Q&A with Elvis Perkins

Not surprisingly, the leader of Elvis Perkins in Dearland (a band headlining the hi-dive on Friday, May 8) is none other than Elvis Perkins, a singer-songwriter of uncommon depth and gravitas. Find out for yourself by reading the following Q&A, conducted for the Westword feature "Elvis Perkins Tries to Move Out of the Darkness."

At the top of the interview, I note that I typically ask subjects to tell me about their upbringing -- but Perkins' is hardly a secret. He's the son of actor Tony Perkins, star of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and photographer Berry Berenson-Perkins, whose tragic deaths (Tony of AIDS, Berry in the 9/11 attacks) are often referenced in relation to Elvis' often less-than-cheery work. Perkins is unenthusiastic about discussing them, even when the questions aren't direct. But after I tell him about once encountering his father in the Tower Records branch on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where I worked more than twenty years ago, he brightens, sharing an amusing anecdote that took place at the very same store. From there, he discusses his first ventures into making music, as opposed to simply listening to it; early bands; his somewhat reluctant transition to being a solo artist; the making of his 2007 album Ash Wednesday, when he handed over many of the musical decisions to his producer, Ethan Gold; the impact of having a full band while assembling his latest recording, Elvis Perkins in Dearland; and his determination to judge himself by his own standards, rather than by those of outside observers.

The conversation ends on a relatively upbeat note. Thank goodness -- and thank Elvis.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I generally start most of my interviews with questions about their background: their parents, where they grew up, that sort of thing...

Elvis Perkins: You've already got that with me.

WW: I get the sense that, in your case, you find those kinds of questions to be either exasperating or tedious. Am I on the right track?

EP: Well, I don't know if I would pick either of those words. But it seems that there's enough that's been said that I'm not needed anymore when it comes to that talk. Maybe just weary of the questions. I've given up exasperation, though.

WW: Do you see writers who focus on your parents as using it as a crutch? An easy way to spice up an article, so they don't have to try very hard?

EP: I probably would if I invested the energy into thinking about it. But I normally just take them as they come and realize that if that's what's going on, there's little sense in resisting. It'll only make for an awkward moment between two strangers on a telephone line. I don't think that much about it.

WW: When you're interested in an artist, does that performer's personal story and background add anything to your enjoyment of their work? Or would you rather let the song or the piece of art or the film speak for itself?

EP: I don't know if it adds to my enjoyment. It feeds my modern-brained need for organization and for explanation -- to solve the equation of a piece of art. I don't know: Maybe it makes something less mystical than it is. Makes it more scientific. Kills it. So part of my brain needs that, because that's more or less how it's been trained to exist in school and what-not. But I don't know how much it adds to know... I was going to say, "unless it's really interesting," but some people must find what they read about me interesting. I guess that's why 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 or see the sad numbers pertaining to my mother's death. They're right there, and I suppose it must be interesting -- or the writers must think it's interesting. But when it comes to describing a piece of art, most of the things are candy or distraction or verbal confetti -- informational confetti to fill our hungry brains.

WW: Well, with all that as prelude, I have to share my one personal encounter with your dad. I worked at the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip in the early '80s...

EP: [Laughs] Oh. Good for you.

WW: ...and one day, I was sitting on the floor, putting LPs in the understock, when someone said, "Excuse me," and put his hand on my shoulder -- and I looked up and it was Tony Perkins. And I just about lost my shit, because all I could think about was being face to face with Norman Bates. [Perkins laughs.] Have you had other people tell you those kinds of stories? And do they make no sense to you at all based on your relationship with him?

EP: No, it makes perfect sense. While I could exist with him in the world, we traveled as a family, and not everywhere we went, but many places, he often carried that with him, happily or unhappily. Strangers would come up to him all the time and say things like, "Thanks to you, my wife doesn't shower anymore." It's just part of the game.

WW: From your perspective, what was the first music you really got into - the first stuff that you really felt connected to in a personal way?

EP: I sort of got hooked into music through music-television. So much is thrown at you -- or once upon a time, when MTV played music video, you got such a wide swath. Or at least a wide-enough swath, that things hit, but they only hit for so long, as great as it might have been. Because after that video, another one would be demanding your attention, and it would normally get it. But I was a big fan of Duran Duran as a kid -- probably around that time when you encountered Tony Perkins in the record store. I remember buying a Duran Duran CD from that very store. 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 occuring in my life. It seemed inconceivable that we would turn around and let them know that this mistake had occurred -- 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. But I remember having a personal connection with those guys, and feeling like I either wanted to be in the band, or was in the band by participating in the ritual of taking in their videos and buying their music.

WW: At what point, did you begin learning to play an instrument?

EP: I sort of tried and failed to learn how to play the piano around that time -- around eight or nine. I had a very scary, old, gnarled piano teacher who didn't succeed at getting me excited about lessons or practicing. And I tried playing the saxophone for a while after that -- don't ask me why, I don't remember. Not that the saxophone isn't a great instrument, and not that I don't wish I'd carried through with it, but I can't trace through how that decision was made, or how I made it, or how it was made for me. It wasn't until I was eleven or twelve-years old that I started taking guitar lessons, and that one took.

