Elvis Perkins is driving into Hurricane Ida outside Tallahassee, Florida. Across the scratchy cell phone transmission he sounds calm, open and assured, but far from fearless. Still, he knows how to weather change.
It's a rare thing, a record that appears out of nowhere, but which, on the strength of talent and personality, blows away the clutter of hype and fashion to make a quietly confident, even grand statement. But so it was with Perkins' 2007 debut, Ash Wednesday. Critics, this one included, mostly flipped. His sensibility distilled the vision verses of Dylan and the heady, semi-spontaneous surrealism of Tim Buckley, in long, enveloping songs, numinous flashings of an imagination trying to communicate personal and accurate intimations of death, love and the dark.
Though sometimes spinning with orchestral sounds, Ash Wednesday is carried by Perkins' irrepressible vocal quaver and his unaffected lyricism. Contemplating his second album, the singer chafed against the solo songwriter label and instead gave his band room to roam with him. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is both the name of the group and the name of his 2009 album on the XL label. The record begins with ruminative chirps, whirs and sighs, a gathering of woodwinds played by the whole gang, who quickly crank up like a marching band wired for a sub-woofer showdown. Shout-along gospel, cabaret jazz and primitive rock & roll are set loose with thumping vengeance. Drummer Nick Kinsey doesn't just keep time — he drives stakes through the heart of it.
"It was a slow, developing process," Perkins says of the sound. "Me and the guys didn't say, 'Let's make a record that sounds like this now.' That was the same with Chris Shaw who produced it. We've been playing most of the songs for a long time, doing what feels good for the song in question. I say that now, but the word 'hip-hop' was thrown around when we were making the record, especially with the sound of the kick drum and the marching drum. We weren't really trying for hip-hop sounds, but that did come up. It's a mysterious, spontaneous process that maybe is better left in the realm of the unexamined."
With the more collective sound, Perkins' songs feel tighter and funnier — "Although you voted for that awful man," he wails on "Doomsday," "I would never refuse your hand" — and yet stranger and more evocative. Opener "Shampoo," some kind of love song, spills out with mythic colors: black blood, black arrows, yellow crossbows and a true love who commands it all.
"The first time, I knew next to nothing about how to make a record," he says. "I still know next to nothing, but I'm a little closer to knowing something. The best music that one can make is just to play all together, all at once. At times you get lured into making the vocal performance as perfect as it could be or the best way you heard yourself say the word, so everyone can know what you know about a song. But in the end I'm moving toward wanting a song to just be played and have that be documented, to have that be the most valuable thing."
Perkins sings and declaims at once, with theatrical phrasing, rejoicing even in a fully intoxicated croon. There's no way to say where that kind of voice comes from, though his father, actor Anthony Perkins, cut a few records as a singer. The 33-year-old Perkins only recently heard those recordings.
"I didn't know the extent of it," Perkins says, "until the head of one of his fan clubs bestowed on me a trove of old recordings and VHS tapes. There was a series of singles I'd never heard, Gershwin-type songs, Cole Porter, show tunes. Some of them are really great."
Growing up in Los Angeles, Perkins picked up the saxophone at an early age and received guitar lessons from the Knack's Prescott Niles, "a rock & roll guru" who was teaching around the city. "I was at a friend's house and [Niles] was showing his recently acquired electric guitars, Guilds. I knew I needed to possess that power as well. I joined the ranks of the young dudes who were studying under his wing.
"I took to music and music took hold of me at a time when I wasn't concerned thinking about what I'd be," he continues. "There's a pressure in society to think about what you're going to specialize in or produce. But I had a pretty intimate, quiet, intense relationship with making music, and that didn't seem connected to vocation or career or the future."
This week, Elvis Perkins in Dearland will be making its first appearance in St. Louis, deconstructing rock and old-time sounds with a spontaneous, nearly carefree, but never careless, spirit. But if his collaboration with his bandmates now distinguishes his music, Perkins' songs — accurate and evocative, unscripted and honest, straight from the surreal scrap yards of his private dreams — remain the soul of the sound.
"Some of the songs just come out at once, which is a happy event," he says. "But historically, I'm more of a painfully slow writer. I might have the first line or a last line or an interior line, and that might exist for months or years and never know what company, in terms of other words, it will be in. I aim to be quicker, more lucid, less anxious — I don't know if that is the right word — but less preoccupied with making something so completely seaworthy. If there were one way to write a song I would be doing it all the time. But it's still quite an unknown process to me, and I think it always will be."
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