Note that Perkins's favorite band as a kid was Duran Duran, whose glamorous sonic struts have less than nothing in common with his own style — a spare, gimlet-eyed approach that draws from folk-and-roots fare. Still, an anecdote about his nascent love for Simon LeBon and company suggests the almost supernatural allure music holds for him. "I remember buying a Duran Duran CD" from the Tower Records branch on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, he recalls. "I was with a babysitter or something, and somehow I ended up with a videocassette of Duran Duran that we didn't put there and we didn't pay for. And I thought that was a magical boon that was occurring in my life."
Too bad this tale doesn't have a happy ending. "It seemed inconceivable that we would turn around and let them know that this mistake had occurred," he continues. "But I guess she had a more developed sense of guilt and social responsibility than I, who was eight years old. So, very sadly, we returned the Duran Duran video" — and with it, the magic.
Fortunately, Perkins learned how to conjure up his own enchantment, albeit after some fits and starts. He was taking piano lessons around the time of his Duran Duran video heartbreak, but his "very scary, old, gnarled" instructor didn't succeed at getting him excited enough to practice. He also tried out the saxophone before graduating to guitar, which he initially played in a classical mode before connecting with some fellow high-school musicians and shifting into rock gear. He was "all about the band," he says, but the lead singer's move to Michigan pretty much polished it off, beginning his somewhat reluctant transition toward becoming a solo artist.
"I can't say it was something I needed or especially wanted to do," he maintains. "But I think finding myself without the band, or going off to college [he spent a year at Brown University] and not having a band there, and the lack of having someone to play with...I was just making stuff on my own that felt contained and complete or gave some sense of satisfaction. Just as a song, with a melody and words — I turned my attention to that. And I realized, doing things that way, that the words had to be good, and the music had to be interesting. It was no longer the pleasure of being in a circle with two other guitar players who are singing and we're all just kind of jamming and getting satisfaction that way. It's a different thing when there's nobody to lean on or pass ideas off of. I guess that time got me thinking about making good songs."