WW: Did you immediately begin writing your own material? Or at what point did you begin putting together your own compositions?

EP: I don't think I was really thinking about it in terms of writing. But as soon as I got any sort of dexterity or sense of comfort or ease around playing the guitar, melodies started to come out. I didn't know how to play a lot of other people's things, so I made up my own things. It was pretty natural. I didn't think about what I was doing. But I wrote little ditties here and there, and I took some classical guitar lessons as well. The first full pieces I can remember writing that seemed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, or at least a middle that seemed like it could be connected to a beginning and an end, were written sort of as instrumental guitar pieces in the classical vein.

WW: Do you remember the first song with a beginning, middle and end that had lyrics?

EP: I was in a band in high school where I was the guitar player and wrote a lot of the music, and we had a singer who wrote most of the words. We had a bunch of songs that had all of those things, and there was one song our singer played guitar on and I wrote the words for, or sort of freestyled the words for. But the first song I ever put together with words and all -- I'm not exactly sure what it would be, or if I could sing it or play it for you right now. Probably not. I'm not even quite sure what that would be.

WW: When you began to focus more on your songwriting, were you still in the band? Or had you decided that being a solo performer fit better?

EP: Well, I was all about the band, but our singer moved to Michigan. We were in Los Angeles, and that was the end of the band. I wasn't really, at that point, thinking or wanting to be a solo artist. Those words weren't in my head at that point. I was just playing music with friends and coming up with ideas together and apart. I can't say it was something I needed or especially wanted to do. But I think finding myself without the band or going off to college 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.

WW: Was it more challenging for you to perform those songs when there weren't those friends around you -- when you weren't part of a band?

EP: For sure. 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-mic-night stage. 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.

WW: When you started recording your first album, you were in your mid- to late-twenties, if I'm correct. Was that a positive, because you had so many more experiences than you would have had in your teens, for example, and you were able to filter them through a more mature sensibility?

EP: I'm not sure. I started recording the album, Ash Wednesday, in my late twenties, but I made many a home four-track recording before then, and recorded songs with friends before I made Ash Wednesday. So I don't really know the answer to that [laughs].

WW: Speaking of Ash Wednesday, that album seemed, from an outsider's perspective, at least, to be mostly a one-man show - although you certainly got a big assist from your producer, Ethan Gold. Was that important for you: To have as close to complete control as you could over that first batch of material?

EP: I wasn't thinking about it that way. I had the songs and I knew something had to happen with them -- wanted something to happen with them. But I gave a lot of control, willingly, to Ethan. I didn't see myself in the position of knowing how the songs were supposed to sound, or what I wanted them to sound like. It seemed like those thoughts weren't for me to have. The songs were themselves, and thinking how they were supposed to be represented seemed almost dishonest to the songs themselves, which to me were what they were. It felt better for me for somebody else to know exactly how they were to be presented, which wasn't far from their natural states. I wouldn't call it a high concept album. Basically, they were the songs played simply, with a few strings and horns here and there. But I really wasn't sure what we were doing it for. I still don't really feel like I know how to make a record, or what I want out of making a record. And that was certainly the case during the whole process of making Ash Wednesday. I wasn't even there for most of the mixing, which at this point seems completely crazy. I just handed it over to Ethan. I left him in charge of it and I moved out of Los Angeles at the start of mixing. I was there for the mixing of two songs. I was like, "Okay, you've got it from there." And I took off.

WW: In the case of Dearland, you play with a full band. Was the decision to put together a group related at all to the camaraderie you'd enjoyed in your early bands? Or was there any dissatisfaction with the way Ash Wednesday was put together?

EP: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. I just foresaw a time when performing in front of people the songs of Ash Wednesday and beyond was something I was interested in doing, and I didn't have the confidence or the chops, I don't think, or the nerve to step up and just be Man With Guitar. So I formed the band with an eye toward performances in the future. And we've been together for a few years now, and now we have a record.

WW: I lot of the reviews of Dearland tend to focus on all of the references to death in the lyrics, which I guess isn't much of a surprise given that there's a song called "Doomsday" on it. But to me, there's a lot of joy in the music -- not only witty lyrics, but also the kind of melodic bounce a lo of your songs have. Does it become frustrating for you when the focus is so relentlessly on the dark aspects of the words?

EP: No, I only become frustrated with myself when I find myself taking my lead from things that I've read or heard about my music. When I find myself doing that, I snap out of it and slap myself and tell myself I'm being ridiculous -- and I'm completely in support of slapping myself. It's ultimately not for me to know or really care what is being said. It's fascinating for any of us who have any narcissism or interest in ourselves -- and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't have aspects of those things -- it's fascinating to see people feeding back on something you've made. But I sometimes tend to get those words mixed up with my own words and pay it too much creedence. Then I find myself checking in with things that other people have said to find out what I'm supposed to do next. And that's a crazy, crazy thought to have [laughs]. But on the good moments, it doesn't even compute what is being said. It doesn't matter.

WW: And are there good moments than bad in that respect these days?

EP: [Laughs.] That's a good question. I haven't laid them side by side and taken a measure. But I'm hopeful.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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