JD McPherson Puts the Fun Back in Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rockabilly and R&B Revivalist Debuts With Signs & Signifiers

One thing that’s immediately obvious on JD McPherson ‘s striking debut album, Signs & Signifiers, is that his music swings.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with [being a party band] to me,” says the former art teacher from Tulsa, Okla. “I’ve been to countless concerts, and there are bands that some of their music you can move to, but when you’re really playing swinging blues-based music, everybody wants to move around.”

McPherson’s electrifying sound — rooted in retro R&B and rock ‘n’ roll — makes for some of the more lively shows around. But thankfully for those who have yet to catch these guys on the road, that hip-shaking energy pours out of the Signs & Signifiers album as well.

First issued in 2010 on bassist and producer Jimmy Sutton’s record label (who recorded the project in his analog home studio), Rounder Records has picked up its rerelease. It’s received a warm reception in the U.K., and McPherson has filmed videos for “North Side Gal” and “A Gentle Awakening.”

He recently brought the band into the CMT offices for a mid-day performance. While he was here, he also explained his gorgeous looking videos and throw-back style.

CMT: What are some of your biggest musical influences?

McPherson: I don’t know where to start. It obviously shows that one of my main loves is mid-’50s rhythm & blues and black rock ‘n’ roll, like Little Richard, the Specialty records, Art Neville, those type of cats. We’ve invested so much time in learning that language, but I really love everything from Wynn Stewart to the Clash. And one of the reasons we jumped when Rounder came talking to us was that Alison Krauss and Robert Plant record, Raising Sand. That’s one of my all-time favorite records.

Do you think that you guys can add anything new to that R&B sound, or are you just trying to stay true to the old ways?

I think definitely, and I think we’d be doing a disservice to that music if we didn’t try to change things up a little bit. On the record, there are a couple of really traditional approaches on songs like “Scandalous” or “Scratching Circles.” Those are just straight up R&B songs. But then with songs like “Signs and Signifiers” and “A Gentle Awakening,” that’s when we started kind of twisting things around a little bit. “Signs and Signifiers” is almost meditative. Somebody said one time it was like Bo Diddley meets Coldplay (laughs).

About “North Side Gal,” can you explain a little about that song and what you were thinking when you wrote it?

When I wrote “North Side Gal,” it was a ballad — it was slow. As just a demo, I recorded it with a little toy guitar and sang it, and when we got to the studio, we were trying to figure out how to arrange it. Then it just popped it into my head. I said “Man, let’s put the ‘Slippin’ and Slidin” beat underneath it!” We recorded that, and it was one or maybe two takes. When we heard it back, we were like, “Man, there’s something special about this one. I don’t know what it is, but this one’s pretty good.” So that’s been our calling card. We’re grateful for that one.

You recorded it in Chicago, so is it meant to be a Chicago north side, south side thing?

Nope. I’m not from Chicago. Everybody thinks it is, but it’s not. I love Chicago. It’s like a second home to me. And there is definitely a north side, south side thing in Chicago, but I’m all about letting anybody in any town think that song is about them. I haven’t really revealed what happened, but basically, I asked my wife what side of Broken Arrow, Okla., she was from, and she told me. That’s it. (laughs).

What kind of trick did you use to get the bass strings to vibrate like they do in the “North Side Gal” video?

That’s a mistake, actually. What it is, is that the strings vibrate at a certain frequency, and we were shooting at 24 frames per second, which is what film is transferred at. If you watch like old Western TV shows, sometimes when a wagon goes by, it looks like the wheels are going backwards. It’s the same thing. Because when you’re using film speed at 24 frames per second, it captures it in a certain way that makes it do the spaghetti thing. And I was like, “We gotta start over!” but Jimmy was like, “Man, leave that! It’s cool!” Now everybody wants to know. That’s all that it is. We just turned the camera on and shot it.

How do you like all the buzz that you’ve been hearing about yourself? Is it weird?

I was talking to somebody about this last night. It’s really hard to explain, but we’re in a van every single day. We’re not hearing radio, reading magazines, we’re not doing this stuff. All we have basically is Facebook and Twitter. And everything happens so incrementally, it’s hard to see. But when I think back to just three months ago, the venues we were playing, I mean, we’re sitting here in the CMT offices talking. That sneaks up on you. I had to stop myself and be like, “Wait a second, what are we doing? We’re talking to CMT? Tom Jones wants to say hi at the BBC? What is happening? Tom Waits is at our show?” It’s crazy. But when you’re in the van, all time stops.

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007.